Open-ended curiosity

Open-ended curiosity is a texture of the complete stance. It flows naturally from understanding the inseparability of nebulosity and pattern. Open-ended curiosity avoids fixating meaningness into pre-determined categories.

Confused attitudes to mystery

Open-ended curiosity is a stance toward not-knowing. It is easiest to understand by contrast with some other stances.

Generally each dimension of meaningness gets its own chapter in Doing meaning better, the main part of this book. For knowledge, we can just do a quick version here, enough to make sense of “open-ended curiosity” as a texture of the complete stance. (In The Cells of the Eggplant is a whole book expanding on this. Or, “Upgrade your cargo cult for the win” is a long essay version.)

So, let’s apply the familiar Meaningness scheme!

That begins by identifying a metaphysical error that generates pairs of confused stances. In the case of knowledge, it is the assumption that it must be perfectly definite. As usual, this is a denial of nebulosity.

Ignorance denied

There are no mysteries; this Holy Book / sacred institution / omniscient guru has all the answers.

Outright denial of unknowing is the simplest confused stance. This is typical of eternalistic dualism. The most obvious examples are simplistic versions of the Biblical religions. This is also the stance of simple versions of scientistic rationalism, which is also a dualist eternalism. Outright denial of ignorance is hard to maintain because, for many questions, no authority does have a plausible answer.

A more sophisticated version admits that answers are not always immediately available, but claims that there is a guaranteed method for finding them. That might be some type of prayer, in the religious case; or The Scientific Method, for scientism. If it doesn’t seem to get an answer, it’s because you are doing it wrong; but there are experts who can do it right. Learning to be an expert might take special talents and many years of apprenticeship.

Eventually you may realize that experts also can’t reliably find answers. You may discover that there is no “The” scientific method; and for many fields, no set method is available at all.

Research on how college students’ attitudes toward knowledge develop finds that they often arrive with “there are no mysteries,” realize that is wrong, and switch to “but there is a method.” Later, some students also figure out that there are no consistently reliable methods—typically only in graduate school.1

Wonder is the antidote to the denial of the nebulosity of knowing. It involves receptivity and gentleness. Clear thinking is good, but your mind should not be so sharp that it cuts your own throat. Aggressive precision is a common failure of dualism. It traps you in a cage of certainty. It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.

Ignorance fixated

We are the keepers of the Eternal Sacred Mystery about which knowledge is impossible, so it is taboo to enquire.

This stance reacts to the nebulosity of meaning by denying patterns of knowledge. It is typical of monist eternalism, such as the New Age and some versions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism.

Consistent with monism, this stance usually gloms together all questions without answers, and treats them as a unified Cosmic Mystery. Then it gives some vague and incoherent, but holy and comforting, interpretation to the aggregate. For example, “we all partake of the nature of Cosmic Consciousness, which is the Whole Universe becoming aware of Itself, so the Cosmic Mystery is really Knowing.”2

The antidote to monist eternalism is demanding specific answers to specific questions. Derisive scorn may be helpful if they are not forthcoming. This is an appropriation of dualist nihilist rage!

However, denying pattern and fixating non-existence is typical of nihilism, and there is a nihilistic version of this stance. It’s more sophisticated than the monist-eternalist version. It says that knowledge is impossible, and that this is a cause and/or result of meaninglessness. When challenged, the 190-proof version usually falls back on the Lite version: “real knowledge” is impossible. Cognitive development research finds that students commonly adopt this stance after realizing that no entirely reliable methods can exist. There’s a humanities version, which is postmodern hyper-relativism, and a STEM version, which is post-rational depression.

The antidote to this stance is diligent investigation. Openness is good, but you should not be so open-minded that your brain falls out. Refusal of judgement, on grounds of principle, is a common failure of both monists and nihilists. It leaves you open to dangerous memetic parasites.

A muddled middle

When it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that an authority has answers for some questions and not others, a muddled middle emerges. Some matters are certain, so the authority is not to be questioned; others are holy mysteries, so the authority is not to be questioned.

Some Christian sects give detailed, Absolute Truth From God answers for innumerable minor issues; but the big questions—the critical contradictions such as theodicy, the trinity, and the nature of the eucharist—get glommed together into Divine Mystery.

Some supposed sciences do the same. Representationalist cognitive “science” develops elaborate theories of particular sorts of thinking; but you are not allowed to ask about critical contradictions, such as how a physical thing can “represent” something it is causally disconnected from, how you can find out whether or not something is a representation, or what scientific tests can determine what one represents. (Representationalism is particularly harmful when meanings themselves are wrongly claimed to be mental representations.)

