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.

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.

Michael Baruzzini

By

Michael Baruzzini is a science writer and editor who lives in Virginia with his wife and children. His blog on the Catholic faith and science may be found at www.deepsoftime.wordpress.com.

  • hamlet

    God bless our Pope, but he has been ambiguous so often. Most of my friend can not understand you excellent response (herein). And so comments from our Pope on issues like the gay life style and the Muslim religion are not confusing to my friends but clear as glass to them and wrong as satan. Oh, how I miss Benedict

    • Jay

      Perhaps. But he loves the Church, her people and the poor and suffering. He is a humble man. His homolies from what I understand are more clear and orthodox. More so than his interviews with the press.

      • Maria Perez

        Sorry, but his homilies are not more clear and orthodox. I’ve read a lot of them and they make me shake my head. Take yesterday’s for example. We are told not to judge. I get it, but then he says we are not even to tell a person they are wrong but to just pray for them. I have read what he says and I’m still struggling with him. And please, humility is not ostentatious. I know I may get attacked for saying this but so be it. Seems we are not even allowed to question all the (purposely) ambiguous things said by the Pope who has invented humility, meekness, love, the real truth, etc…..sigh.

        • Jay

          I stand corrected. I guess just wait for the next Pope. From what I understand Pope Francis has some health problems. He may not be alive much longer (and you’ll probably be grateful for that).

          • Marcelus

            Correct Jay. So Many ‘ don’t get me wrong I love the Pope but….’ and then comes the Pope bashing competition. No need to worry about his health. He ll be around long enough for Perez to get to at least accept him kindly? ?

            • Jay

              Amen. As a brand new Catholic, Pope Francis is a model of true model of how to live a humble, Christ-like life. Is he the greatest Pope of all-time? No, but I doubt he is the worst either.

              When I was going through RCIA classes the past 9 months I was warned against the “Cult of personality” some faiths fall into, and Catholics should strive not to. I believe so many hyper-Conservatives simply do not like the Pontiff’s style of living, or how he approaches Catholicism so they feel the need to denigrate him. He is far from perfect, and he will make mistakes. That’s why we need to pray for him.

              • Maria Perez

                Wow! That didn’t take long :-). Thanks for proving me right about the attacks and not being able to question anything he does. First of all, thanks for assuming I wish him any ill will, even death. I love those who do not judge. That is just sad. Second, I will not apologize for believing our God is not a God of confusion. I respect the Holy Father and pray for him everyday, as I do for my own soul. But that does not mean I’m blind. I pray I’m the one who’s wrong. I must be some kind of anomaly for believing we deserve clarity from the Pope but who am I to judge? We are in for some interesting times. May the Lord help us. God bless all of you for your friendliness.

                • Marcelus

                  Again, You may question anything you please. God bless

              • asmondius

                ‘ I was warned against the “Cult of personality” some faiths fall into’ but then you say ‘so many hyper-Conservatives simply do not like the Pontiff’s style of living, or how he approaches Catholicism’ Have you ascribed the ‘cult of secular politics’ to the Church?

          • luisa

            Charming. Do you call yourself Christian, by any chance?

          • DE-173

            ” From what I understand Pope Francis has some health problems. He may not be alive much longer (and you’ll probably be grateful for that). ”
            Wow dude, that was harsh.

        • Marcelus

          The other face of the same vice is the Pelagianism of the pious. They do not want forgiveness and in general they do not want any real gift from God either. They just want to be in order. They don’t want hope they just want security. Their aim is to gain the right to salvation through a strict practice of religious exercises, through prayers and action. What they lack is humility which is essential in order to love; the humility to receive gifts not just because we deserve it or because of how we act…”Benedict.

          Humility ostentatious!? Please.

    • NE-Faithful

      English is far from Francis’ first language. Therefore, his vocabulary is enough for conversations but he clearly has major problems communicating clearly when nuance, definition, precision of meaning or complex issues. Therefore, he has a tendency to get tripped up when expressing himself either by ‘false friends’ i.e. words that look and sound alike but have different meanings (e.g. ‘sensible’ in French vs. English) or by misusing terms that have multiple meanings or meanings that have changed over time (e.g. curiosity). Hence, the confusion and need to ‘explain’ so many of his public statements and semi-private phone conversations with divorcees. One would think that somewhere in the vast number of employees, clerics, and servers in the Vatican – there would be someone who could/would: 1) explain the problems his informal candor creates, 2) help him to be more precise in his speech,3) ‘word smith’ (or edit) his speeches and writings so that they are clear and precise BEFORE the world is told the ‘Pope endorses “whatever amoral/immoral PC standard the press likes”, 4) encourage him to restrict his off-the-cuff commentary to a language with which he is more experienced and knowledgeable.

      The alternative is this continuing pattern of Papal Statements => Media/Atheist/Reporter outrage/giddiness depending on whether or not they like what was said => Confusion among the Faithful => the necessity of someone t0 explain what he REALLY meant to say – which demeans both the Church and the role of the pontiff. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be anyone willing to take on the tasks.

