This is a podcast by and for the curious — and yet, in over three years, we have pointed curiosity at nearly every topic but itself. What is it, anyway? Are there worse and better frames for understanding how desire and wonder, exploration and discovery play out in both the brain and in society? How is scientific research like an amble through the woods? What juicy insights bubble up where neuroscientists, historians, philosophers, and mathematicians meet to answer questions like these? And how long of a path must we traverse to get there?
In this episode, we talk with SFI External Professor Dani Bassett, physicist and neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, and their birth twin Perry Zurn, philosopher at American University in Washington, DC. You might consider each one of two lenses in a stereoscopic inquiry. Their new MIT Press book Curious Minds: The Power of Connection bridges quantity and quality to recast curiosity as a phenomenon of networks — as a kind of “edgework” (generative, drawing new associations) instead of “acquistion” (of individuals collecting facts). The brain, after all, is made of networked neurons, and society’s a kind of super-brain of networked people, so why not think in terms of links? Their research offers a taxonomy of kinds of curiosity — three different ways that people move through knowledge networks. Traveling across a web of related ideas, rupturing and mending, weaving, percolating, synthesizing, we embody and perform the objects of their academic study. We hope you find this lively and self-referential conversation offers you a helpful map as you draw your distinct connectome through the world of what is and what could be known...
Be sure to check out our extensive show notes with links to all our references at complexity.simplecast.com. If you value our research and communication efforts, please subscribe, rate and review us at Apple Podcasts or Spotify, and consider making a donation — or finding other ways to engage with us — at santafe.edu/engage.
Lastly, we have a bevy of summer programs coming up! Join us June 19-23 for Collective Intelligence: Foundations + Radical Ideas, a first-ever event open to both academics and professionals, with sessions on adaptive matter, animal groups, brains, AI, teams, and more. Space is limited! Apps close February 1st.
OR Apply to participate in the Complex Systems Summer School.
OR the Graduate Workshop on Complexity in Social Science.
OR the Complexity GAINS UK program for PhD students.
(OR check our open listings for a staff or research job!)
Thank you for listening…
EDITORIAL CORRECTION: We mention a review of Cormac McCarthy's latest novels in this discussion. The correct link is to James Wood’s piece in The New Yorker, not Michael Gorra’s in NYRB.
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Mentioned & Related Links:
Curious Minds: The Power of Connection
by Perry Zurn and Dani Bassett (MIT Press, 2022)
Curiosity as filling, compressing, and reconfiguring knowledge networks
by Shubhankar P. Patankar, Dale Zhou, Christopher W. Lynn, Jason Z. Kim, Mathieu Ouellet, Harang Ju, Perry Zurn, David M. Lydon-Staley, Dani S. Bassett
Murray Gell-Mann on information overload (from A Crude Look At The Whole) [Video]
The Arrival of the Fittest: How Nature Innovates by SFI External Professor Andreas Wagner
Complexity 99: Alison Gopnik on Child Development, Elderhood, Caregiving, and A.I.
Complexity 80: Mingzhen Lu on The Evolution of Root Systems & Biogeochemical Cycling
Busybody, Hunter, Dancer: Three Historical Models of Curiosity
by Perry Zurn
Hunters, busybodies and the knowledge network building associated with deprivation curiosity
by David M. Lydon-Staley, Dale Zhou, Ann Sizemore Blevins, Perry Zurn & Danielle S. Bassett
Complexity 29: On Coronavirus, Crisis, and Creative Opportunity with David Krakauer
The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness by Andrew P. Smith
Complexity 68: W. Brian Arthur on Economics in Nouns and Verbs (Part 1)
Complexity 90: Caleb Scharf on The Ascent of Information: Life in The Human Dataome
Complexity 94: David Wolpert & Farita Tasnim on The Thermodynamics of Communication
Complexity 35: Scaling Laws & Social Networks in The Time of COVID-19 with Geoffrey West (Part 1)
Complexity 87: Sara Walker on The Physics of Life and Planet-Scale Intelligence
The extent and drivers of gender imbalance in neuroscience reference lists
by Jordan D. Dworkin, Kristin A. Linn, Erin G. Teich, Perry Zurn, Russell T. Shinohara & Danielle S. Bassett
Underflows: Queer Trans Ecologies and River Justice by Cleo Wölfle Hazard
The Sounds of Life by Karen Bakker
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Dirk Brockmann’s interactive explorables
Nicky Case’s interactive explorables
The Thing From The Future (speculative futurism card game by Stuart Candy & Jeff Watson at Situation Lab)
Bayo Akomolafe (re: networks, the nonhuman turn, and questioning the rhetoric of individuals as “designers”)
LAION-5B: An open large-scale dataset for training next generation image-text models
by Christoph Schuhmann, Romain Beaumont, Richard Vencu, Cade Gordon, Ross Wightman, Mehdi Cherti, Theo Coombes, Aarush Katta, Clayton Mullis, Mitchell Wortsman, Patrick Schramowski, Srivatsa Kundurthy, Katherine Crowson, Ludwig Schmidt, Robert Kaczmarczyk, Jenia Jitsev
Complexity 86: Dmitri Tymoczko on The Shape of Music: Mathematical Order in Western Tonality
Dani & Perry on SFI External Professor Sean Carroll’s MINDSCAPE Podcast
What curiosity is allowing us to do is to build these knowledge networks. When we do that, the mind sort of has this interesting trade off that it has to consistently arbitrate. And that is between building an accurate model of the world and minimizing the use of mental resources. If you completely minimize the use of mental resources, then you build a completely inaccurate model of the world. Whereas if you build a perfectly accurate model of the world, you have to use a large number of mental resources. So when you think about that in the context of curiosity, it just suggests that we may engage with different styles of curiosity that are foregrounding or backgrounding, the accuracy of models or the mental resources used to build the models and that can vary among us and it can also vary within us according to the time of day or other connectional factors that are going on in our lives.
This is a podcast by and for the curious, and yet in over three years we have pointed curiosity at nearly every topic, but itself. What is it anyway? Are there worse in better frames for understanding how desire and wonder, exploration and discovery, play out in both the brain and in society? How is scientific research like an amble through the woods? What juicy insights bubble up where neuroscientists, historians, philosophers, and mathematicians meet to answer questions like these? And how long of a path must we traverse to get there? Welcome to the 100th episode of Complexity, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute.
I'm your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week we'll bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe. In this episode, we talk with SFI external professor Dani Bassett, physicist and neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, and their birth twin Perry Zurn, philosopher at American University in Washington DC. You might consider each one of two lenses in a stereoscopic inquiry -- their new MIT Press book, Curious Minds: The Power of Connection bridges, quantity, and quality to recast curiosity as a phenomenon of networks, a kind of edge work, generative drawing new associations instead of acquisition of individuals collecting facts. The brain after all is made of networked neurons and society is a kind of super brain of networked people. So why not think in terms of links? Their research offers a taxonomy of kinds of curiosity, three different ways that people move through knowledge networks, traveling across a web of linked ideas, rupturing and mending, weaving, percolating, synthesizing. We embody and perform the objects of their academic study. We hope you find this lively and self-referential conversation offers you a helpful map as you draw your own distinct connect dome through the world of what is and what could be known.