Typical of muddled middles, this stance fails to eliminate the underlying metaphysical error: that proper knowledge must be perfectly definite. It just tries to apply each of a mirror-image pair of confused stances in different cases. Accordingly, it has the defects of both. It proliferates spuriously definite “knowledge” that is quite wrong, and it makes you vulnerable to vague mystical memes.

It’s common to fall into this trap when first emerging from post-rationalist nihilism. You take Science too seriously as a reliable theory of some things, while simultaneously adopting mystical woo as an approach to others.

Closed-ended curiosity

Closed-ended curiosity recognizes that some things are known, and some things are not. It may recognize degrees for confidence or certainty in knowledge. It may recognize that there are no fixed ways of answering some questions.

Curiosity is closed-ended when it wrongly assumes that answers, when and if found, must be definite. This is the same metaphysical error again.

“Definite” does not mean “certain.” Certainty is your opinion about a statement. Definiteness is about the nature of the statement itself, and about its relationship with the world. A properly definite statement would be perfectly clear, and so either true or false in reality—even if we cannot know which.3

Closed-end curiosity assumes that conceptual structures, such as taxonomies, either fit the world or don’t. It tries to find answers to well-defined questions, in terms of a fixed system; to locate missing pieces of a puzzle whose shape and meaning you already know.

Closed-end curiosity is valuable; it is a proper mode of routine science, routine engineering, and routine organizational management. It is not a mode of the complete stance, though.

Open-ended curiosity

Open-ended curiosity resolves the metaphysical error by dancing with the inseparable nebulosity and pattern of knowing. That is what makes it a texture of the complete stance.

Open-ended curiosity asks: “I wonder what this is like?” “I wonder whether some meaning will emerge here?” “I wonder how this works—what possibilities for action it may offer?” It is open, particularly, to possibilities that are shut off by any fixed system of interpretation.

Open-ended curiosity actively seeks examples of pattern and nebulosity intertwined. Those are the source of understanding.

An understanding is a way of being; nebulous but effective patterns of thinking, feeling, and interacting. An understanding is not a collection of statements that might be definitely true or false.

Open-ended curiosity is not centrally concerned with answers, or with questions. Those can be important, but they come after understanding.4

Open-ended curiosity does not assume the form of an answer. It does not assume there is any answer, nor that questions are necessarily meaningful. It is comfortable with formlessness and meaninglessness. It is willing to be confused, and willing to allow confusion to persist. When a phenomenon stubbornly refuses to make sense, open-ended curiosity neither jumps to judgement, nor rejects it as boring or frightening. It allows both meanings and meaninglessness to be however they are.

Open-ended curiosity recognizes that you don’t have to have an opinion about everything—or even most things. It also does not shun judgement when a clear pattern emerges. And then, it does not regard any conclusions as final.

Open-ended curiosity gives you the freedom to interact with the world without metaphysical presuppositions. That interaction gives your self the freedom to be unconstrained metaphysically as well: to be solid or insubstantial, sharp or fuzzy, distinct from the world or absorbed in it, enduring or transient, defined or vague.

Because it does not presume any system, open-ended curiosity means not having to do things by the book. That does not imply that it is passive, or that it rejects all structure or methods, or that it is some sort of mystical intuition. In the Cells of the Eggplant spends a hundred pages explaining how to apply open-ended curiosity in professional, technical work.

As a method of stabilizing the complete stance, open-ended curiosity takes intelligence, hard work, and generosity—as well as just openness.

As a texture of the complete stance, it is natural, effortless, and joyful.

  1. 1.This is the line of research initiated by William G. Perry. A useful review is Barbara K. Hofer and Paul R. Pintrich, “The Development of Epistemological Theories: Beliefs About Knowledge and Knowing and Their Relation to Learning,” Review of Educational Research, Spring 1997, Vol. 67, No. 1, pp. 88-140.
  2. 2.Quantum woo is a common, egregious version of this monist misunderstanding of mystery.
  3. 3.There aren’t any fully definite statements, outside of mathematics. This is a big problem for rationalist epistemology. The Eggplant devotes a chapter to this—but it’s not yet published as of the time I’m publishing this page. In the mean time, if you are feeling masochistic, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Propositions” demonstrates how difficult the problems are, and how convoluted the responses.
  4. 4.Another way of putting this is that open-ended curiosity is ontological, where closed-ended curiosity is epistemological. I’m avoiding these philosophical polysyllables at this point in Meaningness; they become central in The Eggplant. As a historical note, “understanding precedes representation” was a central slogan of Phil Agre’s and my work in artificial intelligence.