Sunday, September 07, 2014

Epistemic Virtues (2): Curiosity

"Knowledge, or the process of seeking knowledge, is a form of play; it is certainly so with all scientists and inventors who are worth anything and who truly accomplish worth-while results. Good medical research doctors are more interested in microbes than in human beings, and astronomers will try to record or register the movements of a distant star hundreds of millions of miles away from us, although the star cannot possibly have any direct bearing on human life on this planet. Almost all animals, especially the young, have also the play instinct, but it is man alone that playful curiosity has been developed to an important extent." (Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, pp. 76-7)

If knowledge is a good then curiosity is a virtue. I said yesterday that I'm not a curious person. I hope, of course, that I have other virtues!

I've been reading Lin Yutang's lighthearted prose in attempt to rouse myself out of a vague melancholy that has been weighing on me, then lifting, and then weighing on me again since I returned from the US last month. The quote I'm using as an epigraph for this post tells me something about what I mean when I say I lack curiosity. First of all, I don't approach knowledge very playfully. I suppose that's understandable since I'm an academic writing coach. Knowledge (or at least the process of seeking knowledge) is the focus of my work. I have a professional interest in science.

But it gets worse. More often than not, I find knowledge oppressive, or at least distracting. Don't get me started about the popularisers! Certainly, I don't think the task of finding new knowledge is a very pressing one. I am, indeed, much more interested in human beings than microbes, much more interested in the lives we lead on this planet than the motion of distant stars. And here's the kicker: I think we know more than enough about human health and our place is the universe. Eat well, sleep regularly, get some exercise. Treat your neighbours with kindness and respect. At the political level, provide an unconditional basic income for everyone so that the worst thing that can happen to you is that you will have to move into a smaller apartment, eat plain foods, and amuse yourself by throwing a frisbee around at the park with your children.

I suppose it's easy to see why my "knowledge" about life would leave me incurious. I think the deaths that result from our ignorance about cancer are less important than the deaths that are caused by knowing who the enemy is. Everything we need to know is already known. The bulk of knowledge (and I'm not saying it isn't knowledge) blinds us to those simple truths, which, if we lived by them, would make this planet so pleasurable a place to live that we'd be perfectly content to think the stars are campfires and the planets the chariots of the gods, or whatever we'd think if we weren't so damned curious about what things "really" are. Obviously, this will not do in the long run if I'm going to keep (or at least enjoy) my job. I have to recover that sense of "playful curiosity" that is at the heart of science. A sense of its marvellous futility. Perhaps it will be useful to recall that our word "school" derives from the ancient Greek notion of "leisure".

Immediately after this remark about curiosity, Lin goes on to excoriate "censors and all agencies and forms of government that try to control our thought". Such agencies, I think, are even less curious and certainly less playful than I. And I think their attitude, unfortunately, can be found among some of the most well-meaning people in our midst. As Lin puts it: "Short-sighted politicians and clergymen may think that uniformity of belief and thought contributes toward peace and order, but historically the consequence is always depressing and degrading to the human character." For my part, the earnestness with which some scientists (and their popularisers) "know" their stuff and insist that those of us who won't believe them quickly enough (because we don't understand them) are foolish and even dangerous depresses me immensely. I have enough things to worry about before worrying about whether or not my opinions conform to the current state of scientific orthodoxy.

And anyway, the universe would be a cruel place if our happiness depended on the success of our quest for knowledge. For countless millennia, human beings have found happiness on this planet without knowing anything about microbes or the true nature of stars. Ignorance and error, even outright stupidity and folly, must surely be compatible with the enjoyment of life. But the satisfaction of our curiosity is an intrinsically pleasurable thing. It's something that happens when we play, not when we work. I think science may have forgotten this.

No comments: