Curiosity is Sacred

Much has been written about the polarization wracking the Western world; in the US, for example, some data scientists worry it might be as severe today as it was during the Civil War. But a large recent study of the problem called the Hidden Tribes Report found an “exhausted majority” between the extremes of left and right and concluded that “most Americans are tired of this ‘us-versus-them’ mindset and are eager to find common ground.” This essay proposes a way forward. I argue that we should elevate curiosity into what Jonathan Haidt calls a “sacred value,” by honoring Richard Feynman’s exhortation to “leave the door to the unknown ajar,” and then I defend this proposal through the lens of Thomas Sowell’s “constrained vision.” Sacred values bind society together, and curiosity is uniquely suited for finding common ground.

Defining Curiosity

Curiosity is the yearning to understand. It motivates the pursuit of knowledge, as each answered question uncovers new mysteries that urge us to wander further into the unknown. When this drive is focused and codified, we call it science, the Latin word for knowledge. Curiosity is characterized by a dogged desire for truth—even ugly truths. Falsehoods cannot satisfy the yearning to understand.

Understanding truth requires attempting to prove our ideas wrong over and over again, until we fail to prove them wrong so many times that we may feel some confidence in them. This method is simple yet revolutionary because human nature makes us far more talented at proving ourselves right than wrong. The counterintuitive conviction to break our ideas is central to science. Even when we inevitably fall short, people around the world will interrogate our theories, so that they get rigorously tested regardless. This results in a body of knowledge that enables us to perform miracles: we are fleshy and featherless but we have learned to fly.

And yet, the pursuit of knowledge has always frightened humanity. Many myths warn us that curiosity killed the cat. God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden because they eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Faust legend describes a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge. But my personal favorite is the Greek myth of Prometheus, the titan who sculpted humanity out of clay.

Prometheus wants his creation to thrive with the gift of fire, but Zeus forbids this, so he resorts to stealing fire from the sun. When Zeus finds out, the enraged god punishes both gift giver and receiver. Zeus condemns Prometheus to eternal torture and gives the first woman, Pandora, both a jar and a curious disposition.

When Pandora opens the jar to find out what it contains, all manner of horror and evil rush out. Aghast, she shuts it tight—too late. All that she manages to trap inside is hope. This myth bears an uncanny resemblance to the scientific discovery of nuclear power, because the sun is a nuclear furnace. It is but a small poetic flourish to describe nuclear physicists as Promethean figures.

At the dawn of the Atomic Age, many believed radiation was a panacea and celebrated nuclear power as the fuel of an increasingly utopian civilization. Like Prometheus, they wanted to use the fire of the sun to promote progress. But, after World War II, most came to believe that atomic energy unleashed all manner of horror and evil, holding hope hostage with the threat of mutually assured destruction. Susan Sontag describes

the trauma suffered by everyone in the middle of the 20th century when it became clear that from now on to the end of human history, every person would spend his individual life not only under the threat of individual death, which is certain, but of something almost unsupportable psychologically—collective incineration and extinction which could come any time, virtually without warning.

Scientists are professionally curious. Their ability to invent existential threats seems to justify ancient fears about the pursuit of knowledge, because learning how the world works is meaningless if we annihilate ourselves. So storytellers amended the old myths, as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and in much science fiction, from Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot to HBO’s Westworld. When specific anxieties about science shift, the stories shift with them, the way Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider in 1962, but by 2000 the spider was genetically modified instead. Throughout the generations, these stories have warned us about hubris, and taught us, as Peter Parker learns from his Uncle Ben’s death, that with great power comes great responsibility.

The Value of Science

In his 1955 speech to the National Academy of Sciences titled “The Value of Science,” Richard Feynman uses a Buddhist proverb to elucidate the blind nature of science: “To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.” Of course it is wise to caution against unleashing hell, but if we throw away the key, then we cannot get into heaven. Feynman, who helped invent the bomb, insists that science is worthwhile:

Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty—some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain. Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure—that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes that this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle. Permit us to question—to doubt, that’s all—not to be sure. And I think it is important that we do not forget the importance of this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained. Here lies a responsibility to society.

We can learn humility from science if it ennobles us to admit what we do not know. Doubting ourselves is unpalatable, but the great pleasure of satisfying curiosity can help us overcome this distaste. Philosopher Karl Popper termed this powerful tool for understanding how the world works falsifiability, and our technological and medical advancements testify to its efficacy.

