I nee a philosopher.” Hank was standing in the bathroom, half-naked.
“What?” Julie asked. “I nee a philosopher.” “Did you rinse?”
“I nee a philosopher,” Hank said, getting more agitated. “You need to rinse. Go back to the sink.”
“I nee a philosopher!” Hank demanded.
“Scott!” Julie shouted. “Hank needs a philosopher.”
I am a philosopher. And no one has ever needed me. I rushed to the bathroom. “Hank, Hank! I’m a philosopher. What do you need?”
He looked puzzled. “You are not a philosopher,” he said sharply. “Hank, I am a philosopher. That’s my job. What’s bothering you?” He opened his mouth but didn’t say anything.
“Hank, what’s bothering you?”
“DER’S FOMETHING FUCK IN MY FEETH.”
A flosser. Hank needed a flosser—one of those forked pieces of plastic with dental floss strung across it. In retrospect, that makes sense. A flosser is something you could need, especially if you are two and your purpose in life is to pack landfills with cheap pieces of plastic that pro- vided a temporary diversion. A philosopher is not something that people need. People like to point that out to philosophers.
“What do philosophers do, exactly?”
“Um, uh . . . we think, mostly.” “What do you think about?”
“Anything, really. Justice, fairness, equality, religion, law, language . . .”
“I think about those things. Am I a philosopher?” “You might be. Do you think about them carefully?”
I cannot count the number of times that I’ve had that conversation. But that’s because I’ve never had it. It’s just how I imagine things would go if I were to tell a stranger that I’m a philosopher. I almost always say that I am a lawyer. Unless I am talking to a lawyer; then I say that I’m a
law professor, so that I can pull rank. If I am talking to another law professor, though, then I’m definitely a philosopher. But if I am talking to a philosopher, I’m back to being a lawyer. It’s an elaborate shell game, carefully constructed to give me an edge in any conversation.
But I am a philosopher. And I still find that improbable. I didn’t set out to be one. As a first-semester freshman at the University of Georgia, I wanted to take Intro Psychology. But the class was full, and Intro Philosophy fulfilled a requirement. If a spot had come open in that psychology class, then I might be a psychologist and this book might be full of practical parenting advice. There is a bit of parenting advice in this book, but most of it is not so practical. Indeed, my main advice is just this: talk to your kids (or somebody else’s). They’re funny as hell—and good philosophers too.
I missed the first day of that philosophy class, because my people—Jews, not philosophers—celebrate the New Year at a more or less random time each fall. But I went to the second class, and by the second hour I was hooked. The professor, Clark Wolf, asked each of us what mattered, and as he went around the room, he scratched our answers on the board alongside our names and the names of famous philosophers who had said something similar.
Happiness: Robyn, Lila, Aristotle
Pleasure: Anne, Aristippus, Epicurus
Doing the Right Thing: Scott, Neeraj, Kant
Nothing: Vijay, Adrian, Nietzsche
Seeing my name on the board made me think that my thoughts about what mattered might matter—that I could be a part of a conversation that included people like Aristotle, Kant, and Nietzsche.
It was a crazy thing to think, and my parents were not happy to find me thinking it. I remember sitting across from my father in a rotisserie chicken restaurant, reporting that I planned to major in philosophy. “What’s philosophy?” he asked. That is a good question. He didn’t know the answer becau e when he registered for classes, there was a spot left in psychology, and that became his major. But I realized that I had a problem: I didn’t know the answer either, and I had been in a philosophy class for several weeks. What is philosophy, I wondered, and why do I want to study it?
I decided to show my dad rather than tell him. “We think we’re sitting at a table, eating rotisserie chicken and having a conversation about how college is going,” I started. “But what if we aren’t? What if someone stole our brains, put them in a vat, hooked them up to electrodes, and stimulated them so as to make us think that we’re eating chicken and talking about college?”
“Can they do that?” he asked.
“I don’t think so, but that’s not the question. The question is how do we know that they didn’t? How do we know that we aren’t brains in vats, hallucinating a chicken dinner?”
“That’s what you want to study?” The look on his face was something other than encouraging.
“Yeah, I mean, don’t you see the worry? Everything we think we know could be wrong.”
He did not see the worry. And this was before The Matrix came out, so I couldn’t appeal to the authority of Keanu Reeves to establish the urgency of the issue. After a few more minutes of muttering about brains and vats, I added, “The department has lots of logic classes too.”
“Well,” he said, “I hope you take those.”
I said that it’s improbable that I’m a philosopher. But that’s not right. What’s improbable is that I’m still a philosopher—that my dad didn’t put a stop to it, at that dinner or long before. Because I was a phi- losopher almost from the time that I could talk, and I am not alone in that. Every kid—every single one—is a philosopher. They stop when they grow up. Indeed, it may be that part of what it is to grow up is to stop doing philosophy and to start doing something more practical. If that’s true, then I’m not fully grown up, which will come as a surprise to exactly no one who knows me.
