What we need is not the will to believe, but the will to find out.
One of the most astonishing experiences for a parent is watching a human mind develop before your eyes. From the moment of birth, babies are sponges, soaking in everything they can lay their senses on. Wonder is pretty obviously present from the beginning—just look at the eyes of a newborn. Light, motion, temperature, shape, noise, and a million other novelties rain down on the little brain in the first few minutes, and the eyes register a mix of dismay, confusion, and wondering.
So there’s wondering. But for questioning we’ll need words. By their first birthday, kids will often have a few usable ones; by eighteen months they are generally learning a new word or two per day. At age 4, they’re up to twelve new words a day, with amazing syntax and a sense of how to generalize the rules of grammar (like plural “-s” and past tense “-ed,” as evident in sentences like “We goed to the farm and seed the sheeps”). At age 6, the average child has a vocabulary in excess of 21,000 words. And we’re pretty much in the dark about just exactly how that happens.1
Which brings us back to wonder.
Wondering and questioning are the essence of childhood. Many of us bemoan the loss of wonder and the ever-greater difficulty of finding experiences and subjects that are truly untapped enough, and still interesting enough, for our minds to feel the inrushing flood of question after question that we remember from childhood.
Children have the daunting task of changing from helpless newborns into fully functioning adults in just over 6,000 days. Think of that. A certain degree of gullibility necessarily follows. Children are believing machines, and for good reason: When we are children, the tendency to believe it when we are told that fire is dangerous, two and two are four, cliffs are not to be dangled from, and so on, helps us, in the words of Richard Dawkins, “to pack, with extraordinary rapidity, our skulls full of the wisdom of our parents and our ancestors” in order to accomplish the unthinkably complex feat of becoming adults. The immensity of the task requires children to be “suckers” for whatever it is adults tell them. It is our job as parents to be certain not to abuse this period of relative intellectual dependency and trust.
The pivotal moment, of course, is the question. How we respond to the estimated 427,050 questions a child will ask between her second and fifth birthdays2 will surely have a greater impact on her orientation to the world outside her head than the thirteen years of school that follow. Do we always respond with an answer—or sometimes with another question? Do we say, “What a great question!”—or do we just fill in the blank? How often do we utter that fabulous phrase, “You know what … I don’t know!” followed by “Let’s look it up together” or “I’ll bet Aunt Bessie would know that, let’s call her”? When it comes to wondering and questioning, these are the things that make all the difference. We have 427,050 chances to get it right, or 427,050 chances to say “Because I said so,” “Because God says so,” “Don’t concern yourself with that stuff,” or something similarly fatal to the child’s “will to find out.” This chapter, you won’t be surprised to hear, opts for the former.
Though you wouldn’t know it from your high school English class, Mark Twain was a passionate nonbeliever and a heartfelt critic of religious thinking. Many of his late works were devoted to skewering, needling, and puncturing religious belief by way of satire—the most unanswerable, yet underused, weapon in the progressive arsenal. Little Bessie Would Assist Providence (1908), one of several late skeptical works, listens in as a wildly precocious 3-year-old innocently asks her devout mother questions about the nature of God. But unlike most of us, Bessie follows inadequate answers with more Chapter Seven: Wondering and Questioning and more questions, until her poor mother is forced to simply order her into silence.3
Child psychiatrist Robert Kay continues the thread with fifteen “Thoughts on Raising a Curious, Creative, Freethinking Child,” philosopher Amy Hilden describes her childhood discovery of philosophical questions in “The Family Road Trip: Discovering the Self Behind My Eyes,” and British philosopher Margaret Knight argues that the deflection of questions children so often experience around religious questions is just plain “bad intellectual training.”
When children begin their inevitable Bessie-like questioning of religious claims, it’s nice to know the major arguments for and against religious belief. Their number is limited, after all, and they’ve been bandied about for centuries, so why start from scratch? Stephen Law, a British popularizer of philosophy, follows the lead of Plato by putting all of the major arguments for and against a complex belief system in the accessible form of a good-natured dialogue among friends in “Does God Exist?” When your middle- or highschooler expresses an interest in the questions, you can pile the collected works of religious criticism and apologetics on the dining room table or open up to this remarkably compact and engaging chapter.
