By Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick
There is a story about a little girl who wonders about the future and what it will be like. She pictures the future as a different place—a place called “There”—and has a lot of questions about how different life will be in this place. The questions she asks include how long it will take her to get “there”, what she will know “there”, and what things will be like “there”, and they echo worries that many children might have about how the world will be as they get older and how they will be in that world. In the end, she unpacks her bag and decides to put off going there until tomorrow, since she has lots to do.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
By Emily Fuller
The girl’s musings in the story raise philosophical questions about the future and our capacity to know anything about it. The girl’s questions fall into two main areas: “What will the world be like in the future?” and “What will I be like in the future?” Under these two broad areas there are many possibilities for philosophical discussion with students.
Under the first, you can bring up questions of how we know what we know about the future, or why we expect the world and the things in it to behave in certain ways. We “know” the sun is going to rise tomorrow morning, but what is our reason for believing that? According to Hume, we expect the world to behave in certain ways based on having observed it behave that way before. But this reasoning is not infallible; it could always turn out to be wrong. We might expect the refrigerator light to come on every time we open the refrigerator, because every time we have opened it before, the light has come on. But what if the bulb dies, and one day we open the refrigerator and no light comes on? This is an example of how our inductive reasoning can fail us.
Skeptics question whether we can know anything about the world for certain. We might see the world behave in certain ways and recognize patterns, but this is not enough to know anything for sure. So what about some of the zanier things the girl in the story wonders about the future? You can ask the kids whether it might be possible that in the future, the girl might be as tall as house… They will probably say no. What about that she will wear sensible shoes and say sensible things? That seems possible. That there will be rainbows? Of course there will still be rainbows! That sunflowers and blueberries will be a different color? That there will be dragons? The kids will probably have instinctual responses to these questions, but you can press them to think about why they feel so certain about these things. What makes them think the girl wouldn’t be as tall as a house or that there wouldn’t be different colored blueberries or dragons? Hopefully they will realize that these beliefs are based on what they have observed in the world before, and you can start a discussion of whether these observations are enough for them to know for sure how the future will be.
The other category to talk about has to do with the girl’s concern about how she will be in the future. The questions here are a little different, but are connected to the questions in the other category. The girl wonders whether she will know everything and whether she will stop saying silly things. She is wondering what kind of person she will be in the future, and what it will be like to be a grown-up. However, she feels certain of some things. The girl says, “I’ll still build snowmen and sandcastles, definitely.” You can use this to talk to the kids about what they think will stay the same about themselves as they grow older, and what might change. You can also ask them what they’d like to take with them from here when they go “there,” or when they grow up, and why this is so important to them. Is it something that makes them who they are? Something about them that will never change, even if other things about them do? This might turn into a discussion with the students about the self and personal identity.
A final philosophical topic you may want to talk about has to do with the philosophy of language. The word “there” is what is called an indexical—a word which refers to different things depending on the context in which it is used. A few other examples of indexicals are “I”, “this”, and “tomorrow.” When we use the word “there”, we refer to a specific place which is usually at some distance from us. But “there” means something different depending on where we are and what we use it to refer to. It can be interesting to get the kids to think about these sorts of words, what they mean and how they mean it.
To begin your discussion, you can fill out the following chart with the kids to get them thinking about the philosophical issues.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
The girl wonders whether she will be as tall as a house or the trees, whether she will wear sensible shoes and say sensible things, and whether there will be rainbows There.
The girl is unsure of many things, but knows she will still build snowmen and sandcastles.
The girl wonders when she will get “there” and whether there will be a sign that says “Here is There.”