The Templeton Ideas Podcast is a show about the most awe-inspiring ideas in our world and the people who investigate them.
Dr. Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. She is particularly well-known for her studies of babies and young children, and how their minds can help us unlock deep philosophical questions. This week, Alison joins the podcast to discuss the flaws in our popular understanding of children and babies, the connection between children and awe, and how caregiving contributes to a meaningful life. Dr. Alison Gopnik is the author of several popular books, including The Philosophical Baby, The Scientist in the Crib, and The Gardner and the Carpenter, which are mentioned in this interview.
Transcripts of our episodes are made available as soon as possible. They are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.
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ABBY PONTICELLO: It’s so nice to meet you, Alison. Thank you so much for joining me today.
ALISON GOPNIK: Well, thank you so much for having me.
ABBY PONTICELLO: I wanted to start actually by asking a question about your own childhood. When I was reading one of your books, The Philosophical Baby, you talked a bit about how an early experience reading Plato actually led you to want to become a philosopher, and I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that experience and how it impacted you.
ALISON GOPNIK: Yeah, well, I had a marvelous rich childhood. Sort of rich and chaotic and full of ideas. My parents were both graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania when I was growing up, and I’m the oldest of six children, which means that I was basically with young children and taking care of young children and thinking about young children for my entire life. My first child was born when I was 23 and I figured once, there’s maybe five years when I haven’t been really deeply engaged with children in my life. But my mom was and is a linguist and my father is an English professor and at the time they were getting their PhDs. And they very much led us and encouraged us to read and think about whatever it was that we wanted.
And there was a television version of Peter Ustinov’s Barefoot in Athens, which was a play about Socrates that I saw when I was about 10. I thought it was like the most wonderful thing in the world. This was exactly how I wanted to spend the rest of my life talking and arguing and thinking. So, I asked my parents if I could read Socrates and they had a copy of Plato sitting on the shelf, and my father, in his typical way said, yeah, sure, here it is. And you know the truth is, if you talk to lots of philosophers, they’ll tell you that the thing that turned them into philosophers was reading Plato and often reading Plato when they were quite young. You know, Plato is written for what we would now call a popular audience.
There wasn’t in those days a kind of technical academic audience, so it’s supposed to be written for people to understand, and I just loved it. I thought it was fantastic and wonderful. But one of the things that struck me about it was that there were no children and there was no discussion of children. And in particular, the part that really gripped me as it grips others was the argument about immortality. So, the idea is supposed to be, look, you couldn’t have a soul that just appeared and then disappeared, it must be some way that it’s going to continue. And it seemed obvious to me that one way that your ideas and your mind continued was through children. And it wasn’t just that they were dismissing that it didn’t even come up as a possibility.
And it struck me then and has continued to strike me to this very day that that’s a giant missing piece of philosophy.
And it's curious because if you think about most of our lives, the relationships between children and parents present our deepest moral conundrum, and they're the things that give our lives meaning.
And in the work that I’ve been doing more recently, we can show that biologically those relationships across the generations are deeply important for human beings, and yet they’ve been pretty invisible in the context of philosophy. And that’s started to change a little bit, but still it’s rather striking that it hasn’t changed more.
ABBY PONTICELLO: Absolutely. I’m curious, once you first had your interest peaked about the absence of children and babies from philosophy, how did you begin cultivating that interest?
ALISON GOPNIK: Well, as I say, I had five young siblings, so that meant that I had a lot of time with children. Here’s something really interesting, Abby, that just happened that I was, I was struck by, I went to a public school in Philadelphia and just last week someone sent me a copy of the school newspaper full of contributions by assorted gopnik children, including two essays by me, which I had not read for, literally for 60 years. And I was in the sixth grade and there’s this essay about teaching and in particular about robots and computers will be the ones who will be teaching, but they’re still going to be really important to have humans as long as humans are learning. And I had no idea that I was so prescient for my future, my future career, at the time.
You know, I’ve been thinking about this set of questions for as long as I can remember. Then when I went to be an undergraduate at McGill University and McGill at that point was a real hotbed for what was going to come to be called cognitive science. So, there was this idea around that philosophy and psychology and computer science and linguistics could all talk to one another. And I remember the very first year I was there as a 15-year-old freshman, and at that point, completely committed to being a philosopher, but I was already interested in thinking about children, so I took a lot of psychology courses as well. And in the end, it turned out that I had enough courses to get degrees in both disciplines, which is kind of what I’ve done ever since. Although I still think that my basic identity is as a philosopher.