A Nose Is a Nose Is a Nose
Tell me please,
Did God who gave us flowers and trees,
Also provide the allergies?
LITTLE BESSIE WAS NEARLY THREE years old. She was a good child, and not shallow, not frivolous, but meditative and thoughtful, and much given to thinking out the reasons of things and trying to make them harmonize with results. One day she said:
“Mamma, why is there so much pain and sorrow and suffering? What is it all for?” It was an easy question, and mamma had no difficulty in answering it: “It is for our good, my child. In His wisdom and mercy the Lord sends us these afflictions to discipline us and make us better.”
“Is it He that sends them?”
“Does He send all of them, mamma?”
“Yes, dear, all of them. None of them comes by accident; He alone sends them, and always out of love for us, and to make us better.”
“Isn’t it strange!”
“Who first thought of it like that, mamma? Was it you?”
“Oh, no, child, I was taught it.”
“Who taught you so, mamma?”
“Why, really, I don’t know—I can’t remember. My mother, I suppose; or the preacher. But it’s a thing that everybody knows.”
“Well, anyway, it does seem strange. Did He give Billy Norris the typhus?”
“Why, to discipline him and make him good.”
“But he died, mamma, and so it couldn’t make him good.”
“Well, then, I suppose it was for some other reason. We know it was a good reason, whatever it was.”
“What do you think it was, mamma?”
“Oh, you ask so many questions! I think it was to discipline his parents.”
“Well, then, it wasn’t fair, mamma. Why should his life be taken away for their sake, when he wasn’t doing anything?”
“Oh, I don’t know! I only know it was for a good and wise and merciful reason.”
“What reason, mamma?”
“I think—I think—well, it was a judgment; it was to punish them for some sin they had committed.”
“But he was the one that was punished, mamma. Was that right?”
“Certainly, certainly. He does nothing that isn’t right and wise and merciful. You can’t understand these things now, dear, but when you are grown up you will understand them, and then you will see that they are just and wise.”
After a pause:
“Did He make the roof fall in on the stranger that was trying to save the crippled old woman from the fire, mamma?”
“Yes, my child. Wait! Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know. I only know it was to discipline someone, or be a judgment upon somebody, or to show His power.”
“That drunken man that stuck a pitchfork into Mrs. Welch’s baby when …”
“Never mind about it, you needn’t go into particulars; it was as to discipline the child—that much is certain, anyway.”
“Mamma, Mr. Burgess said in his sermon that billions of little creatures are sent into us to give us cholera, and typhoid, and lockjaw, and more than a thousand other sicknesses and—mamma, does He send them?”
“Oh, certainly, child, certainly. Of course.”
“Oh, to discipline us! Haven’t I told you so, over and over again?”
“It’s awful cruel, mamma! And silly! and if I …”
“Hush, oh hush! do you want to bring the lightning?”
“You know the lightning did come last week, mamma, and struck the new church, and burnt it down. Was it to discipline the church?”
(Wearily). “Oh, I suppose so.”
“But it killed a hog that wasn’t doing anything. Was it to discipline the hog, mamma?”
“Dear child, don’t you want to run out and play a while? If you would like to …”
“Mama, only think! Mr. Hollister says there isn’t a bird or fish or reptile or any other animal that hasn’t got an enemy that Providence has sent to bite it and chase it and pester it, and kill it, and suck its blood and discipline it and make it good and religious. Is that true, mother—because if it is true, why did Mr. Hollister laugh at it?”
“That Hollister is a scandalous person, and I don’t want you to listen to anything he says.”
