Adam, Eve, and the Fall into self-reflection

Photo by Bernardo Kastrup of original artwork.

One of the richest and most evocative myths of Western civilization is that of the Fall, narrated in the book of Genesis: by eating from the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve acquire the knowledge of good and evil and are then expelled from the Garden of Eden. As I discuss in my newly released book More Than Allegory, attempting to interpret myths intellectually is often counterproductive, for authentic religious myths always point to something beyond what can be captured in words. They point to truths that transcend linear articulation along grammatical rules. Yet, in a society fixated on two even more counterproductive alternatives—literal interpretation and dismissal of religious myths—it may be useful to offer a different perspective on such a foundational myth as the Fall. My intent is to help open up new cognitive vistas and landscapes, hermeneutic directions and dimensions that normally elude us. Naturally, I remain keenly aware that if one tried to capture the full transcendent meaning of a religious myth in mere words, one would end up with countless contradictory entendres. So my ambition with this brief essay is more modest: by limiting myself to one, perhaps unusual, way of seeing the myth, I just want to reveal the claustrophobic box within which we ordinarily place our understanding of religious symbols.

The myth of the Fall tells that Adam and Eve, before they ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, 'were both naked, and were not ashamed.' (Genesis, 2:25) There is a subtle point to be made about this passage. Although Adam and Eve were not blind to their own nakedness—presumably they consciously experienced it all the time—their cognition of this nakedness somehow did not trigger the shame that it would likely trigger in a modern Western person. Adam and Eve did have the conscious experience of being naked, alright; but not quite with the mode of cognition that you and I have.

Then the serpent tells Eve: 'when you eat of [the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge] your eyes will be opened' (Genesis, 3:5). Yet, Eve's eyes were presumably already open; she wasn't blind; she was already fully capable of conscious experience. Therefore, the serpent must have meant something more than just conscious experience here; something extra. But what exactly? A passage from my book Why Materialism Is Baloney may offer us a clue:
Now, how many times have you felt, upon learning new information or arriving at a new insight, that you’ve somehow known it all along? You say to yourself: ‘Darn! I don’t know how, but I have always known this!’ ... The recognition that a new insight or piece of information has somehow always been known to us ... shows that the ‘unconscious’ knowledge was, in fact, in consciousness all along, even though we weren’t self-reflectively aware of it. The knowledge was always there, diffused in the interstices of egoic awareness. Then, when an event suddenly triggers its insertion into the field of self-reflection, we suddenly become aware that we were conscious of the knowledge all along.

There are documented historical examples of sudden incursions of knowledge into the field of self-reflective awareness that relate to the kind of personal experiences I attempted to describe above. For instance, it was only about six centuries ago, during the Renaissance, that Europeans became self-reflectively aware of three-dimensional perspective. Some authors refer to this development as the ‘discovery’ of perspective. Well, obviously every sight-capable human being has been seeing perspective since the dawn of our species, so it couldn’t have been discovered in the 15th century. One just needs to look at the world around to see it everywhere. What did happen is that, at that time, European artists first became aware that they were conscious of perspective. Three-dimensional perspective wasn’t new in consciousness, but new in the field of self-reflection. After it entered this field, it was immediately recognized as something people had always known, yet didn’t know that they knew it.

It is critical for ordinary human thinking that we not only know something, but that we know that we know it. ... That’s why many fail to see the distinction between knowledge and self-reflective knowledge, ending up stating, for instance, that perspective was ‘discovered’ in the 15th century as if it had never been in consciousness before. (pp. 122-123)
I suggest that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge conferred a self-reflective mode of cognition to Adam and Eve. The Tree was the tree of self-reflective knowledge. Eating from its fruit developed in Adam and Eve not the ability to consciously experience things—which they already had—but to know that they experienced things. It enabled them to recognize themselves as that which experiences; to ponder their own condition; to think about their own thoughts, feelings and sensations. Prior to acquiring this ability, they could already experience nakedness, but they didn't know that they experienced nakedness. Therefore, they felt no shame. From Genesis: 'So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.' (3:6-7, my italics) Precisely! Only then did they know that they were naked, in a self-reflective manner, even though they had already, all along, been consciously experiencing their own nakedness prior to eating the fruit. The Fall was the fall into self-reflection.

