Play, Human Nature and Exploration: Some Speculations
That delight of finding things out, of satisfying curiosity, may on occasion be a search for beauty, as Poincare may have thought, but on the whole it is more properly associated with play. This is not to deny that the search for beauty may itself be a form of play. Nor is it to deny that in play we may find beauty ‑‑a claim to which many people who have engaged in sports would testify. In any event, there is nothing mysterious in that nature should have made us such that we enjoy exercising our skills and developing our talents through play.
When an animal can grow only in a very specific environment, play is probably not very crucial. The animal may be better off rehearsing the specific tasks that will be needed for survival later on. But to the extent that an animal is to meet an open‑ ended environment, it pays to develop all sort of perceptual and motor skills in many combinations. This flexibility will permit the animal to adapt to a greater range of environments. The difference between fixed exercises, such as calisthenics, and play is precisely that whereas specific traits are developed in the first, an exploration of the individuals' abilities takes place in the second.
Although this is not the place to embark into a fully fledged biology of play, at least two qualifications are in order. The first is that there need be no connection between the animal having played while young and its exhibiting a very flexible response later in life. A species may not be restricted to any specific environment, in which case play by its young may be very advantageous to it. But once that species finds itself in a particular environment, the flexibility of its members allows them to try out ways of developing their skills that eventually lead to an optimal interaction with that environment. As that begins to happen, the range of behavior begins to narrow as well. Presumably the adult animals become fairly well adapted and can afford to be as rigid as those other animals that were "designed" for that specific environment.
Thus we see that ravens, for example, grow up to be scavengers in some habitats and predators in others. The species is flexible, and its playing young are flexible, but the individual adults need not be. In a species such as homo sapiens, in which the adult may continue to deal with an open environment, the advantages of prolonged youth and of flexibility in the adult are evident. And indeed contemporary biology ascribes a "neotonous" nature to humans (neoteny permits the retention of immature characters in adulthood).
The second qualification is this. In perfecting its responses to the pressing demands of a specific environment, an animal may receive direct and immediate dividends. The rationale for perfecting those responses is thus obvious. But what mechanisms might evolve to motivate the rehearsal of skills whose application is indirect and far in the future? The question is no longer whether play is biologically advantageous to some species. The answer to that question is yes. The present question concerns rather how the individual animals are led to play.
This demand for a mechanism can be met ‑‑ at least in some cases ‑‑ by proposing that the central nervous system is so constituted that it gives positive feedback (enjoyment) to the animal as it attempts to realize a variety of potentials in a "field released from tension", to borrow Konrad Lorenz's jargon. It is precisely the independence from immediate demands of the environment that permits the trying out of so many skills in so many combinations. And thus it is that independence in action that needs to be encouraged by the response of the central nervous system.[15 play requires some intelligence] It is not difficult, then, to see the biological rationale for evolving such a mechanism. We humans call it play and do enjoy it.
One of the characteristics of play is that it can be applied to a wide range of skills. In particular, it provides a very apt training regimen for developing those skills connected with intelligence, since they often have to do with indirect or postponed action. Intelligence has a role in social interaction, and thus there is a link to social play. But my concern at this time is with intelligence as a means of interacting with nature. And here is where the association with curiosity that Lorenz mentioned comes in.
Some animals which exhibit a great flexibility of response towards the environment ‑‑ "specialists in non‑specialization" ‑‑ also exhibit a great deal of curiosity. Such curiosity is typically present in a field released from tension, just as play is. In other words, curiosity is characterized by independence from the pressing demands of the environment; and it is, as far as we can tell, an enjoyable pursuit. Although it is clear that much play has nothing to do with curiosity, it is nonetheless plausible to think of curiosity as a form of play of a cognitive subject with its environment.
The object of the play, in this case, seems to be the development of the skills by which an individual can gain knowledge of its world. And it should be obvious that in developing such skills an individual actually does come to know its environment better. In species in which learning comes to an end when the individual is reasonably well adapted to a particular environment, those bits of knowledge obtained through the satisfaction of curiosity are of the greatest importance. In species whose individuals keep their mental flexibility for a good portion of their lives, the playful interaction with the environment is bound to continue. In humans, who sometimes tend toward what Poincare would have called "pure intelligence", that playful interaction may take on some very abstract forms.
