Examining Philosophical Beliefs Through Teen Novels, by Bernard Beckett
I’m currently working on the third book of what I like to think of as a metaphysical trilogy. The first, Genesis, focussed on the mystery of consciousness, the second, August, on free will, and the last, my current novel Lullaby, is exploring death. All three are an attempt to both examine the metaphors we use to describe the self, particularly in a world where religious metaphors are not the common currency they once were. They’re also explicit attempts, through story, to introduce philosophy to the teenage reader.
So, why should we expect the teenage audience, or indeed anybody, to be interested in philosophy? Considering the teenager first, I would argue that the late teens is precisely the time in life where you are most likely to be excited by the essential contestability of knowledge. Part of the teenage experience is the realisation that the simple world of reliable authority figures and protectors is behind you, and ahead lies a mess that you alone will have to navigate. That’s both tremendously exciting, there’s a sense of freedom and possibility, and terrifying – two of the more easily accessed emotions during adolescence. One of the most tantalising thoughts you can be exposed to during this phase is the possibility that absolutely everything you have ever been taught or told about the world is quite wrong. What if nobody else is really conscious in the way you are? What if other people experience colours differently than you do? What if the rules of the universe were always going to change tomorrow morning? What if somebody was able to predict your every move in advance? What if you’re really just a brain in a vat? What if there’s no you at all, and the continuous self is an illusion?
The first thing philosophy does is allow you to question the foundations of your most certain knowledge, and the enduring appeal of The Matrix amongst teens is evidence enough that there is something highly attractive about this process for the younger mind. I think this is because it mirrors the personal reshaping that is going on, and also because it allows a tremendously important chain of thinking to emerge. If nobody knows anything for sure, then the people who tell me how the world is might be wrong, which means I have permission to consider the world anew, and reach my own conclusions, permission, in short, to enter adulthood.
Of course, the dalliance with the more extreme versions of scepticism is short lived. Very quickly we realise we must put down our foundations in the swampy ground of knowledge and get on with the business of living. Yes, technically is might be true that as of tomorrow morning being hit by a bus will no longer hurt, but to base one’s beliefs about the world upon this possibility appears to be insane. So perhaps all philosophy is, in the end, of no real practical use, beyond its fleeting appeal to the adolescent mind.
That’s a popular view, and one that I would argue is clearly wrong. Part of the reason I’ve included philosophical abstractions in my novels is that I love the idea of the adolescent reader forming a longer lasting attachment to the subject. Here is not the place to defend the worth of philosophy to the adult mind in full. Suffice, I hope, to point out that philosophy is something we all do, all the time. We use observation and reason to build models about our world. To ignore the theoretical framework of these assumptions is not to avoid philosophy, it’s just to do philosophy very badly. This failure matters most, I think, when we find ourselves in contact with those who starting assumptions are very different from our own, perhaps because of a different upbringing, or a different set of religious beliefs. If we don’t understand the premises upon which our own beliefs are based, then there is the very real danger of believing it’s fact all the way down. Now, two groups of people, holding opposing views and being unable to properly interrogate the root of that difference, strikes me as a very dangerous situation, and one that’s worth avoiding.
Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org
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