“Why, mamma, he is very interesting, and I think he tries to be good. He says the wasps catch spiders and cram them down into their nests in the ground—alive, mamma!—and there they live and suffer days and days and days, and the hungry little wasps chewing their legs and gnawing into their bellies all the time, to make them good and religious and praise God for His infinite mercies. I think Mr. Hollister is just lovely, and ever so kind; for when I asked him if he would treat a spider like that, he said he hoped to be damned if he would; and then he …”
“My child! oh, do for goodness’ sake …”
“And mamma, he says the spider is appointed to catch the fly, and drive her fangs into his bowels, and suck and suck and suck his blood, to discipline him and make him a Christian; and whenever the fly buzzes his wings with the pain and misery of it, you can see by the spider’s grateful eye that she is thanking the Giver of All Good for—well, she’s saying grace, as he says; and also, he …”
“Mama, he says himself that all troubles and pains and miseries and rotten diseases and horrors and villainies are sent to us in mercy and kindness to discipline us; and he says it is the duty of every father and mother to help Providence, every way they can; and says they can’t do it by just scolding and whipping, for that won’t answer, it is weak and no good—Providence’s way is best, and it is every parent’s duty and every person’s duty to help discipline everybody, and cripple them and kill them, and starve them, and freeze them, and rot them with diseases, and lead them into murder and theft and dishonor and disgrace; and he says Providence’s invention for disciplining us and the animals is the very brightest idea that ever was, and not even an idiot could get up anything shinier. Mamma, brother Eddie needs disciplining, right away: and I know where you can get the smallpox for him, and the itch, and the diphtheria, and bone-rot, and heart disease, and consumption, and—Dear mama, have you fainted! I will run and bring help! Now this comes of staying in town this hot weather.”
WE ARE FROM THE BEGINNING a mass of needs: for safety, comfort, pleasure, control over what happens to us, a reason for living, and good relationships with other people. Many of these needs are met by parents, with varying degrees of success. And while it’s true that no more than 20 percent of us appear to have reached our full emotional and intellectual potential, it’s also true that no more than 1 or 2 percent become criminals. So in one sense we’re not doing too badly. In another sense, there is plenty of room for improvement.
First published in Life Learning Magazine as “Never Say Never,” Jan./Feb. 2006. Used with permission.
In my many years of practice as a psychiatrist working with children, adolescents, and families, I have seen that a child’s growth is inevitable—if parents water the plant. A great deal of the personality is inborn and will unfold spontaneously over time. Parents will do well to recognize and accept the person their child is born to be, with innate strengths, capacities, interests, and rates of development.
Like most animals, humans are fundamentally social and cooperative creatures who mature in their own sweet time when their basic needs have been met by reasonably responsive adults in a reasonably decent society where stressors are manageable.
We can, however, be damaged by any number of things: stress during pregnancy, inept parenting, abuse, neglect, poor timing, poverty, and disasters among them. And let us not forget an educational system that, while wellmeaning, tends more than any other feature of childhood to bore and confuse, sacrificing creativity, curiosity, and confidence on the altars of obedience, conformity, and societal convenience.
Despite the inevitable scars, most of us make it through and end up leading a life without too much psychological pain. Parents can help maximize their children’s chances for a happy, curious, creative, and freethinking life by trusting them to think, learn, and ask questions in the interests of growth. Our parental responsibilities to meet their needs, set limits, stimulate, demonstrate, model, reveal, and encourage must always be undertaken with an eye to the openness and trust that allows kids to be their own best teachers.
Keep in mind that it takes the brain twenty-five to thirty years to develop fully. We must expect a degree of immature thinking, feeling, and behavior for a long time—though hopefully with decreasing frequency as the years go by. We can help the process by remembering how responsive the brain is: No other organ in the body has the same potential to keep improving its function until the day we die if only we exercise it a bit.
So how best to encourage curiosity, creativity and free thinking in our children? A few thoughts:
1. Start from day one by ignoring experts and relatives who tell you what kids “should” be doing by a certain age or how to make it happen. In most respects your child is the expert on what he or she is going to learn and when. There are times, of course, when genuine expertise is needed, but not when Davy or Suzy is a day or week or month behind some oft-quoted developmental marker.
