Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Eat That Apple!

Stanley Fish is not normally my favorite commentator, but his New York Times piece on curiosity today is well worth a look:

…There is another tradition in which, far from being the guarantor of a better future, curiosity is a vice and even a sin. Indeed, it has often been considered the original sin.

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)…

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 [N.E.H.] 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.

I’d expect no less from a professor of divinity, but how sad…and what a useful reminder of what a block to progress (suspect word, but it’ll do in this context) certain types of religious faith (and their accretions and superstitions) can represent.

Speaking of which, I wonder what that Senator Brownback has been up to recently….Ah yes.

Ht/t: The Daily Dish


  • Schrodinger's Dog · September 20, 2009 at 7:05 am

    ‘Twas I who killed the cat.

    “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth. And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know. But if any man love God, the same is known of him.”

    is incompatible with:

    “Given that ‘the cornerstone of democracy is access to knowledge…’


  • Aaaron (a.k.a. Ploni) · September 20, 2009 at 10:56 am

    Was the point of this post to state, “I’m on this side and not that”? OK. I happen to agree with these “thinkers from Aquinas to Augustine to Newman to Griffiths”. There. The difference is that at least my position was presented with an attempt at some kind of a justification (by Fish). You didn’t try to justify your side, though I know people have been trying to do so for centuries. So now what? We each keep repeating our own positions over and over?

  • Aaron (a.k.a. Ploni) · September 20, 2009 at 10:57 am

    Oops, misspelled my own name! It’s “Aaron”.

  • John · September 20, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    The justification for “our” side is:

    1. Science and technology have greatly increased our standard of living. We now live longer, happier, and healthier lives than we did 1000 years ago.

    2. In a free society, there will be some people who want to know why The Moon goes around the Earth, why water freezes when it gets cold, and what kidneys are for. The only alternative to letting people find out these things is to use force to restrict them from doing so. It seems to be that the burden of proof is on the restrictionists to justify themselves. My curiosity doesn’t need justification.

    3. Knowledge is good.

  • David Tye · September 20, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Fish’s glasses must have fallen off while he was reading Genesis. God forbade man from eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, not knowledge per se. You’ve got to be deliberately obtuse to read this as an indictment of general curiosity or of scientific research.

    Not all knowledge is good. I have no desire to find out what it is like to murder someone. This is what it means to eat of the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.

  • Aaron · September 20, 2009 at 10:58 pm


    1. The standard of living had been rising long before the Enlightenment. Granted, though, that science caused it to rise a lot faster. Did that lead to people’s living better lives? Arguably it lead to the opposite. Obviously it all depends what you think a well-lived life is. I think there might be some disagreement on that subject.

    2. Note first of all that none of your scientific examples would be condemned by most “restrictionists”. Interestingly, all the examples you chose are from the physical sciences. In this blog I’d have expected some easier targets, from behavioral genetics etc.

    Whichever side carried the initial burden of proof, the two sides have now been arguing their proofs for hundreds of years, so the burden is on each side to respond to the other. My goal wasn’t to resolve the philosophical controversy in the comment section of a blog, only to ask what the future would or should be in this centuries-long disagreement.

    I don’t remember Stanley Fish calling for the use of force against the over-curious. The question of whether X is good or bad is different from the question of what to do about X. Anyway, from a libertarian perspective – which isn’t my own perspective, but that of some people reading this – it’s the over-curious themselves who are calling for the initiation of force, in the form of government taxation to finance their curiosity.

    3. Ha ha.

  • Curious About The Apple, Even More Curious About The iPhone « Around The Sphere · September 21, 2009 at 10:07 am

    […] Andrew Stuttaford at Secular Right: I’d expect no less from a professor of divinity, but how sad…and what a useful reminder of what a block to progress (suspect word, but it’ll do in this context) certain types of religious faith (and their accretions and superstitions) can represent. […]

  • Wm Jas · September 23, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    To me, “They make an idol of their own understanding,” more appropriately refers to those who lack, or restrain, their curiosity — those (often, but not always, religious) who are so sure that they’ve got it all figured out that they no longer bother to look at the evidence.



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