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)Moreover:
"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.)