Thursday, 27 October 2011

Struggles with Epiphenomenalism

As regular reader's of my alter-ego's Facebook page may already be aware I have been obsessing about epiphenomenalism for the last two days. Broadly speaking this is the theory in Philosophy of Mind that mental activity (beliefs, desires, intentions, etc.) are caused by physical activity of the brain and that mental events do not cause physical events whilst appearing to do precisely that.


When Samuel Johnson first heard of George Berkeley's perfectly reasonable yet totally ridiculous theory that there are only mental phenomena and what we think of as the Universe of matter is not there when unobserved, he said "I refute it thus" and kicked a stone.  Obviously, that was no kind of refutation at all - as everything he could know about the stone (from the sensation of his foot's impact to the sight of its trajectory to the sound of its thudding into a pile of discarded dictionary manuscripts) would have come to him through his senses and therefore be mental phenomena.

I'm a bit of a fan of Berkeley because he is the battiest of the British Empiricists.  An Idealist in the original sense of the word - he believed the world was made up only of minds and their ideas.  Clearly, an altogether more beautiful theory than the ugly epiphenomenalist viewpoint of mind as a sort of fluff to the brain's bellybutton.  Clearly also batshit crazy.  We can't have a Universe which only exists when bits of itself are watching it.  In fairness, Berkeley was aware of this problem and adopted the tactic favoured by most early modern philosophers of wheeling on God at the last minute. I don't want to get sidetracked into theology, but basically if you ever find yourself in the 17th Century and there is a massive flaw in your philosophical argument, just say "God does that bit" and everybody will nod sagely and probably make you a bishop or something. 

So, reluctantly, I reject Idealism on these grounds.  But I cannot embrace epiphenomenalism because it goes against the very grain of human experience. It is my intention to write 1000 words a day that leads to me (very occasionally) doing so.  My brain isn't just telling my fingers to type words and at the same time causing me to think that I had intentions to type them.  Or is it?  If epiphemomenalism is true then we lose Free Will and I rather like my will being free.  I like willing myself to freely stay in bed for instance.  And there are countless other examples of free things I willingly do - like nap and procrastinate.  Actually they are bad examples because they are the sort of things that a brain can get on and do without the mind getting involved and insisting on some Free Will action.

How would an epiphenomenalist account for this?

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

On Nomenclature

All of a sudden, I have a niece.  After nine months discussion, the parents have decided to call her Molly Rose.  A beautiful name which is also a complete sentence.  Molly rose.  I was thinking a lot about the process of naming and made up (or possibly remembered) this riddle:

What is the only thing that has ever named itself?

Answers in the comments please.  A small prize may be awarded.

The only living thing I have ever had to name is my cactus 'Spike' (left beside a nameless wooden chicken).  I've named a few lifeless things: characters in stories, and poems and blogposts.I am particularly bad at naming poems. I used to have a tendency to be super tangential or a touch grandiose.  Examples from my earliest journal that is still extant include: "One point zero times ten to the power of three." (Actually quite a sweet ditty about unrequited love for a classmate.) Or (I kid you not) "Teenage rebellion, the great social rebellion and the establishment of the socialist church." I like to think I had the same concerns as any other 14 year old.

These days, of course, I frequently don't bother naming them at all.  But seeing as today's theme is nomenclature, I think I'll call this one "The Island and the City":

The Island and the City

The woman in the shadows 
Drags her childhood from the light,
Darkness masks the scars 
Of lovers parting out of sight.
Sunset on the city walls,
The island calls again.
Hampered by near blindness, 
Told to pause and count to ten.
The island or the city?
Choose the pavement or the beach.
The streetlights make the pebbles 
Seem much further out of reach.
Chained to smoke-free chimney stacks
And aching for a key,
She bends her ear to seashells, 
Hears the whispering of the sea.
Echoes from the decades past
Are drowning out the waves.
All her childhood fantasies
Of coracles and caves
Are fogged up by the city smog
And rumbling traffic noise.
Can't she hear that dream-whipped 
Lonely child's pleading voice
Crying in the darkness: 
"Give the island one more chance,
I lived and loved a lifetime 
Where you learned to play and dance.
Buccaneers and smugglers 
Beckon wreckers to the shore.
There's treasure to be found
And secret tunnels to explore!"
The city or the island? 
Choose the crowds or solitude.
But it's a false dichotomy 
Her judgement has been skewed
In favour of the city lights 
By habit death and debt.
The island lives in dreams 
And secret moments of regret.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

On the origins of Finnginn

The blogosphere has been abuzz with discussion about why I post under the pseudonym Finnginn. The truth of the matter has nothing to do with Michael Fassbanger (sic)'s upcoming role in Jane Eyre and I'm not sure that Finnginn even rhymes with St John which (in the Westcountry, at least) is usually pronounced "sinjun".