Of course, not everyone learns humility from pursuing knowledge. Cautionary tales like Frankenstein stress the possibility of opening the gates of hell. For every superhero with a radioactive backstory or a high tech science lab, there is a villain with the same advantages. The archetype for this genre is Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, who worships his own intellect before God. And—lest we comfort ourselves by dismissing these examples as fiction—remember that the French Revolutionaries who decapitated around 40,000 people during their Reign of Terror turned Notre Dame into a Temple of Reason.

But, on balance, science has done more good than harm. Feynman’s entreaty is supported by Steven Pinker’s tome Enlightenment Now, where Pinker writes that his favorite sentence comes from a Wikipedia entry, “Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor.”  Pinker explains, “Yes, ‘smallpox was.’ The disease that got its name from the painful pustules that cover the victim’s skin, mouth, and eyes and that killed more than 300 million people in the 20th century has ceased to exist.” He discusses this miracle on page 64 of a nearly 600-page “case for reason, science, humanism, and progress.” (The subtitle of the book.) The information compiled in Enlightenment Now demonstrates how invaluable science has been to human flourishing; science-driven advancements have saved hundreds of millions of lives.

The quantifiable value of science should not be understated. Pinker concludes that it “has granted us the gifts of life, health, wealth, knowledge, and freedom,” and that “the spirit of science is the spirit of the Enlightenment.” And the spirit of science is curiosity.

The Pleasurable Choice

Feynman describes curiosity as a “religious experience,” expressing the feeling in a poem as “atoms with consciousness; matter with curiosity. Stands at the sea, wonders at wondering: I, a universe of atoms, an atom in the universe.” He continues:

The same thrill, the same awe and mystery, comes again and again when we look at any question deeply enough. With more knowledge comes a deeper, more wonderful mystery, luring one on to penetrate deeper still. Never concerned that the answer may prove disappointing, with pleasure and confidence we turn over each new stone to find unimagined strangeness leading on to more wonderful questions and mysteries—certainly a grand adventure!

This joy is its own reward. It counteracts the typical aversion to ugly truths, easing the discomfort we feel when the truth hurts, as the thrill of exploration overwhelms the pain. Eager to experience that thrill again, curious minds begin to crave truth. Without it, they cannot satisfy the yearning to understand. Curiosity does not seek truth because it is the moral choice, but because it is the pleasurable choice.

Perhaps progress was more or less an accident, a byproduct of people exploring individual interests throughout the millennia. Uncovering truth is an emergent property of curiosity. No matter how brilliant, a single curious mind is nearly useless. But, as curious minds interact, people challenge each other’s oversights and biases until the truth emerges from their debates. And then humanity can apply that knowledge to solving problems, propelling progress forward with ideas like the germ theory of disease and inventions like the smallpox vaccine.

To anyone who values truth, curiosity is sacred.

Sacred Values

Sacred values hold society together. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt compares sanctity to a maypole dance in The Righteous Mind, “As the men and women pass each other and swerve in and out, their ribbons weave a kind of tubular cloth around the pole. The dance symbolically enacts the central miracle of social life: e pluribus unum.” He theorizes that sanctity evolved to foster cooperation and that sacred values are indispensable to social cohesion. We should bind society together with the yearning to understand.

If curiosity is sacred, then its associated values—falsifiability and uncertainty—are moral imperatives. Speaking sixty years before the publication of Enlightenment Now, Feynman’s urgency expresses his fear of losing the kind of progress Pinker charts, unless we honor those moral imperatives. Like Pinker, Feynman bundles reason, science, humanism, and progress together:

What can we say to dispel the mystery of existence? If we take everything into account—not only what the ancients knew, but all of what we know today that they didn’t know—then I think we must frankly admit that we do not know.

But, in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel. This is not a new idea; this is the idea of the age of reason. This is the philosophy that guided the men who made the democracy that we live under. The idea that no one really knew how to run a government led to the idea that we should arrange a system by which new ideas could be developed, tried out, and tossed out if necessary, with more new ideas brought in—a trial-and-error system. This method was a result of the fact that science was already showing itself to be a successful venture at the end of the eighteenth century.

Even then it was clear to socially minded people that the openness of possibilities was an opportunity, and that doubt and discussion were essential to progress into the unknown. If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar.

Understood this way, curiosity should be sacred to liberal democracies because it is part of their ethos. Curiosity’s characteristic behavior of breaking ideas to solve problems is how liberal democracies course correct while navigating disparate interests in a diverse society. The truth provides a common ground among disparate interests. By desiring honest explanations of how the world works, curiosity expands this common ground. This is how curiosity can bind society together, and why it is worth sacralizing.

