Fyodor Dostoevsky foresaw how God would die

Not by closing the gaps in our knowledge of heaven and earth—in which God is increasingly found to have nothing to do—but via the progress of neuroscience, in which spirit is progressively vanquished from the skull.

On page 41 of Steven Pinker’s excellent book, The Blank Slate (Penguin 2002), he flags the following passage from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in which Dmitri Karamazov tries to absorb what an academic has taught him concerning the human brain, and how the latest science has exorcised all Descartian ghosts from the human machinery, and is in the process, therefore, of birthing a new conception of man:

Imagine: inside, in the nerves, in the head—that is, these nerves are there in the brain . . . (damn them!) there are sort of little tails, the little tails of those nerves, and as soon as they begin quivering . . . that is, you see, I look at something with my eyes and then they begin quivering, those little tails . . . and when they quiver, then an image appears . . . it doesn’t appear at once, but an instant, a second, passes . . . and then something like a moment appears; that is, not a moment—devil take the moment!—but an image; that is, an object, or an action, damn it! That’s why I see and then think, because of those tails, not at all because I’ve got a soul, and that I am some sort of image and likeness. All that is nonsense! Rakitin explained it all to me yesterday, brother, and it simply bowled me over. It’s magnificent, Alyosha, this science! A new man’s arising—that I understand. . . . And yet I am sorry to lose God!

In other words, Dmitri realizes that he is not a soul in the image of God, but a product of a chorus of blind and quivering nerve tails that happen to evoke him. Perhaps this is one reason Sam Harris, consciously or unconsciously, hit upon the idea of studying neuroscience: it’s the realm in which one can most directly advance the world to atheism.

Here’s Pinker’s comment on the Dostoevsky passage:

Dostoevsky’s prescience is itself astonishing, because in 1880 only the rudiments of neural functioning were understood, and a reasonable person could have doubted that all experience arises from quivering nerve tails. But no longer. One can say that the information-processing activity of the brain causes the mind, or one can say that it is the mind, but in either case the evidence is overwhelming that every aspect of our mental lives depends entirely on physiological events in the tissues of the brain.

Are existential self-assertion and freedom, then, ultimately an absurd illusion? Is this the deluded cry of a vanquished person who just doesn’t know she is vanquished yet?:

Or might Stuart Kauffman save the day—or at least salvage something from the ruins?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Fyodor Dostoevsky foresaw how God would die

  1. Pingback: Checkmate: Death and Determinism are the Two Absolute Truths of Atheism | Prometheus Unbound

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