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Epistemic Value$

Adrian Haddock, Alan Millar, and Duncan Pritchard

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780199231188

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199231188.001.0001

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Curiosity and the Value of Truth

Curiosity and the Value of Truth

(p.265) 12 Curiosity and the Value of Truth
Epistemic Value

Michael S. Brady

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the question of whether true belief can have final value because it answers our ‘intellectual interest’ or ‘natural curiosity’. The idea is that sometimes we are interested in the truth on some issue not for any ulterior purpose, but simply because we are curious about that issue. It is argued that this approach fails to provide an adequate explanation of the final value of true belief, since there is an unbridgeable gap between our valuing the truth on some issue for its own sake, and that truth's being valuable for its own sake.

Keywords:   curiosity, inquiry, interest, value, truth, belief

It is uncontroversial to suppose that the truth—or more correctly, true belief—is often instrumentally valuable. But many philosophers also want to maintain that true belief can be intrinsically valuable, or valuable for its own sake.1 This raises the question of whether we can show that truth has this kind of value.2 In a number of recent papers, an interesting approach to this question has emerged. This approach posits a link between the value of truth and the answering of our inquiries. On this line, the value of truth is conditional upon our inquiries: that is, truth is valuable because (and only because) it answers our questions.3 This does not imply that the value of truth is always instrumental, however. For we sometimes want to know an answer simply for the sake of knowing that answer—in these cases we have an ‘intellectual’ interest in the truth, which is grounded in our natural curiosity—and this suggests that the truth is valuable for its own sake when it answers such an interest. The idea is, therefore, that truth is valuable for its own sake because it answers intellectual inquiries grounded in our natural curiosity.

In this paper, I'll argue that this approach fails to provide an adequate explanation of the intrinsic or final value of truth. After seeing how the (p.266) explanation is supposed to work, I argue that proponents of this view face the difficulty of closing a gap between our valuing the truth on some issue, and the truth on that issue being valuable. I then consider a number of ways in which this gap might be closed, and show why none of them is ultimately plausible. This indicates, moreover, that the approach gets things the wrong way around: it's not that truth is valuable because it satisfies our curiosity; rather, satisfying our curiosity is valuable because it promises to bring about the truth. The fact that we are naturally curious about some subject or question can be a reliable indicator that the truth on that subject is valuable; but it is not a condition of that value.


The idea that truth is valuable because it answers our questions is implicit in the work of a number of philosophers. For instance, William Alston, Marian David, Richard Foley, Alvin Goldman, Carl Hempel, Jonathan Kvanvig, Michael Lynch and Ernest Sosa all suggest this approach to epistemic value,4 insofar as they maintain that there is a connection between our inquiries or questions and our regarding the truth as intrinsically valuable.5 The idea that truth is intrinsically valuable, or that it is a proper end of our inquiries, seems to follow naturally from this connection.6 In this section I want to consider how this explanation of the value of truth is supposed to work.

The first stage of the explanation is to note the connections between inquiry and the value of truth. When we inquire about something, we ask and attempt to answer questions about that thing: in doing so we attempt to find something out about the object of our inquiry.7 This indicates a clear connection between inquiry and truth, assuming that a successful answer to our questions constitutes the truth on some issue. This notion of successful inquiry is typically expressed (p.267) by saying that truth is the goal or aim of inquiry. A second connection here is between inquiry and a desire for or an interest in the truth: to inquire about x is to want the truth about x, or to be interested in the truth about x.8 So an interest in truth in these cases is an interest in arriving at correct answers to our questions. A third connection is between inquiry and the value of truth—or at least between inquiry and our valuing the truth. For the idea that truth is the aim of inquiry suggests that truth has a certain status: the notion of a goal or aim is the notion of something valuable or desirable, something that a person has reason to pursue. It is not surprising, then, that an inquirer will regard success in her inquiry—and hence truth—as something that is valuable. So if I inquire about x, this implies that I value the truth about x. We might, however, go further than this and suppose that our interest in truth is exhausted by our interest in answering our questions. We might suppose, that is, that it is only because we care about answering our questions that we care about the truth. This, at least, is suggested by Ernest Sosa, who writes that ‘our interest in the truth is an interest in certain questions or in certain sorts of questions’, and who claims that, in the absence of antecedent interests, one's attaining the truth on some subject would lack value.9 If so, we have an interest in and value the truth because—and only because—we have an interest in and value answering our questions.

The second stage in the explanation is to distinguish different motivations that lie behind our interest in the truth. To do this, we might ask what generates an interest in answering our questions.10 Clearly, many of our inquiries are responses to our practical interests and concerns. When we inquire about something, most of the time we are interested in how it has a bearing on other things that we want or need. For instance, we inquire about cinema times because we have an interest in seeing a particular film; or we want the truth about what happened in the conservatory because we want to solve the murder. We are therefore interested in getting answers to our questions because answering our questions promises to contribute to these other goals. As a result, the truth is often regarded as instrumentally valuable, or valuable as a means to something else.

However, it is also clear that we are sometimes interested in certain questions or motivated to inquire about certain issues, but not because the truth about such things is a means to some further end that we have. Instead, we sometimes engage in what Jonathan Kvanvig calls ‘inquiry for its own sake’, or pursue what Stephen Grimm terms ‘a purely epistemic or intellectual interest in finding the (p.268) truth’.11 Inquiry for its own sake aims at the truth, but not for any ulterior purpose or concern; we simply want to know the answer to a question for the sake of knowing that answer.12 Now whereas the first kind of interest is generated by our practical concerns, an interest in truth for its own sake seems to result from or reflect our natural curiosity. Thus, Carl Hempel maintains that inquiry follows on from ‘sheer intellectual curiosity, [from our] deep and persistent desire to know and to understand [ourselves] and [our] world’ (1965: 333). And Alvin Goldman writes that ‘Our interest in information has two sources: curiosity and practical concerns. The dinosaur extinction fascinates us, although knowing its cause would have no material impact on our lives’ (1999: 3). Grimm comments:

According to both Hempel and Goldman . . . it seems that the reason why we desire truth for its own sake, and quite apart from our practical goals, can be traced to the fact that we are naturally curious beings. Even when nothing of practical importance seems to ride on finding out how things stand with respect to a certain subject, given our natural curiosity we simply have a natural interest in finding out how they do stand. (Grimm 2008: 727).

It is our natural curiosity which sparks an interest in finding out the truth on certain issues for the sake of finding out. This suggests that truths which answer our natural curiosity are regarded by the subject as good in themselves, or valuable as ends. If this is correct, then sometimes we value getting the right answers to our inquiries because we value satisfying our practical interests, whilst at other times we value getting the right answers simply because we are naturally curious. Getting the truth in the former case is seen as instrumentally valuable, whilst we regard the truth in the latter cases as valuable for its own sake.

The third and final stage of this explanation is to connect these claims about valuing the truth with claims about the value of truth. That is, the third stage will be to show the bearing of our valuing the truth because we value answering our questions on the issue of whether the truth is valuable. It seems plausible to hold that truth is instrumentally valuable insofar as it contributes to bringing about a valuable practical end. So if we are right in thinking that some truth will contribute to our practical goals and concerns, then this truth is instrumentally valuable. The link between valuing some answer instrumentally and the instrumental value of this answer is relatively straightforward, therefore. But what of the value of truth where there is no practical end at stake, and so where there is nothing for the truth to contribute to? How might we connect an interest in the truth for its own sake and that truth's being valuable for its own sake, or with it's being a proper end to our intellectual inquiries? The idea here seems to be that truths are valuable for their own sakes simply insofar as they answer our intellectual inquiries and thereby satisfy our natural (p.269) curiosity. As Grimm notes, in explaining the line taken by Goldman and Hempel:

according to this way of thinking, our curiosity about how things stand in the world is . . . importantly like the thirst we (characteristically, at least) feel when our body is dehydrated. When our body is dehydrated—when we experience thirst—satisfying our thirst is naturally thought to possess a kind of intrinsic value: it seems to be a good in its own right, quite apart from whatever further contributions it might make to our well‐being. (Grimm 2008: 727).

On this view, then, there seems to be something good about satisfying our natural curiosity which is independent of any contribution that the truth makes to our practical goals or concerns. If we identify this independent value with the value that truth has for its own sake, then true beliefs are valuable for their own sakes when and because they satisfy our natural curiosity.

I think that this approach to the value of truth, although intriguing and deserving of attention, faces serious difficulties. Or so, at least, I'll argue in the following sections.


The proposal to be considered is that true beliefs are valuable for their own sakes because (and only because) they answer questions generated by our natural curiosity. Insofar as truths satisfy our curiosity, they have value as ends. But there seems to be a strong reason to be sceptical about this line on epistemic value. For it is a general truth in value theory that, although the fact that I do desire or care about something might incline us to think that that thing is worth desiring or caring about, it does not guarantee that it is.13 There is always the possibility that I desire or care about something that I ought not to desire or care about, that is, something that is not worthy of my concern. In other words, there is always the possibility that one of my ends or goals is not a proper end or goal. If so, we might think that the fact that I desire the truth on a particular subject for its own sake does not guarantee that the truth on that subject is worth desiring, or is valuable as an end.14 Moreover, there are a number of more particular reasons (p.270) why we might think that there is a gap between natural curiosity about the truth on some issue, and the truth on that issue having value as an end—as I'll now explain.

(1) It is possible for natural curiosity to reflect a practical rather than an intellectual concern for the truth. So although I regard the truth on some issue as worth getting for its own sake, my inquiry might in fact be stimulated and directed by an unacknowledged practical goal. It is, furthermore, possible that my interest in the truth is exhausted by my interest in this unacknowledged practical goal, such that I would have no interest in the truth on this issue if this practical interest were absent. This suggests that there is a gap between natural curiosity and intrinsic value in this instance, since there is something dubious about the idea that the truth has intrinsic value because it answers to a subject's practical concerns. The fact that we might be unaware of the real motive or reason for desiring the truth on some issue therefore casts some doubt upon the idea that the truth is valuable simply in virtue of satisfying our natural curiosity.

(2) It is possible for natural curiosity about some issue to reflect a false belief or a lack of understanding, in which case we might once again doubt that satisfying this curiosity has final value. For instance, suppose that I am a believer in crystal healing, and as a result I am naturally curious—I desire to know, simply for the sake of knowing—which crystals are thought to be most effective for healing which ailments. Since my desire for truth in this case rests upon a false belief in the efficacy of crystal healing, it is plausible to deny that the resulting truths—that crystal healers typically prefer to use quartz because of its shape and colour, that healers maintain these crystals by immersion in salt water with the aim of preventing ‘environmental imbalance’, and so on—are valuable for their own sakes. It is therefore tempting to deny that truths have final value because they answer our inquiries, in cases where these inquiries are generated by false beliefs or mistaken understanding.15

(3) It is possible for natural curiosity to give rise to desires or interests that the subject fails to endorse; as a result, it is possible for natural curiosity to generate inquiries that the subject does not value answering.16 For instance, perhaps my natural curiosity on some issue is compulsive: suppose that I feel a strong urge to (p.271) count the number of steps I take each time I walk to work, or to determine the ratio of blue to red books in the university library, for no other reason than to know the truth about these things. Here I will experience an urge or desire to discover the truth, but will not regard the issues as worth caring about or the questions as worth answering. Again, there seems to be something objectionable about the idea that the truth has value because it answers the subject's inquiries or questions, in those instances where the subject does not value getting the truth on these questions. Desires that a subject would reflectively reject are, therefore, poor candidates if we are looking for factors capable of grounding final values.

In light of these considerations, we can identify a gap between the thought that people are naturally curious about discovering the truth on some issue, and the idea that the truth on that issue is valuable for its own sake. Truth does not seem to be intrinsically valuable just because it satisfies a subject's natural curiosity. So how might this gap be closed?


How can we move from the claim that we are naturally curious to discover the answers to particular questions, to the claim that answers to those questions are valuable in themselves? This problem is pressing, given that there might be something amiss with our curiosity or concern, and which therefore casts doubt upon the value of the truths which constitute the object of that curiosity or concern. A simple solution is to idealize the relevant concern for truth. Thus, we might claim that the truth on a certain issue is valuable, not if someone does care about or desire the truth on that issue, but only if the person would care about the truth under certain idealized conditions: if, for instance, the person would desire the truth on that issue were she fully rational. In this way we might rid ourselves of problems (1)–(3), on the grounds that a process of rational idealization will bring to light whether the subject's interest is instrumental or intellectual, will ensure that inquiries are not based upon false beliefs, and will rule out curiosity that results from irrational compulsions. We might therefore maintain that it is the satisfaction of natural and rational, idealized curiosity which has final value.

Such a move is not without its problems. The main difficulty is this: the usual method of idealizing a subject's actual cares and concerns so as to close the gap between her desires and her reasons or values involves appeal to what the subject would care about if she were better informed, and had a more coherent and consistent desiderative profile.17 But then we need to determine how (p.272) much information is required in order for someone's curiosity to be sufficiently informed, and hence sufficiently rational. If the person is provided with too little information, it is not clear that she will be rid of all of her false beliefs, or able to determine whether her interest is instrumental or intellectual. If so, we might worry about whether her curiosity is sufficiently idealized. If the person is provided with too much information, however, it is more than likely that her curiosity will disappear. So the proponent of idealization faces a problem in determining how it is possible to rule out inquiries based upon false beliefs, let us say, without ridding the subject of things to be curious about. A traditional move in value theory aimed at idealizing our desires and concerns, and thus at closing the gap between what we care about and what is valuable, fails to be plausible when applied to intellectual curiosity.

A better response, it seems to me, is to accept that (1)–(3) represent normative failings in our inquiries, and yet argue that true beliefs which result from those inquiries are nevertheless valuable for their own sakes. This is possible because true beliefs in these cases will also satisfy an interest in the truth which is general, open‐ended, and unrestricted; as a result, the true beliefs will possess value because they satisfy this concern. So the fact that true beliefs might result from particular inquiries that are problematic does not count against the claim that they are valuable in themselves. In slightly different terms: a better response is to argue that all true beliefs have value in virtue of satisfying an interest in the truth as such, or in the truth simpliciter. We do not need to restrict valuable truths to those that constitute the right answers to particular questions or issues that interest us. This move enables us to reply to the problems listed at the end of § 2. By invoking a general concern, we render the possibility that our particular concern is instrumental moot. We might very well be interested in the truth for instrumental reasons, but insofar as we have a general concern for the truth as such—a concern to believe all and only true propositions—then the resulting true belief will have value insofar as it satisfies this general concern. And insofar as our natural curiosity is open‐ended or unrestricted, the fact that our particular inquiries sometimes rest upon false beliefs, or are sometimes motivated by irrational compulsions, will also fail to be important. For again, we can say that truths have value in virtue of satisfying our open‐ended and unrestricted natural curiosity, rather than in virtue of satisfying particular restricted interests. If we assume, then, that we are naturally curious about the truth simpliciter, then the worries about how to close the gap between our valuing the truth and the value of truth disappear.

This assumption might remove the worries about explaining the value of truth in terms of the satisfaction of particular but potentially suspect inquiries; but is it justified on any other grounds? In other words, do we have independent reasons for thinking that our natural (p.273) curiosity is open‐ended and unrestricted, or that we are naturally curious about the truth simpliciter? Certainly some philosophers think so: Jonathan Kvanvig and Michael Lynch each maintain that our natural curiosity is directed towards the truth as such.18 Kvanvig, for instance, claims that it is in

the nature of interests to lack specificity: we do not have an individual interest in the truth of the claim that our mothers love us, that the president is not a crook, that Wyoming is north of Mexico, and so on. What we have is a general interest in the truth, and that interest attaches to particular truths in the manner of instantiation in predicate logic. The default position for any truth is that our general interest in the truth applies to it. (2003: 41)

On this picture, ‘finding out the truth with respect to any subject would seem to be worthy of our interest.’19 Of course, it doesn't seem like this to us in our everyday lives. From our perspective, we are only curious about the truth on particular questions or issues; we regard the vast majority of truths with indifference. But for Kvanvig and Lynch this indifference is a function of our general interest in the truth being overridden by our practical concerns. Thus, our interest attaches to particular truths and not others due to the practical importance that the particular truths possess. This means that there are very many truths that we are not in fact motivated to discover; there are ‘all sorts of true beliefs that are not worth having, all things considered.’20 Nevertheless, if we could abstract from our practical concerns, then we would have some interest in even the most trivial truth. The view that our everyday interests are particular is thus compatible with the thought that it is ‘prima facie good to believe even the most trivial truth’ (Lynch 2004: 55), on the grounds that even the most trivial truth will satisfy our natural curiosity.21

There are, however, good reasons to think that the gap between valuing and value cannot be closed in this way. Kvanvig, as noted, claims that it is in the nature of interests to lack specificity. But it seems to me that this is false. Insofar as our interests are generated by our natural curiosity, they will be specific interests, since curiosity, by its very nature, involves selective attention: when we are curious, we focus and attend to some things rather than others. It is this fact, (p.274) rather than any appeal to practical concerns or considerations, which explains why our curiosity generates particular interests in our actual circumstances. If so, it is implausible to suppose that we could have a general interest in the truth which is generated by our natural curiosity.

