Shrunken Democrituses

I witnessed one of the most impressive philosophical exchanges today between some 10-year-olds that I’ve ever witnessed.

I began the session by doing an expanded version of The Incredible Shrinking Machine session (see page 101, Thought Adventure 26 in '40 Lessons to Get Children Thinking') in which I asked the children to imagine that they were shrinking in a special machine. They were asked to choose to what size they would like to be shrunk (suggestions: ‘a grain of sand’, ‘an ant dropping’, ‘an acorn’ etc.) among the suggestion were ‘a molecule’ and ‘an atom’. When they were being shrunk the machine went wrong and they continually got smaller and smaller and smaller. The starting question was ‘What do you think will happen?’

One of the children, Nicky, said ‘there has to be a limit to how small you can get, because nothing goes on forever.’ I wrote this up on the board and it formed the basis of an excellent discussion about infinity and divisibility of substance. Then…

At some point I explained what science tells us a molecule is and that it can be seen but only through a microscope. Then I explained what science says an atom is (very basically) and that molecules are made of them and that they cannot be seen with a microscope. One girl said, ‘But who invented atoms then and how do they know if they’re there if you can’t see them?’ This led to a discussion about whether you need to be able to see something to know that it is there. Many of them thought you didn’t (E.g. ‘Blind people can know about stuff without seeing’ and ‘you can’t see air or oxygen but you know it’s there because you’d be dead if it wasn’t’). Then one boy said, ‘We know molecules are there because we can see them with a microscope, and a molecule must be made of something so we have to assume a name for it.’

This last comment was an awesome bit of a priori reasoning along the lines of Democritus’ own thinking about why there must be an atom. In true Philosophy Foundation spirit I introduced the children to Democritus and his reasoning about atoms. I even explained the Greek etymology that ‘atom’ means ‘unsplittable thing’ and told them that atoms, according to Democritus, are ‘not made of anything’.

The next comment came from a girl who said, ‘But if an atom is nothing then how can it be formed or even be there?’

So I decided to role-play Democritus, describing myself as a generic ancient Greek philosopher all bearded and toga-ed up etc. saying ‘Now I didn’t say that an atom is ‘nothing’, I said…’ and at this point I stopped and asked the class what they thought it was Democritus was just about to say, expecting nothing more than a correct recall.

A boy then said: ‘I think Democritus is going to say: “I did not say that an atom is ‘nothing’ I said that it ‘can’t be split’; if it can be split then it must be something else, but if it can’t be split then it can’t be something else.”

So, another bit of amazing Democritian a priori reasoning that left me utterly speechless. It also ties in perfectly with my upcoming TEDx talk (May 9th 2014) on how children can do philosophical conversation because they can respond and connect with ideas in the right way (i.e. reflectively, critically, logically, sequentially etc.) – in this case, in an a priori way!


Posted by Lubos Remplik on 25th April 2014 at 12:00am