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This Will Be All Done – Russell Brand and Nihilism

First Disclaimer: this was written before The Trews and before everybody else got wind of his revolution. I’m not interested in discussing the Russell Brand we see today in 2015, for good or ill. I still love him, but it’s a love based on the old radio shows, on which this essay is focused.

Second Disclaimer: where possible I’ve tried to suppress my urge to plant appropriate references that only the hardcore fan would recognise. Sometimes however, this is not possible. My language may seem different to usual; that’s normally one of said references, or similarly me adopting one of ol’Russ’ distinctive turns of phrase. Hopefully the post can be read by all, but there should be a few more chuckles in there for my fellow members of the Matt Morgan Appreciation Society.

Before the whole Sachsgate hoopla back in 2008, Russell Brand used to (co-)host a radio show on BBC Radio 2, and before that on BBC 6Music (and before that on XFM but I don’t have access to those shows). It was a weekly meandering through the mind of a former drug addict with an outrageous wit and childlike insecurities.

Alongside him was his oaf of a sidekick, everyman’s Matt Morgan: a snivelling wretch with a silly Dartford voice and a penchant for embarrassing himself in trivial yet memorable fashion. In the 6Music days they were also joined by small-faced, walking dog’s bed Trevor “Cocky Locky” Lock. As far back as I can remember they’ve also had resident poet Mr Gee on board each week, who would write and recite a poem (virtually) from scratch based on the show’s events (all on the mic!). His poetry would gain more prominence, and improvisation, as the shows went on and he became an integral part of the team. Regular guest contributors included roving reporter and wrinkly rocker Noel Gallagher; monkey-botherer and melon-untwister Paul McKenna; and later the other half of the rather niche genre of foppish goth comics, Noel Fielding.

But I haven’t come here today to give you a (BORING!) run-down of the show’s logistics. The thing that concerns me is the underlying philosophy (to crudely use that grandiose word) of the show. Read the rest of this entry »

Je soutiens: On Contemplating our Blindness and Wretchedness

On contemplating our blindness and wretchedness, and on observing the whole of the silent universe, and humanity with no light abandoned to itself, lost in this nook of the universe not knowing who put us there, what we have come to achieve, what will become of us when we die, incapable of all knowledge, I become frightened, like someone taken in his sleep to a terrifying, deserted island who wakes up with no knowledge of what has happened, nor means of escape

So wrote Blaise Pascal in his famous Pensées (1669). His analogy here is with existence, and the quest for meaning in life, and this image of being stranded on a desert island without answers is one which led him to frustration and fear, but which sent Montaigne down the path of relaxed scepticism. Here we have two contrasting responses to the same timeless mystery. Read the rest of this entry »

Red Dwarf and the Meaning of Life

English sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf is one of the finest examples of existential comedy I think I’ve ever seen. It deals so elegantly in matters of free will and determinism, time travel, the idea and pursuit of happiness, and any number of philosophical and mythological conundra. But what shines through mostly is the quest for meaning in life.

Marooned 3 million years away from Earth following a nuclear explosion is an on-board crew of Lister, the last man alive who was safely sealed in Stasis as punishment for keeping a cat on the ship; Rimmer, a hologramatic projection of his former bunkmate; the Cat, a lifeform evolved from Lister’s pet cat Frankenstein; and Kryten, a service mechanoid rescued from the Nova 5. Steering them and ostensibly aiding them on their journey is the on-board computer, Holly, who after 3 million years on his own has lost a little of his former 6,000 IQ points and is now to all intents and purposes computer senile. Between them they do all the usual sci-fi things, getting into scrapes and dealing with cosmic phenomena, on their way to finding a way home, but underpinning the whole thing are some beautiful forays into the meaning of existence – and in many ways the lack of it. It’s universe is one which is unequivocally without a god or benign being, and without even alien life forms: any creature that they encounter is something developed and/or mutated from Earth, millenia ago sent out into deep space. Read the rest of this entry »

Does consciousness pose a particularly ‘hard’ problem?

Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings

– John Keats

David Chalmers, in Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness (1995) begins by differentiating between two types of consciousness problem: the ‘easy’ problems, and the ‘hard’ problem. The easy problems in this instance refer to those which can be investigated and explained on functional, neurophysiological bases. For example, if we want to explain a specific process such as the focus of attention, we can (relatively) easily formulate a detailed description of how this is achieved: an appropriate cognitive or neurophysiological model can clearly do the explanatory work (Chalmers, 1995). The ‘hard’ problem however is subjective experience: we cannot explain what it is like to experience something, or indeed to be something (Chalmers, 1995). In Nagel’s famous example, it is beyond our imagination of what it is like to be a bat (Nagel, 1974). Although we might have a thorough account of its functions and mechanisms, of its behaviour and environment, the very essence of what it is like to be a bat is not something we can imagine. Even understanding what the sensation of having echolocation, for example, is impossible, and this is what Chalmers calls the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness. The qualia of echolocation are much like our sensation of ‘red’. It is ineffable, and accessible only to us. A well-known thought experiment has arisen to illustrate this differentiation, often known as ‘Mary the Neuroscientist’ (Jackson, 1982). Here Mary is a scientist forced to investigate the world from a black-and-white room, in which she learns everything there is to know about the perception of colour: the wavelength combinations, how the eye and brain respond to colour etc. She has solved the easy problems through functional reasoning and investigation. However, at no point is she exposed to the colours themselves. Upon leaving the lab, it is asserted that Mary will learn new information about colour simply by perceiving it directly. It is this ineffable information within the subjective experience which signals the hard problem of subjective experience.

