Working through daughter's existential crisis
June 11, 2018 3:03 AM   Subscribe

How can I help my daughter work though her philosophical crisis?

Hi all! my daughter is ten and has autism. She thinks DEEPLY about things but sometimes can be constrained by a bit of rigidity and a need for concrete answers (understandable). For example, she's told me recently that how can we know if anything is real, if the Greeks thought they gods were real, but now we don't? This is causing her to be unhappy and feel a bit as if real life is pointless and only youtube/books etc are 'real'. We do discuss things a bit but she can be a bit rigid in her arguing too so the discussions don't go anywhere.

Can anyone offer me any books/tv/advice/etc for kids about philosophy, or otherwise confronting these kind of questions? For autistic kids would be ideal, but otherwise for NT fine. Thanks!
posted by low_horrible_immoral to Religion & Philosophy (25 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Bright kid. She's hit on some big questions.

The point about how the the ancient Greeks thought their gods were real is essentially the payoff to my all-time favourite piece of short & fairly easily consumable philosophical writing, which is Two Dogmas of Empiricism by WVO Quine. I don't necessarily recommend it as general reading, and certainly not for a 10yo, because it assumes a certain amount of knowledge of & investment in controversies in 20th-century philosophy. I mention it because it's a very profound insight that she's had there.

The ancient Greeks certainly did think their gods were real, and that everyday occurrences in your everyday life were best explained in terms of what the gods were doing up on Mt Olympus that day. In our time, we have entirely different basic grounds of explanation - like, physical laws that affect certain independent entities that are out there in the universe - atoms & the forces between them, for example. Quine's point in Two Dogmas is essentially that those explanations in terms of atoms & forces play exactly the same role for us that explanations in terms of the moodswings of the gods did for the ancient Greeks - gods and atoms are both inferred as theoretical posits, whose purpose is to make the rest of our whole explanatory framework hang together nicely.

So where does that leave you in terms of what kind of stuff Really Exists? Yeah, not necessarily in a good place. But what's your goal here? Do you want a catalogue of the basic stuff of the universe, or do want a successful & practically useful way of going on in the world?

Even if we don't know exactly what kinds of basic ontological stuff they might ultimately comprise, we certainly know - via our everyday experience of living in the world - that certain things are Real For Us. Ourselves and our feelings & experiences - our loved ones, and their feelings & experiences - our pets - our friends - our neighbours - our classmates - our toys - our actions & their consequences. Those are the things we're operating with in everyday life, and those are the things that are Real For Us. Ultimate questions about atoms and/or gods on Mt Olympus are interesting in theory (very interesting for me, possibly also for your daughter) - but we don't need definitive answers to those questions before we can decide how to go on in the world, embedded as we already are in the middle of a whole bunch of stuff that's Real For Us.

So, maybe that's how I'd try to get to this. Acknowledge & respect her questions about the fundamental grounds of being, and how those questions have been puzzling the very cleverest people for 1000s of years - but also keep in the foreground the practical questions of existence, amongst the things & the people & the experiences & the feelings that are Real For Us.

Existing in the world is quite the adventure. I wish your daughter good luck & bon voyage.
posted by rd45 at 3:26 AM on June 11, 2018 [23 favorites]

You could also backtrack a bit chronologically and talk to her about the fascinating "Fort/Da" period of very early childhood, when things you can't see don't exist, and when you see them again, they exist again. Most people get past that by learning some seriously complicated abstract thinking, which is also deeply linked to language, empathy &c. Just like the Greeks believed in their Gods but now we don't, when a small child's toy is gone it is ... gone. But when we've lost our car keys we know (or at least believe) that they still exist.
posted by chavenet at 3:46 AM on June 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Is she a reader? There are multiple philosophers who have struggled with the same question, each reaching a conclusion (mostly that we are real). There are non-fiction philosophy books for children, and also have a look at Sophie's World.

In the meantime, maybe buy her a Cogito, ergo sum t-shirt and ah, avoid The Matrix and Inception...
posted by DarlingBri at 3:55 AM on June 11, 2018 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Part of what's tripping her up may be that the culture in general has a pretty impoverished and rigid model of what it means to be "real," that inevitably runs into contradictions because it just doesn't match phenomenal experience. For various external cultural reasons, it's been convenient lately to collapse the spectrum of real things to a rigid binary of "Real True Facts (You Can See And Touch/Read About In The Newspaper)" vs. "Fairy Tales and Lies," but that's not how most premodern cultures would have articulated it. Believing that the gods and their deeds were real and true isn't the same as believing that they were material facts in the same way that the dish on your table is a material fact. (For instance, I'm not aware of anyone intelligent in that society trying to e.g. climb Mt. Olympus and actually spy on the gods at home; they understood that saying "the gods live on Mt. Olympus" could be true without meaning they'd be physically located at any given set of coordinates there).