2. Never think you can “spoil” infants by feeding and cuddling them as soon as they express the need for it. They know only that they’re scared or hungry; they can’t yet think ahead and know that they will be fed. Attachment studies, including Gerhardt’s Why Love Matters,4 have shown that the more holding and attention we give early on, the sooner children’s self-confidence will allow them to strike out on their own—both physically and intellectually.
3. Never criticize them for asking questions and answer them as best you can. That doesn’t mean you can’t groan if the question is badly timed or inappropriate to a given situation, but do know that other adults tend to be less concerned about such things than we think.
4. The answer “I don’t know” is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give to a child’s intellectual development. It is an answer both honest and too seldom heard. Secular parents should especially embrace the opportunity to develop children’s comfort with saying and hearing “I don’t know,” since they are under no compunction to follow that honesty with “but God knows it for us” or “the Bible has the answers” or anything of the kind. If the question is whether God exists, a perfectly fine answer might be, “We don’t know for sure, but I seriously doubt it.” You can also invite them to consider the possibility that the Old Testament and New Testament are works of fiction. Most kids never receive an invitation to consider that possibility and so are derailed in their ability to think freely about religion.
5. Active, coercive teaching cannot make integrated learning happen. Children often fail to listen to their parents but they seldom fail to imitate us. If you want them to say “please” and “thank you,” for example, say “please” and “thank you” when you talk to them. Telling them to say it may well be an exercise in futility, and your authority as a parent is undermined by their noncompliance. Far better in all respects to teach by example. Also remember that our cooperative instincts are far stronger than our willingness to obey. In the early years, “Please help me clean up” works far better than “Please clean up.” Young, immature human beings tend to resist anything that feels like an order.
6. Be sensitive to a child’s readiness to receive information. Take those rare opportunities to offer something useful. As John Holt says in How Children Fail, “The answers that stick are in response to the questions we ask.”
7. At about the age of 10, children are ready for a greater level of active discernment in their education—an increase, if you will, in their active freethinking. Some of what we learn in school is of lasting value; some is of only passing value, necessary to learn in order to get through the educational process; and some is of no value whatsoever. A developing young mind must learn to sort these things, one from another. Suggest that they “split-brain” themselves in school: Turn half of the brain into a floppy disk on which they load all the “nonsense” the teacher will nonetheless want to hear about, while the other half becomes a hard drive on which they record everything that’s actually interesting and useful, such as the ability to speak, listen, think, read, write, learn, calculate, ask questions, work, and cooperate. Reinforce the value of playing the Credential World with half the brain and the Real World with the other half. Once in a while, something that you thought was floppy material ends up interesting and potentially useful enough to download to the hard drive side. Part of being a freethinker is recognizing that and acting on it.
8. Be sure to ask if they’d like to try out one or more of the 9,800 different religions we now have on Earth. But it’s okay in the process to offer your opinions on some of the more toxic ideas. It’s just plain dumb to think that a mythical god can read your mind, or control what happens, or consign you to hell. These toxic ideas get in the way of their developing questions and opinions, so you are within your rights as a parent to head them off in advance by declaring them just plain dumb. If they decide otherwise on their own, so be it—but detoxifying religion at least a bit gives them that chance to think.
9. The teaching of morality follows the same rules as any other kind of teaching—show, don’t say. If you want them to learn not to hurt or upset other people or the environment, show them by your actions.
10. Don’t worry, within reason, about what they are going to need to know in the future. Expose them to reality, to people, to the world, and to all sorts of ideas, especially those with which you disagree. Given those gifts, they will not fail to step into their role as self-teachers.
11. Put yourself in their shoes as often as possible. See the world from their small and put-upon perspective. They will inevitably resist you from time to time in obnoxious and immature ways. You can’t make another human being eat, swallow, pee, poop, think, learn, work, talk, confess, agree, or believe, so don’t even go there. Do yourself and your children the favor of trying to see through their eyes, of trying to understand the reasons behind the resistance.