Be sure to check out our extensive show notes with links to all of our resources at complexity.simplecast.com. If you value our research and communication efforts, please subscribe, rate, and review us at Apple Podcasts or Spotify, and consider making a donation or finding other ways to engage with us at santafe.edu/engage. Lastly, we have a bevy of summer programs coming up. Join us June 19th through the 23rd for Collective Intelligence: Foundations + Radical Ideas, a first-ever event open to both academics and professionals with sessions on adaptive matter, animal groups, brains, AI teams, and more. Applications close February 1. Or apply to participate in the Complex Systems Summer School or the Graduate Workshop on Complexity and Social Science. Or the Complexity-GAINs (UK) International Summer School program for PhD students, or check our open listings for a staff or research job. Links to more information for all of these programs are available in our show notes. Thank you for listening.
Dani Bassett & Perry Zurn, I am elated to have you on Complexity podcast.
We love to be here.
I'm really excited.
I would like to start, I guess by walking backwards into your own autobiographical gritty backstory because for the purposes of this show, I find that anchoring the insights that you expressed through your work, your career, your research, your writing in the roots, the origin story is deeply important. Whoever wants to take the banner on that, please do.
We are twins and we were homeschooled from the time we were four till when we went to college. We have many siblings. There are 11 of us, we're the oldest, the youngest one is 18 years younger than us. We grew up sort of engaging in learning in an odd and beautiful way I think. Our mom, in the process of homeschooling, was very interested in foregrounding self-directed learning. She would ask us at the beginning of every semester what we wanted to learn about even as relatively small kids. Then she would pull together resources and materials that were related to that topic of interest. It could be literature about the topic or science about the topic or history about the topic or art. So I think that our minds were being expanded to see the connections across disciplines in a way that isn't super common in other educational settings. I think that was a really interesting way of growing up. Then, because it foregrounded both the interdisciplinary nature of inquiry and also the self-directed nature and both of those pieces have stuck with us into our adult life and guide, I think, our career choices why we're even professors is because we love interdisciplinary work and we love self-directed questioning.
I would just simply add that we grew up really close and that was important in that particular moment. Then as we became young adults, we really wanted to distinguish ourselves in some way. In college we chose majors that presumably were as far away from each other as they could be. I went into philosophy, which I say is as far into the humanities as you can go. And then Dani went into physics, which is just about as far into the hard sciences as you can go. But it turns out that physics and philosophy actually ask very similar questions and really are trying to get to the bottom of things in similar ways, although with different methods. It shouldn't be a surprise -- although it was a surprise -- that when we both started doing our research, I started getting into the philosophy of curiosity and Dani was studying the neuroscience of learning and neuro flexibility.
So oddly enough, we had separated and yet we had in fact ended up in very similar place and asking very similar questions. How does the mind really work? And not just the mind in any particular context, but in a specifically curious mind, like a mind of the sort that we were so luckily introduced to so early on in our educational experiences. That's really the kernel of this particular book.
I like that how we're already starting to at least imply the kind of spatial or geometric metaphor that the two of you are so fond of in this book about curiosity and learning where you describe knowledge as a kind of Swiss cheese growing in the vacuum of space. And that's perfect, because it's got this topological intricacy. But if you walk around it long enough, on either side of the belt you're going to run into the buckle on the antipodes. So here we are. I want to start as you start because I honor your prowess at narrative compression.
I'm just going to kind of walk more or less through this book in the order it's presented. That starts us with something that you say in the preface about the fact that curiosity is policed. It sounds like it wasn't especially policed in your charmed upbringing, but you make the point that “scholars are hired most often when their work falls into a pre-specified space: that of a department, a siloed discipline, or a reductively stipulated history or methodology of thought.” And then you mention at great length Plutarch and other great thinkers of antiquity who frowned upon curiosity.
The history of the resistance to the curious is one that I find fascinating and sobering. So I would love to hear your thoughts on the tension. And just to tie it to SFI specifically, years ago there was once an interview with Murray Gell-Mann where he was talking about the challenges of funding fundamental research and how if you don't know what you're looking for, it's really hard to convince someone to pay you to find it. There's something to that that seems structural in the fact of our living together -- in the fact of our forming a cohesive collective intelligence. I'd love to hear your thoughts on all this.
I would jump in just to say that we do open with this since curiosity is policed everywhere and it was policed in our childhood as well. We tend to focus on our mother's construction of our homeschooling experience, which was really wide-ranging and really open and really interdisciplinary. But at the same time, we grew up in a very kind of small world, rural conservative area in which many of the things that we might want to be curious about were not considered appropriate topics of curiosity. So we felt the tension of this, the fact that curiosity can make these wild connections and can be kind of free and riotous in some ways and in other ways be incredibly constrained and limited and kind of the object of fear and social constraint. So I think there is that complexity, honestly, anywhere that curiosity is at work.
Didn't you even say that when you were first thinking about getting into the philosophy of curiosity, somebody in your mentoring circles suggested that curiosity is not a topic that philosophy addresses.
Oh yeah. So I said, yes, I will dissertate on curiosity. And they said, no, you will not. That is not a philosophical topic, which simply meant there aren't other books on curiosity. And I thought, well that's a good thing, isn't it? I'll write the first one. Which it turns out I was a little bit late to that particular endeavor, but there were just a few that came out as I was dissertating. But it's true, there hadn't been a full book on curiosity until 2011 in English in philosophy. And that was a reason to say that's not a question, that's not an appropriate question for this field, which going back to your, you've raised issues of funding and how is it that we, we want to push our fields beyond where they are and at the same time we have a certain fear and sometimes panic that the field will become nothing if we let the gates open completely. And so there's this constant like push and pull of opening them a little bit and celebrating certain innovations but kind of reigning other people in and saying, come on, you should behave properly and use these methodologies and ask these sort of questions that we know belong to the field. It's a very tense, dramatic situation I think.
Which is not unlike I think the situation that Augustine was in, perhaps, or others who were suggesting that curiosity was a bad thing. Both through our experiences but also some of this history, you realize that the policing of curiosity is sort of in two directions. One says you can go this way but not that way. It's a policing of the path, I think, but it's also a policing of the distance of the step. You can be curious about something nearby to what you already know, but if it's too far from what we already know -- for example, maybe we don't have a good definition of it, or nobody's written the book yet -- than that's too far. Even if it might be in the right direction, it's too far. So there's a policing of both distance and direction I think.
