“The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Brothers Karamazov has the reputation of a great philosophical and psychological novel, and that was the main reason I chose to read it, but I have to admit I was disappointed on both counts.

Dostoevsky’s philosophical arguments lack clarity and logical coherence. He shares this characteristic with another Existentialist philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who was no doubt influenced by him. His psychological portraits, while perspicacious in many aspects, lack the type of coherence that would render his characters as real people, not allegorical and often exaggerated representations of the human soul — the three brothers Dimitri, Ivan and Alyosha representing passion, reason and faith, respectively.

As a writer, Dostoevsky seems unwilling or unable to give his readers the time and space to make observations and connections on their own, but insists on controlling what they see, hear and think. I find it ironic that he argues passionately for freedom in the most famous chapter of his book.

The major portion of TBK consists in dialogues and speeches, in which the characters pour out their innards on you whether you like it or not. There are no descriptions of the natural and social environment in which the characters live. There are very few factual descriptions of the significant events in their lives, such as one would expect from a conscientious journalist, but almost everything is interpreted and biased by the opinions of other characters and the narrator.

Imagine being alone in a windowless room with a very talkative person, perhaps one with multiple personality disorder, who talks on and on and on, such that the air feels stuffy, and you just want to escape into the open and get some fresh air.

This is, for the most part, my impression of Dostoevsky. By contrast with whom, Tolstoy is the breath of nature.

The Brothers Karamazov: II. The Nature of Freedom

Choice vs. Freedom

There is an important distinction, which most people overlook, between free choice of the will, commonly known as free will, and freedom. Choice is consequent of multiplicity, but freedom is consequent of power of being or becoming. For example, when a person is present at a crossroad, he has a choice between one way or the other, but he does not necessarily have the freedom to walk in either. It is one thing to consider abstractly the question, “To be or not to be”, it is quite another to actually be.

The ancient Greek philosopher Zeno first saw the great gulf between potential choice and actual freedom, and posited that freedom (represented by motion) is impossible: Given the premise that space is infinitely divisible, to move from one point to another, one must cross the infinitesimal and yet infinite space between the two points, which is impossible for a finite being.

We might solve Zeno’s paradox by premising that both space and time are infinitely divisible, it is potentially possible to traverse the infinitesimal and yet infinite space in infinitesimal and yet infinite time. What thus comes into existence is both finite and potentially infinite, because it is bound and constituted by the fabric of space-time, and it can come into existence only by the power of Being that is actually infinite.

Ergo, man is given the freedom of being, as a synthesis of finitude and infinitude, by God who is infinitude.

Desire vs. Freedom

One evidence of man’s infinitude lies in his desires. It is curious how insatiable man’s desires remain, although his physical needs are satisfied. On the one hand, desire may signify telos, the aim of all human life, according to Aristotle, is happiness; on the other hand, desire may signify deficiency, a state of imperfection, for man desires what he feels is lacking in himself. Dostoevsky observes that most men mistake this deficient state of being for freedom:

“You have desires, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don’t be afraid to satisfy them and even increase them.” That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right to increase one’s desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, envy and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their desires.”

Man desires happiness, the ultimate good, but finds a power at work in him that drives him away from his most cherished desire. As St. Paul wrote, “For to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find…O wretched man that I am!” It is perhaps the same type of self-reflection that led Chesterton to write that Original Sin is “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved”.

Christian Freedom

According to the Christian doctrine, the Son of God has come to make man free. Just as God bestows on man the freedom of being in the physical dimension, so He bestows on man the freedom of being in the spiritual dimension. This latter freedom is the “liberty of the children of God”, for man is constituted in Christ to be a child of God, and derives his being and freedom from Him. Like Father, like son.

Through the teachings of the saintly character Elder Zosima, Dostoevsky expresses a desire for true freedom, “freedom of the spirit”: Each one of us is given an opportunity to come into being in this world, we’re given space and time, the stage so to speak, to shine forth like stars, to manifest the eternal Freedom and Love of God which is in Christ.

True freedom consists in love, for God is Love, and the inability to love is Hell.

“The Brothers Karamazov: I. The Nature of Morality” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Natural Law

The word morality comes from the Latin root mos (meaning “custom or law”), which in turn is a translation of the Greek word ἠθικός (“character or moral nature”).

The idea of natural law originated with Plato and the Stoics, and found its full expression in Cicero: The universe is governed by God, who has implanted the immortal soul in man from His own divine nature. The Mind of God is the unchanging and universal Law governing the whole universe, both the natural world and human society. “Law is the highest reason, inherent in nature, which enjoins what ought to be done and forbids the opposite. When that reason is fully formed and completed in the human mind, it too is law.”

Morality is innate in man and coheres with his freedom, just as his rational nature coheres with his freedom.

