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So I want to come back to Maimonides. I mentioned to you before that Maimonides, Medieval Jewish scholar from Spain, later moves to Egypt, that in the beginning of his monumental work, the Moreh Nevuchim - the Guide to the Perplexed, he talks about the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He mentions that a fellow had asked him didn't people gain something by eating from this tree? I mean even if they were punished, but still at least they had this knowledge of good and evil and isn't that a good thing? Maimonides said no, it's actually not a good thing, they actually didn't gain anything, they lost, their vision actually became clouded by understanding good and evil.
This gets back to a point which we mentioned earlier. If you recall at the very beginning we had what we called this great big elephant-in-the-room question, and that was, how could G-d punish mankind from eating from this tree of good and evil if they didn't have a knowledge of good and evil before they ate from the tree? I mean if they didn't understand good and evil so they couldn't have known what they were doing was wrong? If they didn't know what they were doing was wrong then there's no justification for punishing them. So if you remember that question, the Rambam - Maimonides - has an answer to that question, and Maimonides' answer is this. The tree didn't give them a knowledge of good and evil when they didn't have it before. Instead what the tree did is it transformed their moral knowledge from one kind of thing into another. There is a pre-tree kind of moral knowledge and a post-tree kind of moral knowledge.
What does morality look like in the pre-tree world and what does it look like in the post-tree world? So this again is today's $64,000 question. We do know what the post-tree world looks like, in the post-tree world that's the world in which right and wrong looks like good and evil, that's why the tree is named a tree of knowledge of good and evil because it transforms your understanding of right and wrong into good and evil. Which means that before eating from the tree, in the pre-tree world, right and wrong did not look like good and evil, instead it looked like something else. The question is what is that something else?
So here is Maimonides' answer. Maimonides says before eating from the tree we wouldn't have thought of right and wrong as good and evil, instead we would thing of right and wrong as truth and falsehood. That's right, we wouldn't have been speaking of good and evil at all, those [worlds/words 3:16] would have seemed strange to us to use those kinds of words to talk about morality. Instead the much more natural thing would be to talk about moral decisions in terms of what is true and what is false.
Now I can hear you thinking, this is ridiculous, this makes no sense, he's got it wrong, that's not what true means and it's not what false means. Nowadays if we think about what kinds of things are true and what kinds of things are false, you know we make a little list for ourselves, two plus two equals four, what would you say, would you say that this is good? Or would you say that this is true? Well most of us would say that that's true. Let's try another one. The Pythagorean Theorem, we'd also say Pythagorean Theorem, true. We wouldn't call that good. Robbing a bank? Well would you say that that is bad or would you say that that is false? Well most of us would call that bad. Cheating on a test, we'd call that bad, we wouldn't call it false. Helping a little old lady across the street, we would call that good, we wouldn't call that true.
But Maimonides argues that these kinds of intuitions, what we have, we only have them because we are living in the post-tree world. If we had been living in the pre-tree world then we wouldn't think about these things this way, we would think that robbing a bank is false. We would say that cheating on a test is also false. We would say that helping a little old lady across the street, that's true. And these kinds of words, good and bad, would have seemed foreign to us. The question is what does that even mean? How do we crawl back into that pre-tree world and understand a world in which our intuitions would be completely different, where it would seem natural to use these kinds of words of false and true to talk about these kinds of things which we call, really, moral decisions?
What I want to do here with you now is to try to do what we can to understand that. To a certain extent it's almost impossible because what we're trying to do is understand a world that we're not in, so it requires putting on different glasses. Let's try and put those glasses on and see what we make of this.