I'm reminded of comments you made on Socrates, who loved to wander through Athens, but loathed, as you put it, to wander beyond Athens. And now I'm thinking of the myth of Artemis and Actaeon and this sense that in the age of humans living within these walled cities that were ensconced in some way, walled off from the wilderness, that what lay beyond that was a realm of monsters. And it seems like that is still something that permeates our thinking in spite of the fact that as you point to, there's a specific strain of curiosity, the colonialist strain that transforms mystery into – as I think you put it -- a violence in profit or something like that. That it is about the assumption of risk. So even in the sense of, say, venture capital is the assumption of risk, it comes with the privilege of being able to assume that risk. One more piece on this: you mentioned that Abraham Flexner, in founding the Institute for Advanced Study, intended to create a place where a scientist could once again think about questions that were simply interesting irrespective of their utility and wrote a book, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge. This seems like a foundational text for SFI. Before we move on into the meat of this, I would love to hear the two of you reflect on useless knowledge.
The focus on useless knowledge is so interesting because it begs the question, how do you even determine that some knowledge is going to be useful? How is it that we make those predictions and does it relate to these two points earlier that what is policed is the direction of the next knowledge step and also the size. If we know that discoveries have been useful in a particular direction, then we can continue to value moving in that direction because we can have a pretty high confidence that the next step is also going to be useful. Whereas if we step off in a different direction, we no longer have a good prediction: maybe it's going to be useful, maybe it won't be useful.
But similarly, with the step size mentioned earlier, if you take a small step size and your previous small steps have been useful, then you can have a good idea that the next small step will be useful. But if you take a big step, that's a huge risk. You have no idea whether that's going to be useful or not. So I think utility is actually one of the reasons that knowledge and knowledge production and curiosity are policed in the particular ways that they are, because you really have trouble predicting the utility of something when you move in a new direction, but also when you take a large step.
But I also think the contrasting argument is that many big discoveries happen when you move in a completely new direction or when you take a very large step in knowledge space. So by focusing on utility, you are likely missing out on a lot of potential for new discoveries.
This is a wonderful question because it makes me recall more of the history of the term curiosity in Western intellectual thought. Really the ancient and medieval and earlyish modern complaint about curiosity was that it produced useless knowledge, that it was this kind of self-driven dabbling in a variety of things that didn't necessarily have any guidance. Again, in the ancient and medieval periods, the goal was to not embrace curiositas, the Latin term for curiosity, but rather, studiositas, which would be studiousness, to be studious of the world rather than curious of the world. If you're studious of the world, then you're far more likely to think about things that matter for specific ends and goals and values and people, etc.
What's interesting is right in the early modern period, right as early modern sciences are really starting to take off -- and we think about this really as the root of science as we know it today -- this is when a flip happens and curiosity becomes a good word, a valuable word, hey look, actually curiosity when it's an inquiry that's divorced from spirituality, essentially, and religious roots, that kind of curiosity can be incredibly useful. It can be great for medicine, it can be great for structuring societies, it can be great for knowing the world in geography. It can be great for advancements of not only ideas but peoples, etc. And so it's really curiosity's linked to productivity that fuels its early modern embrace and the founding of, again, early modern science.
So I understand historically why we have this attachment now between curiosity and productivity, especially in the sciences, but also elsewhere. But I think we flipped too quickly. We gave into a binary choice too easily here and should have also said, yes, sometimes curiosity leads to useless knowledge, sometimes it's frivolous, sometimes it's superficial, sometimes we don't know why anybody's doing it, sometimes it makes us waste our time. And maybe wasting time is a good thing. Maybe we can have other values that would lend weight to waste and to wasting of one's time. So anyway, just some of the backstory about why curiosity and productivity and maybe how we could start to think about it differently
SFI external professor Andreas Wagner has written his own book about the evolutionary utility of play. And I also just interviewed Allison Gopnik on the utility of child development. It is kind of a Möbius strip, this notion that utility is observable -- it's not like an ontological, concrete thing, right? It's that which we are capable of recognizing as useful. So there's tension between different time scales or different spatial scales and systems and how we make time for play or as you described later in this book -- make time for a meandering walk in order to arrive at the thing. And of course the history of science is replete with these stories of enormous fundamental breakthroughs happening in the bathtub or in the woods while looking for mushrooms or whatever. There are a couple of core concepts that you communicate in this book and one of them is the notion of curiosity as edge work. I want to hear you contrast this with curiosity as acquisition.
I'll just set up acquisition, perhaps, and Dani can branch out into edge work. Always competing definitions of anything across any field at any time. But historically curiosity has been defined predominantly in Western intellectual thought as this desire or motivation to acquire new information--as an acquisitional enterprise. We can see this even in contemporary psychology, when curiosity is understood as motivation for filling an information gap. If you want to fill an information gap, you need to acquire the piece of information that fits in the gap. Curiosity is this capacity to acquire new information. That's been the way in which curiosity has really been defined predominantly.
But that misses something really fundamental for us about curiosity. And that is that curiosity isn't just this capacity to acquire things but is rather the capacity to connect ideas to ideas and experiences to experiences and facts to places and people to people and people to their world and to their lives and the way they want to live them. Curiosity is connectional in a fundamental sense and that's where we get edge work. And of course the term edge has a lot to do with network science.
In network science, we often think about complex systems as being composed of units which we’ll often call nodes, and then the relationships between those units, which we'll call edges. When Perry is using the word edgework, what he's focusing on is this power of connection. What you can then do is you can think, when I am curious do I know the end point? How much of that end point do I understand and then can reach towards? Or is it just that I have something in my mind already? I have some existing knowledge -- I have a unit of information in my head. And then what I want to do is to understand how that relates to other things. It's almost as if your knowledge has little arms that it's kind of sticking out into the air, and there's nothing necessarily at the end of the arm yet. But there's this notion that there must be something that you could touch, and it's that focus on the reaching and the potential for connection, without understanding what it is you might get at the other side, that I think is really critical.
That opens up new ways for us to ask how we're curious because we may each be spreading out arms in different directions or in different ways or seeking for different patterns of relationships. We can then quantify those patterns using network science and come up with styles of curiosity. Perry comes up with styles of curiosity from a philosophical point of view, but they have connective characteristics that make them different shapes if you think about them from a network perspective.
Before we get to the three styles of curiosity that you describe in this book, I want to give credit to whoever did the cover art for your book.
They absolutely nailed this: the butterfly, the hound, and the ballerina. Before we get there, just to sink people sort of one layer deeper into thinking about curiosity as fundamentally a phenomenon of networks, I love that you quote Deleuze and Guattari, saying that “philosophy is the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts.” If people go back to our conversation with Mingzhen Lu (Episode 80), talking about the history and the evolution of mycorrhizal affiliations and how this kind of thinking -- of course, SFI has graduated beyond merely viewing everything in terms of “it's all a network” -- but it is such a profound lens through which to understand all of this.
