Saturday, November 22, 2008

Anna and Vronsky, Kitty and Levin -- Part 2

In the last two paragraphs of the novel Anna Karenina, Levin, happily married to Kitty, humbly embraces the ethical message of the Christian faith:
This new feeling has not changed me, has not made me happy and enlightened all of a sudden, as I had dreamed, just like the feeling for my child. There was no surprise in this either. Faith -- or not faith -- I don't know what it is -- but this feeling has come just as imperceptibly through suffering, and has taken firm root in my soul.

I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it.
Let Levin learn, as we have learned, about our genetic predispositions to certain behaviors, fidelity, for example, or impetuosity. Let him catch a vision, as we have caught a vision, of the myriad biochemical nudgings and tuggings that cause us to act one way or another. Will this new knowledge of the genetics of behavior change the moral circumstances of his life?

Levin recognizes that Christian moral principles transcend any particular religion. They transcend too our new knowledge of behavioral genetics. The biochemistry of the human brain in interaction with the world is so overwhelmingly complex that the question of determinism vs. free will is rendered moot. Whatever are the forces that guide our behaviors -- genetic, neuronal, or cultural -- we are left with the practical assumption of responsibility for our actions, just as Levin knows that his embrace of the Christian faith has little practical consequence for how he treats his coachman.

I can read the issue of Science on The Genetics of Behavior from cover to cover, and say with Levin: There will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand the mystery of existence, and I shall still go on attending to the mystery; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more intrinsically meaningful or meaningless than it was before, but it still has the positive meaning of goodness which I have the power to put into it.