Finnginn (or sometimes Fiengins) was the name of the imaginary friend I had from around the time I learned to talk to around the time I started school and made an actual friend.  And let me tell you, ubilol, "cutesy and asinine" he was not.  In just the few of his many adventures that I can still recall - he fought valiantly against armies of troll-like bullies, survived some kind of torture machine that looked a lot like Bertha (only scarier) and crossed a tentacle infested marshland based loosely on the bathroom floor of my first house.  A hero, a Beowulf, a Jungian archetype fully formed in the imagination of a pre-schooler.  What better service could I pay his memory than name a blog about procrastination after him.  

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Wordcount: zero

So what if I spent the afternoon sitting in Jo's cafe munching raw cacao nibs, drinking hot chili and lime cordial and having a discussion with a man who claimed yew berries were not poisonous provided you spit out the pips.  It just goes to show that you cannot just conjure up productivity by claiming on one day that you will do something productive on the following day.  I suppose this blog is pretty much a testament to that...

Still there are two hours to go before six o'clock (the time on a day off that I allow myself an alcoholic drink) maybe I could conceivably at least edit something that I have already written.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Poetry and Procrastination and Parenthesis

Somehow, I still manage to delude myself that I am a 1000 words a day kind of writer.  It just so happens that on all bar, say, two days in the last 5 years something has come up that is so important that I have not quite managed to hit that target (or turn on my computer).  Well, all that's about to change.  For I intend, tomorrow (obviously we don't want to rush these things), to open my laptop and (after the swiftest of glances at Facebook and Reddit and maybe a quick game of chess and another quick glance at Facebook and then a look to see if the uber-prolific the ubiquitous lol has dashed off another perfectly crafted post) attempt to write 1000 words in a single day like all those proper writers seem to manage effortlessly before breakfast.

In the meantime, here's another titleless poem I made up.  This one is even more divorced from true events than usual - although I did once drunkenly flip a coin in a train station but that was to decide whether to go to Portsmouth or France.  Fortunately, I wound up in Portsmouth (a sentiment you don't often hear) as I had to get back for work the next day.

The graveyard wall
The oak tree stump
The iron bench
The sofa in your basement flat
Each place we sat
And mourned the minds
That have no time
To sit and watch the shadows pass
Across the floor
From 12 midday til 4am
We mourned for them
The busy folk
Our working friends
Who had no time
To sit and watch the shadows pass
While smoke-rings burst
Like memories
And form again
From 12 midday til 4am

Your double bed
The Futon in
Your basement flat
The chesiled beach beyond West Bay
Each place we lay
And pitied those
Who are awake 
To hear the Sunday churchbells ring
The faithful pray
We slumber on in half embrace
And pity those
Religious folk
Our pious friends
Who must awake
To hear the Sunday churchbells ring
While we still dream
Our godless dreams
And half-asleep
I kiss your neck you grip my hand

We left your flat 
And sheltered from
The rain beneath
The number eighteen bus stop hood
Each place we stood
We angered those
Who made the choice
To sacrifice those carefree days
For recompense
In promises of golden coin
We angered them
The money-rich
Our wealthy friends
Who made the choice
To sacrifice those carefree days
And how we thought
They envied us
Our midday starts
And godless dreams before the night

Before the night
The landlord sent
The letter to 
Evict you from your basement flat
Where once we sat
And laughed at those
Who charged us rent
To sit and watch the shadows pass
Across the floor
From 12 midday til 4am
We laughed at them
The plutocrats
The money men
And paid no rent
To sit and watch the smoke-rings burst
Like memories
The bailiffs came
But we had gone
To sit upon our graveyard wall

For one last time
Our oak tree stump
Our iron bench
You kissed my neck I gripped your hand
And walked you to
The station where
You flipped a coin
To choose between your home and me
And your home won

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Trip

“I feel sick, unsteady-like, honestly Viv I think I’m going to throw up." 

“Just go for it. Let it out. I remember this shit from those anthropology textbooks Jessie used to leave lying around. In a lot of places, tribes see vomiting as purging yourself of demons so that you can see the world as it truly is.”

