The 5-Year-Old Platonist
Alice and Her Looking Glass
The World of Mirrors
As a very young kid, I somehow got the idea in my head that the world could be made out of mirrors. I had spent a lot of time looking into mirrors. Although I’m sure the concept of a mirror as a flat reflective surface had been explained to me, and that it was something I understood in principal, I couldn’t help but think of a mirror as a window and the image in the mirror as another universe sitting on the other side, with another me on that side looking back into this universe.
One thing that bothered me about mirrors was you couldn’t always know when you were looking into one. If a mirror reached all the way down to the floor, and you approached it at an angle, you could smack right into your own reflection before you ever saw it coming. That’s how tricky they could be.
There was a Mexican restaurant my family used to dine at on a regular basis. I used to marvel at the spaciousness of the dining room, which seemed inordinately voluminous for a building that from the exterior looked small and humble. One day, I glanced over to the other side of the restaurant (where we for some reason never sat) and saw a very familiar figure staring back at me, sitting at a familiar looking table with a very familiar looking family, eating a very familiar looking cheese crisp and sipping on a very familiar looking root-beer. Mirrors, cleverly placed across the length of an entire wall, had tricked me into believing the restaurant was twice as big as it actually was, not just for a few minutes, not for just the first few visits, but for years. At five or six years old, I found this revelation to be more than a little disturbing. To this day, I feel a tinge of resentment every time I walk into a restaurant that employs this illusion.
Here’s another thing that bothered me. Sometimes I would walk into a house I had never been before and see a big bowl of plastic wrapped hard candies sitting on someone’s coffee table. I would casually walk up, peruse the selection, make sure no one was watching, and reach into the bowl to grab a few to stuff into my pocket. But instead of the sweet crunch of crinkly plastic candy wrappers, my fingers would meet cold hard glass. Then my heart would sink. Fake candy. I had been deceived. Same thing that happened with the bowl of apples and oranges and bananas, only those had all been made of plastic.
What it boiled down to, in my increasingly paranoid little mind, was that you could never know. It was always possible to reach into what you thought was a bowl of candy and find that it was a really a bowl of glass. At any moment, you could smack right into a cleverly placed mirror. You could walk by something fake everyday of your life and think it was real.
After a lot of deep thinking about the difference between appearances and reality, I soon imagined that it was possible that anything could be fake; and then that everything could be fake. And that is when I developed what I now call the fantasy of the mirrors.
In the fantasy of the mirrors, I imagined that the world was mostly made up of mirrors that aligned around me to continually create the illusion that I was walking around in and observing a real world full of real people and real objects, and not just a fake world made of images. Objects that I could taste or touch (which are far fewer in number than objects seen and heard) were either real objects, secretly brought in from the “outside” and placed before me without my noticing, or some other sort of illusion meant to trick my taste buds and fingertips, rather than my eyes and ears. My mom was fake, my dad was fake, my sister was fake, the dog was fake, the car was fake, and even my stuffed gorilla, ‘Cocomo,’ was fake and not a real person at all.
Whoever or whatever was responsible for creating this world had to know my habits inside and out. They had to know when I would wake up, so that all the mirrors would be perfectly set up the moment I opened my eyes. They had to know, even before I knew, what I was going to eat for lunch, and whether or not I would be trading a granola bar for a fruit roll-up from one of my fake classmates. They even had to know whether I would turn left or turn right in order to keep me from bumping into one of their mirrors and destroying the illusion.
It was a pretty dire situation, being trapped in mirror world with a fake mom and a fake dad, but I did have one advantage over my hidden captors – they had no idea that I was on to them. I continued to act like a normal little boy in a normal little world while secretly contemplating the possibility of escape. What kind of a place I would be escaping to, I had no idea.
My plan was to let my secret overlords continue to think that I had no idea what was going on, and then, at some carefully chosen moment, I would have to do something completely unexpected. The illusion depended completely on the idea that I would behave like the person they thought I was.
Now, here is where the fantasy gets a little dark. I tried to think of the most unexpected thing a child like myself could do – something so inconceivably averse to normal childhood behavior that it would have been impossible for my captors to have planned for it. After running through several possibilities, I settled on the idea of smashing my mom in the face with a brick.
I liked my fake mom, but she was just an image in a mirror, and a brick was a nice heavy, hard object that had already demonstrated its effectiveness in smashing things. This is how I imagined it would work: I would continue acting like a normal kid living in a normal world, and at some unexpected moment I would pick up a brick that happened to be lying nearby and throw it at my mom, and instead of the dull thud of brick colliding with flesh, there would be an enormous crash, followed by a sweet tinkling sound, as the mirrors of illusion fell down all around me. Or, perhaps there would be a single hole in the mirror where the image of mom had appeared to be standing that I would be able to step through, like Alice through the looking glass.
But what exactly, would I have been stepping into? What did I expect to find on the other side? I couldn’t picture what it would be. I had an active imagination, I could think up all sorts of alternate realities, but in the fantasy of the mirrors, I just couldn’t imagine what this “real” reality could possibly be. I had nothing to go on except the reality I was already experiencing, which was fake. There was no reason to believe that any of the concepts I had learned in mirror world could apply to the true reality that existed independently of the illusion. The mirrors shattered, and the boy stepped through into darkness, and that was it. It was a fantasy that always ended in a question, an ambiguity, in something unknowable.
I never really stopped thinking about the fantasy of the mirrors. It continued to pop into my mind in the thousands and thousands of moments throughout my life when I would stop and daydream about this or that. I thought about it more in college, when I was studying about philosophy and reading Plato’s “allegory of the cave” or Descartes “cogito ergo sum” or Putnam’s arguments on the “Brain in the Vat” theory. Lately I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I imagined that I was living in a mirror world this morning as I was eating breakfast in the farmer’s market amidst throngs of people, food, music; a lavish array of sensory phenomena. And the more I thought about it, and the more I think about it now, the more I realize something. I’m still not completely convinced that this isn’t just a world made out of mirrors and glass candy.