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Thought experiments for kids
July 24, 2010 2:01 PM   Subscribe

I like to ask my kids interesting, but age appropriate, ethical and epistemological questions while we sit around the dinner table. Help me think of some more.

I have two kids who enjoy this kind of talk. They are 9 and 12. I have asked them, for example, how they know that they are not just brains in vats that are being probed by scientists. (They loved that one). Would they steal medicine to save their sick child? Why? How about a sick stranger? If they met Hitler when he was four years old would they kill him? And a few others.

Remembering that they are kids, can you think of other interesting, conversation starting, challenging questions that I could bring up with them? If they are tied to current events that would probably be good, but thought experiments of all kinds are welcome.

Thanks.
posted by crapples to Religion & Philosophy (54 answers total) 157 users marked this as a favorite
 
McDonald's is better than nothing.
Nothing is better than meatballs.
Therefore, McDonald's is better than meatballs.

Explain.

[A friend of mine did this to his son, who loved meatballs. His head duly exploded.]
posted by forza at 2:09 PM on July 24, 2010 [10 favorites]


I don't know if it's still available in stores, but there used to be a game called A Question of Scruples that had questions like these written on cards. It sold pretty well, so I'd bet you could turn up a copy at a thrift store or on eBay pretty easily.
posted by MegoSteve at 2:09 PM on July 24, 2010


Would you rather travel back in time, or into the future? Why? And, if into the past, which specific time period?
posted by invisible ink at 2:10 PM on July 24, 2010


Other possibilities:

Trolley car problems

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Define "game" (from Wittgenstein) - or basically anything. The point is to realise that you can't really come up with good definitions to anything.

How do you know that when you see "green" and I see "green", they are the same colour "green"? Maybe green to me looks like red does to you, but we've both just learned to call it the same thing?
posted by forza at 2:12 PM on July 24, 2010


Unless they've been raised to hold an opinion toward one side or the other, I find the "who has the right to be here?" question of the Israel/Palestine conflict to be a genuinely interesting and challenging debate.
posted by griphus at 2:13 PM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


(Of course they're kids, so you might have to do some world-building and simplifying for them to get to the root of the question.)
posted by griphus at 2:14 PM on July 24, 2010


This isn't dinner table conversation, but watch back to the future with them. I know it sounds cheezy but I had a blast watching my daughter's brain explode as she tried to work out the timeline and time travel in her head. She ended up wanting to watch the entire series. In the meantime, here are some more questions:

1. How do we know that what I call "green" actually looks different to you, but you've learned it as green.

2. Does God exist? Explain.
posted by allthewhile at 2:17 PM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


When I was a kid our family had a little paperback full of questions like this. I believe it was this book, or something exactly like it.
posted by Sara C. at 2:19 PM on July 24, 2010


similar to brain-in-a-vat: how can you prove your memory works?
posted by resiny at 2:21 PM on July 24, 2010


I think I've posted about it here before, but I like playing the "opposite game" with kids. For example, you could ask, "What is the opposite of ice cream?" And the answer could be a lizard, the sky, the desert, wood, Argentina, etc. depending on how someone wants to think about it.
posted by unknowncommand at 2:22 PM on July 24, 2010 [7 favorites]


The Book of Stupid Questions.

My favorite (though not really all that age appropriate): Have you ever committed adultery in your heart, have you ever seen a UFO, have you ever been attacked by a killer rabbit.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 2:23 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Some Moral Dilemmas

A few from Listverse which have the added advantage of comments from others to shape possible answers from the children.
posted by markx2 at 2:28 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


How do you know that everybody else in the world isn't a zombie (or a computer) - i.e., has no actual interior life of their own, and is just programmed to simulate someone who does?
posted by forza at 2:34 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you die instantaneously, how do you know you're dead? (This may sound morbid but actually originated from a six year old)
posted by keasby at 2:37 PM on July 24, 2010


At that age, I used to read quite a bit of scifi so these were questions that entertained me (and if you’ve read this stuff, you can easily recognize where it comes from and it is not novel or new– but the first time I thought of these things as a child, really challenged me):
• If you went back on time, and stepped on a bug, and came back to the future, would the world be different? What about a bunch of bugs? Small mammals? (Could there be a point where you would no longer exist in the future if you did this?)
• If you could send one thing to (life in) outer space to represent earth, what would that be? What if you could send symbols or record sounds, what would you write, record, etc?
• Pretend one country is winning or wins a war against another country. What would the written history be for the winning country? Losing country? (and can you extend that to wars you see now on the news? Think of it from each side. What about historic events?)
• Some disaster is going to happen and there is an underground shelter with enough food/resources for XXX people. Who should go in that shelter and why? (Doctors? Families? World leaders?)

