An old school friend of mine posted on Facebook that her five year-old had recently posed the question, ‘How did the first person get on this world? There wouldn’t have been anyone for them to be born from.’

Whilst I  found the question amusing, my response was definitely that of a philosophy teacher:

‘David Hume would say that she’s only looking for a first cause because it’s emotionally reassuring, and that you should tell her that ‘instances of which we have had no experience need not resemble those of which we have had experience…’ The existence of man may just be ‘brute fact’.

I was initially worried that my response was overly convoluted but I needn’t have worried as my friend’s response was additionally thought provoking –  pondering the question of why children ask some questions and of course, the observation that they are rarely governed by reason!

It struck me that a number of the philosophers that I talk about in the classroom are applicable to the world of parenting and that it would be interesting to consider what advice they may give – so let’s begin with Hume:


David Hume was of course, a 18th century Philosopher, born and raised in Edinburgh. I largely look at his work relating to the Philosophy of Religion but he’s also a big player in logic and moral philosophy – so a pretty clever guy!

The quotation I gave my friend, in full  reads, that there is no logical justification for saying ‘that instances of which we have had no experience must resemble those of which we have had experience, and that the course of nature continues always the same.’ To set this in context, Hume was writing against the idea of the Causal Principle – the theory that everything has a cause.

He argued that it’s only our experiences that lead us to believe that everything has a cause but that this may just be ‘an arbitrary act of the mind.’ It may be emotionally and intellectually reassuring to believe that this is the case but this is no more than an assumption (believing without reason).

The problem with Hume giving us  this conclusion, is that it leaves us with ‘brute fact’. Things are the way they are for no reason, in other words, that age old parenting catch phrase ‘because I said so.’ Brute fact, no reason! Which no child was happy with… ever.

Hume raises the point that our experiences are actually incredibly limited. We have only experienced a very small corner of the universe for a relatively minuscule amount of time. Just because our ‘experience’ tells us something, given our limitations that knowledge isn’t necessarily accurate!

What can this teach us as parents?

Firstly, to not be pessimistic. When times are tough, it’s good to remember that life may only be this way for a very short amount of time. For example, just because Thomas did not sleep through last night, does not necessarily mean he won’t tonight. I may still have a cough that feels like it’s been going on forever, but in reality this  will pass – it’s not a constant rule that I have to feel like rubbish!

Secondly, that there is not always a reason for everything. Katie particularly can cause me a great deal of bemusement in life as she flits from one activity to another. Sometimes she seems to do things for no reason what so ever – covering the entire living room in sellotape being a notable example. One could reason that it was fun or that she was in some little imaginary world, but when questioned about it her response was ‘I don’t know!’ Does there really have to be an answer to everything?

Thirdly, reflecting on why children question all the time may help us to develop the patience to cope with those many, many questions. Hume argued that we want the answers to things because ‘it’s emotionally reassuring.’ I definitely want Katie to feel emotionally reassured. That seems like a good parenting aim rather than something to be derided.

Katie is certainly full of questions, all the time. Although they may not be at the deepest level, it is her way of making sense and learning about the world around her. I do like to turn them back at her by questioning either why she thinks something is the way it is, or by asking why she wants to know. But actually, although I may think she is trying to be irritating – this really isn’t the case at all.

Getting back to the philosophy -Hume’s argument that the Causal Principle was wrong has been backed up by modern science. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle demonstrated that the smallest components parts of matter are subject to unpredictable fluctuations. There do appear to be spontaneous events in which particles appear from nothing. One can clearly argue that whilst these events are not devoid of causal conditions, they do weaken the argument that ‘everything has a cause.’

Of course, fluctuations in matter are very different from the conditions needed to cause the Big Bang and for evolution to occur… or in the words of my friend’s child,  Issy,  for there to be people to be ‘born from!’

Right or wrong – at least Hume gives us something to think about!

And feel free to pin this for later:

How to field the 'Why' Questions - Edinburgh Life with Kids


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