Human consciousness gives us the ability to ask ‘why?’ You know how children go through that stage of constantly asking ‘why?’ Well, that’s a uniquely human capacity (as far as we know), and it comes from consciousness, that thing inside us that makes the everyday seem suddenly weird and unfamiliar, that makes us look at the way things are, scratch our head, and ask:’yes but…why?’
Human consciousness turns on itself, like a snake eating its own tail, and asks: ‘why are we conscious? Why do humans ask questions, and not other animals? Who or what gave us this capacity…and is it a blessing, or a curse?’ I love these questions. Because they’re so fundamental, yet so hard to answer…yet such fun to ask. And most religions and philosophies are built around attempts at an answer.
Let’s explore some answers that have been offered throughout history. We might as well start with Genesis. This book is, among other things, a fascinating attempt to answer the ‘why’ of human consciousness.
Genesis tells us that God put man in the Garden of Eden, along with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The tree, in other words, of moral consciousness and ethical philosophy. God tells man that he may eat the fruit of every tree in the garden, except the Tree of Knowledge, ‘for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die’.
So why make that tree in the first place? And why put it right next to man, who God knows is not the brightest spark, and say ‘whatever you do, don’t eat this’. It’s like telling a child not to eat the marshmallow. Of course man was going to eat the tree of knowledge!
Then God creates Eve, and Eve meets the subtle serpent. Again, why did God create the serpent, and put it right next to Adam and Eve? Christians would presumably say, ‘because He wanted to test Adam and Eve’. Well, sure enough, the serpent tempts Eve and tells her that if she eats of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, ‘ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.’
Sure enough, Eve eats the fruit, and gives some to Adam. ‘And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they [were] naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.’
The first thing to note is that humans’ very first act after attaining moral consciousness is to make aprons. Think about that, the next time you put on an apron. That was our first step in conscious evolution. The mighty apron. We are gods of the kitchen! We bake cakes!
Secondly, for all his reputation as a deceiver, the serpent isn’t lying – the fruit doesn’t kill Adam and Eve, it opens their eyes. The serpent is telling the truth.
Thirdly, Eve apparently had knowledge of good and evil before eating the fruit – she knew it was wrong to eat the fruit according to God, but was able to consider an alternative moral view from the serpent. So she was already morally conscious before eating the fruit. If she didn’t have knowledge of good and evil before consuming the fruit, how could she be tempted? Temptation depends on moral consciousness.
Anyway, Eve eats the fruit first. This condemns womanhood to an eternity of second-class citizenship in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Woman is the tempter, the deceiver, the weak one, the one whom Satan persuades. Yet actually, from another perspective – Eve is the first to attain moral consciousness. She is the awakener, while Adam is the slow-developing dufus.
So Adam and Eve eat the fruit, and their eyes are opened, their consciousness heightened. They evolve from homo dufus to homo sapiens. Yet alas there are some serious glitches to Humanity 2.0, which the serpent failed to mention. Consciousness doesn’t entirely make humans ‘as gods’, as the serpent suggested. It also makes them ashamed, frightened, self-conscious, uneasy. They cover themselves up, and hide from God. The birth of consciousness is a painful falling into separateness, and paranoia, and a sense of our smallness and disconnection from the rest of nature.
The expulsion from Eden that follows is merely an objective correlative for an exile that has already happened subjectively. The painful birth of consciousness has already divorced us from the world of nature, and given us a terrible sense of our separateness, our solitude, our nakedness, our mortality, and a bitter awareness of how hard our life is and will be. God tells us that because we are conscious, we are cursed. And he’s right – consciousness is a curse, it curses us with a restless dissatisfaction with our life of toil, a sense of our separateness and loneliness, and a terror of approaching mortality.
So we and the serpent are cursed by God. We and the serpent were the only creatures in Eden that were conscious, that asked questions, that challenged God’s authority.
Isn’t the implication that human consciousness is a crime against the natural order? That we were never meant to be conscious? That we stole consciousness, as Prometheus stole fire, and like Prometheus this has condemned us to a life of agony, torment, fear and suffering?
