Saturday, 21 January 2012

Childhood Tales from Philosophers

I don’t know about the rest of you non-philosophers, but I am intrigued by the tales I hear from some philosophers (and their family members) about how weird they were as children.

[Note: I’m going to preface the rest of this entry by saying that I have years of professional experience working with children in the eight-to-sixteen-years-old range, and none of the children I interacted with had exactly these sorts of dramatic philosopher-reactions to situations (though there were lots of “whys,” but most children go through a “why” phase)].

So today I thought it would be fun to share a few childhood stories that I’ve heard from my philosopher about his childhood, and then encourage you to either ask your philosopher about her/his childhood and/or share your own in the comments.

Story 1: Newton’s Third Law of Motion Must be Incorrect

My philosopher was in the fifth grade (around eleven-years-old) when his class was learning about Newton’s laws of motion. When they reached the third law (“for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”), my philosopher knew that this law was completely wrong. He envisioned a situation in which a bar attached to a machine could be moving toward another object (say, a very large boulder). At the point of impact, this bar would be stopped by the machine such that the bar did not at all bounce off the boulder, in the way that this law of motion required the bar to.

My philosopher debated about this with his teacher for several weeks in class—refusing to give in until the teacher videotaped a situation where the philosopher pushed another student. She showed him how he bounced back slightly, even though he was the one exerting the force. Despite the video evidence, my philosopher spent more time trying to explain why the so-called “evidence” proved nothing since it didn’t really challenge the thought experiment as such.

This teacher was so angry at him by the end that she made him write a long report about Newton, and then made him read it aloud to the class (a sort of punishment for being annoying).

Could you guess that this philosopher became an analytic philosopher? [The crazy, impossible thought experiment gives it away].

Story 2: Free-Will, God’s Knowledge, and Impossibilities

When my philosopher was around seven-years-old when he began to be bothered by questions of free will. He can remember sitting around for hours, trying to reason through ideas like:

Let’s say I move my hand. Does God know that I was going to move my hand? Did he know that I knew that he knew that I was going to move my hand? When does the circle of this knowing end?

My parents say that I should love God more than them. How can I measure how much I love my parents, in order to love God even more? And how can I love God when I’ve never met him? I do know that I love my parents, but I see them every day and they do all sorts of nice things for me (like give me presents and make me lunch).

So, now that you’ve started thinking about philosopher-children, do you see any of your current children on their way to becoming philosophers? I certainly hope so; the world needs more philosophers.

~The Philosiologist

You can follow me on twitter (@Philosiologist), friend me on facebook (Philosiologist Qed), or add me to your Google+ circle (Philosiologist Qed). You can also send me an email (left sidebar). Forgive me for the shorter entry today, as I am off to paint J.S. Mill's portrait on a living room pillow and tend to my zucchini seedlings.


  1. Last year I bought my eldest son a book on philosophy (he was eight at the time). He was walking home from school with his mum, and being berated for some act of naughtiness by her - he looked up and said 'you can't blame me for that mum, I'm qualitatively a different person now than when I did it.' This is what happens when you let children read about Hereclites. I'm pretty sure she told him to 'shut it'.

    For his birthday I'm going to buy him some R.M. Hare so he can learn the error of his ways.

  2. Read Gareth Mathews's books _Philosophy and the Young Child_ and _Dialogues with Children_, and check out his website

  3. A philosopher friend of mine confessed she took everything literally. I had something similar. I couldn't get jokes in High school, which made for a rather unpleasant experience. When I was around 5, I was lost in my thoughts (as I often was and still am) and my mom told me that I was "dans la Lune" ("in the moon" - the French expression for "in his thoughts"). I contemplated the idea for a few seconds, started laughing, and said: "it's impossible!"

  4. On the topic of introducing young children to philosophy:

  5. My first philosophical question as a toddler: if this is my right hand, and this is my left, which way is south?

  6. Love this post! Mind if I contribute?

    Around the age of 6, I became very concerned with whether my bedroom persisted in my absence. To soothe my concerns that my room (and all my belongings) were not popping in and out of existence each time I left and re-entered the room, I devised an experiment. I would leave the room nonchalantly (so it didn't know I was up to something, I guess), and then either inch the door open slowly or jerk the door open suddenly, depending on my level of frustration. It bothered me to no end that I couldn't find the right way to catch my bedroom as it crossed the threshold of existence.

    It still bothers me, to be honest.

  7. My parents turned me into a philosopher:

    My nephew was more impressive. I was a philosophy undergraduate and he was about 4 years old when we had this conversation:

    Him: I'm worried. God doesn't change, does he?
    Me: Um.... why do you think that?
    Him: Because he's the best he could be, forever, and if he changed he would get better or worse.
    Me: (!!!!!) OK, why are you worried?
    Him: Well.. how can he be happier when I've said my prayers?