What Answers Can Materialism Give? - A Short Excerpt from "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy

Part 1 Ch. 7

This passage is a bit random and my thoughts sort of incomplete. I just thought that this was a interestingly philosophical passage right in the midst of this novel. 

Empiricism or Rationalism
In reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, there is an interesting philosophical passage in part I of the book. Here we have two educated men arguing about the philosophical controversies of their day; an argument which really centers on the fundamental dichotomy regarding the starting place of philosophizing and the pursuit of truth. Does truth begin in one's sense impressions of the physical world, or in the rational subjectivity of the human mind? 

Of course at this time in the 19th century Darwinian evolution and Naturalism/Materialism was at a peak of popularity. If one assumes that all that exists is matter and energy, then what does that mean for our understanding of ... well everything. Do we reinterpret religion, culture, truth, morality, politics, etc. in the light of this Materialism? "...he had never brought together these scientific conclusions about the animal origin of man, about reflexes, biology and sociology, with those questions about the meaning of life and death which lately had been coming more and more often to his mind." And so the debate centers around the human experience. Is there more to us than just a body? More to us than just our sense impressions? Do we have a soul? Do we have a mind distinct in quality from the body? What happens when the body dies? 

The two educated men argue here about how to respond to the Materialists. One position seemingly accepting that all that we understand of existence first must come through our physical senses. The other taking the position that there must be some extra-physical sense by which we intuit abstract notions of being itself, for example the transcendentals - beauty, goodness, truth, unity-. Interestingly, it is Levin, who is portrayed as more of a simple and faithful man, who so clearly penetrates the questions with a simple response. In so many words his response is something like: Regardless if our knowledge of being comes through the senses or not, what is important in the face of Materialism is whether or not there is a qualitatively different reality such as the soul that survives the death of the body. And here we see reflected the long debate in the history of philosophy regarding the origin of truth in the human mind, clearly represented in the schools of Empiricism and Rationalism. [And yet traditionally, Thomas Aquinas would argue for a middle way between these schools. All our knowledge first proceeds through the senses, but is then perceived by the mind/soul from the senses, and transformed into a higher realm of understanding/being.] 

The Passage
"Arriving in Moscow on the morning train, Levin had gone to stay with his older half-brother Koznyshev and after changing, entered his study, intending to tell him at once what he had come for and to ask his advice; but his brother was not alone. With him was a well-known professor of philosophy, who had actually come from Kharkov to resolve a misunderstanding that had arisen between them on a rather important philosophical question. The professor was engaged in heated polemics with the materialists. Sergei Koznyshev had followed these polemics with interest and, after reading the professor's last article, had written him a letter with his objections; he had reproached the professor with making rather large concessions to the materialists. And the professor had come at once to talk it over. The discussion was about a fashionable question: is there a borderline between psychological and physiological phenomena in human activity, and where does it lie?

Sergei Ivanovich met his brother with the benignly cool smile he gave to everyone and, after introducing him to the professor, went on with the conversation. The small, yellow-skinned man in spectacles, with a narrow brow, turned away from the conversation for a moment to greet Levin and, paying no further attention to him, went on talking. Levin sat down to wait until the professor left, but soon became interested in the subject of the conversation. Levin had come across the articles they were discussion in magazines, and had read them, being interested in them as a development of the bases of natural science, familiar to him from his studies at the university, but he had never brought together these scientific conclusions about the animal origin of man, about reflexes, biology and sociology, with those questions about the meaning of life and death which lately had been coming more and more often to his mind. 

Listening to his brother's conversation with the professor, he noticed that they connected the scientific questions with the inner, spiritual ones, several times almost touched upon them, but that each time they came close to what seemed to him the most important thing, they hastily retreated and again dug deeper into the realm of fine distinctions, reservations, quotations, allusions, references to authorities, and he had difficulty understanding what they were talking about. 

'I cannot allow,' Sergei Ivanovich said with this usual clarity and precision of expression and elegance of diction, 'I can by no means agree with Keiss that my whole notion of the external world stems from sense impressions. The fundamental concept of being itself is not received through the senses, for there exists no special organ for conveying that concept.' 'Yes, but they - Wurst and Knaust and Pripasov - will reply to you that your consciousness of being comes from the totality of your sense impressions, that this consciousness of being is the result of sensations. Wurst even says directly that where there are not sensations, there is no concept of being.' 'I would say the reverse,' Sergei Ivanovich began ... But here again it seemed to Levin that, having approached the most important thing, they were once more moving away, and he decided to put a question to the professor. 

'Therefore, if my senses are destroyed, if my body dies, there can be no further existence?' he asked. The professor, vexed and as if mentally pained by the interruption, turned to the strange questioner, who looked more like a barge-hauler than a philosopher, then shifted his gaze to Sergei Ivanovich as if to ask: what can one say to that? But Sergei Ivanovich, who spoke with far less strain and one-sidedness than the professor, and in whose head there still remained room enough both for responding to the professor and for understanding the simple and natural point of view from which the question had been put, smiled and said: 'That questions we still have no right to answer...' 'We have no data,' the professor confirmed and went on with his arguments. 'No,' he said, 'I will point out that if, as Pripasov states directly, sensation does have its basis in impression, we must distinguish strictly between these two concepts.' Levin listened no more and waited until the professor left." 
1 - Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. (New York. Penguin Books, 2000). Pg. 23 - 25.