Friday, November 02, 2007

How Do You Know?

Or, Adventures in Mixed Philosophy and Science.

The title phrase has become the latest refrain from the smallest member of our household. Other parents have to deal with the simpler, wistfully innocent "Why?" at every stage. I get the accusatory (replete with adorable little frown and sometimes crossed arms): "How do you know?"

For example, in the car on the way to school on Halloween day this dialogue ensues:

The Littlest Critic: Today is Halloween and tomorrow is Christmas!
The Critic: Oh, no, honey. Tomorrow's not Christmas. First we have to get through the whole month of November and then we have Thanksgiving where we go to your cousins' house and eat mashed potatoes and buns and cranberry sauce and play games. Then we have to get all the way through the next month. That's December. At the end of December, then it's Christmas.
TLC: How do you know?
TC: Uh, well, because I'm thirty-mumble-mumble, and I know how the calendar goes.
TLC: But how do you know the calendar is right?
TC: Well, it's been right all the last thirty some years.
TLC: But how do you know tomorrow isn't Christmas?
TC: Because Christmas isn't for another fifty some days.
TC: How do you know?

And so on.

So, last night, we're up in her bed, I'm reading A Bunny for All Seasons to her. She says to me, "Daddy, how do you know that when you shut the book the pictures don't move all around and run around when you shut the book?"

To this, I reply with another one of our favorite tropes when The Littlest Critic asks tough questions like the time she asked me in the car what a calorie was. "Do you want the long answer or the short answer?

"The long answer," is her reply.

"Okay, I know the pictures don't run around on the page when we close the book because I know how paper is made. I know what paper is made of. And I know how ink is made and I know what ink is made of. Both things are made up of little tiny, tiny pieces called atoms. These are so so sooooo tiny you can't even see them, not even with a telescope. But, atoms behave in certain ways that we can predict because they follow what are called scientific laws. These laws say that if you roll a ball, it'll always roll forever unless something stops it and things like that. And the way these laws work, once you put ink on a page and it dries, it almost never ever moves again. So when you see a cartoon, which is a drawing, it's actually a bunch of drawings and they flip them very very fast, like those flip books of Mickey Mouse you have, only they flip them a lot, lot faster. So fast you can't even see that it's a bunch of nonmoving pictures that just look like they're moving. So that's how I know the pictures in a book don't move when we close it."

"Okay, now the short answer," she says. She likes to get both answers all the time.

"Well, the short answer is, I don't know that the pictures don't move when I close the book. I can only guess that they don't because of everything I said in the long answer. You know your dresser in your room where your clothes are kept?" She nodded. "Well, without getting up and taking me over there, prove to me that it exists right now. Prove that it is real....See, you can't. You can only say that things you can't see probably are real and probably behave in certain ways."

She reached up to her face and I thought she was going to philosophically stroke her chin. Instead, she grabbed her bottom lip and brought her other hand up to grip her top lip. Then she pulled both lips out into a beak shape.

"Quack quack quack, quack quack quack," she told me.

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