For curiosity’s sake

14 04 2014


What was this like before we got here?

Sometimes when I look around it seems that we’re living in a self-service world, an automated world that points us down a particular avenue. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by all the conveniences of living in the contemporary western world. In our post-industrial quest for efficiency and productivity, we have made things streamlined, safe and standardised. We have ironed out the idiosyncrasies. In such a world it’s easy to become dull and live on auto-pilot. It’s easy to forget how to think for ourselves because the world we have created doesn’t want us to. Where does that leave curiosity?

If I had to lose any one of my senses then I’d fight hard to save my sense of curiosity for it seems to me that being curious means being truly alive and awake. Without curiosity there would be no challenge for who could be bothered to explore, to discover, to enquire, to create or to reach out with no curiosity? Without curiosity we would become shut-in to the self. Without curiosity we would imprison ourselves.

Thinking philosophically is a curious occupation. It requires very little except an open mind and perhaps a notebook to catch new insights and understandings as they come. Thinking philosophically is something that anyone can do given a little time and attention. Philosophy is for the curious. One reason why thinking philosophically comes naturally to children is that their minds are more curious than adult minds.

Yesterday after a picnic with friends and their children under the oak trees I asked Anna, ten, and Elen, six, what they were most curious about. Anna said that she was most curious about the boy who cried wolf. She’d heard the story the day before and kept thinking about it. ‘I’m curious to know why he didn’t get a book or do something else. Why did he have to keep tricking people?’

She thought for a minute then added: ‘Also why do people say that cows lie down when it’s raining?’

Elen wanted to know why her friend Charlotte had left school and yet her sister Bella had stayed. She also wanted to know how cows make milk.

Her father Jeremy said that he would be curious to ‘have a chat with Darwin or Julius Cesar to see what they think of what we’ve made of the world.’ The girls’ mother Annaig was also curious about talking to people about lived experiences of the past. Annaig noted that when we start thinking about curiosity we end up with questions about the beginning and the end. Curiosity leads us into the big questions of philosophy.


Declan is most curious about how he can carry the biggest stick 

After our picnic we went for a walk on Dartmoor through an ancient and curious landscape. As we warmed our backs on granite rocks more than 20 million years old, we wondered what the world might have been like before there were humans to experience it. As I tried to imagine a perfect, pristine wild landscape, I realised that what we think about the world is part of evolution, too. Old models of thought erode and change over time. Old ideas become replaced by new and fresh ideas. The things we are most curious about today will shape our future in some way and then be replaced by other ideas to get curious about. It’s only when we stop being curious that the light goes out on human thinking.

Here are some of the things I’m most curious about at the moment:

Is curiosity a sense or a skill?

Why do people still fall out when all their needs are met?

What will the drowned wreckage of the missing Malaysian plane look like?

Will my fancy ruffled tulips open today?

I’d be curious to hear from anyone who wants to share their own curiosity list.


On the verge of knowledge?

13 12 2013


This week I’ve been talking to teenagers about philosophy. Yesterday a boy asked:  what do I get out of it?  Little did he know, but his question was not something I could easily answer. What was he hoping to get out of it? Did he want philosophy to point him in the direction of living a more fulfilling and engaged life, or did he want to know what a qualification in philosophy was worth?

It turned out that he wanted to know whether philosophy was taken seriously as a discipline. Was it equal to studying history or maths or science?  Was it recognised as a proper subject? This is a question that crops up fairly often in philosophy, especially among older students. They want to know that a subject is legitimate before they raise their energy to meet it. They want to know that it will be worth the investment because they are already very busy people. Only this afternoon during a creative thinking session, a sixth former asked with genuine puzzlement and exasperation: “I wonder whether you could tell me why I feel so tired all the time?”

After a quick lifestyle check in which he said he got enough sleep, regularly exercised and drank enough water, he admitted that he is the kind of person who gives life one hundred percent. Whatever he does, he has to give it his all, and that after a while gets exhausting. When I suggested taking half an hour a day to do absolutely nothing except let his mind take a rest from incoming information, he looked doubtful and then thoughtful. He said he might give it a try. I joked that the ultimate challenge now is to do absolutely nothing except give the mind some clear thinking space. In this age of non-stop doing, simple thinking has become the last thing many young people do when they feel overwhelmed and stressed. 

