Epistemology, Innocence, and the Spiritual Development of Humanity (An Essay)

As we go through life, we gain different kinds of knowledge. Sometimes this knowledge affects only a small part of our understanding of reality. When someone tells me that she ate pizza last night, such knowledge, ceteris paribus, does not effect any significant changes in my worldview. Some knowledge, the “knowing-how” kind of knowledge (what I call “skill”) is likewise worldview-ambivalent, in that after gaining such knowledge, our interpretation of events (our perception of their “meaning”) remains basically the same, except perhaps in a specific area. For example, learning how to use a computer program might allow me to understand the purpose behind actions of other people using the same program, but that knowledge does not affect the fundamental ways in which I perceive reality.

On the other hand, there are certain kinds of knowledge, both knowledge-that and knowledge-how (both factual knowledge and skill), that do fundamentally affect how we understand reality. As an example in the first category, take the knowledge that the earth is round. Our thought relationship to such objects as the sun, the moon, and the stars is completely different than that of people a thousand years ago, even though neither the sun, the moon, nor the stars have changed much. Examples in the second category can be found as well (which is what I will mainly be talking about).

So far, I have said nothing surprising. It could all have been stated more succinctly: “Some facts/skills are more important than others.” No doubt anyone would agree. Now I want to make an additional claim: some forms of knowledge are of a sort that, upon gaining, are entrenched so deeply in our mental frameworks that we cannot even coherently imagine seeing the universe in the same way as we did prior to gaining the knowledge. Here is where the skill examples come in. It is easy to imagine, on one hand, a flat earth, even while retaining the knowledge of its roundness. I can form a coherent picture of such an earth in my head. Now take a certain kind of skill–being able to speak and understand English with the facility of a native speaker. Though I know it’s a completely coherent possibility that I see a well-formed English sentence while not understanding it, I can’t actually imagine seeing a well-formed English sentence and not understanding it. Any time I imagine a well-formed English sentence, and look at the words, I cannot help but understand it. That is just what it is to be a competent reader/listener of English!


Other examples abound: before I learned music theory, I could listen to a pop song without any realization of its simple, repetitive chord structure. Now, no matter how much I enjoy the song and would like to hear it without such a musical understanding, I find it impossible. A door has been opened in my mind, a filter put in place, which unconsciously and relentlessly consumes data and presents it to me in the light of a newer understanding.

(Perhaps over long periods of disuse, such abilities atrophy, as most American high school graduates’ abilities with foreign languages indicate. Such a supposition is not relevant to my current point, however, since the language faculty in general, for example, will never fail to be exercised in any reasonably normative human environment. There is also the question of the effects of mental trauma or mind-altering drugs, which I take to be peripheral for this discussion.)

Things become even more remarkable when we contrast a person who has knowledge of this kind with one who hasn’t. Say I am in Paris, and I see a large billboard advertisement consisting solely of well-formed French text. I don’t read French, but my friend standing next to me does. When we look at the billboard, he cannot fail to understand it, but I can’t possibly understand it! (I could hazard a guess as to its meaning, but that does not constitute understanding, even if I turn out to be right). We are experiencing identical physical stimuli, but are interpreting it in vastly different ways. Language is simply the most common of many possible examples–we could think of many more. I want to emphasize how important an appreciation of this point is! It is essentially proof of the existence of meaning. I am not, of course, trying to prove that there is no physical explanation for the disparity in our reactions, merely that events and objects in the world hold meaning, which we may or may not even be able to detect given our knowledge and training. More importantly for the current discussion, once we can detect this layer of meaning (which may exist amid many strata of other meanings), we are unable to “turn it off,” so to speak. We cannot not detect that meaning. To belabor the point: I claim it not possible that any competent reader of English see the arrangement of letters “The grass is green” and not read (i.e., understand) it. While reading is not always tantamount to understanding, in such simple cases as “The grass is green,” to say that it is not is to deny that there is such a thing as a competent reader of English.

So, what is the point of all of this? We have established (a) There are forms of knowledge/skill which can add layers of “new” meaning or understanding to “old” physical phenomena, and (b) Many of these forms cannot be discarded at will; they are “sticky” in our consciousness. Most of the time, (a) and (b) combine for a very positive result–it is wonderful that understanding of our native tongue comes so effortlessly! But the effortlessness can be unwanted: I learned to read as a child in Papua New Guinea, where there was no media, much less large billboard advertisements. When I returned to the US, I realized with a shock that I could not moderate the influx of words that were bombarding me from the side of the highway. The fire hose of information to which we are subjected every day is arguably unhealthy.

