Do Reason and Science Improve Humankind? Summary of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground

But man is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess player, loves the process of the game, not the end of it. – The Underground Man

I already wrote about the question whether science and reason can improve the human condition. The topic strongly shapes the philosophy of John Gray. Gray gives some convincing arguments for why development of science doesn’t equal improvement of overall human condition. In other words – why building human life around strong scientific reasoning doesn’t necessarily make man better off.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his novel Notes from Underground presents another strong case against the blind reliance on logic and science for the betterment of humankind. Dostoyevsky presents his arguments through a fictional character – the Underground Man, a retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg.

Even though the narrative is developed by a fictional character in a novel, it is certainly one of the strongest philosophical passages I’ve ever encountered. Aside from being beautifully written, the passages show a much deeper understanding of the problems of human nature than what is usually available in behavioral science literature.

To me, this is a sign of a fundamental weakness of contemporary academic approach to human behavior. You are easily distracted by technicalities of problems on the surface, while missing out on the basic understanding of things. Over time, I’ve come to a rather strong belief – if you’re studying or just exploring behavioral science books (such as Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow), it’s essential to accompany them with some masterpieces of philosophical fiction. Certainly one of the first books that come to mind would be Notes from Underground, and for the impatient, the part one of it alone is mindblowing.

Underground Man attacks the idea that science and reason on at least three fronts. Here I’ll summarize them and later expand on each:

  1. Knowledge doesn’t make you better. Quite the contrary – it can make you do bad things. And you could feel good about it. And that’s why you may lose respect for yourself.
  2. Laws of logic are not equal to the laws of human nature. One key element of the human condition is always left out creating a scientific model of human behavior.
  3. Caprice is the first “law” of human condition. Life is like chess. Or why the man likes that 2×2 are not always 4.

These are the three themes that pervade the Notes from Underground. All three themes could be read and elaborated independently. For example, it is one thing to feel that too much of thinking in terms of established notions can produce bad consequences for a “thinking” individual. On the other hand (and independently from this) Underground Man attacks intellectual elites who try to monopolize the notion of people’s best “interest”. These elites tried to produce theories of human behavior that finally bring out policies which try to shape humans and societies.

Knowledge doesn’t make you better.

Underground Man holds that a thinking man perpetually strives for an additional level of knowledge – it is not enough to find the second-rate causes of an incident – a man of knowledge needs to find out the ultimate cause. A thinking man always asks additional questions in order to better understand why something happens.

However, questioning until the ultimate truth might lead to serious problems. Here is an introductory claim made by the Underground man:

I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness—a real thorough-going illness. For man’s everyday needs, it would have been quite enough to have the ordinary human consciousness, that is, half or a quarter of the amount which falls to the lot of a cultivated man of our unhappy nineteenth century, especially one who has the fatal ill-luck to inhabit Petersburg, the most theoretical and intentional town on the whole terrestrial globe.

Let’s say someone insulted or slapped you. You feel humiliated. You become angry. Based on your internal notion of justice, you might realize that injustice was done to you. All this combined, you figure you should retaliate in whatever way possible. You decide to return the insult.

But what if you ask yourself additional questions – What do I get with that? Am I going to feel sorry? Stupid? Am I maybe guilty from the start, did I actually deserve the slap? – In any case, you were humiliated. What should you do? Maybe nothing? Does that bring the best outcome?

Some would for sure proceed and take a revenge for slapping. Some would go and hit a wall if needed.

But can you reason your way to the right course of action? Should you ask more questions?

Underground Man explains the situation in the following way:

With people who know how to revenge themselves and to stand up for themselves in general, how is it done? Why, when they are possessed, let us suppose, by the feeling of revenge, then for the time there is nothing else but that feeling left in their whole being. Such a gentleman simply dashes straight for his object like an infuriated bull with its horns down, and nothing but a wall will stop him. (By the way: facing the wall, such gentlemen—that is, the “direct” persons and men of action—are genuinely nonplussed. For them a wall is not an evasion, as for us people who think and consequently do nothing; it is not an excuse for turning aside, an excuse for which we are always very glad, though we scarcely believe in it ourselves, as a rule. No, they are nonplussed in all sincerity. The wall has for them something tranquilizing, morally soothing, final—maybe even something mysterious … but of the wall later.)


