Who, or what, caused Romeo’s death?

Much philosophical enquiry engages with the question of ‘free will’  by explicitly exploring how it can be defined. In the previous post, I provided one ill-considered definition. In this post, I am going to take another approach. Instead of attempting to find a suitable definition of free will, I will reference a situation in which an individual has made a choice concerning a specific thing. This will allow me to tackle certain questions *without* getting bogged down in a definition of ‘free will’. I will outline the situation, the choice, then ask who or what is responsible for that choice.

In this post I am exploring a line of argument. I am testing a thread to see if it can reveal anything. If it leads to something interesting then I will continue to develop it, and provide it with the appropriate context. Any challenging of the argument is welcomed.


Romeo: Is it even so? then I defy you, stars! 

The situation I will tackle is fictitious, but plausible. It comes from Shakepeare’s tragedy ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The sequence of events that I will reference starts when Romeo has just been informed that Juliet is dead, and ends with a choice: Romeo decides to end his life. Romeo’s ultimate response to his lover’s death is to drink some poison and bring about his death. This is the choice I will examine.


Romeo: Here’s to my love!  Drinks. O true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die. Dies

Of course, anyone who is familiar with the plot of Romeo and Juliet will know that Romeo’s suicide is indeed tragic because Juliet has, in fact, not died at all. And so his death can be described as a ‘poor’ choice or, perhaps more appropriately, a mistake.

The question I will try to address is this: Who, or what, caused Romeo’s death? 

Is Romeo’s death of his own doing? Is it a result of his own choices made within a difficult context? Is it a result of circumstances? Is it a pre-determined fact? Is it a result of Juliet’s actions?

Lets proceed slowly.

Romeo has decided to take his own life because he cannot bear to live without his love, Juliet. Lets start, then, by postulating that the cause of Romeo’s death is Juliet’s death. If Juliet had not died, Romeo would not have died. However! As we know, Juliet has not died at all. Thus if we suggest that the cause of Romeo’s death is Juliet’s death then we must correctly state that it is actually the idea of Juliet’s death.

thought_bubble_acrylic_cut_outs-r0d77a258c4ba4d12a5955e8bce893b12_x7saw_8byvr_324Here we can immediately conclude that ideas can be extremely powerful and that ideas need not be veridical, or true, to exercise that power. The fact that Juliet did not die very clearly shows that it is only an idea (that of Juliet’s death) that caused Romeo’s death. The fact that the idea is false does not detract from its power.

But the key and critical insight to be drawn here is far more radical.

If Juliet *had* really died, then it would still have been the idea of her death that caused Romeo’s death. The reasoning behind this insight is very simple; there is no clear distinction between an idea that happens to be true, and one that happens to be false. Shakespeare’s narrative very clearly demonstrates this fact.

In other words, it is the thought, or the idea, that creates the emotional pain, not the real physical fact. Any discrepancy between the mental image of what happened and what actually happened has no importance to what is felt. We can thus solidly conclude that it is not Juliet’s death that caused Romeo’s death, but rather the idea of it. This holds true whether or not Juliet’s death is fact or not.

The idea of Juliet’s death exists in Romeo’s head. So if we say that it is this idea that has caused Romeo’s death, then we might as well say that it is Romeo’s mind that has caused his death.

Now we start to get to the nab of it: did Romeo *create* that idea in his mind? Clearly no. It would be a highly un-desirable idea to create! Why would anyone, who has the ability to control the ideas in their head, create such an idea? It is Balthasar who introduced this idea by bringing the bad news to Romeo:


Balthasar watches Romeo’s despair after the idea of Juliet’s death has just been placed in Romeo’s head.

I saw her laid low in her kindred's vault,
And presently took post to tell it you:
O, pardon me for bringing these ill news,
Since you did leave it for my office, sir.

So Romeo did not create the idea that led him to take his life. It was provided to him, verbally, by another. Similarly, Balthasar also did not create this idea, because he learnt it from seeing Juliet appear dead. If this causal chain is traced backwards, then it must also follow that Juliet did not create this idea in Romeo’s head either, because her own actions would be subject to their own causes (ad infinitum).

