Tag Archives: Stupid is as Metal does

Dear Santa Claus

Another foray into logic and rock 'n roll.  This time, it's one of my personal favorites, XTC's "Dear God":  Lyrics/ Video. First, a quick survey of the argument of the song and then three argumentative-logical issues.

"Dear God" is supposed to a letter addressed to God.  The contents of the letter amount to two separate arguments for atheism.  The primary argument is the argument from evil.  Here is the background commitment:  gratuitous suffering in the world is inconsistent with a just, capable and creative god.  The argument is then made by a series of examples of gratuitous suffering.  First is the problem of hunger:

But all the people that you made in your image
See them starving in the street
'Cause they don't get enough to eat from god

Second is the problem of strife (specifically religious strife):

And all the people that you made in your image
See them fighting in the street
'Cause they can't make opinions meet about god

Third is a cattle call of ills:

You're always letting us humans down
The wars you bring, the babes you drown
Those lost at sea and never found
And it's the same the whole world 'round
The hurt I see helps to compound
That father, son and holy ghost
Is just somebody's unholy hoax

Now, for sure, the argument from evil needs only one evil that's gratuitous, but when you get a list like that, it's supposed to improve the argument.  I think this is because we all recognize that as the evils pile up, they all seem so pointless and horrible, and as they seem to keep coming, we're supposed to see the responses to the argument from evil as being progressively less and less plausible.  In this respect, the argument from evil is less a purely logical game of finding contradictions, but more a process of seeing just how unlikely it is that God could be just if he allowed all that evil.  So the cattle call isn't, I think, just a rhetorical flourish (or powerful songwriting… again, listen to that part!), it's supposed to play an argumentative role, but in a rough version of the evidential problem of evil. 

The second argument is a subsidiary one, but is nevertheless worth mentioning. It's the argument from anthropogenesis: the observation that we have natural world explanations for all the events leading up to the founding of the religions and the development of their dogmas, so they, at least in their claims to supernatural revelation, must be false:

Did you make mankind after we made you?. . .

Dear god don't know if you noticed but…
Your name is on a lot of quotes in this book
And us crazy humans wrote it, you should take a look
And all the people that you made in your image
still believing that junk is true
Well I know it ain't, and so do you

Effectively: c'mon, god, you know we made you and all the stories about you up.  Therefore: you don't exist. Q to the E to the D, baby!

The three logical points. #1. The argument from evil is easy to present, but very difficult to get just right.  The problems of hunger and strife are ones we bring on ourselves, a theodicy may run, and so we are, in saying that God is responsible for these things, not acknowledging our responsibilities.  God, if he were to step in to resolve these moral evils, would not be respecting our freedoms and making it possible for us to be worthy of his love. 

The natural evils on the docket (disease, babes drowning , etc.) are consequences of living in a world with natural laws.  And so we must accept that given that this world is intelligible, it must also have correlate dangers.  Another strategy for theodicy here would be to go skeptical, and say:  perhaps the letter should be written a little less dogmatically — asking for why these things happen, instead of insisting that God has no good reason.  Perhaps, it may go, God does have a reason…  Regardless, the evils in the song aren't enough to make the full case.  You need to wrestle with the rationalizations God (or his spokesperson) might give for that case to go through. 

The problem with the argument, then, is that it is insufficiently dialectical, even if the entity addressed doesn't exist.  Not that I don't think the argument from evil kicks theism's rear, it's just that theodicy is actually a pretty formidable opponent, and a laundry list of evils isn't much of a case yet.  It's nice songwriting, but as an argument, *yawn*.

#2. The argument from anthropogenesis is often rhetorically powerful, but it's really just wind.  Any non-insane defender of theism can concede that the traditions of churches and the transmission of (and perhaps even the overwhelming majority of the contents of ) the sacred texts are products of human agency.  That doesn't mean that theism is false, it just means that humans are really keen on making stuff up and believing stuff about God.  Now, again, it, like the argument from evil, is more of a cumulative case — you keep piling up all the cases where things just don't look right.  But, again, cumulatively it just shows that there are multiple natural causes at work in the developments of the religion.  No refutation, but if anything, begging the question.

#3. Is the presentation self defeating?  I remember that when I first heard the song, I immediately asked whether it made sense to say to God: I don't believe in you.  That's weird.  Surely, if you're addressing God, you're committing, informally, to his existence.  Otherwise, the speech act of addressing is inappropriate.  I'm not the only one who's had that thought.  Visit any of the discussions about the song (either on the threads above, or here).  Here's a strong version of the challenge:   The most this song can show is that the author has doubts about god's existence, but in addressing god in the song, he actually finds that he nevertheless does believe.  That's faith, baby, faith!

