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The Difference Between Curiosity and Wonder and How It Shaped the Science vs. Scripture Divide

“The important thing is not to stop questioning… Never lose holy curiosity,” Albert Einstein counseled in 1955. Iconic science fiction writer Isaac Asimov has hailed curiosity as the key to discovery. Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the greatest scientific minds of our time, has proclaimed it central to our DNA. And yet curiosity hasn’t always enjoyed such ample cultural endorsement — in 1605, for instance, even the father of the scientific method admonished against its dark side.

In Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything (public library), British writer Philip Ball traces the cultural history of curiosity across its rollercoaster of popular favor:

It has always been a complaint leveled at curiosity that it is the enemy of productivity, an unwelcome distraction from our daily duties. Meanwhile, the Enlightenment’s mockers of curiosity were … often not utilitarian Gradgrinds but gossipy, solipsistic wits and libertines. And a surfeit of information has always given cause for grumbling. Alexander Pope felt that the printing press, ‘a scourge for the sins of the learned,’ would lead to ‘a deluge of Authors [that] covered the land.’ … But it is clear that the first ‘professors of curiosity’ who flourished in the century of Pope’s birth had to work tremendously hard to get their knowledge, and curiosity was, before profit or fame or reputation, their most significant motivation.

Among Ball’s most fascinating observations is the contrast between curiosity and wonder, a tension arguably reconciled in the eloquent definition of science as “systematic wonder” but an enduring tension nonetheless:

For the Greeks, curiosity was not even a clearly articulated concept. To the extent that it was acknowledged at all, it stands in contrast to its mercurial sibling, wonder. Aristotle believed that all humans naturally desire knowledge, but he felt that curiosity (periergia) had little role to play in philosophy. It was a kind of aimless, witless tendency to pry into things that didn’t concern us. Wonder (thauma) was far more significant, the true root of enquiry: ‘It is owing to their wonder,’ he wrote, ‘that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.’ … Until the seventeenth century, wonder was esteemed while curiosity was reviled.

In his popular emblem book Iconologia (1593) showing classical personifications of the human qualities, the Italian author Cesare Ripa depicted curiosity as a wild, disheveled woman, driving home the message in the caption: ‘Curiosity is the unbridled desire of those who seek to know more than they should.’

Though on the surface wonder might appear infused with the poetic energy of awe, there’s also an element of docile faith to it, contrary to the active engagement of curiosity. In fact, Bell demonstrates how this very dichotomy grew central to Christian Scripture, where the extinguishing of curiosity — as Galileo learned the hard way — became a mechanism of intellectual oppression, one necessary for preserving the “wonder” of faith:

That some knowledge was forbidden to humankind is of course central to the Christian Creation myth: this is the basis of the Fall. ‘When you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God’, the serpent tells Eve of the fruit on the tree of knowledge. The transgressive aspect of curiosity is an insistent theme in Christian theology. Time and again the student of the Bible is warned to respect the limits of enquiry and to be wary of too much learning. ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God’, proclaims Deuteronomy. Solomon (if it was he who wrote Ecclesiastes) cautions that:

with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more grief.


Or, as the King James version has it:

Be not curious in unnecessary matters:
For more things are shewed unto thee than men understand.

St Paul was considered to have echoed this sentiment in the admonition ‘Seek not to know high things.’ The fact that he did not actually write this at all speaks volumes in itself, suggesting that the mistranslation fitted with prevailing prejudice. … ‘Do not take pride in the arts or sciences,’ wrote Thomas à Kempis in the fifteenth century, ‘rather, fear what has been told to you.’

Wonder, on the other hand, had an element of unquestioning submission that resonated with the religious tradition:

The central problem with curiosity was that it was thought to be motivated by excessive pride. The accumulation of pointless learning ran the risk not that one would become another Lucifer but that one would primp and preen rather than bow one’s head before the Lord. ‘O curiosity! O vanity!’, cried the late twelfth-century theologian Alexander Neckam. ‘O vain curiosity! O curious vanity!’

The imperative of pious humility was what commended wonder to Augustine at the same time as it indicted curiosity. There was nothing frivolous or hedonistic about wonder. It instilled awe, reminding us of our powerlessness and insignificance before the glory of God. That is why wonder in the face of nature’s splendour was seen as the educated response, and a willingness to believe in marvels and prodigies was not only praiseworthy but virtually a religious duty. Curiosity, like scepticism, was a sign that you lacked devotion and faith.

The remainder of Curiosity challenges common assumptions about the Scientific Revolution, exploring much like Vannevar Bush did more than half a century ago, the evolving role of curiosity in the face of “the knee-trembling quantity of information we have at our fingertips” through the lives and minds of such revered scientists as Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton.

Published April 12, 2013




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