What Curiosity Looks Like

See also: Twelve Virtues of Ra­tion­al­ity, The Med­i­ta­tion on Cu­ri­os­ity, Use Curiosity

What would it look like if some­one was truly cu­ri­ous — if they ac­tu­ally wanted true be­liefs? Not some­one who wanted to feel like they sought the truth, or to feel their be­liefs were jus­tified. Not some­one who wanted to sig­nal a de­sire for true be­liefs. No: some­one who re­ally wanted true be­liefs. What would that look like?

A truly cu­ri­ous per­son would seek to un­der­stand the world as broadly and deeply as pos­si­ble. They would study the hu­man­i­ties but es­pe­cially math and the sci­ences. They would study logic, prob­a­bil­ity the­ory, ar­gu­ment, sci­en­tific method, and other core tools of truth-seek­ing. They would in­quire into episte­mol­ogy, the study of know­ing. They would study ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence to learn the al­gorithms, the math, the laws of how an ideal agent would ac­quire true be­liefs. They would study mod­ern psy­chol­ogy and neu­ro­science to learn how their brain ac­quires be­liefs, and how those pro­cesses de­part from ideal truth-seek­ing pro­cesses. And they would study how to min­i­mize their think­ing er­rors.

They would prac­tice truth-seek­ing skills as a mu­si­cian prac­tices play­ing her in­stru­ment. They would prac­tice “de­bi­as­ing” tech­niques for re­duc­ing com­mon think­ing er­rors. They would seek out con­texts known to make truth-seek­ing more suc­cess­ful. They would ask oth­ers to help them on their jour­ney. They would ask to be held ac­countable.

They would cul­ti­vate that burn­ing itch to know. They would ad­mit their ig­no­rance but seek to de­stroy it.

They would be pre­cise, not vague. They would be clear, not ob­scu­ran­tist.

They would not flinch away from ex­pe­riences that might de­stroy their be­liefs. They would train their emo­tions to fit the facts.

They would up­date their be­liefs quickly. They would re­sist the hu­man im­pulse to ra­tio­nal­ize.

But even all this could merely be a sig­nal­ing game to in­crease their sta­tus in a group that re­wards the ap­pear­ance of cu­ri­os­ity. Thus, the fi­nal test for gen­uine cu­ri­os­ity is be­hav­ioral change. You would find a gen­uinely cu­ri­ous per­son study­ing and learn­ing. You would find them prac­tic­ing the skills of truth-seek­ing. You wouldn’t merely find them say­ing, “Okay, I’m up­dat­ing my be­lief about that” — you would also find them mak­ing de­ci­sions con­sis­tent with their new be­lief and in­con­sis­tent with their former be­lief.

Every week I talk to peo­ple who say they are try­ing to figure out the truth about some­thing. When I ask them a few ques­tions about it, I of­ten learn that they know al­most noth­ing of logic, prob­a­bil­ity the­ory, ar­gu­ment, sci­en­tific method, episte­mol­ogy, ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence, hu­man cog­ni­tive sci­ence, or de­bi­as­ing tech­niques. They do not reg­u­larly prac­tice the skills of truth-seek­ing. They don’t seem to say “oops” very of­ten, and they change their be­hav­ior even less of­ten. I con­clude that they prob­a­bly want to feel they are truth-seek­ing, or they want to sig­nal a de­sire for truth-seek­ing, or they might even self-de­ceiv­ingly “be­lieve” that they place a high value on know­ing the truth. But their ac­tions show that they aren’t try­ing very hard to have true be­liefs.

Dare I say it? Few peo­ple look like they re­ally want true be­liefs.