We also retain lots of senses of the "real" that move beyond concrete empiricism, even though pop culture doesn't necessarily have the models to discuss them-- for instance, most of us feel that perfect circles, the number 2 and the color hot-pink are "real" things to us, even though these have absolutely no material existence. This is partly what rd45 is getting at, I think.

So if your daughter's underlying concern is "the Greeks were actually stupid and deluded about basic facts without knowing it, what if we are too?", you can reassure her that they had exactly the same solid sense of the basic material facts of existence that she does, but their reality was complex and so is hers, and that's OK. And maybe point out some of the richness and complexity in her own sense of reality (is her love for you "real"? is her memory of some early-but-now-gone vacation "real"? Do the variations in the nature of the "reality" of those things really mean that she needs to be confused about whether the dinner table in front of her is empirically real?).

Since she's 10, though, I'm guessing a big part of this may also be some self-centered anxiety about whether things will still be OK even if we're not sure about the nature of reality. If that's the case, then I'd strongly recommend lots of classical history, so she can read about all the remarkable things the Greeks discovered and accomplished. That may help to reassure her that people can still engage richly and successfully with everyday life while still having a complex sense of what's real-- the Greeks were fine, better than fine, and she will be too.
posted by Bardolph at 3:57 AM on June 11, 2018 [14 favorites]

I was also going to recommend Sophie's World, which does a great job of accessibly introducing the major philosophical traditions while the plot plays with the idea of multiple realities. I think you may perhaps want to read the book together, discussing the ideas in each chapter as you go along, as otherwise it can get a bit overwhelming. But I think it could be a really useful framework for your discussions, so that you have new ideas/people/characters/events to discuss each time and so don't just go in the same circle.
posted by Aravis76 at 4:00 AM on June 11, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Your daughter is right. At any given moment in time, we accept reality based on the information we have at hand. Over time, that information changes. It doesn't mean previous generations were ignorant, it just means they were working with what they knew. Knowledge grows, beliefs change--that IS history.

The philosophy you're looking for is historical perspective, which may be missing or glossed over in her current lessons. It sounds like she's learning static history--history presented as facts--but she's not learning how to think like a historian.

Thinking like a historian essentially means understanding that people draw conclusions based on the information they have at hand. When one considers scientific and cultural knowledge of the Ancient Greeks, it makes sense that they felt their lives were being directed by gods. Thinking like a historian means considering the cultural shifts that changed this--the patterns of invasion, war, money, religion, etc., that forced monotheism onto the Greeks.

Here's a bit of an article written for history teachers about the importance of teaching critical historical thinking skills. One the fun ways for your daughter to become an excellent student of history is to keep up with her inquiries and ask why would a civilization think this thing? What information were they working with? What was their culture like so this would make sense?
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 4:28 AM on June 11, 2018 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I would advise reading Sophie's World yourself first. It is a good accessible primer to various types of philosophical thought but I wonder whether the ending might not exacerbate your daughter's worries about how she knows if anything is real (I might be biased because it made so angry I wished I'd never read the book to start with...)
posted by *becca* at 4:28 AM on June 11, 2018 [7 favorites]

Cogito ergo sum. Descartes basically looked at the problem of how we know anything exists and decided the someone or something was asking the question, and therefore the someone or something exists. He worked out from there.

This approach may not satisfy everyone in philosophy grad school, but it is something a ten-tear-old can grasp.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:31 AM on June 11, 2018

Best answer: I'm autistic and this was a huge deal for me as a child. I also came to this question to say Sophie's World is great, but definitely don't finish the book: the postmodernists ruin everything. Go through to Hulme and Kant, and leave it there. If that's not possible, it might be best to leave it.
posted by ambrosen at 5:04 AM on June 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This doesn't sound like an existential crisis that arose from her reading of philosophy and therefore needs to be dealt with by the application of philosophy. This sounds like the "nothing matters" and "if everything is pointless I might as well just check out" kind of thinking that is entirely typical of depression and anxiety, as much as anything else, at exactly the sort of age where hormones are starting to set in and potentially encourage that kind of thing along.

