A riddle (aka philosophy by children)

At Thanksgiving a ten-year old friend, L_, tested out his latest riddles on the assembled adults: “Imagine you were in a closed metal box.  How would you get out?”  After a few wrong guesses from the group, I quipped, “Think outside the box.”  That was not the answer, but it led me to suggest a few seconds later, “Stop imagining.”

Not only was that the answer to the riddle, but it would seem to be an appropriate answer by analogy to many philosophical puzzles, such as the trolley problem, which is pretty much dissolved once one declines to imagine ever being in that situation.

OK, imagine you were in a room full of philosophers and ethicists discussing the trolley problem.  How would you get them to escape from that discussion…?

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

6 Responses to A riddle (aka philosophy by children)

  1. Teryl Cartwright says:

    You get them to escape the discussion by opening the door to a bigger meddle box…

    (Interesting that you ask how you would “get THEM to escape” when you are the one who could walk away instead.) Obviously, since you talked about a trolley (another case of being trapped in a metal box), you could ask them, “What if you are on the trolley?” (No one says what happens to the passengers in all those variations.)

    Or “What solution doesn’t kill anyone on the tracks?” But, sadly, that wouldn’t get them to change the topic even if there is an answer there so you could just ask the thinkers flat out, “if you can’t act on your answer, why is it right?” Or, “what difference does your answer make?”

    Kudos for getting the imagine question right, I would have been wrong. I would have said for the metal box trap to “push the ‘open door’ button on the elevator” or (if only for the soul and not the body too) “you can escape the metal box by dying” or (to be even less creative), I’d say “I would imagine a key or drill to get out.” As you see, I am really bad at riddles…

    • Teryl Cartwright says:

      P.S. I know the point was to ‘stop imagining’ but how much fun to throw philosophers for a loop by making them imagine too much! Some prisons people build themselves into with pride.

  2. I imagine you escaping along with the philosophers. But as a master riddler said: “And whither then? I cannot say.”

    • Teryl Cartwright says:

      Pity those poor philosophers then… yet they could go on to amaze. But how would YOU get them to escape? I imagine a refractive scientist has a better answer than a reflective writer.

      • Perhaps I would invite them to get on the no. 69 trolley (which I took to school for 6 years) and keep riding back and forth from kew to st. kilda beach until they decided individually or collectively that they were sick of trolleys….

      • Teryl Cartwright says:

        Thanks for sharing! Yes, I do like your idea better than a maze…an endless trolley ride with school children would actually teach philosophers so much. I’m sure your trolley had great views though, more so than no. 13 school bus rides on narrow country roads.

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