‘Curiosity Embryos’: Why? What For?

Sometimes if I get asked, ‘What did you do today?’, my answer will be ‘Nothing’. The truth is, I’ve probably been scouring Google, university databases, or Facebook (yes, if you use it wisely, Facebook can be an efficient learning resource) tracking down information about whatever question or musing is entertaining me at that time and the subsequent questions generated from the information I find. Or, just sitting. Sitting and contemplating. As unconventional as it is, this habit is endlessly entertaining for me. It’s legitimately a hobby of mine. In moderation, this could be seen as a ‘useful’, ‘worthwhile’ hobby. However, as someone who has a perpetual preoccupation with ‘balance’, when this endless urge to enquire means I’m not completing actual university assignments, doing necessary life-admin or I’ve run out of clean underwear because I’ve prioritised curiosity over washing I think it’s no longer useful- it’s a distraction, a procrastination technique, a non-functional habit. 

So, in an effort to both honour my curiosity, but indulge less in its distracting potential I’m hoping to word-vomit my questions out here in this section of my blog, and I can come back to them later to seek the actual knowledge if I feel the urge… When I have clean clothes to wear…

She replied, ‘No’. I felt angry. Angry that this challengeable assumption about limitations was being reinforced…

This section is also motivated by what seems to have become a theme of this blog which is compelling thinking- something I think we all have the capacity to learn to do more effectively. In a world obsessed with the superficial markers of intelligence (IQ/the possession of ‘facts’ or ‘knowledge’/the intellectual prestige and status associated with particular achievements), what I see is a cultural concept that is very much misunderstood and oversimplified, and this comes at the expense of focusing on the properties of ‘intelligence’ that involve the processes we use to make sense of the information we’re exposed to. I.e. the precursor to all of those superficial markers is how we think, and ‘thinking’ is a broad range of skills that are flexible and can be nurtured and developed. Our ‘thinking’ abilities do not need to be static. 

This perception is informed by a goldmine of experiences. A major experiential factor has been my years of working with a diversity of differing so-called ‘intellectual capacities’ in my work with people with disabilities. The spectrum of abilities and growth I was exposed to challenged and obliterated any conventional notions I’d had of ‘intelligence’ being some discrete, unchanging property. This was enhanced by my formal education in science and our brains, my own mental development and my endless curiosity which has continuously sought out what’s already been/being challenged and explored about how we work as humans. 

A poignant experience for me in my work was having a state-funded psychologist conduct a workshop in childhood development for our organisation. When she outlined the IQ score ranges that determine the diagnostic criteria for varying levels of intellectual disability, I asked the question (for the audience. I have a mildly manipulative habit of playing dumb to spark conversation), “Is there evidence that IQ scores can change?”. I knew the answer: This determinism is already being challenged. I’ve read too much research suggesting that different interventions can correlate with increased IQ scores, and know too well the professionally recognised limitations in IQ testing.

WE ARE FEROCIOUSLY AFRAID OF OUR OWN IGNORANCE… It sometimes seems like the threat of ‘not knowing’ elicits the same emotional response as would have a predator on the savannah for our evolutionary ancestors.

She replied, ‘No’. I felt angry. Angry that this challengeable assumption about limitations was being reinforced for a population of workers and their clients for whom possibility is the precise idea that is needed to work towards more fulfilling lives. Angry that by remaining close-minded and not keeping herself up to date with the latest challenges to conventional knowledge, this professional- whose words carry automatic authority for the less informed- was not engaging in her responsibility to her science and the community she served. Uncharacteristically, I said nothing. Perhaps I was ‘picking my battles’? Perhaps it was a moment of unusual fatigue of being the perpetual black sheep who is adamant that something different is possible in the face of firm disbelief from others? Either way, this, among numerous similar experiences has stuck with me and I’ve accepted that I’m passionate about being the black sheep of possibility. Shying away from this passion makes me feel stagnant and frustrated.

Owing to this, I increasingly perceive paradoxes and counter-productivity in the thinking habits that we as individuals and society obsessed with ‘intelligence’ engage in. Habits which, in an attempt to appear intelligent and knowledgeable, actually seem to limit the use and capacity of our intelligence and ultimately obstruct knowledge and learning. WE ARE FEROCIOUSLY AFRAID OF OUR OWN IGNORANCE. We’re compelled to feel/seem ‘right’, compelled to feel/seem like we ‘know’, compelled to believe there are more definitive ‘truths’ than seem to be objectively discernible. It sometimes seems like the threat of ‘not knowing’ elicits the same emotional response as would have a predator on the savannah for our evolutionary ancestors.

The paradox I see is that the beginning of knowledge is actually the process of becoming aware of what’s unknown. It’s seeking the information that stems from questions about the unknown. And these questions about the unknown constitute curiosity, wonder.

Science is so successful… Because at its most fundamental level it embraces ignorance.

A related motivation comes from another apparent paradox. The upside-down cultural perception of science as eternal incontrovertible facts, ‘truths’, ‘right’- omniscient in its knowledge base. Perhaps this cultural perception is reinforced by how the process of scientific discovery and its resultant ‘facts’ is simplified in the media? Frequently these reported ‘facts’ are still just possibilities in the process of enquiry- this is understood by the researchers themselves but gets lost in populism. This is possibly further ingrained by the eternal religion vs science wars in which the aim is to find the ultimate-truth-winner.

However, the practice of science is so successful as a philosophical method for seeking knowledge because at its most fundamental level it embraces ignorance. If you are sceptical about this success, please look around your man-made physical environment- what exists within it that IS NOT the product of the evolution of scientific enquiry and practice? Pay attention to the device you’re using to read this. Pay attention to whether you have, or think it’s likely that you will live past the age of 50 based upon how long other people live these days… Science seems to work as a method of gaining functional knowledge that can be applied to the world and have observable impacts.

The paradox is, that something we see as ‘all knowing’ and ‘certain truth’ is continuously asking, ‘What don’t we know?’, ‘How likely is it that the evidence for our hypotheses is just a matter of chance?’. It’s continually submitting new information to amend knowledge and hypotheses as these questions bring to light contradictory or novel discoveries. I won’t delve here, but the history of scientific progress is defined by series upon series of overturning what was previously deemed improbable, and submitting the new evidence to perpetuate the gaining of knowledge. The submission of new information is a key distinguishing factor between scientific and religious knowledge.

In short, you know, that saying about the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know…

Text: [Insert 1000’s of quotes from celebrated, wise thinkers here] By SirMadam Looks-Smart-On-My-Instagram, on sunset background framed by trees and water.

So, I’ll be listing my ‘curiosity embryos’ in this section for my own record and for the sake of challenging our need to know everything, be right, ‘have all the answers’ because I see these habits as anti-intelligent, anti-learning, anti-science and anti-knowledge (my perception– not a truth and could be changeable). Also, if anyone interested and with their own ideas or knowledge wants to engage then this section could serve as another vital method of gaining knowledge: collaboration and the strengths of other minds. Please do contribute if you feel like it : )