• Can you introduce them to the idea of dimensions (first, second, third). What would it look like from the perspective of a first-dimension creature. What about second? What if a third dimension sphere moved through the second dimension, what would it look like to a second dimension creature? you may want to see the story flatlander if this last one doesn't make sense

posted by Wolfster at 2:39 PM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


How do you know you aren't in a Truman Show-style world? How do you know the world looks anything like you see on a world map when you couldn't possibly ever really verify it? How do you know you aren't crazy and everyone's not just trying to keep you from figuring it out?
posted by resiny at 2:43 PM on July 24, 2010


I think the biggest ethical dilemma faced by kids is when to tattle. Do you tell when someone takes one potato chip from someone's bag? What if they climb a fence into privite property to retrieve a ball? If it has No Trespassing signs? If it is a hazardous waste dump?

A second one is when they must try to return something found. A quarter on an empty street? An unmarked envelope with two bucks? One with a thousand dollars? Where is the line?
posted by Some1 at 2:44 PM on July 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Sorry if I am being pedantic, but I have to disagree with forza's statement that Wittgenstein argues that we cannot really come up with a good definition of anything. The philosophical point is that we cannot come up with a perfect definition of anything. We can certainly come up with good definitions. If we couldn't do that, we would never know what anybody else meant by the ill-defined words that they use.
posted by grizzled at 2:50 PM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


God, the Devil and the Perfect Pizza
posted by kch at 2:57 PM on July 24, 2010


How do you know that you're not dreaming right now? (Inspired by Inception)
posted by kylej at 3:06 PM on July 24, 2010


What are the responsibilities of a government to the people it governs?

When you help someone else, do you do it to make them feel good or to make yourself feel good? How can you be sure? And if it leads to the same result, is one better than the other? Why?

What rights should people be guaranteed by virtue of their being human? Why should other animals not also have these rights?

Why are curse words bad? Why is "dam" okay but "damn" a curse word, when they sound the same? If the answer is that the speaker's intent matters, then why is "darn" ok?

When is it morally correct to take another person's life? To punish, or only to prevent other people from dying? How sure do you have to be? If it's ok to take another person's life to protect your own, why is your life worth more than the other person's?

Can you think of anything that is always wrong or always right?

Why do many women wear make-up and many men don't?

When is it ok to restrict a person's freedom based on something they may do in the future, but have not yet done?

Which emotion is stronger: love or hatred? Why?

Where is the line between helping a group of people we think are oppressed and being disrespectful of their chosen culture? Can a person's culture really be chosen, especially if it is oppressive? Might people from these cultures see our own culture as oppressive in a way we don't? (An appropriate starting point might be a discussion about various countries' approaches to Muslim women wearing the veil.)
posted by sallybrown at 3:19 PM on July 24, 2010 [9 favorites]


The book that got me interested in this kind of thing when I was young was What Does It All Mean? by Thomas Nagel. Each chapter is devoted to a major philosophical question. For instance: If you take the pie instead of the fruit, did you choose freely? (If they say yes, what does that mean? That you "could have" picked the fruit, right? But you didn't choose the fruit...)

Here's another book that might be useful.

More off the top of my head:

What happens when we die? How do you know?

Is it ever OK to kill someone who's suffering?

If your friend is on their deathbed and you promise to burn all their money after they die (because your friend thinks money is evil and likes the idea of burning it), do you need to keep the promise? (If they say, "Of course you always have to keep your promises": but what if you could give it a charity that would help people with it? Your friend would never find out what you did..., etc.)

A scientist just invented a pleasure machine -- you can hook yourself up to it and you'll experience a virtual reality where you feel good all the time. Once you do this, you can't get out -- the whole rest of your life will feel good all the time, but it won't be real. Would you do it? Why? Is this a hard choice or an easy choice?