12. Tell the truth as often and as straightforwardly as possible if you think they can possibly handle it.
13. The less time in front of electronic screens of all types, the better. There should ideally be no television watching before age 3 and no electronic screen of any kind in their bedroom at any age.
14. Tell them that their job is to have fun inside the box for a while and that someday they can make their own box. It’s usually much easier to be an adult than to be a kid, largely because of the relative freedom we have to live in a box of our own creation. Tell them you know they have a harder job than you. They’ll love you for recognizing that.
15. The bottom line of freethought is this: You can think whatever you want, but to live in community with other human beings, you sometimes have to control your talk and your behavior.
In summary: A child should be treated like a distinguished visitor from a foreign land who is unfamiliar with our language and our customs. Just as that visitor brings his or her own language and customs, our children come into the world with predispositions, talents, strengths, and weaknesses. We often do best by them by offering examples, sharing our own opinions, opening opportunities, then stepping aside to let them run. They will mature in their own sweet time if only we will let them.
If we begin to think more actively, some stunning changes are possible: We can know ourselves better, we can have more options in life, we can distinguish fact from fiction and hype from hope, we can begin to think more decisively as we choose liferoads to walk down, and we can become more persuasive as we listen and talk to our fellow thinkers.
—Gary R. Kirby & Jeffrey R. Goodpaster5
I BECAME A PHILOSOPHER in the summer of 1969 in the back seat of a Chevy. Before you jump to conclusions, let me add that I was 10 years old, riding along on the latest of many cross-country family road trips. In the days before electronic entertainment devices, before air conditioning was common in cars, before seat belt laws, I remember staring out the window, watching the telephone poles and meadows go by. There really was nothing else for me to do. I had been ordered by my parents to turn away from the sister whose all-too-sweaty body was leeching onto me and whose nasty barbs had injured me deeply for the very last time! So I just looked out there. And as I did, I began what would become a lifelong passion—wondering.
Though I have become a professional philosopher in my adult life, paid to think about thinking and wonder about wondering, it was as a child that I first became aware of that thing that makes it possible: a mind. Are there ways to nurture the development of remarkable minds in our children? What if we welcomed wonder? And what if we took seriously the burdens and implications of thinking hard and well about what we wonder about?
The humanistic optimist in me believes that the better we think about ourselves and the world, the better the world will be. There are choices to make, and deliberate reflection about those choices is the only way to confidently know what we are doing and why we are doing it. And since our children will also meet these challenges, it just makes sense to (1) think carefully about thinking and (2) think about how to nurture in our children the ability and desire to do it well. So how do we reflect upon ourselves as wonderers, as thinkers, as knowers in order to get a hint at the possibilities for active thinking and “stunning changes”? I have some ideas about this.
Once I started to think seriously about what it means to have a mind, to know something—anything at all—I turned to the only resource that had any chance of helping me out: my own mind and its store of ideas. But notice this: That entailed using my mind in order to know my mind—which sounds something like “a pair of pliers trying to grasp itself.”6 But while a pair of pliers cannot grasp itself, our minds can. We all have the experience of having ideas, of thinking about those ideas, and of thinking about our thinking about those ideas. And while all of this thinking usually goes on without our reflecting upon it, we still can reflect upon it. And reflecting upon the contents of our minds can reveal some pretty neat things about it and what it can do.
Which brings us once again to my 10-year-old self, looking out the window of a Chevy station wagon.
After a while, the looking alone no longer engaged me. I found myself wondering about the looking. I began to wonder about just who it was that was behind my eyes. I knew a little about the physical nature of the eyeball from reading the encyclopedia, but that wasn’t what gripped me at that moment. I wanted to know what was beyond the physical eyeball. What was “it” that was seeing the world passing by at sixty miles per hour?
