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Monday, September 05, 2011


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I've puzzled about the same interpretive issue. Although not entirely satisfactory, my interpretation does have Adam and Eve disobeying God's command in much the same way a dog disobeys. And the "punishment" is simply the "consequences" of that action, not imposed retributively. Also, I think it's the existential awareness of death/mortality, not death itself that is one of the consequences. Perhaps someone more familiar with Talmudic traditions could help us out.

Hi Bob,

I hope things are well with you.

Yes, my defense of (2) is not that convincing. So maybe denial of (2) is another way out of the problem.

I believe the orthodox Christian doctrine is that Adam and Eve were created to live forever in the garden of Eden, and that death itself was the consequence of their sin, not merely the awareness of death.

If they were mortal in the prelapsarian state, but not aware of their mortality, then they would be like innocent children or animals. In what sense then would they be in the image and likeness of God? Only potentially? A potentiality that, if things had gone right, would never have been actualized?

Dr. Vallicella,

Thanks for the post.

St. Thomas Aquinas, at Summa Theo. II-II:163:2, likewise suggests an interpretation that would reject (5): the "knowledge of good and evil" can be taken, not (only) as moral knowledge, but knowledge of good and evil fortune. According to this reading, Adam attempts to usurp the Divine prerogative of foreknowledge, thereby ascertaining what shall in the future befall him. What say you to that?

Bill -
I've pretty much given up on trying to make sense of orthodoxy -- to the point where I even question whether the fall was "things going wrong." In other words, I'm strongly inclined to the view that the fall was, indeed, the beginning of the rise.

I've always taken it to mean that Adam and Eve 'realized' their ability to engage in moral discourse (i.e. the ability to ask themselves, is 'X' a moral or immoral act?). The problem - and a big one, at that - being that Adam and Eve weren't, and thus we aren't today, in a position to make such determinations. That is, we can discover moral precepts but not create them.

Thus the eating of the fruit was not so much a coming into knowledge, as it was an act which put God to side.

John Milton has an ingenious solution in Paradise Lost. Prior to eating the fruit, Adam and Eve have conceptual knowledge of good and evil. By eating the fruit, they gain experiential knowledge of evil in themselves and of lost goodness -- not actually a gain, of course. Milton saw the objection to this solution and addressed it. The tree holds the promise that one will become like God, knowing good and evil, but God doesn't experience evil in Himself. The word for God here is "Elohim," a plural that literally means "gods." The term "gods" sometimes applies to angels. Milton interprets this to mean the fallen angels. Adam and Eve have become like the fallen angels, for they share a knowledge of the experience of evil in themselves.

I've published an article on this:

"Like One of Us: Milton's God and Fallen Man," MEMES 14.2 (2004.11): 285-303


The paper analyzes God's announcement to the heavenly assembly in Paradise Lost 11.84-85, which begins with these puzzling words: "O sons, like one of us man is become / To know both good and evil." The words are puzzling because prelapsarian Adam and Eve already knew the difference between good and evil. The paper's argument turns on the ambiguity of the word "knowledge," which can be either conceptual or experiential. Thomas Blackburn noted this distinction in a 1971 article, but his argument is flawed in its conclusion that Adam and Eve come to share the experiential knowledge of evil that the faithful angels have from their fight against the fallen angels. Blackburn's argument fails because the faithful angels never experience evil within themselves. Rather, Adam and Eve come to share experiential knowledge of evil with the fallen angels, who have already experienced evil within themselves. God's words about man in 11.84-85 coming to be "like one of us" thus refer to Satan (and his minions), not to the faithful angels. That a fallen Adam and Eve are like Satan should not be especially surprising, but this reinterpretation of Genesis 3:22 is nonetheless rather bold, perhaps even unprecedented in the Christian tradition.

Jeffery Hodges

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Leo is referring to this passage in Aquinas:

>>Accordingly, while both (namely the devil and the first man) coveted God's likeness inordinately, neither of them sinned by coveting a likeness of nature. But the first man sinned chiefly by coveting God's likeness as regards "knowledge of good and evil," according to the serpent's instigation, namely that by his own natural power he might decide what was good, and what was evil for him to do; or again that he should of himself foreknow what good and what evil would befall him. Secondarily he sinned by coveting God's likeness as regards his own power of operation, namely that by his own natural power he might act so as to obtain happiness. Hence Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. xi, 30) that "the woman's mind was filled with love of her own power." On the other hand, the devil sinned by coveting God's likeness, as regards power. Wherefore Augustine says (De Vera Relig. 13) that "he wished to enjoy his own power rather than God's." Nevertheless both coveted somewhat to be equal to God, in so far as each wished to rely on himself in contempt of the order of the Divine rule.<<

Yes, Adam and Eve. But is Saint Augustine's exegesis of the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Genesis correct? Do a search: First Scandal.

I would think that most apologists would either deny 3 or else say that Adam and Eve did have some level of moral knowledge sufficient to render their punishment just. They did, after all know that God had commanded them not to eat the fruit, and that they shouldn't eat the fruit.

Hello Professor.

I think a distinction can be made between right and wrong and good and evil. I don't know if you can agree with me. But perhaps, before the fall, Adam and Eve knew it was wrong to eat from the tree of life, for it was a disobedience of a direct order from God. But they didn't know it was evil, because they didn't know suffering. Note that I am equalling right and wrong to moral judgement and good and evil to a more personal judgement based on the experience of pain.

I don't know if that distinction is legitimate, but it also seems rushed to equal right and wrong to good and evil.

Hello Professor

How does the snake fit into all this?

