In my previous essay for Areo magazine, I claim that curiosity is sacred and 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.” I defend that proposal through the lens of Thomas Sowell’s “constrained vision,” which maintains that solutions to problems always come with trade-offs, and then describe how sacralizing curiosity may backslide into worshipping reason. This is how I define 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 … 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 … 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.
In this sequel, I’ll explore more ways in which sacralizing curiosity could go awry. By addressing these problems, I hope to clarify my original claim and confront its limitations. In this essay, I’ll wonder what if I’m wrong?
My definition of curiosity conflates it with humility, because curiosity needs humility to be sacred. But someone may be curious and arrogant—a charge often levied at scientists both real and imagined. In the original Star Trek, for example, most episodes feature the Vulcan science officer Mr. Spock condescending to the emotional Dr. McCoy with a raised eyebrow and the exasperated accusation, illogical. Carl Sagan, the astronomer who asked us to imagine a future something like the Star Trek universe, was punished by the scientific community for popularizing science in easily understood terms. When science writer Michael Shermer interviewed Jared Diamond about being both a scientist and a famous author, their conversation turned toward Sagan, and Diamond replied:
You mentioned Carl Sagan as, perhaps implicitly, an example of a person who got away with it—who wrote for the public but nevertheless who was respected by scientists. Carl Sagan is actually notorious, because [he] is one of the few American scientists during my lifetime in the National Academy of Sciences who was de-elected … Members of the National Academy challenging his nomination said things like, “He has a pretty face, but what has he ever done for science?” … On the one occasion that I met him … a reporter asked him, “Have you ever taken flack for writing for the public?” I gasped, and those of us who knew what happened gasped, because we were afraid that he would say, yeah, I got de-elected from the NAS. But he said, “No, not really.” … [Scientists] scorn explaining [their findings] to the broader public, and regard explaining it to the public as prostituting yourself.
Harvard University may have denied Sagan tenure on similar grounds. This snobbish streak in the scientific community exemplifies how curiosity is often coupled with arrogance. Sagan embodied the kind of curiosity I advocate, and yet he was disdained by many of his peers. Although humility may derive from curiosity, that process is far from guaranteed even among the professionally curious. If curious personalities gravitate toward science, then conflating curiosity with humility is idealistic.
Curiosity does not cause arrogance, but it may generate insufficient humility to curb it. David Hume correctly claimed that reason is the slave of the passions. In attitudes to Carl Sagan, the passions of envy and pride sometimes beat out curiosity, even though his contribution to science was more than a pretty face.
The Unexamined Life
Socrates famously claimed that, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This may be the clarion call of the curious, but it is arrogant to think that only one kind of life is worth living. If curiosity is sacred, then less inquisitive minds may be held in such low regard. Sacred values have a dark side—anyone apathetic toward them becomes the target of moral judgment. In my previous essay, I focus only on the heartwarming side of sanctity:
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.
Yet Haidt also describes how sacred values require shame, punishment, or exclusion for people who do not share them. The sacred is a moral category and those who violate sacred values are the focus of harsh moral judgment. In his 2001 paper The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment, Haidt writes that, “People who fail to embody these virtues, or whose actions betray a lack of respect for them, are subject to criticism, ostracism, or some other punishment.” No one should be treated poorly for lacking curiosity, but, if it is sacred, they almost certainly will be.
Curiosity is sacred to me, and my reaction to the NASA Apollo missions is a case in point:
When the first man landed on the moon in 1969, it was the most televised event to date. But when Apollo 13 attempted a third lunar landing—not even a year after Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind—few cared until it seemed the astronauts would die after an oxygen tank exploded, like drivers rubbernecking past a highway wreck. I was aghast when I learned about this indifference. Spaceflight is humanity’s boldest attempt to transcend our provincial vantage point, and it confounded me to discover that the romance of touching another world faded so quickly. The collective incuriosity did not just irk me—it revolted me.
But who am I to dictate the interests of others? My instinct to condemn what I view as the unexamined life is wrong. But that temptation may be widespread among the curious, who struggle to comprehend indifference toward their fixations. A significant trade-off in making curiosity sacred is a generalized version of my antipathy. Because sacred values compel us to criticize those who fall short of them, this raises the question: if curiosity is sacred, when should people be shamed, punished or excluded?