Is it good to forgive someone? To "forgive" someone means you're not upset with them and you don't punish them, right? But you can only "forgive" someone who did something wrong. If someone has done something wrong, don't they deserve for you to be upset with them or to punish them? So forgiving them would be treating them better than they deserve. How can that be the right thing to do? (This is from the entry called "forgiveness, paradox of" in Simon Blackburn's Dictionary of Philosophy, which could be a good source for more of these.)

You're the leader of a country at war, and the war is killing millions of people. You could end the war by nuking a whole city in the enemy's country, which would kill everyone in the city. The population of the city is much less than the number of people who would otherwise die if the war kept going. (Say, 100,000 vs. 10 million.) Should you nuke the city?

Zeno's paradox: In order for a bug to travel from one side of a room to the other, it first needs to go halfway across the room, right? Then, similarly, it needs to go 3/4 of the way (half of the second half of the trip) before reaching the other side, right? And then it needs to go halfway through the last quarter of the trip (7/8 of the way) before reaching the other side, right? You can keep doing this forever, always dividing the last section in half. Doesn't that mean there's always one more thing the bug has to do before reaching the other side? And doesn't that mean the bug can never reach the other side?

Is it wrong to sell a painting that you tell people was painted by Picasso when it was really painted by an unknown artist? What if it looks exactly like a real Picasso painting except a little better, and you sell it for only $1 million, whereas the real Picasso would sell for $5 million? Isn't the customer getting a great deal -- much better than if they bought the real Picasso (a slightly worse painting) for 5 times as much as you're selling this painting for? How can it be wrong to give someone a great deal? (This simultaneously raises ethics -- what actions count as wrong? -- and aesthetics -- how can one thing have much more value than something else if they're almost identical?)

Say there's a ship made of 100 wooden planks. You take off plank #1, then replace it with a new plank. You do the same for all the planks, one by one. Is it still the "same ship" as the one you started out with? (More complex variant: while you're doing this, you also use the original planks and build them into a ship. Is that ship the "same" as the original one? It doesn't seem like both ships could be the same as the original ship, because that would mean that two ships are one ship!)

What if all the molecules that make up your body today are different from the ones that made up your body 7 years ago (which is supposedly true)? Are you still the "same person"?

Wikipedia lists self-referential paradoxes -- some of them could be fun. For instance, "Is the answer to this question no?"
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:25 PM on July 24, 2010 [8 favorites]


What is art?
posted by mmascolino at 3:25 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


You could teach your kids the "Why?" game where the response to anything is "Why?" or has "Why?" added to the end of it. In particular, answers to the "Why?" question" is followed up with further "Why?"s . The rule is though that the person answering the Why? question has to make an good attempt at answering the Why? question in at least somewhat substantial way (it can be earnest or silly or both... it just can't be dismissive/too short/off-topic etc.) or they lose the round and are not allowed to ask "Why?" in response.

I promise you that this is a fun game for all involved which will surely edutainingly while away many long family quality time hours.
posted by Bwithh at 3:35 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Try some of the old-school philosophy arguments on them - explain Plato's "forms" and then ask if he makes sense and why. I discovered through my younger siblings that most of Philosophy 101 is highly accessible to bright 4th graders.
posted by SMPA at 4:04 PM on July 24, 2010


Don't forget to ask your kids for ideas too. If they enjoy these conversations, I bet they have some of their own that might surprise you!

...I have to say, this is SO much cooler than the way my dad used to try and spring math problems on me all the time at that age.
posted by Caravantea at 4:26 PM on July 24, 2010


Is God a Taoist by Raymond Smullyan is a wonderful exchange between a man and God about free will, very thought provoking. The Tao is Silent is even closer to your question, since it specifically targets morality as opposed to free will in general.

I would also suggest The Cave by Plato as right down the epistemological alley.

But perhaps these are too advanced for kids (you be the judge).
posted by forthright at 4:30 PM on July 24, 2010


How do you know you are still you? That you weren't stolen by aliens overnight and replaced with an automaton, that you aren't brand new and have implanted memories, etc.? The persistence of self, basically -- what makes you you and how do you know you persist? If you DON'T know you persist, does responsibility for one's actions/punishment make sense? How do you know others persist? They could all disappear as soon as you stop looking at them.