To see this, we can note that curiosity is an emotion.22 Now it is widely accepted that emotions constitute reactions to objects and events which are (potentially) significant to us. As Annette Baier writes:

We all accept the idea that emotions are reactions to matters of apparent importance to us: fear to danger, surprise to the unexpected, outrage to insult, disgust to what will make us sick, envy of the more favoured, gratitude for benefactors, hate for enemies, love for friends, and so on. And sometimes the felt emotion can precede knowledge of precisely what the danger, the insult, the nauseating substance, and so on is. Emotion then plays the role of alerting us to something important to us—a danger, or an insult. (Baier 2004: 200)

Emotions play this role by capturing and directing our attention onto important objects and events. As Aaron Ben Ze'ev puts it, ‘like burglar alarms going off when an intruder appears, emotions signal that something needs attention’ (2000: 13). Thus, when we are afraid our attention is rapidly and automatically fixed upon some potentially dangerous object or event; moreover, our attention typically remains fixed—it is both captured and consumed—so that it is difficult for us to shift our focus away or concentrate on other things. This indicates that fear necessarily involves selective attention: when we are afraid our attention is triggered by and drawn towards particular objects and events, from amongst ‘the vast array of stimuli that constantly impinge on the senses’ (Izard and Ackerman 2000: 257). But what is true of fear is true of other emotions, such as disgust, shame, anger, guilt, joy, surprise—and curiosity. Each of these emotions has the role of alerting us to something significant or important, and fulfils this role by directing our attention onto certain objects and events and not others. Curiosity, like other emotions, involves selective attention.23 Given this picture of what emotions are, therefore, we can doubt that our natural curiosity is open‐ended and unrestricted.24 And if so, the claim that all truths have value because they (p.275) satisfy our open‐ended natural curiosity is false. The gap between our curiosity and the value of truth remains.25


Interestingly, these reflections on natural curiosity as an emotional response suggest a different way in which the gap between inquiry and the value of truth might be closed. Consider the general and uncontroversial point made above, namely that emotions function to alert us to things of (potential) importance or significance. It seems clear, however, that different emotions function to detect different kinds of importance or significance. Thus, fear alerts us to danger, anger to insults, guilt to moral wrongdoing, disgust to contamination, and so on. Here different kinds of importance can be explained in terms of different kinds of evaluative properties, the possession of which by an object or event determines a ‘standard of correctness’ for the relevant emotion. So on this view, fear is correct if and only if its object is dangerous, anger is fitting if and only if its object is insulting, disgust is appropriate if and only if its object is contaminated, and so on. Now since natural curiosity is an emotion, we might wonder about the kind of evaluative property which determines its standard of correctness. That is, we might inquire about the kind of importance or significance that natural curiosity is meant to alert us to, given that it is not truth simpliciter. A tempting answer to this question is that curiosity functions to alert us to matters that are, in and of themselves, interesting or fascinating. If so, we might propose that true beliefs have final value if and only if they constitute answers to intrinsically interesting or fascinating questions.

(p.276) Now talk of certain questions and subjects being intrinsically interesting might strike us as implausible, even on a loose understanding of ‘intrinsic’. Such talk suggests that there are questions that call for curiosity, or subjects that we should take an interest in; by the same token, it suggests that there are other questions that we should not be curious about, or subjects that should not be a source of fascination. Against this, it might seem that there is little room for a gap between what interests me and what is interesting, or between what bores me and what is boring. It might seem, that is, that there is nothing more to the claim that some question is interesting than the fact that it is a question that interests me, or a question that I am curious about. Nevertheless, I think that there are good reasons to understand the claim that some question or subject is interesting as a normative claim, a claim about what merits interest and curiosity, rather than a descriptive claim about my present psychological state. Something similar can be said about claims that a topic or event is boring. In support, note that the fact that I am currently bored by x is clearly insufficient for me to judge that x is boring; perhaps I'm aware that I have taken a sedative which is responsible for my listless state, and that in other conditions I wouldn't be bored by it. This suggests, at the very least, that the judgement that x is boring is a judgement that I would be bored by x when conditions are appropriate, or that x has certain features that would, in the right conditions, give rise to boredom on my part. It suggests, in other words, a ‘response‐dependent’ account of what it is for something to be boring, in which case there will be some normative distance between what we find boring (or interesting) and what we judge to be boring (or interesting). If so, however, there is no obvious problem in claiming that although someone finds x fascinating they ought not to do so: think, for instance, of a person who is high on drugs and is fascinated by the (mundane) pattern on the living room carpet. By the same token, there is no obvious problem in claiming that although a person on sedatives fails to find the news that they are directly related to Genghis Khan fascinating, they nevertheless should. All that these claims require for plausibility is the idea that there are certain (often hard to specify) features of objects and questions in virtue of which boredom and fascination are merited, and, relatedly, certain (perhaps easier to specify) conditions which count as appropriate for considering such objects and questions.26

(p.277) If we accept the idea that certain questions can indeed be intrinsically interesting or fascinating, then the proposal that true beliefs have final value if and only if they constitute answers to such questions is attractive for a number of reasons.27 The first is that it respects what we say and think about (the objects of) our curiosity. Thus, when asked to explain why we are curious about a subject which seems to have no practical pay‐off, we claim simply that we find the subject interesting or fascinating in itself. We note that certain questions strike us as interesting in their own right, or that we are fascinated by certain subjects simply because of the nature of those subjects. So from our own perspective we are curious about and value the truth on issues which seem intrinsically interesting or fascinating. A second reason is that it supplies the right kind of normativity to our interest in the truth, and thus avoids making the value of truth a matter of what answers our actual particular inquiries or questions. We saw above that what we are naturally curious about might be insufficiently normative; and one reason for this is that we can be naturally curious about things that are not intrinsically interesting, in the same way that we can be naturally afraid of things that are not dangerous.

