Forbidden Knowledge

God is bending over the Earth, measuring it with a compass. God the Geometer. Illumination on parchment. Circa 1220-1230.
From Wikipedia: “Science, and particularly geometry and astronomy/astrology, was linked directly to the divine for most medieval scholars. The compass in this 13th century manuscript is a symbol of God’s act of Creation. God has created the universe after geometric and harmonic principles, to seek these principles was therefore to seek and worship God.” Circa 1220-1230.

“For great is the power of God alone, and he is honoured by the humble. Seek not the things that are too high for thee, and search not into things above thy ability: but the things that God hath commanded thee, think on them always, and in many of his works be not curious. For it is not necessary for thee to see with thy eyes those things that are hid. In unnecessary matters be not over curious, and in many of his works thou shalt not be inquisitive. For many things are shewn to thee above the understanding of men.”1 From the Douay-Rheims Bible.

God’s forbidden knowledge: secret knowledge; too dangerous for us, they say. …God’s not around…. So what’s the big deal? We just want to look. We won’t touch anything….

…We could rule the world…, the Universe….

…Hey! Look at this! What does this do?

You might hope everyone would reflect on “too dangerous” and “forbidden,” but somebody’s neighbour is always cooking up a hellstorm.

In the sixteenth century Faust was already only one among many poking at forbidden things, and he was only famous for overreaching by dealing with the devil.2 Faust resorts to magic. For many others, God was near, and understanding the cosmos led to God. Europeans were finally people the spirits might be willing to talk to, and Europeans wanted to know what the spirits knew.

Falling short of Faust in sin but exceeding him in forbidden knowledge were Isaac Newton and John Dee. John Dee tried angelic communication.3 Newton looked for the Philosopher’s Stone of alchemy and for secret messages hidden in ancient writings. But both surpassed Faust in mathematics, the language of the Universe.

And nothing succeeded like mathematics’ reliable companion rational materialism in a clockwork universe wherein all answers could be found precisely by eliminating the direct influence of God, the immeasurable unknown. All answers.

Although many Christians (Protestants especially) believe that God created the Universe, but isn’t in it, with its embrace of science and technology, the West has functionally abandoned God and heaven to take its chances on self-determination, and we are (presumably) headed to Hell or salvation without him.

Wanting, Needing

A human being has about 75 years to realize the peculiarity of his existence, pose questions, gather evidence, and search for answers before it’s too late and he dies. Someone else is born, and that person has about the same 75 years. We build on our predecessor’s foundations, but 75 years is never enough time.

What am I? What is this place? What could I be doing about it right now?

We don’t think there’s anything strange about being born into awareness. But some are not satisfied, and even don’t like that it’s going to end in about 75 years. They dedicate their lives to an all-out race to find their answers. They are disappointed, and face death believing they have failed. That is not the outcome Faust is willing to face.

Faust decides he needs to cheat a bit, and needs more time to do it in. Thus in the quest for secret and forbidden knowledge, the resort to magic, and the pact with the Devil. Since God won’t reveal the secrets humans so desperately need, they resort to other means. Is it not heroic, even Christ-like, when the cause is good?

Flammarion engraving. 1888. Man pokes his head through the heavenly firmament to view the workings of heaven.
Flammarion engraving, Paris 1888, from Flammarion’s 1888 L’atmosphère : météorologie populaire (p. 163). Source. Colour Hugo Heikenwaelder 1998.

In the Garden of Eden creation story, God tells the first humans, Adam and Eve, to not eat fruit from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But they do and are transformed. God exiles them from the Garden before they also eat from the Tree of Life and became “like gods.”

Science and Progress

That there are secrets is clear. How to get them is not. Up to the fifteenth century of Faust’s early years, God and history had them. Through the sixteenth century of older Faust and his developing legend, they could be discovered through new relationships with God and through nature (deism, exploration, etc.); then without God in the Universe; then without God for all practical purposes. This was the new age of physical materialism, rationalism and mechanistics: science and technology, progress and eventual utopia on Earth.

The loss of God is the Faustian outcome we were warned against. Marlowe’s Mephistophilis describes Hell as living without God, having once known him. Faustus replies that Hell cannot be so bad then, if one has never known him. This is the place we have ourselves. Our search for secret knowledge revealed the unexpected: that God was not immediately behind the curtain. We had expected to get closer.