The closest correct statement, following this line of reasoning, might be to say that the idea of Juliet’s death, in Romeo’s mind, was created by circumstance (or perhaps ‘the world’). This reasoning is more or less in line with the determinist theorem of free will.

However! Given the idea of Juliet’s death taking root in Romeo’s mind, he could have pursued one of many different possible courses of action other than taking his own life. The theory that Romeo might be able to choose exactly how to act, free of any causes, is called libertarianism. The notion of moral responsibility, and the human accountability for it, depends on the libertarian view of free will. Many other notions central to western society, such as punishment, are also based on libertarianism.

But libertarianism has some major problems. Let’s continue with our line of argument: at some point *after* the idea of Juliet’s death appeared in Romeo’s mind, another idea appeared: the idea to take his own life. The question then becomes: what happened between those two ideas? Whilst Romeo wasn’t responsible for the first idea, did he “step in” and become responsible for the second? This would mean that there are two different kinds of ideas. Some are created by the individual, others are a result of worldly circumstance. This is broadly the compatibilist theorem of free will, which occupies mainstream philosophical thinking. The incompatibilists, for their part, say that determinism cannot coexist with free will, but they do not commit to either side! If there is a line between ideas that are causally determined and those that are freely willed, then where is it? What is it made of? What does it look like?

If Romeo had the capacity to control or create ideas in his mind, then would it not have been easier to simply remove the idea that Juliet had died? It might seem absurd to suggest that one might be able to *remove* painful ideas from one’s mind, yet do we not assume that we have control over what we think? When an idea, a thought, becomes painful in itself, then it becomes apparent that we have much difficulty in controlling those ideas.

In fact, by taking his own life isn’t Romeo actually expressing the following sentiment:

I cannot control this idea (of Juliet’s death) in my mind, so I will instead remove it by taking my own life

Isn’t suicide a last desperate attempt to control the ideas that reside in our heads? Isn’t suicide a very pure and simple expression that we do not have control over the ideas in our heads? Isn’t suicide typically preceded by a sleuth of different attempts to control the ideas in one’s head … whether it be drugs, exercise, consumption, religion or whatever?

Suicide can then be understood as a refusal to accept that we cannot control the ideas in our heads. It is an act which fundamentally expresses the extraordinary depth of belief we have in free will. If we postulate that free will does not exist, then suicide can be a seen as the result of the powerful illusion of free will.

Is the cause of Romeo’s death the illusion of free will?

The illusion of free will cannot be the cause of Romeo’s death any more than any other of the circumstances that contributed to the story. Perhaps the more pertinent question to end on is the negative:

If Juliet had not died, then Romeo would not have taken his own life. Similarly, can it be said that if Romeo did not have the illusion of free will, he would not have died?

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If there is no free will then …

Note: In this blog post (and those to follow), I will attempt a new way of writing. I will attempt to develop a set of ideas, over days or weeks. But in each post, the ideas will not be complete and may be out-right wrong and later rejected. This might frustrate readers, I don’t know. It might even deny the writing any sense of academic worth in that the ideas will change, perhaps radically, as they are read, re-read, re-written, and responded to.
Brugel's misanthrope

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Misanthrope. 1568

The question of whether or not free will exists has occupied philosophers for thousands of years. It is a question that holds broad implications. Indeed, the denial of free will disrupts any notion of moral responsibility. Relatively recently, scientists have also begun contributing to this question by presenting hypotheses based on empirical research. Here, I will bypass any speculation of whether or not free will exists. Instead, I will assume a position, and explore some of the implications of that position. This strategy is designed to uncover if the implications of a position might shed light on its plausibility. The position I will assume is that there is no free will.


