Adam and Eve take the red pill
... and humanity changes forever
"You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes."
—The Matrix (1999)
The Forbidden Fruit
In one of the oldest stories of the Bible, and perhaps one of the oldest stories in human culture, the serpent tempts Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
I had always found the result of this serious infraction a bit underwhelming. (I was wrong, of course). No one grows a second head, or acquires supernatural abilities, or spontaneously combusts, fertilizing the nearby Mesopotamian soil with human dust (“dust” as in, “dust you will return”).
Adam and Eve just become… self-conscious. They become aware that they are naked. And that’s how God knows they have eaten the fruit, because he suddenly sees them clothed.
The moment Adam and Eve attained consciousness was a metaphorical red pill moment for the pair, the moment they chose, inadvertently, to reject the naïve cocoon of the Garden of Eden and expose themselves to the harsh realities of the conscious world. They transformed from naïve animals, bound by their instinctual programming, to sentient beings capable of knowing good and evil and all too aware of their own mortality.
This story is not just a foundational theological narrative but a statement about human nature itself. How cruel it is that we are simultaneously aware of our regal position atop Earth’s food pyramid and our own puny nakedness, our raw animalistic tendencies, and our inevitable decay and death. Montaigne joked that even kings sit on their ass. Ever since we ate the fruit, so to speak, we have been aware that we are neither naïve animals nor sinless angels, but somewhere in the anxiety-ridden middle.
Ernest Becker described the this predicament in his Pulitzer Prize-winning work The Denial of Death:
"The fall into self-consciousness, the emergence from comfortable ignorance in nature, had one great penalty for man: it gave him dread, or anxiety." (1)
As a consequence of consciousness, we have all kinds of worries that our own dogs and cats are blissfully unaware of. We are anxious about climate change, about the health of our family, and perhaps about our own eventual death. And it’s not only the future, too. We’re also aware of our past missteps and mistakes, our sins of commission and omission, of what we should have done and yet did not do.
As Luc Ferry put it in A Brief History of Thought:
“The past is no longer and the future has yet to come, [the Greek Philosophers] liked to remind us; yet we live virtually all of our lives somewhere between memories and aspirations, nostalgia and expectation.” (2)
Where don’t we live? Often it is NOT the here and now: the present.
Jokes aside, one of the thorniest existential questions of human nature has always been how we can simply live in the present. Historically, religion and philosophy have been the two branches of humanities to tackle this problem: 1) Religion: The crucial appeal of religion has always been that it offers the ultimate blue-eyes-white-dragon trump card: salvation and life after death. Any worries about the loss of relationships or health or financial security can be assuaged with the knowledge that the suffering here on Earth is only temporary. Living in the present seems more feasible when believers feel confident they have followed the requisite steps to ultimately attain perpetual salvation later on. 2) Philosophy: One of the ultimate goals of true philosophy is to arm thinkers with the wisdom to live more wholly in the present through reason alone. The Stoics teach to only worry about what can be controlled (and not what can't be). Eastern philosophy teaches to avoid making attachments to people and things to avoid the inevitable suffering that comes when you lose them. And more recently, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas suggest people should strive for a life that maximizes their experiences of flow, those special moments of extreme focus when time itself seems to cease to exist (and life is experienced fully in the present). When Montaigne said, “to philosophize is to learn how to die”, he was referring to cultivating acceptance of not only one's own eventual physical death, but of the varied metaphorical deaths always lurk seemingly in the back of mind. I don’t want to make an argument about which path is better or worse; indeed philosophy and religion overlap quite a bit. But I do think we ignore both at our own peril. Ever since we ate the fruit, so to speak, consciousness has been a uniquely human problem. And though its origin remains shrouded in mystery, some of our greatest thinkers (Søren Kierkegaard comes to mind) have already dedicated their entire careers studying how to best manage its impact.
References (1) The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker (2) A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, Luc Ferry