Scientific Curiosity and Existential Need

4 April 2015

Saturday


Thales hired olive oil presses out of season to demonstrate that disinterested scientific curiosity can be practical if one wants to bother about money.

Thales hired olive oil presses out of season to demonstrate that disinterested scientific curiosity can be practical if one wants to bother about money.

Curiosity does not have an especially good reputation, and one often finds the word coupled with “mere” so that “mere curiosity” can be elegantly dismissed as though beneath the dignity of the speaker, who can then go about his much more grand and august pursuits without the distraction of the petty, grubbing motivation of mere curiosity. There may be some connection between this disdainful attitude toward curiosity and the prevalent anti-intellectualism of western civilization, notwithstanding the fact that most of what is unique in this tradition is derived from the scientific spirit; it is no surprise that any driving force in human affairs eventually provokes an equal and opposite reaction.

Many civilizations that publicly value intellectuals do not value the contributions of intellectuals, so that this social prestige is indistinguishable from a kind of feudal regard for special classes of persons. This is not what happened in western civilization, in which scientific knowledge bestowed real wealth and power — in our own day no less than in the past — and so provoked a reaction. One of the most famous stories from classical antiquity was how Thales, predicting an especially good olive harvest, hired all the olive presses at a low rate out of season, and then let them out at inflated rates during the peak season, proving that philosophers could earn money if they wanted to do so.

There are a great many interesting quotes that invoke curiosity, for better or worse — Thomas Hobbes: “…this hope and expectation of future knowledge from anything that happeneth new and strange, is that passion which we commonly call ADMIRATION; and the same considered as appetite, is called CURIOSITY, which is appetite of knowledge.” Edmund Burke: “The first and simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind, is curiosity.” Albert Einstein: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” — which highlight both the admirable and the disreputable side of curiosity. That curiosity has both admirable and disreputable aspects suggests that one might be admirably curious or disreputably curious, and certainly all of us know individuals who are curious in the best sense of the term and others who are curious in the worst sense of the term.

Human beings are adventurers of the spirit. We must count among the attributes of human nature some basal drive toward questioning. This drive could be given an exposition in purely intellectual terms or in purely emotional terms; I think that the intellectual and emotional manifestations of human curiosity are two sides of the same coin, and that is why I suggest positing some basal drive that lies at the root of both. And it isn’t quite right to reduce this drive to curiosity, as we can formulate it in terms of curiosity or in terms of need.

Curiosity is often contrasted to a presumably more esteemed mode of interrogating the cosmos, that we may call existential need. Jacob Needleman often addressed the contrast between “mere” curiosity (which he sometimes called “low curiosity”) and present need. Here is an example:

“It has been said that any question can lead to truth if it is an aching question. For one person it may be the question of life after death, for another the problem of suffering, the causes of war and injustice. Or it may be something more personal and immediate — a profound ethical dilemma, a problem involving the whole direction of one’s life. An aching question, a question that it not just a curiosity or a fleeting burst of emotion, cannot be answered with old thought. Possessed by such a question, one is hungry for ideas of a very different order than the familiar categories that usually accompany us throughout our lives. One is both hungry and, at the same time, more discriminating, less susceptible to credulity and suggestibility. The intelligence of the heart begins to call to us in our sleep.”

Jacob Needleman, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, pp. 3-4

I disagree with this on so many levels that it is difficult to know where to start, so instead I will simply say that the kind of existential need Needleman wants to describe is highly credulous and suggestible, and what answers to this need are almost always in the form of an old and painfully familiar form of cognitive bias. However, to try to do justice to Needleman, I will allow that, for an individual immersed in the ordinary business of life who, through some traumatic experience, suddenly comes face to face with profound and difficult questions never before posed in that individual’s experience, then, yes, ideas of a very different order are needed to address such questions.

While I do not think that aching questions are likely to lead to truth — I think it much more likely that they will lead to self-deception — I do not deny that many are gnawed by aching questions, and some few spend their lives trying to answer them. The question, then, is the best method by which an aching question might be given a clear, coherent, and satisfying (in so far as that is possible) answer. Here I am reminded of a passage from Walter Kaufmann:

“Nowhere is the disproportion between effort and result more aggravating than in the pursuit of truth: you may plow through documents or make untold experiments or think and think and think, forgo food, comfort, and distractions, lie awake nights and eat out your heart — and in the end you know what can be memorized by any idiot.”

Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, section 24

However aching our question, presumably we would want to spare ourselves the wasted effort of an inquiry that deprives us of the satisfactions of life while giving an answer that could be memorized by any idiot. Kaufmann did not go far enough here: sometimes individuals who make just such an heroic effort to get at the truth and only arrive at an idiot’s portion convince themselves that the idiot’s portion is in fact a great and profound truth.

Whether or not existential need can be satisfied, how are we to undertand it? Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and one of the founders of existential analysis, identified a condition that he called the existential vacuum, which he defined as, “the frustration of the will to meaning.” Frankl knew that of which he spoke, having lost most of his family to Nazi death camps and himself having been interned at Auschwitz and liberated only at the end of the war. Here, in a longer passage, is his exposition of existential need:

“Ever more patients complain of what they call an ‘inner void,’ and that is the reason why I have termed this condition the ‘existential vacuum.’ In contradistinction to the peak-experience so aptly described by Maslow, one could conceive of the existential vacuum in terms of an ‘abyss-experience’.”