Pascal's Wager would work; also Hume's argument that miracles are a terrible argument for God's existence.

What is a person? If dolphins could talk (to us), would they be people? Aliens? Automatons? Superintelligent computers in boxes? Or only ones that looked like humans? Sign-language-using apes?

Should an elected official vote the way the majority of his constituents want him to vote, or the way, in his best judgment, that is the right way to vote? (And what effect does this have on budgets? LOL)

If you are given a secret to keep, when is it all right to break that promise? What kinds of secrets are good for society? (doctor-patient confidentiality, marital privilege, etc.) What kinds of secrets are bad for society? (abuse, etc.) If a student is suspended for bringing a knife to school or trying to sell weed at school, should that be a secret? Why or why not? If a teacher or principal is fired, should people have the right to know why? Why or why not? Does it matter if they're fired for being bad at their job vs. fired for doing something "morally" wrong? (Looking at porn on school computers, laundering money through school accounts, etc.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:35 PM on July 24, 2010


I loved the book aha! Gotcha by Martin Gardner as a kid.

When I was nine and maybe even younger, my mother would discuss or explain anything about politics with me if I asked. (Thanks to Bloom County, I did ask.) I highly recommend this in general.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:40 PM on July 24, 2010


The Heinz dilemma, which you can use to rate what stage of moral development their in.

In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. the drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $400 for the radium and charged $4,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money and tried every legal means, but he could only get together about $2,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying, and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from if." So, having tried every legal means, Heinz gets desperate and considers breaking into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife.

1. Should Heinz steal the drug?

1a. Why or why not?

2. Is it actually right or wrong for him to steal the drug?

2a. Why is it right or wrong?


You can ask every 2-3 years and see how the reasoning (more important than the answers) changes over time.
posted by jander03 at 4:43 PM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


You haven't been born yet, and you get to decide if you want to be born. You could be born anywhere and to any parents, and there are no assurances about what the conditions of your life will be. You get to talk to someone who has lived and ask him questions to help you decide. What do you ask?

You can have one child be the person who answers the questions (and knows what life is) and the other be the one that hasn't been born yet, and you can intrude on the dialogue to set them right when they deviate from the premise of what they are supposed to know. You can hold back and then enter the dialogue as a second unborn person with more questions that might not have been noticed.

It's especially fun to see what the child understands about the world -- whether life is good for everyone and when life is worse than no life, how favorable the odds need to be before you accept the risk, and so forth.
posted by Alizaria at 4:45 PM on July 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Can computers actually think?
posted by CrunchyFrog at 5:04 PM on July 24, 2010


Similar to forza and resiny's questions:

If there were two universes, one with real people and one with simulations, would you have a preference re: which one to live in? Why or why not? Assume you would never know the difference in any way at all. Simulated love would feel identical to real love, etc...
posted by papayaninja at 5:06 PM on July 24, 2010


I like Infinite God paradoxes. They play on the common attribution of "infinite X" to deities, and the logical conundra that arise from infinities.

For example: If being "just" means giving out the appropriate punishment for wrongdoing, and being "merciful" means forgoing appropriate punishment for wrongdoing, how can God be capable of both infinite justice and infinite mercy?

Along the same lines, given that there is suffering in the world, how can God be all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving at the same time and still allow suffering to exist? (It's similar to the classic "quick/cheap/good" triangle - you can only have two.)

Also, if the other person agrees that God cannot be limited, i.e. is absolute in all things, then ask if God can be an asshole. You may temper your language for the little ones, but if they say no, God can only be loving/kind/generous, whatever, then you can ask why they're trying to limit God when only a moment ago they said God could not be limited.

And then there's the "Can God create a rock so heavy that God cannot lift it?" question. Classic. I'm sure some silver-tongued theologian has already crafted clever answers to all of these, but it'll do an eleven year-old kid good to think about them on his or her own.
posted by MShades at 5:10 PM on July 24, 2010


So many great responses! Thanks a lot - I really appreciate the book recommendations too (I just ordered The Kids Book of Questions... Thanks, Sara C).

