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Lego & Philosophy

Most of my philosophical teaching and learning occurs in all-adult contexts. But the past few months I’ve discovered how wonderful a tool Lego is for firing the philosophical imaginations and musings of kids. I’ll illustrate a few simple examples from my own experience of playing with my 7 year old son, who’s played with nothing but Lego for about 9 months now – mostly Lego Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Fine by me! (My nickname for my son is “Mo Chara” which is Irish for “my friend.”)

Lego has presented quite a few lead-ins to philosophical thought. Here are four examples of conversations I’ve had with Mo Chara.

1. Creation

This is probably the most obvious connection. When we play with Lego we are the gods of the Lego world. Nothing gets built but at our hands. Here is a pile of bricks. Here is another pile of bricks, this time in the form of a house. How did that happen? Did mummy empty the box and the bricks by chance came out already built into a house? Nope, reckons Mo Chara. That must’ve been built by someone. Does this concept transfer over to the universe itself? Is the universe the sort of thing we look at and draw similar conclusions about? Mo Chara thinks the answer to that question is fairly obvious. This isn’t surprising since there is psychological research which shows that – contrary to the typical Internet Atheist claims that children are born atheists – children readily and naturally attribute all manner of phenomena to agency, as if such an intuition is hard-wired.

2. Personal Identity

What is a person? What makes me me and you you? If you lose a leg are you still you or just partly you? If we take Darth Vader’s head and swap it with Darth Maul’s head which one is Darth Vader and which one is Darth Maul? Likewise, if my brain goes into your body and vice versa, then which one is me and which one is you? Mo Chara’s current solution is that neither Darth Vader nor Darth Maul exist any longer; we have simply created two new creatures: Darth Mader and Darth Vaul.

3. Providence & Freedom

In discussion with a “strong” Calvinist I once parodied his view of God’s providence over the world by comparing it to my providence over the Lego world. The orcs kidnap elves because I make them do so. Dwarves wipe out orcs at my command. When I call out the storm troopers they cometh from the east and the west. When I send Yoda into battle, into battle does he go. When I command Saruman’s Uruk Hai to attack Rivendell, the trees crash like the mighty cedars of Lebanon. It all happens because I make it happen. So, what room then for responsibility? Are the orcs responsible for what they do? Aren’t we unjust to have them punished by Gandalf? Mo Chara disagrees with me on this point. He seems to think that while the orcs only do what they do because we make them do it; they are bad by nature and would do bad things anyway. So, punish away Gandalf. Thy judgment is just.

4. Ownership & Property

I built a cave out of Lego bricks last week. Do I own the cave? Well, the bricks weren’t mine to begin with. But, then again, the fact that the cave now exists is due to my time and effort spent in developing it. Does that give me ownership rights over the cave? We live in a world full of natural resources. Who owns those resources and why? I confess to being a tad put out when Mo Chara pulled my cave to bits to build a pyramid without so much as a by your leave. “I own the Lego, because it’s in my toy room.” “But I bought the Lego and the room is in the house.” “Shut up Daddy. It’s mine!” Well, you can’t expect them to be philosophical all the time!

But it’s all good…the conversations aren’t forced…it’s part of the fun…who’d have thought Lego could turn out to be so philosophically friendly? If only you could construct a worldview out of it.

Stephen J. Graham

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