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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Curiosity and Critical Thinking

Critical thinking often requires looking at a thing from more than one vantage point. I thought about that while visiting our daughter recently. Hanging in the bathroom is this saying: "Blessed are the curious, for they shall have adventures." It immediately brought to mind Bilbo Baggins setting off on his adventure with Gandalf and the dwarves. I remember, however, that his first reaction to the idea was more in line with the saying, "Curiosity killed the cat." No thank you, no adventures for me!

Now, one can look at those two quotes in different ways. The first is as a case of either/or. Squelch curiosity because it can lead to disaster like the winners of the Darwin awards. On the other hand, you can consider them as both/and. Curiosity is a mixed bag -- sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse.

On the positive side, curiosity sets one on the threshold of discovery. Scientific breakthroughs and ingenious inventions begin with curiosity. How can a heavy load be moved from one place to another? Can man fly? Is there a better way to provide light than candles and oil lanterns?

I once read an article about the man who developed velcro which has revolutionized many industries especially clothing and shoes. How did it happen? A Swiss engineer, George de Mestrel went for a romp in the woods. When he returned he noticed how many "hitchhikers" were attached to his clothing and was curious whether the means of attachment could be put to some practical use. After studying the burrs he noticed they were like little hooks that attached to the loops in the fabric. And from there he played with his idea and patented "velcro" (from the french words for velvet and crochet). It all began with curiosity. Healthy curiosity has blessed us with medical cures (Think of aspirin and penicillin.) and practical inventions that make like easier (washing machines and stoves).

But curiosity directed in the wrong way can also be a curse. We see it daily in the culture of death. I'm a woman but what would it be like to be a man? How can I make contact with my dead friend? What would it feel like to use crack? eat or not to eat...will I become like God?
Most things are morally neutral. It is our "choices" that allow us to use them for evil or to use them for good. Medicine directed to the good of the individual and the culture enhances life. In the hands of a man like Louis Pasteur It gives us cures for anthrax and rabies. In the hands of a Dr. Mengele it gives us the most gruesome human experimentation.

Ultimately, how we exercise our curiosity depends on our philosophy of life. The moral man reflects on whether acting on a given curious idea is a moral good or a moral evil. John Rock, Catholic creator of the contraceptive pill and an ob/gyn no doubt had the good of his patients at heart when he became involved in birth control research. But he fell down the rabbit's hole pursuing it and lost his faith in the process, dying a bitter man when the Church didn't follow him.

That's what happens when curiosity tempts us to "become like gods." Adam and Eve give us the ultimate object lesson in how wrong things can go when we exercise our curiosity outside God's moral law.

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