I remember thinking that “it” must be me. But what could that possibly mean? At the time I believed that each of us has a unique self, a soul that would go somewhere cool to live forever after the death of the physical body. I understood at the time that the “soul” was not the same part of me that was my body. My body would die, the worms would crawl in and out, and it would shrivel up and eventually turn to dust. In the long run, as hard as it was to stomach, the body wasn’t important. I believed that it was my soul, that which was essential about me, that would be reunited eventually with all those I loved. This “theory of self” made childhood thoughts of death less horrific, death itself less lonely, and physical, earthly life less pointless in the face of “life everlasting.”
In the road trip reflection, I transferred that belief—that “theory of self”—to the current experience of wondering who was behind the looking I was doing. It was me, myself, my I, my soul. It was certainly not my body; not my eyeballs, though they made the seeing possible. It was something beyond what was in other ways apparent. Though I’ve since given up the belief system and black-and-white worldview of my childhood, I haven’t given up the wonder of finding myself wondering in that car.
There’s no reason to think my experience was unique, nor my later reflections on it. Some might say the luxury and privilege of such free time allowed me to have this experience. And though I’m sure a lot of the content—the telephone poles, the meadows, my sister’s sweat, my parents’ threats, my assumptions—were unique to me and my place and time, I don’t think any of that is necessary. There is just something about being human, a being with a mind that can grasp itself, that enables the art of wonder at all.
It is the human appetite for these types of questions, all of which stretch beyond the obvious, that urges us to confront something inescapable about ourselves. The great philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed that our minds can no more give up asking these kinds of questions than we could give up breathing. It is essentially human. And it’s these questions, he asserted, that are more important to us than any others: Is there a God? Will my soul live beyond my death? What is freedom? It’s part of our nature to wonder about things beyond our immediate experience. There is no shaking off its grip.
The wondering I did on that childhood family road trip led to more wondering. It was really my first experience of taking the world seriously, of taking my life as a human being seriously, and the first step toward becoming a professional philosopher. As a philosopher, I have “permission” to keep asking and wondering about the questions that most of us set aside as young children. It was then that we were the purest we will ever be as wonderers. As we grow up, practical matters invade that purity. Our “where/when/what/why” questions—so genuinely puzzling, thrilling, and hard to answer—are met with understandable exasperation from those around us who have forgotten the delight and power of this kind of pure wonder—or who maybe just want to know what you want for lunch!
Think about a particular kind of question that small children ask: Where was I before I was in your tummy? If I lost my arm, would I still be me? When Spot died, did he go to be with Grandma? If God made everything, who made God? Where is hell? Why do I have to share? These are what philosophers call metaphysical questions—questions of personal identity, immortality, first causes, the existence of immaterial things/places, the foundations of moral obligations, and the like. Each concerns the reality of something that is partly beyond the direct experience of our senses. Our approach to this kind of question is different from our approach to a question from our child such as, Why should I take a bath? Metaphysical questions concern the nature of existence at a different level from mere bodily existence. They are about things we wonder and worry about, yet struggle to find answers to.
But what does it mean to “wonder” about something? When we wonder about something, we have questions about that something that are not easily answered. Getting to an even remotely satisfying answer seems to demand some real effort. In other words, we need to think about it, to search for answers which are hard to find.
The years between 18 and 22 were not given to us to be frittered away in contemplation of future tax shelters and mortgage payments. In fact, it is almost a requirement of developmental biology that these years be spent in erotic reverie, metaphysical speculation, and schemes for universal peace and justice. Sometimes, of course, we lose sight of the heroic dreams of youth later on, as overdue bills and carburetor problems take their toll. But those who never dream at all start to lose much more—their wit, empathy, perspective, and, for lack of a more secular term, their immortal souls.
–Barbara Ehrenreich, The Worst Years of Our Lives
But who says the answers are hard to find? When a child asks where she was before she was in Mom’s tummy, why not just say, “You weren’t anywhere”? Isn’t that simple enough? Sure, it’s a simple answer—but is it true?