Well, such a direct person I regard as the real normal man, as his tender mother nature wished to see him when she graciously brought him into being on the earth. I envy such a man till I am green in the face. He is stupid. I am not disputing that, but perhaps the normal man should be stupid, how do you know? Perhaps it is very beautiful, in fact. And I am the more persuaded of that suspicion, if one can call it so, by the fact that if you take, for instance, the antithesis of the normal man, that is, the man of acute consciousness, who has come, of course, not out of the lap of nature but out of a retort (this is almost mysticism, gentlemen, but I suspect this, too), this retort-made man is sometimes so nonplussed in the presence of his antithesis that with all his exaggerated consciousness he genuinely thinks of himself as a mouse and not a man. It may be an acutely conscious mouse, yet it is a mouse, while the other is a man, and therefore, etc, etc. And the worst of it is, he himself, his very own self, looks on himself as a mouse; no one asks him to do so; and that is an important point.

Underground Man goes on to compare angry mice with angry men. A man who knows the notion of justice (l’homme de la nature et de la verite – a man of nature and truth) will behave differently from a mouse which lacks that notion. And the mouse might just have an upside in that.

Now let us look at this mouse in action. Let us suppose, for instance, that it feels insulted, too (and it almost always does feel insulted), and wants to revenge itself, too. There may even be a greater accumulation of spite in it than in l’homme de la nature et de la verite. The base and nasty desire to vent that spite on its assailant rankles perhaps even more nastily in it than in l’homme de la nature et de la verite. For through his innate stupidity the latter looks upon his revenge as justice pure and simple; while in consequence of his acute consciousness the mouse does not believe in the justice of it.

Let’s suppose you take a revenge against a person who insulted you. Justice is served. And you might feel good about it.

According to Underground Man you will need consciousness to feel good about what you have done. But if you feel good about it, what kind of man does that make you? Can a man of perception respect himself at all?

Well, in all these recognitions and disgraces it is that there lies a voluptuous pleasure. As though he would say: “I am worrying you, I am lacerating your hearts, I am keeping everyone in the house awake. Well, stay awake then, you, too, feel every minute that I have toothache. I am not a hero to you now, as I tried to seem before, but simply a nasty person, an impostor. Well, so be it, then! I am very glad that you see through me. It is nasty for you to hear my despicable moans: well, let it be nasty; here I will let you have a nastier flourish in a minute…” You do not understand even now, gentlemen? No, it seems our development and our consciousness must go further to understand all the intricacies of this pleasure. You laugh? Delighted. My jests, gentlemen, are of course in bad taste, jerky, involved, lacking self confidence. But of course that is because I do not respect myself. Can a man of perception respect himself at all?


Come, can a man who attempts to find enjoyment in the very feeling of his own degradation possibly have a spark of respect for himself?

Laws of logic do not equal laws of human nature.

Science strives to understand why things happen. The same is with the science of human behavior. Take economics or sociology as an example. In them, you will always find examples of so-called “irrational” behaviors. Take an example of addiction. A social scientist will always suggest that addiction is an irrational behavior; an addicted individual doesn’t know that it is not in his best interest not to become addicted. But he somehow still gets addicted.

Essentially, what this perspective suggests is that there are certain logical or normative rules that an individual ought to follow; if you depart from the rules, you are behaving irrationally. A perfect example of this is theory of rational choice. When an individual breaks the rules of transitivity or consistency of preferences, their behavior will be irrational.

Of course, these theories that prescribe how someone should behave rather than describe how someone behaves have been under attack for some time. The argument of Underground Man is a rather common sense approach to the problem.

Underground Man attacks two arguments that are usually made when explaining why individuals or groups of people do bad things. The first one is that those people still haven’t discovered their true interests (they are being stuck in what Marxists would call “false consciousness”). The second one would be the claim that some people just haven’t adopted the right values yet.

Oh, tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else, and we all know that not one man can, consciously, act against his own interests, consequently, so to say, through necessity, he would begin doing good?

Underground Man then gives a sketch of an alternative theory to the first argument, the one saying that man’s enlightened interests would lead him to a better conduct. Namely, he expands the possible set of aims of human behavior; it doesn’t necessarily need to be an interest or any material advantage. As an alternative to those, he mentions the notions of “obstinacy” or “perversity”.

What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, consciously, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing, but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and have obstinately, wilfully, struck out another difficult, absurd way, seeking it almost in the darkness. So, I suppose, this obstinacy and perversity were pleasanter to them than any advantage


Advantage! What is advantage? And will you take it upon yourself to define with perfect accuracy in what the advantage of man consists? And what if it so happens that a man’s advantage, sometimes, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous. And if so, if there can be such a case, the whole principle falls into dust.


