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Determinism and Physics

One of the modern-day sources of Determinism undoubtedly comes from reflecting on the discoveries of science and, in particular, on what physics has to tell us about the world. For a start, the mere notion of cause and effect is enough to induce doubt about the existence of free human actions; the causal chain stretches back from what I do now to the very beginning of time itself. So, barring the miraculous, how can I be said to have a real influence on what happens?

Put like that, however, “cause and effect” can seem a slightly vague or abstract notion – we might, for example, become troubled by the thought that it’s a precondition of science rather than an actual scientific discovery. To really nail down the issue we want to cash things out in more concrete terms, and (happily) that doesn’t seem a particularly difficult task. The basic approach here is one of reduction: my actions can be described in terms of the physical movements of my body. In turn, my body can be described in terms of its various components: bones, organs, muscles, sinews, glands, blood – and at a slightly finer grade, cells, neurons, bacteria etc (this we might call the level of biology). The interaction of these components can itself be described in terms of the behaviour of the molecules that go to make them up (the level of chemistry). Finally, molecules are composed of atoms, and a description of the laws governing the interaction of atoms brings us to the level of physics.

There’s something pleasingly neat about this: human behaviour reduces to biology, which reduces to chemistry, which reduces to physics. Each time we seem to go down a level and get closer to the objective truth of what’s going on. What’s more, by the time we get to physics there doesn’t seem to be any room at all for human freedom. It’s all just atoms pinging about according to well-established physical laws. How could any of that produce genuine freedom? True, at the sub-atomic level, probability suddenly emerges as an inherent feature of the system. But, for one thing, that’s only significant on an unbelievably tiny scale. By the time you get to molecules (let alone you and I) the chances of anything freakish happening are so remote as to be effectively zero. And in any case, even if something freakish did happen, such behaviour would be random rather than free. There’s no escaping it: humans, like trees and planets and stars and galaxies, are made of atoms. And at the level of the atom freedom is simply not an option.

We might summarise it like this: “atoms, therefore human freedom doesn’t exist”. It’s an intuitively compelling line of thought, even if the conclusion is rather depressing. But I also think there’s something deeply incoherent about its argument. Actually, there are several possible lines of attack, You could, for example, suggest that the notion of freedom it rules out is actually a fiction which only passingly resembles the concept we actually use (and, in case you were wondering, that’s the reason I’ve resisted using the term “free will” in this post). But I want to attack it from a different angle; I want to suggest that it’s incoherent on its own terms. Without quite realising it, the argument attempts to see things from two different viewpoints at once. By adopting what might be called “the atom’s viewpoint” it declares that freedom doesn’t exist, but then it illicitly slides back to a human viewpoint and further declares that people aren’t really free. That, it seems to me, is trying to have your cake and eat it.

What am I getting at here? Well, let’s consider for a moment how we got from everyday life to the strange world of the atom. We started with the human being – that was, so to speak, a given. And, if you think about it, there are lots of things that are “given” at this level: human beings interact with each other and with various objects. We tell jokes, climb trees, eat chips, walk dogs, and so on. Some of the things we do aren’t said to be free. Blinking, for example, or digesting food. But many of our actions are categorised as “free” under normal circumstances: That too is a given at the human level. And what the determinist’s argument seeks to establish is that, unlike all the others, the “given” of human freedom is actually a fiction. To this end we broke the human down into smaller and smaller bits until we reached the level of physics. Here there was nothing remotely like freedom to be seen and so we asked “how can freedom possibly exist when physics has revealed that the world is just atoms interacting?” The problem with this, as I see it, is that you might just as well ask “how can humans possibly exist when physics has revealed that the world is just atoms interacting?” For it is one thing to start at the level of human beings and break that down into smaller and smaller bits, but it is quite another to start at a level that only contains atoms and from those alone deduce the existence of people. It is true that from the atom’s viewpoint there is no such thing as freedom, but there is no such thing as people, either. Or houses, animals, trees or stones.

At first blush this claim might seem absurd. Of course we know that such things exist and, moreover, we can explain how the interaction of various atoms brings them about. But that misses my point. We can only do that because we take it as a given that there are people, trees, etc. Our whole investigation has been from the top down. But what if you started at the bottom, without any preconceptions as to what did or didn’t exist?

Imagine a 5-second snapshot of all the atoms in a particular space. Here clusters of them are behaving in this way, over there, different clusters are behaving in that way. What gives you the right to draw a line round a particular cluster and say “those atoms form a human being”? Isn’t that a case of you imposing your preconception upon the picture rather than deriving your categorisation from it? There is nothing intrinsic to the snapshot that allows you to make such a claim. You are importing your knowledge from one level (the human level) and using it to make sense of information at another level (the atomic level). But what we were trying to do was use the atomic level alone – since that is the level which purportedly shows us what really exists – to justify the claim that human beings exist. And at that level there are no human beings. Just billions and billions of atoms pinging about. In fact, our situation is even worse than that: not only are there no human beings, there are no brains or hearts or lungs either. And no cells. No neurons. No nerves. No molecules. Just atoms.

Hopefully that clarifies what I meant when I said the determinist’s argument tries to have it both ways at once. It dives down to the atomic level, sees no freedom there, then races back to the human level so that it can claim humans are really free. But it didn’t see any humans down there either! Where have all these humans come from? Why, when we emerged back at the human level, was freedom the only thing missing? What on earth justifies the determinist in giving it such special treatment?

As I said, it’s incoherent.

Atomism, Wittgenstein and God

I was recently reading Robert Fogelin’s assessment of atomism in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and (strangely enough) it prompted a few ideas about the concept of God. I thought they might be worth sharing.

