Curiosity and Science, Intent and Wisdom 11:22

Louis William Wain's (1860-1939) 'A curious cat.' Originally a gift from the artist to Ernest Ralph, Wain's barber in Napsbury. (ca. 1930)
(From Bonhams auction house, used w/o permission.)
(Louis William Wain’s “A curious cat.” (ca. 1930))

As a behavior, curiosity is part of being a rat, a cat, or a human.

In humans, at least, it’s also an emotion.

Whether the decline in curiosity exhibited by many of us as we mature is a natural process, or is the result of education1 — that’s a can of worms I’ll ignore today.

Cultural values very likely also encourage, or discourage, curiosity. Happily, there’s more to my native culture than this proverb:

“Curiosity killed the cat,” meaning:

  • Curiosity can get you in trouble sometimes
    (Common Proverbs, LSI Education, London)
  • Stop asking questions
    (English idioms, Resources for learning English, EF/Education First)

Mad Scientists and Being Human

Studio Foglio's Mr. Squibbs, used w/o permission.Again, there’s more to my culture’s attitude toward curiosity than “stop asking questions.”

Although you’d never know it from our tales of mad scientists, rife with warnings against the folly of “tampering with things man was not supposed to know.”

Dr. James Xavier: “I’m blind to all but a tenth of the universe.”
Dr. Sam Brant: “My dear friend, only the gods see everything.”
Dr. James Xavier: “My dear doctor, I’m closing in on the gods.”
(“X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes” (1963), via IMDB.com)

In contrast, we’ve got folks like Chesterton and Samuel Johnson.

“There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”
(“Heretics,” Chapter III: “On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small”, G. K. Chesterton (1905) via Wikiquote)

“Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.”
(“The Rambler,” Samuel Johnson (1750-1752) via Wikiquote)

My view is close to Chesterton’s, that there’s no such thing as an uninteresting subject. But that’s my preference, or opinion. It matters to me, but isn’t therefore a universal truth.

So, is curiosity a good idea or a bad one?

St. Augustine, Ignorance, Foolishness and Metaphorical Cloaks

A frontispiece for 'Historia Mundi Naturalis,' by Pliny the Elder, published Sigmund Feyerabend, Frankfurt am Main. (1582)As usual, it’s not that simple.

Neither is what St. Augustine of Hippo had to say about curiosity in his “Confessions.”

“Notwithstanding, in how many most petty and contemptible things is our curiosity daily tempted, and how often we give way, who can recount?”
(“Confessions,” Book X, St. Augustine of Hippo (ca. 400 A.D.) Trans. Edward Bouverie Pusey, via Gutenberg.org)

Curiosity makes semblance of a desire of knowledge; whereas Thou supremely knowest all. Yea, ignorance and foolishness itself is cloaked under the name of simplicity and uninjuriousness;
(“Confessions,” Book II, St. Augustine of Hippo (ca. 400 A.D.) Trans. Edward Bouverie Pusey, via Gutenberg.org)

Making sense of curiosity, and avoiding foolishness, wasn’t any easier 14 and a half centuries after St. Augustine of Hippo wrote his “Confessions.” And wasn’t any less controversial, I strongly suspect.

Science, Social Justice and Getting a Grip

Wiley Miller's Non Sequitur: The Church of Danae vs. logic and the laws of physics. (August 24, 2016) used w/o permission.Not quite a millennium and a half after St. Augustine of Hippo’s day, Vincenzo Gioacchino Raffaele Luigi Pecci became Pope Leo XIII.

The late 19th century was not good times for folks who like the status quo.

New ideas and festering old attitudes were getting along about as well as fire and oil, cobra and mongoose.

From 1878 to 1903, Pope Leo XIII insisted that both socialism and laissez-faire capitalism were bad ideas, and that workers deserved decent wages and safe working conditions.

I figure he upset a great many folks, and I think that he was right.

Oversimplifying Pope Leo XIII’s position on social justice, science and theology something fearful: he reminded us that both God and truth matter. And that neither is going to get in the way of our faith.

Seems obvious, putting it that way. To me, at any rate. But I wasn’t brought up believing that faith meant putting my mind on “hold.”

Meanwhile, Darwin’s “Origin of Species” mixed with the efforts of liberal Anglicans to pry England’s schools loose from Henry VIII’s state church.

With results similar to what you’d get from a blender set to “puree,” with the lid off.

Meanwhile, archaeology was becoming less of an amateur treasure-hunting sport and more of a legitimate scholarly pursuit. And, perhaps inevitably, we got both ‘Biblical archaeology’ and ‘Bible science,’ AKA ‘creation science.’

