Children have a habit of believing what their parents do...just because. That lack of critical thinking may have good evolutionary foundation.

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Being a secular, atheist parent, and also a philosopher, I take my parenting seriously in how my children’s beliefs develop. The idea for me is that it is important to teach my children the methods and not the conclusion. I don’t want to teach my children that God doesn’t exist, but rather give them the critical thinking tools that allow them to work out their own beliefs.

And if they utilize those tools correctly, of course, they should arrive at the same conclusion.

That’s the theory, anyway.

I have twin boys who are now 12. Back when they were seven, Oscar came back from school where they must have been learning something about God.

On reflection, this was actually a wonderful example of thinking with a foundation in evolutionary psychology.

“Daddy, do you believe in God?” he asked, innocent expectation etched onto his face.

Okay. here goes. “Well, as it happens, I don’t believe in God. But that’s not to say that you shouldn’t—”

I was interrupted before I could formulate my well-crafted reply singing the praises of critical thinking.

“But I want to believe what you believe, Daddy.”

Dang, this is precisely not how I wanted this to play out.

Children have different sorts of brains and thinking patterns than adult philosophers, more used to only ascribing to certain epistemological positions based on twiddling rational mind-knobs after long periods of deliberation and internal and external debate.

Children just want to believe what their parents do.

Easy. Done. Now, let’s play football outside.

On reflection, this was actually a wonderful example of thinking with a foundation in evolutionary psychology.

It turns out that believing what your parents believe as an epistemological shortcut is a pretty good system of thought to use. Well, in certain contexts. Perhaps a neolithic context.

Imagine you are a child in a tribe of early hominids.

“Excuse me, Elder.” (For it turns out that they were very polite back then.) “Shall I eat this tasty-looking, bright-red berry?”

“No! Never! Definitely not! For, verily, that berry will be the early demise of you, young hunter-to-be!” (For it turns out that elders were equally well-spoken in those times.)

Young, neolithic Oscar would have two choices here:

  1. Ignore the advice of the elder and give in to berry desire, gobbling down the treat.
  2. Take on the advice as fact. Don’t eat it, for it is poisonous. Pass on this knowledge to others.

There is a Carroll diagram to be presented here, a sort of Pascal’s Wager. If the elder is correct, then option 1 will result in death and 2 in life. If the elder is incorrect, both options will result in life. Option 2 will always result in living, but this would not always be the case with scenarios of option 1.

In other words, over time, evolution through survival will favor option 2 thinking: believing your elders.

Or, “I want to believe what you believe, daddy,” makes sense in light of evolution.

This means that the stickability of erroneous ideas and belief systems is in part aided by the mental heuristics resulting from eons of evolutionary history. Children will believe the mythological stories of religious traditions because the brain has a habit of co-opting mental mechanisms useful in one context and misapplying them in another. Myths aren’t berries, but the epistemological journeys to those outcomes are the same.

A moth might fly in circles, ever closer to the candle flame, until it falls to its scorched death. In one sense, a moth has evolved to do that, but in another, it hasn’t. It has evolved those navigational skills, but sometimes the misapplied use of those flight skills can lead to problematic outcomes.

The job for me now, as my children get older, is to ensure that they don’t, as Icarus did, fly too close to the sun. Instead, they need to use its light to illuminate a rational path to fly to an enlightened destination. They need to land safely, traversing the choppy waters of their youth, after journeying for themselves.

Here are your wings, son. Use them wisely. And don’t fly too close to the sun, believe me.

But, at the same time, don’t just believe what I say.

Only, try not to question those things I advise when you are threatened with immediate death.

Man, life is complicated.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...