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.

24 thoughts on “I will politicize free will!”

  1. Scott, I just wanted to state that I love this series of lyric-analysis. You can easily make an argument that the music of a country is more influential than all its political discourse.

  2. Very interesting, and I am glad to read your this blog again.

    Can you briefly outline in which manner taking for granted that the gods aren't in control, begs the question ?

  3. Hi Eric,  Let's take the conclusion at issue here to be that it's a good idea to believe in free will because of the proposed pragmatic consequences of holding that belief.   Now, surely a divine fatalist would deny the whole connection.  Take the Roman consul and dictator, Sulla.  He was the one who said that Fortune favors the bold (and so the same argument can be made for fatalism being pragmatically more useful). 

  4. "I heard some of the songs, and I wasn't really sure what what my friend was getting at."
    I have to ask… were you in a basement bar at the time?
    I suspect at the time of your discussion the nation's popular music was a lot like this: http://www.musicoutfitters.com/topsongs/1988.htm . If your peers are gushing, "'She's like the wind through my trees…' That Patrick Swayze is so deep," finding Rush could seem like an epiphany.

  5. Aaron.  For what it's worth, I've spent plenty of time in basement bars (St. Louis had one called Cicero's, and I worked there for about 3 years), but this discussion happened while I was in high school… Oh, and the musicoutfitters site is chilling as to what was in our ears then.  Comparatively, Rush are geniuses.  But that's not saying much. 
    On a related point, I think I remember a friend in graduate school getting a paper on the Free Will debate that had a quote from this Rush song.  Evidence of incompetence?

  6. Excellent!
    Now, I heard that there was trouble in the forest. The oaks have apparently grown too tall…

  7. Yeah, Jem.  "The Trees" is a pretty thinly veiled argument by analogy against the redistribution of wealth, isn't it?  And here's the crucial disanalogy: we're all the same species.  Oh, and when the rich are taxed, it's not with a hatchet, but by bank draft.

  8. Scott, I was alluding to the Rush song, Subdivisions. I guess you really didn't take to Rush. (I grew up under Canadian Content laws, so I guess to some degree I take their lyrics closer to the heart… oh, there I go again. ;-))
    I suspect that at the time you were introduced to Rush, you were already taking on more difficult reading and thought exercises than most of your teachers, let alone your peers. (Just a hunch.)

  9. The paradox of the line "I will choose free will" makes it clear to me that the song isn't talking about "free will" in a metaphysical/philosophical sense. It's just a rant about choosing to make your life better through your own efforts rather than waiting around for God to make it better.

  10. Where does "the poor" enter the formula? You seem to be conflating ill fortune with ill economic fortune.

  11. I always took “kindness that can kill” to be referring to practices like Christian Science or Scientology, where medical treatment is withheld in favor of faith-based remedies. (Similar theme – Metallica’s “Follow the God that Failed”)

  12. Hi Urthman, thanks for the note.  I'll agree, but only qualifiedly.  I'd said that Rush are taking a 'reconstructionist' turn on the debate — that the philosophical attitudes are less about whether you are metaphysically free or not, but about how you'll live.  That's fine, and we agree on the interpretation.  But you see that all the reconstructionist programs presume a substantive answer to the problem — namely, that once you've layed out the options, you can choose which line to go with.  But that presumes, again, that the Gods aren't in control.  So the strategy is intellectually dishonest.

  13. Hi Pete.  I focused on the poor for one example, but there are plenty of other things that I noted over the course of the posting that wasn't just economic — the downtrodden, those who suffer through droughts, those who get brain cancer, those born into families prone to violence and uninterested in being responsible members of society.  That's not conflating, that's using examples.