It’s not for lack of trying on my parents’ part. I remember the first time I pondered a philosophical puzzle. I was five, and it hit me during circle time at the JCC kindergarten. I thought about it all day, and at pickup time I rushed to tell my mother, who taught a preschool class down the hall.
“Mommy,” I said, “I don’t know what red looks like to you.” “Yes, you do. It looks red,” she said.
“Right . . . well, no,” I stammered. “I know what red looks like to me, but I don’t know what it looks like to you.”
She looked confused, and to be fair, I may not have been clear. I was five. But I struggled mightily to get her to see what I was saying.
“Red looks like that,” she said, pointing to something red. “I know that’s red,” I said.
“So what’s the trouble?”
“I don’t know what red looks like to you.”
“It looks like that,” she said, increasingly exasperated.
“Right,” I said, “but I don’t know what that looks like to you. I know what it looks like to me.”
“It looks the same, sweetheart.” “You don’t know that,” I insisted.
“Yes, I do,” she said, pointing again. “That’s red, right?”
She didn’t get it, but I was not deterred. “We call the same things red,” I attempted to explain, “because you pointed to red things and told me they were red. But what if I see red the way you see blue?”
“You don’t. That’s red, not blue, right?”
“I know we both call that red,” I said, “but red could look to you the way blue looks to me.”
I don’t know how long we went round on that, but my mother never did see the point I was making. (Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m happy to try again.) And I distinctly remember her concluding the conversation: “Stop worrying about this. It doesn’t matter. You see just fine.”
That was the first time someone told me to stop doing philosophy. It was not the last.
Philosophers call the puzzle I pressed on my mother the shifted color spectrum. The idea is typically credited to John Locke, the seventeenth-century English philosopher whose ideas influenced the
Framers of the United States Constitution. But I’d bet that thousands of kindergarten-aged kids got there first. (Indeed, Daniel Dennett, a prominent philosopher of mind, reports that many of his students recall pondering the puzzle when they were little.) Their parents probably didn’t understand what they were saying, or see the significance in it. But the puzzle is significant; indeed, it’s a window into some of the deepest mysteries about the world and our place within it.
Here’s how Locke explained the puzzle (it’s easier to follow if you read it out loud in an English accent):
Neither would it carry any Imputation of Falshood . . . if . . . the same Object should produce in several Men’s Minds different Ideas at the same time; v.g. if the Idea, that a Violet produced in one Man’s Mind by his Eyes, were the same that a Marigold produces in another Man’s, and vice versâ.
I know what you’re thinking: at five, I had a better grasp of the English language than Locke. At the least, I didn’t capitalize letters like a crazy person. But don’t worry: I won’t make you slog through lots of pas- sages from long-dead philosophers. The point of this book is that anyone can do philosophy and every kid does. If a kindergartner can do philosophy without reading Locke, we can too.
But we did read Locke, so let’s see if we can make sense of it. What was he on about? There are lots of mysteries lurking in that short passage: about the nature of colors, about the nature of consciousness, and about the difficulty—or perhaps impossibility—of capturing some of our experiences in words. We’ll think about some of those mysteries later on. But the last one points toward an even bigger worry: that other people’s minds are, in a fundamental sense, closed to us.
Other people might see the world differently than we do, and not just in the metaphorical sense that they might have different opinions about controversial topics. They might actually see the world differently. If I could pop into your head—see through your eyes, with your brain—I might discover that everything is, from my perspective, topsy-turvy. Stop signs might look blue; the sky might look red. Or perhaps the differences would be more subtle—off by a shade, or a bit more vibrant. But since I can’t pop in, I can’t know what the world looks like to you. I can’t even know what it looks like to the people I know best: my wife and kids.
And that is a lonely thought. If Locke is right, then we are, in an important sense, trapped in our own heads, cut off from other people’s experiences. We can guess what they’re like. But we can’t know.
I don’t think it’s an accident that this thought occurs to many kindergarten-aged kids. Kids that age are working hard to understand other people—to learn to read their minds. You won’t make it very far in the world if you can’t figure out what other people think. We have to be able to anticipate other people’s actions, and their reactions to our actions. To do that, kids are constantly generating and testing theories about the beliefs, intentions and motivations of those around them. They wouldn’t put it that way, of course. It’s not something they do reflectively. But neither was dropping their sippy cup from their high chair, even though that too was an experiment—in physics and psychology. (It fell every time, and someone always picked it up.)
I don’t know why I was thinking about colors that day in kindergarten. But what I discovered—simply by thinking it through—was a limit on my capacity to read other people’s minds. I could learn a lot about my mother’s beliefs, motivations, and intentions just by watching the way she behaved. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t learn whether red looked to her the way it looked to me.
We’ll return to this problem. As I said, it’s a window into some of the deepest mysteries about the world. Kids peer through that window all the time. Most adults have forgotten that it’s even there.
People are skeptical when I say that kids peer through that window. Sure, you came up with the shifted color spectrum, they say. But you turned out to be a philosopher. That’s not a normal thing for a kid to do. I might have believed them if I didn’t have kids myself. I’ve got two boys: Hank, whom you’ve already met, and Rex, who’s a few years older. By the time Rex was three, he was saying things that implicated philosophical issues, even if he didn’t yet see them himself.
