When we are small children, we ask a great many questions, and some of them are very difficult to answer. The parents do not know what to say; often they do not know the answer themselves. For instance, a small child asks his mother when out on a walk: “How high is the sky, Mummy?” That is a difficult question: in fact, there is no actual answer, because the appearance of the blue bowl above us is an illusion. But that would be too difficult to explain to a small child. So Mummy usually tries to distract the child’s attention: “Look at that man over there”, she says; “he’s holding his walking-stick in his left hand. Nearly everyone holds it in the right hand. Let’s look at the people and see how many of them are holding their stick or their parcel or umbrella in the left hand.”
It is not too difficult to distract small children; when it cannot be done, the parent may say: “Do stop asking questions!” A hundred years ago, there were stronger means to silence children’s questions. In those Victorian times, fear was often used to control behaviour. In the memoirs of a great Victorian statesman there is an account of his childhood, and he wrote that he used to ask a great many questions which the grown-up people could not answer. One day an old aunt spoke to him solemnly, screwing up her face and looking at him threateningly. She said: “Don’t ask so many questions. There is a great big bear who lives on the other side of London. He’s as big as a mountain, and his teeth are like church steeples. He lives by eating little boys who ask a lot of questions; he doesn’t like anything else, and he is always looking for them. If he hears that you’ve been asking a lot of questions, he’ll come across London, crashing through all the buildings, and roaring: WHERE’S THAT LITTLE BOY WHO ASKS ALL THOSE QUESTIONS? He’ll look for you and he’ll find you and then he’ll eat you up.” The writer said that this silenced him for a long time.
We do not invent that sort of story today; the parents just tell the children not to ask questions. In the end the effect is the same. The little ones give up asking their parents why things wear out, or why a cloth looks darker when it is wetted, or why everyone must die. Perhaps they think about such things silently for a time, but soon they give up. It is interesting that a great scientist, George Wald, a Nobel Prize winner for medicine, said that the really interesting questions are those which an intelligent child asks. He or she asks them, but gets no answer, and finally loses all curiosity about fundamental problems. A scientist, he said, must deliberately revive in himself that childish spirit of inquiry, which has been deadened by the repeated disappointment of getting no answers from his parents.
Still, it is not easy to say what the parents ought to do. Even when they happen to know an answer, it would often be too complicated to explain. My parents developed a strategy of buying some books for us three small boys, consisting mainly of pictures, which tried to explain how steam trains worked, or thermometers, or electric fires. These books must have made a deep impression on me, as I can still remember them clearly: The Wonder Book Of Why and What, and The Wonder Book Of When And Where (that was for history and geography), and the Wonder Book of Who and Why (that was biographies). So quite often my mother could say: “Well,
let’s look up your question”, and we would consult the book together. I puzzled over the pictures while she was covertly reading the text, which would give her at least the outline of an explanation. I did not notice what she was doing; it never occurred to me that she did not know everything already. When she was an old lady she told me that most of what she knew of basic science had been learned while reading these books quickly as we children looked at the pictures.
Another tactic which parents can use is to invent some answer, which will satisfy the children for the time being, until they are old enough to understand the true answer. Of course the parents also hope that the questions will be forgotten.
I can recall when I was four years old, and had followed my mother into the kitchen where she was doing something. I noticed a big clock on the kitchen table giving a loud tick-tock.
I asked my mother: “Mummy, what’s that noise?” My mother, probably pleased at having been asked such a simple question, told me: “It’s the clock, Trevor. Listen! The clock is saying tick-tock. D’you hear it? Tick-tock, tick-tock.” That silenced me for a bit, as I looked at it from the front and the back and then put my ear to it to listen attentively, whispering along with the clock: “Tick-tock, tick-tock.” My mother got on with what she was doing. But small boys get bored very quickly. I said: “Why does it go on saying tick-tock, tick-tock? Why doesn’t it say something else?”
That was more difficult to answer. But I was the third son, so my mother had had considerable experience of just such questions, from my two elder brothers. She replied without hesitation: “Because it likes saying tick-tock. That’s what it likes doing. It just says tick-tock because it likes that.”
I argued: “Why does it like saying the same thing? Why doesn’t it want to say something else?”
My mother was equal to this too. She had recently bought us small drums as toys, and they had been a great success. She said, perhaps a little sadly: “Well, you like banging your drum, don’t you? You go on hitting that. And the clock likes to go on with its tick-tock.” I was completely satisfied with this reply. Like many small boys, I liked banging a drum, and was quite happy to go on hitting the drum continuously for a good time. So I fully understood that a clock might like to go on repeating the same tick-tock, with the same pleasure I had in beating the drum. I had a sort of fellow-feeling with the clock. ‘Because it likes that’ had answered my question perfectly.