God's punishment for this is severe: 'cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.' (Genesis, 3:17-19) And then, 'the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.' (Genesis, 3:23-24)

Why such a severe and long-lasting punishment, under which we, to this day, are supposed to be suffering? I suggest that the key question here is not 'why' but 'how.' Indeed, how is it that the acquisition of self-reflective cognition leads to so much suffering? The answer is not difficult to see. It is self-reflection that allows us to recognize our own condition as living beings, which in turn enables us to create models of self and reality. From these mental models we then compulsively derive countless internal narratives about what the past should have been, leading to regret, bitterness, disappointment, anger and a general inability to let go. From the same mental models we also compulsively derive countless internal narratives about what the future might yet be, leading to anxiety and melancholy. Without self-reflection, we would live simply in the present moment—with no regret, bitterness, disappointment, anger, anxiety, melancholy, etc.—like the other animals in the Garden.

Self-reflection is a cognitive configuration that allows us to leave the immediacy of the present moment by imagining past and future scenarios, which we then torture ourselves with. We torture ourselves with our own self-reflective imagination. We fell when the Tree of Knowledge gave us the ability to create internal narratives about what should have been and what might yet be. We've become addicted to using these self-manufactured 'alternative realities' to struggle against what is. And such futile struggle against reality is what generates all human suffering.

There's more. As discussed above, the exile from Eden is our own compulsive self-torturing through comparing what is to our own imagined alternative realities. Alternative realities. Eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge enabled us to create our own alternative realities. Who is it that has the power to create a reality? God, of course. So 'when you eat of [the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God' (Genesis, 3:5, my italics), said the serpent to Eve. Spot on. Wise little reptile...

Yet, there is great good that comes with the Fall; unfathomable possibilities for realizing the fullness of the human potential and fulfilling its role in the cosmic scheme of things. After all, the Tree is supposedly 'the tree of the knowledge of good and evil' (Genesis, 2:9, my italics), not only of evil. To hint at what the good part is, I quote two passages from More Than Allegory:
"The human intellect does have the unique ability to ‘stand outside’ its own thoughts in the sense that it can think about its thoughts. We can also stand outside our emotions in the sense that we can ponder our emotions. We can even stand outside ourselves in the sense that we can contemplate our situation in the world as if we were looking at ourselves from the outside. This capacity is what we call self-reflective awareness and it is essential for making sense of nature. Without it, we would be completely immersed in the turbulent waters of instinct, unable to even ask ourselves what’s going on. Only through self-reflective awareness can we raise our heads above the water and consciously try to steer our way. Therefore, if it is true that the images of consensus reality point to a transcendent truth ... then our capacity for self-reflection is nature’s only chance of solving the conundrum. Think about this for a moment: without the capacity for self-reflection embodied in us, nature would stand no chance of groking itself; it would never be able to raise its head above the waters of its own instinctive unfolding." (pp. 69-70)
"The true value of self-reflection is not in answering, but in asking. As we’ve seen above, the self-reflective but language-limited intellect will never be able to produce the transcendent answer to the riddle of life. But by progressively refining the way the riddle is posed—that is, the way the questions are asked—the intellect can nudge and guide the obfuscated mind toward increasingly more insightful answers. Indeed, the limitation of the obfuscated mind is not its ability to arrive at answers: as argued in the previous chapter, its range of cognition is much broader than that of the intellect. The limitation of the obfuscated mind is that, because it lacks self-reflection, it simply doesn’t occur to it to ask the questions." (p. 74)
This essay relates but one amongst myriad valid interpretations of a religious myth that points to an ineffable truth. Under this unambitious interpretation, great suffering came to us when we fell into self-reflection. Yet, unfathomable possibilities did too. The Fall wasn't for nothing. God knew what He was doing. After all, who do you think put that Tree—and that serpent—in the Garden?

(The Bible quotations in this essay were taken from the Vatican website and are available online here.)


  1. Reminds me of Carols Castaneda's 'Silent Knowledge':

    "I abruptly pulled over to the side of the road. And right there I had, for the first time in my life, a clear knowledge of a dualism in me. Two obviously separate parts were within my being. One was extremely old, at ease, indifferent. It was heavy, dark, and connected to everything else. It was the part of me that did not care, because it was equal to anything. It enjoyed things with no expectation. The other part was light, new, fluffy, agitated. It was nervous, fast. It cared about itself because it was insecure and did not enjoy anything, simply because it lacked the capacity to connect itself to anything. It was alone, on the surface, vulnerable. That was the part with which I looked at the world."

    I often wonder about the experiences of birds, animals, insects even. From a self-reflective human perspective their lives seem hellish: exposed to the elements, ruled by instinct, hunting and being hunted, assailed by accident and parasites and disease. But who knows? Maybe their lives are like those of little children: ecstasies of pleasure and engrossing freedom punctuated by waves of suffering and sudden storms of terror, each of which are pure and infinite and uncomprehending, and each in turn passing and fading away leaving only the faintest impression.

