Monday, August 23, 2010

Is Curiosity Good or Bad?

Stanley Fish writing an opinion piece for the NYT says that curiosity is not so good.

That’s exactly what Paul Griffiths, professor of divinity at Duke University, is afraid of. Where Leach welcomes the enlargement of curiosity’s empire, Griffiths, who is writing a book on the vice of curiosity, sees it as a sign of moral and spiritual danger: “Late modern societies that are fundamentally shaped by the overwhelming presence of electronic media and the obscene inundation of every aspect of human life by pictures and sounds have turned the vice of curiosity into a prescribed way of life” (“Reason and the Reasons of Faith”). The prescriptions come in the form of familiar injunctions: follow the inquiry as far as it goes, leave no stone unturned, there is always more to know, the more information the better. “In a world where curiosity rules,” Griffiths declares, “unmasking curiosity as a destructive and offensive device . . . amounts to nothing less than a . . . radical critique of superficiality and constant distraction.”


In short, curiosity — sometimes called research, sometimes called unfettered inquiry, sometimes called progress, sometimes called academic freedom — is their God. The question, posed by thinkers from Aquinas to Augustine to Newman to Griffiths, is whether this is the God — the God, ultimately, of self — we want to worship. Given the evidence, including Chairman Leach’s address, the answer would seem to be yes.

I suppose it's to be expected that an attack on curiosity would come from a person of faith. I'm not sure I've ever seen someone criticize it from a secular point of view.

It's a shame because I think curiosity is one of the greatest assets of humankind. Curiosity has allowed us to search out the entire world and beyond. It has given us medicine and the computer and democracy. Yes, of course, no advancement of knowledge comes without a cost, but I think that the price has been worth it. We are better off in many ways (not all) than we used to be. We can't learn anything without someone being curious enough to ask, "How?" and "Why" and "What if?" Without learning comes stagnation. With stagnation comes regression. Soon we find we are barbarians. Would we be able to eliminate slavery and enact women's suffrage without curiosity? Hardly. Somebody has to question why we have these institutions and why we are keeping them. That takes curiosity.

Fish brings up going "too far" and crossing moral boundaries due to "insatiable" curiosity. But does that mean curiosity is a bad thing. Some people eat too much. Should we then declare food a bad thing, something to be avoided? Not likely. We learn to moderate ourselves. We teach our children how to respect boundaries. Avoiding it completely is cowardly.

It's also interesting that Fish condemns curiosity as something that "distracts men from the study and worship of God." But how are we supposed to learn about God if we aren't curious about Her? Wouldn't a lack of curiosity lead to apathy? I think it would. So, I think some level of curiosity is necessary for human growth whether spiritual or not. Now Fish may think much less curiosity is desired than I do, but I don't see how we can be fully human without the ability to be curious.

Now, I specifically avoided one of the biggest points of Fish's essay, that of Adam and Eve and Original Sin. Such a topic requires much more space than a blog post. Suffice to say that I don't think that the lesson he learns from that story is specifically applicable to humans today.

h/t: Sullivan

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