The Knowledge of Good and Evil

I’ve puzzled over the Christian creation story since I was a kid. First when seeking inspiration for a confirmation art project, then seeking wisdom as a teenager at Bible school, then as an earnest University student seeking truth, and lastly as a conflicted Christian bookstore manager struggling to hold on to my faith. Somehow I missed seeing it as a commentary on suffering.


31 minutes into his discussion of Marxism and Post Modernism, Jordan Peterson pauses to give a summary of the theory of suffering he found in the story. It was the answer I had been looking for but had given up ever finding.

It Goes Something Like This

Adam and Eve come to know the difference between good and evil by seeing their own nakedness and realizing others are naked too. Nakedness is a state of physical and psychological vulnerability or fragility. When any of us realize our own vulnerability we begin to think about how our vulnerability and fragility opens our eyes to the many ways we can be hurt. Then we think that if we can be hurt in these ways, so can others. This knowing what hurts us and what can hurt others, is the knowledge of good and evil. To torture others, we realize, we just have to do to others what we don’t want done to us.

The Knowledge of Good and Evil Leads to Anxiety

Once you know what causes pain to you and others, you start to think about all the things that can happen over time. Long period of time stretching into the future. So many opportunities for pain.

Thinking about all this potential pain allows us to avoid some of it, and this has tremendous survival advantage. But some of us are so good at it, it interferes with daily life. This thinking about future potential pain is called anxiety.

Thinking about future potential pain is anxiety

Not only can we plan to avoid pain, we can set aside pleasure in the moment, for potential pleasure in the future. This is called delayed gratification. We can save for a rainy day, store up treasures, and invest in our own future. Much of our time, it turns out, is spent working to prevent situations in the future that will be unpleasant, painful, or disturbing. This is the curse of leaving Eden. We must work our plan and plan our work.

The Good we didn’t Get

When bad things happens despite our hard work, we wish it was different, and we are so good at imagining the “different possible outcome” we didn’t get, we are miserable. This is suffering. We suffer because we can imagine things being better AND worse. Imagining that things could be worse when they are good, and imagining that things could be better when they are bad, means our anxiety increases our suffering most of the time. Then we blame ourselves for not doing enough to prevent bad things from happening, and we criticize ourselves for being so anxious. And then of course none of us can predict complex futures with much accuracy.  And we can’t prevent a large number of possible random tragedies. And because we can’t prevent bad things from happening, at least not entirely, we can count on future pain. This realization, in all its wrinkles and iterations, is the burden of consciousness. Woven into the fabric of the universe is the inevitability of pain. We live in a hostile place full of threats and danger and we have an evolved brain that makes suffering a side effect of survival.

Suffering is a Part of Being

A Dead Trumpeter Swan I found on Turtle Lake. It was surrounded by living swans when I arrived. It was as if they were gathered in bewilderment and they only left when I paddled over to see what was going on.

The lesson of this story is that suffering is built into self-awareness, and since self-awareness has occurred, it means the universe is structured to give rise to self awareness. The universe exists to bring forth both self-awareness and suffering.

We Get Attached

We are beings who evolved to attach to other members of our species, to members of other species, and even to places, objects, and ideas. Lover’s of wabi sabi often sit in places of beauty to let the place influence them.

We can easily imaging bad things happening to the people and places we love. We imagine how this would cause us pain. Our loved ones, our loved pets, our loved places, our loved ideas, can all come under attach and they can all die.  To be human is to experience these two layers of anxiety and pain.

Peterson suggests that in the Cain and Able story, Cain is frustrated because Able’s sacrifice is accepted and his isn’t. Another way of saying this is that life isn’t fair because some people succeed and others don’t.

Cain complains to God who tells him that the problem is not that life isn’t fair, but that he wants to blame God for it instead of accepting reality and working to have a better life.

Cain could have just learned from Able and made a better sacrifice next time. Instead he chose resentment, and resentment is suffering.

Marxism, according to Peterson, blames suffering on oppressors. It is not too different from what Cain did.

Likewise, the radical right blames their problems on the slackers, welfare bums, leftist elites, and big government with all their pesky regulations. For them, these repulsive soft minded lazy dead wood are wrecking things for the rest of us.

Buddhism has a Different Interpretation

The Buddhist story tells of a young truth seeker discovering the truth he seeks in nature. The Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree involved seeing a way past suffering (dukkha) and all the things we desire but that are incapable of giving true satisfaction, to a kind of freedom through non-grasping. To achieve a state of non-grasping and acceptance, the seeker must follow an eight fold path. Follow is perhaps to soft a word. The eight fold path is a bloody hard discipline of moral uprightness and effort, including the practice of meditation and mindfulness.


