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)

Mi Is Mirror

I hope that nobody thinks I’m being racially prejudiced when I say that, much though I am fascinated by her, I do not find the Anglo-American academic Mikita Brottman physically attractive. It is her mind that has raised my longstanding interest, nothing more.


This is because, for me, Ms B is like a mirror that reverses not left and right, but male and female.

Obviously, we’re different in a lot of ways: I don’t smoke and I don’t have any tattoos, for example.

But there are big similarities too.

We were born in the same year (1956) and we were both keyly core contributors to seminal early issues of the transgressive journal Headpress Journal.

And we have various other things in common, like our mutually shared passion for corpse’n’cannibal cinema, our Glaswegian accents and (at different times) our season tickets for Hull Kingston Rovers.

So it is that, looking at Ms B, I have the uncanny experience of seeing myself as I might have been, had I been born female.

But it’s not just uncanny.

It’s horrifying at times too.

Okay, I’m comfortable with the idea that, born female, I would have been less intelligent and more conformist. So I don’t mind that Ms B is a Guardianista. Not particularly. I can face the fact that I would quite likely have been one of them too, as a female.

But there are worse things than being a Guardianista, believe it or not.

Ms B has a PhD in EngLit.

A PhD!

In EngLit.

It’s not at all easy for me to face the fact that I might have had one too, as a female. It really isn’t. But how can I deny it? I might have. That despicable, deplorable, thoroughly disreputable subject might have attracted me. In fact, it would probably have attracted me.


But it gets worse still.

Ms B is a psychoanalyst.

A psychoanalyst.

Ach du lieber Gott!

See what I mean by “horrifying”?

I mean, even if I’d been born female I wouldn’t have sunk to such depths, would I? Would I? No, I have to face facts: I might. But I don’t think so. I have a feeling that there’s more to Brotty’s interest in Freud than her gender statusicity and her key commitment to core componency of the counter-cultural community.

But I’d better say no more. Verb sap.

The Brain in Train

I feel odd when I consider this possibility: that all my thoughts are strictly determined, no more under my control than a straw in a gale or a stone in an avalanche. It seems paradoxical to have strictly determined thoughts about strictly determined thoughts. But is it? And is strict determinism fatal for finding the truth? I don’t think so. In fact, I think that strict determinism is essential for truth. But irrelevant associations get in the way of our understanding this. If our thoughts are determined, they seem like automatic trains running on rigid tracks. We might want to go to the station marked “Truth”, but if the switches are set wrong, the train will never get there. Or it will thunder through and never stop.

Continue reading The Brain in Train

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

Prime Youver

The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) thought that the notion of “natural rights” was “nonsense on stilts”. I’m inclined to agree with him, but I think the dismissal applies a fortiori to theology. In fact, I think theology is nonsense on stilts on roller-skates. It’s the pursuit of the unknowable, unprovable or impossible by the irrational, illogical or insane. The illiterate too, nowadays: at least Newman and C.S. Lewis are enjoyable to read, unlike most modern theologians. But there is a theological idea I’ve always found interesting: that you created the universe. And I did too. More than that: the idea says that you or I, or both of us, created God Him/Her/Itself. The idea works like this: if free will exists (I don’t think it does) and human beings can exercise it, every instance of free will must be an act ex nihilo, an act out of nothing, undetermined by what has gone before it, and not a necessary act, in the technical sense. But that act of free will can only take place because the actor exists in a universe. To put it another way: the necessary precondition of an unnecessitated act of free will is that the universe exist. One could conclude, then, that God is forced to create the universe in order to allow you, me and other human beings to exercise our free will: in other words, the primum movens, the prime mover or initial uncaused cause of the universe, is any act of free will by a human being. In short, you’re the prime youver and I’m the prime mever. But in order for God to create the universe, God has to exist. So an uncaused act of free will doesn’t just create creation, it creates the creator. The slightest freely chosen, undetermined act, from rubbing one’s nose to writing a postcard, brings about the Ultimate Whole and the Ultimate Holy. Whodunnit? Youdunnit! And I did too.

Okay, that’s nonsense on stilts on roller-skates on oily ice (in a hurricane) and undoubtedly blasphemous or sacrilegious by any normal theological standard. But it seems a sensical conclusion from nonsensical premises and it gives me the excuse for another piece of paronomasia.