Leave the Door to the Unknown Ajar
Incuriosity is merely a disposition, but absolute certainty is akin to original sin—innate, ancient and troublesome. Human nature evolved to take comfort in certainty, and the motivated reasoning that justifies it shapes our psychology. Everyone is susceptible to the seduction of certainty. Its allure is so fundamental to the human condition that resistance may seem futile.
Social psychologist Tom Gilovich describes this state of affairs in his book How We Know What Isn’t So: “For desired conclusions it is as if we ask ourselves ‘Can I believe this?,’ but for unpalatable conclusions we ask, ‘Must I believe this?’” The human mind is not oriented toward truth. Rather, it is adapted for righteousness.
As a social species, we developed motivated reasoning to allow us to condone our own behavior, to convince ourselves and everyone else that we are good and just. Sometimes we are virtuous, but often we are wicked, and—like all the best liars—we rationalize our bad behavior so convincingly that we believe our own lies. As Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind, “Individuals compete with individuals within every group, and we are the descendants of primates who excelled at that competition. This gives us the ugly side of our nature … We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves.” Perhaps we need to believe in ourselves as protagonists (rather than antiheroes) to succeed in human societies. Haidt continues:
an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of our evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective and rational. Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings—but no other animals—to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship. But at the same time, our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife.
Righteousness gives way to self-righteousness when confidence gives way to absolute certainty. To leave the door to the unknown ajar, we must eschew absolute certainty. This imperative extends to itself, as conservative author Jonah Goldberg describes in “The Problem with Certainty”:
I have a love–hate relationship with certainty. I often cannot stand people who inveigh against certainty as if it is a great evil … The first response to this, which would cause one of Harry Mudd’s android friends to implode, is “Are you certain about that?”
Certainty, like dogma, is one of those things that people hate only when they disagree with what people are certain (or dogmatic) about … But certainty is not an evil thing in itself. I am certain that slavery is bad. I am certain that torturing puppies for fun is bad. My certainty about such things doesn’t make me an enemy of decency any more than being certain that decency is generally a good thing.
When people insist certainty is bad, what they really mean is that closed-mindedness about things that should be open questions is bad. But again, even here, that’s a judgment call.
Goldberg identifies the limits of doubt and uncertainty, while expressing how simplistic imperatives fall short. Deploring certainty does not mean trying to eradicate it, because attempts at refashioning human nature are foolhardy. Rather, like Catholics in the confessional booth, we should regularly set aside time to enumerate and question our certainties. By encouraging shame, we may hedge the problem of overconfidence, without any pretense of perfecting humanity. Goldberg continues:
Where I agree with the critics of certainty is that certainty can be dangerous. Other than anger, few things define a mob more than the collective feeling of certainty. Like a flood, it swamps decency and bursts through the levee of the law.
Even in science, certainty closes off avenues of inquiry, which is why the phrase “settled science” is a font of mischief and closed-mindedness. But science has procedures to test certainty. In a sense, the most important discoveries in science aren’t the first ones, but the second ones—when the results are replicated by someone else, often by someone else who wants to disprove the first.
This points to why I have become so entrenched in my Hayekianism. Hayek understood the problems with certainty intimately. Technocrats, planners, and leaders of mobs are certain that they know the truth and try to impose it on the rest of us.
This is the kind of certainty that should be shamed if curiosity is sacred. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek explains how devotion to communism, socialism, and fascism led to atrocities when followers of those creeds murdered non-believers (and insufficient believers). Absolute certainty encourages adherents to forbid doubt in others—not simply to fail to doubt themselves. People struggle to take comfort in certainty when someone challenges their convictions, motivating them to eliminate ambiguity. In the perennial toil for truth, uncertainty is a Sisyphean struggle.
In my previous essay, I quote physicist Richard Feynman on the value of doubt:
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.
Perhaps I should have titled my essay “Doubt is Sacred,” but I positioned curiosity as the driving force because it is a pleasurable passion, whereas doubt is a negative emotion related to anxiety. Because certainty is ingrained in human nature and doubt is unpleasant, it would be ludicrous to sacralize doubt. But curiosity is seductive. It incentivizes doubt. Curiosity is the spoonful of sugar that helps the doubt go down.