…all that have forsaken the Lord can build upon no good foundation….”4

Having lost an immediate relationship with God, we drift and forget. We lose our go-to justification for moral and ethical behaviour and conformity. We lose the faith that bound and sustained us. We lose assurances of law and final and universal justice, the essential goodness of things, and the ultimate victory of good over evil. We lose good and evil.

We become synthetic and asymbolic—unprogrammed and unnatural—plastic, malleable, and consequently manipulatable and interfaceable.5 We don’t know what we have lost when it’s gone, or what we are becoming when we leave no trail. Then technology supplants reality. Alienation from reality, from our native experience of nature, and from faith is the Devil’s weaning. We become slaves to temporal masters.

Chorus.
Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough,
That sometime grew within this learned man.
Faustus is gone; regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendfull fortune may exhort the wise
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practise more than heavenly power permits. [Exit.]
—Scene XIV. Marlowe, Christopher. 1909-14. Doctor Faustus.

Divinity is Power/Power is Divine

Many of God’s most dangerous and forbidden secrets are known, still forbidden to most of us as trade secrets, copyrights and other protections, but more dangerous because they’re available for sale. As technology advances, power descends to the individual.

Is that modern-day Adam and Eve? Power-hungry, amoral, opportunistic free-thinkers exerting their will in defiance of anyone else?

The individual becomes a statistic and a problem, if only one of book-keeping. With greater power comes a response. Taking the place of God, is global surveillance and manipulation and control of the individual—a system whose nature and ownership are irrelevant. That becomes the new justification for moral and ethical behaviour—the masters are watching and directing, inescapable gods.

Then are modern-day Adam and Eve instead destined to be blindly functioning subjects farmed and harvested by overlords?6

Or does total and universal loss of privacy finally end all deception and pretense and lead to a perfect utopia?

God’s forbidden secrets are secrets of comfort and security, death and destruction—power—and power is the only currency. Our ability to control great and unfamiliar power is debatable, but as that power grows, the more dangerous it becomes, and it will be a conflict of those with forbidden knowledge against everything.

FAUSTUS
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honor and omnipotence,
Is promised to the studious artisan!
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command. Emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
but his dominion that exceeds in this
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man.
A sound magician is a demigod. (1.1.52-59)
—Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

One secret we don’t have is how to create life.

In a sense, the purpose of life is life. “Life” is a strategy for remaining in the Universe. Despite tremendous fragility, life perpetuates itself through time. The answer in the quest for finding one’s self is that you are not there.

The urge and drive for life is that of life itself: you are but a passage, not a point. Ultimately life is concerned with itself. Thank you for participating, and god bless.

Wikipedia’s “Global catastrophic risk” page identifies a number of human-sourced risks to (all) life:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Biotechnology
  • Cyberattack
  • Environmental disaster
  • Experimental technology accident
  • Global warming
  • Mineral resource exhaustion
  • Nanotechnology
  • Warfare and mass destruction
  • World population and agricultural crisis
Footnotes
  1. From the Book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach, one of the Books of the Catholic Bible, but not in the Protestant Bibles, though recommended as one of the ancient books of wisdom. Faust may not feel bound. []
  2. In legend, of course, but in reality, many skilled and educated people, including real-life Faust, were suspected, if not outright accused, of gaining their abilities from the Devil by ignorant and fearful people. []
  3. John Dee spoke to angels. Although Dee was very careful to attempt to speak only to angelic beings because the deceiving ways of the Devil were well known, he suffered rumour, feared denunciation, and faced heresy. The Bible says: “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.”—2 Corinthians 11:13–15 []
  4. “…all that have forsaken the Lord can build upon no good foundation….”— The English Faust Book (P. F. Gent.) []
  5. By “interfaceable” we mean “plugged-in.” We are conforming to our machinery. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulacra_and_Simulation. []
  6. The Matrix film series revives old ideas of modern Christianity’s ancient rival, Gnosticism, which included Old Testament God as an imposter who created a false world, and transformative knowledge as a route to divinity. []