That argument stinks.  First, it doesn't undercut the conclusion of the argument: God doesn't exist.  Just because the author happens to address the argument to God doesn't have any bearing on whether the argument demonstrates its conclusion.  If I addresssed a letter to Santa Claus explaining all my reasons for holding that he does not exist, that would not in any way effect the correctness of the arguments, nor would it change the truth of my conclusion. Moreover, I could  write a letter to Santa, tell him he doesn't exist and even mail it to the North Pole, and I could still believe he doesn't exist.  That's why I wrote the letter!   Second, think of the song as more like therapy.  The author has been believing in God, perhaps, for a long time.  He's prayed to Him regularly, and as a consequence, is in the habit of addressing God.  And so in coming to terms with his atheism, the author feels the need to speak to God one more time… a kind of breakup talk, but one not really addressed to God, but one really composed and performed for himself.  That's what the prayers were all along, anyhow. 

In sum: the song's a standard argument from evil, nicely performed.  But it's a thin version of it. Weak, really.  But it's at least not self refuting, so there's that.

I will politicize free will!

Another addition to the evaluation of rock and roll argumentation.  Last time, Jem suggested a discussion of Rush's "Free Will."  Here goes. (Lyrics here)

I remember back in high school when someone told me that Rush was 'thinking man's music.'  I heard some of the songs, and I wasn't really sure what what my friend was getting at.  In fact, it was "Free Will" that he played for me, and my opinion now is pretty much the same.  Geddy Lee/Neil Peart are just confused about the whole metaphysical issue, and this confusion leads them to some pretty harsh judgments of the downtrodden. 

In a nutshell, "Free Will" is the following set of commitments. #1: If you are committed to fatalism or determinism, you are looking to lay the responsibility for your life's failings on anyone or anything but yourself. (Fate, the gods, and perhaps social conditions).  #2. Laying the responsibility for one's life (and its failings) outside oneself leads one to inaction.  #3. If you are committed to free will, you hold yourself responsible for your life.  #4. If you hold yourself responsible for your life, you are more active in that life.

The first two commitments are the ones that get the most attention, and so the majority of the song is out to cast the poor as people who rationalize their poverty as a consequence of fate, when it actually is because of their own inaction.

There are those who think that they were dealt a losing hand,
The cards were stacked against them; they weren't born in Lotusland.

The implication of 'Lotusland' is that the only benefits that some people appreciate are those of sloth.  Alternately, the case for #3 and #4 is made but briefly:

I will choose a path that's clear
I will choose freewill.

In a way, the Rush strategy is akin to the old pragmatist reconstructions of metaphysical views.  In this case, determinism/fatalism is pragmatically a form of passivity and irresponsibility, and libertarianism is a form of activity and responsibility.  So choosing a metaphysics is equivalent to choosing what kind of person you will be (and  the consequences of being that person). 

The implication is that if you help others (especially because you see them as mere victims of fate), you consequently encourage their further dependence. 

You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill

The conclusions (suppressed of course) are that: C1: One ought to choose the active and responsible life. C2: So one should choose free will as a metaphysics.  C3: Those who live the passive and irresponsible life (and suffer the poverty and ills that come with it) are nevertheless responsible for that life, because "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice".  (And so: the poor have, really, chosen to be that way!)  Finally, because treating the poor as though they are victims of fate promotes their conception of themselves as passive and not responsible for their lives, C4: We ought not even help the poor (as, again, that would be "kindness that can kill").

I will limit myself to three criticisms.  First, the fact of moral luck seems perfectly obvious.  No matter how active a farmer you are, you can't use  your free will to choose that your crops not be eaten by locusts or withered by a drought.  Your choosing free will has no impact on whether you are part of your company's downsizing, that you get brain cancer, or develop a psychosis.  (This song will set you straight on that.) No matter how free will-ist you are, if you're born to a family with little money, no interest in education or social improvement, and a proclivity to violence, it doesn't take much figuring to lay odds on your coming life.  So sometimes it's a reasonable attitude to blame the fates.

Second, there is nothing in the argument that shows that it is true that there is free will, only that believing that you have free will makes you more active.  So far, a Hellenistic fatalist could accept that.  In fact, the old fatalists like Euripides had a term for the thought that their fates were in their own hands — hubris.    Unless it is false that the gods control the world, Rush's suggestions here put his listeners in danger of one of the greatest errors mortals could make, that is, taking themselves to be like gods.  I presume that Rush has taken it for granted that the gods aren't in control, but that makes their whole argument from consequences superfluous.  In fact, it makes the whole song (as an argument) beg the question.