When Feynman exhorts us to leave the door to the unknown ajar, he insists that we must “teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations” lest we “doom man for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination.” But demanding we recognize the value of doubt is inadequate; teaching the value of doubt is ineffective. Haidt terms that approach the rationalist delusion:
one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history [is] the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute, one that makes us like the gods (for Plato) or that brings us beyond the “delusion” of believing in gods (for the New Atheists) … From Plato through Kant and Kohlberg, many rationalists have asserted that the ability to reason well about ethical issues causes good behavior. They believe that reasoning is the royal road to moral truth, and they believe that people who reason well are more likely to act morally.
A conviction that uncertainty is valuable has no teeth; it’s just a kind of lip service. Rather than look for reasons to doubt, I wanted to examine a passion that makes doubt feel good. We need the pleasure of curiosity to withstand the pain of being wrong.
When an idea is so precious that it forms someone’s worldview, forsaking it transforms that world into an alien landscape. The unfamiliar scenery is disorienting. The ground shivers with the seismic activity of uncertainty. Without a firm footing, those thrust into this unfriendly place slip on the shards of shattered assumptions. The resulting injuries may be so severe that realizing you’re wrong can feel like amputating a limb.
People suffer through this harrowing ordeal when they lose faith in god, in Marx, or in their beloved. A unique type of humiliation arises from realizing how completely wrong you were about something you failed to doubt: a sort of foolishness tinged with horror. In the best case scenario, the survivor of this personal cataclysm emerges from the wreckage of their beliefs with newfound humility. This is the kind of character-building experience that frowning fathers tell their children not to shy away from. Edification is a bruising endeavor.
My most painful doubt about curiosity comes from Nick Bostrom’s vulnerable world hypothesis. Bostrom, the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, describes a vulnerable world as “one in which there is some level of technological development at which civilization almost certainly gets devastated by default.” His working paper was published in 2018, but the fear he analyzes has long haunted science fiction. The beloved counter-cultural icon Kurt Vonnegut published a story highlighting this fear in 1963, a year after the Bay of Pigs invasion nearly triggered nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. In Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, the father of the atomic bomb goes on to invent a substance called ice-nine that instantly freezes all water that it contacts with a melting point of 114.4 °F.
By the end of Vonnegut’s allegory, only a handful of misfits survive in a frozen wasteland. Ice-nine was used accidentally; the death of the world was absurd. The novel takes its name from a game that the fictional inventor played, unconcerned, as his weapon devastated Japan. The real-life father of the atomic bomb showed more emotion as the first mushroom cloud emerged, when J. Robert Oppenheimer remembered a line from Hindu scripture, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” But Vonnegut’s fictional inventor somewhat resembles Feynman, who also helped create the bomb:
The only reaction that I remember … was a very considerable elation and excitement, and there were parties and people got drunk, and it would make a tremendously interesting contrast, what was going on in Los Alamos at the same time as what was going on in Hiroshima. I was involved with this happy thing and also drinking and drunk and playing drums sitting on the hood of a Jeep with excitement running all over Los Alamos at the same time as people were dying and struggling in Hiroshima.
But, unlike Vonnegut’s scientist, Feynman recalls this playful scene darkly. Soon after this celebration, Feynman succumbed to depression. When he saw new construction, he thought it foolish. Why build anything in a doomed world? He wrote “The Value of Science,” which I expand upon in my previous essay, because he wondered, “what is the value of the science I had dedicated myself to—the thing I loved—when I saw what terrible things it could do? It was a question I had to answer.”
Bostrom does not deny the value of science. He conceives of curiosity as an “urn of possible inventions,” a metaphor that evokes Pandora’s jar:
One way of looking at human creativity is as a process of pulling balls out of a giant urn. The balls represent possible ideas, discoveries, technological inventions. Over the course of history, we have extracted a great many balls—mostly white (beneficial) but also various shades of grey (moderately harmful ones and mixed blessings). The cumulative effect on the human condition has so far been overwhelmingly positive, and may be much better still in the future. The global population has grown about three orders of magnitude over the last ten thousand years, and in the last two centuries per capita income, standards of living, and life expectancy have also risen.
