Stephen Fry Answers The ‘What Knowledge Did The Apple Bring’ Question

This is for Digital Cuttlefish, who is wildly busy and should NOT be online, but I’d like you to visit their blog so they can still feel loved. Horrid fishy thing that it is. Neener.

To cheer Cuttle up – a nice little slice of Quora, the popular Q&A siteWhat precisely was the knowledge that God didn’t want Adam & Eve to have?

It must have been very threatening to God considering his reaction to the eating of the “forbidden fruit.” Over the years I have seen many contradictory attempts at explaining what precisely this knowledge was. The only one that ever made any intellectual sense to me can be found in Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael.

Stephen Fry responded:

“Precisely” is an amusing word to use! Of course canonically the fruit’s reward (not specified as apple of course) is explained as granting a knowledge of good and evil, which is interpreted as a moral sense, a conscience. Specifically the sense of nakedness arose: “we were naked and we were ashamed” they told god when he questioned the bizarre covering up he saw when he met them later. His response is excellent: “who told you you were naked?”Genesis is just one of many attempts on the part of early man’s collective unconscious to narrativise a growing awareness that our species, in developing speech, transmitting ideas and memories, giving names and attributing qualities to other life forms and natural phenomena as well as being able to conceive of futurity and projecting forward plans that might outlive individuals and create that social condition that we call civilisation, seemed unique amongst other creatures.Consciousness is still a central puzzle, a point towards which neuroscience and philosophy are still attempting to converge. 

It is unfortunate that the Genesis myth allowed, thousands of years later, the idea of original sinshameguilt and disobedience to be taken as doctrine by an imperialist church which had syncretically raided such bits of JewishChristian and Greek theology and philosophy as suited their need to hold onto power.

But it is still a question that has yet to be answered by palaeonto-anthropology or any other form of enquiry so far as I know. Where did we get self-consciousness? How come we feel shame at the bodies and desire we never chose to have? Is language the parent of such self-consciousness or did self-consciousness spur the development of language?

Sometimes I’d rather be a tree frog. I don’t think they fall asleep worried that they’ve been a bad tree frog that afternoon or envying kingfishers or resenting their own diet or habitat. They just seem to spend 100% of their time being magnificent at being a tree frog. We spend most of our time regardless of our religion or lack of it, disappointed in ourselves, ashamed of ourselves, envious of others — always becoming and rarely being. 

It is a sad state of affairs that does require some explanation. Genesis at least had a go. That unprincipled pontiffs and princes of the church twisted it into a rod with which to rule is not the fault of the myth.

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About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • Cuttlefish

    Ok, ok, ok, I’ll get back to work!

  • Joshua Bennett

    I like Stephen Fry. He’s quite a bit more charitable than, say Hitchens, but he’s not (that I’ve seen anyway) an accomodationist. The way in which he talks about the human-ness of myths reminds me of Carl Sagan.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    It is unfortunate that the Genesis myth allowed, thousands of years later, the idea of original sin, shame, guilt and disobedience to be taken as doctrine by an imperialist church which had syncretically raided such bits of Jewish, Christian and Greek theology and philosophy as suited their need to hold onto power.

    And at least as unfortunate that the Hebrews (following the pattern of numerous more “advanced” neighbors) didn’t wait for thousands of years, or even one, to use the same myth to blame everything – everything! – that goes wrong on women.

    • Mike de Fleuriot

      Aha, but it was only One woman, you can give them that, can’t you?

  • Eric

    One thing that always confused me was – if Adam and Eve (or perhaps Adam and Steve, which I keep hearing was actually the couple… ) did not know good from evil, how could they know it was wrong to disobey God and eat from the tree? If you truly lack a moral sense, can you really be immoral? On the other hand, if they knew it was wrong (knew good from evil), then the bible lies in telling us that was what the fruit granted.

    I note also that there was a second tree (eternal life) that God (gods?) were *afraid* that Adam and Steve would eat from as well and “become like us”. Thus they were driven from the garden. An omnipotent deity that is *afraid*? This story always smelled funny to me…

    From http://saintscriptures.com/
    Genesis Ch 2:

    God gave the man orders, saying, You may freely take of the fruit of every tree of the garden: 17 But of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not take; for on the day when you take of it, death will certainly come to you. 18 And the Lord God said, It is not good for the man to be by himself: I will make one like himself as a help to him

    N.B. that Eve was not present for God’s instruction not to eat of the tree… Also that God says you’ll die if you eat of the tree (which doesn’t happen) –

    And in Ch 3:
    22 And the Lord God said, Now the man has become like one of us, having knowledge of good and evil; and now if he puts out his hand and takes of the fruit of the tree of life, he will go on living for ever.

    • besomyka

      Also in Genesis 3, the serpent asks Eve it it was true that God told them not to eat the fruit, and Eve confirms that God said that and, in addition, that if they did that they would die.

      In the Myth, God may not have told her directly but it seems that she knew anyway. Maybe Adam warned her.

      Why am I even bothering to rationalize this? I completely agree with your first point, though. That lack of moral awareness strikes me as the crux of the whole problem. If they didn’t know right from wrong, good from evil, how could they make a moral decision at all? It’s all a bunch of bunk.


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