The group wanted to know: if humans are so clever and so successful why haven’t we got to the stage yet when we take time out to think creatively every day? Why have we invented a world of information and forgotten that we need time to get our heads around some of the new stuff that keeps coming at us daily. Why, they wondered, have we created a world in which young people in particular feel under pressure?

‘It’s because we’re greedy and competitive,’ one boy suggested. ‘Is it because we don’t know when to stop?’ another queried. ‘It’s because we have to feel that we’re making progress, and this is the way we’re used to making progress, by new inventions.’ These already overwhelmed boys of sixteen wanted to know whether there might be a limit to our human capacity for novelty and invention. When might it all stop?

The human capacity for invention intrigued the philosopher David Hume (1711-76). He believes that the imagination has a primary role in the way in which we access knowledge. One of Hume’s themes centres on the limits of knowledge. He shares with John Locke (1632-1704) the theory that the mind starts out as tabula rasa, or blank slate, and gains ideas through experience or impressions. For Hume, every idea we have is copied from impressions stored in the mind. We might want to design a fantastic building made from glass or ice, something never before seen, and we do this by combining impressions of materials and techniques previously experienced. Hume’s own example is a golden mountain. We might never have seen one, but we could invent one based on what we already know.

Hume’s theories intrigue because it is still not clear how we can know anything. It is one thing to say that we can create new knowledge from existing impressions based on experience, but does that mean that we can’t ask questions about what we don’t know? Do we have to remain within the boundaries of empirical knowledge? My adult seminar group this week wondered about the limits of knowledge and our chosen question delved into the problem of infinity: is infinity indefinable?

Gordon said that questions about what lies beyond what we know are impossible. We simply can’t make the leap. Our minds need to feel secure. Hume would have agreed. He liked his impressions and ideas neat and tidy and would have had no time for speculative nonsense. Bertrand Russell took a similar line, once claiming that the universe is a ‘brute fact.’ It exists. End of question. Get over it.

There were a few contemplatives among the group for whom this was not enough. If facts and evidence and data are the primary form of knowledge, why do we continue to ask metaphysical questions? If we’ve come to a dead end in terms of our method of gaining knowledge, and Russell thought Hume had pretty much said it all, then why do we feel that there is more to be discovered? Why do we dream and speculate and feel a sense of there being something other than the hard facts? And what do children know?

Steve shared a comment made by his three-year-old grandson. One day when they were out walking his grandson took in the scene around him and then turned to Steve and said: ‘When does it all end?’ What he meant was not that particular day out with his grand-dad, but life itself, in all its swirling glory.

To a three-year-old life is infinitely mysterious. I can remember a similar metaphysical moment with a three-year-old nephew one snowy Christmas on a walk through a village sparkling in the sun after a pub lunch by a log fire. As we crunched up the hill, my nephew looked into an immaculate sky and asked: ‘Belinda, is God real?’ I tried not to patronise him or fob him off with …well some people say…I told him about the philosophical arguments for the existence of God and said that he would one day have to make up his own mind about whether they were true or not. I like to think that I gave him something more to think about.

The age of three is a good starting point for philosophy, perhaps three is the ideal age for wonder. In thinking of how the world appears to a three-year-old, we remember that it is not all obvious and precisely thought-through. There are many things that need to be puzzled over and discussed and understood, many things that seem mystifying. Many impressions that have not yet become ideas.

When a close friend’s three-year-old came to Devon for the first time he was puzzled by the grass verges which were particularly intriguing to a boy who had in his short life known only London streets. He was curious and wanted to know. ‘Belinda, are the pavements under the grass?’  I told him about verges – a strange word now I think of it –  and he recombined his impressions. Hume would have said that he updated his imagination. Later on my friend’s son was able to add another new idea. After a particularly exciting time at the beach, he asked: ‘When are we going to that big canal again?’

Three year olds don’t need reminding to ask questions about life; they do so naturally and spontaneously. In recalling these moments of fresh openness to life’s experience, I think of the older boys today, so initially weary and jaded as they talked about the possibility that we might one day know it all, perhaps we would reach a Humean dead-end, until one of them said that there would always be as many creative ideas as there were people. ‘I guess that’s true,’ another said and their faces shone with wonder for a moment.

It isn’t going to end. There are always more questions, just as long as we remember to keep asking them.

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