First of all, what do we mean by “atomism”? Fogelin sets out the basics with admirable clarity:

  1. Change (in a wide sense) is a matter of the combination and separation of constituent entities.

  2. Not everything is subject to change, for there must be an unchanging basis for change. Atoms, entities that are not the result of combination nor subject to division, constitute this unchanging basis.

  3. Combination and separation are possible because atoms exist in a void (in a space) that provides a field of possible combinations.

(Fogelin, Wittgenstein, Second Edition, p5)

A few things to note. “Atoms” here are not to be confused with atoms in physics. The atoms of physics are, of course, divisible and subject to change. But for the atomist philosopher, “atom” is the name of whatever it is that cannot be divided into parts or changed in any way. To avoid confusion (ha!) they’re often called “simples”, and I’m going to follow that convention. Anyway, the idea is that such things must exist or else how is the whole business of reality (matter, complex objects and so on) going to get off the ground?

That sounds reasonable enough, but a bit of reflection suggests that these “simples” are likely to be very strange things indeed. One oddity is that although they must exist (since they are a necessary condition of reality) it makes no sense to say either that they do exist or that they don’t. Allow me to explain.

Complex objects are made up of simples. So object “X” might be made up of two simples: a and b. It certainly makes sense to say that X exists since it’s possible that it might not have existed (ie, the simples a and b might not have been combined in the requisite way). Therefore “existence” and “non-existence” are the combination or non-combination of simples. That’s what (according to the theory) those terms mean. But if that’s true then we cannot predicate either existence nor non-existence to simples themselves. They are prior to existence and non-existence; they are what you must have in order for existence and non-existence to be possible.

Pretty weird, eh? But things can get even weirder if you decide, like a vicar in an Alan Bennett sketch, that “God’s a bit like that, isn’t he?” What I’m getting at is this: it is often claimed that God’s existence is necessary. He didn’t just turn up via a happy accident; he is a necessary pre-condition of the world itself. Indeed, the “ontological argument” infamously tries to prove this claim. There are many versions, but, roughly, it goes like this:

  1. We have the idea of a completely perfect being, ie, God.

  2. A being that exists is more perfect than one that doesn’t exist, therefore:

  3. God must exist.

Oceans of ink have been spilt trying to decide if this makes sense and, if it doesn’t (which is most people’s position), setting out exactly what’s wrong with it. Kant, for example, thought the problem was that it treats existence as a predicate – a quality that objects have or lack, in the same way that my jeans have the quality of being blue but lack the quality of being clean. But existence, he declared, is not a predicate. Frankly, no-one’s sure if Kant was right about that, but it’s probably fair to say that existence is at best a strange type of quality. (There’s no dining table in this room – does that mean that there’s a dining table here which lacks the quality of existence?)

But here’s the thing: if we assume that God is a necessary precondition of reality then, as with the atomists’ simples, it cannot make sense to say either that he exists or that he doesn’t. My chair exists, and so does Scotland and the Fibonacci number – but it only makes sense to say that because those things might not have existed. They have what we might call an “ontological status”. But God is in an altogether different category. The word “God” doesn’t refer to any type of thing; God has no ontological status and therefore the statements “God exists” and “God doesn’t exist” are both nonsense. To put it another way: if the opposite of your claim is nonsense then your claim itself is nonsense. So if God’s existence is necessary then it’s nonsense to say that he doesn’t exist and – therefore – it’s nonsense to claim that he does. Or to put it yet another way: whatever can exist can be destroyed. God cannot be destroyed therefore God cannot exist.

All this, of course, has serious implications for the ontological argument. As its very title suggests, it doesn’t hesitate to allot God an ontological status: he exists. But the argument tries to prove that he exists necessarily and so according to its own assumptions its conclusion must be nonsense. That’s not good. But might it be amended to avoid this problem? The only alternative candidate I can think of runs like this:

  1. We have the idea of a completely perfect being, ie, God.

  2. A being that exists is more perfect than one that doesn’t exist, therefore:

  3. Shut up.

That works, I think. But now let’s complicate matters by returning to Wittgenstein. In the Tractatus he adhered to a form of atomism and agreed that it was nonsense to talk of simples existing or not existing (actually, he thought it was nonsense to talk of most things – including his own philosophical theories). In his later years, however, he developed a very different approach to philosophy and had some intriguing things to say about simples. His thoughts on the matter are pretty difficult, but here’s a rough outline:

When we say “existence and non-existence involves the combination and dis-combination of simples” it seems as though we are describing a feature of the world. But in fact what we are doing is laying down a rule that defines what we mean by “existence” and “non-existence”. (I’ll leave it to you to decide if the atomist’s definition matches our everyday one regarding those words.) Now, rules are intrinsically categorical; they say things must go like this, not that. So if we mistake a rule for a description of the world then it can seem as if what we are “describing” is not just true but necessarily true. Existence must be the combination of simples, and those simples must exist. But all that really means is that we must posit the existence of simples or else we cannot have the rule. In effect, the atomist creates a strange game with language (a “language-game”, Wittgenstein would’ve called it), then presents this game as a description of the world and, in the process, makes it seem as if he’s discovered these weird entities – simples – which exist necessarily. What’s more, the rules of the game are so constituted that they create a paradox concerning existential claims about simples – they say both that simples must exist and that it’s nonsense to say they exist. (A fuller account of all this is here for anyone interested).

Now let’s try to apply these insights to God. People describe God in various ways: he’s omnipotent, omnibenevolent, exists necessarily, and so on. But are these really descriptions or are they actually rules by which we define the concept “God”? Don’t they constitute a kind of language-game which is tied in to the wider “game” of religious practices? (When I say “game” here I don’t mean to imply that the practices are trivial; I’m pointing out that they’re analogous to games insofar as they’re rule-governed. For Wittgenstein the term “language-game” covers pretty much all types of activity involving language.) Moreover, don’t the rules of the language-game concerning God generate the same kind of paradox as the one concerning the existence of simples? Following through the rules of the concept we seem to arrive at a position where God’s existence is both necessary and nonsense (as is, don’t forget, his non-existence).

