Monday, March 29, 2010

Time, nothingness and imagination

Another marvelous conversation last week with the 5th grade students with whom I've been working all year. At the beginning of the school year, one of the questions in which the students were interested was, "What is time?" We began this session with that question.

One student suggested that time is the way "we measure how long different units in the day are, so that we know exactly at what point in the day we are."

"Would time would still exist if we weren't around to measure it?" I asked.

"Maybe time is nothing," one student suggested.

"There's no such thing as nothing," responded another student.

"I think that's right," a third student agreed. "I say, 'I have nothing in may hand,' but of course it's not true. There's air in my hand, for example. Everything is something, so there is no such thing as nothing."

"That's right. We just say there's nothing in our hands because that's the only word we can come up with to describe it."

"We think of 'something' as being solid. And air isn't solid, so we think of it as nothing. But it is something."

"If nothing is something, it's not nothing. So if we're asking what nothing is, there can't really be an answer."

We talked about trying to imagine "nothing." We tried to imagine the absence space, and couldn't.

"It's not possible. There's nothing we can refer to."

"When there's a totally new idea like that, like a new color we've never seen, we have no way to think of it. Everything we can think of is based on something we've seen, heard or know about. Our imagination is not based on some magical thing, but on what we've experienced."

"Actually, we wouldn't experience anything without our imaginations."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, everything we do is because of our imaginations. We wouldn't even be able to move without  imagination."

"Yeah, humans would probably have died out a long time ago without imagination. We wouldn't have survived if we couldn't imagine how to build things and do all kinds of things."

We talked about the nature of imagination, and one student said that really, then, all we experience in the world is through our minds. So how do we know that anything else exists? I explained a little about Berkeley's view that we are able only to know sensations and ideas. In the course of our conversation, I told the students about Johnson's attempt to refute Berkeley's view by kicking the rock.

"That doesn't prove anything!" one student protested. "All he showed was that he felt that he was kicking a rock, which was all in his mind."

"Everything we experience is because of our thoughts. So whether the rock is there or not, the pain I feel when I kick it is just in my mind."

"Hmmm," a student replied. "Think about the lyrics to 'Row Row Row Your Boat.' What do you think?"

"Is life just a dream?"

"I think that's really scary."

"When I was little, my brother told me that life was just being characters in a book someone else wrote. Maybe we are just characters in a book."

"If we are, I wouldn't want to know about it."

We talked a little about whether it would make any difference, if the world felt exactly the same as it now does to us, if it turned out that we were characters in a book. The conversation ended just before the bell, with us reflecting that our thoughts are the lens through which we experience the world, and that we can control how our experiences feel to us by thinking about them in certain ways.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hotel Rwanda

Hotel Rwanda
As part of the "Moral Philosophy and Genocide" unit I am doing with eighth grade students, last week we watched the film Hotel Rwanda and then discussed it. We talked about the reasons the international community did not intervene in Rwanda, and what obligations the Western countries had to Rwanda during this period. We also discussed the spectrum of moral obligations. At the beginning of the film, Paul Rusesabagina (the hotel manager and main character) contends that "family is all that matters." As the genocide in Rwanda unfolds, however, he develops a deep sense of obligation to neighbors and fellow Rwandans, to the extent that at one point he attempts to send his family out of the country to safety while staying behind with the refugees he is sheltering at the hotel. We talked about whether this was the right decision.

We explored the role of the United Nations as "peacekeepers," and analyzed whether it was right for the UN troops to refuse to fire on the men committing genocide. The students seemed to feel strongly that the UN troops should not have obeyed their orders not to fire, as they would have been able to save more lives had they used their weapons other than in self-defense. Did the larger role of the UN in the country, and in Africa in general, however, require this more restrained role? We analyzed what obligations the UN peacekeepers had toward the Rwandans being attacked and murdered.

We spent a little time talking about whether Paul Rusesabagina was a hero. Most of the students agreed that he was a hero. What makes someone a hero? Someone who puts his or her life at risk for someone else, a student suggested, is certainly a hero.

We'll continue our discussion this week and explore why the people who did not help others during the genocide became bystanders, examining the nature of indifference and its moral status.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Really, Really BIG Questions

The picture book Really, Really BIG Questions by British philosophy professor Stephen Law is an engaging introduction to philosophy for anyone from elementary school age through middle school. With drawings and information about science, history, literature and the history of philosophy, the book explores questions such as: How can something come from nothing? What is nothing? What is the meaning of life? What is it like to be a bat? How important is happiness? Can I always believe my eyes?

Written in question-and-answer format, the book's conversational tone makes the complex questions examined in each chapter accessible and absorbing. A great book to read with your own children or with students in a classroom!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

When does morality begin?

I read a review of cognitive psychologist Alison Gopnik's book The Philosophical Baby in the New York Review of Books recently. Gopnik suggests that the relationship between an infant and his or her caregiver constitutes the beginning of morality for us, the first ethical relationship.

Carol Gilligan and others have emphasized the role of relationships as central to moral development, and the close connection between empathy and morality. Gopnik argues that our imaginative capacity, which allows us to envision the perspectives of other people, develops out of our early attachments. The attachment we have to our first caregivers is the seed from which our ethical lives develop, as we learn, to put it in simple terms, that other people have feelings too.

Gopnik explores the first five years of life, contending that this period involves states of consciousness, memory and mental life vastly different from those we experience after age 5. Our consciousness of time as involving past, present and future, and of ourselves as unified beings, remaining more or less intact from moment to moment, does not appear to form until after those early years. So our lives stem from this mysterious beginning, a time we barely remember that nevertheless played a central role in forming who we are.

This made me think about the role of ethics in children's lives once they reach elementary school age. At this stage, most children have experienced reciprocal love with their caregivers, providing an emotional foundation for their ethical lives. Moreover, they have started to establish a sense of personal memory and consecutive time, allowing them to develop conceptions of themselves as continuous and separate beings, all essential to moral reasoning.

At this point, then, it seems to me, a more structured introduction of ethics can help children, at a crucial age, to expand their capacities for moral reasoning. My own experience facilitating ethics discussions with elementary school students convinces me that these early years are a prime period in the development of our ethical lives. Open and carefully organized discussions about moral issues with their peers reinforces, at an early stage in their ethical growth, children’s development of empathy and moral imagination.