Philosophy? On a Friday Afternoon?

Friday Afternoon Philosophy: A snapshot from the classroom

Please note this blog was written during lockdown and is pre-social distancing rules.

Having taught in a junior school for some 11 years now I have always included philosophy in my lessons. It can be found everywhere; in literacy almost everything we discuss is influenced by Aristotle’s The Poetics. In PSHE the very nature of tolerance, discussions about democracy, sexuality and society are all philosophically influenced ideas.

In my planning and our school curriculum I have sought to bring together the work of philosophers and theologians in an easy to understand but, hopefully, not oversimplified way. My hope for children is that by becoming more consciously philosophical they will be ready to live in a world of uncertainty. By walking through ‘thought experiments’, with a teacher there, indicating what has been thought before by the great minds of the past and present, we can engage children in bringing philosophy back to the everyday. Education doesn’t just happen at school and as a parent myself I want my children not to jump to conclusions, condemning or supporting arguments because they feel like they have to, I want them consider their position and that of others. Reasoning calmly and respectfully, demonstrating an understanding of opposing views so that arguments are discussions rather than hate filled rants.

Philosophy can do this, if you let it. It can be incredibly frustrating and sometimes intensely boring. Contemplation of the great unknowns doesn’t appeal to everyone but, I would offer this anecdote as evidence that philosophy isn’t elitist or outside of your children's reach. Without giving too much away about individual children in my class I have detailed a discussion about Determinism and the concept of predestination that can be found in Islam I had on a Friday afternoon with a class of 30 year 5 students. My class offered these answers to the questions I posed, using their own frames of reference.

Friday Philosophers - Who or What is God?

We had been studying a unit titled ‘Who or What is God?’ where we examined the philosophical arguments for the existence of God and their place in Christian thinking. First came the ontological argument where we looked at the qualities of God and those ‘omni’ words; omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and finally omnibenevolence. We looked at the objections to this argument and how they could be used to justify the existence of almost anything, as long as it is described as being the ultimate example of one of its qualities. My example is ‘a pink fluffy unicorn’ being the fluffiest thing that can be conceived.

We then moved on to the Cosmological Argument using the concept of the ‘Big Bang’, something familiar to the class. First, I used the concept of human dominoes which came from an excellent teacher and friend of mine, Mr. Simon Oldfield. This is how he teaches the idea of the Cosmological argument in secondary school. In the lesson we lined up in a chain, like human dominoes, and the class waited to pass a ‘high five’ to each other along the line. We discussed the idea of causes, chains of events and the beginning of the universe. I came along in my role as the ‘unmoved mover’ or God, and high-fived the first person. She then passed it along the line. After much discussion there was a clear understanding in the room about the Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God and it’s place in Christian Theology/Philosophy.

The following week we began to look at the Islamic concept of Allah and the idea of predestination. We looked at this quote from a Hadith (a collection of the reported wisdom and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh);

‘When [a baby is conceived] in the womb for forty or fifty (days) or forty nights, the angel comes and says: My Lord, will he be good or evil? And both these things would be written. Then the angel says: My Lord, would he be male or female? And both these things are written. And his deeds and actions, his death, his livelihoods; these are also recorded. Then his document of destiny is rolled and there is no addition to and subtraction from it.’ The Book of Destiny

The quote was explored by the class to see what the implications of it were. I asked the class to bring together the two concepts; the Cosmological Argument with its ‘human dominoes’ and the idea of your scroll being written before your birth. The answers below have so many layers to them and being well-versed in philosophy means that you, (the parent or) the teacher, can pick them apart and link them to their forebears. Philosophy cannot and should not be divorced from the philosophers and it is incredibly motivating for a child if you are able to tell them that the things they’ve just said have been talked about before by people who spent their lives pursuing answers. To place a child, and their answer in the grand scheme of philosophy, with all its famous names and quotes, can serve to elevate their view of themselves; self-esteem and philosophy can go together hand-in-hand but we will come back to this idea another time. First, let us analyse what was said by this particular group of 9 year olds:

“ It’s like being in a video game and God is the one pushing the buttons,”

“If our lives are decided before we are born then we are not responsible for what we do. It’s like being in a video game and God is the one pushing the buttons,” said one girl, sitting at the back of the class.