Finally, the idea that natural curiosity is an emotional response directed towards what is interesting or fascinating can accommodate the fact that the range of subjects and questions that people find intrinsically interesting is very wide. Thus, some people might be interested in questions about how and why the dinosaurs became extinct or about how Stalin came into power, whilst others are curious about the prospects for life on Mars or about the mental capacity of chimpanzees, whilst still others are naturally intrigued about which Scottish football team boasts the longest losing run or about whether anything eats wasps. But such variety in the objects of our natural curiosity is to be expected, given that curiosity is an emotional response. After all, it hardly needs saying that different people are afraid of different things: Adam might be afraid of house spiders while Beth thinks that they are cute; Clare might be terrified of rollercoasters while Dan finds them thrilling. It is equally obvious that there is a similarly wide variety in objects of anger, shame, guilt, disgust, and joy. Now clearly the explanation for this variety is that there are a whole range of contingent factors that can influence or trigger or modify a particular emotional response. Think, for instance, of how fear can depend upon or be influenced by a subject's beliefs (that the snake is poisonous, or harmless) or desires (for safety, or for thrills), or of how guilt might be influenced by religious upbringing, or disgust by early memories of and associations with food. Given the great variety in what people experience, believe, desire, remember, and feel, and the role that all of these things play in (p.278) the emotional life, it should come as no surprise that emotions have an extremely wide variety of objects. Since curiosity is also an emotion, and hence subject to influence and modification by a wide range of factors, we should therefore expect that there is a great variety in the kinds of questions and topics that people find intrinsically interesting, and which trigger natural curiosity. The emotional status of natural curiosity thus explains why natural curiosity is both selective and wide‐ranging.28

In light of this, the best option for those wishing to explain the value of truth in terms of the satisfaction of our natural curiosity is to appeal to the idea that certain questions trigger our natural curiosity because they are intrinsically interesting or fascinating, and to maintain that true beliefs have final value if and only if such beliefs constitute answers to intrinsically interesting questions.


Unfortunately, even if we accept the idea that there is a class of intrinsically interesting questions which trigger our natural curiosity, we should reject the claim that true beliefs have value if and only if they answer such questions. For this biconditional is false in both directions. To see this, consider the claim that true beliefs have value only if they answer interesting questions. Now we can assume that if there is a class of intrinsically interesting questions, then there are also certain subjects or questions that are intrinsically uninteresting. Suppose, then, that I am naturally curious about the truth of an uninteresting question: I am naturally curious about something that I ought not to be curious about, an issue which ought not to trigger my natural curiosity. But it does not follow that the truth on this question lacks value. Consider, for instance, these truths:

  • If the average man never trimmed his beard, it would grow to nearly 30 feet long in his lifetime.

  • On average, right‐handed people live nine years longer than their left‐handed counterparts.

  • The average American will eat 35,000 cookies in a lifetime.

  • The average lead pencil will draw a line 35 miles long or write approximately 50,000 English words.

  • The only country in the world that has a Bill of Rights for Cows is India.

  • (p.279)
  • Ancient Chinese artists would never paint pictures of women's feet.

  • During the Alaskan Klondike gold rush (1897–8), potatoes were practically worth their weight in gold. Potatoes were so valued for their vitamin C content that miners traded gold for potatoes.

  • Duelling is legal in Paraguay as long as both parties are registered blood donors.

  • It is forbidden for aircraft to fly over the Taj Mahal.

  • A Saudi Arabian woman can get a divorce if her husband doesn't give her coffee.

  • Offered a new pen to write with, 97% of all people will write their own name.

  • In 1913, the US tax on a $4,000 annual income was one penny.29

I take it that at least some people will find at least some of these truths interesting or fascinating in their own right. As a result, some people will be glad to know them: these truths have value for the relevant people. However, it seems clear that such truths can result from inquiries which are intrinsically uninteresting, boring, or mundane. For instance, I might discover the fact about the value of potatoes during the Alaskan Klondike gold rush because I'm naturally curious about the value of tuber crops during the late nineteenth century. But isn't this a prime example of an intrinsically uninteresting or boring subject? By the same token, it is difficult to see how the class of intrinsically interesting or fascinating questions could include the question of whether there are any links between the consumption of hot beverages and divorce rates in Saudi Arabia, or the issue of the average number of words a lead pencil will write. There might even be interesting truths which emerge from the standard example of a boring or uninteresting inquiry, namely an inquiry into the number of grains in a handful of sand. Suppose, for instance, that I start counting the number of grains in a handful of sand on Devil's Beach in Rio de Janeiro, and discover that the number is 666. This strongly suggests that there are some truths which are valuable—we find them interesting or fascinating or curious or surprising, and as a result are glad to have them—even though they result from intrinsically uninteresting inquiries. In short, we can say that boring subjects can contain fascinating truths. So we have reason to doubt the claim that truth is valuable only if it results from an inquiry into an intrinsically interesting or fascinating subject.