    1. As I read your comment I was hearing a bird sing beautifully just outside my window. His life isn't hellish, alright. :-)

    2. He's still in Eden!
      I remember seeing a few years ago at the bottom of my garden a little group of sparrows looked not long out of the nest and were flying about from branch to branch in a little chain like bunting at a summer fayre and chattering constantly. They looked SO excited, as if they were having the time of their lives. I'm sure they were.

  2. Is there then some truth in the claim that it was Eve who, mischievously, wickedly or otherwise, brought self-reflection to humanity? I'd always assumed it was a cheap bit of misogynist propaganda: 'It's all women's fault'. But maybe the seed of self-reflection grew first amongst women, in the female experience or culture. If as per the stereotypes women are on the whole more empathic and maintain their social and family ties through large webs of cooperative relationships (as opposed to the male propensity for competitive violence), and also women experience the close bond of motherhood in which essentially a part of their body splits off and becomes conscious and independent, then maybe that focus on empathy and cooperation leads naturally to a state in which you imaginatively put yourself in the place of someone else and consider their needs, which is only a short step from imaginatively reflecting on yourself and your needs.
    So perhaps it was women who invented self-awareness and civilisation and in that way there's some truth in Genesis :-)

    1. Interesting thought, I'd never considered it! Thanks for sharing.
      Regarding the potential for misogyny and other ills in religious myths, I think it's real. The original, untarnished mythical intuition almost always gets hijacked and co-opted by egoic agendas of power and social control... Careful discernment is thus needed to keep the baby but throw away the bath water. There is a kernel of transcendent truth in most ancient, widespread religious myths, but it is often coated in layers of not-so-worthy material.

    2. there is no male propensity towards violence.studies of the paleolithic show this is a Capitalist mistruth directed at men,to make us think competing over women,resourcesnd''territory''is isnt and no foraging immediate return hunter gatherer has violence among his midst.violence and domination didnt arise until Agriculture.people are not''naturally''propensed towards any behaviour,Read up on Dialectic Materialism and Historical Materialism as said by Friedrich Engels.

      Rhesus monkeys are cooperative and parentally invested,and German Dziebel(Anthropogenesis kinship)says humans could have evolved from them.out of africa is BS,and its being destroyed by the day.african apes have very little genetically in common with humans as the edia tries to tell you.

    3. Men created Civilization.not that thats a good thing,as civil behaviour was what brought all of humanities ills.a pre-agriculture pre-dominator culture was existant for most of homo sapien existance.

  3. There's great essay along similar lines from something-of-a-maverick catholic blogger The O'Floinn:

    "But Adam is different. Having a rational human form in addition to his sensitive animal form, he is capable of knowing the good. As Paul writes in Romans 2;12-16, the law is written in the heart. God being the author of natures, is in the Christian view the author of human nature in particular; hence the law "written in the heart" was written there by God. But for Adam to know the good means that Adam is now capable of turning away from the good. Thus, when Adam wills some act that is contrary to what his intellect tells him is good, he is acting in disobedience to "God's commands written in his heart." A turning away from the good is called "sin" and, since no one had ever been capable of doing so before, it was the original sin. This is communicated by allegory in the tale of the tree.
    We can observe this today with children, who mature to a point is when they begin to recognize good and evil. We call it the Age of Reason. Once upon a time, this recognition must have happened for the first time, and not necessarily in childhood. Today's children have parents and an entire society of other sapient beings to serve as examples and hasten the onset; but Adam had no one to teach him, so the realization could have come late. All of a sudden, he knew he had disobeyed the voice in his head, he was naked like an animal, he knew that someday he would die.
    So death came into the world - not as fact, but as truth. Animals die in fact, but they do not know that they will. They live, as it were, one day at a time; and then one day they don't. "Truth is not just a judgment," writes Chastek, "but an affirmation of how this judgment stands to us with respect to its truth." Death became true when Adam realized it. What a bummer that must have been. He probably invented whiskey next.
    And so he was expelled from the edenic existence of the innocent ape-men animals into a world of worries. Perhaps it was literal. How did the other ape-men react to the odd ones in their midst? Evolution proceeds through reproductive isolation. If Adam and the others like him had stayed in ape-man eden, his genes may have been lost in the larger gene pool and never achieved "take-off" concentration. So some sort of secession seems reasonable.
    Maybe Adam and those he found like him started calling themselves "the Enlightened" or 'the Brights' or even just 'the Sapients' and this really annoyed the other 9000 or so, who then drove them out as obnoxious little gits."