When Cicero translated the word morality from Greek to Latin, he unintentionally introduced a subtle shift in its meaning, from “character”, which is innate, to “custom”, which is arbitrary. Gradually over time, morality became “conformity to generally accepted customs and rules of conduct”, in other words, something that is opposed to the nature of man and limits his freedom.

Criminal Law and Morality

In the 19th century, the laws of the state have come under severe attack. Critics argue that the criminal justice system punishes people for their crimes but does not redeem them nor restore their moral nature. The criminals are mechanically cut off from society and become worse than before.

Victor Hugo decried the criminal justice system in his novel Les Misérables, in which the protagonist spent 19 years in prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. Hugo influenced both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, the latter two painted unflattering portraits of the legal system in their respective last novels, The Brothers Karamazov and Resurrection. All three of them found hope in the redeeming power of religion, which restores the inner moral nature of man and sets him free from the bondage of immorality. They also point to conscience in man as reason to hope that every individual is valuable and redeemable.

The Foundation of Morality

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky also made this famous argument through one of the characters:

There is no law of nature that man should love mankind, and if there has been any love on earth hitherto, it is not because of natural law, but solely because of men’s belief in their immortality. The whole natural law lies in that faith, and if mankind’s belief in its immortality were destroyed, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism.

For every separate person, who does not believe in God or his own immortality, the moral law of nature must immediately be changed into the exact opposite of the former religious law, and that egoism, even to crime, must become not only lawful but even recognized as the inevitable, the most rational, even honorable outcome of his position.

If religion is a necessary foundation for morality, it doesn’t mean that a person must be religious to be moral. An individual can choose to follow moral principles derived from religion without subscribing to the underlying religious beliefs. To use an analogy, the Sun is necessary for life on Earth, it doesn’t mean that a person must feel the Sun shining on him directly, in order for him to become and stay alive in this world.

Man is created in the image of God, that is, man’s rational, moral and free nature is from God, who alone is Wisdom, Goodness and Freedom. Unless man believes in God, and becomes grounded in a living fellowship with God through Christ, the Source of his being, he would be withered like a branch cut off from a vine. Deprived of his being, he must inevitably become the opposite of what he is in Christ, that is, he must become foolish, depraved and enslaved by his own desires, which can never be fulfilled because of his separation from the One who alone can fulfil them.

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  • Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
  • Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: The Lowell Press, 1912. Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/28054

The Chess Game Analogy: Feynman on the Laws of Nature


Richard Feynman interviewed by BBC in 1981

One way that’s kind of a fun analogy to try to get some idea of what we’re doing in trying to understand nature is to imagine that the gods are playing some great game like chess. Let’s say a chess game. And you don’t know the rules of the game, but you’re allowed to look at the board at least from time to time and in a little corner, perhaps. And from these observations, you try to figure out what the rules are of the game, what are the rules of the pieces moving.

You might discover after a bit, for example, that when there’s only one bishop around on the board, that the bishop maintains its color. Later on you might discover the law for the bishop is that it moves on a diagonal, which would explain the law that you understood before, that it maintains its color. And that would be analogous to we discover one law and later find a deeper understanding of it.

Then things can happen–everything’s going good, you’ve got all the laws, it looks very good–and then all of a sudden some strange phenomenon occurs in some corner, so you begin to investigate that, to look for it. It’s castling, something you didn’t expect.

We’re always, by the way, in the fundamental physics, always trying to investigate those things in which we don’t understand the conclusions. We’re not trying to check all the time our conclusions; after we’ve checked them enough, they’re okay. The thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that’s the most interesting, the part that doesn’t go according to what you’d expect. Also, we can have revolutions in physics. After you’ve noticed that the bishops maintain their color and that they go along the diagonals and so on for such a long time, and everybody knows that that’s true, then you suddenly discover one day in some chess game that the bishop doesn’t maintain its color, it changes its color. Only later do you discover a new possibility, that the bishop is captured and that a pawn went all the way down to the queen’s end to produce a new bishop. That could happen, but you didn’t know it.

So it’s very analogous to the way our laws are: they sometimes look positive, they keep on working, and all of a sudden, some little gimmick shows that they’re wrong, and then we have to investigate the conditions under which this bishop changed colour happened and so forth, and gradually learn the new rule that explains it more deeply.

Unlike the chess game, though, In the case of the chess game, the rules become more complicated as you go along, but in the physics, when you discover new things, it looks more simple. It appears on the whole to be more complicated, because we learn about a greater experience, that is, we learn about more particles and new things, and so the laws look complicated again. But if you realize that all the time what’s kind of wonderful is that, as we expand our experience into wilder and wilder regions of experience, every once in a while we have these integrations in which everything is pulled together in a unification, which turns out to be simpler than it looked before.