Indeed, we can make a stronger claim here, and maintain that there are true beliefs whose value depends upon the fact that they do not result from inquiry, whether this is an inquiry into an intrinsically interesting subject or not. This is a particular instance of a more general point—made persuasively by David Velleman—that there are things ‘whose value depends on their having been unanticipated and unsought’ (2000: 91). Velleman argues that (p.280) a person's well‐being or happiness can include windfalls—‘things such as unsolicited affection or spontaneous merriment’—that would lose their value if they resulted from the person's own efforts (Velleman 2000: 91). Something similar might be said about valuable truths. That is, we might think that there are epistemic windfalls, truths whose value depends upon the fact that they were unsought, and so depends upon the fact that they were not the results of inquiry. For example, if unsolicited affection constitutes a positive value in our lives, we might think that unsolicited knowledge of affection does as well. Thus, I might learn that ‘she loves me’ because of her unsolicited declaration of love. Here my true belief has value that it would lack if it resulted from inquiry on my part. There seem to be a great number of surprising but welcome truths that fall into this category. So the efforts of inquiry are sometimes incompatible with the intrinsic value of true beliefs.

What of the other conditional, that a truth has final value if it results from inquiry into an intrinsically interesting or fascinating subject? Here too there are good reasons to be sceptical. For sometimes inquiries into fascinating subjects yield truths which are mundane, uninteresting, and unimportant. This should come as no surprise to people who have eagerly embarked on an interesting research project, full of questions which spark both their curiosity and the curiosity of the grant‐awarding body, only to realize, towards the end of the inquiry, that any truths to be had here are trivial and uninteresting. If this were not the case, there would hardly be the widespread phenomenon of people being disappointed with the answers to their inquiries. Of course, some of the disappointment might be due to frustration of practical interests: an interesting answer on a hot research topic might make one's name, advance one's career, secure a job in a prestigious university, and so forth. But some of the disappointment might be due to the fact that no one, including oneself, is remotely interested in or fascinated by the truths one has discovered. Suppose that I'm intrigued by the question of whether the pyramids at Teotihuacan in Mexico and at Giza in Egypt were built by the same people, and engage in a research project in order to find this out. Whilst the question is an interesting one, it seems clear that the answer—‘no’—has little in the way of intrinsic value. In fact, we can see that ‘yes/no’ answers to interesting questions are often uninteresting. The question of whether anything eats wasps is certainly interesting, but the true answer ‘yes’ has little in the way of intrinsic value. Similarly, it's an interesting question whether being cold raises the risk of catching a cold. Once again, however, we gain little of intrinsic value when we learn that the true answer is ‘no’. What does have value is knowing which creatures eat wasps—apparently 133 species do, including birds, frogs, crabs, bats, and humans—and knowing why being cold does not raise the possibility of catching a cold.30 These kinds of answers certainly are interesting and valuable. But this indicates that there (p.281) can be different answers to the same question, each of which is true, but which differ in their value. It will be difficult to maintain, in light of this, that all true answers to interesting questions are themselves intrinsically valuable; sometimes true answers to interesting questions are not worth having.


What conclusions can we draw from this? The first is that some truths have value for us, but not because they answer intrinsically interesting questions. We are, that is, glad to know certain things once we become aware of them, even though such valuable truths do not, and in some cases could not, result from inquiry on our part. By the same token, we have seen that there can be boring answers to interesting questions. This indicates that the value of truths when possessed is only contingently related to our natural and legitimate curiosity. In particular, it is a kind of value which is only contingently related to the interest we have in answering intrinsically interesting questions. If so, we have good reason to reject the claim that true beliefs have value if and only if they answer intrinsically interesting questions. The gap between valuing the truth on some intrinsically interesting topic, and the value of the truth on that topic, remains.

This strongly suggests a second conclusion, about the nature of our epistemic aim or goal. At the beginning of § 1 we noted the common view that truth is the aim of inquiry, and the suggestion that truth is therefore something valuable or desirable. However, insofar as there can be truths which answer our inquiries and yet lack value, we might think that the aim of inquiry is not simply truth, nor simply the truth on questions that interest us, nor even the truth on questions that are intrinsically interesting, but rather intrinsically interesting truths. That is, if we are to equate the aim of inquiry with something that is genuinely valuable, then it should be identified with the goal of attaining interesting or fascinating or surprising true beliefs. So on this view, it is pro tanto good, for all p, to believe that p if and only if p is true and interesting.31

Finally, this take on our epistemic aim tells us something important about the relation of priority between the value of truth and natural curiosity. The idea that truth is the aim of inquiry was taken to imply, again at the beginning of § 1, that we value getting the truth because we value getting answers to questions that interest us. Since we are sometimes interested in the truth for its own sake, (p.282) due to our natural curiosity, the thought was that truth is valuable for its own sake because it satisfies our natural curiosity. But we can see now that this gets things the wrong way around. If our epistemic aim is to amass interesting truths, then it seems that we value getting answers to interesting questions because this is the best or most reliable way of getting interesting truths. The fact that there is only a contingent relation between answering interesting questions and attaining interesting truths does not mean that there is no connection. And it is surely plausible to suppose that we are going to hit upon interesting truths more often if we investigate interesting, rather than boring, subjects. We can deny, in other words, that truth is valuable because it satisfies our natural curiosity. Instead, we should maintain that satisfying our natural curiosity is valuable because this is the best or most reliable way of attaining valuable truths.