You also point out that the call of the ancients to knowledge derives from the Latin tendere, meaning to stretch between things -- the etymology in this book is so illuminating -- and how Thomas Hobbes considers curiosity and interest in causal relations. All of that having been briefly annotated here, please break down for us the three styles of curiosity that you have identified. Also, because you mentioned that this is probably not an exhaustive taxonomy, I'm curious to know what lies beyond the three that you describe.
The three styles of curiosity that we discussed in the book really started with an invitation actually from Dani, who was doing running a network visualization program at Penn one summer that involved high school students -- high school artists specifically -- learning to artistically visualize and illustrate and demonstrate and press network concepts. Dani invited me to come speak about curiosity to these folks, which made a lot of sense at the time. And yet when I went to prepare something to share, I just thought -- I've never spoken to a room full of artists and to this day I've not spoken to another room full of artists. I've spoken to artists individually, but a whole room full of artists? How do I speak in a way that captures and deploys images that are really inviting and really exciting for folks who work in image.
That really pressed me to go back through the history of philosophy, where I had been culling all of these definitions of curiosity and I said, okay, I'm going to put definitions on the bookshelf. I'm just going to put them up there and forget about them for a minute. I'm going to focus on how curiosity is described as a character in these kinds of fictions of worlds that we entertain in the history of philosophy. When I thought about curiosity and the characters that really capture what curiosity was doing all of those centuries and all of those millennia, these three styles really kind of came to the surface.
The first is the butterfly, which is someone who consistently is interested in all kinds of things and you find this person literally all over the history of Western thought -- someone who's really curious about just about anything. I'll listen anywhere, do anything, just throw it at me, I'm ready. Then there's the hunter, who would be frustrated by all of that -- what they would characterize as mess. A hunter really wants to focus on one or two things and be just absolutely expert at the intricacies of those one or two things. And then there are the dancers, the third style. The dancer is someone who gets consistently creative about their curiosity. They're the ones who say, well why not we do this or why not we think this or why not we try this? Or what if we put, put these two things together that don't belong together? What if we throw all these collection of things on a table? What do we do with them then? What happens then? Those are the people who just really need to imagine in the very moment that they are inquiring.
So those are the three styles from the history of intellectual western intellectual thought and we had some kind of speculation then and eventually experimentation about do these styles actually apply today as well?
Dani, I would love to hear you unpack the piece the Wikipedia study with David Lydon-Staley, where you find traces of these different curiosity styles.
Absolutely. After Perry had finished his excavation of these three styles in the western intellectual tradition over the last 2000 years, we got together and we thought, wouldn't it be nice if we could figure out whether people still show those same styles of curiosity today or whether changes in our society, in our culture, in this information age could have altered the way that we engage in curiosity and information-seeking. So we collaborated with David Lydon-Staley, who is a professor of communication at the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania. He had volunteers browse Wikipedia, which is an online encyclopedia, for 15 minutes a day for 21 days. So that's a three-week period. As part of the study, the participants consented to have an app installed on their computer that would track which Wikipedia pages they went to. It didn't track any other webpages -- just Wikipedia. From that we could determine whether people were taking steps like a hunter, sort of tracking down information in a particular direction, or if they were taking steps more like the busybody, moving from one webpage to another one that was drastically different. What we found is that humans ranged from very busybody-like to very hunter-like. We also found people that sort of filled out the entire space in between.
In addition to finding that busybodies and hunters existed, we also asked whether we have tendencies to be one or the other. So if you are a busybody on day one of the study, do you tend to be a busybody for the next 20 days or do you switch around and become a hunter tomorrow? And similarly, for somebody who starts as a hunter, do they switch around and be a busybody leader? What we found is that that there's a tendency for people to have one style. Someone who starts as a busybody, stays as a busybody for most of the time of the study. They may move around a teeny bit, but not a lot. And the same with somebody who's more hunter-like. They will stay mostly a hunter. That suggests to us that these styles are perhaps tendencies or traits of an individual which have some temporal variation but not a lot. We also found that that tendency to change was related to sensation-seeking. People who have more sensation-seeking on a particular day may alter their characteristic pattern of inquiry on that particular day.
Now, seeing that those two styles are present of course begs the question of whether the dancer is also present, but are there other styles, too? Perry and I have talked about the fact that it's interesting to think of these styles in a sort of dimensional space. So the busybody being somebody who's moving in kind of a one dimensional space. They're stepping from one part of knowledge space to another part and then there's no dependence of their previous step on the next step -- there's no long history or long memory in the time series of their walk. Whereas the hunter has decided there's a direction in some perhaps two-dimensional space that they're going to walk along. I think of someone sort of going across the diagonal through the origin of a two-dimensional graph. The dancer is more like a three-dimensional character. So it's somebody who is working in one space for a while and then leaping physically off the page into another space. We think about that person more as making three dimensional moves.
Once you map on the three styles to dimensions of the space that people are walking, then you can ask about, well who does something in four dimensions and what's the fifth-dimensional character and what's the sixth-dimensional character? We don't have precise answers to those questions yet, but if you go to the fourth dimension, I think a really natural way of thinking about that is that we may move between these different styles at different times of the day or in different contexts. As we move from one kind of activity to another kind of activity on Wikipedia, perhaps we have one particular tendency. But then when we go and speak to a friend and are engaging in social curiosity, we may have a completely different style. Mapping out what those styles as we move throughout the day with this fourth dimension of time I think is a really exciting direction.
It occurs to me that you might have had an easier time finding dancer behavior had you also been looking at people's editing of Wikipedia pages because of the dancer being someone described as thriving on ruptures and liminality and interrogating the network as it presented to them and proposing new connections. I'm curious to know if any follow-up research has been done on that.
I really like this idea of looking at the edits of Wikipedia to search for dancers. I think that's a brilliant idea and something that we should definitely discuss with the team. I think that what we have been doing recently to try to understand where and how a dancer might exist is to determine whether people are moving through knowledge space in a way that suggests a generative low of ideas. So it's not just tracking down a specific idea, but the manner in which they're moving that suggests that they're generating new connections or expanding a space. That's work in progress that is in collaboration with the Wikimedia Foundation actually, which allows us to study much larger groups of people and their browsing patterns over months instead of over weeks.
Fabulous. One aspect this makes me think of is from episode 29 of this show, where I was talking with David Krakauer about mass extinctions and market crashes and how there are these punctuations in history wherein generalists thrive. We learn that the generalist is a creature that is much like a playful child, kind of inefficient and messy within a mature ecosystem of highly specialized relationships. But when the networks fall apart, then you have the raccoons these other creatures that come up.