Here is thus my account of the "delight" of science ‑‑an account rooted in our very nature. But this is an account that firmly links curiosity with our means of interacting with nature; and so presumably it links curiosity with what is useful. As I have argued, the product of our rehearsals in our exploratory relation with nature is the scientific views that we propose and sometimes believe. In the open‑ended environment that we face, however, we are unlikely to get a perfect conceptual adaptation the first time out. Fortunately, we do seem to be specialists in non‑ specialization: as long as social factors do not override our playful drives, as long as the field remains released from tension, we are quite able to come up with new combinations of intellectual and observational skills. And as our conceptual game with nature endures, so does our ability to adapt to a changing environment or to move into new niches. To the extent that science is a means for our intelligence to interact with the universe, the dynamic character of science is a consequence of our nature. And as our views change in accordance with that dynamic character, so changes the panorama of problems and opportunities that becomes available to our species. That is the final link that connects Poincare's delight with the practicality of science in the long run.
If the forces that motivate exploration are so connected with Poincare's delight, other aspects of exploration fall into place. An important reward of play comes when a new stage of performance arises from the combination and development of skills. When we find it we see it as the goal we had been groping for ‑‑ such is the feel of the perfectly kicked ball, of the graceful turn in the air, of the solution to a hard problem. If we have reason to believe that stage had never been reached before, we become aware of how far we have reached, and our sense of accomplishment is naturally so much greater. In attempting to satisfy our curiosity, the equivalent sense of accomplishment comes from being the first to find something that turns out to be important; and in the case of intellectual curiosity we may add the accomplishment of devising a view that can perform intellectually as no other did before. And thus the pursuit of the new combination, of the new vision, of the new land edges us on. It is the discovery of the new that constitutes the biggest prize. That is the sense of discovery implicit in play, and in the delight that accompanies it.
We can now brush aside objections to the effect that scientists often work with no applications in mind, that they do not accept or reject scientific theories on any practical basis. For the scientists' lack of such awareness, or even unconscious intention, cannot detract from the practical value (we might say adaptive) of scientific curiosity anymore than it would in the case of the animals which are "specialists in non‑ specialization". Besides, it would be too simpleminded to expect that all scientific work should aim at dealing directly with the environment so as to get results from it. Much of that work is devoted to the mathematical, theoretical, and/or experimental articulation of scientific ideas (thus, in my view, it aims at dealing indirectly with the environment). And much other work attempts the integration of experience into a network that can then be applied (e.g. neo‑Darwinism). It is science as a whole, as our communal spectacles, that might be thought of as an instrument of adaptation.
We can also begin to understand in which sense nature inclines us toward exploration, so that by engaging in it we fulfill ourselves as human beings. Curiosity is imbued in us because it served our ancestors ‑‑ and ourselves ‑‑ well in allowing them to adapt to a variety of environments, in trying novel strategies to deal with any one given environment, and in coping with changing circumstances. That the satisfaction of curiosity is a form of play makes eminent sense given our complex nervous system. But that very system also makes us extremely complex animals, some might say more than mere animals. In exploration we do more than develop our sensory and motor skills, for our intellectual faculties, as we have seen, are precisely the sort most amenable to improvement by the indirect exercise of play.
Furthermore, our potential is achieved only to the extent that our innate abilities develop to match the opportunities offered by the environments (social and physical) that we encounter. The ideal strategy for the fulfillment of our potential would thus include exposure to a variety of environments as well as the freedom to try out, combine, and refine our talents in them ‑‑ a freedom, that is, to play. In exploration, as a form of play aimed to satisfy our curiosity, both individually and collectively, we increase our mastery over nature while finding and developing in us those skills for which we are most suited. We have already seen that in rejecting or slowing down exploration we reject or slow down the refinement and possible replacement of the communal spectacles with which we perceive the universe. We have already discussed the deprivation that may result from that. But now we can go even further. For we have also seen that we by rejecting or slowing down exploration we hamper our own fulfillment as individual human beings and as human societies. This damage goes beyond the failure to achieve our intellectual and scientific potential. For just as our range for exploratory play is rich and complex, our systems of motivation and satisfaction ‑‑ our "feedback mechanisms"‑‑ are also rich and complex. In this case I would speculate that those systems would involve deep and sophisticated emotions. In the case of space exploration they would be associated, at the very least, with wonder, with excitement, with adventure. This is the heart of space exploration.