Third, and finally, the two rhetorically most powerful moments in the song key on the fact that one has "chosen" one of the options between freedom and fatalism/determinism.  The first is that if you go with fatalism, "you still have made a choice," and the second is that Geddy/Neil "will choose free will."   But the free will – determinism issue can be recast to  bear on whether the choice in either of these cases is determined.  So the determinist maybe could say: Sure, you choose free will.  That's exactly the kind of person you are — you're a stridently independent, anti-authoritarian, rock and roller.  That's what they all choose.  The fact that you choose free will just goes to show how determined you are.   As a consequence, this choice business, despite the fact that it's the rhetorical peak of the song, is an utter argumentative failure.

Oh, and the guitar solo is a noodly mess, too.

Tool Quoque

The Non Sequitur is supposed to be a blog about political media, I know.  But I can't let this pass.  I was converting some old CD's to MP3 format this evening, and I set about to listening to an old Tool album, Aenima.  I'd forgotten how brooding they were and that the lyrics were intermittently profound and stupid.  And then I came to "Hooker with a Penis."  Here are the lyrics, if you need to read along, but here is the core of the song: it's an argument that you can't blame Tool for being sellouts.  The background story is that Maynard, the lead singer, is approached by some kid who accuses him of being a sellout with the latest album, and that the earlier stuff is more authentic:

And in between sips of Coke
He told me that he thought
We were sellin' out
Layin' down
Suckin' up
To the man.

Maynard responds with two separate arguments.  The first is simple garbage talk: that he, Maynard, is actually THE MAN.  So he can't sell out to the man, because he's already the man.  And furthermore, since that's the case, our accuser is ALSO the man.  
Before you point your finger
You should know that
I'm the man
If I'm the man,
Then you're the man
And He's the man as well
So you can
Point that fuckin' finger up your ass.
I suppose that this is a fine argument for people who are heavy-duty Tool-heads, since a good deal of Tool stuff is mystical mumbo-jumbo.  But, for sure, by this sort of reasoning, then Maynard is the accuser, too.  And then, consequently, he ends up telling HIMSELF to point that finger up his OWN ass.  (Logic hint: identity is a transitive relation.)  Not much of a defense, in the end.  The lesson of the first argument: mystical nonsense may be really impressive to badly dressed kids in soda shops, but it makes for crazily bad arguments. 
The second argument is a little more interesting, and given our recent spate of discussions about tu quoque arguments, it caught my eye.  The argument has two prongs. The first is basically that Tool had already sold out before their first record, and so the accuser has no legitimate basis to say that the later album is a sellout compared to the first album. The first album was a sellout album, too!   The second line of argument is that the accuser, regardless of the accusations, nevertheless BOUGHT THE RECORDS!

All you know about me is what I've sold you,
Dumb fuck
I sold out long before you ever even heard my name.
I sold my soul to make a record,
Dip shit
And then you bought one.

I see both lines of the second argument out to show that the accuser, regardless of the issue of whether Tool have sold out, actually likes sellout music.  The first line is that since Tool sold out before the first record, and the accuser likes the first record, the accuser likes sellout music.  The second line is that since the accuser BUYS records he admittedly sees as sellout music, he must thereby like sellout music.  Therefore, he has no standing to accuse Tool of being sellouts.
Again, I'm sympathetic with many tu quoque arguments, as I think they can show double standards, dishonesty in criticism, and even sometimes actually show that some cases are likely true.  But I'm not sympathetic here.  The first problem is that even if Tool sold out before the first album, that doesn't mean that their second (or later) albums are of the same quality.  Here might be a reasonable response from the accuser: Sure, you may have sold out before the first record, but it didn't start really showing until the second.  I thought you had some shred of dignity and integrity, but I suppose I was wrong about that.  Thanks for setting me straight about the fact that you've always been a sellout.
The second problem with the line of argument is the fact that the accuser bought the album hardly means that he has no standing to complain about its quality.  I have many, many CD's collecting dust in the basement  that stink.  The only way to find out if they stink, back then, was to buy them and listen to them.   It was $15 to find out that, for example, Queensryche peaked with Operation Mindcrime.  Or consider any other commodity — if I say that the Big Mac is a terrible hamburger, I'd have had to have tried it.  Which means I'd have had to have bought one.  Would my standing to criticize a Big Mac be undermined by the fact that I bought one?  What would be the only way to sample them, then, without this charge?  Steal them?
The third problem with the argument is that even if Maynard has shown the accuser to like sellout music, and even if Maynard has shown that the accuser, THE MAN, and Maynard are all the same, it has not yet mounted much of a defense for sellout music.  If there's something wrong with "sucking up to THE MAN," then showing that we're all THE MAN or that some people like sucking up to the man doesn't do much in the way of defense. 
Toolheads, I remember, took this song pretty seriously.  They still do, if you peruse the comments under the YouTube videos for the song. They thought that it showed Maynard at his best, defending himself and his music.  It may show Maynard at his best, but it's hardly a defense.  You know, when you shout a bad argument, even with distorted guitars and heavy base in the background, it doesn't get any better.