What exactly was Victor Frankenstein’s problem? Some think that he played God, and since humans shouldn’t play God, Frankenstein crossed some sort of line by reanimating a corpse. I have to admit that I don’t see the appeal of this explanation. Even if I was a theist, the wrong of playing God doesn’t seem obvious to me. Is God supposed to have dibs on resurrection? The novel’s subtitle, “The Modern Prometheus,” suggests this; Victor Frankenstein, like the Titan who gave the gods’ fire to humanity, has stolen something divine. I think there’s more to say. You don’t need theological commitments to understand Frankenstein’s peculiar vice.
Philosophers tend to think of knowledge as an unconditional good, and the more you have, the better. You might wonder, “Wait, what good would it be to memorize the phone book?” The phone book, after all, is a magnificent pile of facts – of dubious value. But even when it comes to useless knowledge, a philosopher might find some way to bite the bullet and make it more palatable. They might say that, surprising though it is, learning thousands of phone numbers does produce some epistemic good – maybe not much, but some.
With Frankenstein, though, we get the sense that he went too far. And here’s where we might stumble in understanding why, because it’s tempting to think that he crossed the line when he brought his monster to life. But what about before the monster came to life? What about those nights when Frankenstein plundered graves for body parts? The creation and birth of the monster is typically where we’d accuse Frankenstein of playing God, but the act itself only seems to make Frankenstein’s vice manifest. It’s the fruit of a seed planted before the monster first draws breath, but where was it planted, and what is it?
Frankenstein’s vice is intellectual, and rooted in the assumption that knowledge is unconditionally good. If knowledge is unconditionally good, then you might think the acquisition of knowledge (also known as learning) is morally neutral. Set aside the how of acquisition – it’s not controversial that some methods of gathering information cross an ethical line. But the why of acquisition – the basic drive to learn more and expand your knowledge base – is typically unquestioned. Learning for learning’s sake – what could possibly go wrong? It’s the principle of genius. At the very least, it’s the principle of winning at Jeopardy.
In other contexts, we’re more willing to admit that acquisitiveness can backfire. How many will argue that “money for money’s sake” makes for an ethical life, let alone a decent life? Setting aside inequality, that sort of life seems empty and ultimately unsatisfying, because we know that money is only as good as what you do with it. Acquisitiveness and stinginess, hoarding wealth just to swim in it like Scrooge McDuck or sleep in it like Smaug, make your life worse.
But we think this isn’t so with knowledge, that “epistemic acquisitiveness” is somehow confused. (Isn’t that just curiosity?) I wonder why that is?
You could look at one of the major differences between knowledge and money. Money has mostly instrumental value. It’s only good because it’s good for getting something else. Pieces of currency might be nice, but money – say, a dollar that can be either paper or a digit in a computer – is empty. Knowledge is supposed to have intrinsic value, value in itself. Philosophers have had a hard time explaining why, but I like Linda Zagzebski’s answer: to know something is to have cognitive contact with reality. I think that’s beautiful and close to the mark. There’s something profound in the idea of knowledge as communion. What could be more valuable than that? Unlike the value of money, this would seem to be valuable all on its own. If you ask why money is valuable, you get the answer “because it gets you something else that’s valuable.” But if you ask why knowledge is valuable, you get “because it’s important, and that’s all there is to it.”
Maybe here we can make sense of epistemic acquisitiveness. Knowing might be intrinsically valuable, but it might not be the kind of value that keeps on increasing as you pile on more. Some of the most important things in life can be achieved modestly. If someone has a single lifelong friend that they share everything with, go on vacation with, and so on, that’s great. If they have two, that’s also great, but not necessarily twice as great. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to prefer two to one, if the one intimate friendship is fully satisfactory. But if you think in this way, that your quality of life is a function of the size of your social circle, you’ll start to get greedy about socializing. You’ll find yourself feeling lonely and unfulfilled.
Knowledge could be valuable in that way. It adds value to the life of the mind, but not in a straightforwardly summative way. To think that it does is to make a mistake like Frankenstein’s. It’s to think that, for whatever question you have, if it can be answered, it will be worth it, full stop, end of story. Answering any question adds value. Until it’s too late, and the yellow eye opens.
Update (7/22 10:33am): I slept on it and now I’m only about 70% sure that Zagzebski thinks what I said she thinks.