Curiosity: Without It We’re Nowhere

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The famous funambulist Philipe Petit recommended that students place the following statement on their dormitory walls: “Fear is the absence of knowledge; to know is to love.”

Mario Livio, in his book Why? What Makes Us Curious, reaches the same conclusion. “Curiosity is the best remedy for fear.” He continues, “One of the clearest manifestations of freedom is precisely the ability to become interested in anything you like.”

But curiosity is not universally appreciated. Inquisitiveness has gotten more than a few people imprisoned, tortured, or killed over the centuries. Relationships frequently become strained, or even broken, when some nosy genealogist opens the familial closet and skeletons begin tumbling out.

“An imagined reality is something everyone believes in,” Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, “and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world.” Curiosity requires a rarer form of imagination; one that every child possesses, but not every adult manages to retain.

A curious person does not rely so much upon imagined realities. Instead he or she imagines new potential explanations for reality that are then put to some sort of test. An inquisitive person is often profoundly aware of their ignorance, even if the best methodology for curing it remains unclear. It is this unpleasant awareness of their ignorance that explains much of their characteristic restlessness and hunger to explore new possibilities.

The casual indifference toward or feigned tolerance of communal beliefs and customs that is so often the trademark of a curious mind can be readily seen in Leonardo da Vinci, one of reality’s most famous investigators. Even across five centuries his willingness to flaunt convention and rather dismissive attitude toward patrons, both actual and potential, is readily visible to biographers.

Leonardo frequently moved on to other projects before the one he was hired for had been completed, caring little about the impact this had on either his wallet or his reputation. Though it was typically assumed at the time that this was due to a lack of discipline, or even laziness, such judgments fall well short of the mark. It was often the case that the realism Leonardo aspired to achieve in his art required intense investigation of human and animal anatomy, optics, or other subjects. Of course, Leonardo’s intense fascination with the world and incredible powers of observation meant he could be easily side tracked as his research opened new avenues that his agitated mind would not allow him to leave unexplored. His notebooks are full of drawings and notes that had little or nothing obvious to do with any major project he was working on, yet the insights they contained were frequently centuries ahead of his time. That he made no serious effort to publish his findings indicates an intellect driven more by the intrinsic value of the knowledge gained than a desire for either fame or wealth.

On one occasion the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, was displeased with Leonardo’s slow progress on a depiction of Christ’s last supper he had begun painting on the wall of a local monastery’s new dining hall. The duke summoned da Vinci, insisting that he explain himself. Instead of pleading with the duke for forgiveness and begging his mercy, which would perhaps have been prudent given Sforza’s reputation, Leonardo decided to give his rich and powerful patron a lesson in how creativity works. The story is recounted in Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Leonardo as follows:

At first Leonardo’s procrastination led to amusing tales, such as the time the church prior became frustrated and complained to Ludovico. ‘He wanted him never to lay down his brush, as if he were a laborer hoeing the Prior’s garden,’ Vasari [16th century historian]wrote. When Leonardo was summoned by the duke, they ended up having a discussion of how creativity occurs. Sometimes it requires going slowly, pausing, even procrastinating. That allows ideas to marinate, Leonardo explained. Intuition needs nurturing. ‘Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least,’ he told the duke, ‘for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.’

As you probably already know, The Last Supper was completed, and is now perhaps the best known work in the history of religious art. Leonardo’s years of research into both anatomy and perspective were indeed poured out onto that dining hall wall. When the monks finally got the chance to sit down for a meal beneath his masterpiece, they were reaping the dividends of a life of intense curiosity.

The argument Leonardo presented to his patron, the Duke of Milan, demonstrated keen self-awareness. The notion that procrastination, if used wisely, can facilitate creativity was no less counter-intuitive then than it is now. Taking one’s time is still widely believed to be an indication of indolence, though there is a growing body of evidence to the contrary.

Allowing curious people the space to do their thing and develop creative solutions to the problems that capture their attention remains easier said than done. Neither the Industrial Revolution or the Information Age have done much to foster patience with those wishing to take it slow and let ideas “marinate.” Institutions from business to religion almost universally prefer the efficiency of the punch-clock or the comfort of certainty to the unpredictability and messiness of unguided exploration for its own sake. The flexible hours and supposedly hands off approach of some Silicon Valley firms are exceptions that prove the rule.

Large segments of American culture are even signalling outright hostility toward curiosity and the creative efforts that spring from it. The current president is perhaps the least curious the United States has ever had. He practically wears his disdain for any reading material more than a page or two long as a badge of honor. In addition, the past several decades have seen art programs in public schools cut nearly to the bone, while science, math, and social studies are increasingly taught with standardized tests in mind. At this point the vast majority of students are learning what to think so they can do well on their SAT, not how to think so they can be good citizens with fulfilling lives.