I then asked her, “Who is responsible when Mario dies, falling off the screen in your video game?”

“I am, if the controller’s in my hand,” she replied.

“So who is responsible for your actions?” I ask the rest of the class, inviting them in to comment on what has already been said.

“It's like being a spectator in your own life,” a boy offered.

Another child raised her hand, she had been writing something on a whiteboard - which is her way. She then read this aloud:

A stunned silence fell over the room. All of this in a seemingly rambling paragraph read out by one 9 year old child - how do you unpack all of this? This is where your education in philosophy comes in handy as you have to start, either parent, teacher or both, to recognise the pearls of wisdom in their answers. Let’s look at the whiteboard a bit closer.

‘Dominoes or puppets?’ She asks. ‘Are we pushed by God and we fall over, creating other things or does God control us like a puppetier(sic)?”

This question is about the degree to which God controls us and His place in that chain of events that led to our being here, right now at the end of the domino chain. If God flicked the first domino then He may have His place at the beginning, consistent with the idea of the Big Bang, and God is there holding the match that caused the explosion in the first place. If God is a ‘puppeteer’ then He is controlling our every move, not just flicking the first domino and watching from afar. The concepts of God that are explorable in just these first two sentences are so rich and profound as to probably take up an entire book! And so this is where philosophy can take us. The concept of predestination versus hard determinism versus the Free Will argument is one that has vexed many a philosopher and religious figure as there is a logical struggle between an all-powerful, all-knowing God and one that gives us moral agency and the choices that come with ‘Free Will’. The idea that we live in a world where ‘God moves in mysterious ways’, ‘God wills it so’ and ‘You are responsible for your actions’ can’t all coexist, can they?

The whiteboard above also asserts something about the nature of God and why this particular child finds it hard to reconcile the Problem of Evil and the concept of an all-loving God.

“Either way, God sins, making us do bad things. Does this mean that we get no choice, either, to survive?”

The question here is a little less simple to understand. Is the child asking whether we get to survive as a human race? Or is it a question about the length of an individual life? The very interesting thing that this child has said is influenced by her knowledge of the Holocaust and previous lessons discussing the Problem of Evil. She is asserting that if God writes our scrolls before we are born then every act, no matter how evil, is a direct consequence of the will of God. This is a deliberately problematic reading of determinist thinking and she is taking her first steps towards reducing this argument to absurdity (reductio ad absurdum). In order to explore this idea she is looking at it through the lens of the most extreme reading she can make and seeing what it could ultimately mean. This is what children do all the time and it can prove to be very useful. It is also reductionist. That is to say that it reduces the complexity of the argument and disregards the subtleties that may be found in it.

Annoyingly, at this point, it is the end of the day but as the children stack their chairs neatly in the corner of the room the young philosopher and her whiteboard are sent to the Head’s office to collect The Golden Book.


This anecdote is just one I could offer to show you how important philosophy can be. At no point has any child mocked the position of a religious person. At no point has a child been asked to adopt the belief of a religious person. They have calmly, respectfully engaged with the ideas - arguing, interpreting and raising questions and all during the last lesson on a Friday afternoon - whilst being 9 years old! The concepts taught and discussed can now be questioned further and questions about how they are expressed by Christians or Muslims can be explored through a more 'Human and Social Science' lens. The class is now free to explore how these ideas are expressed or rejected by believers and whether they have a place in non-religious thought.

Further reading/listening/watching:


Crash Course - Determinism vs Free Will:

Crash Course - The Cosmological Argument:

Crash Course - The Medieval Islamic World


In Our Time: Free Will:

Beyond Belief - Hadith


Free Will

‘How the World Thinks’ by Julian Baggini

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