06 June 2007

A Youthful Desire to Know

"Can we do chemistry today?" A question I hear every day after dinner from my seven year-old, Joseph, since I purchased on ebay the Smithsonian Micro-Chem XM 5000 chemistry set.

And then, "I love science!", said with a big grin, as we do the first elementary experiments on surface tension and paper chromatography.

Why does he love science? --Above all, I suspect, it's because he's spending time with his father when he does science.

But that is accidental to it. In itself, he loves that we use special equipment; that we measure and need to be precise; that 'science' is something that is evidently beyond him, for adults. He loves the wonder of it, the surprises: You mean the dyed water in those thin tubes won't fall out when you turn the tubes upside down? You mean the color of that brown marker really consists of three colors, orange, blue, and green? He loves that it is arcane: no one else among his friends knows about these things, or takes any thought about them.

Of course, he knows no more of science than these few simple experiments. How, then, can he say that he loves science? He's learned what the word 'science' means, in the way that Hilary Putnam has described our learning of any natural kind word, such as water. 'Science' is what we are doing here, and whatever is like it. On trust, he accepts that science is good. But not only on trust.

"Joseph," I said, "would you believe there are men who started studying science just like you when they were boys, and by the time they were men they used their science to build bombs to destroy cities?" (Yes, I said this. I don't know what possessed me to say it. I think I wanted to test his natural love of it, and maybe also to put him on guard a bit.)

"That would be very bad," he replied. Then, later, "Did men really blow up cities with bombs?" --And, very sadly, I gave a brief description of the Manhattan Project, and I had to explain how it was our country which had done this very bad thing.

Another remark I had in mind but left unsaid: "Joseph, do you realize that there are men who began studying science just as you are, but by the time they were men they came to think--because of science, they thought --that they were just like this water or these dyes that you are studying?--that they were simply hunks of flesh, without souls or minds?"

I didn't say it because it would be incredible, much more so than bombs that destroy cities. And then I thought to myself: If science were like that, I would no more introduce my young son to it than give him a Ouija board to play with, or a scorpion.

Homo sapiens


Anonymous said...

What a selective and blatantly ad hominem thought to blurt out. When reading your son the Bible, do you ever pause to inform him "would you believe there are men who started studying this book just like you when they were boys, and by the time they were men they used it to justify guiltless genocide and murder?"

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear anonymous,

I don't "blurt out" thoughts, and I don't agree that in such matters the appropriateness of one's statement or action depends upon showing that it satisfies some principle of parity.

As regards the Bible, I haven't read it to Joseph, but he did read a children's version cover-to-cover last year, and on that hangs a humorous story. He devoted his evenings to reading it for three or four days in a row. When he was finished, proud of his accomplishment, he closed the cover and then exclaimed, "Well, I've finished the Bible." My wife, who overheard this and was amused, said to him, "Joseph, that's only a children's Bible that you've read. Maybe when you are older, you can read the Bible again." To which Joseph replied, "No, I've read it already."


Anonymous said...

I don't have kids, but I'm with Michael on this one. Science is a great and wonderful thing that has also been a tool for destruction; it makes sense to recognize that fact and to make young enthusiasts aware of it. The objection about the Bible makes good sense, and every religious person has to deal with the problem of its abuse just as every scientist has to deal with the problem of the abuse of science. I'm not sure how on earth that is supposed to be a point against Michael, though. If Michael were reading the unabridged Bible to his children without mentioning the difficulties of proper interpretation and the horrible uses to which the texts had been put, then he would be guilty of oversight (and this would be true regardless of what he said about science). Yet the initial objection seems to have been that he shouldn't say such a thing about the Bible. So, who's hurling the ad hominem arguments now?