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16 May 2022 6-7 λεπτά
Some of the best philosophers in the world gather in surprising places: preschools and playgrounds. They debate questions about metaphysics and morality, even though they’ve never heard the words, and can’t tie their shoes. They’re kids. And the adults in their lives have a lot to learn from them, if only they’d stop and listen.
I’m a philosopher, and I’ve got two boys, Rex and Hank. They’re constantly asking philosophical questions and attempting to answer them. One day, I picked Rex up from second grade. On the way home, he announced, “The universe is infinite.”
“Actually, scientists aren’t sure about that,” I said. “Some think it’s infinite, but others think it’s really, really big, but finite.”
“No, the universe has to be infinite,” Rex said, with surprising conviction for a seven-year-old whose entire physics education consisted of a handful of episodes of How the Universe Works.
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, imagine that you took a spaceship all the way to the edge of the universe. And then you punch right at the edge.”
He punched the air in front of him.
“Your hand has to go somewhere, right?”
“What if it just stopped?”
“Well, then there’d be something stopping it,” Rex said. “So you wouldn’t be at the edge yet!”
Rex wasn’t the first person to think up that argument. It’s commonly credited to an ancient Greek philosopher named Archytas. But that’s just a matter of record-keeping. Some seven-year-old probably thought of it first.
As I explained to Rex, the argument isn’t sound, since some finite spaces don’t have edges. (Imagine an ant walking on the surface of a balloon. He’s traversing a finite space, but he never hits an edge since the balloon folds back on itself.) It took physicists a while to realize that, though. Even Isaac Newton was intrigued by Rex’s argument.
Hank can be just as clever. But often, he drives us crazy. One day, his mom, Julie, asked what he wanted for lunch, and she gave him two options: a quesadilla, or a hamburger leftover from the night before. Hank (then eight) was tortured by the choice. It took him a while to decide.
“I’ll have the burger,” he said, decades later.
“It’s already on the table,” Julie replied. Hank always chooses a burger, if one’s available.
Hank was not happy with this development. He started to cry.
“What’s wrong, Hank?” I asked. “That was what you wanted.”
“Mommy didn’t let me decide,” he said.
“Sure she did. You said you wanted a burger and you have a burger.”
“No,” Hank said. “She predicted me.”
“Yeah, but she got it right.”
“It’s still insulting,” Hank insisted. And his burger got cold while he wailed.
The following week, my philosophy of law class talked about pre-punishment – the idea that we might punish someone before they commit a crime, if we know, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they’ll do it. Some people doubt that it’s possible to predict well enough to know. I don’t, actually. But there’s another objection that’s a lot like Hank’s.
It’s disrespectful, some say, to treat a person as if he’s already made a decision when he hasn’t – even if you know what he’ll decide when he does. It’s his decision that ought to make the difference, and he’s free to go in a different direction until he’s decided, even if you know he won’t. (Or is he? Does the fact that you can predict what he will do imply that he doesn’t have free will?) I told my class about Hank, and we talked about whether he was right to feel disrespected. Many thought that he was.
“Okay,” I can hear you say, “you’re a philosopher. It’s not a surprise that you’ve got philosophical kids.” But my kids aren’t aberrational. Every kid is a philosopher.
I learned that from Gareth Matthews. He was a philosopher too, and he spent much of his career talking to kids and gathering stories from teachers and parents.
My favourite of Matthews’ stories comes from the mother of a little boy named Ian. Another family came to visit, and their three kids monopolized the television, keeping Ian from seeing his favourite show. After the guests left, Ian asked his mother: “Why is it better for three people to be selfish than for one?”
I love that question. It’s so simple – and subversive. Many economists think that public policy ought to maximize the satisfaction of people’s preferences. Some philosophers think so, too. But Ian invites us to ask: should we care about preferences, if they’re simply selfish?
There’s a challenge to democracy lurking here, too. Suppose Ian’s mother put the question of what to watch to a vote? Is counting selfish kids a good way to settle the question?
Ian’s mother was confused by his question. She had no idea how to answer. And I suspect most adults would find themselves flummoxed. Little kids often question things grown-ups take for granted. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons they make good philosophers. “The adult must cultivate the naiveté that is required for doing philosophy,” Matthews said, but “to the child such naiveté is entirely natural.”
There’s another reason kids make great philosophers. They don’t worry that they’ll seem silly if they get things wrong or say something absurd. That allows them to approach philosophy with what Matthews described as a “a freshness and inventiveness that is hard for even the most imaginative adult to match.”
If we listened to kids – and took the time to think with them – we just might recapture some of the joy and wonder they feel about the world. There’s pleasure in finding a puzzle and thinking it through.
Kids can also open our eyes to the bits of the world that don’t make sense. We’d all do well to ask why a little more often. Chances are you know a kid that can help you get started.
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Image at top: Flynn Shore / Penguin