Contending with Trade-Offs

It is no small matter to make something sacred. We must account for the misgivings voiced in stories like Frankenstein and Faust, and justify curiosity’s pursuit of pleasure. The best framework for this undertaking comes from Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions:

[A vision] is what we sense or feel before we have constructed any systematic reasoning that could be called a theory, much less deduced any specific consequences as hypotheses to be tested against evidence. A vision is our sense of how the world works. For example, primitive man’s sense of why leaves move may have been that some spirit moves them … Newton had a very different vision of how the world works and Einstein still another…

Visions are the foundations on which theories are built. The final structure depends not only on the foundation, but also on how carefully and consistently the framework of theory is constructed and how well buttressed it is with hard facts. Visions are very subjective, but well-constructed theories have clear implications, and facts can test and measure their objective validity. The world learned at Hiroshima that Einstein’s vision of physics was not just Einstein’s vision.

Sowell identifies two overarching visions that touch human thought: the constrained and the unconstrained. The constrained vision thinks that every solution creates new problems that must be solved in turn. It expects improvements to come with trade-offs, and recognizes that expectations to the contrary make the perfect the enemy of the good. Conversely, the unconstrained vision abhors trade-offs, which it views as defeatism, instead demanding solutions that fix problems once and for all. It holds that humanity is malleable and perfectible, to the horror of the constrained vision that believes humanity inherited ancient tendencies nigh impossible to stamp out:

Prudence—the careful weighing of trade-offs—is seen in very different terms within the constrained and the unconstrained visions. In the constrained vision, where trade-offs are all that we can hope for, prudence is among the highest duties. Edmund Burke called it “the first of all virtues.” “Nothing is good,” Burke said, “but in proportion, and with reference”—in short, as a trade-off. By contrast, in the unconstrained vision, where moral improvement has no fixed limit, prudence is of a lower order of importance. [William] Godwin had little use for “those moralists … who think only of stimulating men to good deeds by considerations of frigid prudence and mercenary self-interests,” instead of seeking to stimulate the “generous and magnanimous sentiment of our natures.”

The unconstrained vision may find curiosity revolting for desiring the pleasurable choice rather than the moral choice. Even if something as edifying as truth comes of it, that goodness is tainted by selfishness. To the unconstrained vision, the real task at hand is perfecting human motives by taming base impulses. Indeed, Feynman’s conception of science is intolerable to the unconstrained vision. What kind of monster risks hell?

An unconstrained vision must either condemn this state of affairs, fix it, or ignore the unsettling side of science. But to date, no one has devised a better way to improve the human condition, problems like mutually assured destruction seem intractable, and to ignore the possibility of unleashing hell is the ultimate Faustian bargain. If we want progress, how do we contend with the risks? Asking this question assumes a constrained vision. Avoiding this question is irresponsible.

Curiosity > Reason

As Feynman puts it, “Scientific knowledge is an enabling power to do either good or bad—but it does not carry instructions on how to use it. Such power has evident value—even though the power may be negated by what one does with it.” Instead of instructions, our passions determine how we use scientific knowledge. Hence David Hume’s insight that reason is and only ought to be the slave of the passions. Haidt illustrates Hume’s idea with the metaphor of an elephant (the passions) and its rider (reason), where the imposing elephant is in charge. Most reasoning is motivated reasoning.

Anger finds reasons to spite someone; jealousy finds reasons to hate someone; empathy finds reasons to help someone; love finds reasons to move in with someone you’ve only been dating for a few weeks. Many passions use reason to avoid truth (you should probably get to know him better first), but, for curiosity, honesty is a prerequisite for knowledge. Curiosity is the passion that finds reasons to explain how things actually are.

Curiosity is distinct from reason, and differentiating them helps clarify what it means to sacralize curiosity. When reason is sacred, its worshippers become arrogant, as we see in Paradise Lost and in the French Revolution. By placing so much value on intellect, the mind falls in love with its own productions, as psychologist Jordan Peterson has warned. Unlike curiosity, reason has no desire to be correct; rather, reason incentivizes feeling correct. An extreme form of this failing gives rise to the conspiracy theorist, who delights in fitting together perfect puzzles of subterfuge, finding every reason to justify cynical conclusions.