Really great stuff from everyone though - I will use nearly everything on this whole page. Thanks for being so thoughtful about this question! My kids will thank you too someday (maybe).
posted by crapples at 5:15 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why are curse words bad? Why is "dam" okay but "damn" a curse word, when they sound the same? If the answer is that the speaker's intent matters, then why is "darn" ok?

I got in serious trouble with my little brother's mom for asking him this question. The context was that our dad had told him to delete the songs on his iPod that had curse words in them, and I argued that in order for him to do that he already had to know what the curse words were, and therefore deleting them to protect his "innocence" etc, was pointless. Then I asked my brother this question.

One question that really blew my mind when I was six-ish (and probably led to me growing up to be a linguist) is "What language do people who don't speak English think in?" and "Do you actually think in the language you speak? If you didn't speak any language, how would you still think?"

I think it's great that you're doing this with your kids!
posted by shesdeadimalive at 5:51 PM on July 24, 2010


Some things are interesting, but others are boring. Think of some interesting things. Now think of some boring things. What do you think the most boring thing in the world is?

OK.

But if it's the most boring thing, doesn't that make it interesting? So we need a new "most boring thing in the world". What do you think it is?

OK.

But if it's the most boring thing, doesn't that make it interesting? So we need a new "most boring thing in the world".

...
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:53 PM on July 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


If you're going to use the Heinz Dilemma with Kohlberg's stages of moral development, you should also use Gilligan's feminist theory response to it which alleges that Kohlberg's stages are sexist and privilege patriarchal models and ignore modes of reasoning that are characteristically female in our society.

http://www.ucs.mun.ca/~alatus/2800a/Feminism.html
(scroll down to Gilligan's response)

Also here.

Regardless of what you think of Gilligan's theory (I'm not a huge fan of the ethics of caring), Kohlberg is predisposed to see the little girls in his study as less morally developed than the little boys, and interprets his findings in that light.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:57 PM on July 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


Given that some animals recognize their loved ones after a long absence, have their own languages, and so forth, should human rights be extended to apes? whales and dolphins? your family pet? Since in our current system, people have to pay for their own houses, how do we make sure that animals have land to live on? How do we know if they have enough land?
posted by salvia at 6:30 PM on July 24, 2010


Define "game" (from Wittgenstein) - or basically anything

Another fun one is "chair." The dialogue might go something like this:

"You know what a chair is, right?"

"Of course."

"So, if you know what a chair is, then you must be able to tell me what it is, right?"

"Sure, that's easy: a chair is something you sit on."

"Wait a minute. Have you ever sat on a floor? Have you ever sat on your bed?"

"Yeah..."

"And you could sit on a lot of things: a backpack, a table, a beach ball ... Maybe you've never sat on those, but I'll bet someone has, right?"

"Yeah.

"But are any of those things chairs?"

"No."

"So a chair isn't just something you sit on, is it?"

"Well, a chair is something you sit on that looks like a chair."

"But you can't use the word 'chair' in your definition of 'chair.'"

"OK, fine: a chair is an object with four poles called legs that go on the floor, and there's a flat surface on top of the legs that you can sit on, and there's a back to rest your back on."

"But haven't you ever seen a beanbag chair?"

etc.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:50 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Great question! Here is one that was actually taught to me by a kid:

If G-d is all powerful and is capable of doing anything, is he capable of making a rock that is too heavy for him to lift?
posted by JoannaC at 7:38 PM on July 24, 2010


Jaltcoh said: You're the leader of a country at war, and the war is killing millions of people. You could end the war by nuking a whole city in the enemy's country, which would kill everyone in the city. The population of the city is much less than the number of people who would otherwise die if the war kept going. (Say, 100,000 vs. 10 million.) Should you nuke the city?

I like this question, but it seems like a bit of a "no brainer" to me (then again, perhaps it's not to somebody else, which is why it's interesting). It's the question of for the greater good vs. ethics of not killing, etc. BUT I think it would then be interesting to follow up with a question like: "Now, what if your parents were in that city...would that change your answer? Why?" and then discussing moral relativity, etc. (those people could be somebody else's parents, etc.).