Another aspect is how you brought the dimension of time into this. Our own understanding as a species of dimensionality continues to evolve and you can trace time as a space-like dimension back to H.G. Wells and The Time Machine -- it's not that old. There's a book by evolutionary biologist Andrew P. Smith called The Dimensions of Experience that argues that one of the characteristics of evolution, if we want to give it a sort of endogenous telos, is that it is creating new cognitive faculties to perceive new dimensions.
One the things that excited me about your book, and I would love to hear both of you speak to this, is the way that it does actually hint forward into new human capacities to understand ourselves as four-dimensional object processes in a kind of multi-methodological way. We talked about this with Brian Arthur discussing his piece on economics and nouns and verbs.
I think that one of the things that we're so excited about in this book is the suggestion to really move away from this preconception that people are simply curious or not curious or naturally more or less curious, and the curiosity looks in one particular way or as one per one set of behaviors. I think this marks over and over again this sorts of classrooms we enter, but also the professional academic circles that we're in or other employment kind of settings, even family relations. But we miss, then, this hyper-dimensionality of curiosity itself and the many ways in which it not only expresses itself in behavior but becomes saturated in the material kind of structures and infrastructures through which we move on an everyday basis.
It's really that shifting away from curiosity as a simple sort of one-dimensional thing to its multiple ways of appearing that drives much of this book. And we do finish -- I assume that we'll get there -- with a bestiary in which we propose another 18 different creatures, not styles or characters really, but creatures who are curious in at least another 18 different ways. And to us that's a leveling up of this expansive approach to trying to think about curiosity in the complexity of its everyday existence.
And maybe to put an image to that -- Perry, I like the way that you just said it -- the curiosity becomes embedded in the materiality and in structures of society. I'm also thinking about the earlier bit of our conversation where we may have multiple styles at once. These two ideas together remind me of the passage from Cesare Ripa of the a particular material that has multiple kinds of curiosity on it. Can you share that story because it's one of my favorites.
Sure. One of the creatures we discussed is the frog, and I'm drawing this from Cesare Ripa, who was an iconographer [from the 1500-1600s]. An iconographer means someone who depicts images of things [virtues and vices]. And in this case, an image of curiosity is one of them -- curiosity as this woman with hair just standing absolutely straight on end and she has huge wings. She's some kind of woman-angel person, and she's wearing this very large flowing robe. On the robe are literally ears – human-sized ears attached to her robe somehow -- and frogs also. Real frogs on her robe. And this strange image is supposed to capture curiosity's eccentricity, its capacity to embrace all of the spirit of the sky, but also its capacity to listen and listen carefully and listen widely. And then the frogs are to meant to capture apparently that frogs can see well past the periphery that humans can. Our eyes are too inset and too close together for us to see as far around us as a frog can. And he says, but curiosity lets us see further around and further contextually than any human capacities typically can. So that's just one kind of explosion of a moment in curiosity's history.
It's funny that you focus on the frog specifically because for anyone who has watched Jurassic Park, frogs have this visual processing that focuses on the edge detection and movement in motion. They're attuned to observing things that are moving. So you can actually sneak up on a frog relatively easily if you're slow enough because in spite of the fact that they have this sort of 360 kind of panoptic view, they're focused in a way on the verbing of the world.
I want link that to something in this book that you've written on Michel Foucault, because you talk about how Foucault preferred “never to speak of power or knowledge in isolation, but instead always of power-knowledge, the hyphen signifying that information is always material and the embodied is always theoretical.” In talking about these different styles of curiosity through the bodies of different animals, we are again talking about the phenotype as a model of the world, as a hypothesis, as an enacted inference about the nature of its environment. And I think that this is something that is lost on so many people. This is something that the conversations about the endless growth of the economy seem to neglect -- the fact that, as we've discussed with Caleb Scharf and others on the show, information processing always and forever has a thermodynamic component. David Wolpert talks about the thermodynamics of computation and about how there are costs involved in thought, there are costs involved in curiosity, and these express themselves in power relations in society. And I really appreciated how you make this point in the book that to be curious is a privilege and not everyone gets that privilege. I'd love to hear you just play around with that ball of yarn that I'm throwing at you now.
Michel Foucault is more on your side, Perry, right?
That's true. Squarely
Yes -- the costs of particular forms of cognition and this question of privilege and power. I do think it's really important for both of us to emphasize that landscapes and mindscapes of inquiry are unequally drawn and have been for as long as we have human record. So that needs to consistently be addressed. And there are whole realms of history and story and practice and feeling that have been, in fact, lost to us or at the very least buried because of those unequal structures of knowledge production, knowledge acquisition, and knowledge circulation.
But that doesn't mean for us that marginalized peoples and oppressed peoples haven't been able to be curious. We're really committed to trying to think what does curiosity also look like kind of underfoot, as much as it does overhead, perhaps. So from the folks who get to tell history in particular ways, what does curiosity look like there, but also what does it look like in small enclaves of resistant life? And so we talk, for example, in our chapter on education about the freedom schools, which were an endeavor during the civil rights movement to rethink what it means to learn and to learn in a way that is incredibly contextualized and relevant to addressing racial segregation of the time. And that is a practice of curiosity and a pedagogy of curiosity that I take to be absolutely unique in the history of education. So I like to think about it from both angles -- where the curiosity works and what it looks like.
And maybe to focus this a little bit more in your direction, Dani, I'd love to hear your thoughts on curiosity as a metabolic process and the way that that metabolism expresses itself distinctly in these different modes of curiosity. The busybody, the hunter, the dancer.
Yeah, that's a really interesting question. In the book, we do talk about engaging with the world around us to build a network model of the world and that's what curiosity is allowing us to do, is to build these knowledge networks. When we do that, the mind sort of has this interesting trade-off that it has to consistently arbitrate and that is between building an accurate model of the world and minimizing the use of mental resources. So if you completely minimize the use of mental resources, then you build a completely inaccurate model of the world. Whereas if you build a perfectly accurate model of the world, you have to use a large number of mental resources.
What most people do in our studies is sit kind of in between those two end points such that we get as accurate as possible a model of the world while minimizing our mental resources. When you think about that in the context of curiosity, it just suggests that we may engage with different styles of curiosity that are foregrounding or backgrounding the accuracy of models or the mental resources used to build the models and that that can vary among us and it can also vary within us according to the time of day or other contextual factors that are going on in our lives.
To get kind of meta about this, the fact that your own differentiation as human individuals, as twins, is a kind of microcosm of the way that we speciate in different cognitive modes as people in society living together -- owls and larks, right? -- people with different circadian rhythms, people with different approaches of all different kinds and that we're kind of performing wittingly or unwittingly a broader collective curiosity that is doing something like what Geoffrey West talks about. Circulatory systems as space-filling networks, so we're scattering into a higher dimensional space ways of exploring higher dimensional space.
What that point makes me think of is that we need structures in society that value that scattering that value the spreading out of individuals into different ways of engaging in the knowledge space around them. And that really only in engaging all of that potential for speciation will we be able to build something collectively that we couldn't as individuals.
