Curiosity, Science, and the Pope

How does a pope make it into a slideshow presented by an outspoken atheist? One would hope it was because a serious argument was being fairly addressed. Alas, we find it is instead because a papal quote is being taken out of context, misunderstood, and used to present a false picture of the relationship between Catholic Faith and reason.

Jerry Coyne, the evolutionary biologist and atheism advocate, has done just this on his blog, Why Evolution Is True. Coyne presents a quote from a homily Pope Francis delivered last year, in which the pontiff said, “The spirit of curiosity is not a good spirit. It is the spirit of dispersion, of distancing oneself from God, the spirit of talking too much. And Jesus also tells us something interesting: this spirit of curiosity, which is worldly, leads us to confusion.” Coyne comments, “The denigration of reason in favor of obedience and faith is, of course, a constant strain in Christianity, both Catholic and otherwise.”

Dr. Coyne is appalled at the pope’s comments because, these days, and especially in scientific contexts, curiosity is almost always understood to be a virtue. We encourage children to “always be curious,” and for scientists curiosity is paramount. The question, “How does that work?” or “Why does that happen?” is the primary driver for the scientific project. The lazy, incurious man who, when faced with some natural phenomenon, shrugs his shoulders and turns to idle distractions does not have the calling of the scientist, nor does the man who repeats unexamined dogmas from older teachers but has never examined them with reason. In this context, Coyne is of course correct about curiosity: it is good to want to know how the world works; the satisfaction of the intellect and the investigation of the order of nature through science is not only legitimate but noble, fulfilling human nature as an intellectual being.

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But this isn’t the only possible meaning of curiosity. As evidenced by the persistence of the common old adage “curiosity killed the cat,” curiosity is recognized to have negative consequences in some cases. We might define curiosity as the desire for knowledge, but is it the case that the desire to know something should always be praised? Thomas Aquinas identified four ways that curiosity, the desire for knowledge, could be malicious rather than praiseworthy: when knowledge is pursued in order to be prideful about having knowledge; when knowledge is pursued to the detriment of our duty; when knowledge is pursued rashly, beyond our honest ability to understand; and when knowledge is pursued without acknowledging the deeper truths towards which the knowledge points.

The first three of these cases should be easily recognized by scientists. These are all cases in which knowledge is desired frivolously; the curious person in these cases doesn’t seek truth, but rather some lesser thing. For instance, honest scientists do not respect show-off students who study science just to appear smarter, rather than because they really want to know. Nor do scientists respect those who put aside focused work for frivolous pursuits—is a Ph.D. awarded to the student who failed to finish his thesis because he was “curious” about the outcome of the latest reality television show? Do scientists respect those who, out of curiosity, eagerly read and then spout off ill-formed opinions about scientific theories without really understanding them? In all three of these cases, “curiosity” is clearly seen to be detrimental to a true, higher scientific pursuit of knowledge, and in all three cases curiosity ought to take a back seat to a disciplined humility. (We’ll come back to the fourth case in a moment.)

Yet it is just these sorts of frivolous cases of “curiosity” that Pope Francis was condemning in his homily: the inordinate, controlling, or trivial desire to know things that lead us astray from that which is truly worthwhile. The pope did not condemn legitimate scientific investigation, which Francis didn’t bring up at all. Instead, understood in context, Pope Francis was clearly condemning that sort of curiosity that leads away from truth for merely petty reasons. In fact, his whole homily was concerned with spiritual and personal curiosity of an immature sort, not with public, intellectual, or scientific pursuits. He provides an example: “Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus would say that she had always to stop herself before the spirit of curiosity. When she spoke with another sister and this sister was telling a story about the family, about people, sometimes the subject would change, and she would want to know the end of the story. But she felt that this was not the spirit of God, because it was a spirit of dispersion, of curiosity.” To take this papal quote as applying to the sort of curiosity that is noble in science is to miss the point entirely. In condemning curiosity, Francis had not in mind the work of the scientist following the trail of evidence: he was describing the personal, interior life of the person pursuing holiness but distracted by trivialities.

When Science Ignores Knowledge of God
To return to Aquinas, his fourth case of blameworthy curiosity arises “when a man desires to know the truth about creatures, without referring his knowledge to its due end, namely, the knowledge of God.” This could be called the occupational hazard of science. In his text, Natural Theology, Fr. John McCormick, S.J., puts it precisely: “This very attractiveness of the goodness of the world may arrest man’s attention and so seem to satisfy his desires that he will look no further.” In other words, the scientist is (rightly) attracted and motivated by the goodness and luminous beauty of the physical world he investigates (a luminosity and beauty that comes from its creation by God)—but this very beauty, which captivates and intrigues him so apparently completely, may cause him to cease to look further. (For a recent example, take Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comments disparaging philosophy as a distraction from the work of science.)

But a complete intellectual account requires more. Science does not answer the questions it raises about its own origins and efficacy. Why does science work? This is not a scientific question. Its answer lies beyond the methods of science. Even consideration of any object of scientific study—an organism, a species, a particle, a star—raises questions about being and existence that only philosophy, not science, can answer. Science presupposes philosophical propositions that science cannot itself investigate, but which the curious mind nevertheless wants to understand. And philosophy itself ends open-ended, pointing beyond the knowledge accessible by our minds alone, and is finally answered only by the Incarnation, when the God who is the source of all reality itself responded to our call.

Thus the problem is, in the end, not that the scientist has curiosity and the believer has none, but that the scientist’s curiosity can become too limited, too easily satisfied. The materialist’s view of the world can become so narrow that he cannot understand the sort of humility towards knowledge advocated by faith, and he cannot conceive of any order beyond the physical—an order towards which our intellectual and moral efforts ought to be subordinated. (Of course, the believer may make this mistake, as well, when he rejects sound and legitimate science in favor of an uninformed, simplistic “religious” opinion, as Augustine warned.) It is good to want to know why, so long as that desire draws us closer to the ultimate goal of all knowledge: God himself. If he becomes entrapped in the single plane of physical causes, blind to the deeper order of reality as accessed by philosophy and openness to revelation, it is the scientist, not the believer, who has abandoned healthy curiosity.


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