      • DE-173

        “English is far from Francis’ first language. ”

        Last I checked no Pope had English as a mother tongue.

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          Adrian IV (Nicholas Breakspear), pope from 1154-1159, was born near Abbot’s Langley in Hertfordshire, England and attended Abbey School at St Alban’s.

          • DE-173

            I stand corrected. Thanks.

            • Michael Paterson-Seymour

              Truth to tell, given the date of his birth (1100), he could have spoken French, but he would certainly have been bilingual, speaking French to his parents and English to the servants.

              In Scotland, I have heard a Gaelic speaker begin a sentence in one language and finish it in the other, or three-sided conversations where languages switch back and forth

              • bdlaacmm

                Michael,

                I used to travel a bit to Gibraltar on business, and while there got used to conversations that switched seemingly at random between English, Spanish, Arabic, and Yiddish – all within moments! Made for wonderful evenings at the Lord Nelson Pub.

      • asmondius

        Did not the Vatican recently hire an American to serve as a ‘Media Advisor’ of sorts?

    • Marcelus

      Look up Benedict on Islam and how that ended since you find Peter confusing. You ll find that a pope apologizing to the Muslim is not uncommon. Mean no offense by this. Good bless you.

      • hamlet

        And that “apologizing” is what agonizes me. He is my Pope. IF he happens to make an infallible statement I WiLL follow. He has not.

  • Fred

    My impression, and I may be wrong, is that our Pope is more comfortable speaking to connect to the masses than he his “sitting behind a desk” thinking and writing, and when he speakes freely his thoughts may not always come across as distinctly. Not to compare, but I know when I speak freely I rarely make my points as well as I do when I stop to think and put pen to paper. Then of course there is the is the issue of language interpretation which sometimes clouds.
    I thought your article was well wrtitten Michael, and I was already forming the thoughts of St Thomas Aquinas in my head as I read your arguments, especially regarding pride. – the greatest sin.

  • Tony

    It is embarrassing but telling that a supposedly well-read intellectual should not understand, first, that the English word “curiosity” has a range of meanings, most of which until quite recently were pejorative; second, that the word in another language might have a meaning that is different from whatever meanings are operative in English; third, that it is actually pretty easy to find out what the word can mean in our own language by going to the Oxford English Dictionary; fourth, that the Catholic Church for many centuries had a majority of the world’s scientists; fifth, that there might be some things which, given our moral condition, we are better off not investigating. A shameful but all too typical performance.

  • fredx2

    If there is one thing that atheists are good at, it is taking quotes out of context. I cannot count the times atheists have quoted someone and I later found it to be wrong, misunderstood, or simply made up.

    These are the scientific people?

  • Knowledge, per se, is good; but curiosity can be dangerous and even sinful because it can lead us away from God.

    “I go no more to see a dog coursing a hare in the circus; but in the open country, if I happen to be passing, that coursing haply will distract me from some weighty thought, and draw me after it . . . and unless Thou, having made me see my weakness, didst speedily admonish me, I become foolishly dull.” (St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 10, Chapter 35)

    “In studying creatures, we must not be moved by empty and perishable curiosity; but we should ever mount towards immortal and abiding things.” (St. Augustinee, De Vera Relig. 29)

    “Concupiscence of the eyes makes men curious.” (St. Augustine, De Vera Relig. 38)

    “We are forbidden to be curious.” (St. Augustine, De Morib. Eccl. 21)

    St. Augustine, pray for us.

  • hombre111

    Excellent. Thoughtful. Congratulations.

  • clintoncps

    Knowledge without wisdom is often useless and sometimes dangerous. Similarly, reason without a premise is like pointing a gun without a target. The atheistic ideology is not rational, and the bias of some atheistic scientists who equate “science” with the source of all things is absurd, since it propose a method of observation and investigation in place of the source of those observable realities.

  • Maria Gabriela Salvarrey Rodri

    In the fourth case. When Science doesn’t look beyond to acknowledge the deeper truths you could say that it offers a two dimentional image of the world. To be able to have a three dimentional image we must go beyond. Science is but a starting point.
    But also most scientists these days saddly are guilty of the first error, “in order to be pridefull”. Lamentably humility is ever so rare amongst them and it is a shame because pride is a grave limitation to the advancement of knowledge and with true knowledge humility should grow. So scientists today know more and more but are mostly none wiser for it.

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  • Howard

    There is another kind of “curiosity” that does not seem to me to fit neatly into any of the four categories of wrong curiosity you mention, and yet which is worse than any of them: curiosity about how to sin. This is the kind of thinking that say, “I haven’t decided yet to do X, but if I did, how would I go about it, and what would happen?” Eve is surely the prototypical example of this. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.” (Gen. 3:6, RSVCE) Before Eve decided to eat, she looked at the fruit and asked herself, “What would it really be like to eat that?” More recently, of course, a man is accused of having deliberately left his toddler son to die in a hot car after having researched online how animals left in hot cars die.

  • To “The first three of these cases should be easily recognized by scientists.”, I would add, ‘but rarely is it recognized in themselves’.

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