  14. Hi Aikin,
    I stumbled across your post and was pleased to see a discussion of the philosophical underpinnings of this Rush song. Thanks for your thoughtful commentary.
    I have to say, though, that I think you're being a little harsh on them. First, even if you don't agree with what they're saying (or in fact, what you've interpreted as what they're saying), the very fact that they touch on a topic such as free will does make the band something close to being "thinking man's music", though I doubt that's a useful term to describe any music.
    Another point I'd like to make is that you're analyzing their lyrics as though they're setting forth an argument in an academic fashion (e.g. "Second, there is nothing in the argument that shows that there is free will…). Yet, as Socrates finds out in the Apology, it is not wisdom or knowledge of the truth that informs poet's writings but rather what Socrates believes to be a kind of divine inspiration. As a consequence, I don't think the lyrics should be analyzed as a rational argument based on well defined political beliefs informed by the study of political philosophy. While accepting your 4 conclusions as the main thrust of what they are arguing (arguing in a less formal sense), I would allow for a more impressionistic interpretation of what they actually mean. After all, art is also (I would argue mainly) about communicating emotion, moving people and touching their heart. That is, if they were trying to lay down a political manifesto, they would be writing a pamphlet, not a song.
    I believe there is another way to interpret the lyrics, which is less political and maybe even more agreeable to you. For me, in consonance with your 4 conclusions, the song is about hope and that change can be effected. I took it as meaning personal change can be effected. If you have a problems in your life, try to solve them because they won't solve themselves. This is a pretty simple dictum and one that even has an echo among those who believe in God: "God doesn't help those who do not help themselves". Surely that's a motto most can live by.
    Thank you,

  15. You're reading an aweful lot into the song that just isn't supported by the lyrics.
    Lee was only a Rand fan very briefly, while the other two never cared much about her.  The song doesn't critisize the poor, not even once, it critisizes religion, superstision, and fatalism.
    "Kindness that can kill" obviously refers to distructive supersticious & religious practaces, not altruism, that's just obvious since it's paired with "phantom fears."  
    The "Lotusland" bit clearly critisizes cultures that keep the downtroden in their place via fatalism and superstision.  Yes, it's critisizing people who are downtroden, but for accepting their society's fatalism, not for being poor, big difference.
    Those two errors of yours whipe out your whole argument.  And then like all the other lyrics are clearly bitching about gods directly.
    Now, you may still critisize the song as a sophmoric screed againt religion, fine.  I'd retort that 'hey, it's only a rock song.'  I would never argue that this little athiest anthem is Thinking Man's Music however.

  16. I agree that the song isn't putting forth an academic argument.  However, I do think that the four points you identified are rather valid from a pragmatic standpoint.
    For one thing, the consequences of either free will or fatalism being true are identical:  a person chooses what they do, whether it's the result of various causes or the result of a completely free agent.  Unless we can actually identify all antecedent causes and reliably predict specific actions, a person must act as though free will were true.
    The song seems to be making this point.  If a person acts as though they have no control over their life, they may be likely to be depressed and possibly uncaring as there is nothing one can do to change what will happen and there is no blame to be had; whereas if a person acts as though they did have control, they may be more likely to perform actions they feel are right or feel increased responsibility as the future can be selectively and freely chosen by various action and there is blame to be had.
    However, I do support this series, as many people simply believe what they are told in various media.

  17. Jeff,
    Actually it was Neil Peart who was the big Rand fan, though they all were to some extent. The song "Anthem" was written by Peart, and "Anthem" is name of Rush's record label. I'm pretty sure they never gave up completely on their Objectivism.

  18. Hi Phil,   Thanks for the comments. Very helpful.  A few things. First, songs and poems can make arguments.  In fact, in many cases, that's the point of the work.  Sometimes, the argument can even be intentionally bad — for example, Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" is an intentionally fallacious seduction poem.  I think I'll try my hand at running an interp of that poem soon on the NonSequitur.  Regardless, Plato's attitude toward the poets was too stark.  There are plenty of works of art that give arguments.  For example, Uncle TOm's Cabin, Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird all make arguments about race and inequality.  They aren't formal arguments, but, you know, very few people make formal arguments.  In fact, part of interpreting them is to formalize them.  (And so to anyone who says: it's just a rock song, I say shove it.)
    And now to the argument: I've agreed (and actually made the point) that the song is in the end an endorsement of a reconstructed view of free will, namely, that what matters is one's attitude about the issue, not whether one is free or not.  But note how this begs the question — namely, that one's attitude matters.  That's to assume that fatalism is false from the get go.  Surely a fatalist could (and has, as I would again direct everyone to Euripides' Hyppolytus) make exactly the same point:  because the gods are in control, the best options are to resolve yourself to your fate, as it is hubris to fight against what you are born to.

