Nibbles from the Tree of Knowledge
On my night table for last read of the evening is a book with the title, Forbidden Knowledge. It concerns a topic that I’d never considered as such: whether there are, or ought to be, built-in limits to what we as human beings should seek to know.
“All men by nature desire to know.”
It’s the opening sentence of his Metaphysics. I’ve always taken it as axiomatic, also as a noble truth. Also as a fundamental value of the civilization that became known as Western, with its two great nourishing streams: the classical Greco-Roman source and the Hebraic-cum-Jesus-Following source.
So what could possibly be amiss? What’s wrong with knowing, or trying to know?
However, as the book I’m now reading points out, not everyone feels that way. To put it more pointedly, the classical and the Judeo-Christian worlds both contain warnings of the sharpest kind against this desire-to-know feature of our psyches.
The scene in the first chapters of Genesis, the opening Book of the Hebrew Bible is of course set by a divine prohibition against eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The first couple are warned that a single bite would be a deadly misstep.
Jews and Christians construe the consequences of (and remedy for) that bite differently. I’ve read the story, of course, and discussed these theological differences with interested friends, but I never asked myself why it was so bad for Eve & Adam to gain the Knowledge that the Tree afforded them. Was the gain of knowledge bad in itself, or just the violation of God’s command? If He had said, “Don’t walk in the tall grass,” would that have been reckoned just as bad?
Meanwhile, I’d assumed that at least Greek culture and its Roman successor were open and eager for the acquisition of knowledge of the natural world. Classical thinkers held that we, by nature, desire to know nature and nature is so shaped that she is fit to be known. So I thought. But this book points out that the Greek imagination includes the figure of Prometheus who stole fire (technology, artificial light) from heaven. For his theft, the gods punished Prometheus in a terrible way. They stretched him out on a rocky crag in the Caucasus where vultures could eat his liver endlessly!
So it seems that both the classical and the Judeo-Christian sources of our common culture contain warnings against knowing too much.
Even Plato, to whom we owe Western philosophy, warned that dialectic, philosophy’s prime tool, could lead the over-eager student toward cynicism, smart-aleckyness, and hollowness of soul. If the new student lacked a teacher able, by his example, to model the difference between corrupting smarts and the earnest, never-complete striving toward truth, dialectic too could be dangerous.
Socrates, whom Plato deemed “the wisest and best man of his generation” was distinguished by his keen, educated awareness of one thing:
that he did not know.
So which is it? Is knowledge and the desire for it natural and beneficial? Or should it be checked by some external constraint?
The book pursues the course of this question through the centuries and the different answers given by the ancients, the medievals, the moderns, the Enlightenment, and secular science.
I’ve not gotten far enough along to see how the whole journey goes, though I can guess. But for now, I’d like to look at my own experience with these questions.
There was a time when, for me as a young philosopher, my goal was to gain as complete an understanding of reality – reality from start to finish, from edge to edge – as could be found or (within my personal limitations) acquired.
I embraced philosophy’s goal as I conceived it: a complete logos of the cosmos, a coherent and comprehensive account of reality, a theory of everything. Instinctively I was drawn toward the great rationalists: Aristotle, Spinoza, later Hegel, and those who worked in their lineage, who could produce calm clarity and could still the restless waters of my mind.
What changed that? For there was a change and it was profound.
Certain experiences proved too hard for philosophy (as far as I understood it) to resolve. What experiences? Moral dangers intruded into my journey and they proved beyond the competence of the great rationalists to describe, much less defeat. Also, the broken places in human relations and my failures to repair them, despite all the philosophy I had acquired over time. Neither the great systems of the past, nor the fashionable, contemporary, absurdist philosophic claims, nor the contemporary scientism that leaves no place for consciousness, repaired the reversals or defeated the enemies of a meaningful life.
Don’t get me wrong. Philosophic views, including wrong ones, are of the greatest consequence in culture. Hegel was right when he said that the solitary thinker in his tower has more effect on history than the man on horseback (the world-historical hero). It’s important to study philosophy, just to understand the Zeitgeist. And the greatest philosophers are storehouses of human wisdom, not at all to be despised.
All the same: one has to be aware that there is much one does not know, much and much that one will never know, and that there will be times, many times in life, when –
the help one needs
does not come from the philosophers.