Thursday, January 29, 2009

The mystery of the mind

The fifth grade class I'm working with had a wonderful discussion this week about the mind. We talked about what the mind is, whether it is the same thing as the brain, and, if not, what it might be. We began with the students asking various questions, including: What's the difference between the mind and the brain? Why do we have a mind? Why do we use our minds for certain purposes? What do minds look like? How do we know we have minds? What is the imagination?

One student was convinced that the mind and the brain are the same thing. "When you talk about the mind, it’s the same thing as when you talk about the brain." he said. "The mind/brain is what stores all your thoughts. It controls everything you do."

"I'm not sure about that," another student commented. "I think that the mind and brain do control what we do, but I don't think they are the same thing at all. I think that the mind is the practical part of you. Your brain thinks about doing something, like eating a cookie, and you know you shouldn't, and it's your mind that stops you from doing it."

"Like a conscience?" I asked.

"Yes, I think the mind is the part of the brain that helps you remember the right thing to do."

"So is the mind part of the brain, or a separate entity?" I asked.

Another student replied, "I think the mind is separate. I think the mind runs all through your body, while your brain is in your head."

"Is the mind physical, then, something like your blood?"

"No, not really. It's more like your soul."

"Okay, so what am I going to ask you now?" I said.

"What is the soul?!!" several students chorused.

“I think the mind is the place we imagine and dream,” another student stated. “Our brain controls the things we do automatically, like breathing or walking, but the mind is where we think about what we do, where we dream, where we can imagine things that don’t exist.”

“I don’t think we can imagine things that don’t exist,” another student declared. “How could we think of something that we don’t know anything about? If we think of vampires, it’s because we know about people and about bats, and we put them together.”

“Do you think it’s possible ever to think of something completely new?” asked a student.

“What I want to know is why do I have a mind,” said another student. “What does it do? And why do we imagine and dream? What’s the point?”

Monday, January 26, 2009

Philosophy Teams

After 13 years of working in this field, I continue to analyze the most effective ways to make philosophy a more common offering in K-12 schools. Working with teachers to help them to develop the skills necessary to teach philosophy is the most obvious way to make a large impact, but my experience has convinced me that this approach is in many ways an uphill battle. Most teachers have not studied philosophy and are already overloaded with the always-increasing demands on them for what they must teach in their classrooms. Although I think it's imperative that we work with Schools of Education to bring philosophy into teacher-training programs, those programs are similarly packed with what teachers are expected to learn and there is not much room for expansion.

I love the Philosophy in the Schools program because it brings philosophers and people trained in philosophy into classrooms. The students seem to relish having someone new come into the classroom, and this method demands little of the classroom teacher other than an openness to having philosophy sessions in the classroom. This is, however, a slow approach, bringing philosophy into one school at a time, with the number of schools dependent on the number of trained people available to participate in these programs, and on teachers willing to take time out of the classroom day to give it a try.

I wonder if another option would be to create some kind of national afterschool philosophy program, like Knowledge Bowl or debate teams, which would involve an afterschool activity, run by a coach/philosophy educator, to prepare the students for a kind of competition, like the Ethics Bowl or the Kids Philosophy Slam, but one that would bring together middle and high school students in periodic local/regional meets and then a state and perhaps national competition. My thought is a kind of combined philosophy club/debate team. Each year, perhaps, there could be different focus (ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, etc.). I have to think more about this idea.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Thoughts and feelings

This week I started a series of philosophy sessions with a fifth grade class. This was a first introduction to philosophy for this group of students. I started by asking them if they had any idea what philosophy was. We talked about that for a few minutes. I described some of the questions I associate with philosophy -- What is kindness? Why is it important to be fair? What is the mind? What is time? One student raised her hand and commented, "I think about those questions all the time!"

We then read a few pages of Mat Lipman's Harry Stottlemeir's Discovery and then I asked the students what questions the reading raised for them. The questions we talked about included:

What are thoughts?
What are feelings?
Why do we think?
How is it possible to imagine ideas that are copies of things in the world?
Is it possible ever not to be thinking?

We had this marvelous half-hour conversation about thinking, feeling and dreaming. The students were very interested in examining what constitutes thinking and what doesn't. One student asked if the responses of a newborn babies to their environments is thinking. Do you have to have language to think? Some students thought so. Another student asked, "Well, if you have to have language to think, how did language come to be? Didn't someone have to have thoughts before they created words for those thoughts?" We talked about the phenomenon of having many thoughts at once. One student commented that she wanted to try to understand "the concept of a thought within a thought."

Do thoughts exist in the world? One student contended that thoughts aren't real because they are just in our minds, and they only become real when we act on them by doing or creating something in the world. "I disagree," said another student. "Thoughts are in our brains, which are physical, and so in that sense thoughts must be part of the world."

Are feelings the same as thoughts? Most of the students wanted to say no, there is a distinction between thoughts and feelings. "Feelings are in your body," one student ventured, "while thoughts are only in your brain. You don't experience sensations when you're thinking the way you do when you feel something."

What about when you dream? Do you think when you dream? Do you feel? The students seemed to want to claim that you certainly feel things when you dream, but thinking was more problematic. Does thinking have to be conscious? Can you think without knowing you are thinking?

As part of our conversation, several students raised the question of whether we can ever know whether we're in a dream or not. ("Our whole lives could be a dream!" one student exclaimed.) One student also wanted to know if we could ever know what other people really think or experience ("What I see as red could be what someone else always sees as what I see when I see blue," he said.) We agreed that we would talk about these questions in one of our next sessions.

Very affirming to observe how interested in these questions the students are and how easily they are able to discuss them with one another.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

What Does It All Mean?

