So, my friend, Jim Bellinson, called me and asked a favor. He was headed to Africa with his own and two other families and wanted a daily philosophy topic for group discussion. He felt the kids would learn something and enjoy it—and the adults, too. I loved the idea, and I’m sharing this list of issues today in the hopes that it will spark some thoughtful conversation—whether you’re traveling for the holidays with your kids or just sitting around with them on a winter’s night.
Philosophy majors are the butt of many a joke, but I guess the joke is on anyone who is concerned at all with the big questions—where we humans are, what we know, and what we should do about it—and those interested in learning how to think rationally about these questions and everything else.
Even if your adult brain has slipped into what Kant called a “dogmatic slumber,” have fun broaching these topics with your children and teens, who, you will discover, genuinely wonder about this stuff. But be careful or you may make philosophers of them.
Where does the universe come from and what brought it about? Does its existence require a first cause, an intelligent designer, or ongoing conscious direction?
Does God exist? If so, what is God and what is God’s relationship to both the universe at large and to human life? If God exists, is God good, and if so, how do we account for the great deal of evil and suffering in the world?
What determines the course of human life? A deity? Pre-determined causes? Free will? Or is what happens to us simply random?
What are humans made of? Are we primarily mind or matter? If both, how do they affect each other? What is consciousness?
How do we identify reality and discover truth? Is truth objective or relative to each individual’s unique perception of things? What is knowledge and how do we acquire it?
What are good and evil? Are they objective? If not, what determines them—personal belief, society, religion, law?
What is happiness? Is it an emotional state or a more objective condition of wellness and flourishing? What are its requirements—pleasure, wisdom, freedom, health, wealth, friends, family, or perhaps some combination of these?
What are the elements of a good society? How should the individual and his interests relate to the collective—both community and state? What is the function and proper form of government? What is the origin and function of rights?
What is art and what is its purpose? How does it relate to beauty? To truth?
What is death? Is the soul immortal or does it die with the body? If it continues to exist, where does it go and what befalls it? How do we know?