Are there not some which not only have not been included but cannot possibly be included under any classification? You see, you gentlemen have, to the best of my knowledge, taken your whole register of human advantages from the averages of statistical figures and politico-economical formulas. Your advantages are prosperity, wealth, freedom, peace—and so on, and so on. So that the man who should, for instance, go openly and knowingly in opposition to all that list would to your thinking, and indeed mine, too, of course, be an obscurantist or an absolute madman: would not he?

Underground Man then questions any kind of theoretical attempt to formalize and systematize the nature of the human condition.

All these theories for explaining to mankind their real normal interests, in order that inevitably striving to pursue these interests they may at once become good and noble—are, in my opinion, so far, mere logical exercises! Yes, logical exercises. Why, to maintain this theory of the regeneration of mankind by means of the pursuit of his own advantage is to my mind almost the same thing … as to affirm, for instance, following Buckle, that through civilization mankind becomes softer, and consequently less bloodthirsty and less fitted for warfare. Logically it does seem to follow from his arguments. But man has such a predilection for systems and abstract deductions that he is ready to distort the truth intentionally, he is ready to deny the evidence of his senses only to justify his logic. I take this example because it is the most glaring instance of it.

But can spreading the proper values (such as freedom and democracy) improve the human condition?

And what is it that civilization softens in us? The only gain of civilization for mankind is the greater capacity for variety of sensations—and absolutely nothing more. And through the development of this many- sidedness man may come to finding enjoyment in bloodshed. In fact, this has already happened to him. Have you noticed that it is the most civilized gentlemen who have been the subtlest slaughterers, to whom the Attilas and Stenka Razins could not hold a candle, and if they are not so conspicuous as the Attilas and Stenka Razins it is simply because they are so often met with, are so ordinary and have become so familiar to us. In any case civilization has made mankind if not more bloodthirsty, at least more vilely, more loathsomely bloodthirsty. In old days he saw justice in bloodshed and with his conscience at peace exterminated those he thought proper. Now we do think bloodshed abominable and yet we engage in this abomination, and with more energy than ever.


Which is worse? Decide that for yourselves. They say that Cleopatra (excuse an instance from Roman history) was fond of sticking gold pins into her slave-girls’ breasts and derived gratification from their screams and writhings. You will say that that was in the comparatively barbarous times; that these are barbarous times too, because also, comparatively speaking, pins are stuck in even now; that though man has now learned to see more clearly than in barbarous ages, he is still far from having learnt to act as reason and science would dictate. But yet you are fully convinced that he will be sure to learn when he gets rid of certain old bad habits, and when common sense and science have completely re-educated human nature and turned it in a normal direction. You are confident that then man will cease from intentional error and will, so to say, be compelled not to want to set his will against his normal interests. That is not all; then, you say, science itself will teach man (though to my mind it’s a superfluous luxury) that he never has really had any caprice or will of his own, and that he himself is something of the nature of a piano-key or the stop of an organ, and that there are, besides, things called the laws of nature; so that everything he does is not done by his willing it, but is done of itself, by the laws of nature. Consequently we have only to discover these laws of nature, and man will no longer have to answer for his actions and life will become exceedingly easy for him. All human actions will then, of course, be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms up to 108,000, and entered in an index; or, better still, there would be published certain edifying works of the nature of encyclopedic lexicons, in which everything will be so clearly calculated and explained that there will be no more incidents or adventures in the world.

Underground Man casts doubt on whether a mathematically modeled system, where algorithm of the man’s mind has been reprogrammed, is going to produce a golden age for the human kind. Rather, he believes that regress is possible; it would be just a matter of time when the humankind will go back to the state of chaos. And it wouldn’t take very much to attain that state.

Of course there is no guaranteeing (this is my comment) that it will not be, for instance, frightfully dull then (for what will one have to do when everything will be calculated and tabulated), but on the other hand everything will be extraordinarily rational. Of course boredom may lead you to anything. It is boredom sets one sticking golden pins into people, but all that would not matter. What is bad (this is my comment again) is that I dare say people will be thankful for the gold pins then. Man is stupid, you know, phenomenally stupid; or rather he is not at all stupid, but he is so ungrateful that you could not find another like him in all creation. I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, a propos of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical, countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: “I say, gentleman, hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!” That again would not matter, but what is annoying is that he would be sure to find followers—such is the nature of man.

Caprice is the first “law” of human nature.

Underground Man highlights one element of human nature that is extremely difficult to model and which is constantly left behind when creating theories and systems of the human condition. And that is the man’s own caprice.