It is my view that consciousness does NOT pose a particularly hard problem, but is rather an illusory synthesis of all of its constituent easy parts; and the sensation of consciousness is created post hoc, leading to a fallible consciousness, prone to change blindness and the illusion of free will of both thought and action – all of which will be expanded upon later. By first of all illustrating how imperfect the consciousness is, we can then begin to understand the possibility of the task of explaining it. For the time being however, it is undoubtedly problematic to some extent, since we do not know the process by which these constituent parts synthesise (if at all), in terms of creating subjective experience. However, this is not beyond the scope of human imagination. Nevertheless, there is – to our minds at least – a synthesis, and there is some experience of subjectivity and conscious experience, and as such Chalmers’ views must be considered with reference to other like-minded thinkers. Read the rest of this entry »

Distractions from the Ultimate Inevitability: another post on death and acceptance

I hate to keep banging this, by now quite battered, drum but we are going to die some day.

Somebody for whom I had a great deal of affection and was something of an honorary aunt of mine died last week and, as always in these situations, I thought of my own mortality. That night I had perhaps the most startlingly real realisation of my young life that I would actually die some day.

Incidentally, with every key press I make with one finger, I’m having to suppress the urge of another three fingers from hitting the backspace key. I’m very aware that I’m giving you very little insight when I talk about these feelings, but what is most fascinating is how people respond to this self-evident fact. It has conjured up the most outrageous ideas, distractions, confabulations and counterintuitive notions, from religions to fandoms to New Age quackery. Anything to take our minds off that which is so fundamental and yet so inconceivable. Read the rest of this entry »

Heaven and reason, or Thoughts of a Dying Atheist

Sometimes I wish heaven was real.

For all its flaws, The Invention of Lying did give us an incredibly moving scene. With his mother about to die and lamenting the eternity of nothingness that awaited her, Mark Bellison begins to realise that his (heretofore unheard of) ability to lie can be used for good. Instead of letting her die in such a sad state, he tells her that everything is going to be fine; she will go to a place where she will see all of her old friends, where everybody gets a mansion and there is no such thing as pain. Her dying thoughts are of absolute joy. What a gift.

For those who’ve seen it, you’ll probably agree that the film kind of goes off the rails a little bit here with too many contrivances and shoe-horned messages (which I endorse but not in such a forced way). Nonetheless it shows us a portal into the inherent problem of facing non-existence. Read the rest of this entry »

Is this a cliche I see before me? Your classic existential crisis

I’m going to die.

I’m scared of death.

I feel like I’m getting as close to understanding that as I ever will. But of course that’s nonsense. I’m 22, in good health, and in no immediate danger. Most likely estimates would say that I have another 50 years to go at least. But then, in fifty years will I really feel this scared of death? Will it by its very proximity make it scarier, or easier to contemplate? I have young person’s solipsism: I have my entire life ahead of me, and an ocean of potential, so anything less than fulfilment isn’t good enough. Maybe that’s why I fear death. The loss of opportunity, the death of chance and possibility and experience. Read the rest of this entry »

A coherent self?

In our lives, everything we ever read is something which has been thought over, which has been crafted, which has by and large gone through several versions before it meets our eye. When we speak to others, even the most mumbly confused of people, we get some semblance of thought, of some whole, some self. Even when we in turn write something down or speak to another person, somehow something happens where, as if from a galaxy of disparate sources, an actual idea forms. We don’t run these things through meticulously before we speak. At least I don’t. Tell me you don’t either. As the man said, how can I tell you what I think until I’ve heard what I have to say?

The effect that this has on our sense of self is quite profound. It makes us think that the self is real, that it is something within and amongst us and which is the essential whole, such as that speaking to you now. This is of course nonsense. A person is only a sum of their actions, and the self a crude collage of thoughts, responses and learned behaviours. It’s not something we like to hear, but it might just be the truest theory we have for now. Read the rest of this entry »

The blog

This blog will be very occasional thoughts on the nature of consciousness, life, death, god, the self, the mind, all that sort of stuff. They’ll most certainly be as incoherent as my sporadic ideas and be filled with all kinds of vulgar naiveties.

Please feel free to dip in and out as you like, you might find something that interests you.