By acknowledging the value of science, Bostrom demonstrates that he is a credible witness. This philosopher is no romantic, disgusted at the changing landscape, but a realist enumerating risks:
What we haven’t extracted, so far, is a black ball: a technology that invariably or by default destroys the civilization that invents it. The reason is not that we have been particularly careful or wise in our technology policy. We have just been lucky …
What if there is a black ball in the urn? If scientific and technological research continues, we will eventually reach it and pull it out. Our civilization has a considerable ability to pick up balls, but no ability to put them back into the urn. We can invent but we cannot un-invent. Our strategy is to hope that there is no black ball.
Then Bostrom lays out his contingency plan, which neuroscientist Sam Harris characterizes as “the most dystopian horror show imaginable.” Bostrom suggests explicitly Orwellian solutions for preventing species-wide suicide, amounting to a surveillance state that would make Chinese president Xi Jinping salivate. Bostrom does not celebrate totalitarianism, but argues that it may be the only recourse if a black ball is pulled out of the urn of invention. If black ball technology is accessible to laypeople, a single malevolent wretch emulating the Joker could terminate humanity. As Batman’s confidant Alfred warns him, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
The Best Laid Schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Anyone who heeds Orwell’s 1984 would be repulsed by Bostrom’s remedies; the magnitude of monitoring that average people would endure is reminiscent of Borg implants. Bostrom suggests a “high-tech panopticon” to surveille everyone, because, in a world where any individual could implement a doomsday device, the watchmen become humanity’s bulwark against annihilation. He uses intentionally Orwellian-sounding names “to remind us of the full range of ways in which such a system could be applied,” and paints this picture:
Everybody is fitted with a “freedom tag”—a sequent to the more limited wearable surveillance devices familiar today, such as the ankle tag used in several countries as a prison alternative, the bodycams worn by many police forces, the pocket trackers and wristbands that some parents use to keep track of their children, and, of course, the ubiquitous cell phone (which has been characterized as “a personal tracking device that can also be used to make calls”). The freedom tag is a slightly more advanced appliance, worn around the neck and bedecked with multidirectional cameras and microphones. Encrypted video and audio is continuously uploaded from the device to the cloud and machine-interpreted in real time. AI algorithms classify the activities of the wearer, his hand movements, nearby objects, and other situational cues.
Alternative solutions are not forthcoming. If we stalwartly declare with Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” then our fate may well be the latter. If a single deranged individual could initiate a murder-suicide affecting all life on Earth, liberty will become a luxury. Bostrom’s paper leaves readers confused about which possible future is more frightening—with or without surveillance? As Harris puts it in his interview with Bostrom:
The net effect on me of reading this essay was pretty uncanny, because if you had asked me before reading it how I would view the prospect of extreme surveillance and what you call turn-key totalitarianism, that would be synonymous with everything I don’t want to have happen in human society in the future. Except once you get led down this path of acknowledging the prospect that the vulnerable world hypothesis is true, and that the only condition under which civilization could be stable is something like this, well then it flips everything around and begins to make it seem like any creep toward totalitarian surveillance has a silver lining, because again, it’s the only condition under which civilization could survive.
If enough people take my argument seriously, but I’m wrong, then the consequences could be apocalyptic. Sacralizing curiosity would accelerate efforts to pull balls out of the urn of invention, hastening our path toward either totalitarianism or extinction—or worse, totalitarianism then extinction. That risk may be too great a trade-off to bear.
And yet, my heart resonates with Patrick Henry’s impassioned cry. I would rather live a short while in liberty, than a long time shackled to the chains of authority. When curiosity is socially unacceptable, human life is sorely diminished. This is self-evident in the wretched future Bostrom imagines, as it was in the past. Goldberg describes the pre-curious era in his recent book Suicide of the West:
For centuries, [rulers] were hostile to innovation [because it disrupts the status quo and undermines the powers that be] … But then something happened … The way people talked and thought about how the world worked changed … For 100,000 years, the great mass of humanity languished in poverty. This great flat line of material misery plodded along unchanged until attitudes changed … Prior to that, notions of betterment, innovation and improvement were seen, literally, as heresy. “Curiositas,” or curiosity, was a sin, and the innovator a heretic.
Bostrom depicts a future that circles back to a time when curiosity (and the innovation it cultivates) is a threat. Anyone considering my proposal must contemplate whether a limited existence is preferable to the unvarnished risks of a vulnerable world.
