11 February 2007

This Quintessence of Dust

Two anecdotes (or three--see below) from today.

Gregory (3 years old) approaches me as (believe it or not) I am baking a cake in the kitchen. He's crying about a fight he's having with his brother, Nicholas (5 years old). "Nicholas doesn't want to add the garage to the train tracks but I do!" (I have no idea what this means, what the fight is about.) "Let Nicholas decide," I say, "Do it the way he wants." "Why?" Gregory asks. "Because Nicholas is older than you," I reply. Gregory then exclaims, lifting up his arms as he speaks, exasperated (in his imperfect pronunciation), "But you MOH older than Nick!"

Now I ask you: What does it mean about us, that a 3 year old can instantaneously frame an impeccable a fortiori argument like that?

Then today also a conversation with Joseph.

J: "Dad, was space always here?* Did it just go on and on?"
M: "No, space was created by God." (Of course I answer as I think true.)
J: "Oh, but then what did God make it from? Wasn't there space before that."
M: "He made space from nothing. There was nothing, and then God created space."
J: "I don't get that. I thought that there was space for a long time, and then God came along."
M: "No, if he came into existence, he wouldn't be God. If a thing came into existence, it couldn't be God."
J (very puzzled): "Wow, I don't get it. My mind just doesn't get these things."

Now, consider: Joseph spent most of the day today crawling around on the floor playing with wooden trains and cars. Every now and then he gets up and asks a question about space and infinity. My question is: What kind of being is that? I find it frightening, frankly.

I'm not talking about any special intelligence of my own children. Joe's a smart kid, that's clear, but any child whose mind or emotions has not been dulled is, I believe, basically the same.

What I mean is that Gregory has just been potty-trained. A year ago he could hardly speak. And now he rattles off arguments as if he were breathing. Joseph is 6 years old but talks as naturally about infinity and the origin of worlds as he does about his toys. He doesn't see himself as going off into some special realm of the 'metaphysical'; it's just another thing to talk about. (Although tellingly he recognizes a limit to his comprehension that he does not find in other things--those he takes himself to understand, even when he doesn't.)

As I said: this frightens me, the kinds of beings they are--we are.

*It occurred to me later that I'm not sure how he was using this word, "space". Yesterday I had told him--in the course of a similar conversation, between his playing with blocks--that if one looks far away in space through a telescope, then one looks back in time, because space and time are "the same thing".

Greg, Joe, and Nick.

I thought I would add an anecdote concerning Nick, for completeness' sake. We went for a walk in the afternoon along the Charles River, which, although not frozen through, has a sheet of ice on top. Joseph was enjoying throwing broken sticks out onto the ice, watching them skid almost to the middle of the river. Nick for his part busied himself with scooping up handfuls of dirt from the river bank and throwing the dirt like a shower onto the ice. "Hey, that's--what do you call it?--cinnamon!" (He was thinking of how I make capucinno. And notice how a homely image such as that can stay in the back of a child's mind, ready to be brought forward.)


Sam Rickless said...

Dear Michael,

The first thing that occurs to me is Garreth Matthews' wonderful work on philosophy and children. It is part of our nature to philosophize, and sometimes this sense of wonder leads us into philosophy (sometimes into astrophysics or psychology, or....). in my case, it was mathematics and fascination with the idea that imaginary numbers could have any explanatory value vis-a-vis physics. Needless to say, I was a late bloomer.

By the way, why not just suppose that spacetime came into existence with the Big Bang?

I once knew a 5 year old boy whose father died of cancer at the ripe old age of 54. We were driving to the memorial service, and the boy said: "Some of my friends think that God exists, but I don't. God wouldn't have let my Daddy die." I was astonished, and struck at the wisdom of a child.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Sam,

If Joseph began to ask me questions about imaginary numbers, I would really be frightened.

If you don't mind, I'll decline engaging you here on the Big Bang and the problem of evil, as that would divert from the purposes of this blog. But over drinks at the next APA?


Sam Rickless said...

Sounds good to me. --Sam

Alex said...

I wonder what the best way is to answer questions like that from a child.