Portrait of Spinoza circa 1665

As a reference, I’ll cite Dutch philosopher Benedictus de Spinoza; a key figure in the history of western philosophy who, in part III of his 17th century manuscript “The Ethics”, wrote:

In the Mind there is no absolute, or free, will, but the Mind is determined to will this or that by a cause which is also determined by another, and this again by another, and so to infinity

Spinoza’s rejection of free will is posited on the laws of causality. Of course, any discussion on free will needs to define exactly what is meant by “will”. This is one of the ongoing challenges in the philosophical enquiry into free will (see this summary here). For the purposes of this discussion, I will define the notion of will as the following: the capacity to choose as it exists within the mechanism of thought. In other words: faced with a choice, the individual has a think and arrives at a decision. This definition is undoubtedly open to criticism but, again, this research endeavour is designed to move past the proposition to test its purported implications, not its perfectness. I will come back and revisit these definitions if the need so arises.

Here goes. If there is no free will then:

  1. The illusion of free will is extremely convincing.I believe that I am responsible for my actions, and that I choose to act in certain ways. Indeed, this belief lies at the heart of much of my human experience, for example: my self-respect depends on what I achieve. If there is no free-will then what I achieve is none of my doing and so the concept of self-respect no longer makes any sense. As mentioned above, the lack of free will also affects the notion of responsibility … but it doesn’t stop there. Emotions such as regret (‘why did I do that’?) and pride (‘I’ve done so well’) depend on the notion that I have some control over my will. So if there is no free will then, by God, the illusion is convincing.This raises the question, what is the mechanism for this illusion?
    Georges Rousse
    Georges Rousse

    Just as a trompe-l’œil achieves the illusion of being real by approaching how the eye might see something, I ask: how might the illusion of free will function?

    And, just as certain visual illusions (as in the example to the right) can be quickly denied by changing the perspective of the viewer, I ask: how might the illusion of free will be denied?

  2. I hold no responsibility for my actions.If there is no free will, then I cannot hold responsibility for my actions. Here, I will quickly move past any absurd suggestion that this assertion might lead to some kind of moral depravity.

    Instead, I will ask: if I hold no responsibility for my actions, then who am I? And what does that ‘I’ do? If that ‘I’ does not act, does not make decisions, then what does it do?

  3. How might I pursue happiness?If there is no free will, then how do I, as a human being, pursue happiness? (whether it be, as Spinoza identifies it, through fame (or respect), wealth, or the pleasure of the senses (sex drugs and rock and roll!)).
  4. How does a philosopher, like Spinoza, come to the conclusion that there is no free will?This last question is very perplexing. If there is no free will, then how does a philosopher come to the conclusion that there is no free will? Again, assuming that the insight of the absence of free will is correct, then how does a ‘not-free will’ come to the conclusion that there is no free will? Read one way, this proposal seems to suggest that having such deep insights is mere chance. Could this be so? Or is there some kind of order, some kind of intelligence that lies elsewhere?


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Pre-mediation: The process of conceptualising how the present moment might translate in a future mediation.

In this image, there is a transferal of seeing … from our eyes to the lens of the device. We knowingly engage that transfer with a forward projection: that whilst our own brain might capture the moment as a memory, the device can capture the moment as nothing less than a proof.

This proof is not for ourselves but for others. It is a proof delivered on social media; something by which to shape one’s own identity in the eyes of others.

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Absence in non-mediated experience

I propose a project in which mediated experiences are understood in terms of the user’s absence from the consciousness of the real, current, physical world.

This project not only inverts the notion of presence, familiar to critical research concerned with mediated experiences, but it also switches the area of concern by asking: What makes us absent in our non-mediated experiences? It is concerned not so much with how we engage in such things as social media, but rather asks why we dis-engage with the immediate reality of everyday existence.

The project is underpinned by a hypothesis:

A user absentees from their current reality when an opportunity arises that offers them the ability to project their desires into the future.

In this hypothesis, the mind is understood to be an instrument of time. That is; the mind has concepts of both the past and the future, and any thinking it engages in necessarily involves those concepts.

Lombard and Ditton (1997) propose a brilliantly succinct definition of presence: the illusion of non-mediation. Within their elaborations on presence they identify various modes. One key mode is social presence, in which social realism engages without any necessity for perceptual realism. Of course, social networks such as Facebook provide a high level of social presence. In so doing, they also provide a high level of absence from the non-mediated reality.

