I have two children now, and the youngest is almost six months old. I can’t remember my own infancy, of course, so I can’t help sometimes but look at these kids as the object of my own observational study. There are a lot of questions about infants that can cause a deep thinker to “blow a gasket,” in the words of a colleague of mine who is a developmental psychologist.
For instance, we are unsure if babies dream. Many psychologists infer that they do, simply based on the fact that babies have REM sleep, and dreaming happens in REM sleep. But this leads to mind-blowing implications, if we assume that babies do dream during this time. Babies have about 8-9 hours of REM sleep every day, and they are awake for about 8 hours a day. If all the REM time is spent dreaming, then babies spend as much time in a dream world as they do in real life, and they must not really have a conception of what is dreaming and what is reality. Sorting out what reality actually is, is therefore an impressive task.
That’s actually an understatement. Just think of the sorts of primal, properly basic beliefs a baby has to slowly incorporate into their models of reality as they grow older. What does it mean for time to pass? What does it mean for it to be “now” and not some other time? What does it mean for something to change? Are there minds in the world other than my own? Did I begin to exist in the past? What does it mean for me to interact with the world? What does it mean for a thing to “exist,” and what does it mean for a thing to stop existing? Will I one day stop existing? Do objects in the world persist when I am not observing them? How do I distinguish dreaming from reality? Why this reality and not some other reality? How can I trust that reality will not inexplicably change into something else?
While I think that lifelong learning is a very, very good thing, I do think that these questions – the very first questions that we developed when first encountering the world – are never really trumped in greatness by the subsequent questions we have in life. The latter questions are things like, Why is the sky blue? which is an interesting question regarding the mechanics of the present world, but still does not get at the depths of being like our First Questions.
In fact, modern life really discourages asking those First Questions because it is concerned with making life better and more comfortable, improving technology, finding meaning in our daily activities, etc., and since the First Questions still don’t seem to have particularly satisfying answers and don’t generate much income, those who ask them are relegated to academic philosophy departments and late night campfire discussions. I remember asking many questions like this as I was learning to verbalize things and inquire about the world. I stayed up one night just asking myself, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” before I even knew it was now a centuries-old cliché.
Even after quite a bit of study in philosophy, metaphysics, theology, and psychology, I am still quite in awe sometimes when I look at my baby when he sleeps, because I envy that sort of thinking. What is reality and why am I in it?