Imagine that I, in full view of live television cameras, raised my hands and chanted abracadabra and caused a brilliant light to be born, flaring in empty space beyond my outstretched hands. Imagine that I committed this act of blatant, unmistakeable sorcery under the full supervision of James Randi and all skeptical armies. Most people, I think, would be fairly curious as to what was going on.
But now suppose instead that I don’t go on television. I do not wish to share the power, nor the truth behind it. I want to keep my sorcery secret. And yet I also want to cast my spells whenever and wherever I please. I want to cast my brilliant flare of light so that I can read a book on the train—without anyone becoming curious. Is there a spell that stops curiosity?
Yes indeed! Whenever anyone asks “How did you do that?” I just say “Science!”
It’s not a real explanation, so much as a curiosity-stopper. It doesn’t tell you whether the light will brighten or fade, change color in hue or saturation, and it certainly doesn’t tell you how to make a similar light yourself. You don’t actually know anything more than you knew before I said the magic word. But you turn away, satisfied that nothing unusual is going on.
Better yet, the same trick works with a standard light switch.
Flip a switch and a light bulb turns on. Why?
In school, one is taught that the password to the light bulb is “Electricity!” By now, I hope, you’re wary of marking the light bulb “understood” on such a basis. Does saying “Electricity!” let you do calculations that will control your anticipation of experience? There is, at the least, a great deal more to learn.1
If you thought the light bulb was scientifically inexplicable, it would seize the entirety of your attention. You would drop whatever else you were doing, and focus on that light bulb.
But what does the phrase “scientifically explicable” mean? It means that someone else knows how the light bulb works. When you are told the light bulb is “scientifically explicable,” you don’t know more than you knew earlier; you don’t know whether the light bulb will brighten or fade. But because someone else knows, it devalues the knowledge in your eyes. You become less curious.
Someone is bound to say, “If the light bulb were unknown to science, you could gain fame and fortune by investigating it.” But I’m not talking about greed. I’m not talking about career ambition. I’m talking about the raw emotion of curiosity—the feeling of being intrigued. Why should your curiosity be diminished because someone else, not you, knows how the light bulb works? Is this not spite? It’s not enough for you to know; other people must also be ignorant, or you won’t be happy?
There are goods that knowledge may serve besides curiosity, such as the social utility of technology. For these instrumental goods, it matters whether some other entity in local space already knows. But for my own curiosity, why should it matter?
Besides, consider the consequences if you permit “Someone else knows the answer” to function as a curiosity-stopper. One day you walk into your living room and see a giant green elephant, seemingly hovering in midair, surrounded by an aura of silver light.
“What the heck?” you say.
And a voice comes from above the elephant, saying,
“Oh,” you say, “in that case, never mind,” and walk on to the kitchen.
I don’t know the grand unified theory for this universe’s laws of physics. I also don’t know much about human anatomy with the exception of the brain. I couldn’t point out on my body where my kidneys are, and I can’t recall offhand what my liver does.2
Should I, so far as curiosity is concerned, be more intrigued by my ignorance of the ultimate laws of physics, than the fact that I don’t know much about what goes on inside my own body?
If I raised my hands and cast a light spell, you would be intrigued. Should you be any less intrigued by the very fact that I raised my hands? When you raise your arm and wave a hand around, this act of will is coordinated by (among other brain areas) your cerebellum. I bet you don’t know how the cerebellum works. I know a little—though only the gross details, not enough to perform calculations . . . but so what? What does that matter, if you don’t know? Why should there be a double standard of curiosity for sorcery and hand motions?
Look at yourself in the mirror. Do you know what you’re looking at? Do you know what looks out from behind your eyes? Do you know what you are? Some of that answer Science knows, and some of it Science does not. But why should that distinction matter to your curiosity, if you don’t know?
Do you know how your knees work? Do you know how your shoes were made? Do you know why your computer monitor glows? Do you know why water is wet?
The world around you is full of puzzles. Prioritize, if you must. But do not complain that cruel Science has emptied the world of mystery. With reasoning such as that, I could get you to overlook an elephant in your living room.
1 Physicists should ignore this paragraph and substitute a problem in evolutionary theory, where the substance of the theory is again in calculations that few people know how to perform.
2 I am not proud of this. Alas, with all the math I need to study, I’m not likely to learn anatomy anytime soon.