–Richard Feynman “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”

“The Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James

William James anticipated the modern debate on the relationship between science and religion, and provided good reasons to take religion seriously. His personal and common sense approach works particularly well within a pluralistic and consumer culture.

Choosing a Religion For Yourself

First, every human being must face the reality of life, death, suffering, and something beyond ourselves. How do we respond to this reality? James surveys responses from atheists (Voltaire), transcendentalists (Emerson), Stoics and Christians. The atheists’ attitude is the least appealing to his moral and aesthetic sense, and therefore atheism is not an option.

Second, there are many religions in the world, with practitioners earnestly promoting their wares in the Vanity Fair. How do we choose? James didn’t study theology in depth and probably didn’t care to, his pragmatism led him to ask the question: Which religion provides the most benefits with the least risks?

Third, to gauge the benefits and risks associated with each religion, he studies the lives of individuals who exemplify the best and the worst in each, the most famous and infamous. It is the highest and lowest potentials that set things apart one from another, not the qualities that all have in common. The question we need to ask: What is truly special about each religion?

Finally, once we identify the characteristics of religion that are most desirable and beneficial, the question becomes: How do we attain to it?

What about Truth?

For James, a religious experience is “true”, not in the sense that an idea or theory is true, but in the sense that it is a psychological/experiential fact — something actually happened that made the person happy/healthy. As in medicine, what restores a sick person to health is good and useful. So the religious experience is good and useful. “The true is what works well”.

One can build a systematic theory upon these experiential facts, and test the truth of the theory, but the facts themselves cannot be disputed. James is concerned not with theory but with experiential facts, and tries to steer clear of theology — which he terms “over-belief”– as much as possible, not realizing that his psychology and philosophy are also “over-beliefs”, i.e., theories and interpretations derived and distinct from facts.

He relies on an a priori moral and aesthetic sense to determine what is good and useful in religious experiences, and doesn’t take into account their origins. An experience is valid as long as it produces a desirable psychological effect, even if its origin is an undigested bit of beef, or in James’ case, nitrous oxide. In the last analysis, he assigns the origin of religious experience to the activity of the subconscious, though he doesn’t exclude the possibility of the divine working through the subconscious.

James suggests a sort of Darwinian evolution of religion: the “fittest” religion survives while the others become extinct because they are ill-adapted to the moral senses of evolving human beings. He seems to believe in inevitable progress, though Darwinian evolution only asserts change not progress, and envisions a sort of Hegelian synthesis of happiness and sorrow into a higher joy as the ultimate goal of religion.

A Sobering Criticism of Christianity

In the following passage, James gives the most sobering criticism of Christianity:

Were it true that a suddenly converted man as such is, as Edwards says, of an entirely different kind from a natural man, partaking as he does directly of Christ’s substance, there surely ought to be some exquisite class-mark, some distinctive radiance attaching even to the lowliest specimen of this genus, to which no one of us could remain insensible, and which, so far as it went, would prove him more excellent than ever the most highly gifted among mere natural men. But notoriously there is no such radiance. Converted men as a class are indistinguishable from natural men; some natural men even excel some converted men in their fruits; and no one ignorant of doctrinal theology could guess by mere every-day inspection of the “accidents” of the two groups of persons before him, that their substance differed as much as divine differs from human substance.


“A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge” by George Berkeley

The Meaning of Reality

I was taught from a very young age that reality is what exists independently of human perception and knowledge, and we gain knowledge of reality if and only if our ideas correspond to it. Fantasy is that which has no correspondence in reality, and exists only in the mind of an individual — unless he communicates his fantasy, others have no way of knowing it.

George Berkeley, after whom University of California at Berkeley was named, shows a different way of interpreting reality. He reasons that ideas in the mind can only be derived from ideas in the mind, and not what exists independently of the mind. Therefore, our sense perceptions are signs, not of material substances existing outside the mind, instead, they are signs of ideas which subsist in the mind of God and are communicated to us directly and individually, without “nature” as an intermediary. The “laws of nature” are not attributes of material substances, but attributes of the inter-relations of the divine ideas communicated to us, like the rules of syntax and semantics in the study of language.

Descartes and Berkeley

Descartes is known for the dictum, “I think therefore I am”. Berkeley’s philosophy can be simplified as, “I think thereby the world exists”. Both philosophers converge on one point: “I think therefore God is”.

Like Descartes, Berkeley started from meditating within his own mind, and saw that the mind is different in nature from the object it perceives — the former is active and immortal whereas the latter is not. They both inferred the existence of God, by acknowledging the limitation of their mind — they can only effect and perceive a very small portion of reality, of which a far superior Mind must be the Author.