ABBY PONTICELLO: That’s great. I’m curious what some of the early discoveries you made were and if and how they differed from, what was the popular understanding of children and babies at that time?
ALISON GOPNIK: Yeah. It’s interesting because of course your own personal history always interacts with the general history that’s going on. And I was also very lucky because in the seventies there was really this revolution that was going on in our understanding of children. So, there had been sort of one revolution through Piaget and then through American Piagetians, like John Flavell and Jerome Bruner starting to really take children seriously. But then there was this other revolution in the seventies basically because we had video recorders. So instead of just looking at children and trying to figure out what they were doing, we could actually record their behaviors and their movements in a systematic way. And you know, the truth is, if you’re thinking about babies and young children, if you just look at a baby, they’re not gonna look very intelligent. And even if you talk to a three-year-old, you’re likely to get a beautiful stream of consciousness, poem about ponies and birthdays, but you won’t get anything that looks very rational or logical.
And the general picture was that children, even from someone like Piaget, was that children were egocentric. They were illogical. They were restricted to the here and now. You still hear people kind of describing children’s minds that way. Sometimes people say they’re sponges. And what happened was once we got these new tools that let us not just look at what children said, but look at what they did, look at what they were looking at, where their eyes were moving, what choices they were making, what actual actions they took. It turned out that, in fact, even the youngest children were much more logical, thoughtful, coherent than we ever would have guessed before. And that was sort of happening in the field at the same time that I was starting. And I went to Oxford University thinking that I would do philosophy, but Jerome Bruner was there, the great developmental psychologist at the same time, and fairly amazing cohort of psychology, developmental graduate students, and that’s when I really shifted to start thinking about ways that you could test some of these ideas scientifically by going out and actually looking at children.
ABBY PONTICELLO: That’s so fascinating. So, your, your academic research on children, it sounds like began during your, your time at Oxford.
ALISON GOPNIK: Yeah, so when I was at McGill, I was still almost entirely doing philosophy. But then when I started at Oxford, it’s funny because I did something that I would never in a million years suggest that a graduate student do. Now, I embarked on these very time-consuming longitudinal studies where, went to visit these 15-month-olds literally every two weeks for a year.
That was the plan, and I recorded everything that they said and then took it home and analyzed it at home. Now, that was a kind of insane thing to do, but what it meant was that it was a fantastic education because I was actually sitting there on the floor with these little kids for hours every week and, and really starting to sense of what they were about and what they could do and how they could think, and how they could answer some of these giant, big, philosophical questions. So one central question of philosophy and the central question of my career has been this, we get so little information from the world around us. All we get is this stream of photons hitting our eyes and disturbances of air at our ears.
And yet we all know about a world of objects and people and corks and distant planets. How is it possible that we know so much given that we actually see so little. That’s one of the great deep questions of philosophy. And by the way, also of fields of psychology like vision science or perception and of contemporary machine learning too.
How can you learn so much from so little? And I always thought that if you looked at children, who are the people who are actually doing that? Who are actually taking in that stuff, that’s coming to at them from the real world, that you could get some clues about how that was possible.
ABBY PONTICELLO: I’m curious how your work on parenting ran in parallel to your own experiences as a parent. What were the kind of convergences or divergences there with your professional and personal experiences?
ALISON GOPNIK: Well, it’s interesting, you know, because I wrote my first book, The Scientist in the Crib, when my children were still little, and I was very much taking care of children. But that wasn’t the focus of that book at all. The book was really focused on just how brilliant children were and how they were exploring and finding things out and then The Philosophical Baby came right after my children had grown up and left, I started writing it after my youngest son went to college. And the gardener and the carpenter was really after my first grandchildren appeared. And I think it’s interesting. It was really the experience of being with grandchildren and also of watching my own children trying to be parents that precipitated thinking about the role that caregiving plays. And I think being a grandparent is a really, sort of again, unheralded change in who we are and how we function in the world.
One of the things that I’m rather pleased about is it turns out that grandparents are really a good audience for my books because the poor parents are so preoccupied with just getting us through the day and making it to the next day that they don’t really have enough time to think broadly about what’s going on. Whereas that’s exactly what grandparents can do and and want to do, sit back and actually watch what’s going on with their children.