Man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests, and sometimes one positively ought (that is my idea). One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy—is that very “most advantageous advantage” which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms. And how do these wiseacres know that man wants a normal, a virtuous choice? What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice. 

One can make an argument that by using tools of science, all human choices could be modeled, predicted and subsequently influenced. In that case, independent choice wouldn’t be independent anymore. But Underground Man makes a strong case against it. According to him, human reason is just one part (1/20 to be precise) of human life.

You see, gentlemen, reason is an excellent thing, there’s no disputing that, but reason is nothing but reason and satisfies only the rational side of man’s nature, while will is a manifestation of the whole life, that is, of the whole human life including reason and all the impulses. And although our life, in this manifestation of it, is often worthless, yet it is life and not simply extracting square roots. Here I, for instance, quite naturally want to live, in order to satisfy all my capacities for life, and not simply my capacity for reasoning, that is, not simply one twentieth of my capacity for life. What does reason know? Reason only knows what it has succeeded in learning (some things, perhaps, it will never learn; this is a poor comfort, but why not say so frankly?) and human nature acts as a whole, with everything that is in it, consciously or unconsciously, and, even if it goes wrong, it lives. 


Of course, this very stupid thing, this caprice of ours, may be in reality, gentlemen, more advantageous for us than anything else on earth, especially in certain cases.

The man’s caprice is an ever-present theme, starting with the Bible and the first quest for knowledge.

Gentlemen, let us suppose that man is not stupid…But if he is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful! Phenomenally ungrateful. In fact, I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped. But that is not all, that is not his worst defect; his worst defect is his perpetual moral obliquity, perpetual—from the days of the Flood to the Schleswig-Holstein period. Moral obliquity and consequently lack of good sense; for it has long been accepted that lack of good sense is due to no other cause than moral obliquity.


In short, one may say anything about the history of the world—anything that might enter the most disordered imagination. The only thing one can’t say is that it’s rational. The very word sticks in one’s throat. And, indeed, this is the odd thing that is continually happening: there are continually turning up in life moral and rational persons, sages and lovers of humanity who make it their object to live all their lives as morally and rationally as possible, to be, so to speak, a light to their neighbours simply in order to show them that it is possible to live morally and rationally in this world. And yet we all know that those very people sooner or later have been false to themselves, playing some queer trick, often a most unseemly one. Now I ask you: what can be expected of man since he is a being endowed with strange qualities? Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element. It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself—as though that were so necessary—that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar. And that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point. And if he does not find means he will contrive destruction and chaos, will contrive sufferings of all sorts, only to gain his point! He will launch a curse upon the world, and as only man can curse (it is his privilege, the primary distinction between him and other animals), may be by his curse alone he will attain his object—that is, convince himself that he is a man and not a piano-key!

Underground Man concludes his discussion of the nature of human condition by giving us a sort of a hypothesis. Namely, what makes humans human is exactly our resistance to logic. The pleasure that we get from figuring out things on our own – rather than following proven conclusions and recipes – is what keeps the man feeling alive.

But how do you know, not only that it is possible, but also that it is desirable to reform man in that way? And what leads you to the conclusion that man’s inclinations need reforming? In short, how do you know that such a reformation will be a benefit to man? And to go to the root of the matter, why are you so positively convinced that not to act against his real normal interests guaranteed by the conclusions of reason and arithmetic is certainly always advantageous for man and must always be a law for mankind? So far, you know, this is only your supposition. It may be the law of logic, but not the law of humanity.


I agree that man is pre-eminently a creative animal, predestined to strive consciously for an object and to engage in engineering— that is, incessantly and eternally to make new roads, wherever they may lead. But the reason why he wants sometimes to go off at a tangent may just be that he is predestined to make the road, and perhaps, too, that however stupid the “direct” practical man may be, the thought sometimes will occur to him that the road almost always does lead somewhere, and that the destination it leads to is less important than the process of making it, and that the chief thing is to save the well-conducted child from despising engineering, and so giving way to the fatal idleness, which, as we all know, is the mother of all the vices… But why has he such a passionate love for destruction and chaos also? Tell me that! But on that point I want to say a couple of words myself. May it not be that he loves chaos and destruction (there can be no disputing that he does sometimes love it) because he is instinctively afraid of attaining his object and completing the edifice he is constructing? 


But man is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess player, loves the process of the game, not the end of it. And who knows (there is no saying with certainty), perhaps the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving lies in this incessant process of attaining, in other words, in life itself, and not in the thing to be attained, which must always be expressed as a formula, as positive as twice two makes four, and such positiveness is not life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death.


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