Natural Curiosity

In Artūrs Logins & Jacques-Henri Vollet (eds.), Putting Knowledge to Work: New Directions for Knowledge-First Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press (forthcoming)
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Curiosity is evident in humans of all sorts from early infancy, and it has also been said to appear in a wide range of other animals, including monkeys, birds, rats, and octopuses. The classical definition of curiosity as an intrinsic desire for knowledge may seem inapplicable to animal curiosity: one might wonder how and indeed whether a rat could have such a fancy desire. Even if rats must learn many things to survive, one might expect their learning must be driven by simpler incentives, such as hunger. One might also wonder what proximal signals could guide animals towards knowledge itself, or how something as abstract as knowledge could ever be a motivational target for an unreflective animal. Taking a cue from recent work in reinforcement learning, I argue that surprise functions as a reward signal for the curious animal, and then show how this amounts to a desire for knowledge gain, where knowledge is conceived of as a cognitive adaptation to reality. This adaptation results in a mental state whose existence depends essentially on the truth of its contents, a factive mental state. Curious creatures benefit from an interaction between the prediction-error correction processes of basic learning and the active surprise-seeking force of their curiosity. This internally adversarial interaction accelerates knowledge gain in ways that are very helpful for agents with the restrictions of biological creatures, in environments with the complexity of our natural world.

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Jennifer Nagel
University of Toronto, Mississauga


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