Children are natural philosophers. Nobody's told them that some questions are too big or too controversial to ask. And philosophy seems to be getting a bit of a makeover these days; perhaps the triviality of celebrity culture soundbites is finally beginning to get to us.
Dr Stephen Law already has a track record in making philosophical concepts accessible to older children and young adults ("The Philosophy Files") so he is a natural choice for Kingfisher to write this introduction to the subject for the 7-12 age group. It's an idea whose time has come, but presenting such abstract ideas clearly and entertainingly is quite a challenge.
He kicks off with the biggest questions of all. What is nothing? (Try to imagine absolutely nothing. Not an empty space - that's something. It's much harder than it sounds). Where did the universe come from? What is the meaning of life? The emphasis throughout is that these are not the questions science alone can settle. Instead, readers are given the tools and examples to conduct their own intellectual enquiries and there is no definitively right or wrong answer. He debunks the myths that have led to sloppy thinking - saying that we have 96% of our DNA in common with chimpanzees isn't the same thing as saying they're our ancestors, for example. As we move on to the contentious subjects of evolution and intelligent design, he states that most scientists support evolutionary theory, but he also mentions creation myths and, as always, encourages us to make up our own minds, with the very important caveat that what really matters is not whether a story is strange and wonderful, but whether it is true.
From there we move on to ethical problems. Why is stealing wrong? If someone could take a pill that would convince them they'd given a lot of money to charity, would that be as good as actually giving the money? If not, can we logically argue that we are altruistic because that makes us happy? Can a robot think, and if you killed a sentient robot, would that be murder? Are designer babies wrong? Is astrology true? Can people bend spoons with their mind?
Finally, we examine what knowledge is and why it matters. A brief tour of well-known optical illusions reminds us that the evidence demanded by Sherlock Holmes is not entirely reliable unless we factor in the human tendency to see what we expect to be there.
All this is presented within 80 pages in a retro Jetsons-style format. It's a very accessible book; the paragraphs are kept short and to the point and there's plenty of space on each page (the distracting, image-heavy layouts used in so many children's non-fiction books nowadays are avoided, letting the thoughts connect with the readers' brains directly - a welcome change). Kingfisher are to be congratulated for producing such an accessible, yet stimulating little book. Let's hope it inspires a few intelligent conversations this Christmas.