            “You believe that?”

            “No – all drugs impair the brain in some way. Hallucinogenics especially tend to shut down some of your mental filters – allow areas of your mind to which you normally pay little attention to dominate. I don’t know how strong this brew Felix made is, but be prepared for memories and fantasies to seem more real than what’s around you. A little taste of madness, but it’s only a drug and it’s only temporary. Remember I’m here, I’ll try to ground you in reality wherever possible.”

             “I am going to throw up.” Michael steadied himself against a young oak tree as his stomach added its contents to the floor of leaves and mossy roots.


             “Hardly. Should I be feeling any effect yet?”

             “Maybe a few visuals. Here.” Viv lit his lighter and moved it in a slow circle. “Did that leave any trail?”

             “Yeah,” said Michael, starting to giggle. “Give me a go.”

             “Not likely – you’ll burn the bloody forest down.” Suddenly, to Michael, this seemed like the funniest thing he had ever heard. His laughter echoed round the forest and he had to sit down. Tears blinded his eyes as he howled. Viv joined his friend on the ground, “You know what? This might not be so bad.”

            Michael managed to bring himself back from the brink of paroxysm. “Do you feel anything yet?” he asked Viv.

           “Oh yeah. Something’s kicking in alright.”

           “You seem so normal.”

           “I’m trying to stay grounded – it’s easier if you are in control from the start.”

          “Teach me.”

He was alone in the woods. Someone was supposed to be with him. No, he was supposed to be looking for someone. He’d come a long way to find… Neibh. Was she here? ‘I’m always here.’ Where? ‘Right here.’ He needed her. He had waited too long and then he had travelled so far and now just when he thought that he had lost everyone she was here but he couldn’t see her. ‘I love you.’ He loved her too. He wondered where she had gone. It was so dark deeper in the forest. She could be right next to him.

“Try and think of something you can hold on too, a thought you can return to if things get scary.”


“Yeah, but make it a specific memory. If you just think about Neibh in general you might start fantasising. The next thing you’ll convince yourself she’s up some tree and you’ll fall and break your neck trying to reach her.”

“Okay – camping on the beach at Cromer.”

“Perfect, go there now. Get everything in mind, the smell of the seaweed, the warmth of the sand and whatever. Feel secure. Feel safe. Feel Neibh’s arms around you. Sit still and comfortable. Okay. Now if you get lost, if we get separated for whatever reason, sit down in this position and go back to the beach at Cromer with Neibh. I’ll find you.”

Michael was pinned to the ground. He could see Viv’s face above his own. Viv was holding him down. Why? There was something wrong with Viv’s face. The flesh was too white – like bone now in the moonlight. When had the moon risen? For that matter, when had the sun set? He looked up at the white hands pinning his arms to the damp floor. Bony hands. Skeleton hands. What had happened to Viv? Viv was supposed to be protecting him. Wasn’t he supposed to be the ground or something? Viv’s mouth was moving, but what was coming out didn’t sound like language any more. It was as if he was possessed. With a lunge, Michael threw all his bodyweight forward and heaved the hideous skeletal body off him. Thus freed, he ran off deeper into the woods.

“Can you see that?”


“That leaf.”

“We’re in a forest, Michael.”

“I know but…”

“Come on, keep walking. If we can get on to higher clearer ground, I’ll be able to show you something a bit more spectacular than a leaf.”

“I doubt it.”


“I mean, have you ever considered, really considered just exactly what it is a leaf does.”


“Well, it’s not just about the photosynthesis and all, it’s also beautiful. Like a tree in microcosm. Like the whole tree, the trunk, the branches, the twigs, are represented in the stem and veins of this single leaf.”

“Yes very good, very chaos theory. Now, come on.”

“I think it’s beautiful.”

“Michael. Put the leaf down now.”

You’re just in my head, aren’t you?’

What difference does that make?’

I thought it was really you. I thought I’d found you.’

You will.’

You don’t know that. You’re just me and I’m mad.’ But only temporarily, he thought. Someone had told him that. Viv, where was Viv? He was real. Viv would help him.

“Now wasn’t that worth it?”

“My god!” Michael and Viv had arrived at a clearing at the top of a steep incline. They stood gazing at the sunset. “All those colours, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so… vivid!”

“I thought you’d appreciate it.”