The next time I heard this phrase was when I was about ten. We children were taken on a day trip to France. I was surprised to see that the French cars drove on the right-hand side of the road. I asked my father: “Why do they drive on the wrong side of the road? Don’t they have a lot of accidents?”
“No,” replied my father, “because they all do it. They don’t have accidents because they all know that the others will drive on the right side too”. He hoped, I suppose, that I should forget my first question. But I persisted: “But why do they all drive on the wrong side of the road?” He hesitated for a moment, and then found the same solution that my mother had found six years before. “Well, you see, they like to drive on the right. That’s the fashion on the Continent. They all like to drive on the right side. They like that.”
I subsided; the answer seemed convincing. We British children believed that all Continentals were odd. I knew that they liked to eat frogs. In fact, the old English nickname for the French was ‘frogs’, just as the French called us ‘rosbif’, the French pronunciation of ‘roast beef. They found our mania for roast beef just as strange as we found their liking for frogs. So it would not be strange, I thought, that a people who liked to eat frogs should also like to drive on the wrong side of the road, and I was satisfied with the reply: ‘‘They like that.”
When I became an adult, I did not expect to be fobbed off with ‘it likes that’ and ‘they like that’. But it happened to me. I bought a computer with a word processor programme and a printer, to use at home. I took lessons in using the computer, from a much younger man; he is a friend who is also an expert on computers. Our method was that I went through parts of the computer manual by myself, trying the instructions on the machine. Then when he came for the weekly lesson, I would show him my problems and questions.
At one point, I had followed the instructions carefully, going through all the operations in the order recommended by the book. Yet I did not get the proper result on the screen. I explained this to him, and he told me: “Probably you made some mistake.” All beginners on computers maintain that they have made no mistake, and that it is the machine that has failed. But it nearly always turns out that they have overlooked some small point. Rather than challenge the expert, I just waited, and he said: “I’ll try it.” He slowly did the same operations that I had done, in the order as laid down in the handbook. He got the same incorrect result that I had got. He did it all again, this time very quickly. Same result. He did not look at all disconcerted, but rapidly tapped out a series of commands on the keyboard, looking keenly at the screen as it displayed signs and symbols incomprehensible to me.
Then he leant back in his chair, and said: “Well, with this particular machine you have here, it will be better to reverse the order of the first two steps.” He demonstrated, and now the answer was correct. I felt somehow that I had been cheated, and protested to him: “But I’ve got a standard machine of a very good make. You recommended it yourself. Why doesn’t it obey the standard instructions of the manual? Why has it got to have the order changed?”
He stared into the distance. I could almost hear him thinking to himself: ‘Will he be able to understand it if I tell him? No. He’s only a beginner, and couldn’t possibly understand the reason. And it will lead to endless questions.’ He looked at me just like my mother had looked at me when I asked awkward questions as a child; then he went into what he calls Beginners’ Mode, and breathed: ‘It likes that.’ I felt about four years old again.
It likes that! What a foolish answer it is, to an intelligent child’s question! Or to an intelligent beginner’s question. The true answer must be in terms of laws of physics, which are precise and allow no exceptions. There is no room for liking or not liking in physics. The behaviour of atoms and electrons follows predictable paths. In fact, the whole universe is like an enormous piece of clockwork. And our own brains, made up of atoms and electrons and so on, should be equally predictable. Marxists tell me that my thinking and behaviour are determined by social environment, such as the fact that my parents had two servants (like Karl Marx’s parents, as a matter of fact); neurologists tell me that my thinking and behaviour are determined by changes in the synapses in the brain. I cannot do as I like, they tell me; there is no real choice at all, but everything is determined by the courses of the electrons. And the courses of the electrons are fixed, by the laws of physics.
But… are they? Another Nobel Prize winner, Richard Feynman, one of the most respected of the modern physicists, said this about them: The electron does anything it likes. It just goes in any direction, at any speed, forward or backward in time, however it likes. And then you add up the amplitudes and it gives you the wave function.
One of his colleagues remarked that when he first heard Feynman say this, he thought he had gone crazy. But he later found that it was true. But still, it’s very surprising.
Anything it likes? However it likes? This is the very explanation that my mother gave when I was four: it likes that. Now the same thing comes from a top physicist. At the very heart of matter, the path of the electron is not fixed. So the path of an electron in my brain is not fixed, and my thinking is not pre-determined. The brain-electron moves in a particular way because it likes that.
I like that.
© Trevor Leggett 1987
Index for this series of articles
2 Consideration for Strangers
3 Social Conventions and Surprises
4 Cruel to be Kind
5 Losing to Oneself
7 It Likes That
9 Japanese Logic