Both stories focus on work and effort as a kind of curse that is based in grasping after safety, satisfaction, and fulfillment. The Christian story suggests that we can not escape the mind we wake up with, and are destined to repeat the pattern without the insight brought by Jesus. Jesus advised to NOT store up treasure and wealth, but instead to practice generosity, giving, compassion, and healing. The eight fold path is much the same formula.

Overcome Suffering

The current wisdom, gleaned from a thousand hours of podcasts and audio books, seems to me to be that we need to fully see, as much as we are able, the predicament we are in.

  • we are vulnerable in a dangerous world and others know how to hurt us
  • We evolved to depend on other and form attachments, so we can’t avoid pain
  • Our attachments can bring joy, but when they break, we experience pain
  • We have to learn to let go, because holding on increases the pain
  • We have to learn to not grasp in the first place
  • We have to welcome the coming and going of all things
  • Learning all this and practicing living with an open hand is hard work
  • There are no short cuts but there is insight and enlightenment

Published by Richard

I am a writer, photographer, and contemplative. My highest value is beauty and excellence. I seek to find and appreciate it, and create it. My second value is truth. I try to clearly and accurately communicate what is real and true. My third value is kindness. I study religion and science to help me understand how to increase kindness in myself and others.

7 thoughts on “The Knowledge of Good and Evil

  1. Very well written.
    Come and write with us.
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    1. Hey Sadah, thanks for the invite. At the moment I am mostly using this blog to think through some interconnected ideas and I’m not sure I have energy for much more. But I’ll keep in mind. I appreciation the connection.


  2. Interesting, though I don’t take the Christian perspective. I think there is suffering for animals and even plants–all living things–in some form. We see them wilt, hobble, weaken, and die. In any living thing, suffering seems the opposite of thriving, in whatever form that takes. We have self-awareness and language, but I’m not sure that makes it worse (or any easier) for us.



    1. Hi Brock, I agree that animals suffer, especially if you categorize awareness of pain in with the definition of suffering. I remember in Biology 12 I was watching pond microbes under a microscope. some of the really active ones (rotifers maybe?) would collide and back away. “Ouch, that musta hurt!” I said. “No nervous system, so no pain.” Mr. Young said. “But they react?” I said. “All living things move towards resources and away from danger.” Mr. Young said. This is an oversimplification, plants don’t really move away from danger, but the will stop growing on the side nearest the burning barrel, etc. But what I learned then, and have confirmed since, is that there is a continuum of this towards/away from action in more and more complex creatures. Plants grow towards the light, Rotifers turn around when they run into something, clams close their shells when something bumps them, fish feel pain and avoid the cause of it, rats plan their routes to avoid danger, wolves coordinate their actions for hunting and have elaborate dominance submission behaviours all as part of “thinking” about rewards and pain, Baboons deliberately hurt each other for gain, we do unspeakable things to each other. Where does suffering emerge? You define it as the opposite of thriving, so plants can suffer. That is not my definition. I see suffering as pain with a cognitive component. Plants, microbes, simple molluscs, and many insects either do not experience pain, or experience it on a very responsive level. They don’t ponder it. Higher animals with larger brains begin to have more complex responses to pain and animals with very large brains have anxiety about experiencing and anticipating pain. This, to me, is suffering. I know the term often gets used to refer to “enduring pain” but the spiritual traditions that I have studied seem to all make a distinction between experiencing pain and suffering. So I disagree, I think something like “hyper vigilance towards avoiding pain,” is evidence that those creatures suffer more than ones who don’t go to the same measures to avoid it.

      Your summary of Wohlleben’s book is interesting on this point. I’m a wild mushroom picker and very aware of the complex interaction of trees and fungus and the interesting way that the two species form a symbiotic relationship in a thriving forest. I’ve considered carefully Paul Stamets’ affirmation that mushrooms approach something very close to sentience with their underground rhizomal networks. Yet still I would not say that mushrooms or trees suffer. It is a spectrum, and higher organisms do much much more with their pain receptors and cognitive processes.


      1. Richard, thank you for your thoughtful reply to my hasty comment. I basically agree with you and I’ve since been taking in other posts of yours here and look forward to reading more. As for suffering, I was interested in a talk by Ursula Goodenough gave last year on The Biological Antecedents of Human Suffering (also published in Routledge Companion to Religion and Science). She develops the distinction between biological and experienced suffering and between pain and suffering, building from cells up to nociceptor neurons in fish and land vertebrates that mediate pain. Very much in line with your perspective, I believe.

        I look forward to staying in touch.



      2. Hi Brock,
        I read Goodenough’s Sacred Depths of Nature many years ago. I appreciated her dedication to science in the classical sense, not afraid to ask the deepest and most profound questions. Is the talk on biological antecedents in video? I did a quick search but didn’t see it. I think it would be really enjoy it.
        I appreciate connecting with you on this important line of inquiry.


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