Stanley the barnacle

I used to love to watch barnacles. Well, I still do, but there’s a distinct shortage of tidepools here in Minnesota, which makes it a very difficult hobby. Barnacles are arthropods hunkered down in stony shells attached to a substrate, and what they do is unfurl feathery legs like ostrich plumes (called cirri) and wave them about in the water to catch small particles of food. They’re very pretty, but also very skittish: a shadow passing over, a splash, the klunk of a rock sending vibrations through the substrate, and they instantly withdraw their limbs and slam the plate-like doors to their home shut. There isn’t much variation in their response; they can’t get up and run away, they can’t leap out use kung-fu on an interloper, all they can do is hide behind their armored shells, and that’s what they do as a reaction to any stimulus.

Barnacles are completely lacking in curiosity. It makes sense; they have very tiny brains, and all they want is to be left alone to strain the water for nutrients. For a barnacle, curiosity would be a dangerous vice. Any intrusion on their routine is a risk, and they don’t need to analyze…just slam the doors shut.

While there may be few tidepools in Minnesota, I can find some in the pages of the NY Times. Stanley Fish is apparently some species of barnacle. James Leach of the National Endowment for the Humanities gave a lecture titled “Is There an Inalienable Right to Curiosity?”, which has stirred Fish to protest. I think. In a wonderfully consistent pattern that I’m sure would meet the approval of barnacles everywhere, he doesn’t actually express an opinion directly himself. Instead, he merely reports what others have said. We must deduce his opinion from the fact that he only quotes critics of curiosity. Curiosity is the original sin, you know: we can blame all of our suffering on a god who righteously slapped down a couple of people for daring to be curious.

When God told Adam he could eat of all the fruits of the Garden of Eden, but not of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, he placed what has been called a “provoking object” in Adam’s eyes. The provocation was to go beyond the boundaries God had established and thereby set himself up a rival deity, a being with no limits on what he can conceive, a being whose intellect could, in time, comprehend anything and everything. Such a being would imagine himself, God-like, standing to the side of the universe and, armed only with the power of his mind, mastering its intricacies. Those who engage in this fantasy, says Thomas Aquinas, think “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.”

Another churchman, Lorenzo Scupoli, put it this way in 1589: “They make an idol of their own understanding” (“Knowledge puffeth up,” I Corinthians 8:1). Pascal said it succinctly: “Curiosity is only vanity.” Jonathan Robinson, writing in this century, makes the same point: “What we are talking about is the desire to satisfy our curiosity on any and every conceivable subject that takes our fancy” (“Spiritual Combat Revisited”).

Isn’t that fascinating? If barnacles could imagine and could write, that’s precisely what they’d say, too. There is a hallowed tradition in certain scholarly circles of simply quoting famous dead white guys who agree with you in order to lend your words some authority that reason cannot bestow on them, and Stanley Barnacle has this same attitude. When someone quotes stodgy old promoters of the status quo who insist that human knowledge must have limits, we must go no further than we have up to this century, though, I have to note that they’ve all been irrefutably proven wrong by the time the next century rolls around. I am unpersuaded. Actually, I’m anti-persuaded. There’s something about citing a 5th century bishop telling everyone to stop exploring the world that has the effect of convincing this 21st century secularist to go turn over a few more rocks.

Give this indictment of men in love with their own capacities a positive twist and it becomes a description of the scientific project, which includes among its many achievements space travel, a split atom, cloning and the information revolution. It is a project that celebrates the expansion of knowledge’s boundaries as an undoubted good, and it is a project that Chairman Leach salutes when he proudly lists the joint efforts by the University of Virginia and the N.E.H. to digitalize just about everything. “The computer revolution,” he announces, “holds out the prospect that the digital library could be become an international citadel for the pursuit of curiosity.”

That’s exactly what Paul Griffiths, professor of divinity at Duke University, is afraid of. Where Leach welcomes the enlargement of curiosity’s empire, Griffiths, who is writing a book on the vice of curiosity, sees it as a sign of moral and spiritual danger: “Late modern societies that are fundamentally shaped by the overwhelming presence of electronic media and the obscene inundation of every aspect of human life by pictures and sounds have turned the vice of curiosity into a prescribed way of life” (“Reason and the Reasons of Faith”). The prescriptions come in the form of familiar injunctions: follow the inquiry as far as it goes, leave no stone unturned, there is always more to know, the more information the better. “In a world where curiosity rules,” Griffiths declares, “unmasking curiosity as a destructive and offensive device . . . amounts to nothing less than a . . . radical critique of superficiality and constant distraction.”