But there is another sense in which the effortlessness of using certain skills can be unwanted. That is when the particular layer of meaning unlocked by a new skill adds moral complication. Taking it for granted that knowledge in itself is neither good nor evil, the introduction of a new mode of interpreting reality can deliver unto us vast new landscapes of possibility for interaction with reality. These interactions, unfortunately, can be engaged in well or poorly. In other words, new understanding gives rise to new obligations and new responsibilities (and new ways to be evil), because as we all know, “Knowledge is power,” and power can be used for good or ill. So much is uncontroversial.

Add to this the previous observation that some of these layers of meaning, once unlocked, cannot be hidden, forgotten, or shoved into some back corner of the mind. Then, if a person were to unlock such a filter, but was not prepared in terms of character to handle the powerful responsibility which accompanied it, how much would she be battered and bruised by the potential for great evil she had unwittingly loosed! Of course, there is a hidden assumption here which is important: Maturity of character is a pre-requisite for good stewardship of certain kinds of knowledge. Some may argue that knowledge is the great enlightener, upon which no limits should be set in terms of its flow. Would that it were so! To our shame, many thousands of years of experience prove that perhaps humankind has not always been ready for the secrets it has uncovered. The use of atomic weapons is only the most recent in a long line of embarrassments. (It should obviously be said that knowledge per se is never the adversary–it is always ourselves).

Now we hark back to the earliest example of what I have been talking about–that time or event symbolized by the story of the Fall in the biblical literature. Adam and Eve chose to be awakened to a certain kind of knowledge (in this first story, the knowledge provides understanding of the basic moral layer of reality, of the existence of good and evil themselves), and found themselves immediately both (a) doing evil and (b) experiencing shame. They were not, unfortunately, mature enough to handle the weight of a moral universe. This is what we mean by the loss of innocence, and they felt it deeply as psychological pain (as do we today).

Innocence, then, is the state of ignorance preceding the addition of one of these “moral-epistemological layers” to an understanding of reality. If we agree with the foregoing moral considerations, we can also say that innocence is actually an appropriate state of ignorance, if the innocent’s character is not mature enough to wisely utilize the new knowledge. This in turn implies that there is both appropriate and inappropriate loss of innocence.

The most obvious example of both of these kinds of innocence loss takes place in the stratum of social reality we know as sexuality, because I take for granted the following: (1) There are events (of which engaging in sex is only one possible event) which serve to “unlock” an understanding of the sexual stratum. (2) This “unlocking” is of the type I’ve been describing, in terms of its permanent, welded nature in the understanding. That is, given normal social interaction, once one has come to realize the sexual nature of fellow humans, it is impossible to completely shut off such an awareness. (3) Sexual knowledge is furthermore the kind of knowledge which presents moral considerations; it is a prime example of knowledge which can be used well or poorly, for good or for ill. So, if those three claims hold, we can say that gaining sexual knowledge is an example of loss of innocence, and that it can be lost appropriately or inappropriately, depending on the character of the innocent, i.e., how prepared she is to not do evil as a result of such knowledge.

I think it an uncontested fact that much evil is done, whether in thought or in deed (and those amount to the same thing in the limit), as a result of sexual knowledge. That fact alone suffices to prove that many people have lost their sexual innocence inappropriately. It is another question, of course, at whose feet we should lay the blame for such loss. Knowledge is sometimes given unasked for, and if inappropriate, woe to him who gives it! (Here I am not just thinking of the most obvious and horrible example of rape. A negligent father leaving Playboy magazines for his son to accidentally find fares no better morally).

So much for an example of innocence inappropriately lost. No doubt we could think of many others–social, political, etc… And I will bypass for now a discussion of sexual innocence lost appropriately, since such is probably rare (remember, we are not talking about sex per se, but an awareness, an understanding of what is possible given the constructs of meaning in a sexual reality).

Now we come to the heart of this essay, which unfortunately is a question. We have all experienced the inappropriate loss of innocence in some stratum of reality or another. But what are we to do about it? How are we to put such situations to rights? The answer is of immense importance, not just for those (probably most of us if we are honest) who wouldn’t mind having lost sexual innocence appropriately (or not at all yet), rather than inappropriately. As the story of the Fall shows, the question is the fundamental question of our humanity–we ate of the tree, but were unable to digest the fruit. How are we then to return to our original purpose of naming and caring, loving and ruling the earth, while we are bent over double with the pains of knowledge?

The previous considerations are all used in unavoidably realizing that it can be no answer simply to try and forget. We cannot return–we can never go back to Eden. The figurative flaming swords which bar its gates are simply reality itself–we could no more re-open them than forget language! Innocence lost cannot be regained. What then? Shall we press on and make our best go at dealing with a moral reality we were not prepared to face? It has been our strategy since the beginning, but war upon war, evil upon evil pile higher and higher the dung on the heap we have made out of the world.

Ultimately, this is why I believe we need Christ. Not in some simplistic salvific sacrifice of divine blood appeasing the hunger of divine spirit, but because he both acknowledges the reality of innocence lost, and provides a solution. The solution is neither to go back (naivete) nor to stay where we are (cynicism/despair), but to move forward (hope). Christ is not the old Adam re-born, but the new Adam. Christ was not ignorant of good and evil, but rather so fully human that he was prepared to go through life with knowledge of them both, walking the knife-edge of good, effortlessly. That is why he can be our only exemplar–not Adam, nor any of his line, but Christ.

Still, to say that Christ is the solution is not to say how he will solve our dilemmas–it is simply to provide a path. The path out of lust, for example, is not back to a pre-sexual ignorance, but further on to love. How exactly one must tread to follow that path successfully, I have not fully discovered. Still, I believe that for every innocence lost, there is a knowledge to be redeemed. If Christ was the only one who lived out that redemption, following him will be our only method of achieving it ourselves. Though this seems difficult, there is one more hope: if the knowledge by which we lose innocence is irreversible, it stands to reason that the character which we gain by its redemption is equally so. And then, not before our time, we will have finally become worthy of the knowledge we too quickly gained, and will no longer need fear it for what it can incite us to do. To put it in more cosmic terms: who knows how long it would have taken Adam and Eve to mature in character to the point where they could have partaken of the fruit safely. It will no doubt take us much longer to mature to that character while staggering under the load of its knowledge. But we can be sure that we can still get there! Christ himself is proof of that.

So, to sum up our tortuous path from philosophy to spirituality: First, there are many kinds of knowledge. Second, some of them cause an epistemological revolution which cannot be undone. Third, some of these epistemological revolutions can be harmful if we are not spiritually prepared for them, as the all-too-common loss of innocence in the stratum of sexuality proves. Fourth, in these losses it is impossible to retrace our steps and achieve the state of ignorance we once had. Fifth, it seems the only way out is ahead–not to less knowledge (nor even to more) but to greater character (a worthiness for the gift of that knowledge). Here we run into the problem of how to progress to this more mature character, and we have our options of whom to follow on that score. I believe that Christ is the only one who actually consistently exhibited the kind of character which would be the result of our progress, and thus that he is the only one to whom we should listen for directions. Extrapolated cosmically: how can the world be spiritually transformed to be worthy of the knowledge it has attained (and thus to stop wars and oppression and extortion and rape and literally every evil which festers under the sun)? Submit to the guidance of Christ.

How that submission is maintained beyond the desire to make it is a mystery (just as is how one progresses resolutely from lust to love while in the throes of a ravishing sexual knowledge that bombards us with deliverances of the understanding we cannot assimilate without sinning). I would pay all I have and more to understand it! Though “follow me” is a simple enough command, its obedience could take us half a world away, up mountains and over rivers, or even into dark and seemingly treacherous places. That is why no more can be said in an essay, as much as I would like to read one with such contents myself. That is why we must, if we are to redeem our individual lost innocences, and indeed our corporate ones, listen with attentive ears and open hearts to the call of our First Brother in True Humanity.

Author: Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan is a Director of Engineering at Sauce Labs, leading a team of open source developers to improve the web and mobile testing ecosystem. He has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over a decade, but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan has master's degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. Living in San Francisco, he's an avid rock climber, yogi, musician, and writer on topics he considers vital, like the relationship of technology to what it means to be human. Visit jonathanlipps.com for more.