Perhaps unlike presence, a high level of absence can also occur without any mediated reality. The above hypothesis holds: absence is caused by the opportunity to project one’s desires into the future. A mediated reality is not necessary for the world to offer an individual the opportunity to project their desires into the future.

This project aims, in part, to examine how mediated experiences might intensify opportunities to project one’s desires into the future. Ultimately, however, the intent is not to understand the mediation of experience, but rather to understand absence from the consciousness of the real, current, physical world.


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Will you chose the Red pill, the Blue pill, or the Facebook pill?

Facebook recently bought a Virtual Reality headset company (Oculus) for 2 Billion dollars. There is outrage within the VR community who essentially funded this company’s development through crowd funding. They miss the point.

Jaron Lanier coined the term “virtual reality” over twenty years ago (when VR was in vogue). He has expressed many times that VR would only begin to deliver its promise once the technology caught up. He also said that VR was significant in the sense that it could change people’s relationship to their own bodies and their immediate environment. For Lanier, VR is not so much about creating imaginary worlds, as it is re-modulating our experience of the world. VRML (which died in the 90s?) delivered on a static computer screen entirely misses the point. The Oculus Rift, however, totally nails the point. With technologically realised tiny latencies …. it manages to perceptually convince that one is in another world. It convinces the body … see here (this man falls over):

Place that ability into the hands of a business that has pervasive control in our social worlds … and whose control is not necessarily “bad” but is clearly only really interested in generating profits … and there are some potentially hairy outcomes that we need to consider.

How will Facebook attempt to ‘virtualise’ our social existence?

The movie “The Matrix” didn’t explicitly consider the manufacture of virtual realities aimed at serving the banalities of commercial interests.

Here’s another collection of VR’s renewed ability (through the Oculus Rift) to take control of our perceptual faculties. I wonder if some day we will look at these videos and find them a little less funny:

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New documentary forms as self-documentation

I’d like to raise the question of the extent to which a new documentary technique or form might document itself as opposed to the subject of the document. I’ll illustrate this question specifically within the context of new technological means, but it may warrant consideration in other forms of new documentary not facilitated by technology, such as the re-enactment of historical performance art already blogged at this event. Can the form used to document an event result, to whatever extent, in documenting itself?

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the root of the noun ‘document’ to both the old french and latin words for ‘lesson’ [1]. A lesson, itself defined as ‘the action of reading’ [2], does not pretend to be an objective record. The perspective of the teacher and the biases of the teaching techniques are implied, if not unavoidable. What traces do these perspectives and biases leave on the completed document? Given the benefit of historical hindsight, might these traces overpower the actual subject of the document?

To explore this argument I will begin by pilfering examples from a site already mentioned on this blog. The New Aesthetic, a tumblr blog identifying the incursion of digital perspectives into every day life, has already received an introduction by Caleb Kelly. I am not so concerned with the articulation or identification of said ‘new aesthetic’, as I am in understanding how the digital medium might affect how we perceive the world outside of that medium. The New Aesthetic blog provides a few salient examples. These examples throw light on the question: Has the digital medium affected how we perceive the subject being documented? And if so, would the document not act as a record of the documentary medium itself?

The below image of a blurred photograph on a billboard casts the viewers gaze … placing it behind the lens of a digital camera positioned within a speeding car. This is what a photo would look like if taken with a portable digital device pointed out the window of a moving vehicle. It is a captured vision characteristic of a ‘smart phone’. Within the context of a ‘smart phone’ the image represents a poor photograph of scenery. Within the context of a billboard, the image can represent the medium of portable digital devices. Is this work by Ben Long a document of random scenery produced in transit? Or is it a document of the documentary form of portable digital photography?

Ben Long: Moving Landscapes – The Hay Wain (after John Constable) Birmingham

A Flickr search for Broken Kindles sparks a curious fascination with the aesthetics of the mechanical breakage of e-ink screens. Geometric patterns interfere with images in random yet occasionally intriguing ways. A glitch moment, certainly.