Oh, no! Digitizing books? Heresy! We should be reading marks chiseled in stone or clay, as the gods intended!

I would have been shocked that an academic would condemn curiosity as a “vice”, as “destructive and offensive”, as “superficiality and constant distraction”, since exercising our curiosity, and fostering curiosity in our students, is supposed to be one of our jobs. However, the barnacle gave us advance warning: it’s not just an academic, it’s a professor of divinity. Oh, well then, point taken. I can understand why a professor of nothing would resent the possibility of other human beings poking into his little niche and discovering what a hollow lie it all is.

I, with my omnipresent laptop and smartphone, my kindle and my flash drives full of pdfs, my blog and my facebook and my twitter accounts, am a walking, talking, info-flooding obscenity to these guys. I like it. Now why, though, should they find the data-driven life so disgusting? You can guess why.

Griffiths builds on the religious tradition in which curiosity is condemned because it distracts men from the study and worship of God, shackling them, says Augustine, “to an inferior love.” But curiosity can also distract men from secular obligations by so occupying their minds that there is no room left for other considerations. These men (and women) fail to register the pain of animals subjected to experiments in the name of knowledge, pay no heed to the social consequences of their investigations, and take no heed of the warnings issued in Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus,” Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (not to mention the myth of Pandora and the Incredible Hulk).

God likes his people uninformed, ignorant, and close-minded. With good reason: if his followers aren’t that way, they might discover what a sham the priests have erected. I reject such self-serving excuses.

The social consciousness argument has a little more weight, but is still unconvincing. Scientists have changed the world, and that always causes stresses on society, the kinds of stresses that writers like the ones he cites have explored. That does not imply that scientists are somehow outside of the culture they are changing; we do pay attention, we have to. The point is, though, that we change social realities because we are bringing about greater understanding of material realities, and if our beliefs about how the universe works are confronted with the reality of how the universe works, we think it is the beliefs that ought to change, because the universe is not going to bend to our convenience. We are responsive to nature, not the contrived dogma of theologians.

As for his dig against animal experimentation…he’s clueless and has never been in a research lab. We care very much about the comfort of our animals.

They are obsessive and obsessed and exhibit, says John Henry Newman, something akin to a mental disorder. “In such persons reason acts almost as feebly and as impotently as in the madman: once fairly started on a subject, they have no power of self-control” (“The Idea of a University”). They have no power of self-control because they have no allegiance — to a deity, to human flourishing, to community — that might serve as a check on their insatiable curiosity. (Curiosity is inherently insatiable; its satisfactions are only momentary; there is always another horizon.)

In short, curiosity — sometimes called research, sometimes called unfettered inquiry, sometimes called progress, sometimes called academic freedom — is their God. The question, posed by thinkers from Aquinas to Augustine to Newman to Griffiths, is whether this is the God — the God, ultimately, of self — we want to worship. Given the evidence, including Chairman Leach’s address, the answer would seem to be yes.

Wow. Curiosity as a mental disorder: are these people not primates? It’s a behavior that practically defines us naked monkeys! There is no greater joy and no more satisfying experience than exploring new avenues and discovering new ideas. It’s what makes us civilized humans and not cows or jellyfish or barnacles. It’s how Stanley Fish ends up clucking over our insatiable desire to learn more and do more…on the internet, with his computer, from his position as an academic at a university. It’s a bit hypocritical, don’t you think? He should at least be living in a cave, draped in animal skins, and scrawling his treatises in charcoal on flat pieces of rock.

Or better yet, his ideal life of the mind would be better spent sessile, locked in a limestone shell, with his only interaction with the world being the gentle scraping of his environment for little slimy gleanings of food. He could worship god as he did so, as well.

The rest of us…well, we’ll try to reach a little higher and a little deeper, and enjoy our curiosity.