Curiosity

Stanley Fish has a more typical column this week--he's doing his famous I'm just presenting arguments, not making one" two-step, this time about curiosity. But he does the dance pretty ably this week, so I'm not going to come down on him so much as I am the people he quotes and paraphrases.

The two sides in Fish's debate today are, it seems to me, the secular and the spiritual, and the subject matter is curiosity, or the striving after knowledge. On the pro-curiosity side, we have the new Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities James A. Leach:

Taking his cue from Thomas Jefferson’s “trinity of inalienable rights: ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” Leach reasoned that even though Jefferson never wrote about curiosity, “a right to be curious would have been a natural reflection of his own personality.” He was, after all, the “living embodiment of an inquisitive mind” and was reputed to have known “all the science that was known at the time.” Surely he would have prized curiosity, especially since it is the quality “oppressive states fear.” Given that “the cornerstone of democracy is access to knowledge,” it is not too much to say, Leach concluded, that “the curious pursuing their curiosity may be mankind’s greatest if not only hope.”
On the other side, we have a bunch of religious people, from Aquinas and Augustine to contemporary theologians like Paul Griffiths and John Henry Newman. The problem, as I see it, isn't with Aquinas and Augustine--they were making the best arguments they could with the facts as they saw them, and often acknowledged that they were working with incomplete information. But I do have a problem with some of the stuff that Griffiths and Newman are saying, at least as they're quoted by Fish. (I'm being real careful here because the last time I relied on Fish's take on someone else's theology, I got my ass handed to me, and rightfully so.)
Griffiths builds on the religious tradition in which curiosity is condemned because it distracts men from the study and worship of God, shackling them, says Augustine, “to an inferior love.” But curiosity can also distract men from secular obligations by so occupying their minds that there is no room left for other considerations. These men (and women) fail to register the pain of animals subjected to experiments in the name of knowledge, pay no heed to the social consequences of their investigations, and take no heed of the warnings issued in Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus,” Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (not to mention the myth of Pandora and the Incredible Hulk).
It's primarily the second half of the paragraph that disturbs me--as I am an atheist, I'm not all that concerned with being shackled to an inferior love. But the notion that scientists as a whole aren't concerned with the pain that animals being used for testing experience is simply untrue. Yes, there are some who don't seem to be bothered by it, but for the most part, scientists do their best to make sure animals don't suffer needlessly. Furthermore, the notion that scientists as a whole don't pay attention to the social consequences of their investigations is beyond ludicrous. The entire field of bioethics has arisen out of this desire to look carefully at where research is going and what possible ramifications might come out of it. Yes, there are individual scientists who push the boundaries, and who even exceed them, but Griffiths is tarring an entire community by making such ridiculous claims.

John Henry Newman is no better.
They are obsessive and obsessed and exhibit, says John Henry Newman, something akin to a mental disorder. “In such persons reason acts almost as feebly and as impotently as in the madman: once fairly started on a any subject, they have no power of self-control” (“The Idea of a University”). They have no power of self-control because they have no allegiance — to a deity, to human flourishing, to community — that might serve as a check on their insatiable curiosity. (Curiosity is inherently insatiable; its satisfactions are only momentary; there is always another horizon.)
Bolding mine. What do you do with a claim like that other than mock it? Curious people have no self-control? Curious people have no allegiance to a god or human flourishing or community? That's news to my religious friends (and I have more than a few). Given the kinds of benefits that curiosity and the search for knowledge have given the human race, from medicines that extend and enhance life to farming practices that increase yields so more people can eat to enhanced communication devices that make it possible for people to see themselves as part of one global community instead of as part of an isolated tribe, I think curiosity has more than proven its usefulness to human flourishing and community. It hasn't done so much for God, admittedly, and I suspect that's why Newman is so antsy about it (again, assuming this is an accurate summation of his feelings on the matter).

One other take on curiosity before I go, this time from the poet Alastair Reid. This isn't a great poem, and some might go so far as to say that it's not very good. I'll say it's very teachable and leave it at that. Here's a bit from the middle of the poem:
Face it. Curiosity
will not cause us to die--
only lack of it will.
Never to want to see
the other side of the hill
or that improbable country
where living is an idyll
(although a probably hell)
would kill us all.
Only the curious
have if they live a tale
worth telling at all.
And I think that's where I come down on the subject. It's not a surprise to me that the people Fish marshals in opposition to curiosity are all theologians, since faith is such an integral part of religious belief, and faith doesn't generally hold up too well to curious investigation. Which is not to say that religious people are not curious, or even that most religious people feel the same way those quoted here apparently do. Nor is this to say that unbridled curiosity can't lead to some really bad outcomes--of course it can--but that's not what James Leach was arguing for either.

As is generally the case, if you go to either extreme, you'll run into difficulties, but if I get to choose a direction I'd like to head in, it's toward that improbable country. I'd like to have a tale worth telling, if I live through it.

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