Mistakes #6: Identifying reality slowly

(Mistakes #1, #2, #3, #4, #5)

One thing I was confused about when I was about eight was which things were ‘real’. It was not that I had any trouble distinguishing between the mundane objects around me—including my parents and a perplexed child psychologist—and my so-called ‘imaginary friends’. They were clearly different in kind. It just wasn’t obvious which kind was the ‘real’ one, philosophically speaking. The objects and parents and so on produced vivid mental images, whereas the other things didn’t. And I had some kind of intuitive feeling that that one was the only real world. But one doesn’t want to trust feelings in important matters such as these. Especially as a particularly young person with little experience of things, when feelings are about as suspicious as the next psychological phenomenon.

The psychologist promised me that she was real, and the imaginary friends weren’t. The imaginary friends laughed at her and promised me right back that they were real, and that psychologists were imaginary. So far the only asymmetry was that the psychologist was stupid.

There were some other asymmetries really, like how the psychologist was part of a rich and perceptible world, and the imaginary friends seemed to belong to some hazier shadow realm. I guess at least some of the time, my alternative model was something like, the imaginary friends lived in a more real world outside the physical world, and had a lot of control over the physical world, rather than the physical world being nonexistent.

It was unusually important to determine whether the imaginary friends were real because they were not friendly, and often threatened me. ‘You’ll die if you walk down that hill”, and so on. (Those of you who believe in psychologists may recognize this as some form of obsessive compulsive disorder).

I think in the end I decided the balance of evidence was in favor of the psychologist and other humans being real, in part because they were surprisingly stupid or full of non sequiturs. The imaginary friends seemed clever to me, because they saw considerations that I saw. Also their threats were so well designed for my own mind, it was as if they were intimately familiar with it. And if ever I thought of a thing that would be terrible for my imaginary friends to do, they were immediately on it in a way that indicated that they must be telepathic. And telepathy is probably easier if you live inside the mind you are telepathizing with. (Though also maybe unusually easy if you are simulating that mind.) So all this would make a lot more sense if the imaginary friends were imaginary. It was harder to imagine my brain somehow producing the psychologist.

These considerations maybe shouldn’t have been enough, given the stakes. You really want high confidence before writing off a band of threatening supernatural assassin stalkers as imaginary. And both worlds could have been real. I can’t remember whether I thought this was all good evidence, whether I was silly, or whether I figured that if one is thoroughly and permanently constrained by the watch of a group of psychopathic monsters with arbitrary demands, then one may as well just assume they are imaginary, because one is otherwise screwed.

Was I wrong to entertain the reality of my imaginary friends? Could I have been right sooner with better habits of mind?

For one thing, it seems I should have been clearer on what the question was, and what the alternative answers were. I kind of thought of it as a question of which world was real. But I probably didn’t really think my grandmother might be imaginary, or I would have nothing to worry about: if the friends were real, the grandmother was not. Sometimes it seemed the issue was just whether the imaginary friends were more real than my grandmother, i.e some greater supernatural power outside of the world, or some subnatural power inside my head. But in that case, things are not symmetrical at all. There should be ways to distinguish those. For instance, do the imaginary friends affect anything else? If the imaginary friends were real, it was surprising that nobody else interacted with them (though maybe not that surprising, given that a lot of people do claim to interact with supernatural things and probably I knew this but didn’t know the details).

There are probably lots of other subtle hints about what is real and what is not, and I was perhaps surprisingly incurious about finding them. For instance, things in an imaginary world might naturally be able to observe things in the real world that I observe, but not many other things. Whereas things living outside the world should be able to give me new information about things that I hadn’t seen.

So I think there were a bunch of mistakes. If there was anything like a single, clear, neatly definable meta-mistake I made here, I guess it was something like focusing on seeing the problem as problematic, rather than really trying hard to solve it. I don’t remember very well, but it seems like I hadn’t tried looking for reasons to think there wasn’t a problem. My guess is that I was instead trying to defend it being a problem, in the face of adults claiming I was being silly.

(I’ll ignore the question of whether it is ever worth trying to reason eight year olds out of their mental health problems, and note that while it might not help with the difficulty at hand, I suspect it can provide good exercise in thinking for other areas of life where being reasonable comes more easily.)

5 responses to “Mistakes #6: Identifying reality slowly

  1. My girlfriend would give you a different answer: Both the psychologists and the “imaginary friends” are “real”; the imaginary friends are actually spirits that most adults can’t perceive but many children can. But that doesn’t mean you should trust them; they’re probably evil.

  2. That’s very reminiscent of the doubts I had way into high school, but I don’t think there were any imaginary sentient creatures there, more like empty imaginary worlds, but not empty in any jarring way. In the end I read about epidemiology (particularly Ernst von Glasersfeld) and became less concerned with trying to find out what is “real” and more with finding maximally viable strategies to achieve goals (which took a decade longer to become clear).

  3. I’m curious if you find yourself curious now.


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