Friday, April 18, 2008

Curiosity as a Vice: Three Aspects

Gilbert Meilaender
Lutheran Theologian

I'm still following the paper trail on the trials of theoretical curiosity that Hans Blumenberg first introduced me too many years ago when I read his Legitimacy of the Modern Age, and I've recently come to see three distinct aspects to a critique of curiosity as a vice.

In "Mastering Our Gen(i)es: When Do We Say No?" (Christian Century, October 3, 1990, pp. 872-875), Gilbert Meilaender argues for limits to curiosity that derive from the unpredictability of those things that we would wish to control:
In That Hideous Strength, "a modern fairy tale for grownups," C. S. Lewis imagined a National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E) which is undertaking an ambitious attempt to control and shape nature. Filostrato, a slightly mad clergyman who is a member of N.I.C.E., says at one point that he awaits a more rational day when artificial metal trees will replace natural ones. Then, if we tire of a tree in one place, we simply move it elsewhere. "It never dies. No leaves to fall, no twigs, no birds building nests, no muck and mess." Applied to human beings, Filostrato's hope is equally sanitized. "What," he asks, "are the things that most offend the dignity of man?" Answer: "Birth and breeding and death." To take control of them is, we must admit, part of the Human Genome Initiative -- indeed, still more, part of the modern project whose "legitimacy" and "curiosity" have been defended by Hans Blumenberg in his provocative (if Teutonic) book The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. What Blumenberg does not pay much attention to, however, is that the rise of the modern project was interwoven with renewed interest in magic and esoteric religion, with the thirst for control and mastery of the secrets of the universe. Still today that thirst is present: to get control of our genes and thereby, perhaps, of the elusive genies whose very unpredictability and unreliability threaten efforts at mastery.
I don't think that this "unpredictability and unreliability" of things that Meilaender thematizes in this article provide the material for his more fundamental objection, for our curiosity to understand might lead to information sufficient for us to know predictably well the consequences of our "efforts at mastery." Only if something is intrinsically unpredictable or unknowably complex would our curiosity for control need to be curtailed -- if the objection is merely that something unforeseen might go wrong.

This particular critique of curiosity as a vice if directed toward that which exceeds our grasp is thus merely a stopgap measure, not a profoundly serious critique, for an object of our curiosity might be illegitimate at one time but legitimate at another.

In "Curiosity as a Moral Virtue" (International Journal of Applied Philosophy, Fall 2001), Elias Baumgarten cites Meilaender to distinguish between two distinct albeit related critiques of curiosity as a vice:
Meilaender's religious perspective may help to spell out a concept of debasing curiosity, that which is beneath proper human inquiry. It also expands inappropriate curiosity to include a domain that is above and beyond proper human concern, and it suggests the possibility that both share a common flaw, a controlling and possessive spirit of curiosity that knows no limits, in contrast to a spirit of receptivity and humility.
Baumgarten then quotes Meilaender:
Many possibilities may pique my curiosity -- I may wonder how my neighbor's wife performs in bed; how human beings respond to experiments harmful to their bodies, or even to suffering; how the development of a fertilized egg could be stimulated to produce a monster rather than a normal human being; how to preserve a human being alive forever. I may wonder, but it would be wrong to seek to know . . . because I cannot possess such knowledge while willing what is good . . . . To love the good and to possess what we love are, in this life, not always compatible. (Gilbert C. Meilaender, The Theory and Practice of Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 140)
Although Baumgarten suggests that Meilaender is speaking here of "human overreaching" and holds that Meilander therefore "puts this form of curiosity together with voyeurism as a vice rather than a virtue," I think that voyeurism applies only to curiosity employed in such things as wondering "how my neighbor's wife performs in bed," which would constitute something "beneath proper human inquiry," as Baumgarten has previously expressed it, for to know such a thing would be debasing to dignity and respect. This is not so much overreaching as 'underreaching'. I suspect that many of us would agree that curiosity of this sort would be debasing . . . though pornographers have made an enormously lucrative business out of it.