ABBY PONTICELLO: That’s funny. When it comes to kind of parenting stereotypes like helicopter parents, snowplow parents, things like that, how does that fit into your understanding of the flaws of productivity, obsessed models of parenting that have become so pervasive in our culture.
ALISON GOPNIK: Yeah, I mean, I think the main failing, you know, I think children are pretty robust and they’ll, if they have nurturance and a safe, rich environment, which I, again, I want to point out, 20% of American children do not have, it’s actually not easy for a society or for an individual to provide the basic background for children. And that’s actually gotten worse. There’s a terrible crisis in, in childcare at the moment. People are forced into trying to decide, do I go out and work, which gives me the resources to have these kids, but then I can’t afford to have good childcare for them. It’s a terrible dilemma that really permeates the whole culture.
So that said, if you can get that kind of basic nurturance and care, then from then on, I think the children are gonna develop pretty robustly. The real downside is the anxiety and misery that these kind of helicopter parent models give to parents. So, the fact that the parents end up being so anxious and this phenomenon of raising children, which is one of the great, rich, deep experiences in human life, becomes this very fraught, difficult kind of activity instead, and I think it’s at least possible. I don’t think the evidence for this is very clear yet I think it’s at least possible that things like the increase in anxiety in children are connected to the increase in the kind of very anxious parenting. I mean, children learn from their parents and having a lot of anxiety around parenting and parents I think might be connected to anxiety in children, but I don’t think that data are really clear about that yet.
ABBY PONTICELLO: So, moving to take a step back now and kind of look at the, the whole picture of your career and your research. I’m curious if there’s anything in your life today that would surprise the childhood version of Alison.
ALISON GOPNIK: Oh, that’s a good, that’s a good question. I didn’t know how great grandchildren were going to be. One of my jokes is that my one piece of advice to people is skip the children, go straight to the grandchildren.
The grandchildren are not a very useful piece of advice. But I didn’t, I don’t think I realized how different the grandchild relationship was going to be and how satisfying it was going to be compared to the child relationship. And I think lots of grandparents have that same experience.
And you know, my general advice to say young academics or young scientists is that again, it’s funny, it’s like in your own life you can make the gardener carpenter distinction. And I think often young scientists feel as if there’s some path that they should be following or some set of goals or some set of benchmarks that they should be achieving. And we do that too in terms of our assessment of, of young people in the field. And I think that’s bad for science as well. I mean, I think one of the things that I’ve argued is that it’s not so much that the kids are little scientists, but the scientists are big children. So being a scientist is an example of choosing the explorer rather than the exploit route, even as an adult.
And when we have a good society, we can afford to have people taking on those kinds of roles. And one thing that I worry about is that science has increasingly become a kind of exploit process where you are counting up how. Citations you have and how many papers you have, rather than being just this kind of, let me try exploring, let me try this possibility even if it doesn’t work. So, I think our scientific community could take some good lessons from looking at the children.
ABBY PONTICELLO: So, I wanted to ask you a bit about awe. We talk a lot at the John Templeton Foundation about research that inspires awe and wonder, and those are some of our main kinds of themes, and I think it’s particularly fascinating as it pertains to children. There are so many innately awe-inspiring things about watching these little people learn and grow and discover. So, I was wondering if you could tell me one particularly awe-inspiring experience you’ve had with children either professionally or in your own personal experience as a parent or a grandparent.
ALISON GOPNIK: Yeah. Well, it’s funny in my lab meeting the other day, so we’ve been looking at these explore exploit tendencies, and one of the things that Dacher Keltner, who’s been on your show and others have found, is that in adults, the experience of all leads to more exploration. So having that experience of, you know, being in the redwood forest or in the mountain just means that you seems to kick people out of their narrow self and allow them to explore the world more broadly.
And you know, I think it’s interesting that in religious traditions, you get this contrast that’s really the explore exploit contrast between something like what the Buddhist call Maya, where you’re stuck in your own particular rut of, I have to do this, I have to get this done, I have to make the next decision. Versus when you can just have a sense of the whole world being around you and there’s a particular kind of what philosophies call phenomenology, a particular kind of really marvelous experience that comes from just recognizing how rich and full and exciting the world around you is independently of who you are or what you’re trying to do to it.
Now, you couldn’t survive if you were just in that state all the time, and even great monks and mystic except have somebody coming in and bringing them supper, right? But it does seem to be a really important part of being human.