Is it better to just say what you believe, as you did, or to try to reason with the child?

I just wonder if giving a direct answer might not stifle the child's curiosity -- if he might learn something more interesting if you answer the question differently.

Of course, a parent has the right to answer in any way she wants.

Alex said...

And I don't mean at all to suggest how you should do something like that -- that's not my place, of course.

I just would worry, if I had a kid, about sharing my opinions with him, because children tend to take their parents on authority, and I know that, putting myself int he place of the child, I would rather my parents teach me something (I mean putting myself in the place of my potential child...but I'll probably never have children, another reason I hope you will forgive my presumption).

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Alex,

Your question is a good one, and no doubt my "Of course" is too strong.

To be honest, I was worried that my recounting of the dialogue hadn't quite captured the spirit of it. I definitely would not want to answer a child asking such questions in a way that would squelch curiosity. As Sam Rickless pointed out, it's the child's sense of wonder as reflected in such questions which is precisely so remarkable and precious.

I think one's approach in these things might reasonably vary with child. Joseph has a strong mind; I think I answered him from the sense that his mind will develop best if it has something solid to knock up against--a definite answer together with reasons. Nick, I think, I might have answered differently.


Mikhail Lipovsky said...

I want to relay an excerpt from Richard Feynman's 1966 speech entitled 'What is Science?':

"When I was still pretty young--I don't know how old exactly--I had a ball in a wagon I was pulling, and I noticed something, so I ran up to my father to say that "When I pull the wagon, the ball runs to the back, and when I am running with the wagon and stop, the ball runs to the front. Why?" ... He said, "That, nobody knows."

Now, of course, that can't be true as this was the 20th century. But Feynman continues:

He said, "It's very general, though, it happens all the time to anything; anything that is moving tends to keep moving; anything standing still tries to maintain that condition. If you look close you will see the ball does not run to the back of the wagon where you start from standing still. It moves forward a bit too, but not as fast as the wagon. The back of the wagon catches up with the ball, which has trouble getting started moving. It's called inertia, that principle." I did run back to check, and sure enough, the ball didn't go backwards. He put the difference between what we know and what we call it very distinctly."

Feynman relates that he really came away with a deeper lesson than just the plain facts: he gained the ability to discern knowing something from knowing the name of something.

Inquiring about the history of space, is perhaps inseperable from inquiring about the history of mankind's conception of space. As you somewhat allude to by extending the discussion with your son from space to space-time, modern science is still out on what space really is, let alone what its provenance is. I think this should at least be an on-going discussion.

On a broader note, it is perhaps something of our nature that we ask these questions in the openings of our lives and as we live we reframe them with increasing qualification, nuance, and technicality; yet as we near the ends of our lives, the questions remain ever open-ended.

Feynman also once wrote, late in his life: "I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there."


Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Mikail,

Thank you for your comment, which is more than a comment.

You wrote, "...the questions remain ever open-ended". And how true that was for Feynman! The story you recounted of him as a young boy reminded me of his attitude as a mature physicist, in his lectures on The Character of Physical Law. After stating Newton's law of gravity, and explaining how it was arrived at, Feynman imagines an interlocutor who 'wonders how this can be a fundamental law':

"What does the planet do? Does it look at the sun, see how far away it is, and decide to calculate on its internal adding machine the inverse of the square of the distance, which tells it how much to move? This is certainly no explanation of the machinery of gravitation! You might want to look further, and various people have tried to look further. Newton was originally asked about this theory--'But it doesn't mean anything--it doesn't tell us anything.' He said, 'It tells you how it moves. That should be enough. I have told you how it moves, not why.'"

Feynman then discusses an unsuccessful early attempt to give a mechanical explanation of gravity, before he concludes by surmizing that the mathematical form of the law is ultimate:

"...up to today, from the time of Newton, no one has invented another theoretical description of the mathematical machinery behind this law which does not either say the same thing over again, or make the mathematics harder, or predict some wrong phenomena. So there is no model of theory of gravitation today, other than the mathematical form."

Isn't this exactly what his father taught him to recognize about the world, in the story?