It's one thing at that age to academically play with the idea of things not being actually real, it's another thing if it's making her feel unhappy and disinterested in anything but escapism, which I think warrants professional attention.
posted by Sequence at 5:15 AM on June 11, 2018 [13 favorites]

The sense that everything is pointless and that I can’t really know what is true is something that’s plagued me on and off most of my life. It lifts when I feel connected to others and do things that I find meaningful or enjoyable.
posted by bunderful at 5:26 AM on June 11, 2018 [5 favorites]

There is a Philosophy for Children movement that's resulted in a few books.

Richard Dawkins's book "The Magic of Reality" might explain the scientific method in an age-appropriate way.

If she thinks Youtube videos are more real than reality, perhaps Captain Disillusion, who discusses how videos are faked through visual effects (though sometimes he gets a bit too in-the-weeds on the details).
posted by amk at 5:43 AM on June 11, 2018

Regardless of the abstract philosophy, there's also the fact that all of us really are likely throughout life to believe various things that are not actually true. Sometimes these things are small, sometimes they're not so small.

Given that likelihood, how can we minimize negative outcomes?

Thinking about the Greeks is not a bad starting point for addressing that question. If an ancient Greek person was driven to help another person in the name of some god, or to encourage the development of philosophy and mathematics and art to please Athena et al, those are good consequences because of their (positive) effect on other people. If an ancient Greek person was driven to hurt another, or start a war, because of their beliefs, those are consequences that did damage to other people. Regardless of whether what they believed was real, their actions had consequences that affected others, sometimes continuing to affect others millennia later.

Whatever the nature of our reality - whether we're all a dream or a simulation or anything else - our actions do have tangible effects on ourselves and each other. To me, at least, that is the point of it all. It may not seem like enough to her, but on the other hand it might be enough to provide an anchor to the things that might feel most real to her (feelings, consequences, causality).

The question then would be, given that we live in a world so complex that none of us is likely to understand it accurately in its entirety, how do we deal with that, and how do we work to take actions whose consequences are more likely to do good than harm.
posted by trig at 6:36 AM on June 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Greeks didn't have the tools to understand everything, but a lot of the stuff they did have the tools for (say, math, basic engineering, and agriculture) still works exactly the way they understood it to work. There's a lot of stuff that we learn more and more about as our tools get better (say, calculus, computer aided structural engineering, and genetic engineering), but the basics known to the Greeks are still more or less true.

One way to approach this is that there's stuff that's too small to see (DNA, bacteria, or atoms, for instance) and there's stuff that's so big it's hard to see (the roundness of the Earth, or the workings of global phenomena like weather or plate tectonics). The Greeks relied on the Gods to explain forces that were too big or small to comprehend. As we've expanded our understanding of the world and the universe we've been able in many cases to add to what the Greeks knew, and in a few cases to replace mythology with science, but it took literally thousands of years to get to that point.

On the flip side, some ancient cultures had technology that was literally lost for centuries, like Roman concrete or the glazing of the bricks at the Ishtar Gate. Science has to be documented and communicated in order to survive.

And even now the weather forecast isn't 100% reliable, and we sort of understand plate tectonics (a theory which is less than a hundred years old) but we still can't predict earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Our tools aren't even good enough yet to give us a detailed map of the interior of the Earth. We know generally how it's assembled, but we can't pinpoint all the places where the crust is thin or the mantle is especially hot, or whatever. There's still a lot to learn and discover.
posted by fedward at 7:23 AM on June 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

You could say the Greeks used philosophical inquiry to understand the world, and that we use the scientific method. So that over time, a community of scientists excludes false hypotheses, to a given degree of probability, and we are left with more and more certainty about what we know. (New discoveries about the deep reality of things (Eg particle physics? Idk, I’m not a huge science person) sometimes challenge and expand our understanding, but we know most of reality well enough to use it reliably and predictably - we can build planes that we know will fly, perform complex surgeries successfully, etc. (Also, in order for our ancestors to survive, the world had to be relatively stable and predictable, enough so that the tools and practices that have emerged so far had time to come into being and be serviceable.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:29 AM on June 11, 2018

Best answer: Tough one. As life is indeed pointless, we have to decide for ourselves what is important and what is worth struggling for.
posted by turkeybrain at 7:31 AM on June 11, 2018 [4 favorites]

It's important to realize that ancient religion cannot simply be understood anachronistically, as a kind of defective or primitive proto-science.
posted by thelonius at 7:38 AM on June 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It might be helpful to think about what we 'know' in relation to what we can change. The Greeks (and many ancient societies) believed in Gods because that was a really good explanation for them why many, many things seemingly happened for reasons beyond their control - like famine or disease or a bumper crop of apples one year and not the next. In the modern world many more of those things are within our control, because we have had many more years, and many more people thinking and studying and learning and trying things out. So the gods-explanation is less useful in our day to day lives.

