Life and hope in cerebral form

This is a slightly longer version of an article I published in the Times Higher last month about curiosity:

Our ancient myths and religions are full of cautionary tales about curiosity. Pandora, Daedalus, Psyche, Orpheus, Adam and Eve, Lot’s wife – all succumbed to a curiosity that turned out to be calamitous. St Augustine, castigating himself for being waylaid from prayer by the tantalising sight of a dog running after a rabbit or a lizard catching flies, condemned curiosity as a “vain inquisitiveness” and a “diseased craving”. Even during the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, when curiosity was finally transformed from a vice to a virtue, its advocates admitted it could be a voracious beast if left unchecked and not channelled into worthy ends. Thomas Hobbes called it “a Lust of the mind” that “exceedeth the short vehemence of any carnall Pleasure”.

The modern university has inherited this ambivalence about curiosity. We recognise that all intellectual work begins with it. But we still retain St Augustine’s misgivings about directionless curiosity. No longer a sinful distraction from religious devotion, it has become a sinful distraction from the delivery of measurable outputs and impacts. Higher education ministers and university managers tend to see knowledge in terms of targets they have set rather than potential they cannot yet quantify. The non-linear logic of curiosity confuses them.

Even as an argument for relating academic knowledge to economic productivity, this makes little sense. As Ian Leslie argues in his book Curious (2014), humans owe their success as a species to the fact that they evolved large brains with huge memories, which meant that, rather than finding things out when they needed to, like other animals, they could amass knowledge that might be helpful later on. In a complex, fast-evolving world, it is even harder to know in advance what kinds of learning will be useful. So we need more than ever to be willing to undertake speculative intellectual ventures, to fasten on the unusual and serendipitous and see where it takes us. The priceless value of free-ranging curiosity explains the paradox, as Leslie puts it, that “the more we chase the goal of efficient education, the further it recedes”.

The strongest disincentive to curiosity is the fear of failure. If I were a vice-chancellor, I would argue that one of my university’s roles would be to remove this disincentive and to give people the permission to be curious, and I would promote this as an effective medical intervention into the mental health of my students, staff and the public. Depression is, among other things, a blocking off of our natural curiosity about the world, a turning inward against life, interest and meaning. No anti-depressant has ever worked as well for me as the healing power of rekindled curiosity. “Curious” derives from the Latin cura, from which we also get both “cure” and “care”. That is what curiosity is: a curative for self-absorption and despair, and a way of caring about the world and laying down roots within it. As Alberto Manguel writes in his recent book on the subject, curiosity is “a means of declaring our allegiance to the human fold”.

The great disappointment of the internet is that it has not yet fulfilled its potential to encourage this kind of sustained, immersive curiosity. One of our tasks as lecturers is to persuade the post-internet generation that intellectual life involves not the click of a mouse but hard thinking and blind alleys, and that the best way of finding something out might be to persevere beyond the purely instrumentalist search for information into the creative confusions of curiosity. The online world also tends to gravitate to extremes – either an echo chamber of likeminded souls retweeting and favouriting each other, or those below-the-line debates full of suffocating earnestness and pointless anger. Curiosity avoids such polarised certainties. It is intrinsically open-hearted and gentle, interested in relating to others but appreciative of their otherness. The best compliment you can pay someone is not to shower them with hyperbolic praise but simply to be curious about what they say and do. “Attention,” wrote the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, “is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

Curiosity is life and hope in cerebral form. It exists in all animals, from the kitten with a ball of string to the monkey who will edge nervously towards a snake because its intense fear is still not as powerful as its curiosity. In The Act of Creation (1964), Arthur Koestler argued that this universal “exploratory drive” is not just intended to support biological needs like finding food or having sex but is a self-rewarding end in which “the motivation for learning is to learn”. Curiosity is a condition of all conscious life, but especially of human life. Edward O. Wilson, whose ground-breaking insights in sociobiology have emerged out of a curiosity-driven, career-long study of the lowly ant, uses the term “biophilia” to describe this innate human interest in other forms of life. It is our life-loving curiosity that allows us, he writes, “to spend a lifetime in a magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree”.

Curiosity is rather like a bit of Japanese knotweed which can grow, wildly and ungovernably, in the most inhospitable circumstances. If scientific curiosity could flourish in the seventeenth century, when Puritan preachers like Thomas Brooks were busily condemning it as “the spiritual Adultery of the soul”, it can surely survive in today’s university, where people are still managing to carve out the time and space to take intellectual risks and be creatively diverted. It may feel as if the incurious satisficers, who only want data to be mongered and boxes to be ticked, are ruling over our benighted present. No matter. The future will belong to whom it has always belonged: the curious.