The Conservative Case for Curiosity
Perhaps ironically, curiosity led me to Bostrom’s vulnerable world hypothesis; more importantly, curiosity made me take it seriously. When something obstructs your path, as this hypothesis hampered my sacred value, curiosity can compel you to examine the roadblock. Why is it here? Is it necessary? A curious response demands answers. This is the logic of Chesterton’s fence:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
G. K. Chesterton devised that thought experiment to emphasize the necessity of understanding something before dismissing it. Dismissiveness comes readily to anyone confronted with unpalatable conclusions. But if curiosity is the passion controlling reason, such a person will want to understand the fence before destroying it. When I grappled with Bostrom’s ideas, this resulted in a sort of contradiction wherein the very curiosity that makes the world more vulnerable also made me appreciate his hypothesis. No wonder Chesterton was called the prince of paradox.
Conservatives like Goldberg revere Chesterton’s fence, because it dovetails with their conviction that we have much to learn from the past and should not be too quick to change it. As philosopher Roger Scruton puts it, “I’ve often thought this, that the left is very good at slogans; you know ‘March forward into the future.’ And if you think what a slogan would be on the conservative side it would be something like ‘Hesitate.’ And it doesn’t work.” When someone is absolutely certain, they do not hesitate, because hesitation is the hallmark of doubt. And Scruton’s conservative slogan probably will never work, because doubt is too painful. In Goldberg’s essay about the problem of certainty, he writes:
Every certainty is tested by players in the game and in the process productivity and innovation are made possible. Traditions form through trial and error, creating social tools that solve problems. Sometimes those traditions outlive their utility like, perhaps, Chesterton’s fence. But the first key to deciding why a tradition should go is to first understand why it emerged in the first place.
Here, Goldberg evokes another pearl of wisdom from Chesterton, who called tradition the democracy of the dead. A curiosity that does not wonder at tradition is incomplete; that is the conservative case for curiosity. This may seem odd, because curiosity is often associated with people on the political left, like artists and academics. Indeed, from the perspective of applied psychology, curiosity is an aspect of openness to experience, a personality trait correlated with left-wing opinions. Goldberg and Chesterton share what might be called conscientious curiosity, which incorporates a personality trait associated with conservatives.
Conscientious curiosity hesitates before dismantling traditions, and also before dismissing unpalatable conclusions like the vulnerable world hypothesis. But, although Bostrom challenged my sacred value, he did not disabuse me of it. Rather, because I maintain that curiosity incentivizes doubt, I entered a positive feedback loop. I could not doubt the value of doubt without committing to doubt. And if I’m correct that curiosity is necessary for doubt to flourish, then giving up my sacred value seems self-defeating.
Of course, as Haidt says, “morality binds and blinds.” If I’m wrong, I may be the last to realize it. But by worrying that I’m wrong, and granting that my fallibility is best understood by others, I’m appealing to Karl Popper’s falsifiability theory, which holds that truth is discovered by proving ideas wrong, usually through someone else. I build my case for curiosity on the basis of falsifiability in my last essay, and so, again I enter the positive feedback loop. Chesterton might smile at the paradox.
Crucially, unlike Bostrom, I am unprepared to forsake the ethos that truth is good. Bostrom does not merely challenge my sacred value with the ultimate trade-off—he questions the deeper value underlying my argument. In my previous essay, I specify that curiosity should be sacred to a particular subset of people: “To anyone who values truth, curiosity is sacred.” But Bostrom disputes even the merits of truth:
[The assumption] is that truth is good, more truth is better, finding out and disseminating truth and explaining truth is always and everywhere a good and should be encouraged as much as possible. And that’s actually a non-obvious assumption if you start to think about it. It might be that the net effect of being more open to free investigation over the last few hundred years has been vastly beneficial, on balance, but just how strong evidence is there that this will continue to be true into the indefinite future?
I do not know. But perhaps conscientious curiosity can shield progress from reckless abandon, if it urges us to hesitate and explore with humility. So far, more truth has consistently led to unprecedented human flourishing; whereas, when curiosity was a sin, we were more violent, malnourished, and impoverished. Why not buttress curiosity with conscientiousness before clamping shut the urn of invention? If, at this moment in Western democracies, free investigation is Chesterton’s fence, then it is too sacred to destroy.