This doesn't mean that our explanations for anything are limited to what we can know to be true. We can imagine a different truth, and find out more about what it might mean if it were the case. Some societies and cultures encourage different ways of thinking. Some don't. We also have short memories. Over the years people learn things, but sometimes those things are forgotten. Sometimes those forgotten things are rediscovered by other people, later on.

It's the wonderful thing about being a human being - no matter what the people around you say you can still choose for yourself what you want to believe in, and what you want to try to understand better, or find proof for, in order to make that belief useful in your life. Together we can talk about how our different beliefs help us, and how the variety of those beliefs knit together today, in our conversations and actions and work with each other. It's really exciting!
posted by freya_lamb at 7:39 AM on June 11, 2018

The idea that ancient peoples were intellectually primitive and thought their gods were literal is cultural bias on our part, it's complete bullshit.

Someone recently asked for the word that means multi-layers of meaning in ancient texts (a common feature of pretty much all ancient writings we are discovering) and I finally remembered the term Paronomasia and linked to a discussion.

I can't google up links now, but the bible is known to have mathematics and astronomy (good to know for farming & travel) embedded in stories we think are purely "religious." The idea that ancient societies didn't travel far and wide (they did!) or that they believed in superheroes is simply not true.

At first blush, the religions of the Greeks and Egyptians look like our version of appointment television, but it turns out there were usually important concepts regarding science and the natural world. You could google "Decans Egypt" for one example.... if I am remembering this correctly, there were temples w/ 10 features (knooks? corners? pillars? argh! I can't remember!!) where the priests walked around to those features and performed a ritual at each of the 10 spots. Sure the temple is dedicated to some god and their story, but actually it was a way to track certain constellations and planets. This was an important way for keeping track of the seasons and so on, the priests were literally performing a ritual for survival. There's no reason to believe they thought the god in this example was real, there's a lot of evidence this was mnemonic for passing on complex information and it was understood to be what it functioned as.

Also google the words "astro-theology" and possibly "star myths." I'm sure there are amazing examples of math that relates to navigation and architecture in ancient religions (texts/rituals) but I'm bad at math and can't think of a specific example off hand.

You might also investigate how cultural biases in history, anthropology, and archeology are slowly being corrected by hard science like DNA and satellite imaging, penetrating radar, and re-applying those scientific testing results to ancient myths and texts.

Another example: I know there is an ocean current at certain times of year that is so strong, it can take a canoe from a spot about 20 miles from the entrance of the Strait of Gibraltar all the way around the world to Oak Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. There is a god/myth associated with this ancient efficient sea route. The god/myth relates to the time of year the current is strongest, and where to find this current out the the ocean.
posted by jbenben at 8:18 AM on June 11, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Your daughters questions are at the core of the philosophical field of epistemology (basically the study of knowledge).

Questions like "how can we be more confident in the existence of chairs than we are in the existence of Zeus?" remain fundamentally open, with the most satisfying answers coming down to the idea (as expressed in the excellent Quine essay linked by rd45) of pragmatism. Essentially, believing in chairs is not much different from believing in Zeus, but we get a lot more utility out of the first belief.

I'm not aware of any really good epistemology primers written to be accessible for 10 year olds, but here is a very good reading list of children's books that can be used as jumping off points for talking about the subject, along with conversation guides for each book.
posted by 256 at 9:01 AM on June 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

The idea that ancient peoples were intellectually primitive and thought their gods were literal is cultural bias on our part, it's complete bullshit.

Isn't that the point though - context matters deeply. Belief systems facilitate functioning societies (or dysfunctioning in some cases), but the 'truths' they codify are relevant to that society in ways that may or not be truthful, or even relevant in other times/places for whatever reason. At heart this existential crisis is about learning to deal with the fact that there are always different ideas of 'the truth', and that critical thinking helps to sort what is practicable for any one individual.
posted by freya_lamb at 9:03 AM on June 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

I felt similar qualms at that age, mostly from having devoured Greek mythology when I young, and then wondering where it all disappeared to? There were books of old myths retold for young people available, but there were not books for young people about the complicated transition from pagan culture to Christianity at the end of the Roman Empire, I just gradually figured out all of that stuff years later. I think that actually histories of forms of old religious worships ties into the philosophical aspects.