The Genesis account tells us that:
1. Prior to the apple incident, snakes could talk.
2. A snake possessed the knowledge of good and evil, and consciously chose to tempt Eve to eat an apple.
3. So God punished the snake by taking away its ability to talk.

But did he take away the snake's knowledge of good and evil too? Should we assume that modern snakes are morally aware mute individuals?

I'm sorry if my questions seem facetious. They're not intended as a cheap shot.

If you are taking Genesis literally, then you have to deal with the whole "talking snake" problem. If you think it's a metaphor, then I'd like to understand more properly what you think that means here.

"But then why is the tree in question called 'the tree of the knowledge of good and evil'?" I have no idea.

I've always taken the fruit from that tree to provide knowledge of good and evil by acquaintance, and that Adam and Eve already had knowledge of good and evil by description. (Or something similar to that distinction anyway.) I would want to argue it is only the latter which is necessary for moral responsibility.

Hi georgesdelatour. I don't think the serpent was a real serpent, but rather Satan disguised as a serpent. Not all serpents could talk, but only that one.

Hi Carl.

So did Satan cunningly outwit God by seducing Eve, or did God know what Satan was going to do all along?


Now I think of it, that's still a puzzling notion. Did Adam and Eve live in a Doctor Doolittle world, where they simply took it for granted that animals could talk? If they didn't, why did Eve just accept that this apparent snake could talk?

If Satan disguised himself and spoke to me from the mouth of a snake, my first startled reaction would definitely be, "what's happening - this snake is talking!"


By 'knowledge of good and evil' we might mean three different things.

1. Knowledge or awareness that there is an (objective) difference between good and evil.
2. Knowledge of which acts/omissions are good and which evil.
3. Knowledge of evil by direct experience, i.e., by committing an evil deed, and similarly for good. Knowledge in this third sense would be like 'carnal knowledge' which one gets by actually engaging in sexual intercourse, and not by knowing about it. One could know everything about it without knowing what it is like. (Cf. Mary the neuroscientist in Frank Jackson's tale.)

So are you saying that when A & E partook of the fruit of the G & E tree they acquired knowledge in the third sense? But what was the object of the knowledge? You want to say that after eating the forbidden fruit, A & E got kn. by acquintance. Acquaintance with what? Acquaintance is of a particular. But kn. of G & E would seem to be something universal.

I do agree with you, though, that moral responsibility seems to require only kn. by description of the diff btw G & E and kn. of which acts are good and which evil, but not acquintance with good or evil.

Why didn't God want Adam & Eve to gain knowledge of good and evil? Did he want humans to be morally ignorant? Without the knowledge of good and evil, we might do evil innocently. We wouldn't be morally culpable in a legalistic sense, but that's no consolation to those who'd suffer from our unwittingly evil actions.

I agree with Matt, I think, although I can't answer the question of what would the object of carnal knowledge be.

But about my previous comment in response to georgesdelatour on the serpent, I just realised the reading I was doing was actually taken from Paradise Lost. The Bible itself doesn't mention the serpent being an incarnation of Satan, though many do assume so. So, I have no idea of the linguistic status of animals before the fall. I just consulted my Bible and it doesn't mention that.


I want to say that the object of the knowledge is something like guilt or shame. There is a 'raw feel' of wretchedness which often accompanies acts of wrongdoing (think the feeling you might get if you betray a spouse or if you indulge in sexual perversity). Such qualia are of course universals, known through their instancing. As for the 'good' bit, I suppose having the contrast between good and evil introspectively available facilitates a greater appreciation of the good.

I would read Gen 2:25 in support of my perspective: they only desire to clothe themselves because they feel shame, and shame and sexuality have always been closely connected.


That looks like a very interesting paper, but I can't find the journal. Is it the Milton Quarterly? I am planning to work through Paradise Lost some time soon.

But I would deny that God doesn't have this intimate knowledge of evil - I think God can know evil without committing evil.


I would think that God knows evil conceptually, not experientially through having committed evil. Whether he can be said to have experienced evil in a secondary sense, i.e., the evil that others commit, is a difficult question.

The paper used to be online, and I had a link at my blog, but I've recently discovered that the link no longer works. I could send you a copy. I might still have an electronic version. If not, I could send a hard copy.

Jeffery Hodges

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Why not upload your paper to your weblog?

I meant to ask you: Does Milton address the problem I set forth in my aporetic pentad? Or something very much like it?


Bringing in Russell's distinction between kn by acquintance and kn by description is an interesting way of trying to solve the problem. But you haven't addressed my point. Acquaintance is of a particular.

Guilt and shame are universals. And anyway guilt and shame are consequences of evil acts, not evil acts.

So I'm not clear how your sol'n is supposed to work.


I suppose I was talking loosely. Knowledge of guilt and shame is knowledge of universals, but in order to possess those concepts A & E have to know them by acquaintance, via a particular guilty episode, etc. (Jackson's Mary is probably a better model than kn by acq/des, since it doesn't have the particularity commitment you are insisting on.)

"And anyway guilt and shame are consequences of evil acts, not evil acts."

Sure, but a feeling of guilt bears more interesting relations to the evil act which prompted it than the merely causal. I'd say the guilt helps (or should help) you understand the gravity of the evil in a way mere description cannot reach.


Milton rejects number 5:

5. Adam and Eve did not possess the knowledge of good and evil prior to eating the forbidden fruit.

Milton believes that Adam and Eve did possess conceptual knowledge of good and evil prior to eating the forbidden fruit.

As for uploading my paper, I don't know how to do that -- unless you mean posting it as a blog entry. That would be a rather long post. Am I even allowed to post it? I thought that journals might take a dim view of that practice.

Jeffery Hodges

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