Here it’s tempting to say that if the rules generate a paradox then that proves they must be wrong. But that, I think, groundlessly extrapolates the status of paradoxes from areas such as mathematics. In a mathematical language-game a paradox is usually pretty deadly, but need that be the case here? (And even in mathematics they’re not always so deadly. We’re taught at school that there’s no such thing as the square root of minus one. But in some areas of mathematics there most certainly is such a thing.) The point here is that rules are neither true nor false; they’re either established or they’re not. We either play by them or we don’t. And sometimes, it seems to me, we can accept rules even though they occasionally generate difficulties. For the ultimate “justification” of a language-game is not that all its rules operate smoothly, but that the game is played. This is linked to a comment Wittgenstein made right at the end of his life:

You must bear in mind that the language-game is so to say something unpredictable. I mean: it is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or unreasonable). It is there – like our life.

On Certainty, §559

Still, you might think, if the concept of God simply comes down to the rules people have established about him, doesn’t that show that it’s simply something we’ve made up? After all, the rules of the language-game are our rules. And this last point is correct. But it doesn’t just apply to language-games such as religion or chess or rugby league. It also applies to mathematics, logic and the concept of measuring length. Now, have we “just made up” mathematics?

This is not to claim that religion is as deeply woven into our lives or as ubiquitously accepted as mathematics. Atheists and Christians alike learn the multiplication tables. But the point is that just because the rules of language-games are our rules that doesn’t mean they’re all a simple matter of caprice. Some are, some aren’t. And nor does it mean that they’re all somehow “unreal”. Is the language-game of measuring things unreal? The question is: what status do we want to give to religion? Deciding that is not a matter of deciding whether it’s true or false, for a language-game is neither. It’s a matter of deciding whether or not we want to play the game.

I’ll end with a quote from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and leave you to decide its relevance.

But mathematical truth is independent of whether human beings know it or not!” – Certainly, the propositions “Human beings believe that 2×2=4” and “2×2=4” do not have the same sense. The latter is a mathematical proposition; the other, if it makes sense at all, may perhaps mean: human beings have arrived at the mathematical proposition. […] (Is a coronation wrong? To beings different from ourselves it might look extremely odd.)

Philosophical Investigations, Part II, §348


“Bibberdy-bibbert” blurted some kinda faxola like it’s 1993 or something, how the fuck am I supposed to know? [“You bin outta the scribbling game too long, kid?” leered Spence, his McDonaldized bulk not so bulky as to smother the tank on his hip. “You forgedda da words already?” His accent going through five States per sentence. He calls this “humour” – like when a pregnant whore falls down a flight of stairs. Attlee picks the scum from underneath the nail of his ring-finger with a spring-loaded razor knife. “I’m a working stiff,” he says. “Passed my probation,” he says. “I’m a Hi Viz slogger in a Hi Viz world,” he says. “Protective boots must be warn at all times in this area," he says. "Wadda I know bout words?” he says. “Words is just grunts with delusions of grandeur,” he says. Scoops a box of Disney Nightmare Princess Fetish Paedophilia Tales (“Operation Yewtree Approved!”) onto the workbench and strips off the piss-yellow agent tape with his trusty razor knife. The cardboard walls fall deftly aside revealing sixteen tatty books doubtless covered in some kinda unspeakable protoplasm, seeing as how this is a Bill Burroughs pastiche. “Fifteen hundred units per day, motherfucker,” he says. Cherry-picking bastard. Spence shifts carefully in his chair, conscious of the round in the chamber. “You should lay off the Wittgenstein, kid” he says, “it’s turning your brain to mush.” Attlee sniggers. “Ima REAL boy!” he squeaks in a voice that wants to be like Pinocchio but comes out like Jimmy Durante doing a half-arsed Micky Mouse.]


“Bibberdy-bibbert” blurted some kinda faxola like it’s 1993 or something. We establish this already. Kosmo rips the message from the computer-paper roll and scans the text. His eyes widen, magnified through the lenses of his [brand-name] reading glasses.

“Mother of mercy!” he sighs, “I’ve been sent to Coventry!” The mere utterance of this ancient Anglo-Saxon pronoun conjours visions of a concrete apocalypse. Pregnantly obese obese pregnant women gnaw Polish bratwurst from foot-long batons smothered in curry ketchup. Hoards of feral Goths huddle beneath the Brutalist punch of the flyover, deface the 13th Century walls of the ruined priory, clutching their 2 litre bottles of Diamond White like surrogate teddy bears… Petulant faces suck down one last sandy roll-up outside Cofa Court Jobcentre Plus… Brisk trade at the CEX… Four Whetherspoons, no Waitrose… Cheerfully shabby bustle in the Halal barber on the Foleshill Road… Sinisterly bland multi-purpose business parks on the bulldozed remains of car factories… Dave Nellist begging for change outside the fussily pompous Victorian Town House, leave the guy alone, he’s a ghost already… IKEA looms at the horizon like the Death Star with cheap meatballs…

Kosmo reads on and relates the gist to his apprehensive wife. “Seems like the Firm has located an unexplained outbreak of culture,” he says. “They want us to investigate.”

“Do we have an agent in the area?”

“Not as such. They closed down that wretched excuse for an operation decades ago. Ploughed salt into the topsoil and don’t call us… All we got now is a broken husk of some guy, retired without pension, divides his time between binge-drinking and intemperate internet outbursts concerning a Government conspiracy to misrepresent the music of the nineteen-seventies. I’ve seen his file; it’s stamped If you’re looking at this you must be in serious trouble.”

“We could reactivate maybe?”

Kosmo pulled a face. “Pretty thin,” he says, “but what else can we do?”

