In 1998, my colleague Alison Gopnik wrote a provocative paper comparing the drive for explanations to sexual desire. Just as we're motivated to engage in an evolutionarily beneficial activity — reproduction! — by the promise of orgasm, so, too, we're motivated to discover the basic structure of the world around us by the promise of a satisfying explanation. It's the "aha!" moment that makes the learning feel worthwhile.
We have orgasms (in an evolutionary sense) because they motivate us to reproduce, and — suggests Gopnik — we find explanations satisfying because that motivates us to learn.
On this picture of human learning, we experience explanations as valuable in themselves, just as we experience orgasms as valuable in themselves — not merely as a means to reproduction. Yet these experiences are, in the end, valuable instrumentally. Sex leads to reproduction, and explanation-seeking to learning. That learning — even though it's pursued for its own sake, and not for its practical consequences — is what ultimately allows us to interact so effectively with the world.
In fact, one might go further. Perhaps it's our species' voracious tendency to explain that accounts for our success in the face of varied environments and challenges. Put us somewhere new and we'll learn. We don't wait until we're offered a practical benefit or a financial incentive; show us something that violates our expectations and we'll ask, "Why did that happen?" And we'll start looking for answers. So, when we do have a practical need, or we're offered a financial incentive, we'll have the basic building blocks that make us efficient and effective.
Gopnik argues that this is all the more true for children, who explore for the sake of exploration, unhindered by immediate, practical goals. Children are the research and development branch of the species. (You can hear Gopnik present this line of argument in a short 2013 talk for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.)
So, let's shift now from everyday learning to the enterprise of science. Like children, scientists are often motivated to explain and to understand how the world works, simply for the sake of understanding. The analogue to "basic curiosity" is basic research: research directed towards uncovering the principles and building blocks of nature, whether or not there's an immediate application in sight. We experience the discoveries of basic science as ends in themselves, and they're often awe-inspiring and glorious. But they also serve an instrumental role. They set us up to be efficient and effective learners in the future, so that when we do confront a new problem or an immediate need, we're in a position to do something about it, efficiently and effectively.
Of course, scientists aren't exactly free to pursue their curiosity unbounded. There are a variety of practical (and sometimes ethical) constraints on scientific research, among them the availability of funding. Basic research can't occur without adequate resources, and the federal government has historically been one of the key providers of those resources. That makes sense: Just as parents invest in the future of their children by giving them opportunities to learn (and therefore to become better future learners), it's in our collective interests to be at the forefront of scientific discovery today and to set ourselves up to be at the forefront of scientific discovery tomorrow. Basic curiosity is an investment in a child's future; basic research is an investment in all of our futures.
So, it's with genuine concern that I'll be following the discussion of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015. Behind the innocuous name is a plan to massively cut funding for basic research, especially in the social, behavioral and economic sciences. [Full disclosure: I am a social scientist, and much of my research funding comes from the National Science Foundation.]
According to an analysis by the Consortium of Social Science Associations, funding in these areas would drop by over 40 percent. That's a huge loss for today's researchers, and a huge disinvestment in our future. With so many of tomorrow's problems likely to be social in nature (even problems like climate change), we need to be the most efficient and effective future learners we can be. Perhaps ironically, that means pursuing basic research for its own sake today.
Legislating against orgasms would be bad for the future of the species. Reducing the odds of obtaining satisfying scientific explanations could be equally shortsighted.
Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo