We, 1984, and the Bible

We”, written by Yevgeny Zamyatin, is sometimes seen as foreshadowing George Orwell’s much more famous “1984”. The book is available in a Dover reprint, 183 pages, ISBN 978-0-486-84727-6, (2021).

Zamyatin (1884 - 1937), like Orwell, was a Leftist who became disenchanted with the realities of oppressive Left Wing rule. He was an early supporter of the Bolsheviks, but he later fell out of step with the Party and petitioned Stalin in 1931 for permission to go to France, where he died several years later.

He wrote “We” in 1921, but it was first published in 1924 in New York in an English translation; it was not published in Russian in the USSR until 1988. The title “We” refers to Zamyatin’s envisaged society where massive uniformity is imposed by a central authority and people do not think of themselves as individuals separate from that society. People are known by numbers, not names.

There are strong parallels with Orwell’s later “1984”. The protagonist is an individual with an unusual desire to create a diary of events. He is approached by a woman who introduces him to the forbidden possibilities outside their regimented society in which the ruling Well-Doer is re-elected unanimously every year. Eventually, society squashes this attempt at individualism by application of brute force, and the protagonist once again willingly subsumes himself into the collective.

An interesting concept in “We” is the analogy to the Biblical story of Adam & Eve. A character discussing the benefits of the regime says: “You see, it is the ancient legend of paradise. …There were two in paradise and the choice was offered to them: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness. No other choice. Tertium non datur. They, fools that they were, chose freedom. Naturally, for centuries afterwards they longed for fetters, for the fetters of yore.


I seem to recall that Orwell admitted to taking inspiration from “We”.


I’m with you till we get to the Genesis story. Your take on it reminds me of that Star Trek episode where a buncha beautiful blond barely clad people are living an idyllic lifestyle on the planet, except they all have to “feed Vol”, their deity. Natcherly (it’s the reason we watch!) Kirk hasta destroy the servitude which is perfect freedom and cast them into the harsh world of self-determination, i…e., agonizing choices.
I’ve never understood how Adam and Eve, just a couple days old, can be said to have “chosen”. Remember they didn’t know good from evil until AFTER they noshed the Tree. They didn’t know what sin was, they didn’t know what death was, and God hadn’t warned them against His “most subtil”creation: that talking beast, the serpent. They knew they were disobeying, I reckon, but it’s like if your dog takes food from the table even though it knows you won’t like it. Did they really have , as people love to say, “free will”? Certainly not free Will to choose between good and evil, since they didn’t know one from the other at that point.
Seems to me (and this is all within the confines of the text, whether you take it literally or you regard it a just a “fable”) they stumbled on HALF the secret of divinity ; the knowledge of good and evil—theta want the serpent promises, and in fact that’s what God says:”The man is become as one of us”. Sadly though, they hadn’t yet noshed the Tree of Life,(immortality) even though that hadn’t been forbidden. If they’d had any sense they’da eaten that first—but they DIDNT have any sense, at that point, just a few days old.
The story makes sense viewed within the wider arena of folk tale themes and mythology. But as theology, as a guide for the devout—it doesn’t.


On this note, I’m reminded of another piece of Totalitarian-inspired fiction, a 1944 Russian play, The Dragon, by Evgeny Schwartz:

A wandering knight, Lancelot—distantly related, he says, to the famous Knight of the Round Table*—*learns while passing through that the town is ruled by a huge, three‐​headed, fire‐​breathing dragon who has been around for 400 years and extracts a tribute from the populace: not only an ample supply of food but the customary annual sacrifice of a maiden. This year, the unlucky girl is Elsa, the daughter of Lancelot’s gracious host Mr. Charlemagne. Yet, to Lancelot’s dismay, both Charlemagne and Elsa are cheerfully resigned to their fate and even insist that the dragon is not so bad: after all, he offers protection from other dragons in case they still exist, and he once breathed fire on the lake by the town to provide the residents with safe boiled water during a cholera epidemic.


This is a “most subtil” question, and one particularly relevant to our present day discussion of the risks and benefits of artificial intelligence (AI).

Consider, in Genesis 1:29:

  1. And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

“[A]nd every tree…”: no restrictions, having already (Genesis 1:26) given humans “dominion … over all the earth”.

Then, in Genesis 2:16–17:

  1. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
  2. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Now we have two conflicting commands from creator to created: “every tree …. to you it shall be for meat”, then for another specific tree, if “thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die”.

Adam, having been endowed with the soul of a programmer and inexperienced in formal logic or interpreting the instructions of an omnipotent creator, has to decide the rule of precedence: does the first instruction apply because it was given earlier and is more broadly applicable, or does the second, more specific, abrogate part of the first with respect to one specific tree?

Note that this is not a matter of right and wrong: it is what computer language designers would call a matter of scope. Within the garden, does the general rule (Gen 1:29) apply, or does the subsequent specific rule (Gen 2:17) override it? Note that the general rule said “over all the earth”—is the garden in Eden not within “all of the Earth”?

Now, this might seem like sophomoric word games (which, indeed, it is), but now look at it in terms of what they’re calling the “AI alignment problem”, which has as its goal “to steer AI systems towards humans’ intended goals, preferences, or ethical principles. An AI system is considered aligned if it advances the intended objectives. A misaligned AI system pursues some objectives, but not the intended ones.”

The designer of an AI system is in a position not unlike that of God in the Bible. The designer is all-powerful in that he or she can create any system at all, as it is built from pure logic which can be manipulated at will without constraints. But suppose the designer has goals which should be embodied in the created system: for example, not exterminating the human race or disassembling the Earth in the process of carrying out its mission. Keeping the AI from doing that and directing it to do “good works” as envisaged by the designer is the goal of “alignment”, and it appears to be a formidably complex problem and arguably formally impossible.

It may be impossible because there is no way to know what a system capable of universal computation will do other than turning it on and seeing what happens. It is impossible to know, even with a complete understanding of the machine and program, what the program will actually do once it starts to run. In simple cases, this has been formally proved: it is called the “halting problem”.

The Biblical Creator may have been faced with the same problem at the moment He added humans—universal problem solvers—to His creation. There is no way to know how they will interpret conflicting instructions, nor how they will imaginatively construe even the most explicit guidance initially given. Just ask any programmer about their experience with users in the real world.

All of this can be discussed without ever invoking weighty philosophical concepts such as Good and Evil, Free Will, or Righteousness and Sin. The problems arise even in 100% deterministic systems created entirely by humans in deciding matters as simple-minded as whether they will stop or go on running forever.

I can imagine God and Satan, before the Big Split, sitting around and debating the question of “human alignment”. God argued that with careful design and guidance, these universal beings would do Good works as he defined them. Satan contended, “You can never know. Unless you enslave them and control their every action, once they’re on their own, they will pursue their own ends which may have nothing to do with or directly oppose your own values.” They never did settle the issue. Before Creation, Satan told God, “I’ll bet once you turn them loose, sooner or later you’re going to have to drown them all or some such and start over.” God said, “We shall see.”


…except, if God is all powerful and all-knowing, you have to believe, (upon pain of punishment for heresy), that He KNEW what was going to happen, what the humans would do.
Now, THAT’S on the theological level.
Read as a fable, though, it doesn’t look that way. Why would God be so angry about it? He doesn’t seem to know in advance what the humans have done, He figures it out from their sudden modesty and fear. Read as myth and folktale it’s a classic example of creatures taking action which really pisses off a deity, who takes pains to make sure the individuals and all their issue will never forget. Taking away the snake’s legs, turning a person into a spider or a bird….
It’s a story to explain why we grow old and die. In the Genesis story, we weren’t gonna live forever anyway , or God wouldn’t have been so concerned about making sure we didn’t nibble the fruit of immortality. But we would have had our sempiternity.


The question of human lifespan in the Bible is puzzling.

In Genesis 5 (the “begats”), lifetimes are hundreds of years, with Methuselah racking up 969 before handing in his dinner pail. But then, right at Genesis 6:3:

  1. And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.

Well, that’s pretty explicit, and it seems to be completely consistent with the rate of telomere erosion in humans and the evidence from individuals such as Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122.5 years. But if that were God’s intention, what was going on right before in Chapter 5?

Now, it would make perfect sense if this declaration were made after the Flood, as part of the new covenant, with God saying this was one of the changes to be made in Humans 2.0 to avoid the earlier unpleasantness, but it happens before the Flood (Genesis 6:12–13).

Yet then, in Genesis 11:10–21:

  1. These are the generations of Shem: Shem was an hundred years old, and begat Arphaxad two years after the flood:
  2. And Shem lived after he begat Arphaxad five hundred years, and begat sons and daughters.
  3. And Arphaxad lived five and thirty years, and begat Salah:
  4. And Arphaxad lived after he begat Salah four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters.
  5. And Salah lived thirty years, and begat Eber:
  6. And Salah lived after he begat Eber four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters.
  7. And Eber lived four and thirty years, and begat Peleg:
  8. And Eber lived after he begat Peleg four hundred and thirty years, and begat sons and daughters.
  9. And Peleg lived thirty years, and begat Reu:
  10. And Peleg lived after he begat Reu two hundred and nine years, and begat sons and daughters.
  11. And Reu lived two and thirty years, and begat Serug:
  12. And Reu lived after he begat Serug two hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters.

Now they’re back to living hundreds of years again!

This doesn’t strike me as the outcome of a God who can foresee everything in advance. But it’s precisely the kind of thing that happens when you turn intelligent agents loose who make it up as they go along and develop their own goals and pursue them independently.


Also, again looking at the story as fable rather than theology: who tells the truth in the Eden story?
The snake!
Adam and Eve don’t die for like 800+ years, and they DO become as gods, knowing good from evil.
The devout would say, ah, but they began to die when they yielded to sin. Ok but it’s clear they weren’t created immortal to begin with. Remember they were expelled from Eden to keep them from eating of the tree of life.


Y’know what’s even weirder? The Cain story. I’ll write a Post about that here, as I’ve done Elsewhere.


It is the Adam & Eve comparison to both “We” and “1984” which caught my attention.

All the stories have an Adam figure who was engaging in typical male behavior – enjoying his beer, thinking about someday writing a book, accomplishing not much. Then he is tempted by a woman to get off his behind and actually do something. She shows him new & exciting opportunities which Adam – suggestible male that he is – cannot resist exploring. And that succumbing to temptation leads to unpleasant consequences for both Adam and the temptress woman.

But maybe I am seeing something in “We” and “1984” which the authors never intended. :slightly_smiling_face:

Apocalypse 3:22

And the LORD God said,
 Behold, the man is become as one of us, 
to know good and evil: 
and now, 
lest he put forth his hand, 
and take also of the tree of life, 
and eat, 
and live for ever:

et ait ecce Adam factus est quasi unus ex nobis
sciens bonum et malum
nunc ergo ne forte mittat manum suam 
et sumat etiam de ligno vitae
et comedat et vivat in aeternum

Douay-Rheims Bible


Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John
By Sir Isaac Newton


This should be “Genesis 3:22”, not Apocalypse/Revelation.

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