Dmitri Karamazov on cognitive science

January 28, 2009

It is a long-standing problem in cognitive science and philosophy of mind to explain how physical states of the brain are related to mental states.  I was reading through The Brothers Karamazov last night and was surprised to find Dmitri Karamazov giving it a try:

Imagine: it’s all there in the nerves, in the head, there are these nerves in the brain (devil take them!) . . . there are little sorts of tails, these nerves have little tails, well, and when they start trembling there . . . that is, you see, I look at something with my eyes, like this, and they start trembling, these little tails . . . and when they tremble, an image appears, not at once, but in a moment, it takes a second, and then a certain moment appears, as it were, that is, not a moment — devil take the moment — but an image, that is, an object or an event, well, devil take it — and that’s why I contemplate, and then think . . . because of the little tails, and not at all because I have a soul or am some sort of image and likeness, that’s all foolishness.  Mikhail explained it to me, brother, just yesterday, and it was as if I got burnt.  It’s magnificent, Alyosha, this science!

— Bk.XI.3.

Well, now that you put it that way…

5 Responses to “Dmitri Karamazov on cognitive science”

  1. Janet Says:

    Oh great! Now I have to be conscious of all these little tails trembling in my brain (I’ve always been conscious of little tales trembling in my brain). It was bad enough when I found out that all the molecules in my body were in motion all the time. No wonder I’m so tired!

    It’s funny, I’ve read that book twice and don’t remember that passage at all.


  2. cburrell Says:

    The passage comes toward the end of the book, when Dmitri’s trial has concluded and he is waiting in prison to see what will become of him.

    Sometimes people call me a “wag” when I make jokes. I think the joke-center of my brain must also be constructed from these tails.

  3. I knew I needed to re-read that book. It’s been a long time.

  4. Ed Says:

    Interesting exposition of the modern materialist faith, which claims that our thoughts are simply the product of sub-atomic particles randomly bouncing around inside our heads. Which begs the question why then should I trust my thoughts, including the thought that my thoughts are the products of particles bouncing around in my head, or products of nerve tails trembling in my brain.

    I love Dmitri’s smug self-satisfied affirmation at the end “It’s magnificent, Alyosha, this science!” Reminds me of Al Gore.

    Dostoyevsky is an excellent inoculation against the trendy atheism of Dawkins, Harris et al. It’s hard to take such shallow thinkers seriously when time and again, you find what they think are original & brilliant ideas stated much more clearly by 19th century fictional characters.

  5. cburrell Says:

    I wouldn’t say that Dmitri himself is smug or self-satisfied; he is just hapless, and is probably genuine impressed by what he has heard. Mikhail might very well be self-satisfied.

    Neither would I say that Dmitri has expressed the idea clearly — the whole fun of the passage is that he has not — but he has certainly expressed it stripped of pretension. You are right that Dostoyevsky is using this ham-fisted explanation to take a jab at the materialists of his own day.

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