Thursday, February 4, 2021

Reality Scavenger Hunt

Yesterday in an online philosophy session, the children and I played a game created by my colleague David Shapiro, the "Reality Scavenger Hunt." This has been a popular philosophy prompt for years, and since the pandemic began, I have been adapting the game for virtual settings.

First, I divide the children up into groups of 3-5 students, depending on the size of the group. In breakout rooms on Zoom, they work together to come up with one or more things for each of the following categories:

1. Something that isn’t real but seems to be real

2. Something that is real but seems not to be real

3. Something that has to be real

4. Something that is both real and not real

5. Something that it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not

We come back together after about 15 minutes, and then each group takes turns reading aloud one of their items, with the students in the other groups having to guess in which category the item belongs. Points are given for the correct guesses, and the group with the most points at the end wins the game.

Yesterday, the items the children offered included a pangolin, a dream, and God. Everyone agreed that the pangolin belonged in category 2, something that is real but seems not to be because it looks like a mini-dinosaur. The other two items led to much more discussion. 

The students talked about dreams, wondering if they were not real but seemed to be, if it didn't matter if they were real or not, or if they were both real and not real. The consensus seemed to be that dreams are both real and not real, real because, as one student put it, the dream does exist in your mind, and not real because it doesn't exist outside your mind. 

The conversation about God began with a student stating that God belongs in category 5, because either God exists or doesn't, and because we can't perceive God, we can't know and it won't really change anything either way. Other students disagreed, with one arguing that whether or not you believe in God, it will matter to you if it turns out either that God exists or that God doesn't exist. We talked about how you know whether something is real or not, and if the fact that we cannot see or hear God indicates that God doesn't exist. We can't see or hear love, or happiness, or gravity, we mused, but yet we believe they exist.

We ended with a tie score and some reflections about whether anything at all really belongs in category 5.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

What is memory?

In a discussion yesterday with a group of eight- and nine-year-old children, we talked about what is most important for our identities; in other words, what could we not lose without ceasing to be ourselves? During the conversation, we began talking about the role of memory in making us the people we are. One child observed that "memory is what keeps us holding all our experiences over time," and another child commented that without memories your experiences wouldn't be meaningful. This led us to talk about whether remembering one's experiences were as important as having them. 

This led to a conversation about the nature of memory. One child said that we think of memory as "seeing things" and recalling images, but that memory is more than that, and includes scent and touch and sound. This prompted another child to ask, "But what exactly is memory?"

Neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists seek to explain the way memory works by investigating processes that take place in the brain. But I think these children were asking a more philosophical question, about the relationships between memory and what makes us who we are and gives us a foundation for finding meaning in life.

A couple of interesting prompts for a philosophical inquiry regarding the nature of memory are the film "Inside Out," which explores the connections between memory and emotion, and the picture book Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox, which examines what it might be like if you couldn't remember and whether objects can help us recover memories. A nice video features Bradley Whitford reading the story aloud.