Philosophy Seminar Series: "Natural Curiosity", by Prof. Jennifer Nagel (University of Toronto)

ABSTRACT: Aristotle suggested that “all men by nature desire to know”, but it seems men are not alone in this. Curiosity, still characterized by at least some contemporary researchers as an intrinsic desire for knowledge, is evident in humans of all sorts from early infancy; it has also been said to appear in a wide range of other animals, including monkeys, birds, rats, and octopuses. One might wonder why or indeed whether such a broad range of animals have an intrinsic desire for knowledge. Even if there is much that octopuses must know in order to survive, one might wonder why they couldn’t learn enough through processes of trial and error driven by simple incentives such as hunger, as opposed to being equipped with some kind of drive to gain knowledge for its own sake. One might also wonder what proximal signals could guide animals towards this aim. Recent advances in reinforcement learning cast new light on these issues. Drawing on this research, Prof. Nagels aims to explain how curiosity works, and why it aims at knowledge, as opposed to a target such as information or uncertainty reduction. She argues that curiosity is vital, not for intelligent agents as such, but for agents with the restrictions of biological creatures in environments with the complexity of our natural world.

About: Jennifer Nagel is a Professor of Philosophy in the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on knowledge, belief, and our capacities to track these states in ourselves and others. Prof. Nagel is interested in the history of epistemology, both in the Western tradition back to Plato, and in the Classical Indian and Tibetan traditions. She also works in contemporary philosophy of mind, with special interests in metacognition and mental state attribution. For more information and list of publications please visit Prof. Nagel’s personal website.

Tuesday, January 31 at 4:30pm at the Humanities Center

End Date: 
Tuesday, January 31, 2023 - 18:00