I just listened to a really interesting episode of Philosophy Now from 2011, in which Peter Worley from the Philosophy Foundation enables a little philosophical discussion with a group of 8-year-olds. His approach was simple and effective. He constructed a little figure out of handy objects (a ball, a notebook and 4 pencils) and laid it on the carpet:
He asks, "How many things do we have here?"
The kids discuss it, and Worley expertly facilitates a discussion of concepts among the children, without imposing philosophical cannon or anything heavy-handed like that. In short order, the kids come up with so many ideas that are the seeds of really important topics:
- This might be “thousands” of objects if we count all the “atoms and molecules”.
- We might decide if this is “one” or “six” objects based on whether they are attached together… and this might change over time.
- Since we have “notebooks”, “balls”, and “pencils”, maybe the answer is that we have “three” things here.
- If we count all four pencils as one object, do they have to be identical? What exactly do we mean by identical?
- If we count each of the “thousand” atoms, perhaps we should say there are “a thousand and six” things, counting the pencils, book and ball as well as the atoms they are made of.
I’m rephrasing, but each of these ideas came from one of the kids in the discussion! It’s really interesting to hear some young interpretations of what it means to say that objects are made of atoms (One boy put it that he was made of atoms “on the inside”, but he was still a person).
But in the talk of whether pencils and stationary-figures count as objects separate from their constituent atoms, I can hear echoes of the modern Mind/Brain debates about what is to be counted as “real”.
I don’t know if I have an objective reason for feeling philosophy is so important, but to hear philosophical curiosity in this children made me smile is spite of myself as I listened.