Is the illogic of kids really different from the illogic of their elders?

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Wheres the logic?
The past weekend's This American Life was devoted to "kid logic." Host Ira Glass explained at the outset that babies are no longer thought of as "irrational, illogical, self-centered little balls of need and want." No, scientists now tell us that "children are observing the world, and thinking about it, and coming to logical conclusions from the day they're born." Moreover, "kids think with the same logic adults use and apply that logic just as rigorously."

Yet because "there are certain things they do not know and take a while to figure out," the logical leaps of children can be delightfully wrongheaded. As the show's website puts it, here are "stories of kids using perfectly logical arguments, and arriving at perfectly wrong conclusions." Or as Glass put it, echoing Bill Cosby and Art Linkletter from other eras, "Kids say the darndest things."

I heard the first minutes of this show in the car and went online to hear the rest. Glass has a limited appetite for charm for charm's sake, and I wondered what dark corners he might have decided to poke into. The larger point to be made about a child's logic isn't that it's no different from adult logic but that adult logic is no improvement.

Children need explanations they can live with, and so do adults. Every discredited pagan religion began with some nervous cluster of savages attempting to come to terms with phenomena that baffled and terrified them. Every skeleton lifted from the floor of the cenote at Chichen Itza reminds us what the Mayan shamans came up when they put their minds to how to guarantee rain.

I'm not so sure our monotheistic religions are a big improvement. They're "faiths," remember, and rest on wildly imaginative points of doctrine. Years ago when I was a sullen seaman on an ammunition ship, I was asked to give the sermon at the Sunday service on the mess deck. (I wonder if sailors on ammo ships attend services more regularly than other sailors.) I have no idea what I said, but years later I regretted not making the point that we should thank God that our God is real, because if He weren't we would probably come up with some sort of theology that insisted on His existence anyway but it would be based on wishful thinking.

Is there any human talent more likely to be rewarded than the ability to placate a seething multitude with an explanation that sounds reasonable? We are all children when it comes to believing what we want to believe. We believe medicines work—either the ones we take or the ones they won't let us take. As I've observed before, because we want to believe that in our world justice prevails, we believe in tools that guarantee justice. We dare to question those tools (memory, eyewitness testimony) only when something comes along (like DNA) to replace them as unimpeachable.

As "Kid Logic" unspooled, it turned out that not all of Glass's material fit his template. His kids didn't all say the darndest things. They struggled to understand. For instance, a father talked about his inquisitive little girl who asked why she'd just seen Jesus on a cross and absorbed the information that Jesus was put to death for what he preached. Later she heard about Martin Luther King Jr., and perceiving that King preached a similar message, asked her father, "Did they kill him too?" I'm not sure why this sensible question was even included in the show.

The longest segment concerned a little boy trying to comprehend the reality that his father was slowly dying of a rare disease. The boy speculated outlandishly on ways to avert this catastrophe, but who of any age, when confronted with death, does not? To use a word favored by Ira Glass, the boy applied his logic rigorously. He was frightened and desperate, and he wanted to believe in a generous world in which every trouble can be explained and resolved. His mother knew better. But the world is full of adults who refuse not to believe that too.

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