So to get a sense of what Maimonides - or in Hebrew the Rambam - is talking about let's just try to talk again about these two different words here; truth and falsehood on the one hand and good and evil on the other. Let's start with truth and falsehood and I think we'll get a sense of what it might mean to apply truth and falsehood to the realm of moral judgments. Okay, let's talk about that. When we talk about something that's true what do we really mean? In other words, can we define true in terms other than truth? Whenever you define something you have to define it using a word that is different than the word itself, how would you define the word true? So I think most of us would have a sense that truth and falsehood is really about something being real and about non-real. When something is real we call it true, when something is not real it's false, it evaporates, it dissipates. Those ideas real and non-real are very objective kinds of things. It's about sort of discerning objective reality.
So if we're going to take truth and falsehood and talk about those things in the moral realm - take them out of the realm of things like mathematics and bring them into the realm of moral judgments - what I think that would mean is that in essence we're making objective judgments, we're making judgments about what is objectively right and wrong and we try to discern what's kind of real and what is non-real. It's almost like when we get it right, when we make a correct moral judgment, so we align ourselves with what it is real in the world in sort of a moral sense. Then when we don't, we're choosing something which is non-real, we're kind of missing the mark.
You can get a sense of this in a very commonsense kind of way, in terms of even nowadays how we use these words and how the Bible uses these words. So let's again talk about the word truth. So interestingly, you ever hear the phrase an arrow found its mark, the arrow was true to its mark? So when an arrow strikes true, so an arrow hits the mark. In a certain way you might say that every moral judgment is an attempt to hit the mark. There is something there which is true, which is this target, there's some sort of target there which is this thing out there that I'm trying to reach. Whenever I make decisions I try to align myself with what is right, what's really out there. If I miss, if I hit somewhere out here, so I've missed the mark.
Interestingly enough if you look at the Biblical word for sin, you'll find the Biblical sin is the word Cheit - (that's transliterated) - if you would put it into Hebrew it would like something like this. Those of you who speak Hebrew so you're familiar with the word Cheit as sin but actually it means something besides sin also. If you look at, say, the Book of Judges, so you have this phrase over here, in the Book of Judges 20:16, the story about almost civil war that takes place towards the end of the Book of Judges between Benjamin and the other tribes of Israel. It says there were these sharpshooters who would be able to sling stones and be able to hit a mark within a hair's breadth; V'loh yechetah. Now those of you who know Hebrew, again here's that word Cheit. You can even see it - well this is hard to see, but if you could see what this word is, that is Cheit, it's the same word over here, as this. But the word Cheit over here means that they wouldn't miss. So again the sense is, is that the arrow runs true when it hits its course, and it misses, it - Cheit - it sins - when it doesn't hit the mark.
So what sin really is about if you really think about it deeply, is not hell fire and G-d punishing you and putting you in hell - if there is any of that, that's just a byproduct. What it really is about is trying to reach for something objective, you know, G-d's will, trying to understand what G-d's will is, if you put it in the religious sense, and if you understand it and get there so you hit the mark, and if you didn't understand it and you missed the mark, so that's what a sin is. So you really see here how the ideas of truth and falsehood really resonate with seeing morality as an attempt to line myself up with what is objectively true and what it objectively false.
On the other hand, when we think of the words good and bad, these words are a little bit more slippery, when we use these words for right and wrong. What else do good and bad mean besides morally praiseworthy and morally reprehensible? If you think about it there's another meaning to that word. Because whereas truth and falsehood connote something which is real and not real, good and bad does have that moral sense of morally right and wrong, but it doesn't just have a moral sense, there's another meaning, another definition. If this is definition 1, there's a definition 2. And definition 2 is kind of what I like and what I don't like, what's desirable and what's not desirable. When something is desirable we say that's good, when something is un-desirable we call it bad.
To be very commonsensical about this, you might just take children. A child might say, I love pizza, pizza is good. Another child might say, I hate broccoli, broccoli is bad. Well when they say that they aren't making moral judgments about pizza and broccoli they're telling you what they like and what they don't like. This child likes pizza, she's very happy about pizza. This child hates broccoli, she's very upset about broccoli. Really what she is saying is the broccoli doesn't conform with my desires and the pizza conforms with my desires.
