Adam, Eve and the Apple: The Problem Of Our Past And Our Future.
It’s Christmas and you will need something to mull over when falling asleep over the Queen’s speech at three. Because, it’s more that Christmas is so easy to predict: it comes at the same time every year. It’s not like Easter that comes and goes as it pleases. Christmas is the same date, the same time every year. Year in, year out. Ask anyone when Christmas is and you’ll get the same answer. Ask them about Easter and it’s not so easy.
We all know when Christmas is, and have known for so long that we need no telling. Add to this the natural turning of the earth and we have an established predictability. It’s always been like this and always will.
But what if you never knew that Christmas existed? How would anybody in pre-Christian times have been able to know about Christ? This is the kind of dilemma faced by Adam and Eve over the apple. You know the one, the apple on the tree of life. The one they’d been told not to eat. Well that’s temptation in a nutshell, isn’t it? You don’t know, but are also informed as to what you shouldn’t do. It’s a tricky kind of evil to side-step, it’s the kind of evil that doesn’t feel evil at all… well, it doesn’t until, well…
… and we all know what happened next, don’t we? Adam and Eve are in the garden and they are hiding! God comes a wandering as he will of an evening and there are no Adams to be seen, nor Eves. The penny drops – not that there were pennies in those halcyon days, but you get the idea. Plus, this is God and after the fall of Lucifer, he knew what the apple stood for and he was some mischief. In a way, it’s humanity’s hallmark: doing the kind of wrong that feels so good. You can’t blame God for the fall of Lucifer; that was Lucifer being naughty.
And of course, Lucifer was the serpent with the forked tongue. Temptation is a tricky business to get your head around; it is the more subtle because… well, you see, it’s so tempting! It’s exactly what you want, when you want it and it’s there. Nor does it seem wrong in any way.
Just like the apple. Only Adam and Eve had never hidden themselves before, it wasn’t like them to be so unfriendly to God! It was as if they didn’t trust him. But that is what guilt does to us, it leads to distrust.
The point was that neither of them knew what was in store for them. They knew they shouldn’t, they knew it was edible, they knew… but there were things they didn’t know, weren’t wise enough to know about. They’d never thought about apples before, and the tree of life was simply there for the eating of. Well, it was once the serpent had whispered its magic…
The root of this tale is about evidence. In its own way, evidence is as strange a beast as the apple was to Eve: it’s immensely satisfying to have what one desires. In the case of evidence, it tells us that something is real. Which is fair enough in as far as it goes, but there is a sting in its tail just as the apple had. You see, evidence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
It’s like the adverts for investments where they always say, “the past is no guide to the future.” Yet it seems that banks, the biggest investors of them all, have disregarded this point for decades if not centuries (1). All banks ever want are pay slips or evidence of other kinds that assure them that they are lending to a reputable person… worse still, once they’ve lent to someone, they’ll lend again! The ensuing paradox is that the deeper in debt a person is, the more the bank will lend.
How can the banks know that they’re stacking the dice against themselves? They have the evidence, don’t they? What can be wrong with evidence?
Except that, well, as mentioned, the past is no guide to the future. There is no such thing as evidence for something that hasn’t happened, is there? It’s a contradiction in terms. If you are going to look into the future, you cannot do it with evidence – and crystal balls have their own pitfalls, but that is to take us too far from the point of this post.
It’s more that if one has evidence, it will have that satisfying quality to it. It implies that what one is conscious of is correct – and given that none of us can see the things we are not conscious of, we can’t even smell them, it’s quite reasonable to assume that they aren’t there at all. That doesn’t mean they are not there; it means that one is not conscious of them.
That’s the nature of this kind of evil, and it’s impossibly difficult to discern between what is genuinely satisfying and what is the result of an illusion. And I’m not able to write this because I’ve never been tempted: it’s part and parcel of our lives. Indeed, in a way, it’s why we’re alive: to work out what we like that is natural and healthy and what we were tempted by that isn’t so beneficial.
Into The Unknown.
