'Scientific materialism or philosophical naturalism, Dostoevsky saw, leads directly to nihilism. Here was the great paradox of the European Enlightenment. The movement had begun with a noble vision of shared human dignity, peace, and progress drawn from the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity. But by seeking to ground these ideals in reason rather than in faith, Enlightenment humanism ended by undermining its own highest commitments. Science can provide only mechanistic, reductive, and objectified descriptions of human nature, so when scientific reasoning is held up as the only grounds for discovering truth we are left without any basis for statements of value or meaning. We come to see humanity in purely instrumental and deterministic ways. We lose all sense of good and evil.
Russia’s intellectual radicals in the middle of the 19th century--who Dostoevsky knew well from his days in the Petrashevsky Circle--were nevertheless determined to carry the logic of philosophical materialism/naturalism through to its final conclusions. These “New Men” rejected all religious and metaphysical values and embarked on an audacious project of social and political re-engineering unbounded by older notions of morality or the authority of revelation. Bourgeois moral sentiments and feelings of compassion—the residue of outmoded Christian beliefs—had to be ruthlessly overcome in order to elevate humanity to a new plain of evolutionary consciousness. Difficult thoughts—and deeds—had to be faced with unflinching “hardness” in order to transform the human animal into its own divinity.
All of Dostoevsky’s greatest novels are densely inhabited with characters who represent these claims of the New Men. Dostoevsky’s most compelling and sympathetic rebel against faith, however, is Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov, who simultaneously embodies both the idealism of the Enlightenment humanists and the nihilistic logic of the new generation of hard-headed materialists. Ivan’s rebellion is captured in his “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” which he tells to his saintly brother Alyosha in an attempt to unsettle his faith.'