  4. It's surely apropos that, in the Eden Tale, the serpent was chosen as the conveyor of this fateful message, this creature, in itself, providing a rich metaphor of symbolic information that bespeaks the nature of reality, in the form of the ouroboros, the caduceus, the leviathan, Apophis, etc. Which brings to mind a book I read some time ago called The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, by anthropologist Jeremy Narby, in which he explores the serpent's symbolic prevalence in the myths of almost all ancient cultures, though most notably in the allegories and creation stories of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, wherein it plays a central role in their ayahuasca ceremonies, also, as the conveyor of some vital message -- go figure. I highly recommend it as further exploration of the importance of these myths, and the need for their revival in our current culture, as a remedy for the malaise of dogmatic materialism. But, of course, not before you've purchased and read Bernardo's books ;-)

    1. I read Narby's book but got completely stuck on his 'hypothesis' that psychedelic visions are caused by bio-photons emitted within the skull. The line of thought that leads to that hypothesis -- whether the hypothesis itself happens to be true or not -- is, in my view, utterly and completely nonsensical; even shameful for a scholar to put forward in writing. Photons are only related to vision insofar as they interact with the retina. There's just no reason whatsoever to relate bio-photons generated within the skull to visions of any sort. I got so stuck on this that I don't feel I can impartially judge the rest of the book, which therefore might as well be very good.

    2. For sure, that's a strange hypothesis, especially given that's not his academic forte. Coming from an anthropologist, I didn't even give it a second thought. But I can certainly see why someone from your scientific field of expertise could get stuck on it.

  5. Yes, great food for thought Bernardo. I suppose The Fall is also something you had in mind when in More Than Allegory you talk of how we, as self-reflective beings, "collapse" to singularities out of Mind at Large in the cognitive Big Bang (one of the synonyms for 'to fall' is 'to collapse'). Wonderful stuff!

  6. Bernardo, remember someone named Im Skeptical who commented on this site a month or so ago? Well, on his blog, he apparently claims that the Hard Problem of Consciousness is unscientific. So, a Christian apologist named Metacrock did a review of his blogpost (which can be found at the following link with comments at the bottom):

    Metacrock's Blog: Soft Sell on the Hard Problem

  7. Maybe the fall is continually happening in each individual. Maybe at any time, any one of us can become *consciously* aware of something that we've always been aware of, but which has hitherto been obfuscated. Maybe it's not so much a parable about a single event, as one about a continuous process occurring in humanity.

    It's interesting that it is a woman who eats the apple first--a symbol of the intuitive side of the mind, perhaps? But what then does the snake symbolise? Perhaps it's the pre-intuitive: the ever-present and inchoate potential for some new suspicion about the nature of reality to arise.

    Michael Larkin

    1. Hi Mickjo ... I've also wondered about the meaning of the serpent as the interlocutor in the garden. Why that creature as the conveyor of the message, as opposed to some other creature? Would a talking Raven, for example, have served just as well? Surely this is a case of the message being inherent to the medium. The conventional interpretation is that the serpent represents Satan. But this orthodox overlay is so oversimplified as to seem naive, for what is Satan but another mythical creation. As stated, deities taking the form of serpents are prevalent in almost all pre-biblical cultural myths, including their preliterate indigenous prototypes. So it would seem that the symbolism of Eden's serpent would warrant some much deeper and complex meaning than has been traditionally elicited. In any case, if interested, I found this relevant article on the possible meanings of Eden's serpent, along with some interesting commentary, linked to below, wherein one is left with the impression that, as often seems the case, it perhaps means whatever one imagines it to mean.

  8. This is Metacrock. I am linking to your site, I like your essay. Here's a link to my essay on Biblical Revelation, You might like it.

    Models of Biblical revelation

  9. I like most of what you say, here, Bernardo.

    I have long had a different notion about the verse on 'the tree of the knowledge of good and evil' (Genesis, 2:9).

    This seems to me to be a reference to duality thinking. The tree of good and evil is the tree of the perception of duality, and thus with separation and judgment (condemnation). Here too arises the ability to project (to imagine and to think the image is real and outside one's mind), and thus the idea of a world 'outside' oneself and also a separate God. All of this entails suffering. This suffering is then imagined as punishment.

    Some of this relates well to your previous article (June 2014), The True Nature of the Unconscious.