Sacralizing curiosity may backslide into worshipping reason. Being right is much harder than feeling right, and although curiosity soothes the burn of being wrong, it offers incomplete protection. Wandering into the unknown can be exhausting and even dangerous. Uncertainty generates anxiety. It is more psychologically taxing to wonder What if I’m wrong? than to reassure oneself with all the reasons why one is right.

Yet this risk of backsliding is a necessary trade-off, because the alternative is worse. Feynman admonishes:

Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions and pass them on … In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make grave errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do if we say we have the answers now, so young and ignorant; if we suppress all discussion, all criticism, saying, “This is it, boys, man is saved!” and thus doom man for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination. It has been done so many times before.

It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress and great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress that is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.

But Feynman spoke too narrowly, because this responsibility extends beyond the scientific community. We all share this duty. Curiosity demands the freedom to doubt, without which it could not urge us to wander into the unknown. By cementing curiosity within our cultural ethic, we can more readily transmit it down through the coming generations. As children begin to discover the world, we should teach them that the thrill they feel is sacred.

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4 comments

  1. It seems to me science comes with some very strong shoulds and musts attached. “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” after all, is one of the Top Ten on the hit parade.

    You can’t even argue that this one of those utilitarian rules that the smart folks make into religion for the stupid folks, all the “God will be angry if you don’t look after your bit of the rice paddy’s berm” sorts of things. Lying is often profitable, so a ukase against it flies in the face of many interests.

    The social rule of telling truth is not absolute. I live on the street where Mayor Ford used to buy his crack, and I have a neighbour who is an undercover cop doing his job in our building, or a psychopath, or both. The guy lies all the time. In any of the three cases, our society accepts his lying as normal, understandable and forgiveable.

    Science isn’t like that.

    Science doesn’t say “Tell the truth as long as that works for you and your lab.” If you lie and get caught, you’re out of the game. The game has rules, shoulds and musts.

    I think the curiosity of Megan’s good article above is a part of science. It is a motive force to finding out, and it drives the Popper-process of falsification that makes it possible to have confidence in what we think might be the truth. It is thus a moral force, a tool for good.

    “Science is an amoral tool” is simply nonsense, and I think Megan is just trying to be nice to “Eric Blair.”

    A bottle opener in the kitchen drawer may be an amoral tool. Science isn’t.

  2. I am curious (ha) what the author makes of this statement: Rationally speaking, one should realize that science (in its proper meaning) deals with analyzing empirical evidence logically and deducing objective facts: It does not take an active role in determining what one SHOULD do or how they MUST act, nor does it deal with subjective thought systems (ranging from arts to moral codes) or ideologies in general.

    I have become wary of enthusiastic evangelists peddling “science” as a belief system (hello Sam Harris) that can replace the arts and humanities and other methods of learning about and making sense of the world in which we live. If, for example, one is curious about how we ought to live science is probably not the tool best suited to tackling this problem. Anyway, I am genuinely curious what the author’s take on this is.

    1. I think that science is an amoral tool. I don’t think that it is the wellspring of morality; however, we can use it in service of morality. Practicing science helps us understand how the world works, which is invaluable information when making moral decisions. Someone could rely heavily on scientific knowledge to make moral decisions, and perhaps it would be fair to call that an “active role.” In one of the Sowell quotes I use in this essay, he describes how our subjective visions can be tested and measured. In this way, science may deal with our “subjective thought systems.”

      I hesitate to discuss Sam Harris specifically, because unfortunately I have not yet read “The Moral Landscape”, even though it’s been on my reading list for years. But I do enjoy his podcast and have listened to enough of his content to have some understanding of his argument. I’m partial to Haidt’s criticisms of Harris and “the rationalist delusion.” To my knowledge Harris has never claimed that we should replace the arts and humanities with science, but I would disagree with anyone making that claim. Incidentally, I am an artist, so that definitely would not be in my best interest!

      To clarify, I’m not arguing that we should make science sacred, even though science is an outgrowth of curiosity that is precious to me. And if we do make curiosity sacred, I wonder how that could backfire in ways I’m not predicting. The greatest criticism of my ideas (that I’m aware of) can be extrapolated from Nick Bostrom’s “vulnerable world hypothesis”, and if you aren’t too opposed to Harris, you can learn more about him in a recent “Making Sense” podcast. And on a related note, you might enjoy this recent essay from The Bulwark titled “Why I don’t ‘believe’ in ‘science’”:

      https://thebulwark.com/why-i-dont-believe-in-science/

      https://nickbostrom.com/papers/vulnerable.pdf

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