As the kids got older, philosophy was right on the surface of what they said. One day, Julie asked Hank (then eight) what he wanted for lunch, and she gave him two options: a quesadilla or a hamburger left over from the night before. Hank was tortured by the choice—you’d
think we’d asked him which parent to save from certain death. 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 prepunishment—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’ll 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.
I do that a lot when I teach. I share a story about my kids that illustrates the issues we’re talking about. Then we debate whether the kids are right in what they say. I do that when I talk with my colleagues too, since the kids give me such great examples. By now, Rex and Hank are famous among philosophers of law.
For years, people would tell me that my kids weren’t normal—that they were doing philosophy because they have a philosopher for a dad. I didn’t think so. Often their ideas came out of nowhere; they didn’t track any conversations we’d had. One night at dinner, four-year-old Rex wondered whether he’d been dreaming his entire life. Philosophers have asked that question for ages. But none of them had ever put it to Rex—or even discussed it around him. (We’ll take up the question in chapter 8, when we inquire i to the nature of knowledge.) If there was a difference
between my kids and others, I thought, it was down to the fact that I noticed when they were doing philosophy—and encouraged it.
My view was confirmed when I discovered the work of Gareth Matthews, a philosopher who dedicated most of his career to kids. He passed away in 2011, when Rex was just one. I never met him, but I wish I’d gotten the chance, because Matthews knew more about kids’ philosophical abilities than anyone else.
Matthews’s interest started the way mine did. His kid said something philosophical. Their cat, Fluffy, had fleas, and Sarah (age four) asked how she got them.
Fleas must have jumped from another cat onto Fluffy, Matthews told her.
“How did that cat get fleas?” Sarah asked.
They must have come from a different cat, Matthews said.
“But Daddy,” Sarah insisted, “it can’t go on and on like that forever; the only thing that goes on and on like that forever is numbers!”
At the time, Matthews was teaching a class that covered the Cosmological Argument, which aims to show that God exists. There are many versions of the argument, some quite complicated. But the basic idea is simple: Every event has a cause. But that can’t continue back forever. So there must be a First Cause, which was itself uncaused. Some say that’s God—most famously, Thomas Aquinas.
The argument has problems. Why does the cha n of causes have to come to an end? Perhaps the universe is eternal—endless in both directions. And even if there was a First Cause, why think it was God? But it doesn’t matter whether the argument works. (We’ll ask whether God exists in chapter 12.) The point is simply to see that Sarah reproduced its logic. “Here I am teaching my university students the argument for a First Cause,” Matthews wrote, “and my four-year-old daughter comes up, on her own, with an argument for the First Flea!”
That caught Matthews off guard, since he knew a little developmental psychology. According to Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist famous for his theory of cognitive development, Sarah should have been in the pre-operational stage, so called because kids in it can’t yet use logic.* But Sarah’s logic was exquisite—far more compelling than the Cosmological Argument. Whatever you make of an infinite regress of causes, it’s hard to imagine an infinite regress of cats.
Okay, I can hear you say: Matthews is yet another philosopher with a philosophical kid. That doesn’t tell us much about kids in general. But Matthews didn’t stop with his kids. He talked to people who weren’t philosophers—and heard many similar stories about their kids. Then he started to visit schools to talk to more kids himself. He’d read stories that raised philosophical questions to the kids—then he’d listen to the debate that ensued.
My favorite of Matthews’s stories came from the mother of a little boy named Ian. While Ian and his mother were at home, another family came to visit, and the family’s three kids monopolized the television, keeping Ian from seeing his favorite show. After they left, he 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 what to watch to a vote? Is counting selfish kids a good way to settle the question?
I don’t think so. Had Ian been my child, I would have explained that we let guests choose what to watch because they’re guests—not because there are more of them. It’s a way of showing hospitality, so we’d do just the same even if the numbers were switched.
What about democracy? We’ll think about it later on, since Rex thinks our family ought to be one. For now, I’ll just say: Democracy shouldn’t be a way of summing people’s selfish preferences. Voters ought to be public-spirited. They should seek to promote the common good—and impor- tant values, like justice and fairness—not their own individual interests. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in democracy, even when it doesn’t live up to that ideal. But I stand with Ian in thinking that more people acting selfishly is just more selfishness—and not a good way to make decisions.
Ian’s mother was confused by his question. She had no idea how to answer. And I suspect most adults would find themselves just as 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.”
At least, it is for the littlest kids. Matthews found that “spontaneous excursions into philosophy” were common between the ages of three and seven. By eight or nine, kids seem to slow down, publicly if not pri- vately. It’s hard to say why. It may be that their interests shift, or that they feel pressure from peers or parents to stop asking childish questions. Still, Matthews found it easy to prompt philosophical conversations among kids that age and older—and he was struck by the clever ways in which they reasoned. Indeed, Matthews claimed that, in some ways, kids are better philosophers than adults.