I love Thomas Nagel's short 1987 book What Does It All Mean? It's a really accessible introduction to philosophy for high school students and up, and it captures much of what drew me to philosophy in the first place.
The book focuses on some of the philosophical problems that, as Nagel notes, "reflective human minds find naturally puzzling." Nagel discusses nine philosophical issues, including whether we can know anything, the mind-body problem, free will, the nature of justice, ethics, and the nature of death.
Here is an excerpt, from the chapter on other minds:

How much do you really know about what goes on in anyone else's mind? Clearly you observe only the bodies of other creatures, including people. You watch what they do, listen to what they say and to the other sounds they make, and see how they respond to their environment -- what things attract them and what things repel them, what they eat, and so forth. You can also cut open other creatures and look at their physical insides, and perhaps compare their anatomy with yours.

But none of this will give you direct access to their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. The only experiences you can actually have are your own: if you believe anything about the mental lives of others, it is on the basis of observing their physical construction and behavior.

To take a simple example, how do you know, when you and a friend are eating chocolate ice cream, whether it tastes the same to him as it does to you? You can try a taste of his ice cream, but if it tastes the same as yours, that only means it tastes the same to you: you haven't experienced the way it tastes to him. There seems to be no way to compare the two flavor experiences directly.

Well, you might say that since you're both human beings, and you can both distinguish among flavors of ice cream -- for example you can both tell the difference betweeen chocolate and vanilla with your eyes closed -- it's likely that your flavor experiences are similar. But how do you know that? The only connection you've ever observed between a type of ice cream and a flavor is in your own case; so what reason do you have to think that similar correlations hold for other human beings? Why isn't it just as consistent with all the evidence that chocolate tastes to him the way vanilla tastes to you, and vice versa?

What I like most about Nagel's approach is that you don't have to know anything at all about philosophy to understand and appreciate the puzzling nature of the problems he presents. His conversational tone makes it easy for curious teenagers (and adults) to jump right into trying out ideas and thinking about arguments for and against them. The book balances in a masterful way a presentation of the complexity of the problems with an explanation of them that welcomes newcomers to philosophy to begin wondering about them.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Yellow and Pink

One of my favorite children's books to use in philosophy classes (including with high school students) is William Steig's Yellow and Pink.

The story begins with two small wooden figures, one pink and one yellow, who are lying on old newspaper. The yellow one sits up and asks the pink one, "Do you happen to know what we're doing here?" The two engage in a conversation about whether someone created them (Pink's view) or whether, as Yellow contends, "we're an accident, somehow or other we just happened." The story follows their speculations about how they might either have been created or just exist by chance.

When I've discussed this book in pre-college classes, we've explored the following questions:

What does it mean to create something?

Have the following things been created? If so, how?

Does everything have to have a beginning?

Does everything have to have a cause?

If we can't imagine something, does that mean it's not possible?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

-- Wallace Stevens

January Birthdays

January 1 Charles Bernard Renouvier (French, born 1815)

January 5 Rudolf Christoph Eucken (German, born 1846)

January 6 Samuel Alexander (British, born 1859)

January 8 Carl Gustav Hempel (German, born 1905)

January 11 William James (American, born 1842)

January 12 Edmund Burke (British, born 1729)

January 19 Baron de Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat (French, born 1689) and Dōgen Zenji (Japanese, born 1200)

January 24 Christian Wolff (German, born 1679)

January 27 Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (German, born 1775)

January 30 F.H. Bradley (British, born 1846)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Puzzles about Ethics

A couple of years ago I created a series of ethics puzzles to introduce various moral questions to two fourth grade classes. I adapted some of these scenarios from puzzles created by others and made up the rest. I found that formulating dilemmas that would be easily recognizable to ten-year-old students was an effective way to help the students see the core problem quickly. The puzzles engendered lively discussions and seemed to make these issues very concrete for the students.

The first dilemma concerns lying:
A girl is taken to a carnival by her dad. It is her tenth birthday and he’s promised her that she can choose any 5 rides. But as they approach the gate, he discovers that he’s forgotten his wallet. This is the last day of the carnival and it’s too far to go home and come back before it closes. He counts the change in his pockets and tells his daughter that he has enough money to pay the entrance fee and they can go inside and look at all the exhibits and the parade, but there wouldn’t be any money for rides, OR she could lie about her age and say she’s nine and get in for half-price, which would leave enough money for the 5 rides. They walk to the gate and the ticket seller asks the girl, “How old are you?” What should she say?What would you do in this situation? Why?

The second puzzle involves the nature of friendship. The students noted that this scenario comes up all the time in their lives:
You are spending the afternoon with a friend of yours who isn’t very popular. You run into a group of your friends who invite you to go to a movie but they say that your unpopular friend can’t come. What is the right thing to do?

The third puzzle involves animal rights, and evoked very strong views:
You have a little sister who is very sick. The only way to save her is to inject many kittens with the illness she has and experiment with various medicines to see if they will work. What should the doctors do? Do animals have a right to life? Are we justified in using them in experiments? In eating them?

The final scenario raises questions about obedience and authority:
You are in an art class at school. The teacher tells the class that today each student is to paint a painting of their best friend in the class. The class is uncomfortable with this, and one student points out to the teacher that some kids will have lots of kids painting them, and other kids won’t be chosen at all. The teacher insists that this is what the students should do. Almost all of the students don’t want to do this. What should you do? Is it disrespectful to disagree with your teacher? With your parents? Your friends? Can you disagree and still be respectful?

I love this last question: Can you disagree and still be respectful? In a public school, this can be a thorny issue and the students know it!