Wednesday, October 15, 2008


This is the Underground Man ranting against the tyranny of mathematics and the laws of nature. This is something which troubles me and fascinates me more and more - this paradoxical nature of human freedom. We know that we are free and we feel compelled by the need for self-assertion to prove it and at the same time knowing fully well how utterly futile it is. What Underground Man says is of course an exaggeration (if still a logical extension of the argument) but we still should try to protect our inner and subjective life (which means our identities) from the intrusions of logic and science. As Musil humorously says in The Man Without Qualities, "What is a soul? It is easy to define it negatively: it is simply that which sneaks off at the mention of algebraic series." (Actually Musil's comment is intended ironically to poke fun at "spiritually" minded and pretentious people who are hostile to mathemtics in a shallow way but more on that later.)


"The impossible means the stone wall! What stone wall? Why, of course, the laws of nature, the deductions of natural science, mathematics. As soon as they prove to you, for instance, that you are descended from a monkey, then it is no use scowling, accept it for a fact. When they prove to you that in reality one drop of your own fat must be dearer to you than a hundred thousand of your fellow-creatures, and that this conclusion is the final solution of all so-called virtues and duties and all such prejudices and fancies, then you have just to accept it, there is no help for it, for twice two is a law of mathematics. Just try refuting it.

“Upon my word, they will shout at you, it is no use protesting: it is a case of twice two makes four! Nature does not ask your permission, she has nothing to do with your wishes, and whether you like her laws or dislike them, you are bound to accept her as she is, and consequently all her conclusions. A wall, you see, is a wall ... and so on, and so on.”

Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four? Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength."


foldedletters said...

I can relate to the last paragraph.


lalegini said...

How about to make a balance between heart and mind?

Alok said...

sounds great but not so easy to do, isn't it?