Attlee’s phone didn’t ring because Attlee’s phone had been smashed into pieces by Attlee. Orders from above – by which, of course, I mean “orders from within”. Poured himself another four fingers of Wild Turkey and resumed scribbling in his Poundland notebook:

Raising the dark… my outbreath before me… cheap boots in the underpass… footsteps in time with my heart… almost people through the bare trees… I am happy product… these people are adverts… the Sunday Atheists sniffing round the wheeliebins… new dogma from the Think Tank… I am struggling to recall the difference between refusal and surrender.

A tinny blast of Kandy Korn by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band broke the flow. It was Attlee’s ringtone.

“Goddammit!” he muttered, “I must get me a better hammer.”

He picked up a fragment of the shattered technology, gingerly clasping one corner between forefinger and thumb. There was no “accept” button to press, but it turns out that didn’t matter.

“We got you a mission, homes.” Spence’s voice, affecting an accent from south of a border that no-one had ever crossed.

“A mission?! I’m outta that game. Bigger fish to fry. Did you know that Government-sponsored pop-culture historians have been systematically and deliberately mis-locating the significance of The Mekons?”

“I’ve read your file,” said Spence in what might’ve been his own accent, for all I know. “Listen, kid, we’ve got ourselves a situation here and you’re the only boots we have on the ground between Stratford and Long Buckby.”

“A situation?” Despite himself, Attlee was intrigued and flattered.

“Some kinda Kulturkampf is kicking off right on your fucking doorstep. Rumours are circulating about a mother-ugly unholy Frankenstein folk/oompah cut-n-shunt at the Henry VIII.”

Attlee gave a long whistle. “Jesus H Christ on a bike drowning in his own tears! First they came for Post-Punk, now they’ve turned to Krautrock. Well, it was only a matter of time I suppose… But what the fuck am I supposed to do about it? You want me to blog?”

“Blog?! Oh for pity’s sake! Wise-up, kid, will ya? Listen, we’re dropping in some of our people. Top agents. They’ll do the heavy lifting, but we need you to liaise – guide them through the minefields, give them the nine-fifteen.”

“The nine-fifteen?”

“Sorry, I just made that up – y’know, to sound spyish. But that’s not important. Listen, kid, this is serious. We can’t be having culture just spontaneously springing up in Coventry. I mean, where will it end? Chess clubs in Hillfields? Poetry readings in Bell Green? Starbucks in Bedworth?”

“They’ve already got a Costa.”

A spasm of despairing rage smashed through the torn speaker. It was several minutes before Spence was calm enough to continue.

“We’ll deal with that later. First things first. Come on kid: are you in or what?”

“Will there be alcohol?”

“Of course there’ll be fucking alcohol. I said ‘liaise’ didn’t I? You think I meant maybe take them to BHS for a mug of Earl Grey?”

“The Spoons?”

“What?! Show a little class, for fuck’s sake, kid! These are serious people. The Spoons! Jesus! Take ‘em to The Establishment or… um… well… Somewhere that’s not too shit, anyhow. And not the fucking Spoons! Does this mean you’re in?”




Oh, he was in all right. His mind was already chasing down locations as he stared out at the duel carriageway, lazy Saturday afternoon traffic and behind the cathedral spires, out beyond the inner ring, towers of smoke from the various burning buildings: The Radford, Canley Social Club, The Sidney Stringer Acadamy… A city on fire, wounded, huddled in the centre of its spoke-and-hub street plan like the tarmac web of some OCD spider… They’ll be doing lines off the bar at The Rocket, where the pool table’s so warped you need non-Euclidian geometry to play… Shit-faced casual in The Earl of Mercia, telling anyone stupid enough to listen how he’d given up violence, he’d given it up. Seriously. A mug’s game. But I’ll still back myself up, like. You know: step in for a mate. I could fuck you up. FUCK YOU UP. It’d be all like “That was one you’d not seen before, wasn’t it? Go find your face; I think it’s in the toilet…” Ack! I’ve given it up. A fucking mug’s game. Take a pop at me if you want. Go on: take a pop. TAKE A POP!… “Welcome to Willenhall – Your Car is on Fire”… Where have Cooky and Stretch gone now they’ve closed Annabel’s? Or the twitchy geezer huddled in his overcoat, shiny with dirt, playing blackjack at £20 a time, losing and losing, then reaching into his filthy coat and pulling out a thick, shrink-wrapped wedge of fifty-pound notes. Payroll… The combed-back muffin-tops with shit tats wobbling on their teenage bingo wings as they scream at the Kasbah security. Check in your machete at the cloakroom, lasers cut dry ice, the walls pulsate, sweat, throb, Carling Zest £1.50 a pop… And always the feds, the plastics, the hobby-bobbies with their stupid bicycles and stab vests, hassling the drunks in Lady Herbert Gardens where Barking Mark shared a joint with Attlee one time, tipped him off about the knock-off tobacco place and told huge, ugly chunks of his sad, fucked-up, pissed-up, pissed away life story… broken relationships, louring medical staff, police cells… the doomed dream of a better life in faraway Blackpool… on and on he rasped, voice as dry as Mary Berry’s quim…

Infinite Jest – the First 33%

When I started reading Infinite Jest a month or so ago I promised myself I wouldn’t blog about it. So here’s a blog post about it. Apologies and all that, but the novel’s heavyweight reputation and its evident attempt to say something important about the modern world practically demands some kind of appraisal from the reader. After all, what’s the point of hacking through its 1079 pages if it doesn’t prompt a response?

But it gets worse. On the one hand, I felt almost obliged to set out my thoughts on the book but, on the other hand, I quickly realised that I wouldn’t have the time, energy or patience to wait until the end and then produce a carefully thought-out analysis of the damn thing. So instead I’ve opted to post a slightly tidied-up version of notes I jotted down as I read through. The drawback to this approach is obvious: I’m commenting on themes, styles, etc, in total ignorance of how the novel’s end might justify or put into perspective what happens in the beginning.