The thought that truth is valuable because it satisfies our natural curiosity thus misrepresents the role of curiosity in our epistemic lives. If I am right, then the real role of natural curiosity is to alert us to interesting or fascinating subjects. Since inquiring about these subjects is the best or most reliable way of hitting upon interesting or significant truths, then natural curiosity does indeed play a vital role in helping us to attain our epistemic goals. Natural curiosity is importantly, although contingently, related to the value of true belief.32


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(1) As Christine Korsgaard (1983) has made clear, it is a mistake to simply identify something's being valuable for its own sake (or finally valuable) with its being intrinsically valuable. This is because there are cases of final value where the value depends upon something external to the object, and as a result fails to count as intrinsic value—at least on a strict understanding of ‘intrinsic value’. On a strict understanding, intrinsic value ‘depends solely on the nature of the thing in question’ G. E. Moore (1922: 260). There are, however, looser ways to understand the notion of intrinsic value. As Thomas Hurka (2001: 6) puts it, ‘a looser view equates intrinsic goodness just with non‐instrumental goodness, or with that portion of the overall goodness of the world that is located in or assignable to a particular state. It is the state's own goodness, whatever its basis, rather than some other's.’ In what follows, I'll employ this looser understanding. Nothing, apart from ease of exposition, will rest upon this usage.

(2) It is, of course, difficult to provide arguments or justifications for claims about intrinsic value. Indeed, as Jonathan Kvanvig suggests, the fact that ‘we are hard‐pressed to say anything informative at all’ in favour of the value of some object or state is evidence that we value that object or state intrinsically. See Kvanvig (forthcoming, 2009). See also Lynch (2004: 127).

(3) A different way of making the same point is to claim that truth is the goal of inquiry, and that truth is valuable because it constitutes the achievement of our goal.

(4) See Alston (2005), David (2005), Goldman (1986; 1999), Foley (1987), Hempel (1965), Kvanvig (2003; forthcoming, 2009), Lynch (2004), Sosa (2003).

(5) The idea that there is a distinctive approach to the value of truth to be found in the writings of these philosophers is suggested by Stephen Grimm's excellent paper ‘Epistemic Goals and Epistemic Values’ (2008). I have learnt a lot from this paper and share Grimm's scepticism about the approach. However, in this paper I develop arguments against the approach that differ from those raised by Grimm. In particular, I focus on the difficulty in moving from claims about our valuing the truth for its own sake to claims about the intrinsic or final value of truth.

(6) Alvin Goldman (1986: 98) is explicit about this. He writes: ‘[t]ruth acquisition is often desired and enjoyed for its own sake, not for ulterior ends. It would hardly be surprising, then, that intellectual norms should incorporate true belief as an autonomous value, quite apart from its contribution to biological and practical ends.’ But even if this is unsurprising, we'll see that we cannot simply move from the fact that people have the truth as an end to the claim that the truth is a proper end.

(7) Christopher Hookway (1996: 7) writes that ‘When we conduct an inquiry, or deliberate on some matter, we attempt to formulate questions and to answer them correctly.’

(8) Ernest Sosa (2003: 158) writes: ‘We may want true beliefs, in this sense: that if, for whatever reason, we are interested in a certain question, we would prefer to believe a correct rather than an incorrect answer to that question.’

(9) Sosa (2003: 156) writes, of a ‘trivial’ truth about the number of grains of sand in a random handful, that ‘absent any such antecedent interest, it is hard to see any sort of value in one's having the truth’ on this issue.

(10) Since, according to this line at least, we are interested in the truth because we are interested in answering questions, we cannot appeal to an interest in truth as that which motivates our inquiries. As Sosa implies, without an antecedent interest, we would have no interest in truth.

(11) Kvanvig (forthcoming, 2009: p. 3 in manuscript); Grimm (2008: 726).

(12) See Lynch (2004: 16).

(13) The idea that desires based upon false beliefs or defective understanding are insufficiently normative to ground practical reasons or genuine value is both widely held and eminently plausible. The idea that desires can be criticized as ‘unreasonable’ when based upon false beliefs is familiar from Hume. It has been developed, with regard to practical reasons and values, by Bernard Williams, Peter Railton, Michael Smith, and many others. I assume, therefore, that there is a gap between what we as a matter of fact desire and what possesses final value.

(14) This is the case even when people in general have some desire or pattern of concern. The fact that very many people are attracted by thoughts of fame and power does not guarantee that these things are worth pursuing; the fact that benevolent concerns are strongly influenced by the proximity of those in need does not show that it is right for one's concerns to have this pattern. So we ought to resist any simple move from the claim that X is generally valued for its own sake to the claim that X is valuable for its own sake.

(15) We might also be tempted to deny that truths have final value insofar as they result from morally dubious desires or inclinations. Think of Leontius's morbid fascination in The Republic, or a salacious curiosity about the sex lives of one's neighbours. Nevertheless, there is room here to claim that, insofar as they satisfy natural curiosity, such truths have some intrinsic value, even though that value is outweighed by the immorality of engaging in such inquiries or satisfying such interests.

(16) If so, we should deny the third purported connection between inquiry and truth stated above, namely that my inquiring about x implies that I value the truth about x.

(17) See e.g. Michael Smith (1994: ch. 5).

(18) Lynch (2004: 128–36) provides an argument that we ought ‘to care about the truth in general or as such’ because this is ‘essential to intellectual integrity’. I do not have time to consider Lynch's interesting argument in detail here. But even if Lynch is correct, my argument in § 5 tell against the claim that some truth is valuable because it results from a concern that we ought to have.