The unknown is, for most, the future. Even the prophets of old weren’t wise enough to be able say anything with the kind of accuracy demanded by a modern bank. Banks like evidence, and for them, evidence is all they need. It’s worked in the past, so why can’t it work in the future? That’s fine as long as one disregards a few bank crashes in countries with poor financial regulation – the US and UK being the primary sources of this economic malady. (See note 1)
The real problem is that evidence just can’t do what people want it to! If you need evidence to make decisions, there will be moments when you won’t know what to do because you’ve never met the situation before. That’s where a limited consciousness bites back! Like my friend Hendrik and his problem with his toilet. He spent no little time and energy asking his so-called experts what the problem was and not one of them could help him. But that’s how businesses operate in our day and age: they ask management consultants to help them with their problems… and the management consultants know that if they say the right thing, speak in the way the Serpent did, they’ll get more work (2).
Not only that, it’s so tempting to say the right thing and it’s so invidious to speak the truth because as a management consultant, your entire business depends on keeping people happy! In a way, their job depends on their being as able to tell lies convincingly. Part of this is their air of confidence, which is part of the illusion. They create an atmosphere of knowing, but the reality is they’re out to please because that’s what brings in the dosh.
You’ll have met them, the people who are so certain of themselves. They know everything that needs to be known. Yet when they meet someone like me, who outwardly has all the appurtenances of this false certainty, they will find themselves asked a few barbed questions. The kind of questions few businessmen ever want to answer because it leads to awkward situations where their customary certainty is not so certain after all.
In our world, most certainties are illusions and illusions are comforting because they speak of the things one wants to hear; they are compelling because they keep the nastier parts of life at a distance. If one takes a step to dispel an illusion, the foul underbelly of reality is there to deter; the more one dispels, the nastier and smellier it becomes. That in itself is as good a reason to believe in illusions, to remain content with a limited consciousness. Becoming conscious is painful, and it is painful so that only the fittest can handle it.
Which is the problem. Banks, insurance agencies, Dutch employers and management consultants are all at it: they are all limited by their illusions, and they are inordinately happy this way. As mentioned, I can’t know this because I never had any illusions of my own; indeed, my memories of that time are the more pleasant because there was this veil of illusion.
In November 1890, Baring Brother’s bank was trying to sell a few million pounds worth of bonds. Nothing unusual here, it’s what banks have done since they learned how to exploit the double-entry book keeping system (3). That is to say, since the dawn of our modern era. The problem here was one of scale: the risks Baring’s would take in this exploit took them a step too far.
Not that Baring’s knew this; for them, it was just another day in the office. For a clerk who had spent twenty years climbing the ladder of seniority, there is little else to look to, little else to be aware of. What has never happened can now not happen because the clerk has enough experience to know that it cannot. He could not be conscious of the dangers, and thus his confidence was based on the shifting sands of illusion. But, given his ignorance, for him, the past really was a guide to the future.
Until one sunny winter morning, another party wanted to withdraw some of their funds. It’s the kind of thing that happens; in hindsight we call it an accident waiting to happen. With the future veiled by illusion, it was shoved aside as being an impossibility. The result was Baring’s didn’t have the capital: they didn’t have enough money to fund their investment caper and their customer. The bank should have failed; but that would have endangered not just London but the entire world economy. London was the world’s clearing house.
Whether that customer was acting mendaciously is still not known; but in the way Jack the Ripper’s identity remains ‘unknown’ there are some very real footprints across history. The problem is that footprints, like evidence, are what we leave behind us. The real skill in life is to know that there is a path to be trodden and the integrity to put one’s best foot forward when one can see nothing and know less.
(1) Part of the book I am writing deals with the failure of Baring Brother’s bank in November 1890; they had played the Argentinian market in a way that speaks of their desire to put evidence before the facts. My book is in the editing stage and readers willing to give genuine criticism are welcome – it’s not about banks; it’s about a thief and the honest man he wants to be. Let me know in the comments if you’re interested.
(2) You can read all about his dilemma here: ‘Trouble In The Toilet.’
(3) This was devised by the Florentines set up in the late 1400s and has that leaden, Newtonian air to it that comes from equating two things that have quintessentially different natures. But that is the real danger; bankers, like scientists are too pleased with their illusions and thus the consciousness of their error is ever more remote.