9 thoughts on “Epistemology, Innocence, and the Spiritual Development of Humanity (An Essay)”

  1. Great thoughts, Jon! I especially like your insight that the way to handle innocence lost is not by attempting the impossible task of recovering your former state, but moving forward to a new place where you’re capable of handling the new and irrevocable knowledge you’ve gained. Moving through lust to love is the perfect example. It reminds me of NT’s insistence that the resurrection is not the resuscitation of the old body, but the passing through death and coming out the other side into a new life. It’s an abstract and speculative thing to try to understand just what that means, but your essay helps me think about it. There’s an analogy between this kind of true resurrection and the real-life process of moving forward from, say, loss of sexual innocence (likened to death) to love (new life), rather than trying to go backwards (resuscitation).

  2. Wow. Makes me want to act! As much as I sometimes doubt whether I can do it, whether I can really be a disciple of God, whether I have the compassion, the strength, the love to attempt to follow (if only a bit) in the ways of Jesus, reading some of these thoughts really inspire me to want to do just that. I love this: “The solution is neither to go back (naivete) nor to stay where we are (cynicism/despair), but to move forward (hope)… Christ was not ignorant of good and evil, but rather so fully human that he was prepared to go through life with knowledge of them both, walking the knife-edge of good, effortlessly.” With a God who all-knowingly sent his son through that for us, how can we not just drop everything for Him? Thanks for writing this Jonathan.

  3. Dan– NT’s thoughts are perfectly applicable here; thanks for mentioning them! It is indeed the difference between resuscitation and resurrection. We do not want to be taken back to an old life (however good)–but ahead to a completely new life.

    Krista– the doubt is real and not to be dismissed, but not more real (hopefully) than the reality of the life it is possible to live through following Christ.

  4. My favorites:

    1.

    “If the knowledge by which we lose innocence is irreversible, it stands to reason that the character which we gain by its redemption is equally so.”

    2.

    “So, to sum up our tortuous path from philosophy to spirituality…(end irrelevant)”

    3.

    “That is why we must, if we are to redeem our individual lost innocences, and indeed our corporate ones, listen with attentive ears and open hearts to the call of our First Brother in True Humanity.”

    And, on three, Pain is our mother, she makes us recognize each other (the song). Indeed. Jung’s Wounded Healer as well. I like it.

    Additionally, the use of “corporate” here makes me free associate to a fantastic piece Anne Lamott just wrote on how to have money and be good in Oprah Magazine (yes, Oprah). Kind of a Christian Libertarian but-you’re-still-allowed-to-enjoy-cake deal.

  5. Your description of individual redemption helps me see its analogy to our corporate redemption. God does not “undo” history when we, unprepared, misuse knowledge. Rather, he creatively invents ways to teach us character.

  6. Lipps that was really cool and inspiring. It was a good angle to show the importance, life, and awesomeness of following Christ. I really like thinking about character development in terms of knowledge and being able to handle the knowledge so that we can respond like Jesus would in any situation. Being able to handle knowledge with wisdom and character is something that I greatly long for.

    It is such a struggle when we first begin to repent of our old ways of sin and bad habits or ways of thinking. I feel vulnerable to so easily turn back to that pattern, habit, or sin. And there is a lot of anxiety, guilt, fear, etc in this process. It is like I have to beat my body into submission because I continue to do the things I do not want to do (as Paul says in Romans). It makes sense to me that in those areas of sin, I have perverted knowledge and loss of innocence, and the only hope I have is in Jesus to restore me through character development and wisdom so that I can handle the knowledge rightly. That is why discipleship and apprenticeship to Jesus is not an option as a Christian. We absolutely need to fervently seek and follow Jesus to grow in our character and become like him to fully experience the abundance of life he came to restore unto us…and to fully be able to handle any knowledge with character and wisdom. The Lord wants us also to be able to handle his power through us, and that takes a GREAT amount of character and wisdom. Though we will never be perfect and that is for sure…and knowledge puffs up but love builds up. Sorry these thoughts are not so coherent.

  7. Wonderful essay.

    I think the significance in your reasoning comes out in the way you tie knowledge to the corporate human condition of the inappropriate loss of innocence and the evil that stems from this path. In the same way that I love watching my little brother play high school football I love witnessing and reading the way you bring order out of disorder in your writing. Both are a fantastic use of natural and disciplined abilities.

  8. Jesus had all of the pieces…Adam and Eve did not. The thief of knowledge is innately human and I fall short of understanding a God that knows all yet sets limit. This sounds like a modern day dictator. I’d rather know the true truth. I refuse to be ignorantly blissful. I’d pick the apple again.

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