Anyways, very interesting topic and I think it's really cool that you do this with your kids, crapples.
posted by 1000monkeys at 10:24 PM on July 24, 2010


Time travel! This (very) short Fredric Brown story would be a good kid-accessible paradox to discuss.
posted by everybody polka at 11:27 PM on July 24, 2010


I like this question, but it seems like a bit of a "no brainer" to me (then again, perhaps it's not to somebody else, which is why it's interesting).

Oh, I don't think all Americans are in favor of our decision to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, which was the basis of my hypo. (I just left out the historical context so there's no option of questioning whether the description is accurate.) If we were to poll Metafilter about it, how many people do you think would support it? I'll bet most would be against it.

Anyway, I just gave the numbers I did as examples -- you're free to tweak them so it's a harder case. Say, 100,000 vs. 200,000 people dying. OK, you still think that's easy? There has to be some number that makes it hard -- how about 100,000 vs. 100,001?

The fact that you think it's a no-brainer shows your ethics. It's basically a larger-scale version of the aforementioned "trolley" problem. I've been in philosophy classroom discussions where people debated whether you should divert the trolley to run over 1 person or allow it to continue on its track to kill 5 people. In my experience, most people say you should do the passive thing, even though you know it will kill more people, simply to avoid taking a more active role in killing people. I assume you think this is obviously wrong, and I agree with you. I remember defending the view against a whole bunch of students who fervently supported not acting. They just said things like, "But if you killed the person, you wouldn't be able to sleep at night."
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:38 AM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Oh, I don't think all Americans are in favor of our decision to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, which was the basis of my hypo."

Paul Fussell wouldn't have been so strident in "Thank God for the Atomic Bomb" (1981) if all Americans did.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:23 AM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's a favorite of mine that I've mentioned before somewhere on the Filters. It's not really a question, but a conversation starter... or ender...

It's probably safe to assume that once quantum computing, etc. comes online we'll have lots and lots of computing power to play with. Essentially infinite at some point. It's also probably safe to assume that once we (or some conscious beings) are capable of modeling consciousness in a computer, we will. And on a massive scale, given the computing power that will be available and the huge number that would be necessary to get a good sample size compared to what's already out there. Trillions. If this ever happens in any reality, since there have only been around 100 billion humans, the odds are that your consciousness is simulated.

Also, the old one about sacrificing one to save another. A train is coming toward a fork in the track. On the branch it's currently set to follow, there is one man standing, oblivious. On the other, five people, also oblivious. Do you switch the tracks to save the lone man? Probably not. What if the track was set to hit the group of people? Would you switch the track, killing the single man to save five? Why? What's the difference?
posted by cmoj at 8:30 AM on July 25, 2010


If sound cannot travel in a vacuum, why are vacuum cleaners so noisy?
posted by Wet Spot at 12:14 PM on July 25, 2010


You could ask something similar to this video, which shows that we generally assume that someone is only indirectly responsible when something bad happens...it explains it much better than I can.

The Chinese Room experiment. If someone gives you cards with Chinese characters on them, and how to put them together, and you put them together correctly; could you say you know Chinese?

Online philosophy games.

How do you know that while we think we are progressing in science, we're not really coming up with truths, but with things that work practically (ultimately hitting a dead-end when we happen to find something that goes against everything we ever thought...just like Copernican theory overran Newton or non-Euclidean geometry overran Euclidean)?

I wish I could have worded these really interesting concepts in a better way...it's 1:15 AM!
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 10:15 PM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


So many great questions in this thread!

However, the most meaningful questions in anyone's life have to do with the things that person faces every day. These are also the most dangerous questions. Asking about whether we all see green the same way isn't likely to make you enemies.

Someone above mentioned the ethics of tattling. Discussing THAT is more likely to get you into trouble. As a kid (and as an adult), I was very attracted to troublesome questions. Pondering them (and discussing them) made me who I am today. But not without a lot of strife. So ... you've been warned!

- What is the purpose of school (not in the abstract -- what is the purpose of your kids' school)? Is it to educate or socialize (or some mixture -- and, if so, what percentage of your kids' schooling is social indoctrination and what is education).

