I WonderA few weeks ago I wrote an article titled, “Children as Natural Philosophers”. Shortly after it was posted to reddit.com on the subreddit r/philosophy to which there were a few responses. While I did address a couple of the comments directly on Reddit, I feel it is only appropriate to make a longer response to the arguments here and expound upon them, specifically on the purpose of rocks and the concept of ‘useless being’.

A user named “DeNater” was one of the first to reply to the article, and we had a short exchange primarily focusing on the nature of philosophy and whether or not children are philosophers in their own right.

DeNater writes:

Children as natural philosophers, agreed, but children as seeking the goals of things? Maybe, but that doesn’t imply things should have a goal. Philosophy is asking radical questions and if you are seeking a goal, you should ask why…

To which I reply:

“but that doesn’t imply things should have a goal”
If you are equating the term ‘goal’ with ‘final cause’ I’m not sure that I follow why things ‘should’ have a goal v. do have a goal. Are you saying that existents do not have a final cause, or a purpose? Are you implying that we transpose final causes onto objects but they are not intrinsic within the object itself?
“Philosophy is asking radical questions”
Philosophy as defined as ‘asking radical questions’ seems contrary to the origins of Philosophy as the reduction of sense wonder to causal explanation as I believe the Greeks would have understood it. An attempt to understand the world around them does not seem radical to me.
“if you are seeking a goal, you should ask why…”
Wouldn’t this be an implicit goal of removing goals from philosophical reasoning?

DeNater replies:

The term goal was badly chosen, purpose suits ‘final cause’ more. I didn’t mean to imply that things don’t have a final cause, I simply argue that when a child seeks the final cause this doesn’t mean there is one. I argue that you should ask the question ‘why am I searching for the final cause?’ if you are a philosopher. The answer to this question may very well be affirmative, asking this question therefore doesn’t imply you want to remove final cause from philosophy.
Philosophy as simply wondering about the world is not a true representation of philosophy. Poets also wondered about the world. The method of philosophy differs from poets: poets simply say in a mystical sense what the world is, philosophers try to verify their view by arguing. Philosophers of nature, the presocratics, were the first in western tradition to argue for their own view or against the view of someone else. This was however the premature start of philosophy, philosophy matured with Socrates. Socrates walked up to someone and asked him to give reasons and arguments to verify the thoughts this person had. This is the reason to define philosophy as asking radical questions, trying to get to the roots of an argument.

To which I respond:

I don’t believe either that simply wondering about the world is a representation of ‘doing’ true philosophy strictly, but I do believe that philosophy must be rooted in such wonder. The reduction of sense wonder to causal explanation begins with sense wonder but must produce questions and argumentation/reason about the world as a consequence.
I better understand now what you are meaning by radical questions, as I assumed you meant radical questions as most people characterize philosophy as ridiculous, abstract, radical, not rooted in reality questioning, but I agree that Socrates was a radical at the time.
The poets/sophists were attempting to do something completely different from the philosophers. While they may have been speaking to the same subjects as the philosophers, their method and mode of knowledge was completely different in that their ‘knowledge’ came from muses, or revelation/inspiration, etc. The fact that philosophers were attempting to change the way in which we verify truth and knowledge is precisely what they quarreled about. I love, for example, the way that Aristophanes caricatured Socrates, although I disagree with him, it perfectly exemplifies this struggle and each side accusing the other of the same sins. I would imagine this sort of poetic/divine inspiration for causal explanation that the muses came up with is where ‘musing’ came from.
I would just counter with the notion that I believe children are partaking in the Socratic method, Aristotelian in their causal explanations that are rooted in sense wonder abstracting from the real world, and whether or not it leads them to metaphysical inquiry is perhaps beyond their ability at that age, but I would not even discount that entirely.

I believe it is most important to understand that children are not performing some radical exercise of their free will when they ask questions, but rather are striving to understand the world around them and reduce it to its causes. Children in this manner are doing something radical compared to their adult counterparts as they attempt to stay rooted in reality and do not indulge the totally abstract or nominal. People have to be trained to build logical systems that attempt to explain that which a child reason and explain in simpler terms. DeNater seems to me to simply be confused about the origin and the nature of philosophy, suggesting that Socrates was a radical, and if by radical he means upsetting the established order of traditional knowledge then I would agree, but if he means he was genuinely asking radical questions, that is questions which had not been asked before, then I would argue that Socrates would have considered himself most unoriginal, and his basic questions are precisely what perplexed most people. His ability to draw out apparent contradictions and then use reason to explain the coherence of the two seems to me to be his strongpoint, but not asking radical questions.

The second response to the article that I am going to address from reddit is the response from LaoTzuGymShoes, who I believe echoes the sentiments of many others who succumb to a kind of nominalism unsuspectingly.

LaoTzusGymShoes writes:

“the child realizes the telos involved in any given object and recognizes immediately that it must be purposeful and must have a name.”
I have several rocks on my desk. None of those have a purpose. I disagree with the notion that any given object must be purposeful. It seems to me that the only things that have a purpose are things that are made with such a purpose in mind. Naturally occurring objects don’t seem to have purposes, at least to me, but I’m dumb.
On a personal level, I also find a great amount of value in purposelessness and the purposeless, but that’s really irrelevant here.

The first part that stood out to me immediately is a sort of quasi-atheism being smuggled in, and to be as fair as possible, if not an atheism, an assumption that the world is ‘uncreated’. For LaoTzuGymShoes says: “It seems to me that the only things that have a purpose are things that are made with such a purpose in mind.” But isn’t this precisely what the Christian argues is the case for naturally occurring objects; that all of creation is created by a designer who has in mind a purpose for all things’ existence?

LaoTzuGymShoes is suggesting that human creation with purpose behind the creation gives meaning to objects, a sort of nominalism, assigned, and not intrinsic in the object, but strictly assigned to the object. I’ll disagree with the nominalism as a reservation, but what is more striking is that his statement suggests that there is no benevolent creator of the entire universe that would have given everything purpose. The whole notion of purpose and design demands a sufficient reason for such purpose and design.

LaoTzuGymShoes states that he has many rocks on his desk but none of them have purpose. To this I would simply ask: why do you have rocks on your desk then? Even if we grant nominalism for a second, the purpose of the rocks on the desk would be to hold papers down, or for aesthetic admiration, but either way they seem purposeful in that instance. However, without the need for nominalism we can see the purpose of rocks, the intrinsic usefulness of, as the world is a giant rock (this is an oversimplification). If there were no rocks, there would be no sand, no glass, no mountains, no tectonic plates, no way this world could exist, it seems to me that rocks, as a being of the lowest order, are actually incredibly purposeful, even if they are not performing any of those functions positively at the moment while they are sitting on a desk.

Science is constantly finding purpose for what has been purposeless or assumed to be purposeless in the past. “Junk DNA” for example is now “non-coding DNA” as it is being shown to have purpose even in it’s supposed lack of function. Similar to tonsils and the appendix. As science advanced it does not find purposelessness but rather shows more and more the existence of the purposeful and a more intricate design than we previously thought. Children recognize that all things must have purpose or function or design intrinsic to the ‘existent’ and for such a reason, children are far more capable of ‘doing philosophy’ than we give them credit for.

The opinions expressed by the DPS blog authors and those providing comments are theirs alone; they are not necessarily the expressions or beliefs of either the Dead Philosophers Society or Holy Apostles College & Seminary.