Unlike Descartes, Berkeley denies the reality of matter as an inert substrate with the potential to come into existence by participating in forms. To his mind, matter is inconceivable, and what is inconceivable is non-existent by definition. However, he can’t explain the fact that others can conceive it. In addition, he admits that he doesn’t perceive other minds from the senses, and must infer their existence indirectly by logic. An argument can be made that the existence of matter is inferred indirectly by logic apart from the senses. Personally I think Descartes is the more logically consistent of the two.

Denying Abstract Matter and Abstract Universal

An idea which, considered in itself, is particular, becomes general by being made to represent or stand for all other particular ideas of the same sort. Universality does not consist in the absolute, positive nature or conception of anything, but in the relation it bears to the particulars signified or represented by it.

Besides ideas or objects of knowledge, there is something which knows or perceives them, and exercises divers operations, as willing, imagining, remembering. This perceiving, active being is mind, spirit, soul, or myself, which is entirely distinct from my ideas, wherein they exist, or, whereby they are perceived–for the existence of an idea consists in being perceived.

There are only ideas existing in the mind, and an idea can be like nothing but another idea. Consequently neither ideas nor their archetypes (which supposedly exist outside myself) can exist in an unperceiving substance.

Laws of Nature

Ideas of sensation differ from those of reflection or memory. Whatever power I may have over my own thoughts, I find the ideas actually perceived by Sense have not a like dependence on my will. The ideas of Sense are more strong, lively, and distinct than those of the imagination; they have likewise a steadiness, order, and coherence, and are not excited at random, as those which are the effects of human wills often are, but in a regular train or series, the admirable connexion whereof sufficiently testifies the wisdom and benevolence of its Author. Now the set rules or established methods wherein the mind we depend on excites in us the ideas of sense, are called the laws of nature, and these we learn by experience.

Ideas of Time and Space

The ideas of sight, when we apprehend by them distance and things placed at a distance, do not suggest or mark out to us things actually existing at a distance, but only admonish us what ideas of touch will be imprinted in our minds at such and such distances of time, and in consequence of such or such actions. Visible ideas are the Language whereby the governing Spirit on whom we depend informs us what tangible ideas he is about to imprint upon us.

The Philosophy of Evolution

A Matter of Identity

As an armchair Platonist, I find the philosophy behind Darwinian evolution not only intellectually unsatisfactory, but also self-contradictory. On the one hand, it asserts constant change, that, given enough time and proper conditions, anything can change into anything else; on the other hand, it asserts identity, that there is a “struggle for existence” of the individual and/or group. It is a self-contradiction to state that something must undergo changes in order to preserve its identity.

The law of the conservation of energy ensures that energy remains constant in a closed system. Matter and energy always exist, though in diverse forms. On the material level, the “struggle for existence” is superfluous, if not meaningless.

Evolutionists have attempted to explain away the altruistic acts observed among living beings in terms of survival, that the individual sacrificed himself for the survival of the group, the extended self. But where does this sense or notion of self come from? How is its boundary defined? If it can be extended to a group, why not all the species? After all, we are all nothing but matter, with the same “selective advantage”. From the materialistic perspective, the ideas of “survival”, “individual” or “race” are mere fantasies, and have no more material underpinning than the ideas of justice and morality.

Nature, Good and Evil

From a naturalist perspective, there is no such thing as natural evil. All things come into and pass out of existence according to the laws of nature. Death is no more evil than birth, and pain is no more evil than pleasure. The bacteria and viruses that cause diseases in men have the same rights of existence as men do.

From a philosophical perspective, evil can be defined as a privation of good or falling short of the good. The definition implies a standard of good, without which evil is meaningless.

According to Aristotle, a thing is evil if it falls short of its purpose, i.e., what nature intends it to be. We do not attribute blindness to stones, for they are not meant to see, having no potential for sight. Likewise, if something is not meant to live for a long time, its death is not evil. The Stoics believe that life is not a right of man, but a loan from God, and it is the duty of men to live responsibly. Death is to be preferred if it is impossible to live virtuously any longer, and to extend one’s life by unjust means is evil. An example of the latter in biology is cancer.

From a Christian perspective, God alone is good. Evil is falling short of the glory of God, or, which is the same thing, His manifested will for the created being.

When devastated by the death of his dear friend, Augustine found consolation in contemplating the meaning and coherence of the Creation: “That is the law limiting their being. So much have You given them, namely to be parts of things which do not all have their being at the same moment, but by passing away and by successiveness, they all form the whole of which they are parts. This is the way our speech is constructed by sounds which are significant. What we say would not be complete if one word did not cease to exist when it has sounded its constituent parts, so that it can be succeeded by another…There would be more delight in all the elements than in individual pieces if only one had the capacity to perceive all of them. But far superior to these things is He who made all things, and He is our God. He does not pass away; nothing succeeds Him.”

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