You talk about semantic networks and this is where it went completely vertical for me. Like taking a leisurely walk and suddenly you're like climbing with your hands up a steep slope. But I would love to hear you talk a little bit about this research into using network science to understand the relationships between concepts through the quantitative analysis of words and their relations in explicit linkage to Richard Dawkins and the book Climbing Mount Improbable, where he talks about the hall of all possible shells, this is what a shell is, these are the three dimensions in which a shell can grow.
We have like an imaginary bestiary of all of the shells that could be. But one of the big things about SFI is understanding developmental bias and its role in evolution and the constraints placed on evolution -- biophysical scaling and other properties -- such that we don't have all of the possible shells and we never will. That's a characteristic of Sara Walker's work on assembly theory -- that one of the things that that makes life is that it generates more possibility than it can ever actually embody. I’m curious about this work on words and what it suggests to us not only about the Stuart Kauffman “adjacent possible,” but also the inaccessible possible concepts that we can sort of intuit, but for which there may never be an affordance, there may never be utility.
I love to think about semantic networks in connection to speciation in a sense. And I think about them through the work of Ernst Haeckel and these beautiful images that he constructed of radiolaria. If you look back at some of those images, you can see that many of them are highly structured in the sense that there is a piece that's connected to another that's connected to another in sort of a triangular grid. They're beautiful, they're ordered, they look perfect. Then there are also species that have much more loop-like structures with huge gaps in them. I don't even know what the gaps are for, for that particular animal. Then there's sort of everything in between.
What I like about those images is that they strike me as very relevant to the structure of knowledge in different areas. For instance, as we grow mathematics based on proof structures, we may have a much more triangular grid to our understanding of the sub-pieces of mathematics. Whereas in contrast, if we move to another area of inquiry, we may have more loopy structures because there is so much history dependence -- going back to your point about development -- that would lead us in one particular direction and leave a whole space in the middle completely empty. We do think deeply and in fact have done some research in this space of how knowledge is built upon prior knowledge and what that means for the empty spaces.
Perry and I particularly have been working in understanding citation networks. So this is where a scientific paper or a humanities paper, any scholarly paper will cite prior work to justify or support or contextualize the comments that are made in the current paper. What we find is that by studying these citation patterns in many different fields now, that there's a large bias against women and scholars of color and marginalized groups. What that suggests to us is that these knowledge spaces are growing with gaps in them, gaps in them of the ideas of marginalized individuals.
That suggests that we are constructing patterns of knowledge that are not filling out the whole space that we could and that the sort of species of knowledge, if the species are mathematics and sociology and whatever disciplinary structures we want to buy into or not buy into, there are large gaps in them that are explained not only by history, not only by the motivation of certain funding sources or the values of society, but also on the identities of the scholars involved. So that suggests to me that there's a lot more work to do to consider how to fill in those spaces that may actually contain wonderful information we could use or not use since utility is not everything.
Just to blow that open a little bit more, I would also say if you think of Braiding Sweetgrass, which is a well-known book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who's an indigenous botanist. One of the things that she does in her references is not only to credit indigenous storytellers. Because it's not as if there's one person who came up with a story, but rather this is an oral tradition and there's a whole community of people who care for this story. So how do you cite that? But she does it in a way, to reference this, that gives credit to a community of folks who have shared and kept alive these stories. She credits sweetgrass, for example, or other plants that she's studying.
In the same way, I was just reading the other day a new book out called Under Flows, which is about river justice, but in it, the author Cleo Wölfle Hazard says “as water and I will show in the following pages,” blah, blah, blah. So he sets himself up as he and water are collaborating together to show us something about the truth of river justice and their particular underflows and their effects on where wherever it goes and comes from. So just to expand way beyond who we're crediting as people and what sort of people groups we're talking about, can we think about knowledge production and its incredible intimacies with non-human life and even non-life. I don't think we would consider water living necessarily, but what is that kind of complexity and what does it mean that knowledge is built there, too, and there with.
Indeed. I'm about to dive into Karen Bakker's The Sounds of Life about bioacoustics and all of these relationships between organisms that we were unaware of simply because at this moment, the dominant sensory modality being expressed through civilization is a visual modality. [...] Looking back to Marshall McLuhan, talking about the way that different media shape this and the fact that the modern world is largely the product of a print-based medium.
This was brought into glaring focus for me in reading the section of your book where you talk about the book itself as a linear sequence of words and the question of narrative compression. You say, “how should I create this information sequence -- a set of beads on a string of thought -- in a way that maximizes learning?”, which is such a valuable question. And yet it's operating within a paradigm where, as you say, a person cannot speak a hundred words in the same moment, but as the cliché goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
This question opens the gates to thinking about work from Dirk Brockmann and Nicky Case and their “complexity explorable” interactive games, or you look at Stuart Candy’s work with card games as a way of inviting people into developing their skills as speculative futurists. You do spend a good chunk of this book, as you mentioned, talking about pedagogy -- the ways that you see other sensory modes as contributing to the process of curiosity and the process of communication. One of the things that struck me when you're talking about curiosity, even in 3D as ruptures, leaving a plane is the way that myriad scholars have talked about the internet itself as being a place where sitting at your desk, you're moving from one website to another website, you're jumping along this network. So there's a sense in which I think conversations like this one were not even really possible in the same way until a kind of network epistemology was impressed on us through the digital medium.
Your point that we learn not just from words, so the structure of words and sort of the maximization of a narrative or the optimization of a narrative, making it efficient in communication is only a sub-goal of what communication is more generally. Maybe going back to what Perry was saying earlier, the way that water looks and the way it moves are kinds of knowledge and knowledge-producing agents that need to be taken into account in any understanding of knowledge-building and of our curiosity about knowledge and how we grow it. I think that expanding a lot of the ideas present in the study of semantic networks, but more broadly to incorporate other modalities of information, along with other ways of knowing, is extremely important.
That actually makes me think a little bit about some of the stories in the chapter on pedagogy, which focus on how humans, particularly with neurodiversity, can see knowledge in a different way. For example, seeing knowledge as stars or seeing knowledge as sort of dolphins, there may be really important expansions of not just modality and ways of knowing, but also characteristics of knowledge-makers in one's mind that become important once we begin to understand that diversity further.
I think that's where I was also going to go to think about that section on neurodiversity and the ways in which people put two and two together in really different ways by really different logics and methods. Dani talks about this: We do, obviously, string one word after the other -- our editors would not let us put two words on top of each other, unfortunately, in the book.
We probably tried.
But there's something so powerful about the written word in that it is a system of resonances. I think this is especially true of our book, but I think it's true of many, many, many books that in the moment that you hear or read one word, you're also hearing and reading other sections of the book that you've already been through or anticipate and that that sometimes harmony, sometimes cacophony is part of what it means to be building a knowledge network with authors like us.
