Stanley Fish in the NYT:
When God told Adam he could eat of all the fruits of the Garden of Eden, but not of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, he placed what has been called a “provoking object” in Adam’s eyes. The provocation was to go beyond the boundaries God had established and thereby set himself up a rival deity, a being with no limits on what he can conceive, a being whose intellect could, in time, comprehend anything and everything. Such a being would imagine himself, God-like, standing to the side of the universe and, armed only with the power of his mind, mastering its intricacies. Those who engage in this fantasy, says Thomas Aquinas, think “they are doing something great, if with surpassing curiosity and keenness they explore the whole mass of this body which we call the world; so great a pride is thus begotten, that one would think they dwelt in the very heavens about which they argue.”
Another churchman, Lorenzo Scupoli, put it this way in 1589: “They make an idol of their own understanding” (“Knowledge puffeth up,” I Corinthians 8:1). Pascal said it succinctly: “Curiosity is only vanity.” Jonathan Robinson, writing in this century, makes the same point: “What we are talking about is the desire to satisfy our curiosity on any and every conceivable subject that takes our fancy” (“Spiritual Combat Revisited”).
Give this indictment of men in love with their own capacities a positive twist and it becomes a description of the scientific project, which includes among its many achievements space travel, a split atom, cloning and the information revolution. It is a project that celebrates the expansion of knowledge’s boundaries as an undoubted good, and it is a project that Chairman Leach salutes when he proudly lists the joint efforts by the University of Virginia and the N.E.H. to digitalize just about everything. “The computer revolution,” he announces, “holds out the prospect that the digital library could be become an international citadel for the pursuit of curiosity.”
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.”
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).
Peter Lawler at PomoCon:
For Pascal, it’s nothing more than the vanity of beings in love with their own capabilities. It distracts us from the duties that should flow from love of God and each other. Curiosity can easily morph into love of diversity or losing oneself in the pursuit of endless mental diversions. Curiosity properly channeled, though, can lead us to think about who we are and what we’re supposed to do. But the idea that “there’s always more to know” can also lead us to conclude it’s never time to do. The postmodern, conservative view is that curiosity–being a natural capability–could hardly be merely a vice, but it isn’t the true foundation of even intellectual virtue.
I just got Masterpiece Comics, by R. Sikoryak [amazon]. It’s great. Inspired mash-ups of classic cartoons/comics with Great Literature. Batman and Crime and Punishment. Wuthering Heights and Tales From the Crypt. Blondie and The Book of Genesis. Peanuts and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”. Bazooka Joe and Dante’s Inferno. Little Lulu and The Scarlet Letter. Here’s a preview from D&Q. Above and beyond the perfect-pitch mimicry, I like the symmetry of the moral critique – of Dostoyevsky and Batman equally, and so forth. You can learn from this stuff. For example, if Stanley Fish had read Sikoryak’s “Blond Eve”, it might have occurred to him that familiar, blanket critiques of curiosity may not make self-evident moral or rational sense. Going a step further, this whole business of condemning curiosity tout court, in the strongest terms, all up and down the scale, in ordinary life, morally and scientifically, concerning matters large and small, can seem downright peculiar. Some sense of the diversity of human impulses and activities that would fall foul of a ban on ‘curiosity’, hence some sense of the problematic character of such a ban, might have crept into his column in some way. Alas.
Andrew Stuttaford at Secular Right:
I’d expect no less from a professor of divinity, but how sad…and what a useful reminder of what a block to progress (suspect word, but it’ll do in this context) certain types of religious faith (and their accretions and superstitions) can represent.
Speaking of which, I wonder what that Senator Brownback has been up to recently….Ah yes.
Massimo Pigliucci at Scientific Blogging:
Fish reminds his readers that curiosity is not a universal value, or an unqualified benefit. Let us parse these two claims. The quintessential example — to which the good professor devotes an entire paragraph of his column — is of course god’s prohibition to Adam from eating of the fruit of knowledge. The idea, apparently, was to test Adam’s faith and ability to self-impose limits. Disobedience was interpreted by god as human arrogance, with the results we all know. I always thought this tale was one of the best reasons not to be a christian: there it is, folks, right at the beginning of your so-called sacred book, god is despotic, narcissistic, engages in arbitrary and cruel punishment, and — of all things — prohibits you from learning. Need anything more be said?
Apparently, yes. Fish goes on quoting Thomas Aquinas as chastising human curiosity as a form of pride, and even the obscure 16th century churchman Lorenzo Scupoli, who contemptuously said “They make an idol of their own understanding,” all the way to the contemporary author Jonathan Robinson, who disapproves of curiosity and labels it a (apparently despicable) pursuit of “every conceivable subject that takes our fancy.” And what, exactly, is wrong with that, esteemed churchmen and assorted religious apologists?
Paul Griffiths, author of Reason and the Reasons of Faith explains: “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. … “In a world where curiosity rules, unmasking curiosity as a destructive and offensive device … amounts to nothing less than a … radical critique of superficiality and constant distraction.”
Wow! In other words, curiosity is bad because it distracts us from worshiping and studying god (Fish’s words), and even from our secular obligations because our minds are obsessed by it and find no time for anything else. Perhaps Fish and his buddies are confusing pornography for curiosity, because I’ve never encountered a “secular” person so obsessed with curiosity that he/she became dysfunctional in everyday life. On the other hand, I have encountered plenty of religious bigots whose utter lack of curiosity about the world leads them to incredible fits of mental gymnastics aimed at denying evolution (basic science) or that condoms are crucial in the fight against AIDS (applied science).