What I think is that babies and young children are in that. Much of the time, you know, sometimes they’re fussy and miserable and trying to get nurturance, but given that they’re in the nurtured state, I think that’s the state that they’re in pretty much when they’re awake and around and looking around them. So, in my lab meeting, we were thinking, Ge, I wonder if we could see if inducing awe in the kids would make a difference to their explorer exploit.
And I suddenly had this thought about my beautiful grandson, and his experience of awe. And there is no question as far as he's concerned, the most awesome thing in the world is the garbage truck.
And he’ll hear the garbage truck coming and he’ll say, “garbage truck? Garbage truck!” He’s two, “garbage truck, garbage truck” runs outside, stands there, looks and says, “Come on. Come on. Garbage truck. Garbage truck.” And when you stand there with him on the balcony and look at the garbage truck, you realize, my God, a garbage truck is an amazingly awesome thing. Like, think about it. It’s this big truck. There’s this amazing, these amazing machines on it that take big garbage cans and flip them around in this magical way. There’s these wonderful, skilled people who are sitting there in their uniforms doing it. Garbage truck is just like the most awesome thing you can imagine. But of course, as grown up, we edit out all the awesomeness of garbage trucks. For us, garbage trucks are all, it’s 7:31 waking up because they’re picking up the garbage, right? Or, oh no, it’s Sunday night, I have to do the recycling. So I was saying to the students like, I’m not sure how we’re gonna be able to do the manipulation of getting awe if the awe inspiring thing is not the redwoods in the mountains, but the garbage trucks. And I think that emphasizes the fact that for the kids, everything is awestruck.
With the same grandson. He’s in Montreal and we went to the corner to get a babyccino, in Montreal, babies have, little ones have babyccinos, the way the grownups have cappuccinos because that’s Montreal, and he loves a babyccino. But it took us a solid half hour to walk those three blocks because everything on the blocks was so fascinating.
There were leaves and there were dogs, and there were hydrangea plants, and there were cars, and every single thing is captivating. So, I think maybe this is also part of what precipitated my career. Part of it is this big abstract question about how we come to understand the world, but also for me that experience, what will in the religious tradition be called the numinous.
That sense of the numinous has always been a, an incredibly important part of my life. And trying to figure out what’s going on with that numinous feeling, what is that experience all about? And I think in many ways, children are the best example of having that kind of numinous experience of the world. And one of the great things about being with children as an adult is that you can vicariously, as with the garbage truck, you can experience the way it is to be in the world in that numinous way.
And I think there’s an interesting flip side to that, which is that the other deep, unprecedented experience is the experience of caring. So, the experience of taking care of children, and again, that’s something that you see in the religious tradition that caritas that sense of feeling the significance and importance of another person, that kind of warmth that attachment. That’s a very deep set of emotions and experiences, and again, one that’s been very understudied and underappreciated in the scientific literature.
And there’s a final thing to say about both of those experiences, which is that, especially if you’re thinking about them as experiences, it’s easy to think, well, okay, the kids are just kind of crazy, or the mystics are just kind of crazy, they’re just having this hallucination about the significance of the world. Or caregivers, mothers, grandmothers, that sense that you have as a grandmother, that your grandchild is just the most important, fantastic, wonderful thing that’s ever been on the planet. That’s just an evolutionary hallucination. That’s just something that evolution does to make you pass on your genes and continue.
But I think exactly the opposite is true. I think those are the moments when we actually really understand and appreciate the world. So, he is right about the garbage truck. The garbage truck is a truly amazing, wonderful thing. And he’s right about those few blocks. He’s right that the world is richer and deeper and there’s more there to understand than we see when we’re in our usual kind of narrow blinders. And those moments are when you appreciate the truth about how rich the world is and similarly, everybody really is deserving of care. All the human beings in the world really are unique and special and valuable, the same way that grandparents feel about their grandchildren, the same way that I feel about Thalo. But it’s only in those moments, in those moments of caregiving and close relationship, that we see that truth about other people. The hallucination is the hallucination of the person walking down the street thinking about what it is that they have to do and what the job is and what the next thing to do is, and not seeing the wealth of the people around them. Now again. Being sympathetic to my poor 35-year-old friends and children, we couldn’t survive if we didn’t do that, and we didn’t do that a lot of the time. It wouldn’t work if we were all saints and mystics. But I think it’s interesting to think about those experiences and the people who have those experiences that children on the one hand and the elders on the other, as a, something that’s valuable, that’s telling you the truth about the world.