Yes, and maybe just to riff on that a little bit: Denise Riley is a philosopher and poet at Stanford and she writes about this notion that those resonances that you hear when you are reading or even when you're writing can hark not just to other spots in that narrative that you're reading, but also to work from other authors or from other time periods or even to people you don't even know. You don't know where you've heard that before or something similar, but it's somewhere deep inside of your mind. And she calls on this notion to argue two things. One, that language is affect, it's not just information and it's partly because of the affect that is constructed by these resonances. But then also anything that we write or anything that we try to communicate, perhaps anything that we speak, has the sounds of other people before us. Therefore, are we really ever the authors, are we really ever the speakers or are we always and ever using the words of others and communicating in a way that sort of happens above any of us and not something that can be solidified into a single human.
Absolutely. I mean, that just draws my mind to comments I've heard made by XX WHO?? about the non-human turn and the critique of design thinking, and the author. This is actually really important right now because we're watching the contemporary status quo of intellectual property getting completely raked over. And it's going through a kind of a kneeling process right now due to the large learning models in AI. For instance, Stability AI and the various products that depend on it scraped the LAION-5B database, which was billions and billions of websites that were supposedly open for a common crawl, but people were not necessarily aware that their copyrighted artwork had been uploaded to Pinterest.
We're in this precarious position now where precisely the concerns that you're expressing here about who is doing the speaking have come into focus in a way that really challenges the assumptions that so many people have inherited about what is and is not part of an a creative and intellectual commons. We’ve strayed off the path of neuroscience here, yet I don't think we would be in this place socially were it not for the ways that neuroscience has revealed to us the modularity of the self and the way that it is enacted through relationships. We've already talked about indigenous kinship relationships here a little bit. So yeah, I'm, I'm curious how you see the science informing rigorous ways of handling these immensely delicate social issues, if at all.
I do think a little bit about how the science of curiosity can impact the way that artificial intelligences work. In particular, maybe just going back to the very simple idea at the beginning, which is where you may have an artificial system that has been programmed to search for particular kinds of information or to forage effectively -- to know that there's a particular space, to map out the space and then to forage in that space. I think all of that is still very much focused on the content that is present and finding content, which we've already discussed and how the placement of content has biases in it already. Instead, focusing on if there is an artificial system that can be constructed that foregrounds making new shapes of connection between ideas, then I think we have the capacity to fill in empty spots of knowledge and also move beyond a focus on the content which we may or may not understand, which may or may not have utility, which may or may not be accessible or known to us yet. To focus instead on committing to a diversity of connective styles in the artificial systems. I think that that has potential to really reshape what these systems can do. How that can affect societal injustice -- I don’t know. That's a separate question.
This brings me back to sort of the core of the book, which is that curiosity if it is redefined as this capacity for connection, one of the things it does is that it expands curiosity well beyond the human. And it allows us to start talking much more coherently actually about what curiosity looks like in AI systems, but also what curiosity looks like in animals, and what curiosity looks like in insects, what curiosity might look like on a planet level or on a solar system level. I don't want it to become then nothing, but I do think that it opens up a capacity to think curiosity as a way of moving and building that is more than and less than human.
And that is a crucial a moment where our own presumed superiority as human beings is in real question. I think Thomas Hobbes is one of these early modern philosophers who says humans are distinguished by at least three things: One, we have curiosity and animals don't; two, we have language, and animals don't; three, we have hope and animals don't. I find that one particularly ironic. But there's a lot of breakdown now in this perception that animals don't have any language or don't have any ways of communicating, for example. But I think there's also a growing breakdown in this presumption that animals don't have curiosity. I think we can be truer to curiosity if we do break its implicit connection to the human mind.
I want to double back to work on studying networks in media. Christopher Lynn reenters the picture here talking about studying families of language networks, noun transitions in classic works of literature, but also in musical networks and note transitions. Just to double down on this question about how we see networks forming across media of all different kinds and the associated approaches that we take to these different media, I'd like to hear you talk a little bit about the differences that you observed between what you saw in the networks formed by texts and the networks formed by music and how you understand those as potentially serving different functions in human thought. And with the disclosure that, I'm thinking about how the New Yorker just wrote a piece on Cormac McCarthy's latest works, which are deeply informed by his time at SFI and portray mathematicians and scientists. He himself is not one. And this review asked this question about how, as a non-scientist, can you write convincingly about scientists as characters and got into this question about the difference between the word and the number and the way that numbers and words are regarded, as there's a sort of a mathematical platonism that is pervasive in the sciences, that numbers are true in a way that words are not. And that seems to be somehow reflected in the work that you've done on language and music networks. I'm curious about all that.
To go back maybe to an earlier part of our conversation, where we were discussing how humans build models of the world and that we use this sort of free energy principle where we are attempting to maximize the accuracy of our model, but also minimize its computational complexity, most humans will choose an arbitration point. Some spot in the middle where we don't do either perfectly, so we don't completely minimize our mental resources, but we also don't build a perfectly accurate model of the world. What that means, by the fact that we choose a middle point, is that our human perceptions are always inaccurate to some degree. They're always imperfect, and they're imperfect in really interesting ways, which we probably don't have time to get into in this podcast, but we do talk about in the book. But because they're imperfect in these particular ways, we can then ask, how complex is the world around us? How complex is the work of William Blake, for example, or Jane Austen, or how complex is music from Brahms or from Queen, for example? And if you ask that question, the way that you have to answer it when you realize that you have an imperfect human perception is that those things outside of us have an internal entropy, an internal complexity.
But then there's an additional kind part of information, which is how distinct is the structure in the world to what we would imagine it to be through this imperfect lens that we have. And the more distinct the world is from what we would predict it to be with our imperfect instrument, that means that we have to expend more energy or effort in trying to understand the complexity, so it looks more complex to us if it is diverging from our expectations. So you can think about the complexity in the world around you as being composed of both its own internal entropy and the divergence from our expectations, given our imperfect instrument, which is our brain.
Then if we take that distinction to language and music, we see really interesting differences. In language, large written works tend to have a high degree of entropy, but align with our expectations. So the transitions between nouns have a structure that align with our expectations on average. In contrast, if you look at both classical music and more contemporary music, we find that they have less intrinsic entropy. They're kind of less complex intrinsically, but they diverge from our expectations markedly. We think that that's really interesting because the goal or function of music versus language can be distinct in the sense that language is often used to communicate and to communicate effectively, particularly in some of the pieces that we studied in this work. Whereas music is used to connect interpersonally, it's used for entertainment, it's often used purposefully to surprise. And so in that sense, having this divergence from our expectations is really important and interesting.