In a certain way you might say when you talk about good and bad in this way, when this child says that this pizza is good and this child says that the broccoli is bad, they're really telling you less about the pizza and the broccoli than they are about themselves, about their state of mind. This girl is happy, she is telling you about herself when she says the pizza is good. It's very slippery, she's not actually describing the pizza, she's describing herself. Same thing with this girl, this girl is not really describing the objective qualities of broccoli she's describing how she feels - even though what she's saying is the broccoli is bad, what she really means is she doesn't like the broccoli.
It's that slippery quality that exists in these words good and bad and that is the tricky part of the post-tree world. In the post-tree world, in the world of good and bad, you may think that you're making moral judgments, you should for sure think you're making moral judgments. You think you're just deciding what's right and what's wrong, but there's something else at work here, there's something slippery, there's something subjective about your judgment. And, there's always another possibility, which is, maybe you're not really describing the world as it is but you're describing the world as you see it. Maybe - you don't really realize it but maybe what you're really doing is you're making judgments between what you like and what you don't like. You think you're making judgments between what's right and what's wrong in an objective sense, but your vision is clouded between what you like and what you don't like. That's, I think, what Maimonides is talking about when he talks about the tree clouding our vision.
Now it's really time to get back to this question about the snake. So we asked before, how come the snake's challenge to Eve takes the form of offering fruit of a tree of knowledge of good and evil? So let's go back to that. Remember we talked about the tree as kind of dripping with these three levels of desire? That when Eve takes that apple what she's doing is sort of taking desire and ingesting it, and it's almost like it's becoming part of her. Well if you think about it, in a deep way, what good and bad really are is nothing but truth and falsehood with the additional element of one other thing. That thing is A Streetcar Named Desire.
If you take truth and falsehood and you add desire to the mix you end up with this sort of quasi-subjective thing which we call good and bad. Now if you remember we talked about the snake being naked and very innocent, sort of just telling Eve what it's like to be a snake. Basically what the snake was saying is, is that G-d's will is expressed through us obeying our desires. Identify yourself with desire. Basically what we're seeing now is of course it makes sense that that would express itself in taking from this tree and eating it. The whole idea is, is that the snake is saying desire isn't something that's outside of you, it's not something you have, it's something you are. It's your essential self, G-d communicates to you through that because that's who you essentially are.
And in saying that the snake is really quite innocent, quite naked, he's just telling you what it's like to be a snake. Because that's true for snakes. For a snake what they essentially are is desire, but it's not true for people. It's in that sense, I think, that the snake is tricky. He's crafty. Because what he's saying isn't true for people. From our perspective the snake is deceptive, from the snake's perspective he's just telling it like it is. In taking from this tree we are buying that argument, we're bringing desire inside of ourselves and from then on, we begin to see things through the lens of desire. We're never quite sure if when we're looking at the world we're seeing the world as it really is or we're just seeing it as we want to see it, the way our desires would like us to see it.
What I've done here is I've given you sort of an abstract outline for these ideas and it probably still seems a little abstract to you. What I'd like to do in our next session is actually try and concretize some of this, kind of in the real world, by illustrating what this means, with some very real down-to-earth, moral dilemmas. We'll pick up with that when I see you next time.
1. The Lullaby Effect
2. Kinds of Questions
3. The Mystery of the Pre-Tree World
4. The Tale of Two Trees
5. Heisenberg and the Uncertainty Principle
6. The Primal Serpent
7. A Perplexing Temptation
8. A Naked Paradox
9. A Snake in the Garden
10. Beasts of the Field
11. Beauty and the Beast
12. What Does It Mean to Know?
13. A World of Broccoli and Pizza
14. Are All Dilemmas Created Equal?
15. The Phantom Boxer
16. The I of the Beholder
17. The Filter of Desire
18. Friedrich Nietzsche and the Disc Jockey
19. Epilogue: God as Knower of Good and Evil (Premium)
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