Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Small Skeptics

You've heard it, the stereotypical image of a 4-year-old child: "But WHY, Mommy?"

It's a fun question when you're four. You get to find out all kinds of interesting things, like why leaves fall off of trees but branches stay on, and why Kool-Aid makes a stain but water doesn't, and (if you ask it enough times and your mom remembers what she learned in grade school about light and wavelengths and color) why the sky is blue. Plus, it keeps her talking with very little expenditure of energy on your part.

The simple brilliance of it is that it serves as its own follow-up question. "Mama, why is that ant carrying my sandwich crumb?" To take it back to the nest. "Why?" To share it with the rest of the ants. "Why?" Because ants all share their food. "Why?" Because they are social insects, and instead of eating what they find, they bring it back so that the ant queen and the other ants can eat it too. "Why?" And by the time your mom loses patience, you've learned quite a lot about ants, and maybe a little bit about people too.

You have to be kind of careful with this one-note line of inquiry though, or things get metaphysical. Ask it too many times, and you'll get a snappish little "Because God WANTS the ant to be that way, that's why." (Asking why God wants it to be that way will probably result in you being sent out to play or inside to clean your room.)

Somewhere along the line, we lose that. We stop asking some of the questions because we always get the same insufficient answers. We stop asking some questions because we are perpetually redirected to encyclopedias, which may or may not tell us what we really wanted to know. We stop asking some of them because we learn to trust our books and our teachers and our friends, which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it can be dangerous if it becomes the answer to too many questions. Some questions, we stop asking because nobody knows the answer yet. And sometimes the reason is less complicated ... we stop asking simply because we move out of that childish phase of wonder and into a world with more immediate questions: "Can I call Madison, can I get my ears pierced, can I spend the night if her mom says yes?"

I think, though, that we need that questioning spirit more as adults than at any point since age four. We need it desperately, and sometimes half the battle is discovering that we need it at all.

We need it for the questions whose premises are so entrenched that people forget that there are more questions to ask. "Is global warming really our fault? How do you know? What studies were done? And if so, can we fix it? And if not, should we fix it?"

We need it for the questions that the media blithely answers for all too many people, without the prerequisite of even a moment's actual thought. "But WHY does Oprah recommend that? Did Barack Obama do his research? Has People magazine looked at the science behind that claim? Can John McCain back that up?"

We need it for the questions that pick up where our mothers' answers left off. "Why does God want it to be that way? How do we know? Did He say He does? If not, why do we think He does? If so, do we then have any responsibilities to change our behavior?"

More than anything, we need it for the questions that have not yet been answered. We need it for the tiny (the insects, the viruses, the insides of atoms) and we need it for the immense (the stars, the gods, the outsides of universes).

We need to teach it to our four-year-olds, to live it ourselves, and to remember it when we are old. We need the neverending Why.


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