Among the holidays widely observed in the United States, Christmas strikes me as the one most concerned with curiosity. Several Christmas songs are posed as questions: “What Child is This?” and “Do You See What I See?” and “Mary, Did You Know?” OK, that last one has a real ‘more of a comment than a question’ energy, but still. There are the magi on a quest of discovery. There is the mystery and anticipation of a wrapped gift. And so I thought the science of curiosity would be an apt topic for this Advent season.
I recently enjoyed this conversation on curiosity with philosopher Perry Zurn and neuroscientist Dani S. Bassett–who come by their collaboration honestly as they are also twins. (They also have a book out, Curious Minds, which I have not yet had a chance to read.) Frankly, I had never really considered curiosity to be a topic of inquiry itself, but I was happy to have my perspective broadened. For example, I learned that there are multiple styles of curiosity–hunters, busybodies and dancers–and maybe, just maybe, this is the one and only context in which I might be a dancer. That was quite a revelation.
The discussion of good and bad curiosity, or perhaps more or less beneficial modes of curiosity, was challenging. As I understood it, the primary consideration is when people are directly or indirectly the focus of our curiosity. We need to be careful that we don’t make those people objects in the process. Not reducing people to the facets of interest to us and keeping in mind that they have their own complete subjective experience seems clear enough. But I’m not sure if there is more to the line between appropriate interest and objectifying exoticism. Maybe I need to read the book discover if there are further nuances I’m glossing over. (That sounds look a good use of curiosity.)
The part that resonated the most though came from the history of curiosity. Zurn and Bassett point out that curiosity has not always held the same value in Western culture. They point to a shift towards valuing curiosity more at the start of the scientific revolution. Previously, a greater emphasis was placed on wonder. I’m not sure if that account of history is widely accepted, but the contrast between curiosity and wonder really helped some things click for me. There can be different understandings of those terms–podcast host Sean Carroll had another take on wonder from his guests–but I think the concepts and distinction between them that Zurn and Bassett draw are useful regardless of the terminology used. Basically, wonder is what leads to appreciation and awe for what is already known or apparent, while curiosity leads to investigating what else there might be. Both can be good and people can experience both, but they are different modes of engagement.
What especially clicked was thinking about how I engage with science relative to other folks. I think for many Christians, wonder is primarily how they engage with science. For example, when Christianity Today wanted to provide more science writing, they created a publication dedicated to wonder. I tried writing for them, but it never felt like a great fit; I was never confident that I understood what they were looking for. Perhaps most notably, I wrote a whole article that probably drained all the wonder out of a widely circulated video by explaining that eggs don’t actually light up outside the lab. Granted, they did publish what I wrote even though it was pretty much the opposite of what they asked for. And maybe the truth inspired wonder in its own way. Still, I think it would be accurate to say I was more motivated by curiosity for what was actually going on than awe at what I had seen.
That’s not to say that I never experience wonder or that anyone else never experiences curiosity. And I certainly don’t want to imply that any particular approach is better. This is purely a description of tendencies. But descriptions of tendencies can be very helpful. If I’m trying to relate to someone–or, I dunno, write about science for other people–and we’re not quite connecting or on the same page, it would be useful to understand why. I doubt I’ll be able to completely change my approach, and I don’t think that is necessary or desirable. But if I can recognize when I’m offering something different than what folks are looking for, at the very least I can point them in the direction of the Gimbels that does offer it.
Christmas bonus: a rendition of Greensleeves (the melody for “What Child is This?”)
About the author:
Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichÃ©d notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two teenagers, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.