Now I do want to acknowledge that I've made some sweeping generalizations just now and that you could certainly, we think, find written work that is very surprising and has low entropy, so low entropy, high divergence from our expectations. You can also find certain styles of music that have very high entropy and low divergence from our expectations. You could find instances of these. But what we found was interesting is that if you take kind of a large random sample from those two very big bins, you end up finding that there's more complexity in language, less complexity in music, and more surprise, more divergence from our expectations in music than in language.
I wonder if they're kind of anti-correlated with commercial success. We had Dmitri Tymoczko on the show, who writes this wonderful, extraordinary, bizarre music. But I've heard people talk about there are these acquired tastes -- that it takes time to develop the inference -- like what you are supposed to expect from a Thelonious Monk. So there's an inferential gap, there's a learning curve, and big data analysis of music through like Spotify and Echo Nest shows that pop music has becoming precipitously simpler over the last several decades -- that it's doing something like what we see evolution doing in biological organisms, where a new thing emerges and it starts out kind of messy and complicated and then it winnows itself down over time.
Let's make sure that we get to at least this question about embodiment, because there's this a beautiful chapter, “Curiosity Takes a Walk,” on the way that thinking is movement. It's not just movement through conceptual space -- it's movement through physical space. You expound on four different kinds of walks and the way that they are correlated with different kinds of thinking and of being in the world. I'd love to hear you talk about that.
This is really one of the gems of the book in our experience of writing it. We knew that literatures on curiosity in our various fields had resonances with one another. We knew we would dive into that and do some play. But really stumbling on the resonances in our fields around walking and walking as a form of thinking was one of the real, hidden delights of writing this book together. The chapter does map out four different styles of, I guess, styles of walking really to show that there are different ways of negotiating terrains, actual physical terrains, that also typically follow or encourage a resonant pattern of thinking in our minds.
For example, Socrates is one of these people who we know is someone who's super curious and thinks a lot and asks lots of questions. He wanders all the time. He's remembered as being an incredible wanderer. And he does the same thing in his thoughts and in his words. He's constantly asking us, essentially, to get lost. He's remembered for bringing his interlocutors to the state of aporia, which simply means there's no way out, there's no porous moment left, I'm stuck. That's his goal. Then the same way he wanders again as if to lose his sense of where he is in physical space, too. And that's the kind of curiosity that he wants us to re-invite because he thinks that there's a way in which Athens at the time has gotten just stuck in believing it knows what it's talking about, what it's doing, and where it's going. He says that's all hot air and we need to slow everybody down and get people to start thinking more critically.
It's not a hard thing to imagine for us today, that kind of social critique as well. But the resonance of course is that walking on a network of ideas is very well establishable as well in Dani's field.
Just that there are walks on networks are studied from the mathematical point of view and have been for a very long time. And in fact there's a very early connection with the development of graph theory in can someone walk through Königsberg and cross each of the seven bridges once. So there is an interesting physical conceptual analog of walking that allows us to think differently about curiosity in this multiple-relations setting.
Also you make a distinction in this, in this piece between, and I found this just immensely useful anthropologist Tim in gold's distinction between occupant knowledge and habitant knowledge because as you say, somewhere in here, oh, I love this, this, I want to tattoo this on my arm. You say scurrying about and engaging in random skirmishes is the best way to cohesively disrupt ill-justified epistemic repose. And I was like, oh, this is why I'm such a problem wherever I work, I'm constantly asking what, you know, what, what is we don't see? And so I have to ask this question about, not to put too fine a point on it, but the admittedly noble and inspiring effort to render the mystery of our world in the form of quantitative models is also in its own way a kind of occupation of mystery. And it misses something. And this is something that I hear people constantly critiquing science itself for is like not understanding the value of the humanities, right? Like not understanding the value of the qualitative. And so at any rate, that's where I would love to land this conversation.
Well, I think it'd be great to talk about just how we came to speak together between and across our fields and the what we like to think of as the overly simplistic ways in which our fields think about what we're each doing -- what science actually does and what philosophy actually does. Then you can talk about scientists, but philosophers, we're supposed to be really carefully pulling things apart and figuring out what are the components of an argument and how can we rearrange it such that we illuminate something like truth or knowledge or insight or wisdom. And we do this as objectively and as carefully as we can. That's the image of what a philosopher is doing. But really it's way messier than that, and much of what we're doing is wilder than that. I think the same might be true of science, and what allowed us to talk to each other across these kind of preconceptions of what it is that we do is really literature. Literature was the crux or the bridge that allowed us to do that work.
I completely agree that literature was a way for us to communicate to one another about ideas without depending upon the jargons of our fields that the other person wouldn't yet understand. That's not to say that we didn't commit ourselves to learning more about the jargon of our respective fields so that we could understand in different languages as well. But literature was definitely a touchpoint. And we're hoping that it's a touchpoint for readers of the book as well, that this is a way into these ideas that is more broadly accessible. The fact that that you can find many of these ideas in literature underscores the fact that many of the ways that we think in disciplines aren't actually maybe as different as we think that they are. And that yes, scientists like me love simple mathematical models. I love math. That's why I'm doing what I'm doing. But I also think that the more I read in humanities, the more literature I read, the more I can see that people are using the same mental little computations without math, but they're moving their minds in the same ways. I actually think that's something I would like to understand more. All the scurrying of the squirrels, the frog with its huge googly eyes. There are ways that the body is moving through these four different walks that the mind is moving that is really consistent across fields. And we don't give enough credit to those similarities, I think. But if we did, we would not only break down the barriers between fields more, but we would also be able to gather better integrative insights that are currently sort of siloed away in our own little spots.
Wonderful. Dani, I know you have to scoot, so I would love to thank you both for the time that it took to write this delicious book and the time that you took to talk to me. Perry, if you're willing to stick around for a bonus question, I do have one more thing I'd love to ask.
My last question is, in your conversation with Sean Carroll, is there anything that didn't come up in your conversation with him or in this conversation that you find especially juicy and interesting and worth asking?
You know, I've become obsessed with punctuation marks. I read books about them. I read grammar books about them over a variety of decades to compare how it is that people have understood and used punctuation marks. Which sounds entirely not relevant here, but I think it is because I think punctuation marks allow us to mark the turns of a mind, of a curious mind. And if we could think about what it means for a curious mind to pause in the sense of a period, or to use that hyphen in a way that not just bridges to the next idea or pulls things together, but also holds them slightly apart, I think there's all kinds of ways in which a variety of punctuation marks invite us to think. Not just styles of curiosity, but also ways of building thought that are, again, far more interesting than the conceits of respective disciplines or fields. So that's my juicy moment that I've sort of been stuck in lately.
So we can end with an interrobang.
Yes, I would love that.
This has been so wonderful. Thank you so much.
Thank you. It's been absolutely amazing. I love that we've gone in places where we don't usually go.
Thank you for listening. Complexity is produced by the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit hub for complex system science, located in the high desert of New Mexico. For more information, including transcripts, research links, and educational resources, or to support our science and communication efforts, visit santafe.edu/podcast.