Happily, somewhere in the early to mid 20th century, ‘Biblical’ archaeologists started focusing more on unraveling part of humanity’s long story, and less on confirming their assumptions. Stalwart anti-evolutionists, on the other hand, carried on.2

I’ll give ardent champions of both ‘Biblical’ studies credit for enthusiasm and imagination.

Making Sense and Other Alternatives

ArchonMagnus' diagram of scientific method.But deciding what’s real first, and then selecting facts that fit the preferred conclusion?

I can’t see that as a good idea.

Starting with a conclusion, making up questions that’ll prove it, and then picking facts that give the ‘right’ answers is pretty much the opposite of scientific method.3

That sort of alleged “science,” used as arguments for believing what folks like Ussher said the Bible says? It’s not just bad science. It’s “faith” based on fictions. Or, at best, based on codified folklore.

I’ll grant that ‘creation science’ media has been a tried and true staple for some — not all — Christian retailers.

But I also think that real-world analogs to Non Sequitur’s “Church of Danae” encourage the notion that religion in general and Christianity in particular don’t make sense.

Lovecraft’s “Placid Island of Ignorance”

Nottsuo's 'Shoggoth.' (2016)Then there’s H. P. Lovecraft and his “placid island of ignorance” attitude.

Lovecraft apparently started out as a conventional American Protestant.

Then, in 1902, he started learning about space, got interested in astronomy, and realized that this universe is really, really big.

That, World War I, plus Lovecraft’s interest in Nietzsche and Mencken, gave us his cosmicism philosophy and the Cthulhu mythos.4

I like reading tales like “The Call of Cthulhu,” but don’t share his attitude toward the “terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein….”

Possibly because my faith didn’t require that I see Earth as the center of everything before I became a Catholic, and still doesn’t.

“…The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. … The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age….”
(“The Call of Cthulhu,” H. P. Lovecraft (1929); via WikiQuote)


A Pope, a Saint, the Bible, and “Terrifying Vistas”

Detail, Hubble Space Telescope's ACS' view of NGC 602 and N90. (July 14/18, 2004) from NASA/Hubble, used w/o permission. (NGC 602 is an open cluster of stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud.)Before looking — make that glancing — at what St. Thomas Aquinas said about curiosity, here’s how Pope Leo XIII, St. Augustine of Hippo and the Bible say about those “terrifying vistas.”

“…God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures — and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. … Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893) [emphasis mine])

Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air…. They all answer you, ‘Here we are, look; we’re beautiful.’…
“…So in this way they arrived at a knowledge of the god who made things, through the things which he made.”
(Sermon 241, St. Augustine of Hippo (ca. 411) [emphasis mine])

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is like a grain from a balance,
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook sins for the sake of repentance.”
(Wisdom 11:2223 [emphasis mine])

God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed—the sixth day.”
(Genesis 1:31 [emphasis mine])

Lovecraft Lives??

E. J. Pace's 'The Descent of the Modernists,' from 'Christian Cartoons.' (1922)(From E. J. Pace, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A scary picture from “Christian Cartoons,” E. J. Price. (1922))

Another quote/excerpt, partly because I like the title’s take on “curiosity killed the cat,” and partly because “being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose” sounds downright Lovecraftian.

Curiosity killed the cat, but it may help you get the Nobel prize
BioFrontiers Institute, University of Colorado (March 17, 2017)

“I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose — which is the way it really is so far as I can tell — it does not frighten me.”
(Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out)

I don’t see a point in being frightened by what humanity hasn’t learned yet, or by what we have been learning.

As for being lost in this universe, that’s really not an issue; since I’ll be spending my life here on Earth. Only a few folks have left humanity’s home, and then only for a few days. So far. And that’s another topic.

Living in a Vast and Ancient Universe

Collage of Andrew Z. Colvin's 'Earth's Location in the Universe' diagrams, via Wikimedia Commons.

In any case, I’m a Catholic.

My faith doesn’t depend on opinions held by Ussher or any other European scholar, a few centuries back: before we began learning how vast and ancient this universe is.

Detail, 'The Carina Nebula: Star Birth in the Extreme,' The Hubble Heritage Project. Space Telescope Science Institute. (April 24, 2007) Via Wikimedia Commons.And it’s sure not threatened by knowledge of this wonder-packed universe. Or, for that matter, by what we don’t know.

“No matter where and how far we look, nowhere do we find a contradiction between religion and natural science. On the contrary, we find a complete concordance in the very points of decisive importance. Religion and natural science do not exclude each other, as many contemporaries of ours would believe or fear. They mutually supplement and condition each other. …”
“…Religion and natural science are fighting a joint battle in an incessant, never relaxing crusade against scepticism and against dogmatism, against disbelief and against superstition, and the rallying cry in this crusade has always been, and always will be: ‘On to God!’
(“Religion and Natural Science,” Lecture about the relationship between religion and science. Originally entitled Religion und Naturwissenschaft. (1937) Complete translation into English: “Max Planck: Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers” (1968); via Wikiquote [emphasis mine])

“The heavens declare the glory of God;
the firmament proclaims the works of his hands.”
(Psalms 19:2)


“The Vice of Curiosity?”

Detail, Gentile da Fabriano's 'Coronation of the Virgin,' gable painting, right inner panel, showing St. Thomas Aquinas.' (ca. 1400)Now, finally, a (very) little of what St. Thomas Aquinas said about “the vice of curiosity” in “Summa Theologica.”

“…As stated above (II-II:166:2 ad 2) studiousness is directly, not about knowledge itself, but about the desire and study in the pursuit of knowledge. Now we must judge differently of the knowledge itself of truth, and of the desire and study in the pursuit of the knowledge of truth. For the knowledge of truth, strictly speaking, is good, but it may be evil accidentally, by reason of some result, either because one takes pride in knowing the truth, according to 1 Corinthians 8:1, ‘Knowledge puffeth up,’ or because one uses the knowledge of truth in order to sin….”
(“Summa Theologica,” Second Part of the Second Part, Question 167; St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century) Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1920) via NewAdvent [emphasis mine])

First off, the “accidentally” St. Thomas Aquinas talks about here isn’t the “I ran off the road accidentally” sense of the word.

An “accident” can be an unplanned event, a fallacy, an abrupt geological discontinuity, or a philosophical idea. Then there’s Accident, Maryland, and that’s yet another topic.5

In context, I’m pretty sure that this “accidentally” is the philosophical variety: a property something has which is not part of its essential nature, and which can change.

A brick, for example, could be painted brown, blue or green. But it would still be a brick. The brick’s colors are there “accidentally,” while the brick remains essentially a brick.

So, if knowledge of truth truth is basically good, how could it possibly be bad?

Pretty easily, actually, since we have free will and have been dealing with consequences of a really daft decision. (Genesis 1:31; 3:1-19; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 385-412, 1730-1742)

Quarks, Truth and Intent

The 'Flammarion Woodcut, from his 'L'Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire.' (1888)Next, “Summa” shows us how someone can use studiousness for a wrong reason.

I gather that it’s a matter of intent. (Catechism, 1750-1756, 1789)

“…for instance those who study to know the truth that they may take pride in their knowledge. Hence Augustine says (De Morib. Eccl. 21): ‘Some there are who forsaking virtue, and ignorant of what God is, and of the majesty of that nature which ever remains the same, imagine 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.’…”
(“Summa Theologica,” Second Part of the Second Part, Question 167; St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century) Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1920) via NewAdvent [emphasis mine])

I don’t run into scientific triumphalism nearly as much now as I did in my youth. Although now and again I read someone’s rehash of ‘now that we understand the laws of nature.’

Cush's diagram of Standard Model of elementary particles, plus hypothetical gravitons. (2017)And I suspect that scientists are becoming less the old-school aristocratic scholars, and more a bunch of giddy nerds.

I mean to say, giving newly-discovered elementary particles monikers like “quark” and “gluon” — which come in red, green, blue and five other color singlet states?6

I strongly suspect they’re having fun, as well as trying to unscrew the inscrutable. And that’s yet again another topic.

Or maybe not so much. I like the informal turn science seems to have been taking, but don’t and won’t claim that ‘through nerdishness shalt thou be savethed.’

I’m pretty sure that a nerd could get as self-absorbed as the stuffiest stuffed-shirt man of science.

To Be Continued

Hubble Space Telescope's ACS image: NGC 602 and N90 in the Small Magellanic Cloud. With Wisdom 11:22 text.

The trick, for me at least, is remembering that God’s God, I’m not — for which we should all be thankful. And that’s still more topics.

I had more to say about Question 167, Second Part of the Second Part, in “Summa Theologica:” including why I started reading it. But I’ve run out of time this week, so that must wait.

Thanks for reading this — and please click the “Like this” button, below.

That’s all I’ve got this week, except for the usual links:


1 Being interested:

2 A Saint, a pope, an activist, history and weirdness:

3 Dealing with truth, one way or another:

4 On the edge of “terrifying vistas:”

5 Philosophy and a town in Maryland:

6 It’s elementary:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
This entry was posted in Discursive Detours and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Thanks for taking time to comment!