By Cassie Finley

This semester I’ve been teaching a class on “Paradoxes and Philosophical Puzzles” at Astra Nova, an experimental online middle school. At the beginning of class one day, I asked my students what they think time is. One student said time is a human invention, that it wouldn’t exist if we didn’t keep track of it with clocks. Another suggested that there’s a difference between measuring time and time itself–that even if we got rid of all of our clocks, the world would keep going and time would keep happening. Someone else pointed out that according to physics, time is inseparable from space – that spacetime is the fourth dimension, but that they admittedly weren’t entirely sure how that all works (maybe something to do with gravity and black holes and the plot of Interstellar?).

I asked one student with an especially furrowed brow what they were thinking, to which they responded, “It’s weird, because I feel like I know what time is, but as soon as I try to explain it, I can’t!” This comment was met with widespread agreement from the other students in the class and served as a nice opportunity to put the students in ‘dialogue’ with another philosopher who shared their puzzlement. To that end, I had my students read through (together in class) some excerpts from Augustine’s Confessions (Book 11, chs. 14-21) where he puzzles about the nature of time. Augustine begins – like we did – by asking about the nature of time: 

For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who can even comprehend it in thought or put the answer into words? Yet is it not true that in conversation we refer to nothing more familiarly or knowingly than time? And surely we understand it when we speak of it; we understand it also when we hear another speak of it… If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know. (Augustine 295)

The fact that a famous philosopher expressed virtually the same thought as the student, but roughly 1600 years ago, was both exciting and validating for all of the students. As we continued to read Augustine together as a class, pausing every few lines to check understanding, ask questions, and share thoughts, it was clear that the text provided the opportunity for students to play around with different ideas – to try them on and consider Augustine’s reasoning and process rather than focusing solely on whether they agree or disagree with one another’s answers to the question “What is time?”. In this way, bringing the students into dialogue with Augustine through the text helped facilitate the dialogue happening between students during class.

“What is time?” is not a paradox, but–as my students and Augustine point out–there is definitely a puzzle about the nature of time, and there are plenty of related paradoxes to explore: the unreality of time, the grandfather paradox, and so on. Paradoxes are particularly conducive to focusing students’ attention on the process rather than the result. That is, since there is no answer, we’re in a position to focus on how we approach the topic rather than focusing on ‘the’ solution. In this way, discussing paradoxes helps encourage students to practice asking good questions; many paradoxes can better be explored through students asking questions about possibilities rather than just offering ‘obvious’ solutions the way they might otherwise be inclined towards in response to particular philosophical theories). The shift towards working through the paradoxes, imagining possibilities, and thinking together exploring different ideas is also conducive to students cultivating various intellectual virtues (e.g. inquisitiveness, attentiveness, curiosity, etc.). 

I was initially reluctant to offer this Paradoxes course for a number of reasons, despite students’ enthusiasm discussing the Ship of Theseus and the Liar’s Paradox in other classes. I was concerned that a class on paradoxes might reinforce some of the common misconceptions about philosophy more generally. For instance, since paradoxes don’t have clear answers or solutions, I worried that introducing philosophy through paradoxes might lead some students to walk away thinking that philosophy is just inconsequential intellectual musings about unanswerable questions, or that philosophy is little more than an exercise in frustration. I was also worried that the class would end up being overly repetitive–we come in, puzzle over a problem, fail to reach a solution, leave, rinse and repeat. 

Having now taught this class a few times, though, I’ve found that these concerns can (at least mostly) be addressed through some intentional framing and preparation. For instance, by presenting some puzzles that have semi-acceptable solutions (e.g., Monty Hall Problem, Muddy Children puzzle, David Lewis on the Grandfather Paradox, etc.), students are much more patient with not having answers to many of the other paradoxes. We can also avoid the charge that philosophy is concerned only with frivolity by gesturing towards the ways that fit into much larger philosophical contexts as well as emphasizing the value of practicing thinking carefully through difficult problems. By mixing in other paradoxes that can involve more interactive dimensions (e.g., Newcomb Puzzle and the Prisoner’s Dilemma), we can avoid some of the concerns about repetition. One student took this Paradoxes class a year ago and re-enrolled this term because they enjoyed it so much, and the student said that they had not stopped thinking about the Newcomb Puzzle (and whether they have free will) since we talked about it a year ago!

When we introduce students to philosophy, we should not only consider what the subject matter concerns, but also what (and who!) philosophy is for. By introducing students to philosophy through paradoxes and puzzles, we can encourage collaborative engagement through a community of philosophical inquiry while emphasizing creative, careful thinking about difficult topics. Given the sheer volume of paradoxes and puzzles out there, the class is nearly infinitely scalable and adaptable as well. As long as we’re careful to highlight the value of spending time thinking about weird, paradoxical, and even unanswerable things, a course like this one is the perfect introduction to philosophy for budding philosophers of any age!

Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. Translated by Maria Boulding, New City Press, 1997.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments