Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 2, Chapter 6: “The Flight From Laputa”)

In the last post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, we looked at some of the Christian sources of existentialism within the Western Tradition, from the contributions of Christian authors like Tertullian, to the works of Christian theologians like Augustine and Pascal.  There are a lot of other writers as well, particularly a number of poets and novelists that existed during, and shortly after, the Age of Enlightenment, which all had a substantial impact on existentialism.  In this chapter, Barrett mentions several of these writers, many putting out a number of literary works throughout the period of Romanticism and also the two most prolific Russian authors, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, who wrote their most influential works in the mid to late 19th century.

Barrett opens up this chapter with some brilliant commentary on Jonathan Swift’s most famous book, the English classic Gulliver’s Travels.  He brings our attention to a particular episode in that book, namely the unforgettable voyage to Laputa: a large island that hovers above the earth, floating and navigating in the sky through the use of an enormous magnet and earth’s own magnetic field.  Once Gulliver is shipwrecked and brought up to the island, he finds the people living there to be incredibly strange-looking and also behaving in some odd ways.  One particularly creepy detail is the fact that the people don’t ever focus on the eyes of the person they are speaking with; instead they have one eye turned upward toward the sky, as if in some kind of perpetual contemplation of the cosmos; and the other eye points inward as if in some kind of perpetual introverted state.  Their foods are cut into a variety of geometric shapes and their clothes are rather ill-fitting garments resulting from a tailoring process that relies exclusively on strict geometries, and they are decorated with shapes of the sun, moon, stars, and a plethora of musical instruments.

Swift’s intention here was to create an imaginary world that was a kind of manifestation of reason incarnate, where the inhabitants have completely structured their lives around reason and are lost in a perpetual state of mental abstraction and disconnectedness.  To further solidify the intended historically-relevant metaphor, we’re also told about the ordinary earth dwellers living below the Laputans, who also happen to be subject to the ruling of the Laputans living overhead.  And these ordinary earth-dwellers are described as being far happier than their Laputan rulers for a number of reasons.  The Laputans are unable to have a normal human conversation nor have the interpersonal emotional connection that may accompany such an interaction, because these absent-minded intellectuals have almost completely lost any sense of who’s around them at the moment, requiring constant reminders from servant-boys about when it is time to talk or to listen (as the case may be) lest they might slip away into some kind of philosophical speculation in mid-conversation.  So despite the Laputans standing on a pedestal of superiority, perhaps implied metaphorically by their floating on an island “above” everyone else (which may also be a metaphor for their lack of grounding in Being or in being fully human), they seem to be missing a core part of their humanity.

Clearly we are meant to be given a description of a world showing how reason is insufficient to fulfill many of our psychological needs as human beings; and its blatant lack of emotional expression, interpersonal relationships, and, for lack of a better word any “organic” form or structure at all, has been fueled by some kind of post-Enlightenment belief that reason can fix all of mankind’s problems.  We’re also meant to see how the resulting cultural sterilization brought on by reason (such as that within Laputa) has created an aversion to such a mode of living for many, such that some people begin to seek out passion any way that they can get it (for better or worse):

“The men and movements of which it does stand as a prediction will find themselves at times in the desperate quandary of the prime minister’s wife, ready to throw themselves into the arms of a drunken footman if that is the only way out of the sterile kingdom of reason.  In the search for the Dionysian, after all, one cannot always be expected to be bound by good taste.”

Here, I believe Barrett’s brief reference to the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy to be paramount to understanding the historical-cultural impetus underlying the clash between reason and emotion, and ultimately between rationalism and existentialism.  By creating an imbalance in this dichotomy, for example by not giving enough resources or importance in finding a means of “Dionysian expression” in a society, a kind of tension begins to build up until the proverbial “bubble” bursts and the Dionysian portion of our being is over-expressed leading to another imbalance albeit one going the other way.  As much as one would hope to be able to prevent this kind of explosive feedback, it may be the case that we’re not able to sense an imbalance of this sort until it’s become so drastic that a violent outburst (or an overcompensation of some kind) is the only way to tip the scales back to equilibrium.

Then again, perhaps the signs of an imbalance are always there and we just need to look a bit more closely at how our culture is expressing itself (and not just at a superficial level).  We ought to look closer at the artists, the writers, and the changes occurring to how our identities are shaped compared to those of the preceding generations.  As an example, one sign of this imbalance in the post-Enlightenment Western world, furthering existential development, was exemplified very powerfully by the artistic works of the romantics, which Barrett explores in this chapter.

1.  The Romantics

“However we choose to characterize Romanticism-as a protest of the individual against the universal laws of classicism, or as the protest of feeling against reason, or again as the protest on behalf of nature against the encroachments of an industrial society-what is clear is that it is, in every case, a drive toward that fullness and naturalness of Being that the modern world threatens to let sink into oblivion.”

This characterization of romanticism reminds me of an important theme that I mentioned in my last post, and one that I think is absolutely worth reiterating here; namely, what I call the desynchronization between our cultural and biological evolution.  This fact is, as I see it anyway, the simplest way of describing and explaining the psychological motivations for the advent of existentialism.  Industrialization, mass production, capitalism, and the maximization of efficiency have led to a world that is entirely alien to the one we evolved within.  And again, it would be entirely surprising if we found ourselves living in the modern world without these existential problems.

The fruits of modernity as well as the plethora of super-normal stimuli that have precipitated from our technology have in some sense fooled our brains over the course of many generations such that our evolutionarily-endowed strategies for survival have inadvertently led us to the psychologically inhospitable world we now live in.  Our situation is analogous to a group of people having made incredible strides in a field like chemistry such that they are now able to refine, purify, and concentrate chemicals like never before; but eventually a product like heroin is created which ends up consuming the lives of the people living in that world, drastically diminishing their happiness, and yet the attraction to the drug has already taken hold of their way of life, inclining them to make ever more powerful versions of these drugs eventually leading to their own self-destruction.

Similarly, we’ve gained a lot of amenities and a vast power of manipulating our environment through the use of reason.  It has allowed us to discover more facts about the world than ever before, in turn enabling us to make technological gains at an exponential rate, perhaps leading to our getting lost in the novelty and the positive changes made to our standards of living.  But once this genie was let out of the bottle, a runaway situation occurred where the benefits we were paying attention to distracted us from the fact that it was also generating and exacerbating a psychological imbalance.

I believe our best chance of resolving this problem is going to rely on a combination of genetically engineering our species to feel better-adapted to our ever-changing culture and by restructuring the world in ways that better resonate with our evolutionary environmental niche, and yet still do so in ways that are technologically innovative so as to not take a huge step backward in the amenities that modernity has provided us.

In looking at some of the poets that had a distaste for much of modernization, Barrett mentions the poet William Blake:

“Blake is recognized easily enough as the poet against the industrial revolution…”The atoms of Democritus, And Newton’s particles of light, Are sands upon the Red sea shore, Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.”

This excerpt is from Blake’s Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau”, a poem written by Blake that appears to be more or less a defense of his religious views against those of science generally, rather than a protest against the industrial revolution specifically.  In this poem, he seems to suggest that any mockery of faith and religion such as that originating from Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau is somewhat of an exercise of futility as the society is largely unwilling to accept their ideas anyway.  And the mechanistic ideas espoused by brilliant scientific thinkers such as Democritus and Newton are small and insignificant compared to the breadth and power of religion and the belief in God, let alone the belief in God as the Creator that subsumes any paltry discoveries that man might make.

Another way to interpret this poem is to say that Blake is simply emphasizing the importance of using imagination along with reason, and he may be pointing out that human beings seek mythological constructs and grand designs of their world alongside the numerous facts that are discoverable through science.  If creative imagination is integral to being human, and if this integral component inevitably results in religious myth-making, then we should be careful in how we assess the apparent collision between reason and religion.

It seems to me that it is the failure to accept various facts about the world that has many proponents of reason opposed to religion, including many existing during the Age of Enlightenment.  The conflict however has largely been a tug of war over what I believe is a false dichotomy: choosing either reason or religion as exclusive modes of living or being.  Just as the religious don’t entirely discount reason (because they have to use it in much of their day-to-day lives, many who do so willingly), similarly the champions of reason shouldn’t entirely discount all that is involved in or accomplished with religion.  I think that human beings need an outlet for their creative imagination and emotional expression and they can and ought to produce mythological constructs and other allegorical narratives in stories, poetry, novels, cinema, and music, in order to serve as outlets for this creativity.

I for one want people to be able to express themselves, even if this is done through creative myth-making such as that found within religion; but the difficulty arises when the myths are actually believed as true and then this can interfere with accepting actual facts about the world which can subsequently impair one’s moral decision making.  Unfortunately, the myths that have been produced for millennia have most often been treated as truths and facts within those cultures rather than simply intuitive stories trying to make an important point through allegory and metaphor.  Perhaps we can have the latter without requiring the former; finding a way to appeal to our intuitions, emotions, and imagination, yet without having to sacrifice a reliable epistemology in the process.  This may allow reason to more harmoniously coexist with the deeper roots of our humanity.

Early on, Barrett also mentions some specifics concerning why Blake was opposed to industrialization:

“Mills and furnaces are evil, to Blake, because they are the external manifestations of the abstract and mechanical mind which means the death of man.”

Similarly, I can see how he would have been opposed to other means of mass production such as the assembly line, the distribution of labor in general, and processes involved in mass chemical synthesis such as distillation; all of which that can be seen as externalizations of the hyper-use of reason, logic, and reductionism.  Even ignoring the textile industry’s role in producing a person’s clothing, an explicit artifact of this kind of externalization would be recognized whenever a person living in Blake’s own time pulled out their pocket watch; a purely mechanical device that also illustrates the degree of precision and efficiency in an industrialized world that rations every minute of a person’s life as it sees fit.  No longer are we informed of the progression of our day by noting the whereabouts of the sun in the sky, as our ancestors once did and just as the rest of nature is apt to do; instead our time has become far too precious in maintaining our busy schedules than to conform to a more natural account of our time and existence.  We’ve each become an “Alice” in a wonderland of abstraction with no time to simply breath; instead we’re inclined to follow the example of the March Hare, chasing him down the rabbit hole of modernity as he shouts “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”

I suppose we could say that we’ve been cut off from nature insofar as we’re no longer like other animals living in the present moment; instead, we seem to be forever living in the future, where even our own existence and identity have become an abstraction centered around the relatively meaningless goals that we’ve been indoctrinated to value.  Now this shouldn’t be taken to mean that our consideration of the future isn’t also an important part of our being human, for it is, and in fact a vision of the future of human possibilities is a central driving force within Romanticism as well even if it seems more heavily inclined toward a return to the past.  But in our modern world, we’re pressured into the idea of being defined by what society wants us to become, in large part based on expectations that are not conducive to a fulfilling life.  Some of these expectations have included directing our attention away from a more natural way of life and towards a life that glorifies artificial metrics of success that have no intrinsic value to us as human beings.

It is apparent and obvious that something has happened to modernity’s connection to nature; which is easily recognized by looking at all of our artificial environments, functions, and modern concerns.  And Barrett actually mentions the concept of Being as implied in the poet William Wordsworth’s works, as one relying on a deep connection to nature.  Wordsworth unsurprisingly criticizes the intellect as something that severs us from this connection in his poem “The Tables Turned” :

Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things:
We murder to dissect.

Rather than simply being in nature and receiving what she has to offer by effortlessly taking in one’s surroundings as a whole, humans (most especially modern humans) often distance themselves from their raw experiences by analyzing them and breaking them down into very abstract concepts.  And we learn many of the abstract concepts used in this kind of analysis not from our own experience per se but from books and other derivative sources of information, thus further distancing ourselves from the original felt experience.  So it should come as no surprise to hear that Wordsworth was partial to the idea that learning directly from nature is far more effective than traditional learning from books and so forth, even though (perhaps ironically) he still wanted people to read his writings and he continued to make use of books himself.  But I think the driving point here is that even though books are important for a lot of reasons and even though we shouldn’t dispense of them nor should we dispense with analyzing our experience from time to time, we ought to spend more time living in the moment and not parsing everything out into abstractions that take away from the holistic attributes of the experience.

Whereas Wordsworth was grieving over the disconnection from nature that he saw taking place with regards to many of his contemporaries, he didn’t feel this way about himself.  It is here that Barrett turns to some of the works of Coleridge, for he commented on the same predicament but he was also writing about his own feelings, where he found himself no longer finding any happiness in nature.  Coleridge was perhaps the first poet to explore some of these existential feelings from his own perspective; encountering the void itself and all the anxiety it brings along with it:

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear–

This excerpt from Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode,” was a personal confession of his having lost his sense of feeling, even wishing for a violent storm to erupt at one point in this poem such that he could feel something.  He describes his experience in some vivid detail and points to the fact that the degeneration of his feelings has a correlation with a degradation of his own imagination.  And he alludes to there being an inherent separation between man’s feelings and the forms found in nature; where the feelings have to be created from within rather than given to us from our simply being in nature.

One interesting trait within Coleridge’s work, and which may help to explain some sentiments in the poem referenced above, is the fact that he makes use of imaginative flights where he leaves the present time and place and substitutes them for a setting that’s entirely manufactured from his own creativity.  And this quality of Coleridge contrasts a bit with the sentiments of Wordsworth, where the former often makes use of separating himself from the nature around him in its present state and the latter emphasizes the importance of taking in nature as it is in the here-and-now.  Both strategies maintain a connection to nature in one way or another but one uses imagination to augment it potentially into a surreal experience whereas the other is more of an experiential realist that simply “receives” nature directly.

Barrett compares Coleridge’s melancholy to that of Faust in Goethe’s poetic drama:

“Both are in or near the condition of breakdown, trapped in a paralysis of feeling in which everything has turned to dust and ashes, including the meddling intellect that has tyrannized over both.”

Even though Goethe set out to distance himself from Romanticism later in his life, Faust represents Goethe at his most romantic.  And it is in Faust-Goethe that we see a strong tie to humanity as a collective being with an essential yearning to both live and grow, even if this is only accomplished by an amalgamation of the Dionysian-Apollonian dichotomy; a fusion of stability and chaos; a marriage between self-restraint and personal freedom.

Freedom is a concept that Barrett also touches on with respect to Goethe’s interest in alchemy, where he ties the concept to “the dark halo of magic around him,” which served as a kind of sign of man’s lust to transcend his own limitations.  And what better place to incorporate the problem of free will, than with the desire to harness magical power in order to manipulate anything at your command.  Most people haven’t pondered over the free will conundrum in any philosophical way, for example, by considering the logical contradiction between causation or randomness and a human freedom that is self-caused or causa sui.  But the fact of the matter is, the only way for people to have a libertarian form of free will would be by some kind of magic, where the logically impossible is made possible, and so it seems to be no coincidence that the figure of the magician is, as Barrett puts it: “…the primitive image of human freedom.”  He also reminds us of the fact that magic and alchemy are recurring elements throughout the history of Romanticism where they betray our personal aspirations of becoming something more than we are.

Tying all of this together, Barrett reveals a more profound quality or role of the poet:

“Poetry is no longer an art merely of making verses, but a magical means of arriving at some truer and more real sphere of Being.  Poetry becomes a substitute for a religion.”

And this may be true in the sense that poetry allows one to open the channel between reason and emotion, or between reality and imagination.  In any case, whether one is drawn toward a form of expression offered through poetry or religion, it is the search for a way of transcending humanity or at the very least in overcoming our estrangement to Being itself, that drives us into these modes of living.

2. The Russians: Dostoevski and Tolstoy (realist fiction)

One prominent theme within Russian literature is the contrasting of the intellectual class with the rest of humanity, and Barrett points out a relation between the two:

“Intellectuals as a class suffer to the degree that they are cut off from the rest of mankind.  But intellectuals are the embodiment of reason, and reason itself if cut off from the concrete life of ordinary mankind is bound to decay.”

This is an interesting conclusion that the intellectuals in Russia were in a unique position to see, for they had a physical and cultural separation from the primary beneficiaries of the Enlightenment: namely, the West.  Even though they could examine this period in history as intellectuals, they did so with the desire to establish or maintain their own identity, allowing them to see what was happening in their society from a different perspective than the intellectual classes in Europe and the U.S.  The fact that Russia had a more conservative culture than the West also inhibited the cultural diffusion that would have otherwise further fused Western culture with that of Russia.

There were historical contingencies as well that facilitated a burst of philosophical contemplation, some of which Barrett mentions as relating to a disruption in the stability of society:

“A society that is going through a process of dislocation and upheaval, or of revolution, is bound to cause suffering to individuals, but this suffering itself can bring one closer to one’s own existence.  Habit and routine are great veils over our existence.  As long as they are securely in place, we need not consider what life means; its meaning seems sufficiently incarnate in the triumph of the daily habit.  When the social fabric is rent, however, man is suddenly thrust outside, away from the habits and norms he once accepted automatically.  There, on the outside, his questioning begins.”

You may notice the mention of habit and routine here, a recurring theme from the last post (on chapter 5), which included Pascal’s mention of our escaping from a close consideration of the human condition through the two “sovereign anodynes” of habit and diversion:

“Both habit and diversion, so long as they work, conceal from man “his nothingness, his forlornness, his inadequacy, his impotence and his emptiness.” 

In the case of Russia, the social fabric had been disrupted by the influx of ideas stemming from the Enlightenment, thus causing a more pressing need for many to question the old traditions and religious belief systems that had, up to this period in Russian history, withstood the tests of time.  And it was in the greatest intellectual writers of Russia, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, that we see a fresh perspective on the effects of the intellectual class on their society and in terms of an essential view of man.  Since Russia hadn’t developed any kind of philosophical tradition, the ideas that were pouring in from the West began to permeate the general populace, thus causing a less stable (more passionate, less objective) processing of these ideas.  And Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, two of the most prominent intellectuals within that populace, provided plenty of philosophical insight on their own, without the need for any philosophical professorship or the like.

Admittedly I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Tolstoy yet, but I have read all of Dostoyevsky’s major works; and one recurring theme in many of his novels is the exploration of the mind of a criminal.  He was inspired by his time in a Siberian prison camp where he spent a great deal of time with a number of criminals, gaining some insight in terms of their psychology and which led him to make some conclusions about human nature in general.  Barrett explains:

“What Dostoevski saw in the criminals he lived with is what he came finally to see at the center of man’s nature: contradiction, ambivalence, irrationality.  There was a childishness and innocence about these criminals, along with a brutality and cruelty, altogether unlike the murderous innocence of a child…In them Dostoevski was face to face with the demoniacal in human nature: perhaps man is not the rational but the demoniacal animal.”

I’m certainly sympathetic to this view, for humans not only have an intelligence that is often applied in a pre-meditated, Machiavellian fashion, but we also have our crimes of passion which seem to be derived from the irrational portion of our psyche combined with our instincts as a social animal trying to move upward within a dominance hierarchy.  We often use violence and cruelty as a means to move up the social ladder which can manifest itself in our day-to-day behavior or, if we’re privileged enough to avoid such behavior even most of the time, then a dose of poverty, a little bad luck, or simply a moment of desperation, will often bring this cruel monster hiding inside each of us out into full view.  In the end, we have to recognize what Hume said long ago: that reason is but a slave of the passions.

Hume’s point can be made clear in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment where the main protagonist, Raskolnikov, feeling alienated from the masses around him, uses reason during his bout of despair to arrive at a pre-Nietzschean theory with an imperative to rise above any ordinary moral code.  But after succumbing to this line of reasoning and putting it into practice, killing the pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, and her sister Lizaveta, he is overcome with guilt and suffers a mental and physical breakdown.  His passions clearly got the better of him and he is unable to reconcile his actions with his own conscience and thus unable to subdue the emotional roller-coaster that ensues.

Barrett describes the situation in terms of a failure of repression:

“Raskolnikov’s theory has not reckoned with his own self, and the guilt over his crime brings on a breakdown.  Precisely the feelings that had been repressed in this intellectual-the ordinary human horror at the taking of life-erupt and take their revenge.”

The problem as I see it is not Raskolnikov’s use of reason in his moral theorizing, but the fact that he didn’t incorporate his likely emotional reactions into the moral theory and plan of action that he devised for himself.  He took many of his emotions and feelings entirely for granted, which are the ultimate drives in directing one’s behavior, and which are therefore the primary underlying impetus in determining what we feel we ought to do.

All moral systems that can have any claim to being true and which are sufficiently motivating to follow will ultimately break down to hypothetical imperatives: if you want X above all else, then you ought to do Y above all else; and X is going to be a subjective criterion based on what maximizes personal satisfaction and fulfillment in one’s life.  Since human beings have certain psychological and sociological characteristics given the species that we are, there are a limited number of behaviors that are conducive to maximizing psychological health and well-being; and this means that we have to take these facts about ourselves into account in devising any moral theory that will actually work for us.  And given our differences as individuals, there are additional facts to take into account in making a moral theory that will work most effectively for any particular individual given their psychological idiosyncrasies, even if there are still some set of universal morals that apply to all psychologically healthy human beings.

Deciding to kill other people simply because one has discovered some good reasons for doing so is not likely, given our psychology, to work all that well; since it’s likely to have a negative effect on how we see ourselves as a person.  If all the reasons are taken into account, or at least a particular set of reasons that includes our emotional predispositions or our subjective experience generally, then reason can be used and ought to be used for constructing a viable moral theory.  But Raskolnikov didn’t do this, and so we can see the limits of reason here as well when the facts pertaining to our subjective experience are not given their due consideration.  If our most basic emotional tendencies are inhibited for too long or beyond a certain threshold, it’s only a matter of time before our psyche cracks under the pressure.

Barrett points out the negative role that reason plays in a number of Dostoyevsky’s literary themes:

“These destructive and even criminal possibilities of reason were the philosophic themes on which Dostoevski played his most persistent variations…In ‘The Possessed’ (Demons) a group of political intellectuals are shown as being possessed by devils, ready to scheme, lie, even kill for the abstract ideals of Progress, reason, socialism.”

Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to blame reason itself for any of the morally reprehensible behaviors that Dostoyevsky saw with the criminals around him, with his fictional characters, or even with human beings in general.  Instead, I think the lesson should be that reason can be used to fuel immorality, but only in cases where one isn’t considering all the facts (or at least isn’t considering enough of the facts) pertaining to one’s own psychology and that of the people around them, or isn’t thinking rationally about those facts.  On the other hand, with emotion or irrationality, there doesn’t even need to be a reason to act immorally and instead it may just precipitate in a kind of Dionysian, impulsive, and instinctive way.  What’s most important here, I think, is to acknowledge that reason can’t be used on its own, nor can emotion or subjectivity, when it comes to devising any effective (let alone sustainable) moral theory; both are integral and indispensable for informing us about what will maximize moral behavior and thus human happiness as well.

And if we deny ourselves the chaotic spontaneity or unpredictability that we often find adding a valuable kind of novelty in our lives, then we have another problem as well:

“In a rational utopia, he cries, man might die of boredom, or out of the violent need to escape this boredom start sticking pins in his neighbor-for no reason at all, just to assert his freedom…If science could comprehend all phenomena so that eventually in a thoroughly rational society human beings became as predictable as cogs in a machine, then man, driven by this need to know and assert his freedom, would rise up and smash the machine.”

This is reminiscent of the trip to Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels that we heard near the beginning of this chapter, where Barrett mentioned the inevitable search for the Dionysian in an attempt to avoid the sterile kingdom of reason.  Predictability and the concept of free will are also very salient here, for the intuition that leads us to believe we have a kind of libertarian free will, despite its logical impossibility, is in part an artifact of our inability to predict the future beyond a certain threshold.  More importantly, it’s the fact that we can’t predict our own behavior, or the causes of our own behavior (including those within our unconscious mind) with a high enough degree of accuracy, that causes us to feel that we are the sole authors of our actions rather than being intimately connected within a deterministic causal chain.

And even though our knowledge is limited in fundamental ways, for example by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (stemming from the quantum mechanical properties of our universe), we still have access to enough knowledge (in principle at least) whereby if we actually obtained it, our happiness and overall psychological health would suffer immensely.  Why might this be?  Well, if we consider the fact that our species evolved to thrive in a world where we didn’t have any pragmatic access to this kind of knowledge, then we might better appreciate the fact that our human psychology isn’t adapted to value such predictive power.  The irony here is that our brain operates on a fundamental principle of making more and more accurate predictions, where it wants to continuously decrease its own prediction error by updating its models of the world or behaving in ways that make those predictions come true; but it also wants to seek out new information about the world, and so in a way it’s also attracted to uncertainty, always looking to uncover more of the world’s mysteries in order to solve them.

Unfortunately, with the advent of science, formal logic, and the explicit processes of reason and the technological progress that’s we’ve gained from the use of such cognitive tools, we’re beginning to reach a level of knowledge that’s encroaching on our intuitive sense of our own freedom of the will.  This is something we should have been thinking very seriously about ever since we entered the information age.  We should have been thinking about how we ought to structure the direction of our technological progress, putting in some design constraints so as to preserve our psychological well-being given the kinds of knowledge that we’re destined to uncover and given what we don’t want to uncover.

There’s a tricky balance we have to respect and which is all too often taken for granted, where we want to continue making strides in fields like neuroscience, psychology, and sociology, such that we can inform our moral system of more and more relevant information about ourselves to further maximize our happiness; but we also want to make sure not to detract from this moral goal and so we need to continue learning what kinds of information we ought not have immediate access to.  As long as we begin to take this balancing act seriously, we can continue to make advancements in knowledge while not working against our primary objectives as human beings.

Aside from the problem of knowledge we face, we also must face the fact that as our lives are built around increasing levels of abstraction, we begin to resent it:

“What the reformers of the Enlightenment, dreaming of a perfect organization of society, had overlooked, Dostoevski saw all too plainly with the novelist’s eye: Namely, that as modern society becomes more organized and hence more bureaucratized it piles up at its joints petty figures like that of the Underground Man, who beneath their nondescript surface are monsters of frustration and resentment.”

As Nietzsche had explored in his On the Genealogy of Morality, resentment or ressentiment can serve as a creative force for change; a kind of catalyst to create a new system of morals (for better or worse), but it is often done to justify one’s own weaknesses and to divert attention away from one’s own responsibility for their lives by blaming a scapegoat instead.  So while resentment may lead to personal growth if the conditions are just right, it more often leads to a feeling of hostility towards those perceived as the cause of one’s frustrations.  If this resentment is bottled up and left to fester for too long, it may lead people to take out their anger on anyone and everyone around them; to lash out irrationally in a fit of violence.  And who could blame them for this, after perceiving that they’re inevitably trapped in a life with so many things that are out of their control?

Even in the face of resentment however, one can see the value of life when push comes to shove and one comes face to face with death itself.  The time that once seemed to flow on by, with each minute as meaningless as the one before or after it, now becomes as precious as ever as if each infinitesimal moment now stretches on through an eternity.  Dostoyevsky mentions the life changing power of such an experience in his novel The Idiot, where the character Prince Myshkin retells the story of an unidentified man (presumably representing Dostoyevsky himself):

“This man had once been led out with the others to the scaffold and a sentence of death was read over him….Twenty minutes later a reprieve was read to them, and they were condemned to another punishment instead.  Yet the interval between those two sentences, twenty minutes or at least a quarter of an hour, he passed in the fullest conviction that he would die in a few minutes….The priest went to each in turn with a cross.  He had only five minutes more to live.  He told me that those five minutes seemed to him an infinite time, a vast wealth….But he said that nothing was so dreadful at that time as the continual thought, “What if I were not to die!  What if I could go back to life–what eternity!  And it would all be mine!  I would turn every minute into an age; I would lose nothing, I would count every minute as it passed, I would not waste one!”  He said that this idea turned to such a fury at last that he longed to be shot quickly.”

Of course, the main lesson to learn here is that in the face of one’s own death, life takes on an absolute value and as Barrett says “The meaning of death is precisely its revelation of this value.”  And there will certainly be more to say about this when we get to the chapter on Heidegger and explore his concept of Being-towards-death.

As we move from Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy, we find a fairly different view of man; and this difference is in some ways like that between night and day.  Whereas the former had a more morbid or pathological view of man, the latter is more akin to expressing the better angels of our human nature.  But both men brought to light the knowledge of the Dionysian aspects of our being.  It’s useful to look at a passage from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, where her husband, the very rational and intellectually-minded Alexey Karenin, slips into a fit of jealousy over his wife:

“He felt that he was standing face to face with something illogical and irrational, and did not know what was to be done.  Alexey Alexandrovitch was standing face to face with life, with the possibility of his wife’s loving someone other than himself, and this seemed to him very irrational and incomprehensible because it was life itself.  All his life Alexey Alexandrovitch had lived and worked in official spheres, having to do with the reflection of life.  And every time he had stumbled against life itself he had shrunk away from it.  Now he experienced a feeling akin to that of a man who, while calmly crossing a bridge over a precipice, should suddenly discover that the bridge is broken, and that there is a chasm below.  That chasm was life itself, the bridge that artificial life in which Alexey Alexandrovitch had lived.  For the first time the question presented itself to him of the possibility of his wife’s loving someone else, and he was horrified at it.”

And this was Tolstoy’s goal ultimately as a novelist: the standing face to face with life, with truth, and with the way the world and our existence within it really is.  The trouble arises if we fail to accept life and instead hide ourselves from it, and what Tolstoy saw was that our own powers of intellect can be the cause of this concealment; by giving us only a reflection of what life is, through abstractions, social conventions and the comforts brought to us through our daily use of routine.

And what kind of truth did the characters in Tolstoy’s novels end up finding?  Rather than some kind of intellectual truth consisting of propositions that could be spelled out here, it was an existential truth and so a truth that’s inherently difficult to put into words.  The truth was more or less a kind of openness to Being, where one finally faced the true possibilities that may unfold in their lives, even with that inevitable “possibility of the impossibility of existence” (as Heidegger put it): death itself.  And the natural unfolding of life as seen in Tolstoy’s novels, with a predominantly organic milieu, is meant to illustrate the necessary search for truth in one’s life and the truth about life itself.

To return to a previous theme mentioned earlier (in part 5, on Christian sources), Barrett says:

“The meaning of life, if there is one, says Tolstoy, must be found in these ordinary souls and not in the great intellects of the race.  Whatever ultimate meaning there is is vital and not rational.  The peasantry are wiser in their ignorance than the savants of St. Petersburg in their learning.”

And here again, I think this highlights the importance of subjectivity and our overall feeling of contentment; something that can’t be overcome or superseded by rationality nor by the rationalizations borne out of our intellect.  The meaning of life is ultimately derived from feeling and emotion, forces that lie in the deepest parts of our being.  And while the meaning of life may still be discovered by some of the great intellects in any period of history, Tolstoy’s point is still well taken; for the intellectual class has all too often overestimated the reach of the intellect and simultaneously undervalued or entirely devalued the fundamental role of “the vital”.  In the next post in this series, I’ll be starting a survey of part 3, “The Existentialists”, beginning with chapter 7, on Kierkegaard.

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“The Brothers Karamazov”: A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part IV)

Throughout this post series on Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (click here for parts 1, 2, and 3), I’ve been writing about some of the themes and concepts that are of particular interest to me, for example, the concepts of moral objectivity, God, an afterlife, immortal souls, free will and determinism, moral desert, and others.  In this post, I wanted to tie these themes all together with the main theme present throughout this entire novel, namely the existentially relevant conflict between religious faith and doubt.

Dostoyevsky clearly has a bias toward a world view that is based on or embedded within religious faith, and this can be seen most explicitly by the distinctions he makes between the idealistic religious characters Alyosha and father Zosima, and that of the logical skepticism instantiated by the atheistic Ivan (and through his influence, Smerdyakov).  Alyosha and Zosima clearly display an active form of love, forgiveness, and a consistent effort to do good in the world presumably predicated on their belief in the existence of God (though a very particular formulation of God is necessary here, not simply any kind of God).  Ivan on the other hand, as a result of his attributes of rationality, logic, and the importance he places on empirical evidence and analysis, ends up rejecting any belief in God (or at least, rejecting any belief in a good or loving God due to the Problem of Evil), rejecting conventional notions of (or foundations for) morality, and subsequently maintains a cold and callous view of mankind while suffering from a debilitating form of inner despair.

From the contrast seen between these limited character types (and many more characters in the novel), we are to ascertain that a life embedded in religious faith is clearly one with more happiness, stability, and goodness, whereas a life presumably encumbered by religious doubt is a life filled with chaos, despair, and often evil or immoral behavior.  As I’ve alluded to in my previous posts in this series, I think this perspective is highly flawed for a number of reasons.  However, in defense of Dostoyevsky’s perspective, I will say that I think it is often the case that religious faith inspires people to be happier than they otherwise would be, that it often gives people another form of social or psychological stability in an otherwise chaotic world (that’s why humans invented religion in the first place), and that it can lead people to do many good things.  And likewise, I will even concede that religious doubt or atheistic worldviews can often be nihilistic, and if so, can lead to less happy lives, less social or psychological stability, and possibly leading to more immoral behavior (though some religious beliefs can promote immoral behavior as well).  I wouldn’t describe my own atheism this way by any means, but many atheists would likely fit the bill (so to speak).

The problem however with Dostoyevsky’s perspective is that it is misleading with respect to the implied inherent characteristics of these divergent world views (theism vs. atheism), the obvious social and institutional causal factors that reinforce those different types of behaviors (what religious and non-religious institutions exist at any point in time), and the fact that people that abandon or reject religious faith often haven’t critically examined or formulated the philosophical foundations for their belief systems.  People that are indoctrinated with various religious beliefs often use the religion itself (or various theological claims) and the cultural traditions that have followed from them, as the foundation for many of their beliefs including those pertaining to morality, a sense of purpose, and ultimate meaning in their lives — a mistaken foundation that unfortunately has become deeply ingrained in our society and for quite some time now.

This erroneous foundation has become deeply ingrained, most especially in societies that have been Christianized or that have been theocratic at one time or another.  As a result, even if secularization eventually occurs in those societies (with the separation of church and state often improving lives by increasing equality and human rights), many non-religious individuals within those societies simply don’t know how to ground many of their beliefs within some secular/atheistic philosophical framework.  The assumed religious foundation for many of those beliefs has simply been taken for granted, and if that foundation goes away with secularization, and people actually realize that the foundation they once had for those beliefs is no longer valid, many people don’t know how to avoid slipping into some form of nihilism.

Nietzsche spoke about this process in his Will to Power, that is, the process of inevitably slipping into nihilism once one realizes that the foundation for their beliefs is in fact a false one.  The problem is, as Nietzsche pointed out, that nihilism should be treated as merely a transitional stage since it is ultimately pathological, and like all pathologies, ultimately needs to be overcome.  People slipping into nihilism and then concluding that life is meaningless or that moral action is meaningless is really a result of a false generalization.  Rather than rejecting their old beliefs and striving to search for new beliefs or a new foundation for them, some people simply give up the search and then erroneously think that there can’t be any real meaning in their lives or in humanity.  Nietzsche saw this perceived futility as fallacious, and believed that it really should be seen as an opportunity for one to find their own form of meaning for their lives, without any need of anything superhuman or supernatural.  Once one realizes this error in their nihilism, they can shift from a passive form of nihilism to an active one, such that it truly becomes a transitional stage toward a non-nihilistic world view.

In The Brothers Karamazov, the atheistic character, Ivan, seems to have simply fallen into a more or less passive form of nihilism.  As such, Ivan seems to have made the same erroneous generalization that Nietzsche warned us of.  Having been so deeply entrenched in a Christianized society, his lack of belief in God has pulled his (presumably original) foundation for morality out from under him, leading him to think that without God, anything is permissible and therefore no action can be said to be truly good or bad.  Dostoyevsky seems to believe (or so implies with his characters) that this passive form of nihilism (or something analogous to it) is all that can result with individuals that lack religious faith.  And on the other end of the spectrum, his devout religious characters (Alyosha and father Zosima in particular) don’t suffer from this problem because their belief in God, some of their religious traditions, and their particular religious perspective, have bestowed upon them a perceived foundation for their values and purpose in life.  Though this foundation is one that is not based on reason and evidence and therefore can have no reasonable claim of being true or valid, religious people nevertheless believe that it is true and valid and so it inevitably motivates their behavior which can often be for good.

So I think it’s fair to say that I agree with Dostoyevsky at least insofar as religious doubt (when compared to religious faith) can lead people down a path of decreased happiness and with a general disregard for (at least certain) moral considerations.  However, this is generally only going to be the case when those with religious doubt slip into a passive form of nihilism (rather than an active form, that can lead to a re-grounding and/or reformulation of one’s values).  And Ivan, with his admiration for evidence-based logic, should have realized that this passive form of nihilism is irrational and illogical, a fact that becomes obvious once one critically considers what human morality really is and what it is not (i.e. it is not rationally nor pragmatically based on Divine Command Theory, or any form of religious faith or dogma — even if people mistakenly believe this to be the case).  And it is a fact that becomes obvious once one realizes how morality is actually grounded in the natural world, where it can be described and optimized using a number of objective facts pertaining to our psychology, our biology, and how we interact with one another as a social species.

The radical freedom that people find themselves possessing in this world creates an existential crisis as Dostoyevsky and many other philosophers (such as Kierkegaard, Sartre and others) have talked about at great length.  This crisis leads many people into adopting any manner of beliefs, including but not limited to religious beliefs, to help them cope with this burden of choice (among other things to cope with), and to help make sense of a highly chaotic world.  Others that reject the religious path for coping and that are also unable to do so within their atheistic framework, will likely be led to a worldview full of despair and (passive) nihilism.  But if people want to have the most fulfilling lives that they can, while also seeking the truth to make as responsible of decisions as they are able to (including moral decisions), then they must find a way to incorporate reason and evidence into their philosophical framework (which means eventually rejecting religious faith and dogma) while not losing sight of the non-nihilistic end goal that they ought to strive for.

We need to give our own meaning to our lives and only then will we will be able to maximize our personal satisfaction and life fulfillment.  The current challenge for our society is finding more ways of replacing religious institutions with secular versions that accomplish the social cohesive structure that many people long for, and to better prepare and empower our children and the young adults in our society with more rigorous philosophical training in ethics and epistemology.  Reading the works of wonderful authors such as Dostoyevsky should be a part of this philosophical training, so we can look at our lives from multiple perspectives with any number of often difficult to describe nuances and subtleties, to find the truths and flaws in those perspectives and build off of them to better understand ourselves and to get where we want to go as individuals and as a species.  I must say that I’ve rather enjoyed writing this post series, reading this wonderful novel, and I hope to do more post series like these in the future.

“The Brothers Karamazov” – A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part III)

In the first two posts that I wrote in this series (part I and part II) concerning some concepts and themes mentioned in Dostoyevksy’s The Brothers Karamazov, I talked about moral realism and how it pertains to theism and atheism (and the character Ivan’s own views), and I also talked about moral responsibility and free will to some degree (and how this related to the interplay between Ivan and Smerdyakov).  In this post, I’m going to look at the concept of moral conscience and intuition, and how they apply to Ivan’s perspective and his experiencing an ongoing hallucination of a demonic apparition.  This demonic apparition only begins to haunt Ivan after hearing that his influence on his brother Smerdyakov led him to murder their father Fyodor.  The demon continues to torment Ivan until just before his other brother Alyosha informs him that Smerdyakov has committed suicide.  Then I’ll conclude with some discussion on the concept of moral desert (justice).

It seems pretty clear that the demonic apparition that appears to Ivan is a psychosomatic hallucination brought about as a manifestation of Ivan’s overwhelming guilt for what his brother has done, since he feels that he bears at least some of the responsibility for his brothers actions.  We learn earlier in the story that Zosima, a wise elder living at a monastery who acts as a mentor and teacher to Alyosha, had explained to Ivan that everyone bears at least some responsibility for the actions of everyone around them because human causality is so heavily intertwined with one person’s actions having a number of complicated effects on the actions of everyone else.  Despite Ivan’s strong initial reservations against this line of reasoning, he seems to have finally accepted that Zosima was right — hence him suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of realizing this.

Obviously Ivan’s moral conscience seems to be driving this turn of events and this is the case whether or not Ivan explicitly believes that morality is real.  And so we can see that despite Ivan’s moral skepticism, his moral intuitions and/or his newly accepted moral dispositions as per Zosima, have led him to his current state of despair.  Similarly, Ivan’s views on the problem of evil — whereby the vast amount of suffering in the world either refutes the existence of God, or shows that this God (if he does exist) must be a moral monster — betray even more of Ivan’s moral views with respect to how he wants the world to be.  His wanting the world to have less suffering in it, along with his wishing that his brother had not committed murder (let alone as a result of his influence on his brother), illustrates a number of moral “oughts” that Ivan subscribes to.  And whether they’re simply based on his moral intuitions or also rational moral reflection, they illustrate the deeply rooted psychological aspects of morality that are an inescapable facet of the human condition.

This situation also helps to explain some of the underlying motivations behind my own reversion back toward some form of moral realism, after becoming an atheist myself, initially catalyzed by my own moral intuitions and then later solidified and justified by rational moral reflection on objective facts pertaining to human psychology and other factors.  Now it should be said that moral intuitions on their own are only a generally useful heuristic as they are often misguiding (and incorrect) which is why it is imperative that they are checked by a rational assessment of the facts at hand.  But, nevertheless, they help to illustrate how good and evil can be said to be real (in at least some sense), even to someone like Ivan that doesn’t think they have an objective foundation.  They may not be conceptions of good and evil as described in many religions, with supernatural baggage attached, but they are real nonetheless.

Another interesting point worth noting is in regard to Zosima’s discussion about mutual moral responsibility.  While I already discussed moral responsibility in the last post along with its relation to free will, there’s something rather paradoxical about Dostoyevsky’s reasoning as expressed through Zosima that I found quite interesting.  Zosima talks about how love and forgiveness are necessary because everyone’s actions are intertwined with everyone else’s and therefore everyone bears some responsibility for the sins of others.  This idea of shared responsibility is abhorrent to those in the story that doubt God and the Christian religion (such as Ivan), who only want to be responsible for their own actions, but the complex intertwined causal chain that Zosima speaks of is the same causal chain that many determinists invoke to explain our lack of libertarian free will and how we can’t be held responsible in a causa sui manner for our actions.

Thus, if someone dies and there is in fact an afterlife, by Zosima’s own reasoning that person should not be judged as an individual solely responsible for their actions either.  That person should instead receive unconditional love and forgiveness and be redeemed rather than punished.  But this idea is anathema to standard Christian theology where one is supposed to be judged and given eternal paradise or eternal torment (with vastly disproportionate consequences given the finite degree of one’s actions).  It’s no surprise that Zosima isn’t looked upon as a model clergyman by some of his fellow monks in the monastery because his emphatic preaching about love and forgiveness undermines the typical heavy-handed judgemental aspects of God within Christianity.  But in any case, if God exists and understood that people were products of their genes and their environment which is causally interconnected with everyone else’s (i.e. libertarian free will is logically impossible), then a loving God would grant everyone forgiveness after death and grant them eternal paradise based on that understanding.  And oddly enough, this also undermines Ivan’s own reasoning that good and evil can only exist with an afterlife that undergoes judgement, because forgiveness and eternal paradise should be granted to everyone in the afterlife (by a truly loving God) if Zosima’s reasoning was taken to it’s logical conclusions.  So not only does Zosima’s reasoning seem to undermine the justification for unequal treatment of souls in the afterlife, but it also undermines the Christian conception of free will to boot (which is logically impossible regardless of Zosima’s reasoning).

And this brings me to the concept of moral desert.  In some ways I agree with Zosima, at least in the sense that love (or more specifically compassion) and forgiveness are extremely important in proper moral reasoning. And once one realizes the logical impossibility of libertarian free will, this should only encourage one’s use of love and forgiveness in the sense that people should never be trying to punish a wrongdoer (or hope for their punishment) for the sake of retributive justice or vengeance.  Rather, people should only punish (or hope that one is punished) as much as is necessary to compensate the victim as best as the circumstances allow and (more importantly) to rehabilitate the wrongdoer by reprogramming them through behavioral conditioning.  Anything above and beyond this is excessive, malicious, and immoral.  Similarly, a loving God (if one existed) would never punish anyone in the afterlife beyond what is needed to rehabilitate them (and it would seem that no punishment at all should really be needed if this God had the power to accomplish these feats on immaterial souls using magic), and if this God had no magic to accomplish this, then at the very least, it would still mean that there should never by any eternal punishments, since punishing someone forever (let alone torturing them forever), not only illustrates that there is no goal to rehabilitate the wrongdoer, but also that this God is beyond psychopathic and malevolent.  Again, think of Zosima’s reasoning as it applies here.

Looking back at the story with Smerdyakov, why does the demonic apparition disappear from Ivan right around the time that he learns that Smerdyakov killed himself?  It could be because Ivan thinks that Smerdyakov has gotten what he deserved, and that he’s no longer roaming free (so to speak) after his heinous act of murder.  And it could also be because Ivan seemed sure at that point that he would confess to the murder (or at least motivating Smerdyakov to do it).  But if either of these notions are true, then once again Ivan has betrayed yet another moral disposition of his, that murder is morally wrong.  It may also imply that Ivan, deep down, may in fact believe in an afterlife, and that Smerdyakov will now be judged for his actions.

It no doubt feels good to a lot of people when they see someone that has wronged another, getting punished for their bad deeds.  The feeling of justice and even vengeance can be so emotionally powerful, especially if the wrongdoer took the life of someone that you or someone else loved very much.  It’s a common feeling to want that criminal to suffer, perhaps to rot in jail until they die, perhaps to be tortured, or what-have-you.  And these intuitions illustrate why so many religious beliefs surrounding judgment in the afterlife share many of these common elements.  People invented these religious beliefs (whether unconsciously or not) because it makes them feel better about wrongdoers that may otherwise die without having been judged for their actions.  After all, when is justice going to be served?  It is also a motivating factor for a lot of people to keep their behaviors in check (as per Ivan’s rationale regarding an afterlife requirement in order for good and evil to be meaningful to people).  Even though I don’t think that this particular motivation is necessary (and therefore Ivan’s argument is incorrect) — due to other motivating forces such as the level of fulfillment and personal self-worth in one’s life, gained through living a life of moral virtue, or the lack thereof by those that fail to live virtuously — it is still a motivation that exists with many people and strongly intersects with the concept of moral desert.  Due to its pervasiveness in our intuitions and how we perceive other human beings and its importance in moral theory in general, people should spend a lot more time critically reflecting on this concept.

In the next part of this post series, I’m going to talk about the conflict between faith and doubt, perhaps the most ubiquitous theme found in The Brothers Karamazov, and how it ties all of these other concepts together.

“The Brothers Karamazov” – A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part II)

In my last post in this series, concerning Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, I talked about the concept of good and evil and the character Ivan’s personal atheistic perception that they are contingent on God existing (or at least an afterlife of eternal reward or punishment).  While there may even be a decent percentage of atheists that share this view (objective morality being contingent on God’s existence), I briefly explained my own views (being an atheist myself) which differs from Ivan’s in that I am a moral realist and believe that morality is objective independent of any gods or immortal souls existing.  I believe that moral facts exist (and science is the best way to find them), that morality is ultimately grounded on objective facts pertaining to human psychology, biology, sociology, neurology, and other facts about human beings, and thus that good and evil do exist in at least some sense.

In this post, I’m going to talk about Ivan’s influence on his half-brother, Smerdyakov, who ends up confessing to Ivan that he murdered their father Fyodor Pavlovich, as a result of Ivan’s philosophical influence on him.  In particular, Smerdyakov implicates Ivan as at least partially responsible for his own murderous behavior since Ivan successfully convinced him that evil wasn’t possible in a world without a God.  Ivan ends up becoming consumed with guilt, basically suffers a nervous breakdown, and then is incessantly taunted by a demonic apparition.  The hallucinations continue up until the moment Ivan comes to find out, from his very religious brother Alyosha, that Smerdyakov has hung himself.  This scene highlights a number of important topics beyond the moral realism I discussed in the first post, such as moral responsibility, free will, and even moral desert (I’ll discuss this last topic in my next post).

As I mentioned before, beyond the fact that we do not need a god to ground moral values, we also don’t need a god or an afterlife to motivate us to behave morally either.  By cultivating moral virtues such as compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, and analyzing a situation using a rational assessment of as many facts as are currently accessible, we can maximize our personal satisfaction and thus our chances of living a fulfilling life.  Behavioral causal factors that support this goal are “good” and those that detract from it are “evil”.  Aside from these labels though, we actually experience a more or less pleasing life depending on our behaviors and therefore we do have real-time motivations for behaving morally (such as acting in ways that conform to various cultivated virtues).  Aristotle claimed this more than 2000 years ago and moral psychology has been confirming it time and time again.

Since we have evolved as a particular social species with a particular psychology, not only do we have particular behaviors that best accomplish a fulfilling life, but there are also various behavioral conditioning algorithms and punishment/reward systems that are best at modifying our behavior.  And this brings me to Smerdyakov.  By listening to Ivan and ultimately becoming convinced by Ivan’s philosophical arguments, he seems to have been conditioned out of his previous views on moral responsibility.  In particular, he ended up adopting the belief that if God does not exist, then anything is permissible.  Since he also rejected a belief in God, he therefore thought he could do whatever he wanted.

One thing this turn of events highlights is that there are a number of different factors that influence people’s behaviors and that lead to their being reasoned into doing (or not doing) all sorts of things.  As Voltaire once said “Those who can make you believe absurdities can also make you commit atrocities.  And I think what Ivan told Smerdyakov was in fact absurd — although it was a belief that I once held as well not long after becoming an atheist.  For it is quite obviously absurd that anything is permissible without a God existing for at least two types of reasons: pragmatic considerations and moral considerations (with the former overlapping with the latter).  Pragmatic reasons include things like not wanting to be fined, incarcerated, or even executed by a criminal justice system that operates to minimize illegal behaviors.  It includes not wanting to be ostracized from your circle of friends, your social groups, or your community (and risking the loss of beneficial reciprocity, safety nets, etc.).  Moral reasons include everything that detracts from your overall psychological well-being, the very thing that is needed to live a maximally fulfilling life given one’s circumstances.  Behaving in ways that degrade your sense of inner worth, your integrity, self-esteem, and that diminish a good conscience, is going to make you feel miserable compared to behaving in ways that positively impact these fundamental psychological goals.

Furthermore, this part of the story illustrates that we have a moral responsibility not only to ourselves and our own behavior, but also in terms of how we influence the behavior of those around us, based on what we say, how we treat them, and more.  This also reinforces the importance of social contract theory and how it pertains to moral behavior.  If we follow simple behavioral heuristics like the Golden Rule and mutual reciprocity, then we can work together to obtain and secure common social goods such as various rights, equality, environmental sustainability, democratic legislation (ideally based on open moral deliberation), and various social safety nets.  We also can punish those that violate the social contract, as we already do with the criminal justice system and various kinds of social ostracization.  While our system of checks is far from perfect, having some system that serves such a purpose is necessary because not everybody behaves in ways that are ultimately beneficial to themselves nor everyone else around them.  People need to be conditioned to behave in ways that are more conducive to their own well being and that of others, and if all reasonable efforts to achieve that fails, they may simply need to be quarantined through incarceration (for example psychopaths or other violent criminals that society needs to be protected from, and that aren’t responding to rehabilitation efforts).

In any case, we do have a responsibility to others and that means we need to be careful what we say, such as the case with Ivan and his brother.  And this includes how we talk about concepts like free will, moral responsibility, and moral desert (justice).  If we tell people that all of their behaviors are determined and therefore don’t matter, that’s not a good way to get people to behave in ways that are good for them or for others.  Nor is telling them that because a God doesn’t exist, that their actions don’t matter.  In the case of deterministic nihilism, it’s a way to get people to lose much if not all of their motivation to put forward effort in achieving useful goals.  And both deterministic and atheistic moral nihilism are dangerous ideas that can get some people to commit heinous crimes such as mass shootings (or murdering their own father as Smerdyakov did), because they simply cause people to think that all behaviors are on equal footing in any way that matters.  And quite frankly, those nihilistic ideas are not only dangerous but also absurd.

While I’ve written a bit on free will in the past, my views have become more refined over the years, and my overall attitude towards the issue has been co-evolving alongside my views on morality.  The main crux of the free will issue is that libertarian free will is logically impossible because our actions are never free from both determinism and indeterminism (randomness) since one or the other must underlie how our universe operates (depending on which interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is correct).  Neither option from this logical dichotomy gives us “the freedom to have chosen to behave differently given the same initial conditions in a non-random way”.  Therefore free will in this sense is logically impossible.  However, this does not mean that our behavior isn’t operating under some sets of rules and patterns that we can discover and modify.  That is to say, we can effectively reprogram many of our behavioral tendencies using various forms of conditioning through punishment/reward systems.  These are the same systems we use to teach children how to behave and to rehabilitate criminals.

The key thing to note here is that we need to acknowledge that even if we don’t have libertarian free will, we still have a form of “free will” that matters (as philosophers like Daniel Dennett have said numerous times) whereby we have the ability to be programmed and reprogrammed in certain ways, thus allowing us to take responsibility for our actions and design ways to modify future actions as needed.  We have more degrees of freedom than a person who is insane for example, or a child, or a dog, and these degrees of freedom or autonomy — the flexibility we have in our decision-making algorithms — can be used as a rough guideline for determining how “morally responsible” a person is for their actions.  That is to say, the more easily a person can be conditioned out of a particular behavior, and the more rational decision making processes are involved in governing that behavior, the more “free will” this person has in a sense that applies to a criminal justice system and that applies to most of our everyday lives.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether someone thinks that their behavior doesn’t matter because there’s no God, or because they have no libertarian free will.  What needs to be pointed out is the fact that we are able to behave in ways (or be conditioned to behave in ways) that lead to more happiness, more satisfaction and more fulfilling lives.  And we are able to behave in ways that detract from this goal.  So which behaviors should we aim for?  I think the answer is obvious.  And we also need to realize that as a part of our behavioral patterns, we need to realize that ideas have consequences on others and their subsequent behaviors.  So we need to be careful about what ideas we choose to spread and to make sure that they are put into a fuller context.  If a person hasn’t given some critical reflection about the consequences that may ensue from spreading their ideas to others, especially to others that may misunderstand it, then they need to keep those ideas to themselves until they’ve reflected on them more.  And this is something that I’ve discovered and applied for myself as well, as I was once far less careful about this than I am now.  In the next post, I’m going to talk about the concept of moral desert and how it pertains to free will.  This will be relevant to the scene described above regarding Ivan’s demonic apparition that haunts him as a result of his guilt over Smerdyakov’s murder of their father, as well as why the demonic apparition disappeared once Ivan heard that Smerdyakov had taken his own life.

“The Brothers Karamazov” – A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part I)

I wanted to write some thoughts on Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and I may end up writing this in several parts.  I’m interested in some of the themes that Dostoevsky develops, in particular, those pertaining to morality, moral responsibility, free will, moral desert, and their connection to theism and atheism.  Since I’m not going to go over the novel in great detail, for those not already familiar with this story, please at least read the plot overview (here’s a good link for that) before pressing on.

One of the main characters in this story, Ivan, is an atheist, as I am (though our philosophies differ markedly as you’ll come to find out as you read on).  In his interactions and conversation with his brother Alyosha, a very religious man, various moral concepts are brought up including the dichotomy of good and evil, arguments against the existence of God (at least, against the existence of a loving God) such as the well-known Problem of Evil, and other ethical and religious quandaries.  I wanted to first talk about Ivan’s insistence that good and evil cannot exist without God, and since Ivan’s character doesn’t believe that God exists, he comes to the conclusion that good and evil do not exist either.  Although I’m an atheist, I disagree with Ivan’s views here and will expand on why in a moment.

I’ve written a bit on my blog, about various arguments against the existence of God that I’ve come across over the years, some of which that I’ve formulated on my own after much reflection – and that were at least partially influenced by my former religious views as a born-again Protestant Christian.  Perhaps ironically, it wasn’t until after I became an atheist that I began to delve much deeper into moral theory, and also into philosophy generally (though the latter is less surprising).  My views on morality have evolved in extremely significant ways since my early adult years.  For example, back when I was a Christian I was a moral objectivist/realist, believing that morals were indeed objective but only in the sense that they depended on what God believed to be right and wrong (even if these divine rules changed over time or seemed to contradict my own moral intuitions and analyses, such as stoning homosexuals to death).  Thus, I subscribed to some form of Divine Command Theory (or DCT).  After becoming an atheist, much like Ivan, I became a moral relativist (but only temporarily – keep reading), believing as the character Ivan did, that good and evil couldn’t exist due to their resting on a fictitious or at least non-demonstrable supernatural theological foundation and/or (perhaps unlike Ivan believed) that good and evil may exist but only in the sense that they were nothing more than cultural norms that were all equally valid.

Since then, I’ve become a moral realist once again (as I was when I was a Christian), after putting the philosophy of Ivan to the test (so to speak).  I realized that I could no longer justify the belief that any cultural moral norm had as equal of a claim to being true as any other cultural norm.  There were simply too many examples of moral prescriptions in various cultures and religions that couldn’t be justified.  Then I realized that many of the world’s cultural moral norms, though certainly not all of them, were largely universal (such as prohibitions against, at least certain forms of, stealing, killing, and others) which suggested a common human psychological component underlying many of them.

I also realized that as an atheist, much as Nietzsche realized, I now had to ground my own moral views on something that didn’t rely on Divine Command Theory, gods, Christian traditions, or any other foundation that I found to be invalid, illogical, unreasonable, unjustified, or not sufficiently demonstrated to be true.  And I had to do this if I was to find a way out of moral relativism, which simply didn’t sit well with me as it didn’t seem to be coherent with the bulk of human psychology and the more or less universal goals that humans strive to achieve in their lives.  It was ultimately the objective facts pertaining to human psychology that allowed me to resubscribe to an objectivist/realist morality — and now my views of morality were no longer contingent on merely the whim or dictates of some authoritarian god (thus bypassing the Euthyphro dilemma), but rather were contingent on objective facts about human beings, what makes us happy and fulfilled and what doesn’t (where these facts often disagree with moral prescriptions stemming from various religions and Divine-Command-Theory).

After dabbling with the teachings of various philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Rawls, Foot, and others, I came to accept a view of morality that was indeed coherent, sensible, sufficiently motivating to follow (which is a must), and which subsumed all the major moral theories into one framework (and which therefore had the best claim to being true since it was compatible with all of them –  virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism).   Now I’ve come to accept what can be described as a Goal Theory of Ethics, whereby morality is defined as “that which one ought to do above all else – when rational and maximally informed based on reason and evidence – in order to increase one’s personal life fulfillment and overall level of preference satisfaction”.  One could classify this as a subset of desire utilitarianism, but readers must be warned that this is NOT to be confused with traditional formulations of utilitarianism – such as those explicitly stated by J.S. Mill, Peter Singer, etc., as they are rife with problems resulting from not taking ALL consequences into account (such as consequences pertaining to one’s own character and how they see themselves as a person, as per the wisdom of Aristotle and Kant).

So how can good and evil exist without some God(s) existing?  That is to say, if a God doesn’t exist, how can it not be the case that “anything is permissible”?  Well, the short answer is – because of human psychology (and also social contract theory).

When people talk about behaving morally, what they really mean (when we peel back all the layers of cultural and religious rhetoric, mythology, narrative, etc.) is behaving in a way that maximizes our personal satisfaction – specifically our sense of life fulfillment.  Ask a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Humanist, why ought they behave in some particular way, and it all can be shown to break down to some form of human happiness or preference satisfaction for life fulfillment (not some hedonistic form of happiness).  They may say to behave morally “because then you can get into heaven, or avoid hell”, or “because it pleases God”, or what-have-you.  When you ask why THOSE reasons are important, it ultimately leads to “because it maximizes your chance of living a fulfilled life” (whether in this life or in the next, for those that believe in an afterlife).  I don’t believe in any afterlife because there’s no good evidence or reason to have such a belief, so for me the life that is most important is the one life we are given here on earth – which therefore must be cherished and not given any secondary priority to a hypothetical life that may or may not be granted after death.

But regardless, whether you believe in an afterlife (as Alyosha does) or not (as in Ivan’s case), it is still about maximizing a specific form of happiness and fulfillment.  However, another place where Ivan seems to go wrong in his thinking is his conclusion that people only behave morally based on what they believe will happen to them in an afterlife.  And therefore, if there is no afterlife (immortal souls), then there is no reason to be moral.  The fact of the matter is though, in general, much of what we tend to call moral behavior actually produces positive effects on the quality of our lives now, as we live them.  People that behave immorally are generally not going to live “the good life” or achieve what Aristotle called eudaimonia.  On the other hand, if people actually cultivate virtues of compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, they will simply live more fulfilling lives.  And people that don’t do this or simply follow their immediate epicurean or selfish impulses will most certainly not live a fulfilling life.  So there is actually a naturalistic motivating force to behave morally, regardless of any afterlife.  Ivan simply overlooked this (and by extension, possibly Dostoyevsky as well), likely because most people brought up in Christianized cultures often focus on the afterlife as being the bearer of ultimate justice and therefore the ultimate motivator for behaving as they do.

In any case, the next obvious question to ask is what ways of living best accomplish this goal of life fulfillment?  This is an empirical question which means science can in principle discover the answer, and is the only reliable (or at least the most reliable) way of arriving at such answers.  While there is as of yet no explicit “science of morality”, various branches of science such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and neuroscience, are discovering moral facts (or at least reasonable approximations of these facts, given what data we have obtained thus far).  Unless we as a society choose to formulate a science of morality — a laborious research project indeed — we will have to live with the best approximations to moral facts that are at our disposal as per the findings in psychology, sociology, neuroscience, etc.

So even if we don’t yet know with certainty what one ought to do in any and all particular circumstances (no situational ethical certainties), many scientific findings have increased our confidence in having discovered at least some of those moral facts or approximations of those facts (such as that slavery is morally wrong, because it doesn’t maximize the overall life satisfaction of the slaveholder, especially if he/she were to analyze the situation rationally with as many facts as are pragmatically at their disposal).  And to make use of some major philosophical fruits cultivated from the works of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and Rawls (among many others), we have the benefits of Social Contract Theory to take into consideration.  In short, societies maximize the happiness and flourishing of the citizens contained therein by making use of a social contract – a system of rules and mutual expectations that ought to be enforced in order to accomplish that societal goal (and which ought to be designed in a fair manner, behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance, or what he deemed the “original position”).  And therefore, to maximize one’s own chance of living a fulfilling life, one will most likely need to endorse some form of social contract theory that grants people rights, equality, protection, and so forth.

In summary, good and evil do exist despite there being no God because human psychology is particular to our species and our biology, it has a finite range of inputs and outputs, and therefore there are some sets of behaviors that will work better than others to maximize our happiness and overall life satisfaction given the situational circumstances that we find our lives embedded in.  What we call “good” and “evil” are simply the behaviors and causal events that “add to” or “detract from” our goal of living a fulfilling life.  The biggest source of disagreement among the various moral systems in the world (whether religiously motivated or not), are the different sets of “facts” that people subscribe to (some beliefs being based on sound reason and evidence whereas others are based on irrational faith, dogma, or emotions) and whether or not people are analyzing the actual facts in a rational manner.  A person may think they know what will maximize their chances of living a fulfilling life when in fact (much like with the heroin addict that can’t wait to get their next fix) they are wrong about the facts and if they only knew so and acted rationally, would do what they actually ought to do instead.

In my next post in this series, I’ll examine Ivan’s views on free will and moral responsibility, and how it relates to the unintended consequence of the actions of his half-brother Smerdyakov (who murders their father, Fyodor Pavlovich, as a result of Ivan’s influence on his moral views).