Overreaching, by contrast, would be to direct one's curiosity toward that which is "above and beyond proper human concern," and this is the "theoretical curiosity" that Blumenberg was centrally focused upon in his Legitimacy of the Modern Age. This would be curiosity employed not toward objects that immodestly debase us but toward those things that would improperly exalt us. I am, however, rather at a loss to know what things fall into this category. Presumably, such things would be those that lead us into hubristic pride, but would knowing "how to preserve a human being alive forever" be one of these things? Maybe. But in what sense? Is there some harm in knowing? Or only in acting on that knowledge? Or does the problem lie in a potentially prideful attitude?

I'm not much of a moral philosopher, but I've managed to identify three aspects to the so-called 'vice' of curiosity (exceeding, debasing, and exalting), so I'll just step back at this point and let others weigh in.

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At 10:11 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

Or only in acting on that knowledge?

I believe man always will act What to do with a cloned human or even a particle implosion?

I guess "curiosity as a vice" when it changes some fundamental of the species or extinction. I do not think of these acts as amoral, but immoral.

Perhaps these acts do belong in a place in time.

At 12:05 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

My initial reaction to hearing that Medieval thinkers had treated curiosity as a vice was to dismiss them as incurious or dogmatic, but they had a point, not precisely the same point that I would make, but a point nonetheless.

I'm learning a lot through this project.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:25 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

I took the "high" road on scientific curiosity-stem cell research, cloning, etc. UNTIL my life was jerked out from underneath me. Now the possibility of someday giving me back the ability to at least know from day to day what my life will be like, to know that especially stem-cell research may lead to more knowledge about how to regenerate an autonomic nervous for me...well, I guess curiosity is acceptable at any level, if it can affect a loved one.
at least it takes the conversation from hypothetical and philosphical to "in your face" realism.

At 5:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The debate is not primarily with stem cell research, but with the use of embryonic stem cell research, which raised moral questions, which to some is the equivalent of destroying human life. The discovery recently that adult stem cells can produce the same results has lessened the moral problem to some extent. I am opposed to embryronic stem cell research, and also abortion. In all of man's curiosity about things, at some point there has to be a guideline. The Bible gives moral standards (which many oppose). But if there is no standard to guage curiosity except what mankind determines, then there are no limits to what people can decide to investigate. The final authority is based on what the majority decides, and that can change from generation to generation.

At 10:41 PM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

yes I should have been more specific-I'm with you.
well written comment- mine was written from a far too emotional standpoint.

At 11:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, it's easy to be philosophical until it hits home to you personally, and that is understandable. You have our sympathy and prayers.
When Gay was first told she had leukemia, it really scared us.
But we feel a little better since the doctor revised his thinking that it is polymyalgia rheumatica, a more treatable condition, and we feel better and more hopeful.

At 4:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I posted a comment yesterday, but I see today that my comment has disappeared. That's odd and troubling.

Anyway, I distinguished among three categories of knowledge:

1. Knowledge legitimate to know and legitimate to obtain

2. Knowledge legitimate to know but illegitimate to obtain

3. Knowledge illegitimate to know and illegitimate to obtain

In the first category would be knowledge of such things as the way that gravity works. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with knowing that, nor in obtaining such knowledge.

In the second category would be knowledge of such things such as how people react to torture. There would be nothing wrong in knowing that, but obtaining that knowledge through torturing people would be wrong.

In the third category would be knowledge of such things as how good my neighbor's wife is in bed. That would be wrong to know about and certainly wrong to go about obtaining knowledge of.

Obviously, there will be disagreement about what fits into each category. Knowledge of how embyronic stems cells work would fit into category two for some people and into category one for others.

I see nothing wrong with knowing how embryonic stem cells work, but I am troubled by how this knowledge would be obtained if it required destroying human embryos.

But as Uncle Cran noted, science has made other advances that might render use of embryonic stem cells unnecessary.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Curiosity has led to many beneficial discoveries leading to better things in life.
However, curiosity must be tempered with moral concepts and consequences. In the case of the neighbor & his wife, putting curiosity into actions could lead to real trouble. Curiosity has killed more than the cat.

At 9:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, putting that curiosity about a neighbor's wife into action would resemble an old Monty Python skit -- nudge, nudge, wink, wink...

Jeffery Hodges

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