Carved Cascade

Woodcut of a waterfall by Reynolds Stone (1909-79)

It’s the wrong kind of waterfall to go with this passage from Nietzsche, but that can’t be helped dot dot dot colon

Am Wasserfall. — Beim Anblick eines Wasserfalles meinen wir in den zahllosen Biegungen, Schlängelungen, Brechungen der Wellen Freiheit des Willens und Belieben zu sehen; aber Alles ist nothwendig, jede Bewegung mathematisch auszurechnen. So ist es auch bei den menschlichen Handlungen; man müsste jede einzelne Handlung vorher ausrechnen können, wenn man allwissend wäre, ebenso jeden Fortschritt der Erkenntniss, jeden Irrthum, jede Bosheit. Der Handelnde selbst steckt freilich in der Illusion der Willkür; wenn in einem Augenblick das Rad der Welt still stände und ein allwissender, rechnender Verstand da wäre, um diese Pausen zu benützen, so könnte er bis in die fernsten Zeiten die Zukunft jedes Wesens weitererzählen und jede Spur bezeichnen, auf der jenes Rad noch rollen wird. Die Täuschung des Handelnden über sich, die Annahme des freien Willens, gehört mit hinein in diesen auszurechnenden Mechanismus. — Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister (1878)

AT THE WATERFALL.—In looking at a waterfall we imagine that there is freedom of will and fancy in the countless turnings, twistings, and breakings of the waves ; but everything is compulsory, every movement can be mathematically calculated. So it is also with human actions ; one would have to be able to calculate every single action beforehand if one were all-knowing ; equally so all progress of knowledge, every error, all malice. The one who acts certainly labours under the illusion of voluntariness ; if the world’s wheel were to stand still for a moment and an all-knowing, calculating reason were there to make use of this pause, it could foretell the future of every creature to the remotest times, and mark out every track upon which that wheel would continue to roll. The delusion of the acting agent about himself, the supposition of a free will, belongs to this mechanism which still remains to be calculated. — Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All-Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (1908)

A Clockwork Orang

A portrait of the clockmaker Thomas Mudge by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland (1772)

Note: The title of this incendiary intervention was buried by Anthony Burgess in the title of his magisterial A Clockwork Orange (1962): in Malay, orang means “man” (as in orangutan, “man of the forest”). The book asks whether man is clockwork or has free will. Obviously, Thomas Mudge was a “clockwork orang” in another sense.

The Brain in Pain

You can stop reading now, if you want. Or can you? Are your decisions really your own, or are you and all other human beings merely spectators in the mind-arena, observing but neither influencing nor initiating what goes on there? Are all your apparent choices in your brain, but out of your hands, made by mechanisms beyond, or below, your conscious control?

In short, do you have free will? This is a big topic – one of the biggest. For me, the three most interesting things in the world are the Problem of Consciousness, the Problem of Existence and the Question of Free Will. I call consciousness and existence problems because I think they’re real. They’re actually there to be investigated and explained. I call free will a question because I don’t think it’s real. I don’t believe that human beings can choose freely or that any possible being, natural or supernatural, can do so. And I don’t believe we truly want free will: it’s an excuse for other things and something we gladly reject in certain circumstances.

Continue reading The Brain in Pain

Ass You Like It

This is a guest post by Norman Foreman, B.A.

Mediaeval Catholic philosophers wrote about both praying and braying. The braying came from Buridan’s ass, a thought-experiment about choice and free will. Imagine a hungry ass set between two piles of hay that are identical in every way: size, shape, colour, tastiness and so on. Some philosophers argued that, if it had no reason to prefer one pile of hay to the other, the ass would be unable to choose and would therefore starve to death.

I don’t agree: inter alia, nervous systems don’t work symmetrically and we don’t experience objects as fully identical when they’re in different parts of our visual field. However, in a literary sense, I understand what it feels like to be Buridan’s ass. To assify myself, I start by imagining this:

• I’m offered £1000 to read a book by the transgressive author Will Self.

Would I accept? Yes. It would be distasteful, but I’d do it for £1000. Self’s writing is so bad that I might give the money back rather than finish the book, but I’d have a go. Now change the situation:

• I’m offered £1000 to read a book by the transgressive author Stewart Home.

Would I still accept? Yes. Again, it would be distasteful, but I’d do it for the money. Or I’d try, at least. The next step turns me into Buridan’s ass. I imagine this:

• I’m offered £1000 to read a book by either Will Self or Stewart Home (not both). And I have to make the choice for myself.

Now I’m on the horns of a dilemma. I would want the £1000, but I can’t decide which transgressive author I’d rather NOT read. Home is a downmarket version of Self, Self is an upmarket version of Home. It’s Self-as-chav vs Home-as-Oxbridge-grad. And/or vice versâ. They’re both keyly committed components of the Guardianista community, with all that that implies in terms of issues around bad English, mixed metaphors and “in terms of”. I’m happy to say I’ve never read a book by either of them. So if I were offered £1000 to do so and had to choose either Self or Home, I couldn’t do it. Not unassisted. I’d have to toss a coin. Best of three. Or best of five dot dot dot

Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Titus Graun
Reds under the Thread