Still, at least they provide a more-or-less honest account of what it’s been like to read it. Hopefully those who’ve already completed the journey will be able to sympathise with my struggle. Anyway…

24 June

Fifty pages in. Written in the present tense – always slightly irritating. A cheap way to seem pacey and energetic. Also (it seems to me) a clear sign of the effect of films and TV on the imagination. It reads like a screenplay. These days “imagining” something pretty much means imagining it as it might be presented in a film. (But couldn’t we say something similar about Dickens’ theatre-haunted prose?)

Actually, it’s too strong to simply say it reads like a screenplay. DFW often uses the freedom of prose to decent effect. In the first chapter, for example, we get Hal’s version of events and we only learn later that something rather different seems to have occurred (and we’re not told exactly what). But, still, the influence of filmic imagination is strong. I suppose that’s not really a criticism of DFW; it’s characteristic of the modern imagination – including my own. I worry that it’s a diminishment – an automatic focus on surfaces but without the advantage films have of being able to show the fluid complexity of the human face.

Some nice expressions/descriptions, but the prose isn’t as “drum-tight” as Eggers’ introduction suggested. In fact, Eggers’ intro (which I half-read) has put me on my guard from the get-go. He was trying too hard to sell me a book I’d already bought.

College kids/techy types smoking dope. Too much of that so far. Who fucking cares?

Reminds me of DeLillo and Copeland with more book learning. Not an unqualified good in either case.

All the above pretty sniffy. I am enjoying it but it hasn’t grabbed me by the throat yet.

Insects. Colds. Dreams about mother. The face in the floor.

25 June

Technology, biochemistry – life seen from the “outside” dominates. Nature is represented by insects (ie, nature at its most mechanistic) and the malevolence of the Arizona sun.

Of course so far the novel’s stance towards this focus is not clear.

26 June

80-odd pages in. Things starting to clarify: the “entertainment”; its links to the films made by Hal’s father; hints of something unusually sinister about the drugs…. Even the feral hamsters have turned up!

But I already need a cast-list to remember who all these sodding people are (fortunately Wikipedia provides this).

I’m a bit concerned that the whole thing seems to be based on Monty Python’s sketch about the funniest joke ever written. The Pythons were done with it after three minutes, but can it carry a 1,000+ page novel?

Also – I suppose because of its length and reputation – I can’t help comparing it to Ulysses. Post-modernism updates the modernist classic. This seems both unfair and instructive. Hal as a sort of 90’s Stephen Daedalus: precociously talented, a strained relationship with his family, etc. The way the book carries its huge erudition very much on its sleeve, but often does it for satirical purposes. Yet there are no ordinary people in Infinite Jest. And so there’s little genuine pathos or warmth. DFW suggests life is mad by presenting us with a bunch of characters who are mad. Grotesques. Joyce mingles madness and sadness by describing the details of ordinary life. Satire, but also pathos. Bloom is a character we care about. I can’t really say the same of anyone in Infinite Jest.

27 June

I might be using IJ as a lightning-rod for my dislike of modern (ie, post-modern) culture. In other words, I’m setting myself up against the book’s reputation. The haunting fear that I’m becoming Roger Scruton.

28 June

No ordinary people. Everyone is neurotic or worse. No-one is genuinely close to anyone else. And the tennis academy stuff is boring me.

Post-modernism: life is meaningless, so we must “play it” as an ironic game, and (for some never-specified reason) the only “authentic” act is the deconstruction of authority in all its various forms. This is the snarky dream of thirteen year-old bed-wetters and humanities academics too comfortable, too self-conscious and too damn chicken-shit to be Marxists.

Now, is DFW just another of those fraudsters? Or, to put it another way, does he criticise the madness of modern culture using forms of thought which are themselves thoroughly conditioned by that same culture? (And can this even be avoided?)

So we get the alienating invasiveness of modern technology (including biochemistry), but what is the book’s underlying attitude towards this?

4 July

245 pages in and it’s picked up a bit. The image of the cage (again) and the potential for almost anything to be a self-defeating attempt to escape it – and the absurdity of that position; trying to find the “real” artichoke by divesting it of its leaves.

The endless chemical, technical and mathematical details: ramming home how we’re enmeshed in a world that’s far too complex for us to understand. The alienation of this situation. It reminds me of the Ithica chapter of Ulysses. The barren futility of reducing everything to bare “facts”. It’s interesting to compare the ostentatious erudition of Infinite Jest (and Ulysses) with that of Tristram Shandy. Sterne (like Swift before him) was mainly poking fun at the presumptuousness of academics and specialists. This was still possible in the 1750s. It’s harder to laugh today.

It’s easy to make the world seem weird and absurd if you populate your novel exclusively with absurd weirdos.

Or, more generally, the world looks strange if you treat the culture as a given, a kind of surrogate nature (as if our culture, uniquely in the history of mankind, had discovered the real facts of life). But step back. Cui bono? That is to say, look at the deeper processes which are producing this madness. Then things cease to be so absurd or ironic. They become murderous.

And that’s what I mean by criticising the culture from within the culture. It mistakes the structure for the base, endows it with an illusionary necessity and so, of course, in the process everything becomes an absurd tragi-comedy.

It remains to be seen whether DFW is guilty of this particular mistake.

10 July

310 pages in. Another irritation: the footnotes. Supposedly (I’ve read) DFW uses them to break up the narrative flow. Break it up?! Even without them the narrative flow is all over the fucking place! And what exactly is gained by breaking up the narrative flow in any case? I can’t help feeling they’re just an emptily clever post-modernist mannerism.