Viktor Frankl, The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy, New York: Plume, 2014 (originally published in the US in 1969), Part Two, “The Existential Vacuum: A Challenge to Psychiatry”

One could readily suppose that existential need is occasioned by the existential vacuum; that the former is the condition and cause of the latter. Another and more recent approach to existential need is to be found in the work of James Giles:

“…existential needs are not the product of social construction. For in contrast to socially constructed phenomena, existential needs are an inherent and universal feature of the human condition.”

James Giles, The Nature of Sexual Desire, p. 181

This is not necessarily distinct from existential need occasioned by Frankl’s existential vacuum; one could formulate the existential vacuum so that it is either “an inherent and universal feature of the human condition” or not. And there may well be more than one form of existential need. In fact, I think it is clear that there is a plurality of existential needs, and some of these can be sublimated through scientific inquiry and can be satisfied, while some play out in the fruitless manner described in the passage above from Kaufmann.

How one approaches the mystery that is the world, by way of scientific curiosity or by way of existential need, which we might call the scientific approach and the existential approach, each reflect a valid human response to the individual’s relationship to the cosmos. Most of us, at some point in life, poignantly feel the mysteriousness of the world and the desire to give an account of our existence in relation to this mystery. Consider this from John Stuart Mill:

“Human existence is girt round with mystery: the narrow region of our experience is a small island in the midst of a boundless sea, which at once awes our feelings and stimulates our imagination by its vastness and its obscurity. To add to the mystery, the domain of our earthly existence is not only an island in infinite space, but also in infinite time. The past and the future are alike shrouded from us: we neither know the origin of anything which is, nor its final destination. If we feel deeply interested in knowing that there are myriads of worlds at an immeasurable, and to our faculties inconceivable, distance from us in space; if we are eager to discover what little we can about these worlds, and when we cannot know what they are, can never satiate ourselves with speculating on what they may be…”

Now, John Stuart Mill was an almost preternaturally rational man; he was not given to flights of fancy, though the high-flown rhetoric of this passage might suggest this. The scientific approach to mystery is a rationalistic response to the riddle of the world; answers are to be had, but the world is boundless, so that any one answered question still leaves countless other unanswered questions. The growth of knowledge is attended by a parallel growth in the unknown, as our increasing knowledge makes it possible for us to formulate previously unsuspected questions. One might find this to be invigorating or disappointing: there are real answers, but we will never have a final understanding of the world. The existential approach to mystery acknowledges that the human mind may not be capable of comprehending the mystery that is the world, but this is coupled with a fervent belief that there is a final and transcendent answer out there somewhere, even if it always remains tantalizingly out of reach. These are subtle but important differences in the conception of “ultimate” truth as it relates human beings to their world.

A distinction might be made between scientific mystery and absolute mystery, with scientific mystery being a mystery that admits of an answer, but which also admits of a further mystery. An absolute mystery admits of no answer, nor of any further mystery. The world might take on the character of scientific mystery or of absolute mystery depending on whether we approach the world from the perspective of scientific curiosity or existential need. In other words, the kind of mystery that the world is — even if we all agree that the world is girt round in mystery, as Mill says — corresponds to our attitude to the world.

One could argue that scientific curiosity is a sublimation of existential need. If this is true, there is no reason to be ashamed of this, or to attempt a return to the original existential need. The passage from existential need to scientific curiosity may be a stage in the development of intellectual maturity, as irreversible as the passage from childhood to adulthood.

One might go a step further and call scientific curiosity the secularization of existential need (or, rather, the secularization of religious mystery, which then invites a treatment in terms of the Max Scheler/Paul Tillich claim that all human beings are engaged in worship, it is only a question of whether the object of this worship is worthy or idolatrous), recalling Karl Löwith’s theory of secularization, which made much of modernity into a bastardized form of Christian eschatology. This presupposes not only that existential need precedes scientific curiosity, but that it is the only authentic form of human questioning, and that any attempt to introduce new forms of questioning the human condition is illegitimate.

We are today faced with questions that our ancestors, who first felt the disconcerting stirrings of existential need, could not have imagined. I touched on one of these questions in my post on Centauri Dreams, Cosmic Loneliness and Interstellar Travel, which drew more responses than other of my other posts to that forum. Our cosmic loneliness can now be expressed in scientific terms, and we can offer a scientific response to our attempts so far to answer the question, “Are we alone?” This is one of the great scientific questions of our time, and at the same time it speaks to a modern existential need that has been expressed in Clark’s tertium non datur.

The growth of human knowledge and the civilization created by human knowledge may have its origins in the questioning that naturally emerges from an experience of existential need. Perhaps this feeling never fully dissipates, but in so far as the dissatisfaction and discontent of existential need can be redirected into scientific curiosity, human beings can experience at least a limited satisfaction derived from definite scientific answers to questions formulated with increasing clarity and rigor. Beyond this, we may have to wait for the next stage in human evolution, when we may acquire mental faculties that take us beyond both existential need and scientific curiosity into a frame of mind incomprehensible to us in our present iteration.

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One Response to “Scientific Curiosity and Existential Need”

  1. […] Scientific Curiosity and Existential Need […]

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