(19) Grimm (2008: 728). Grimm, however, disagrees with this line on the value of truth. He asks, ‘why think that, in virtue of our curiosity, it is attaining the truth per se, or finding out how things stand with respect to any subject, that has a standing value for us? (p. 730)’ And: ‘if we think that pursuing the truth is intrinsically valuable, then why are we unapologetically indifferent to so many truths?’ (p. 726). A similar line is taken by Ernest Sosa (2003), Duncan Pritchard (2007), and others.

(20) Lynch (2004: 55). These will include, I assume, truths that satisfy morally dubious desires.

(21) Kvanvig makes a similar point, claiming that ‘it is certainly true that we view some truths as simply unimportant . . . that fact need not be taken to undermine the intrinsic value of truth, for it may be that our practical needs, goals, and interests interact with the intrinsic value of truth so that some truths are simply unimportant, all things considered, even though truth is still intrinsically valuable from a purely cognitive point of view or from the point of view of inquiry for its own sake’ (2003: 6).

(22) It is therefore a mistake to identify curiosity with a simple desire for or interest in truth, since emotions involve more than mere desire or interest.

(23) The need for a particular mechanism to fulfil the role of alerting us to important or significant objects and events stems from the fact that human beings are presented with vast amounts of information about the state of the world and the state of themselves, only some of which will be important to them. Given that human beings have limited mental resources, they thus face a problem of efficiently locating or identifying which information in their environment is important. Our emotional systems, at least in part, are thought to have evolved in order to solve this problem, and they do so in part by reflexively and automatically capturing and focusing the subject's attention. For details of this line, see e.g. Vuilleumier, Armony, and Dolan (2003).

(24) It might be argued that curiosity is more like an intellectual character trait than an emotion, and as such underlies a general desire or interest. For instance, someone who has the character trait of being open‐minded is understood to be receptive to new ideas and ways of thinking on any subject that she considers. By the same token, to describe someone as a curious person is to say that she wants to find out about any subject that is brought before her. But I don't think that the distinction between emotions and traits supports the idea that curiosity is open‐ended and unrestrictive. First, we might, in describing someone as a jealous person, attribute to them a character trait; but this does not mean that jealousy is not a fully‐fledged emotion. The fact, therefore, that we can describe someone as a curious person does not cast doubt upon curiosity's status as an emotion either. Second, the curious person is selective in what she attends to. Someone who literally wants to find out about any subject that is brought before her would seem to suffer from a psychological disorder; given the number of subjects that we encounter every day, such a person would be constantly switching her attention to each new subject as it occurs, and as a result would fail to attend properly to very many of them. The curious person, by contrast, focuses on some subjects at the expense of others.

(25) It is open to Kvanvig and Lynch to appeal to what we would want if we abstracted from the fact that we are limited, finite epistemic beings facing the problem of how to detect important or significant information. They might suggest that in such circumstances we would be curious about everything. But it seems to me that in such circumstances we would be creatures with no need for any of the central emotions, and hence creatures with no curiosity to fulfil. If we assume that the natural emotions are needed precisely because we are limited, finite epistemic beings, then we cannot appeal to the natural curiosity of beings that are unlimited or infinite. God, for instance, has no need for automatic and reflexive emotional responses to events of potential significance, any more than God has need for hunger and thirst.

(26) Of course, claims about the features that merit curiosity and boredom will be disputable, and it might be difficult to identify any feature that all and only interesting things have in common other than the feature of eliciting curiosity. This, after all, is why a response‐dependent account of such properties as ‘interesting’ and ‘boring’ has a good degree of plausibility. Nevertheless, there are certain more‐or‐less public standards which govern our practice of evaluating objects and events in terms of whether they are interesting or not, which again suggests that claims about these properties are normative claims. There are publicly accepted paradigms of boring activities, for instance: we talk of watching paint dry or grass grow. By the same token, we are unsurprised when people around the world become fascinated by the prospect of a full lunar eclipse, or are interested in the opening ceremony of the Olympic games. The fact that we have these practices and standards suggests that we are right to regard certain things as meriting interest and other things as meriting boredom.

(27) As before, we should understand ‘intrinsic’ here in a loose way, as meaning ‘non‐instrumental’, to allow for the fact that what is interesting or fascinating to depend upon a certain relation between questions and responses. If so, then the fact that something is interesting will not depend entirely on features which are intrinsic to that thing.

(28) In a sense, then, claims that a subject merits interest or is intrinsically fascinating will display a sensitivity to such influences. Still, it makes sense to claim that someone with certain interests ought to find a particular subject fascinating even if she does not, or that someone with these experiences and feelings ought not to be fascinated by those mundane topics. So we can maintain that claims about what is interesting and boring are normative, whilst also accommodating the fact that what is interesting for one person in his circumstances (which include his experiences, feelings, etc.) might not be interesting for another person in different circumstances.

(30) For these questions and answers about wasps and colds, see O'Hare (2005: 85–8; 2006: 33).

(31) This is a version of Grimm's ‘Prima Facie Good Principle’ (2008: 730). As with claims about subjects or questions, I take it that the judgement that a truth is intrinsically interesting or intrinsically boring is itself a normative claim. I thus assume that the fact that we are not, in our present circumstances, glad to possess some truth does not mean that the truth is uninteresting, and I also assume that the fact that we are currently interested in some truth does not mean that it is interesting. As with subjects and questions, I assume that an interesting truth is one which merits a reaction of interest when possessed.

(32) An earlier version of this paper was presented at a workshop on Epistemic Value at the University of Stirling in November 2006. I would like to thank the participants at the workshop, and my commentator, Peter Baumann, for their feedback. I would also like to thank the anonymous referees for this volume for their useful criticisms and advice. And I am particularly grateful to Fiona Macpherson and Duncan Pritchard for their helpful comments on, and conversations about, earlier drafts of this material.