13 July

The tennis war-game chapter illustrates the faults and good points of novel. It’s an entertaining, knock-about satire of the Game Theory approach to global politics but (a) it’s horribly overwritten, and (b) it doesn’t really nail its target. The problem with Game Theory is not that people are more barbaric than its coldly mathematic approach assumes (which is what I take the chapter to be saying). The problem is that people are more human. Yes, that includes unspeakable barbarity – but also love, loyalty, playfulness, friendliness and self-sacrifice to the point of sainthood. The attempt to reduce all this to a few formulae was pioneered by a paranoid schizophrenic. And it shows.

However, the Boston AA chapter is easily the best so far: moving, compelling and profound. Hopefully this is the direction for the rest of the book. Even here, though, there are quibbles: it is (as usual) overwritten, and reads as a piece of free-wheeling journalism masquerading as fiction (that’s true of quite a bit of the book so far).

All in all I can’t help feeling it needed a better editor. Someone should produce an abridged version – 600 pages perhaps – called Finite Jest.


My Twitter-friend @garyface is currently studying philosophy at York. This evening he asked me about Utilitarianism and (being a bit drunk) I said I had a good argument to counter it. I emailed him an account of that argument which, basically, tries to expose the nonsense of claiming that “pleasure” and “pain” can always be evaluated to see which one ends up the winner. Below is a very slightly amended version of that email so you can judge for yourselves. What do you think?

Anti-Utilitarian Argument

According to (strict) Utilitarians, there’s a “calculus” of pleasure/pain – ie, we can (somehow) always work out whether a particular situation is (on the whole) more pleasurable than painful. I think that’s a complete fantasy, and I thought up the following example to help expose it.

Suppose for some reason either you or I have to die for the greater good of humanity. A third party is tasked with the business of choosing and will do so on the Utilitarian basis of whichever choice causes the least unhappiness (which equates to the most happiness). As part of this he looks into our lives and discovers the following:
  1. In terms of the good/bad deeds we’ve done we’re pretty equal. But
  2. you have a doting mother whose life would be totally destroyed by your death and I have no family at all – all I have is a number of acquaintances who’d be very slightly upset by my death. They’d say “Oh, that’s a pity” and then, a moment later, continue with their lives as before.
 So it’s obvious, isn’t it? You live and I die, But hang on!
Your mother’s destroyed life is only x-many units in the calculus of unhappiness. The passing grief of my acquaintances doesn’t amount to much by comparison, but it does amount to SOMETHING. So let’s assume I have a million such acquaintances. Would a million “oh that’s a shame-s” outweigh the destroyed life of a fond mother? How about two million? Or a billion?
The point is that according to the Utilitarian vision these faint reflections of grief must at some stage add up to more unhappiness than your mother’s destroyed life (just as adding pennies to a pile one by one must at some stage add up to more than £10,000,000). And at that point the only moral decision is: let your mother be destroyed; your death causes the least unhappiness.
Now ask yourself: is it really possible that x many “oh that’s a shame-s” could outweigh the destroyed life of a doting mother? Isn’t that a load of bollocks? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to say that NO number of “that’s a shame-s” could add up to the wrecked life of a single mother? And if that’s so then doesn’t it show that the whole idea of quantifying grief is also bollocks? And doesn’t that mean that the whole Utilitarian project crashes to the ground?
That was my email. Come on, Utilitarians, your response please.

The Smiths, The Charts, and The Re-Writing of History

On May 13th 1983 The Smiths released their debut single Hand in Glove. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the BBC produced a Culture Show special Not Like Any Other Love which explored the band’s impact and the culture they grew out of/reacted against. You can watch it here, if you like:

It’s about average as these things go: presenter Tim Samuels nods while a bunch of talking heads (including the omnipresent Stuart Maconie, obviously) explain how The Smiths were a life-changing band, how they exploded out of nowhere, how rubbish everything was until they arrived, etc, etc. Maconie himself inadvertently tips off the viewer when he says “There’s a lot of romantic guff talked about rock ‘n’ roll, but…” This is the pop-culture documentary equivalent of “I’m not a racist, but…” and whenever you hear it you can be pretty sure of what’s coming next.

Anyway, the program left me entertained but uneasy. Entertained because (for once) I was in on The Smiths from the very start. As an eighteen year-old, I heard the first play of Hand in Glove on the John Peel show, bought it and immediately started boring anyone who’d listen about this great new band I’d discovered. I never wore a hearing aid or had gladioli sticking out of my back pocket, but I think it’s safe to say that I was a fan. So it was nice to wallow in a nostalgic mud bath for half an hour.

But that’s where the uneasiness comes in. The BBC produces these commemorative documentaries on a kind of treadmill and they all start from the same basic assumption: if you’re now in your forties then whatever was going on twenty-five or thirty years ago was Culturally Significant. Five years ago it was Punk. Today it’s The Smiths. In five years’ time it’ll be Johnny Hates Jazz. It’s a sort of temporal cultural relativism where “impact” is defined by the age of the target audience rather than an honest assessment of what actually happened. The end result is a relentless parade of middle-aged fan-boys (and girls) shouting “That was the most important thing EVER!”

And because these programs are made on a Fordian production-line basis, each story has to be molded to fit the same template: things were really dull, X came along, everything changed. So even if the group being profiled actually was culturally significant their history tends to be warped by the demands of a predetermined narrative arc.

And so it was that we had Samuels blithely informing us that in the early 80s the charts were really dire. To prove this, we were “treated” to a brief clip of Bucks Fizz-wannabes, Bardo, performing their 1982 UK Eurovision entry One Step Further (it came 7th in the contest and was only denied a number one chart spot by the combined might of Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder – thanks, fellas). Now, there’s no denying that One Step Further was a pretty forgettable piece of nonsense, but it hardly defined the music of its era, and I found myself muttering “Hang on! They’re pretending The Smiths were The Sex Pistols!”

