The Tree of Knowledge
In Genesis 2:17, the god character commanded: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Normally this injunction has been taken to prohibit the exploration of “carnal” knowledge, and has led to a sense of sin and many forms of arcane prohibitions against social and sexual contact–from dance bans to burquas.
There’s only one problem, “carnal knowledge” is essential to the continuation of the human race. So 99% of everyone who’s breathing at some point in their lives has to take a bite of the forbidden fruit. We are by this definition all fallen and miserable sinners. The other 1%, who remain ‘virtuous,’ face angst of a different kind as they die with their biological purpose unfulfilled. So to counter (or more correctly, co-opt and control for social stability) this overwhelming human urge, the memetic engineers had to come up with the elaborate archetypes of the serpent, Eve, and the apple.
Jungians might find a lot of value in studying such archetypes, and they have strong utility in analyzing our deeper motivations and behaviors. We humans often do things we know we shouldn’t, and like Icarus, many of us reach for the sun even at risk of immolation. Indeed, with near-universal knowledge about addictive substances such as crack cocaine or heroin, and the awful end of loss, sickness and loneliness they produce, why does anyone ever try them at all? But people do. They want first-hand knowledge, whatever the cost.
Another far-less-insidious metaphor for the tree of knowledge is pictured above in the diagram of “Relationships between Scientific Paradigms.” The Edenic injunction still applies, and religionists of all stripes increasingly find themselves squaring off with science. But it’s a fools errand, as many have discovered. Only one thing can happen when a religious person both understands science and comes to grips (deeply) with their own psychology: they drop the religion; notwithstanding Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of “non-overlapping magisteria” which was roundly debunked by Dawkins in The God Delusion.
Even if we accept the bible as largely metaphor–a work of potent fiction, a literary blast from the past–we still have to deal with the reality that scriptures once attempted to make truth-claims about the universe. They attempted to explain origins, purposes, and morality. But they did so in a complete vacuum. Like the knowledge of their day, their claims were circular and unsupportable, and were based on folk wisdom and traditions.
While many will still claim this ever-shrinking territory for scripture: (It purportedly explains the “why,” while science explains the “how”), I submit that all knowledge humans ever need to know is contained in science, and mapped out in the above diagram (with yet-to-be-discovered additions and deletions).
Commissioned by Katy Borner of Indiana University, node layout by Kevin Boyack at Sandia National Laboratories and Dick Klavins, president SciTech Strategies, Inc., data from Thompson ISI, graphics and typography by W. Bradford Paley at Information Esthetics. The “tree” was originally printed in Nature, posted at Seed Magazine, and picked up by KurzweilAI.net and others. This masterpiece of scientific art is available for free (shipping and handling) from the Information Esthetics site.
This map was constructed by sorting roughly 800,000 published papers into 776 different paradigms (shown as pale circular nodes) based on how often the papers were cited together by authors of other papers. Links (curved black lines) were made between the paradigms that shared papers, then treated as rubber bands: holding similar paradigms nearer one another when a physical simulation forced every paradigm to repel every other; thus the layout derives directly from the data. Larger paradigms have more papers; node proximity and darker links indicate how many papers are shared between two paradigms. Flowing labels list common words unique to each paradigm, large labels general areas of scientific inquiry.
The sheer scope and complexity of this diagram boggles the mind. It’s just a beginning of the mapping of what has been heretofore terra incognita.
Scriptural traditions on the other hand substitute glib and broad brush strokes to give meaning to their hopelessly narrow world view, and shut down almost every line of inquiry beyond it. Everywhere they turn, in every corner, under every rock, behind every flower–behind everything they can’t explain–they insert the god character. Stemming from a time when geocentric models of the universe ruled the day, and stars were thought to have been glued to a finite sphere of the ‘heavens’ rotating about the earth, these traditions and ‘gods of the gaps’ are as outdated as the pathetically inadequate models themselves.
I submit this chart of science is a sacred object in the best sense of that word. It is a symbol of the collected works of man. It shows how man is becoming his own god–god with a small ‘g.’ I personally stand humbled before it. I submit that if there is any purpose to life at all, it is in becoming ‘awake’ as Buddha taught. I interpret this to mean observing, participating in and benefiting from the power and wisdom of the universe which is locked in our brains. And coming to know the only love that lasts: which is the love of knowledge. This perspective gives greater meaning to the words of Kahlil Gibran: “love is sufficient unto love.”
If I could dream of immortality, it wouldn’t be spent strumming a harp somewhere, nor with some coterie of virgins, lambs, cherubs or other collection of heavenly fluff. It would be spent gaining both intimate self-knowledge, and understanding of the vast depths of the cosmos. Through this desire–man’s natural curiosity, which is widespread and growing–humanity will banish death (by replacing worn-out body and brain parts) and (through enhancing our brains and communication abilities) become unified with the intelligence of the universe. If this does not happen in our lifetimes, certainly it will within the next few hundred years.
We humans are but an instrument: Science is the battle cry of the universe waking up to itself.