When earthquakes, famines, and pandemics strike, people often ask: Why does this happen? If they are religious, they pose the traditional question of theodicy (justification of God): Why does God allow the innocent to suffer? If their perspective is secular, they doubt the goodness of the universe. As believers question Providence, nonbelievers wonder whether there really are laws of progress built into the nature of things. Dostoyevsky was always asking these questions, and he recognized that they are essentially the same whether expressed in religious or secular terms.

The answers, however, tend to differ.