You see, I remember the charts of the early 80s, but I also remember the charts of the mid 70s. And if it’s soul-crushing dreariness you’re after there’s really no contest. To make sure I wasn’t deluding myself, I looked up the Top 40 for May 14 1983 (the day after Hand in Glove “changed everything”). You can see it here: I then compared it with the chart from the same week in 1976 (round about when The Sex Pistols were playing their early gigs). Read it if you dare: Then, in a highly rigorous, scientific experiment, I picked the songs from each chart that wouldn’t make me smash up the radio if they were played today.

The 1983 Top 40 confirmed my recollection that, far from being appalling, the charts of the early 80s were actually relatively decent. 1983 probably wasn’t as strong as 1980 or 1981 had been, but still there were eleven entries that fell into the “bearable” category. They were by Human League, Heaven 17, Tears for Fears, Fun Boy Three, Blancmange, David Bowie, Eurythmics, New Order, Creatures, Pink Floyd and Bob Marley and the Wailers. I was probably being a bit generous with Pink Floyd, but even so that seems a decent haul to me.

Then I turned to the 1976 chart. Hell rose up to greet me. Just reading the song titles made me whimper “Mummy, mummy! Make them stop!” In the end I managed three picks – and one of those was the reissue of Hey Jude which for some reason was hanging around at number 33. The others… No. It was too awful. I don’t want to remember it any more.

I hope I’ve proved my point. The truth is that The Smiths didn’t save pop music from a cesspool of mediocrity. They were an interesting band who secured a small but obsessively loyal following. They never charted higher than 10 (so Bardo have them beat in that regard) but they were undeniably influential. At the time they seemed like a breath of fresh air – stirring things up, just as the New Wave/Post-Punk movement threatened to go stale. But in hindsight it’s probably fairer to say they were the beginning of the end so far as indie music was concerned. After The Smiths it was all sensitive haircuts and twee songs about girlfriend trouble. Until Madchester, that is. Hang on, I’ve got an idea. Does anyone have Stuart Maconie’s phone number?


Campaign for World Domination: Progress Report

Some time in the early hours of this morning, the “page views” counter of my Wittgenstein blog clicked over into five figures.

PI views total

Small beer compared to many, I know, but I’m still surprised and pleased that an amateur blog on such an esoteric subject could attract a steady stream of hits from all over the world. And of course like anyone who runs a blog for more than two days I’m completely obsessed by my stats page and what it might or might not show me. Here, for example is the info on where my readers come from:

PI views per country

Ah, I love that map! It turns blog writing into a sort of game of intellectual Risk: once I’ve turned the entire atlas dark green then the whole world will be mine! MINE! (Except that I can’t, of course; Blogspot stats only show you the top ten entries, so my small but hugely satisfying hits from China, Pakistan and Kenya are hidden from view.) But ego-massaging aside, what does the map say about the global state of interest in Wittgenstein and philosophy more generally?

Well, the most obviously striking feature is the thumping dominance of the United States. I mean, you might expect them to be top given that a) my blog is written in English and b) US  philosophy seems to have a strong emphasis on what’s known as “analytic philosophy” (the area in which Wittgenstein worked). But 41%! That’s huge!

The next two on the list are no great surprise, either. Wittgenstein spent most of his professional life teaching at Cambridge and his work still features strongly in UK philosophy courses. On the other hand, he was from Austria and wrote in German, which I assume would help boost his popularity in German-speaking countries – and Germany was a German-speaking country last time I checked.

I must admit, however, that it intrigues me to see Russia in fourth spot. I have no idea what the philosophical climate is like there – has it changed since the break up of the Soviet Union? Is philosophy a thriving discipline, and if so what sort of philosophy is considered “hot” at the moment? Whatever the answers, there certainly seems to be a significant (I’d say “surprising”) level of interest in Wittgenstein. In fact, things are made even more intriguing when you realise that it was only after a year of so of writing the blog that Russia started to show up at all. Before that: zip. So they’re reached fourth spot despite giving the western world a twelve-month head-start. Does that say something about growing internet penetration in the country? Or an increase in the level of Russians who speak English? Or are those five hundred-odd hits all accounted for by a few obsessives who return to the site more often than is healthy? It’s perhaps worth noting in this context that India is another nation that’s made the top ten despite being completely absent for the first year of the site’s existence. They, like Russia, are a growing economic power in the world. Is that a coincidence?

The other surprising feature is the poor showing by France. Like Germany and the UK (and unlike, say, Spain or Italy) France has a long and venerable tradition of philosophical inquiry. And yet they languish in sixth spot and are only ahead of Latvia (Latvia!) on alphabetical order. If I had to guess I’d suggest this reflects the so-called “continental/analytic” divide – basically, two different approaches to philosophy which started to go their own way in the 19th century, with France most strongly representing the continental approach and Britain and the US championing the analytic side of things. To give an indication of how deep the divide was, I graduated in 1988 and my philosophy degree contained not a single lecture on Hegel, Nietzsche, Satre or Derrida. Not one. Since then things have supposedly improved, and many philosophers make bold claims about how the whole issue has been consigned to history. Certainly, when I was Warwick Uni in 2003 they paid much more attention to continental philosophy. All the same, my blog stats suggest the divide has not entirely disappeared.

Finally, for the tekkies out there, here are my browser stats.

PI views per browser

Is Firefox catching up with IE, or is it just that philosophers prefer it? I wouldn’t know – I’m a Chrome man myself.

Oh, btw, you can read the Wittgenstein blog at

Thoughts on The Brothers Karamazov

What am I to make of this beast of a book? This cluttered, passionate, awkward, ironic, heartfelt, clumsy, questioning, fever-dream of a novel?

