[Milton-L] Abdiel (thought-sins)

Harold Skulsky hskulsky at email.smith.edu
Fri Jul 4 19:33:59 EDT 2008

The last few rounds of the Abdiel dispute — about whether Eve's dream
has added acquaintance knowledge to her conceptual knowledge of what it
is to do wrong — indicates a source of possible confusion in sorting
out examples of the two sorts of knowledge.

Assume that I have been blind since birth and that a surgical
intervention gives me sight. Being a blind neurologist and physicist, I
already have the CONCEPT of seeing red objects. Surgery enables me to
know, for the first time, WHAT IT'S LIKE to see red once I enjoy the
visual sensation caused by a red object. Now, here's the point: clearly,
I can have a red sensation even if the object I'm looking at is not in
fact red — or even if I'm not looking at anything in the first place.

One can argue, by analogy, that Eve can learn what it's like to do
something wrong even if it turns out that the deed was a dream; she can
doing of an evil act. If so, Eve can add (i) guiltless (experiential)
knowledge of WHAT IT'S LIKE to do wrong to (ii) her guiltless
(conceptual) knowledge of what it IS to do wrong. She can acquire
experiential but innocence-preserving knowledge of evil.

This I take to be Michael Gillum's point about Eve's dream. But unless
I'm mistaken, there's a complication here that I think Milton
appreciates and assumes that we will appreciate, and that is therefore
worth a little extra reflection.

Let's be a bit more specific. 

For Eve to be morally responsible for eating the forbidden fruit,
according to Milton's tradition of moral theology, is  for Eve (a) to
know that eating the forbidden fruit is wrong, (b) to come to know that
she has an opportunity to eat it, (c) to desire to take that
opportunity, (d) to give her free consent to that desire, (e) for Eve's
consent to cause her body to perform all the movements that fulfil the

The question before the house is: Does Eve's dream enable her, with no
moral responsibility for sin at all,  to learn what it's like to be in
states (a-e), and hence to acquire blameless experiential knowledge of
what it is to do evil? The answer depends on how (c) and (d) apply to
Eve's narrative in PL 5. There are at least three possibilities.

Possibility One: Eve freely consents to her desire to take an
opportunity to do something wrong. Eve's mental acts of desiring and
freely consenting are real enough, but unbeknownst to her the
opportunity is not — it's a dream appearance. In this case, Eve is
morally responsible for a sinful act of thought, rather than for the sin
of eating the fruit. She has acquired experiential knowledge of evil —
but the knowledge is not guiltless.

Possibility Two: Eve doesn't in fact consent, but her desire ("I,
methought, could not but taste") is followed immediately by a bogus
piece of observational evidence that she is enjoying the RESULTS of
having consented ("Forthwith up to the Clouds / With him I flew"). She
has learned what it's like to consent to evil freely without having done
so, just as a blind person suddenly granted sight can learn what it's
like to see a red object even if the object isn't red, or even if
there's no object at all.

Possibility Three: Eve consents, but under duress; note that the desire
she reports is irresistible ("I, methought, could not but taste").
Again, she has learned what it's like to sin — to give free consent to
evil — without having done so.

I opt for Possibiliity Two, for the following reasons.

(1) The somewhat misleading phrase "in her dream Eve freely consents to
eat the apple," if it means anything, just describes a certain mental
act on Eve's part as having been occasioned by a dream.The fact that
states of mind or acts of mind are occasioned by a dream doesn't mean
that the states and acts don't actually happen. Minds are funny things
that way.

(2) If Eve merely avoids describing her free consent, then she has
freely consented ipso facto and incurs guilt for a sin (see (1)), even
if the sin isn't the outwardly manifested act we're all worried about.
Compare the situation of a believer in voodoo who plunges a needle into
the heart of a doll representing someone he envies: he is not guilty of
murder, but he is guilty of something — in fact, something serious.

(3) There's no evidence of an omission in Eve's report; she's reporting
the dream as she dreamt it — it's the DREAM that has the gap, not her
REPORT. A squeamish or emotionally fragile Eve is a nonstarter at this
stage in the narrative.

(4) Possibility Three is defective in various ways, but I will spare
myself the trouble of pointing them out.

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