A cavalcade of arguments

Goff on curiosity

Philip Goff, in a recent draft, argues against moderate forms of physicalism by appeal to a certain notion of curiosity. Goff's starting point is a variation of the well known knowledge argument from Jackson:

It was the night before her release from the black and white prison where Mary had spent her whole life thus far. Tomorrow the door would open, and the coloured light would flood in. Mary was excited; she was nervous. But most of all, Mary was curious. What would it be like to see red, or green or blue? Mary of course knew a lot about the quantitative structure of colour experience, e.g., how much hue, saturation and brightness each colour had, relative to other colours. And she’d sometimes played a little of game of trying to imagine colour by ‘filling out’ that structure with the qualities Mary was acquainted with from her sound experience: replacing in her imagination brightness with loudness, hue with pitch, etc. But she knew in her heart of hearts that this abstract exercise could never really provide her with insight into the character of the qualities that fill colour experience.

The morning finally came. The door was flung open, and Mary saw, first, a single red rose lying on the threshold. ‘Ah, so that’s what it’s like to see red!’ Mary thought to herself. Finally the curiosity that had burned within her breast for so long was satisfied. And so it went with all the other colours, as she explored the amazing world of colour outside of her black and white room. Whether or not knowledge of colours brought Mary lasting peace of mind is another story; but, for that day at least, Mary’s curiosity was satisfied.

The idea behind the argument is that moderate physicalist theories cannot account for the curiosity the subject in the knowledge argument scenario ('Mary') could feel before leaving the room, and of the satisfaction of the curiosity they could feel after leaving it and experiencing colors for the first time. Goff raises it as a problem for the ability account response to the knowledge argument, which argues that Mary acquires abilities or know-how rather than propositional knowledge, and for the phenomenal concepts account, which proposes that Mary acquires new concepts on leaving the room. I will focus on the first here, because I think it is the more plausible response-- Goff disagrees, of course, and thinks that the ability account is a non-starter.

The main point is that Goff takes curiosity as essentially involving the need for information. In this view, one is curious because one lacks information, and one's curiosity is satisfied when we obtain the information we lacked. But then, it is not clear why, just by acquiring abilities, one's curiosity would be satisfied.

Now, I think this is mistaken for the reason that it overintellectualizes curiosity. Let's make the supposition that curiosity is something one can have in relation to a question (although one can be curious about something, or someone, as well). if one is curious about whether p, one intuition is that by coming to know whether p, one's curiosity should be satisfied. It is probably not enough to acquire just any information about whether p--whether p must be settled. But even if one acquires information that settles whether p, one could still remain curious about whether p if one does not see that the information that one acquires settles whether p. By all means, one may even know that p (at least, by some externalist standard) and still remain curious. So knowledge of whether p does not seem to be sufficient for satisfaction of one's curiosity. This also shows that it is not necessary for curiosity about whether p to lack information about whether p, or to lack knowledge about whether p.

It also does not seem necessary. I can stop being curious about whether p in cases where I mistakenly take some misinformation as telling of whether p, or simply by not focusing on the question anymore. These are cases where I am not curious even though I lack information.

Curiosity requires that one cares about a question. No amount of information will make me care; to care I need to have a certain dispositional profile, that is, I have to have the ability to care. Likewise, to have one's curiosity satisfied, one must adopt a certain dispositional profile to the question: to treat is as settled, or at the very least, as something that I do not care to address. It may be rational or irrational to be uncurious. If I don't care about what I should care about, that's bad. If I don't care about what I shouldn't care about, that's ok. Mary could have cared or not about what seeing red feels like. By knowing everything that one could possibly know about seeing red, it seems to me plausible that she would not care about what it feels like. Why not treat the question as settled in this case? There is not a lot of reasons for her to care about what the experience feels like. She could also care. Why not? But I don't think she would have much reason to do so--but then again, she might not need reasons.

Thoughts? Leave a comment