Observations, Philosophy, Science.

In celebration of curiosity

-PD-US, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart

The Alchemist, by Carl Spitzweg. Attrib: Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, PD-US.

I was asked once by someone close to me why I read the kinds of things I read, or why I would read some things more than once, when much of it didn’t seem immediately useful.  Upon some thought, I replied that I was simply curious, and that not everything of interest is necessarily or immediately of practical value. 

In his review of Philip Ball’s recent book Curiosity, Sam Kean points out that curiosity has an equivocal history:

"Aristotle called it aimless and witless. St. Augustine condemned it as a disease. The ancient Greeks blamed it for Pandora’s unleashing destruction on the world. And one early Christian leader even pinned the fall of Lucifer himself on idle, intemperate, unrestrained curiosity."(The American Scholar, Summer 2013, Science, Right and Wrong, Sam Kean) 

Kean suggested that for much of Western history, "priests, politicians, and philosophers cast a suspicious eye on curious folks"(ibid) , for whom they represented wasters of time or worse, attitudes that began to change on the cusp of the radical Reformation of Western society. The rise of natural philosophy (science) and the shift to more secular governmental structures occurred in hand with a more open embrace of the role of curiosity.  However, the steady historical current of easy anti-intellectualism persists.

The Eighth Day of Creation, by Horace Freeland Judson

Maurice Wilkins, Nobelist of DNA fame, referred in 1971 to "the growth of anti-rational attitudes" (Maurice Wilkins, from The Eighth Day of Creation, Horace Freeland Judson, p. 97)  and to the fear of the "dehumanization of science, which really amounts to a claim that objective thinking necessarily reduces moral sensibility." (ibid)   These anti-rational attitudes are alive and well, evidencing themselves in India, Europe and China with governmental banning of genetically modified foods, or well-organized New Creationists who seek to undermine the teaching of evolution, for example.


Maurice Wilkins. PD-US.

Wilkins also alluded to charges that in science curiosity was out of control, and acknowledged some truth to this, quoting Musil: "Knowledge is an attitude, a passion, an illicit attitude, a compulsion, a mania. It is not at all true that the scientist goes after truth. It goes after him."(A Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil, p. 259)   (note 1) This fear of methodical curiosity is not completely irrational; science can and has been used destructively.

Wilkins pointed out that the dilemma is that "Science, with technology, is the only way we have to avoid starvation, disease, and premature death. The misapplication of science and technology is due to the fact that the politics are wrong." (ibid) 

Another way of looking at this is perhaps that many of those who fear the excesses of science can be the same people who embrace those excesses when it would appear to benefit themselves. The difficulties of the power inherent in knowledge and its attendant political dilemmas are exemplified by the development of the atomic bomb by an international group of scientists, among them Maurice Wilkins, which was carried out to protect those scientists and their societies, nations, and cultures from what they feared might be imminent destruction by a possible Nazi atom bomb; the cost was to produce a weapon of horrific destructiveness.

Whatever old or thoroughly modern attitude of skepticism about curiosity one encounters, curiosity is for me a simple constant of rational joy, compulsive or not; it is not just the stimulation of the new, but often the shock of discovery of things that can be difficult to think about or to emotionally absorb.  With this joy comes both accumulated knowledge and a personal and communal responsibility to use it well.

In celebration of curiosity, and the freedom to explore it allowed me as a citizen of a liberal republic, I would point to some esoteric sources of information which are in effect indices of various threads of modern thought.  There are many, many sources today of various kinds of thinking: scientific, philosophical, religious, political, social, etc., all to be celebrated in their own right, too numerous to call out, and many of which I am surely still unaware of.  The two I mention below have the quality that they, in one way or another, aggregate thinking from widely disparate sources, serving as a sort of curator for the curious, so to speak.

Arts and letters dailyArts & Letters Daily – This site is published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, and has become a recent favorite, having stumbled across it a few weeks ago. It provides a list of perhaps 100 recent articles from widely diverse sources, each summarized in a single sentence.  It also contains a good set of several hundred website references for various sources of informative thinking.  It has an RSS feed, for those who still use web readers. A one-word response to this site:  Wow!

3 quarks daily3 Quarks Daily – This site describes itself thusly: “The editors of 3 Quarks present ten to twelve interesting items from around the web each day, in the areas of science, design, literature, current affairs, art, and anything else we deem inherently fascinating. We want to provide you with a one-stop intellectual surfing experience by culling good stuff from all over and putting it in one place. In other words, we are what has come to be known as a “filter blog”. And we try not to be afraid of challenging material. On Mondays, we present a magazine of original, previously unpublished writing by our editors as well as a number of guest columnists.”



1. Wilkins quoted Kierkegaard, but this particular passage, although commonly attributed to Kierkegaard, actually comes instead from Robert Musil’s A Man Without Quality.

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