Well, for a start it clearly deserves its reputation as one of the great works of European fiction. And this is true despite the fact that, viewed as a stand-alone work, it is dramatically unsatisfying and patchy.  Of the three brothers, Alyosha is introduced as the novel’s “hero”, yet after the first third he fades to an occasional onlooker.  Ivan is given two tremendous set-pieces (“The Grand Inquisitor” and his discussion with the Devil) but not much else.  And even Dimitri’s story, which takes up the bulk of the book, is left frustratingly unresolved.

The reason, of course, is that Dostoyevsky intended the book to be merely the first part of an epic series. He died before he could write the rest of the story (The Karamazov Brothers was completed just a few months before his death) and so, of course, what we have is necessarily fragmentary. The interesting thing is that in the final analysis this doesn’t really matter too much. In fact it is curiously appropriate. The inconclusive ending complements the disturbing instability which lies at the heart of The Karamazov Brothers; just when you think you have oriented yourself the ground shifts beneath your feet. Over and over again characters suddenly change, and it’s difficult to tell whether they are revealing their true selves, getting carried away by a momentary enthusiasm, being self-deluded, or just outright lying.

True, the narrator often steers us in a particular direction but he’s usually careful to leave the options tantalisingly open. And, in any case, the book’s instability encompasses the narrator himself. After all, who the hell is he? He is “within” the novel insofar as he identifies himself as a resident of the (fictional) town where Fyodor Karamazov lives. Sometimes he’s at pains to point out the documentary, incomplete or first-hand origins of what he’s presenting (eg, Father Zosima’s final speech and the account of Dimitri’s trial) but elsewhere he recounts with god-like authority events he couldn’t have possibly observed or even heard about (in other words, he writes like a traditional “omniscient” author). At one point (sorry, I forget where) he explicitly refers to his book as a “novel” even though it’s mostly written as if it was a factual account of real events. Is this inconsistency mere clumsiness on Dostoyevsky’s part or is he quietly undermining our faith in the ability of the novelist to reveal the truth about the human condition?

I can’t be sure but I tend towards the latter interpretation because one of the book’s most striking themes (it seems to me) is the elusiveness of humanity. We are enigmatic, strangers not only to others but also to ourselves. Sure, most of the time our behaviour runs along relatively predictable lines but we have something within us (what?) which might at any moment confound our expectations. Is this a nothingness, an abyss where the soul should be, or is it a well-spring of unifying transcendence – something which, for better or for worse, unites us and rises us above the humdrum circumstances of everyday life?

I think the novel leans towards this latter, mystical viewpoint. In fact it’s directly connected to the book’s central contention that we are all guilty of each other’s sins. But even if that’s right Dostoyevsky never gives himself (or us) an easy ride. The elusiveness of humanity can just as easily result in unexpected baseness as sudden piety. A minor but significant example. The book ends with Ilyusha’s funeral. Afterwards the dead boy’s school friends try to help his grief-stricken father who is close to madness. The boys themselves are in tears, overwhelmed by the occasion. One lad, Smurov, is trying to return the father’s hat which he’s discarded despite the freezing weather. And in the middle of it all we get this:

            “Smurov, although weeping uncontrollably and still holding the hat, managed nevertheless, practically without pausing, to pick up a piece of brick that appeared as a red object on the snowy path and threw it at a flock of sparrows that was flying past quickly. He missed, of course, and ran on crying.”

If you ever want to give an example of Dostoyevsky’s disturbing brilliance you could do a lot worse than that.


The Truth About Tony Ben

Review: “The Case for God, What Religion Really Means” by Karen Armstrong

Don’t be fooled by the title; this is not some trite attempt to prove that God exists or that religion is a great thing. Instead, it’s a tremendous, sweeping yet detailed account of the changing conception of religion from the dawn of humanity to the present day. Along the way, Armstrong stresses several themes.

For millennia religion was not seen primarily as a series of propositions to which one was required to assent (“God exists”, etc). Instead, it was a commitment to a particular way of living. At its heart lay a sense of ineffable divinity – an ultimate transcendence that was beyond understanding, beyond words, beyond even such concepts as existence or omnipotence. This ultimate transcendence was called “God” in the monotheistic religions. Although beyond knowing, some degree of contact with divinity was possible through ritual, symbolism and a variety of meditative practices (not just straightforward meditation as in Buddhism, but also theological reflection, philosophy or even the constant practice of humility and generosity). Contact with the ineffable helped people rise above worldly suffering and adopt a more compassionate way of life; it enabled them to become human in a fuller, richer sense.

By around 15000 CE, however, this ancient conception of religion was starting to be overtaken by a new way of seeing things. An increased faith in the power of reason alone to solve all problems helped “literalise” religion. Slowly “belief” changed from a commitment to a way of living to a series of unproven statements to which one assented. Along the way the notion of God changed: he became knowable, describable – a being in the world. Such a notion would’ve been considered idolatrous by older religious figures such as Thomas Aquinas. It made God athing.

This new notion of religion, divorced as it was from communal practices which had previously been its life-blood, was vulnerable to attack. As a mere series of statements it could seem unconvincing or even ridiculous. This vulnerability was only increased by religion’s attempt to co-opt science as a means of making it more respectable. But as science became increasingly able to describe the natural world without any need for a god (conceived as a super-being that created and sustained the laws of nature)the attempt justification through “natural theology” seemed horribly flawed.

The older sense of an ineffable transcendence has never entirely gone away, however. Armstrong argues that it is a mark of the human condition and as such can emerge in some unlikely places – modern physics, for example. She ends by wondering if the naturalistic turn in religion hasn’t now run its course. Perhaps it is time to reincorporate unknowing into our approach to the divine.

This is the third of Armstrong’s books that I’ve read (“The History of God” and “The Battle for God” being the other two). I’d say it was comfortably the best of the three and also, perhaps, the most important.


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