This vision of human existence, it seems to me, is Gnostic. In this vision, the God of Genesis is the Demiurge, a being who wants to maintain the status quo on Earth – and human attainment of consciousness was a rupture of that order. God didn’t give us moral consciousness – the Serpent did! Or rather, the Tree did.
But, then again, God created the Tree and the Serpent, knowing presumably that humans would obey the snake and eat the fruit. So God is the creator of human consciousness, but a reluctant creator…
It’s all very strange.
It reminds me – and I hope you won’t mind if we take a leap into the psychedelic here – of the theory of the late Terence McKenna, as expressed in his Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge,
that the fruit of the tree of knowledge is really some sort of naturally occurring psychedelic substance, like mushrooms or peyote, one of these strange plants that humans have ingested for time immemorial, which seem to expand our consciousness and give us both a god-like sense of the expanse of the cosmos, and also a terrifying sense of our own smallness, nakedness and separateness. Heaven and Hell, in other words, or Good and Evil.
Is it possible that human consciousness really was an accident, that humans happened to munch on psychedelics over the course of thousands of years, thereby developing consciousness? Is it possible that this was somehow a crime against the natural order? But if it was a crime…then who planted the mushrooms?? Perhaps, as some forms of Gnosticism suggest, there are various powerful beings jostling for supremacy up there – one of them tries to keep human consciousness down and to preserve the status quo, while the other sneaks around planting mushrooms hoping we will free ourselves.
Forgive these wild speculations – but it’s fun to ask such questions (or is it a crime?)
Finally, I want to consider Genesis chapter six:
And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them,
That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they [were] fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.
And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also [is] flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.
There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare [children] to them, the same [became] mighty men which [were] of old, men of renown.
What’s going on here?? There are, apparently, two different species interbreeding – the ‘sons of God’, and the ‘daughters of men’. Where did the ‘sons of God’ come from? Are they angels? Extra-terrestrials? Some higher species of hominid who didn’t survive but genetic traces of whom remain in us?
Whoever they are, their interbreeding creates giants or ‘mighty men’ (compare this, by the way, to the Greek idea that heroes are created by the interbreeding of gods and humans). And with the birth of this new species – let’s call it Humanity 3.0 – God seems to lay off His jealous rivalry with humans for bit (‘My spirit shall not always strive with man’) and to give humans a bit of a break (by extending their longevity somewhat).
But then God decides that, in fact, He hates this new upstart semi-divine half-breed version of Humanity 3.0:
And God saw that the wickedness of man [was] great in the earth, and [that] every imagination of the thoughts of his heart [was] only evil continually.
And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.
Again, quite weird. Human advancement in consciousness comes from the interbreeding of angels / aliens…and this creates a breed of ‘mighty men’. Yet once again, God deeply resents this advancement in human consciousness and capability, and wants to wipe us out.
God, in Genesis, is like a jealous boss who is constantly trying to keep us down, yet somehow various other figures in the organisation – the serpent, the sons of God – help us to advance. He’s the anti-Bill Gates, bitterly resisting any upgrade to his creation.
That’s just my reading of Genesis, I hope I haven’t cause offence. I think Genesis is an interesting early attempt to answer the questions: ‘why are humans conscious?’, ‘why does consciousness give us a god-like sense of the cosmos, but also a bitter sense of our own terrible separateness and exile from nature?’, ‘is consciousness a blessing or a curse?’ As we’ve seen, its answers are pretty weird..but at least it attempted an answer. Or rather, there are lots of answers in these few verses – and lots of questions.
One thing that strikes me in particular is that Genesis seems to put forward an evolutionary theory of consciousness. Man is not created conscious. We attained consciousness through a series of stages or upgrades – the eating of the fruit, then perhaps the interbreeding with the sons of God – and God bitterly resisted each upgrade in consciousness. Each upgrade widened our eyes, yet also deepened our capacity for suffering.
Have I completely misinterpreted Genesis? Tell me your interpretations, or your own answers to the big questions: ‘why are we conscious, and is it a blessing or a curse?’