“I never knew it could be so beautiful.” Michael reached out for his friend’s hand. Viv clasped it gently. “This may sound ridiculous, but I think I’m going to cry.”

“Go ahead. I’m going to make a fire.”

“I’m not cold.”

“I know but it will be dark soon and, in this state of mind, the old primeval fears can come out.”

“What do you mean?”

“The caveman fear. The fear of the unknown. The monsters in your head come out after dark. Stay there and watch the sunset.”

I think you’ve lost your way, Michael,’ his lover said. ‘You were coming to find me, remember?’

And look what happened. I put our friends in danger. I've lost Viv. He might have driven back for all I know. I should never have let him drive. God knows what happened to Felix. But I found this place. We can be safe here. I won’t put them at risk again.’ They were sat side by side on a tree trunk, his hand clasping hers for the first time in months. ‘I need you.’

You’re strong enough, you always have been. You shouldn’t doubt yourself.’

I’m not.’

You can’t hide here.’

I’m not hiding.’

Why are you tripping in the woods?’

You’re here.’

Oh Michael, haven’t you worked it out yet?’ As he leaned forward to receive her kiss, he remembered.

Viv was right. The wood was a different place after dark. Every cricket call and branch creak took on a new and menacing meaning. A moth fluttering into Michael’s face elicited from him a scream that brought Viv running back to the hilltop clearing. Michael heard this as a crashing through the woods and ran into the darkness. Shit, thought Viv as he chased after him, rugby-tackling him before he managed to get too far away. Michael’s arms flailed at him and Viv was forced to pin them to the ground.

“Calm down, Michael, remember what I told you. It’s just the darkness. But you are in control.” But Michael’s eyes were wide with terror and he did not seem to understand a word his friend was saying.

It’s just the brew and it’s only temporary, he told himself. What was Viv’s advice? Think of Neibh, camping on the beach at Cromer. He shut his eyes, shut out the dark wood, focused on the swirling colours behind his eyelids and took himself back to the beach. A pleasant weekend of beach walks and pier-fishing that might have been a thousand years ago for all that had changed. He re-lived every moment he could remember. And when that was over, he did it again.

Viv found Michael soon after sunrise. He had not run far. He was asleep – his head rested on the lumpy roots of an ash tree.

“How do you feel?” he shook his friend gently.

“Cold, tingly. Where have you been?”

“Physically, I’ve been sat by the fire I lit. Mentally, I’ve been on quite a journey.”

“Me too.”

“Want to talk about it?”

“I spoke to Neibh.”

“You know that wasn’t real, right?”

“Yeah, I know. But I think I spoke to her memory. Sort of inside me. Does that make any sense?”

“That depends. What did she have to say?”

“I can’t stay here with these folks. We have to move on.”

“She’s right.”

"I still didn't say goodbye."

"I know, bud."

"I'm not sure I want to yet."

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Norwich Village

I thought I would write a little about Norwich, as I went to a funeral of a local man, Bernie, yesterday and was touched by the turnout. The service was brief - three pop songs and a eulogy.  The wake was in a pub. People of all ages sitting around in the garden saying how 'lovely' the buffet was. (Sausage rolls, wotsits, quiche, and chicken legs).  I don't want to sound snobbish - I actually like all those things and went back for seconds. 'Bernie would have loved this,' everyone kept saying.  Maybe he would.  Even though he was dead, people kept buying pints of John Smiths and putting them beside a photograph of him.  

To me, Norwich is the people I share it with. Initially, the crowd I met at University, but gradually widening to include a more diverse group of individuals.  'Norwich Village' - the locals joke, but I like that feel to a place.  I would happily have stayed in Martinstown (the village in Dorset where I grew up) if all my friends hadn't left in search of work. 

Monday, 3 October 2011

Truth with a capital 'T'

I said in the previous post that I would talk a little about the nature of truth.  I consider myself an honest person, but I have a particular notion of truth.  Here is how I outlined it in a recent poem I wrote after being inspired by Charlie (the girl I am seeing, not the drug)

Pillow Talk

I said         "Babe, you're beautiful..."

And you said   "That's not true!" 

Then I thought "Babe, I think that you
                and I see Truth two different ways:
                You see Truth as a functional
                relation between a statement
                and the world-as-it-is
                (whatever that might mean).
                I see Truth as a functional
                relation between a statement
                and the set of beliefs
                I hold about the world.
                (And don't even get me started on 

But I said     "Well, I think you are," 

And the sentiment's the same.