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Dave Trott's Blog
When my son was very small he asked me about death.
We were driving along on a sunny day.
Suddenly the concept hit him with the weight of a cartoon anvil.
I heard his little voice from the back seat say “Daddy, I don’t want to die”.
Of course he didn’t.
None of us do.
We just get used to the idea over time.
We stop thinking about it.
If the concept of death is difficult for grownups, what must it be like for a small child?
You’ve just discovered what a fantastic and wonderful thing life is.
Then you find out it’s all going to be taken away.
You’ll lose everything you’ve got.
Nothing but blackness for eternity.
Unless you’re deeply religious, in which case you have all the stories about the various heavens.
How the next life is going to be better than this one.
But I’m not religious, so I couldn’t tell my son any of those stories.
I’m not a believer.
I go on evidence, which is what British philosophy was based on: empiricism.
Which means I’m also not an atheist.
Because atheism is the belief that there is definitely no afterlife, that this life is all there is.
I say that’s a belief because we don’t know that.
We don’t know there isn’t an afterlife anymore than we know there is.
But everyone seems terrified to accept ‘don’t know’ as a position.
I’m happy to admit I don’t know, until I do know.
Not to pretend to know.
So I’m agnostic.
Which is another word for keeping an open mind.
Descartes thought doubt was the strongest philosophical tool.
In fact, some philosophers translate “Cogito ergo sum” as “I doubt, therefore I am”.
Certainly scepticism has been the most valuable philosophical tool since Socrates.
Scepticism is what the Enlightenment was based on.
But all this is very difficult to explain to my son in the car.
He’s small and confused.
It would be easy to reassure him with fairytales about paradise.
It would keep him quiet for the time being.
But it would also be an anaesthetic to stop him thinking.
And one day he’s going to have that question crop up again.
Then he’ll find I lied, because I don’t believe it.
So that isn’t a good solution.
It’s a classic advertising problem.
How do you take something very complicated and reduce it to something very simple, while still retaining the core truth?
You always have two ingredients: the product and the audience.
You have to explain the one in terms of the other.
So I said to him “You like Sonic the Hedgehog don’t you?”
He nodded, he’d play Sonic all day if he could.
I said “You know how much fun it is getting through a level on Sonic?”
He nodded again.
I said “You know how, when you get to the end of one level, you move up to the next level?”
He smiled, we were in a world he understood now.
I said “But you don’t know what that next level’s going to be like until you’ve finished this level, do you?”
He thought about that.
I said “I think that’s what death is like. We’re having a great time on this level and when we’ve finished this level we go on to the next level. But we won’t know what the next level is like until we get there.”
And he thought about that, then he gradually lightened up.
I’d told him what I think the truth is, but in a way that worked for him.
I hadn’t lied just to shut him up.
I think that’s how it works, in advertising or anything else.