Why read Dostoevsky? A programmer's perspective


When mathematics failed

Growing up, I was very competitive and often wondered what could give me an advantage over others. Knowledge seemed like the most reasonable tool.

From a very early age, I realized that solving new problems would be easier the more knowledge I had. Mathematics attracted me a lot during my teens and early adulthood for this exact reason. Studying mathematics, I realized that I could gain knowledge, and that this knowledge would be forever valid. I remember most of my friends being into politics, which I found a useless pursuit, as there was no real solid ground from which to build truth in the political world. Political arguments were often not much more than opinion sharing about topics that none of us knew much about. In the best case, these discussions were backed on "facts" that someone had read in the newspaper.

Mathematics was, on the other hand, based on axioms and logic. That seemed like a much more reasonable place to spend my time. And so I did. I learned many facts about mathematics. And all the facts I once learned are still true today, and they will always be. That is the beauty of math.

The problem came when I wanted to apply these facts to the real world. That's when I realized that facts about the mathematical world are very difficult to apply to solve problems in the real world.

Even more problematic, I realized that learning more math was, in my estimation, not going to help me solve more real-world problems. Where should I spend my time then? What kind of knowledge should I acquire that is both long-lasting and useful.

Taleb and the failure of models

I discovered Taleb's writing while backpacking through Costa Rica. His writings further explained the problems I was facing with mathematics and knowledge as a tool for gaining an advantage over others. He showed, through his life's work, that one can make money by betting against people that believe too much in mathematics and their applicability to the real world.

The real world is much, much more complex than what our mathematical models can express. Confusing the models for reality, or Platonism as he sometimes calls it, has caused many great failures in the world. From Communist Russia's collapse due to Marxism to the 2008 financial crisis.

Fiction, non-fiction and the classics

I've read a lot throughout my life, mostly non-fiction books. Fiction books were, to me, a sort of very time-consuming form of entertainment. I get that people really like Harry Potter, but I thought that the idea of reading its 7 books was similar to binge-watching 7 seasons of Friends on Netflix. Fun, but mostly a waste of time.

That was until I started paying attention to the classics. Many people I had a lot of respect for, many of my "heroes" insisted in the idea that it was not just useful, but very important to read the classics. Important? But why? Aren't they just very well written "entertainment"? Wouldn't my time be better spent studying or practicing a useful skill other than, say, reading the monologues of a Hamlet? What use could that have in the real world, other than entertainment?

That's what I thought until I read Dostoevsky.

Human nature

I recently read Crime and Punishment and am currently halfway through (and, by the way, completely absorbed by) The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky's genius lies in his deep understanding of human nature and of spelling out truths about it in ways that inspire reflection.

The problem with stating truths is that no-one should believe you unless you come with proof. This is the essential problem that the scientific method tries to solve. You formulate a hypothesis about the world, then you find evidence that supports or disproves your hypothesis. The idea is that if you can find enough supporting evidence, at some point the evidence will become convincing enough to call your hypothesis a new truth.

The difficulty with human nature is that it is not easily subjected to experimentation. Real human nature only presents itself "in its natural environment". Part of Crime and Punishment's (CaP) genius is in Dostoevsky's depiction of the psychology of a man who's thinking of doing something very wrong and eventually does it. If you've ever done something really wrong (most of us have), something that your conscience has screamed you not to do, you will identify with CaP's protagonist's descent into psychological darkness.

Try applying the scientific method to define the psychology of the criminal. You will end up writing and sending a questionnaire, then publishing a paper in Science of how 80% of respondents (n=12) selected option A in the questionnaire. Try even finding 12 criminals willing to reply honestly to your questionnaire. Then ask yourself why social science papers don't replicate.

Unlike scientific knowledge, Dostoevsky doesn't propose a model with a degree of accuracy and best practices on how to apply the model. Instead, he narrates an archetypal story sprinkled with truths. Crime and Punishment is a guide to the psychology of the criminal. It tells you how you'll feel and what kind of tricks your mind will play with you if you decide to ignore your conscience.

Learning from the classics

I am by no means an expert in the classics. I'm just getting started. But I feel like I've found a mountain of knowledge hiding in plain sight.

I wish someone would have explained this earlier to me, although to be fair, I would have probably ignored their claims on the grounds of "lack of evidence" or some other smart sounding scientific argument.

Some truth can be captured by the scientific method. But not all. Some deep truths about human nature require instead the reflection provoked by the classics. A word of advice: If approaching a dense and long book like The Brothers Karamazov, take it easy. Bring your notes with you. Stop and reflect often. Knowledge cannot be rushed.

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