If school is largely about socializing, is this a good thing? How is a school most likely to deal with people who are different? How should a school deal with them? If a school is educating people, what does that mean? Does it mean giving them knowledge and skills that will stay with them all their lives? If so, why is there such an emphasis on ephemeral stuff like getting an A on the Algebra test. If you're brave, let your kids ask your random questions from their Algebra, Biology, History (etc.) textbooks. How much of their educations do adults remember? Is it important that they remember it?

What are some other forms of schools that might exist? (Hint: research Summerhill) What would be their plusses and minuses?

- Do parents have the right (ethical, not legal -- obviously the have the legal right) to make decisions for their kids? Dispense with safety and health stuff. Most people -- even most kids -- agree that parents have the right to stop their kids from playing in traffic. But what if Mom and Dad want to spend the summer in Maine and the kid doesn't? What, if anything, gives the parents the right to force the kid to go?

Listen to this (mp3) with your kids. Ignore the fact that it's from a Libertarian podcast. Just listen and discuss the challenges it poses to traditional sorts of parenting.
posted by grumblebee at 8:14 AM on July 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


Maybe present them with a version of the Liar's Paradox? It may be a bit abstract for younger kids, but it's fairly easy to present.

MegoSteve suggested the Scruples game earlier in the thread. I'd like to throw in a caution to take a close look at the questions if you go this route. Early versions of the game look rather dated in retrospect.
posted by owls at 9:01 AM on July 26, 2010


Machiavelli! If you are the king of a country would you rather be loved or feared?
posted by bendy at 11:32 PM on July 26, 2010


What a great question. So many good answers in this thread, too! Most of the age-appropriate thought experiments or philosophical teasers I can think of have been mentioned.

I think Newcomb's Problem could be made simple enough to explain to children. They might not see why it's interesting though.

You can draw pictures of things, like a picture of a car. You can even draw pictures of pictures, like a picture of a picture of a car. Is it possible to draw a picture that is a picture of itself? Ideas are about things. Can there be an idea that is about itself? (Then, if you have a phone with GPS, fire up Google Maps and ask what the dot represents. Your location? No, because you can walk away from the phone. It represents the location of itself. That always seems to blow peoples' minds.)

Could there be a language of tastes? Of smells?

Why are there tornados, hurricanes, and other natural disasters? (Kids attribute telos to everything; might as well push them on some hard cases.)

What would the world look like to a 2D being? (Is it possible to explain Flatland to young children? I have no idea.)

Why are you you? Why aren't you someone else?

Is anything totally impossible?

Is there anything so small that nothing could be smaller? If you keep cutting a potato in half, would you eventually hit bottom, or could you keep cutting the pieces in half forever?

How do you know that you dream when you sleep? Maybe you just get a bunch of memories of dreaming as soon as you wake up.

I like the idea of picking a concept like 'game' or 'chair' and trying to get them to come up with necessary and sufficient conditions. Might as well wean them off any delusions of an analytic-synthetic distinction at a young age.

Could the gavagai thought experiment work? Imagine a native points to a rabbit and says 'Gavagai'. How could you determine that the word means 'rabbit' and not something else like 'part of a rabbit that hasn't been removed' or 'a small part of the Great Rabbit, composed of all smaller rabbits'?

J. J. Thompson: imagine that people reproduced by sending out spores. You cover all your windows with mesh to keep the spores out, but the wind accidentally tears a hole in the screen and a spore gets in so that a person starts growing in your carpet. Do you have a responsibility to care for the fetus growing in your carpet for nine months, or is it OK for you to throw the carpet and spore out, seeing as you didn't ask for the spore and did everything reasonable to keep it away?

Is there anything so fast that nothing could be faster? What if you were traveling on the fastest thing and threw a ball in front of you?
posted by painquale at 11:48 PM on July 26, 2010


If you were a robot, would you want to know?
And if not, how do you know you're not one?
posted by Sutekh at 5:36 AM on July 27, 2010


I think Newcomb's Problem could be made simple enough to explain to children. They might not see why it's interesting though.

Oh, if you can make it simple enough, it's definitely interesting. There was a long article about it in Slate (headline: "Newcomb's Problem still flummoxes the great philosophers"), and it was one of the more interesting topics in one of my philosophy classes in college. I think the correct answer is clear, but apparently it's controversial, and your answer will say a lot about how your mind works.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:39 AM on July 27, 2010


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