The Dark Side of Knowledge

The other day, I explored the story of Genesis, and its perplexing account of the corruption of mankind through the knowledge of good and evil. I tried to unpack some of the overlooked dynamics of the story, to get at what it is telling us about humanity.

In doing this, we ran straight into an incredibly paradoxical idea at the heart of that account. The idea is that knowledge is a good thing, a godlike thing, an attribute of God intended to be possessed by humans. And yet, we are told that knowledge can corrupt.

How can a good thing corrupt us?

We typically think of knowledge as being neutral or positive. Ancient scriptures are almost universally in favor of acquiring knowledge, and in a world shaped by science, we usually look down on people who are willfully ignorant.

That’s as it should be. But just because knowledge is good, does not mean it is tame.

Or, more precisely, the ability to possess knowledge isn’t tame. This is because the ability to possess knowledge is really the ability to imagine, to picture things as being different than we experience them.

Once we have that ability, we can do great things. We can imagine the sun as being spherical (which it really is) instead of a flat circle (which it appears to be). We can picture atoms as tiny solar systems, rather than never considering them at all. We can contemplate the steps necessary to build a steam engine, which never existed before humans, and has no analog in the natural world.

We can also imagine a future which is different than the present, or contemplate a past which no longer exists. We can invent new worlds, and call those worlds “stories”. We can peer into another’s eyes, and tell ourselves the thoughts that must be flitting through their mind.

This is a power that is indeed godlike.

But this power doesn’t just give us new abilities; it also exposes us to new dangers.

Imagine finding a rabbit in the forest, drawing a circle around that rabbit, and saying “Rabbit! Don’t leave this circle, or I will come back later, hunt you down, and make you regret it!”

As soon as you leave, the rabbit will hop away. The rabbit doesn’t understand your threats, and so those threats have absolutely no power over it.

Of course, you can come back later and make good on your threats. But there is no point to that exercise—the whole point of a threat is get some behavior without having to actually enforce the consequences. And the only point in enforcing the consequences is to teach a lesson, so that future threats have more force to them.

When the other party can’t understand your threats, those threats lose all power. And if you’re the one threatening rabbits in the forest, you’re the one who looks like an idiot.

The situation is dramatically different with human beings. Humans can understand threats, they can imagine future consequences, they can contemplate repercussions, and they can learn lessons. And so you can absolutely draw a circle around a human being, and say “Don’t leave this circle, or I will come back later, hunt you down, and make you regret it!”

If the human being believes you, you can control its behavior.

In fact, your ability to control another human being is not even dependent on your ability to do anything. All you have to do is make the other person believe your threats, and you can exert control far beyond anything you are physically capable of.

In possessing the ability to understand threats, we expose ourselves to the power of threats—and a whole world of dark control becomes possible. Suddenly we can be controlled, manipulated, coerced, and enslaved. Suddenly we can be turned against our families, our friends, and even ourselves.

And once that power is unleashed, there is nothing that terrifies us more. The very possibility of being threatened and coerced now becomes its own looming threat, occupying our waking moments, driving us into an even deeper slavery—to the raw power of our fear.

The ability to possess knowledge is a double-edged sword. It unleashes great power, for both good and evil. It allows us to do great things, but it also exposes us to great dangers. It has been responsible for every great deed in history, and for every terrifying horror.

To the very extent that our imagination opens up infinite possibilities, it also opens up infinite harms. Of course, our imagination is a core part of us, and we wouldn’t want to escape it. And yet, in possessing the ability to imagine unseen worlds, we expose ourselves to untold dangers.

And this is why it is called the knowledge of good and evil.