Confession of an Incurable Evidentialist, Part 4: Is Curiosity a Sin? Is Interpretation a Hindrance to Truth?

Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Thomas Edison had over 1100 patents to his name. His inventions included the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, the moving-picture camera, the electric locomotive and the alkaline battery. “My philosophy of life,” said Edison, “is work—bringing out the secrets of nature and applying them for the happiness of man.” Among other things, Edison possessed an uncommonly strong work ethic, an unwavering practical bent, an almost boundless optimism, and an unusually high amount of curiosity.

A driving force

Curiosity is a driving force in the human psyche. Martin Heidegger, in one of his numerous sallies into the labyrinth of lost ideas to find Dasein (existence), attempted to explain curiosity for us. First, he says in a rather backward fashion, curiosity is “letting the world be encountered by us in perception.” Then, he proceeds to relate that curiosity “seeks restlessness and the excitement of continual novelty and changing encounters.” Through curiosity, existence is constantly uprooting itself. Heidegger then concludes his dismal discourse by saying that curiosity always ends in ambiguity (Being and Time, 1.5).

We may all thank our lucky Daseins that Thomas Edison never read Heidegger. We may also be certain that Heidegger wasn’t thinking about children at all as he discussed curiosity. If he had spent much time studying little children (or remembered his studies), he would have comprehended that curiosity is an inborn tool for learning. It provides the drive to discover. An infant, regardless of its environment, will put this tool right to work early in life: looking at things, grasping at objects, playing with them, talking to them and putting them in his mouth. Aristotle said, “All men by nature desire to know.” (Metaphysics, I.1) We may well add, the desire is awakened shortly after birth.

But lest we think that curiosity is a pure, divine spark in man, we need to admit its dark side. Curiosity was surely at work when Adam and Eve were tempted. The curious boy opens a pornographic magazine and gazes at its pictures. The curious girl stops and listens to gossip about her friend. Several years ago a curious tourist at Yellowstone Park approached a buffalo. Wanting to get the animal’s face in his picture, he slapped it on its side. The buffalo gored him and tossed him several yards through the air. Curiosity kills more than cats. The signal that tells us “none of your business” does so for good reason.

Curiosity and interpretation

As curious people explore the world around them, they interpret what they find. Interpretation begins in the first weeks of life, as a child begins to focus on things and to decide whether an object is small or distant. A child likewise distinguishes between the sound of the voice of its mother and other voices.

As I mentioned in a previous article, Immanuel Kant said that we do not experience the world as it is, but rather the world interpreted through a grid in our mind (his word was “manifold”), built by our (a priori) inner sense of time and Euclidian space. He was wrong. Instead, we develop a sense of space as infants, as we encounter the world. From birth on, the reality of the world forces itself upon us. We have to interpret it. The natural probing of infants to understand the world is one reason God designed the family: to nurture children until they are ready to interact with the world on their own.

It is unfortunate that some who have followed Kant’s philosophy look at interpretation as a barrier to understanding the world in which we live. On the contrary, interpretation is the mechanism by which we make sense of the world. The pathways of electrical impulses moving information from the senses through the brain number in the billions. If there is a grid work through which we see and hear the world, its construction is so complex as to almost defy definition. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that to say with Kant, “we only look at an interpreted world,” is merely a truism. In fact, a number of philosophers have been saying this about Kant’s view for some time (Peter Muntz, Philosophical Darwinism, 141).

The Wright brothers could not get their plane to fly until Orville Wright noticed the variation of the wings of a bird gliding through the air, while he was idly twisting a bicycle tire back and forth in his hands. That was his eureka moment. Was he forcing a view of nature into the grid of his mind? Wasn’t he instead experiencing the expansion of his understanding from the known to the unknown, while he perceived the world as it is? The modified plane flew.

“But,” someone will say, “not everyone sees things the way I do, and I don’t always see and hear what others see and hear.” True enough. The question we need to ask then is, “Is the only person who sees the world truly, the one who sees it in its totality?” If we answer yes, then only God sees the world truly. Unfortunately, the same test can be applied to the Bible. We interpret speech and writing. Posing the test as we do for nature, we would answer: only God can truly understand the Scriptures, since only He understands them in their totality. But this notion is repeatedly discredited in the Bible itself, e.g. “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” (NKJV, Rom. 15:4) The test can also be applied to God Himself. Thus, only those who know God totally would know Him truly. And so only God can know God truly. But in fact Jesus contradicted this thought in His high priestly prayer:

Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. (John 17:1-3)

So let’s return to the subject of truly knowing the world. As the flood ended, Noah used a dove to perform a test for a dry earth, then interpreted the results: “Then the dove came to him in the evening, and behold, a freshly plucked olive leaf was in her mouth; and Noah knew that the waters had receded from the earth” (Gen. 8:11). Just as we truly understand the Scriptures and God, we also truly understand the world in which we live.

Interpreting language

When we consider the capacity of interpreting speech or writing, we observe that humans are uniquely gifted. Apart from Angels, no other creature possesses the gift of language. The ability to assign meanings to symbols is highly sophisticated in the homo sapiens. By the time a child learns to say “Mama,” the word represents a concept already filled with dozens of attributes for the baby. Through language we define not only messages about what is present but also messages about the past and future, and whether the messages are authoritative. We can even evaluate the character of a figure out of the past without ever having met or observed the person. When talking about His return, Jesus said, “In that day, he who is on the housetop, and his goods are in the house, let him not come down to take them away. And likewise the one who is in the field, let him not turn back” (Luke 17:31). Then he added the warning: “Remember Lot’s wife.” For the hearers, Lot’s wife had character they did not want to emulate. They only knew her through the book of Genesis. Through language, interpretation of the world gains quite a reach.