The spirit of inquiry’s fall from grace has even been the source of some political hay making. In 2012, delegates to the Texas Republican Party State Convention approved a platform that probably won’t be going down in history as one of the more enlightened documents our species has ever produced. It read in part:

Knowledge-Based Education — We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

It’s true. Critical thinking does require a degree of skepticism when it comes to “fixed beliefs” and “authority,” be it parental or otherwise. Unfortunately, beliefs have never been “fixed,” and they never will be. As for “parental authority,” a parent is lucky if they can keep their kid on a leash much beyond the age of 12. Unfortunately for the Texas GOP, the amount of ink they would have to spill writing the bill that could possibly change this state of nature would fill the Lone Star State’s oil reserves many times over.

Of course, there are others out there seeking to engender a love of learning in our youth. Unfortunately, many of these people and the institutions they represent often signal their appreciation for it by monetizing it. Take, for example, the frequent use of bribery to get kids to read or bring home a good report card. Though we may sincerely believe otherwise, by materially incentivizing behaviors like reading we communicate that we don’t really think such habits are intrinsically rewarding. Money or other rewards, when offered to students, transform learning into just another job too unpleasant to do without expecting something tangible in return.

In What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, the philosopher Michael Sandel singles out these pay for learning schemes as particularly crass examples of our culture’s propensity to devalue even the highest human endeavors by commodifying them. It may be worth paying “underachieving kids to read books” in the hope that “we can teach them to love learning later.” However, Sandel concludes, “it is important to remember that it is bribery we are engaged in, a morally compromised practice that substitutes a lower norm (reading to make money) for a higher one (reading for the love of it).”

This commodification of curiosity has implications for research too. The first thing voters, policymakers, and investors frequently want to know these days is what the practical applications of any proposed research project will be. The US Congress, in its infinite wisdom, killed proposals to build the world’s largest superconducting super collider in Texas because the practical outcome of all that atom smashing was difficult, if not impossible, for scientists to articulate. As a result, the Higgs boson was confirmed in Europe, not the United States.

The premise behind the question of practical outcomes is that any research that isn’t going to lead to something useful — something that consumers will want and that someone can make a profit selling to them — probably isn’t worth either the public or private investment the effort will require. Unfortunately, we can’t know in advance where our curiosity will take us. Scientists researching one question often answer others that hadn’t even occurred to them when they started their work. But even if we could better determine in advance where our inquiries were leading us, the utility of a discovery is far from the only measure of its value. As often as not it enriches our lives just because it’s interesting. To my knowledge no one has gotten rich yet selling new planets found circling distant stars or describing an exotic insect previously unknown to science. But humanity is enriched by these discoveries none-the-less.

Curiosity doesn’t come without risk. There are an infinite number of ways to get it wrong and only a finite number of ways to get it right. Depending upon the question being investigated, the number of right answers can be as low as one. So it is understandable that the average person would be less predisposed toward curiosity than Leonardo da Vinci, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, or Rachel Carson. To keep ourselves and our societies chugging along most of us will limit our serious inquiries to only a few things we deem really important.

But we need to give the da Vincis, Curies, Einsteins, and Carsons of the world the space and resources they need to not just operate, but to flourish. Their work enriches life for the rest of us in ways we cannot even begin to measure. We should also each take just a little more time to explore questions that intrigue us personally, no matter how strange they may seem to everyone else. We’ve become addicted to the speed and easy answers of digital technology, and have been seduced by the siren song of efficiency. Our culture is increasingly servile and decreasingly spontaneous. We are, somewhat paradoxically, both comforted by routine and desperately craving entertainment.

Curiosity invites us to slow down and give our attention to something unknown, even if only to us. It transcends the memorized routines of work and passive distractions of the screen, inviting us to enter into a relationship with something new that has the potential of transforming itself into the understood and familiar. Remember, “to know is to love.”

But first we must take a trip to the library, spend some time in nature observing carefully its dynamic dance between the extreme limits of equilibrium, or just sit for a while allowing our ideas to marinate. That we now regularly place these activities on a spectrum that ranges from self-indulgent or eccentric to navel gazing exercises only academics and intellectuals can appreciate is an indication of just how much distance we have put between ourselves and these habits of mind. Wouldn’t we all be a little happier if we didn’t just stop to smell the roses now and then, but also spent a little time investigating how and why the roses smell?

US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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