I had a marvelous class with some fifth grade students yesterday. The first class of the year, we began by talking about what philosophy is and why anyone might be interested in it. I had planned that we would read part of chapter three of Mat Lipman's Harry Stottlemeier's Discovery and probably talk about thoughts and thinking, but this was one of those classes where flexibility was key! As we talked about philosophy generally, one student raised her hand and declared: "I have a question. Why do we work hard and worry about money and what we're going to do for work and food and shelter, when one day we're going to die? What's the point?" This set off a wealth of questions from the students, which included:
Why do we need money? Why don't we barter anymore?
What is time? Why do we measure it?
How did everything begin?
How is the earth so perfect for humans?
Why do we communicate by writing?
How did all these words get invented? Where did names come from?
I suggested that we vote on which question to begin discussing, and the far majority of votes went to, "How did everything begin?" We decided to start by reading part of chapter 13 of Harry Stottlemeier's Discovery, which raises this question and related issues nicely. After we read a few pages, the students started wondering about whether something can come from nothing. If the world began, there had to be nothing at some point, and so how could something have come from nothing? And yet, as several students noted, imagining it not beginning is really hard. Although, as one student pointed out, numbers don’t begin and end. Some students suggested that God created the world, but we observed that this still doesn’t solve the problem, because where did God come from?
We then circled back when another student commented, “I have two questions that I have thought about my whole life. What happens when you die? And what’s the point of living when one day you’re going to die?” One student responded that she thought that you live in order to have memories after you’re dead, in whatever place and form that occurs after death. Then a student who had been quiet raised his hand and said, “I think that we are an experiment for God. That God created humans to see what we would do, if we end up destroying the planet and ourselves or not. And if we do, God will create some other beings in some other place and see if they can do better.”
At this point we were out of time, and we agreed that we would begin next time with the question, “If all we know is that we live and then die, what’s the point?”