Can we give such an answer with any real confidence? Can we really know that we “weren’t anywhere” before the womb? We may well have beliefs about the nature of our existence and about when it begins and ends, but these beliefs are always going to be speculative, open to significant doubt. That’s the nature of metaphysical questions. “I don’t know, but I love thinking about it with you” is often the best answer we can come up with to certain questions. But if we were to really give ourselves and our children permission to wonder and to not require final answers, what might happen to how we think about the world? Would we be more creative? We’d surely be more open-minded, less dogmatic, wouldn’t we?
In order to locate the virtue of such (potentially) bizarre wondering and thinking, perhaps it would be helpful to identify a characteristic of wondering—namely, its skepticism. If I’m wondering about something—for example, one of my favorites, whether I am the same person today as I was when I was 5—then I am skeptical about whether I’m the same person. If I weren’t skeptical, if I didn’t have anything to doubt or question, then I wouldn’t be wondering. If I believed I knew, I wouldn’t be wondering. Wondering is what we do when we don’t know something and want to know it, but are unsure even how we could know it. Not knowing how to multiply fractions, for example, is a different kind of not-knowing. If I don’t know how to multiply fractions, I’m not wondering about multiplying fractions. I just don’t know how. I know what it would mean to know how to multiply fractions: I’d multiply fractions and get the correct answer.
A good dose of skepticism is healthy. If we believed everything at face value, then we wouldn’t be operating at a level of our fullest human capacity to think. We might be operating on a level closer to a computer. Every bit of knowledge we hold has been downloaded onto our hard drive, and every mental or physical action is determined by the software programming that someone else fed into us. Being skeptical means wondering a bit longer, gathering evidence about whether we should accept a particular answer.
With a stalwart commitment to our mind’s capacity to wonder, think critically and skeptically, and question, however, mightn’t we find ourselves on the verge of insanity or ostracism if we wonder too long or question too much? How many of you have been told, “you think too much” and “you take things too seriously”? How many of you find yourselves marginalized because you push hard and critically on ideas and claims? Is it possible to think too much? Might it be that exercising the capacity that makes us unique—our capacity to think and to question things beyond the immediate—could also make us socially isolated? And isn’t social isolation something we want to protect our children from? Isn’t it necessary sometimes to protect them by saying, “Because I said so” or “That’s just the way it is—now go play”?
While the personal risks to thinking may be significant, aren’t there also personal, moral, social, national, and international risks to not thinking? Are we a nation at war with (so many) others because we are thinking too much—or thinking too little?
The answers to these complex questions are, and ought be, elusive. At the same time, wouldn’t we agree that we should aggressively pursue answers with our hard-working critical minds? It will come as no surprise that I stand in support of the risks of wondering, thinking, and questioning, even if at some personal risk. Why? I think it has something to do with what it means to really live a human life—first to think, and second to act on that thinking for the betterment of the world.
Facing a choice between exile, with an end to his philosophical questioning of others, or death, Socrates proclaimed that he would choose death, saying an unexamined life was not worth living for a human being. He would rather not live at all than to live without exchanging ideas about the things he wondered and worried about—things like justice, goodness, and virtue. Imagine what the world would be like if that kind of wondering were not allowed to run its open course. Is that the world we want for our children?
Yet doing this kind of critical thinking and examining of one’s beliefs and the claims of others is no walk in the park. To be honest, it can be a burden, even painful. But what kinds of “stunning changes” would not have occurred if brave thinkers had been unwilling to take the risk of fully examining the implications of their thoughts and beliefs? Imagine no Buddha, Socrates, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Sojourner Truth, Einstein, Jane Addams, Gandhi, Martin Luther King. To withstand the personal jeopardy that wondering and critical thinking can expose us to, surely the answer is to do it together and to work toward the creation of a society where wonder is welcomed and critical thinking is recognized as indispensable.