So to answer your question, I can't think of a good kids books about the decline of the Roman Empire, but there is Wikipedia now.

(Interestingly, some versions of Norse myths for kids do have an epilogue after Ragnanok where the old gods are explicitly replaced by Jesus.)
posted by ovvl at 10:32 AM on June 11, 2018

If you do opt to use Sophie's World as a teaching tool, some editions include a Reading Group Guide you might find useful.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:17 PM on June 11, 2018

How lovely to have a daughter who's already such a deep thinker!

As someone who also started thinking about existential issues at an early age, I'd like to share a perspective on finding meaning when everything seems meaningless that's maybe a little different from the other advice so far.

This may sound a little cheesy, but as a young adult I actually found a lot of inspiration in the TV shows Buffy and Angel. Angel, the vampire with a soul, was preoccupied by the search for meaningful existence. His Epiphany speech, in which he comes to realize that in an "empty" universe devoid of a deity to follow, instead of giving into despair you can be empowered to create your own meaning - in Angel's case, his meaning is alleviating suffering.


Angel Season 2 Episode 16 "Epiphany" Transcript below! =)

Angel: It doesn't.

Kate Lockley: Doesn't what?

Angel: Mean anything. In the greater scheme, in the big picture, nothing we do matters. There's no grand plan, no big win.

Kate Lockley: You seem kind of chipper about that.

Angel: Well, I guess I kinda worked it out. If there's no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters... , then all that matters is what we do. 'Cause that's all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long, for redemption, for a reward, and finally just to beat the other guy, but I never got it.

Kate Lockley: And now you do?

Angel: Not all of it. All I wanna do is help. I wanna help because, I don't think people should suffer as they do. Because, if there's no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.

Kate Lockley: Yikes. It sounds like you've had an epiphany.

Angel: I keep saying that, but nobody's listening.

Here's an article with video links to an interview with a Russian LGBT activist who used this speech as inspiration to keep standing up for what's right.

All people, all cultures throughout time, tell stories to guide their understanding of the world and how to be a good person in the world. Those stories can be deeply meaningful regardless of whether they're "true" or not, and our perception of "truth" can change over time. So have your daughter do some research. Have her analyze some stories not just from myth and legend, but also from (pop) culture now. Have her jot down some stories that resonate and talk about why they resonate. Look for meaningful moments everywhere. Have her start to construct her own philosophical framework, pulling inspiration from all around her like a magpie. If she can construct her own meaning from the mundane, then she won't see the mundane as meaningless.

Another source of inspiration: looking to the science, particularly outward into the cosmos. Learn to think like a scientist and develop a sense of wonder!

I love this clip from Neil de Grasse Tyson, expanding on something Carl Sagan once said:
- We Are Star Stuff:

And the Symphony of Science:
- We Are Star Dust:
- We Are All Connected:
- The Poetry of Reality:

Timelapse of the Entire Universe:

"The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together / the cosmos is also within us / we're made of star stuff / we are a way for the cosmos to know itself"

Learning about how amazing the universe is, how thrilling the possibilities are, how interconnected everything is, and being unafraid to know that we don't know everything, is the best cure for the existential blues that I can imagine. When you are content to sit with the idea that we are all star stuff made animate, reaching back to the universe from whence our building blocks came, spending many thousands of years trying to understand and using all the tools at our disposal to create those frameworks for understanding, the notion that some frameworks may no longer be part of our current culture's mainstream isn't upsetting at all; it's one thread in the tapestry of humanity that got "clipped," but it's still part of the weave. And meanwhile, so many new threads are being woven!
posted by the thought-fox at 5:27 PM on June 11, 2018

Response by poster: Wow - thanks so much for all these super thoughtful and interesting answers!

It's one thing at that age to academically play with the idea of things not being actually real, it's another thing if it's making her feel unhappy and disinterested in anything but escapism, which I think warrants professional attention.

Yes, you're absolutely right, and she is suffering from anxiety and feeling 'out of it' due to her autism, and that is something we are looking into too. She's not great at delving into her feelings though and sometimes it helps to pursue them via a slightly drier, more didactic approach.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 2:26 AM on June 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

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