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Big Questions - Incredible Adventures in Thinking is an introduction to philosophy. I found it in the children's section of my local library and, although I think it is probably aimed at children from about the age of 12, I also feel that it would be suitable for adults who want to learn the basics of the subject. I certainly found it fascinating, as did my teenage daughters. The author points out that we have probably all at some time pondered the same questions that philosophers have puzzled over for centuries. For instance, what is the nature of the universe? How was it created? Does God exist? How do we know when something is true? In what circumstances is it okay to tell a lie? These questions and many more are explored with reference to some of the most famous names in philosophy and in an engaging, clear and interesting style.
The information in each chapter is presented coherently. The author starts with simple concepts, relating them to everyday situations and dilemmas that will be familiar to the reader. He then invites the reader to look at the situation from different angles and to test out the arguments put forward by different philosophers. The concepts become more complex as the chapter develops but the gradual build-up means that the reader is able to take the points on board a step at a time. The author presents a range of viewpoints and arguments but never tells us for certain which we should agree with. We are left to explore and decide for ourselves, often coming to the conclusion that there isn't just one right answer. I like the way that the discussion of philosophical ideas in this book overlaps with psychology, science and history too.
This book seeks to teach us how to construct a good argument and to spot weaknesses in other people's arguments. I think this was a particularly useful section as children who can put together convincing arguments in their essays and assignments are definitely going to be at an advantage at GCSE time. We are encouraged to spot 'dodgy comparisons' in the arguments of others. For example, someone might suggest that if you are going to ban guns, you ought to ban rolling pins as well, because they can also be used to kill people. This kind of argument focuses on the similarities between guns and rolling pins (their potential to be used as weapons) but fails to take account of their differences. As the author puts it - "guns are useless for making pastry." It's surprising how often I have encountered 'dodgy comparisons' in political arguments I've had with other people and it certainly made me determined to be more alert to this in future! The book shows us how to keep your debating skills sharp by avoiding circular arguments and to make sure we are not swayed by emotive language or overly dependent on expert opinion.
I like the way the author explains philosophical principles by using comparisons that will be meaningful to children. For example, to illustrate Ockham's Razor - the principle which tells us that if there are two competing explanations, the simplest one is the best - the author tells a story of two brothers. One brother thinks there is a ghost tapping at the bedroom window. The other brother is sure it is the branches of the trees that are doing the tapping. He is certain of this. Although he can't actually prove for certain that it isn't an invisible ghost, he can use Ockham's Razor to show that the simpler explanation of branches swaying in the wind makes the most sense. Readers are also encouraged to think of situations where Ockham's Razor might not be such a useful philosophical tool. I appreciate the way the author looks at things in a balanced way, inviting us to question everything.
The book invites us to think about a range of ethical questions, such as animal rights issues and whether scientists should 'play God.' In one chapter the author uses a story of a runaway train to test the reader's response to an ethical dilemma. Imagine you saw a train hurtling towards a fork in the track. If it veers off to the left it will hit two children playing on the rails. You spot a lever. If you pull it you can re-route the train to the right, so it will crash into a man walking his dog over the level crossing. What would you do? The author asks us to consider whether our decision might be different if we knew any of the parties, or if there were 10 men on the right rather than one, or if the men were criminals. Children are encouraged to construct their own 'runaway train' thought puzzles for other issues.
My daughters were particularly interested in the chapter about God and Nature, which presents some of the most frequent arguments on how the world was created. We get a chance to contrast creationist theories with Darwin's theory of evolution and to bend our minds over the idea that, if everything has a cause, did the first link in the chain have a cause too? What caused that cause? If God caused it, what caused God? Did the Universe even have a starting point, or does it just go back and back forever? It certainly gave us plenty to think about. I like the way that the author is quite respectful towards different points of view, even the more bizarre ideas out there!
The book provides an opportunity for children to test some of the principles put forward by famous philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant's view that you should do something only if you would be happy for everyone to act in the same way. Children are invited to consider situations where telling a lie might be the right thing or breaking a promise might be the right thing, even though you would not normally be happy for everyone to act in that way.
Overall, I would not hesitate to recommend this book. It really does encourage children to challenge accepted ideas and helps them to develop creative and persuasive arguments, but it does it in a way that is fun and relevant. It is to the author's credit that he can talk about ancient philosophers like Plato but give it relevance to a modern setting. (Here, for example, we have a quiz which the reader can take to see how much knowledge they have as defined by Plato's 3 steps to knowledge.) I am glad the author avoided writing in a silly, jokey style. Sometimes factual books intended for kids go over the top on the humour, as if they feel the only way to hold a child's interest is by constantly making jokes. The author's style was refreshingly unpatronising too and not at all arrogant. My daughters particularly enjoyed the section on puzzles and paradoxes, some of which are guaranteed to make your brain feel as if it has been scrambled, but the sort of things that most kids would think were 'awesome'. As I mentioned, I got this from the library, but it is also available new from Amazon sellers from £1.25.
As a taster, I will leave you with one of my daughter's favourite paradoxes.
The statement below is false
The statement above is true
The sequel to the hugely acclaimed "Big Numbers", "Big Questions" brings the most challenging issues about life, the universe and everything to 10-13 year olds. Is there a reason for everything? Can you trust the experts? Can you prove who you are? Do animals have rights? Does anything really exist? Is there only one answer? Asking questions can be a very risky business. When we start to think about things we've always taken for granted, we can end up with some surprising results. "Big Questions" is full of entertaining and challenging questions about the world around us - many of them have been puzzled over for thousands of years. The book includes sections on How to Win an Argument, Mind, Bodies and Brains and Right and Wrong.