Through language humans can describe color, weight, size, distance, temperature, movement, etc., so that a blind person sitting still can perceive what is happening. As Jesus was approaching Jericho a blind man heard a group of people passing by. Though blind, he could interpret the noise as a group of humans (Luke 18:36). His tool of curiosity caused him to ask what the group of people was doing there. When the answer came back that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by, he immediately cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Blind Bartimaeus would never have cried out his petition without first having heard in a report that Jesus of Nazareth could make blind people see and that Jesus was said to be the Messiah. Of course, there was a good deal more involved in this striking biblical event than just curiosity and interpretation. But both were intensely at work, and the brief sentence, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by,” prompted Bartimaus to a most profound expression of faith.

What good gifts, these: curiosity and interpretation.

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There are 4 Comments

mbruffey's picture

Jeff, I've been pondering your ideas for a bit. You seem to agree with Kant that it is inescapable that we are bound to interpreting the sensible world. But you also disagree with him in some areas, granted. In your first paragraph on Kant you disagree with absolute certainty about one of Kant's ideas, but I cannot make out which, with confidence. I think that you oppose the idea that our sense of space is apriori. Am I reading you correctly? Thanks. Best, Mark

Jeff Brown's picture

Hi Mark!

Please excuse the fact that I have not responded quickly. I am in the US for a few days, and do not always have time for or access to the internet. Yes, I agree with Immanuel Kant that we interpret the world as we see it. I think that everyone has to admit that. But this statement is nothing more than a truism. Of course we interpret the world we see. One has to interpret in order to make sense of anything. But this fact in no way proves that we see and hear something different than the world as it is. Immanuel Kant wrote in his Critique of Pure Reason that we do not actually see the world in which we live as it is, but only through an interpreting grid. I am convinced that this is quite wrong. We interpret what we see, but our interpretation helps us make sense of the world as we see it and rather exactly how it is. Kant also said that we cannot think period, without thinking in terms of Euclidean space. Einstein thought of events in terms of four dimensions. This would by itself prove Kant's assertion wrong. But beyond this, I think observation of how babies learn shows that the concept of space is developed through discovery.

Space and Time are external entities, which exist independently of human beings, and have since the beginning of creation (see Genesis 1). Kant says repeatedly that humans cannot objectively observe the passage of time. God says the opposite. I think the difference in the viewpoints (God's vs. Kant's) is that crass.

Instead of our own apriori concepts of time and space, which we force upon the world we see, I would think that human beings, created in the image of God, have been created with the capacity for organizing, which the human mind is doing daily, and all the time. We learn one thing, then move to the next experience, using what we have already learned to comprehend what is newly discovered. When we observe, we are not simply evaluating in terms of length, height, and depth, but also in terms of rhythm, color, texture, pressure, friendliness, antagonism, etc.

Kant makes all men unable to perceive the world as it is. If one says, "Well of course, the Bible says that unregenerate humans have a darkened view of everything, including the world," this is not what Kant had in mind. He concluded that Adam and Eve "fell upwards." He was convinced that we have been moving forward throughout the history of man because of the very fact that Adam and Eve ate the fruit. Since that moment, humans have been thinking on their own. Instead, with his concept that Time and Space are fully apriori, Kant was wanting to counter the more complete skepticism of David Hume, by putting certainty not in the world itself, but in our minds.

Jesus proved His deity by changing water into wine. His power was evidenced through something that could be seen, smelled, and tasted. In the presentation of this truth in John 2, any concept of Kant's "manifold" of interpretation, separating us from the real world appears to be completely out of sync.

Jeff Brown

Jeff Brown's picture

I might add this, though perhaps only an angel might read it: Hans Vaihinger was in his lifetime (d. 1933), the most important Kantian scholar in Germany. He took the Kantian concept to its ultimate conclusion, developing what he called, Philosophie des Als Ob (The Philosophy of "As If"). In his book he stated, "The human concept of the world is a huge woven fabric of fictions, that are full of logical contradctions." Among those fictions are protons, neutrons, electrons, etc, and both God and the soul. He came up with the term "useful fictions," which was later used by psychologists. He also came up with the idea that we cannot get from the known to the unknown, but can only think in parallel terms of known and unknown. Though Kant did not dismiss the idea of God, Vaihinger's philosophy is, to me the end station of the Kantian idea. If you think about it, believing what he says is logically absurd.

Jeff Brown

mbruffey's picture

Jeff, I haven't forgotten about this conversation at all. I have merely been pondering and reading (more). Thank you for your thoughtful and civilized responses. Here is the question with which I am wrestling, which I think is the point of the conversation. I need time to think, ponder, and read between posts. Perhaps, nevertheless, we can continue to discuss the issue occasionally using this thread--albeit long and thoughtful discourse cuts sharply against the grain of this particular medium.

Suppose that we take the record of special revelation off the table. Suppose that we also set aside Kant for the sake of the argument, and adopt a Lockean, or better yet a Common Sense Realist approach to understanding reality. We are not going to allow even the slighest blurring of the subject-object distinction. On our very best day, how precise, how accurate, how comprehensive, and how coherent an understanding of the nature of reality will our efforts yield?

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