Having experienced a broken Kindle screen myself, these images remind of the moment of collapse of the (perhaps not so) futuristic idealism of e-readers. A printed text would not cease to be readable upon such a minor incident. These images offer a compelling aesthetic, but they also document some of the fundamental differences between digital text readers and printed texts. The screens are fragile; they break in such a way as to reveal some sort of underlying cartesian structure based on rows and columns. Perhaps most importantly these images represent an infuriating interruption to the engagement with a text, a kind of rude awakening to the trade-offs imposed by digital devices. The devices solve certain problems, but introduce entirely new ones foreign to printed texts. The interest in the aesthetics of these broken screens is paralleled by their action as documents of certain characteristics of e-readers.

Google maps, a detailed document concerning the sub/urban landscape we live in similarly documents itself. Google has a legal requirement to obscure the face and thus identity of passers-by. The image on the right shows a painted mural in which certain faces have been blurred, and others have not. An examination of this image forces the viewer to consider how the face detection algorithms might function. We thus attempt to cast our eyes into those of Google’s algorithms, trying to understand which facial characteristics of the non-blurred faces have escaped the face-detection logic. In so doing, we engage with Google Maps as a document of itself.

This task takes on an other dimension when considering this next image. Flowers in a window box have been blurred. It is evidence of some form of underlying stupidity in the system. Google Maps, the document of our sub/urban environment, is now documenting the chaotic inconsistency of its underlying digital detection algorithms.

I see these artefacts as evidence of the characteristics of particular mediums: as documents of those mediums, documents of documentary forms. These artefacts teach us about the nature of those mediums; how they frame the world. Currently, the artefacts described above hold much aesthetic interest, and for good reason. But I wonder if, with the passing of time and changing documentary forms, these artefacts might hold a significance equal to the documentary subject, in that they reveal aspects of the world view of the documentary technique.


  1. “document, n.”. OED Online. June 2012. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/56328?rskey=ByymBe&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed September 05, 2012).
  2. “lesson, n.”. OED Online. June 2012. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/107483?rskey=vVrJDv&result=1 (accessed September 05, 2012).
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Velasquez’s Las Meninas, and self-perception.

One of my pet life-projects is testing the postulate that we go about our lives perceiving ourselves through the eyes of others. Its a physical absurdity, of course … might be better to say that we perceive ourselves through how we think others perceive us. The point being that when we gaze at someone else, a part of that gaze is trying to understand how they are gazing back at us.

For my thesis, I’ve been researching notions of the illusion of reality, including spatial realities… and how they are achieved technically. In the visual arts, Velasquez’s Las Meninas harbours voluminous discourse on this topic. I havn’t gone too far into the analyses of this painting — nor do I really want to — but cripes almighty its full of people gazing at others gazing back at them. Let me try to elaborate. Note: the King (Philip IV) and Queen of Spain are the eyes of the painting and they can be seen in the mirror in the background.

  1. The painter is looking at the subject of his painting: the King & Queen. — who are looking back at him. So the Painter is actually painting himself through the eyes of the King and Queen
  2. The mirror in the back is apparently not reflecting the king and queen’s image, but rather their image as the painter has painted it (as per a paper I couldn’t be bothered referencing). In other words, the King and Queen are seeing themselves in the eyes of the painter.
  3. One suggested central subject, the daughter at the centre of the image is looking either at her parents, or the painting. If she is looking at the painting, then she is looking at a portrayal of her parents looking at her.

The same could be said for the gentleman in the back door way. As I said, I dont know exactly how this painting is critically interpreted, but it documents at least 4 instances of people looking at themselves through the eyes of others. I’m not suggesting that this is what the painting is about. It might be one of those paintings that has an inherent complexity that caters for whatever perception the viewer might happen to be inclined towards. One could say that my interpretation of this painting is more a reflection on me, than on the intent of the painter.

Either way, I’m starting to understand why this painting is considered important. Its thoroughly engaging. How does he do that?

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