ABBY PONTICELLO: So, our contemporary society is having fewer children than ever before, so that leaves us with fewer parents, obviously, fewer children, fewer grandparents. I’m curious, what, if any, unintended consequences might you see resulting from this trend?
ALISON GOPNIK: Yeah, it’s interesting, uh, again, because I’ve started doing a bunch of work about elders in the context of caregiving as well. We have a group at the Center for Advanced Studies looking at this with people from lots of different social science backgrounds. And one of the things that’s really striking is this demographic change that’s happening, globally across the world, what’s happening is in history, there were many more children than there were elders. Even though as, as I say, there were some elders, and that’s really reversed. And it’s a real question about what does that mean for how we’re going to prosper in the world?
And you know, one thought is the sort of depressing thought, oh, we we’re gonna have all these fragile elders that we are going to have to take care of and we aren’t gonna have enough children and young people coming up to, to take care of them.
But there could be the reverse thought, which is that, you know, part of the reason for this demographic change is that more and more nowadays, children survive. In the old days, there were lots more children, but one out of five was dying. People were dying before they reached old age. The elders are fragile in some ways, but they also seem to be evolutionarily adapted for this role of caring and teaching. So the question is, what could we do to design our society so that instead of having the kids in school, the parents at work, the elders in Florida, you’d actually have the elders and the parents and the kids each with their role together. And from that perspective, having more people to care for children is a really good thing. That’s something that should make the society more prosperous if we can just figure out the right way to do it.
ABBY PONTICELLO: In some of your work, you talk about, and this is almost ubiquitous, anecdotally, how children are such a go-to answer for many adults, to the question of what makes life meaningful and beautiful and morally rich? I wonder, do humans rely too heavily on the experience of having children to cultivate meaning and purpose in life? And if so, what might be the implications of this?
ALISON GOPNIK: Well no, I think kind of the opposite. So I think, what happens is we have this picture of children as having children, right? So we have this idea that somehow biological parents, and in many cases just a biological mother, is the only person who’s taking care of children. And in fact, if you look at human culture more generally, as I mentioned before, we rather uniquely evolved a much wider range of caregivers. You have not only mothers, but fathers and older siblings and these great grandmothers and grandfathers and what the great anthropologist Sarah Hrdy calls Alloparents, people who aren’t actually engaged in, aren’t biologically related, but are involved in in caring for children.
So, I think the mistake that we’ve made is to think that it’s only people who are biologically giving birth that can be involved in these kind of very rich caregiving relationships. And as I say, it isn’t just applied to children, although I think it applies to children, particularly, it applies to our relationships, to other people around us, our close relationships in general. Those close relationships of care are invisible in something like the gross domestic product, we don’t recognize them, we don’t think about them as being productive, important, central human activities.
So, I think if we could put people in more situations in which they were caring for others beyond just being, you know, a biological parent who's giving birth to a child, I think that would do nothing but good for the society and the culture at large.
And one of the things I also say, and I think again, the science suggests this, is that it’s not that we care for people because we love them, we love them because we care for them. So actually being able to have that experience of being with a child on a regular basis, or being with an elder on a regular basis, or being with someone who is fragile or a need on a regular basis, that very experience is the thing that calls out these very distinctive emotions of attachment and care, which I think it’s pretty hard to say, are not a great important part of human life.
ABBY PONTICELLO: Do you have any practical advice for people who are considering whether or not to have children of their own?
ALISON GOPNIK: Well, I think the practical advice is everyone makes these decisions themselves, given their own circumstances and background. There’s a wonderful book by a philosopher called Laurie Paul called Transformative Experience, and she makes the point that having children is one of these transformative experiences where you are a different person on the other side. Making that decision is really, unusually difficult.
This is a very deep point by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin that there are different values and there’s no way of being able to deal with the trade-offs between those different values. The point I’d wanna make is that children and caregiving in general is one of those really important values, and if we can design our lives so that the costs of doing that are not as great as they are now or that they’re born by a wider range of people, I think will all be in a better position to thrive.
ABBY PONTICELLO: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much, Alison. This has been incredible and such a privilege to get to speak with you.
ALISON GOPNIK: Well, thank you so much for having me, Abby.
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