  10. I'm reminded of the quote from Solomon in Ecclesiastes 1:18: "For in much wisdom is much grief; and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow." And, in keeping with the spirit of this verse, the emergence of man's self-awareness is not only fraught with inner-turmoil, but, physical suffering as well, in the punishment laid-down by God.
    Agriculture is perhaps the most labor-intensive of man's activities, and provided the basis for the advent of slavery---for obvious reasons. Which is why relegation to an agricultural existence was a such a harsh punishment. And I'm sure the memory of our comparatively easy, hunter-forager lifestyle contributed to the inner-turmoil of the early agriculturists while toiling under the whips of their masters.
    But, then again, slavery is used even in the insect world, among some social insects, such as certain species of bees and ants, that harvest and store food for future use. And that's what agriculture enabled humans to do on a large scale---store surplus food. Which led to the leisure class, who had the luxury of disposable time; and disposable time allowed for contemplation, which led to creativity. Creativity led to the development of language. Language allowed us to articulate and communicate our ponderings---within the limits of language---and eventually to engage in abstractions and the metaphysical.
    So eventually, even the "curse" became a blessing---with much collateral damage along the way---ultimately leading to yet another of your compelling, challenging and illuminating articles, from which I am again nourished. Thank you!

  11. Hi Bernardo... but why must we drag Christian baggage onto the train. I like Dimwoo's Castaneda quote a lot better... or we could look for other creation myths (just not Xenu and the Scientologists... too weird :)). It still seems to me that your giving preference to Christian campfire stories.

  12. Not intending to preempt Bernardo here, or plug his book, but speaking of the Castaneda reference, since reading More Than Allegory, I was struck by the coincidental similarity (in part 3) of the dialogues between the protagonist and the entity called 'the Other', to the dialogues of Castaneda and the Yaqui shaman Don Juan, which does away with any religious overlay. Even the psychoactive, hi-tech 'Recipe', aka 'juice mix,' could substitute for the peyote, as the so-called entheogen of choice. As such, I think Bernardo recognizes the need for a contemporary alternative to the baggage-laden Christian, and other, religious myths that perhaps no longer speak to our increasingly secular world -- albeit, anachronistic as they may be, there's still some archetypal timelessness about them that transcends the baggage of literal fundamentalist interpretation, and which speaks to our deeper numinous sensibility, however buried beneath the paradigm of orthodox materialism it may be.

  13. One question, Bernardo: if the point of life is self reflective awareness, then what's the point of heaven, like those described in NDEs? Why not just have our current lives and the mind-at-large?

  14. I have always got the impression from NDEs that the idyllic, heavenly landscapes are part of a transitioning process. What people report seeing during that stage of the NDE can vary dramatically depending on the culture they were raised. Seems like the purpose is to comfort you as you transition into an ego-less sort of consciousness.

  15. This is, I think, a somewhat interesting take on the myth from Sri Aurobindo's, "The Life Divine"

    IF ALL is in truth Sachchidananda, death, suffering, evil, lim- itation can only be the creations, positive in practical effect, negative in essence, of a distorting consciousness which has fallen from the total and unifying knowledge of itself into some error of division and partial experience. This is the fall of man typified in the poetic parable of the Hebrew Genesis. That fall is his deviation from the full and pure acceptance of God and himself, or rather of God in himself, into a dividing conscious- ness which brings with it all the train of the dualities, life and death, good and evil, joy and pain, completeness and want, the fruit of a divided being. This is the fruit which Adam and Eve, Purusha and Prakriti, the soul tempted by Nature, have eaten. The redemption comes by the recovery of the universal in the individual and of the spiritual term in the physical conscious- ness. Then alone the soul in Nature can be allowed to partake of the fruit of the tree of life and be as the Divine and live for ever. For then only can the purpose of its descent into material consciousness be accomplished, when the knowledge of good and evil, joy and suffering, life and death has been accomplished through the recovery by the human soul of a higher knowledge which reconciles and identifies these opposites in the universal and transforms their divisions into the image of the divine Unity.

  16. I like your ideas! I'd also like to see your thoughts on the second part of that story, regarding the tree of life and immortal life. Why would God prevent now self-reflected humans from eating from the tree of life and gaining immortality? Why does acquiring self-reflection lead to death, as God mentioned? In a sense, God have immortality and self-reflection, so why not allow His creations to possess both qualities and become little gods (since in Christianity this seems to be a goal after all - apotheosis)? It seems you can't have both immortality and self-reflection simultaneously, yet God embodies both.

    Not sure if someone has asked a similar question, but I couldn't find anything related. I hope it's okay to ask here after so many years. I've recently become interested in your work and philosophy and would like to hear your thoughts on this.