So take a family road trip, buckle up the kids, and turn off the electronic entertainment. Once they find the self behind their eyes, ask them where they want to go. And when they ask, “Are we there yet?”, tell them, “We’ve just begun.”
If (a child) is brought up in the orthodox way, he will accept what he is told happily enough to begin with. But if he is normally intelligent, he is almost bound to get the impression that there is something odd about religious statements. If he is taken to church, for example, he hears that death is the gateway to eternal life, and should be welcomed rather than shunned; yet outside he sees death regarded as the greatest of all evils, and everything possible done to postpone it. In church he hears precepts like “resist not evil,” and “Take no thought for the morrow”; but he soon realizes that these are not really meant to be practiced outside. If he asks questions, he gets embarrassed, evasive answers: “Well, dear, you’re not quite old enough to understand yet, but some of these things are true in a deeper sense”; and so on. The child soon gets the idea that there are two kinds of truth—the ordinary kind, and another, rather confusing and embarrassing kind, into which it is best not to inquire too closely.
Now all this is bad intellectual training. It tends to produce a certain intellectual timidity—a distrust of reason—a feeling that it is perhaps rather bad taste to pursue an argument to its logical conclusion, or to refuse to accept a belief on inadequate evidence.
1. William O’Grady, How Children Learn Language (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press).
2. An unscientific estimate of my own, based on the 78 questions I once counted from my daughter in a two-hour period, times 5 (for a 10-hour day), times 365 days, times 3 years. Told you it was unscientific.
3. This excerpt is only a single chapter of Twain’s hilarious satire. Though unpublished during Twain’s lifetime, Little Bessie is available in an early biography of Twain by Albert Bigelow Paine, as well as the compilation Fables of Man, edited by John S. Tuckey (University of California Press, 1972).
4. Sue Gerhardt, Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain (London: Brunner-Routledge, 2004).
5. Gary R. Kirby & Jeffery R. Goodpaster, Thinking: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Critical and Creative Thought,4th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2007), p. xiii.
6. Ibid, p. xiv.
7. Alas, with the recent demotion of Pluto, this should now read “eight planets.” A fine example of self-correcting science in action!
8. An Indian crispy bread popular in the UK.
• Clayton, John C. Alexander Fox and the Amazing Mind Reader. Prometheus, 1998. A con man calling himself Mr. Mystikos has come to town, telling fortunes, reading minds, knowing things he couldn’t possibly know about the people of the town—and parting the gullible townsfolk from their cash. Young Alexander Fox is plenty impressed at first—until he starts thinking carefully. A terrific illustration of the power of skepticism. For years after reading it, your kids will turn to you every time they see a faith healer or other huckster on TV, saying, “It’s Mr. Mystikos!” Ages 6–10.
• Stock, Gregory. The Kids’ Book of Questions: Revised for the New Century. Workman, 2004. A kids’ version of the now-classic Book of Questions for adults, this is a collection of 268 open-ended questions to get kids to articulate their own values and preferences: “If you could change one thing about your parents, what would it be?” “If you knew you wouldn’t get caught, would you cheat by copying answers on a test?” Several are great conversation-starters for religious questioning: “Of all the things you’ve heard about God and religion, what do you think is true and what do you think is just a story?”“Do you believe in God? If not, why do you think so many people do?” Ages 6–12.
• Law, Stephen. The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking. Thomas Dunne, 2003. An introduction to philosophy for adults, written in the same accessible dialogic style as his essay in the current book.
• Law, Stephen. Philosophy Rocks! Volo, 2002. The book from which our essay “Does God Exist?” is excerpted. Law presents several other philosophical questions in the same engaging dialogic form. An excellent introduction to philosophical questions.
• Law, Stephen. The War for Children’s Minds. Routledge, 2006. In a powerful new book that has been called “a defense of the philosophically liberal life,” Stephen Law calls for a rejection both of right-wing demands for a return to authoritarian religious morality and postmodern relativism. He advocates instead that children be educated in ethics based in the philosophy of the enlightenment. For adults.