Notes From Underground

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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"Good heavens, gentlemen, what sort of free will is left when we come to tabulation and arithmetic, when it will all be a case of twice two make four? Twice two makes four without my will. As if free will meant that!" What is Dostoevsky saying in this quote from Notes from Underground? Also, how do the passage's ideas fit into the author's philosophy?

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First, it is important to understand that this is a quotation from a novel, narrated in the first person, rather than a direct expression of Dostoevsky's own view. However, the author often addressed the problem to which he alludes here: that of how to exercise free will in a world of scientific and mathematical certainties. It therefore clearly fits into his philosophy, though this philosophy is not the programmatic worldview of an academic thinker, but a moral and artistic exploration of ideas.

The problem for Dostoevsky is that a purely rational view of life seems to exclude the possibility of freedom. You are not free to believe that 2 + 2 = 5. To exercise freedom in this sense is merely to be mistaken or mad. If there is a single choice one can make that is more rational than any other, just as there is a correct solution for any mathematical problem, then one can always predict exactly how a rational man will act. Therefore, the rational man has no freedom, and the only escape from mental slavery is into irrationality.

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