October 13, 2014, by bramh2
By Professor Stephen Mumford, School of Arts
To be human is to be curious. We naturally want to know. And we want to know not just that which we can put to some use, or that which can be known with scientific demonstrability. We are inquisitive also about the mysteries of existence. We still want to know even those things that we know we cannot know for sure. Is there life after death? Do we have free will? What is wrong and what is right? None of these questions are likely to be settled to the satisfaction of everyone. Yet this uncertainty does not dissuade us from the pursuit of their truth at all. Instead, it draws us in to ever greater reflection and debate, always looking for new insights, undiscouraged by the vain strivings of our forebears.
Whether there is free will or our actions are all determined by the prior states of the world is a matter philosophers have debated for thousands of years. We might be mere slaves to physical necessity, lacking freedom. Or, in an indeterministic world, we might be slaves to chance. This seems a very deep and meaningful question. Were you really free to make the choices you made? Yet the world will look the same whether your behaviour was predetermined or not. In that respect, nothing practical could hang on the answer. But without the desire to understand exactly what is going on, and how there could be room for free will in the world, it seems that we are somewhat wasting our capacities as thinking human beings.
Our natural curiosity is distinctly human, springing from our reason and a sense of wonder. To know for its own sake, to understand ourselves and our world, to share our knowledge with others: these are marks of being human and human being. And it is not simply a matter of knowing for commercial exploitation. The existence of a God is a matter every person has considered; either accepting, rejecting, or remaining agnostic about the matter. None of the time spent in the activity brings a practical pay-off but it is important nevertheless. And anyone who denies knowledge to another thereby dehumanises them.
Stephen can be heard in conversation with artist Dawn Wooley at the Being Human Festival event “Curb Your Enthusiasm: Sex, Censorship and Art“. It takes place on the 18th November at 6.30-8.30pm at the Nottingham Contemporary.