  19. Jeff,  as I see it, your objections to my argument depend on two interpretive points:
    "Kindness that can kill" obviously refers to distructive supersticious & religious practaces, not altruism, that's just obvious since it's paired with "phantom fears."  
    The "Lotusland" bit clearly critisizes cultures that keep the downtroden in their place via fatalism and superstision.  Yes, it's critisizing people who are downtroden, but for accepting their society's fatalism, not for being poor, big difference.

    "Obviously" and "Clearly," indeed.  First, my interpretation has the phantom fears tied again to the fates and those commitments, and kindness that can kill is what follows, given that we help those who we think have been mistreated by the fates.  Your interpretation has to go outside the song for more, uh, obvious interpretations.  No good. 
    Second, you need to grow up and learn about your civilization.  Lotusland is a reference to the land of lotus eaters in the Odyssey, where people eat logus flowers and forget their troubles, and live a life of sloth and inaction.  So the people who are criticized are those who lament: "We we weren't born in Lotus land." 
    And so, you have not wiped out my argument, Jeff. You've shown yourself to be someone who can't read the lyrics.

  20. Hi Rheu, thanks for the comments.  I'm not sure I agree when you say:
    For one thing, the consequences of either free will or fatalism being true are identical:  a person chooses what they do, whether it's the result of various causes or the result of a completely free agent.
    Certainly as metaphysical theses, they are distinct, aren't they?  Here would be one way: if fatalism is true, there's no way you can prevent what will happen from happening.  Now, if libertarianism is true, that's, at least in some cases, possible.   Do you have another criterion that pushes these two together?

  21. Hi Scott, I think my statement was missing a word there.  The practical consequences of either free will or fatalism being true are identical.  Let's say that people do have free will, obviously their choice is important in determining future events.  The same is also true in fatalism.  A person's "choice," which is determined solely by antecedent conditions, will in itself become a cause for various future events.
    The antecedent conditions that determine a person's "choice" include such things as belief in free will or fatalism.  A person may very well act differently based on their beliefs.  This belief is in itself caused by a number of things, such as rationality, upbringing, freak events, reading this article, etc.  Of course it is possible that all of these events are just chains of effects coming from thousands of causes, but everything is so muddled, it basically doesn't matter.
    That's where pragmatism has to come in.  No matter which viewpoint is correct, a person must act as though they have free will.  I might even argue that it is impossible to truly act as though there is no free will, as our rational minds assume (invariably and involuntarily) the possibility of different choices, even if this is an illusion.  When you posted your comments, had you been paying very close attention to your thoughts, you'd have noticed that your mind thinks something along the lines of "Do I click the button?  Or do I check over the post one more time and revise?"
    Of course, I'm not arguing for either of the metaphysical positions; rather I am trying to make the point that the entire debate is fairly meaningless.  In studying the world, we assume that every action is simply an effect derived from causes, and our theories tend to work, but in our every day lives, we must act as though there is free will and there is a choice.  If nothing else, the belief that one has a choice, even if it is wrong, seems a more favorable antecedent state to effect the changes one wishes to see in the world compared to the belief that one cannot affect the future.

  22. Hi Rheu, thanks for the clarification.  Two quick points.  First, your point about the necessity of freedom as a default attitude for choices is fine to me, but note that it is a significantly stronger commitment than that articulated by Rush — your view is that one can't but choose free will. So it's not really a choice.  Second, I'm actually unsure about whether your view is right.  The Roman consul Sulla was a fatalist, and yet he was able to act, see himself as responsible, do things big and small.

  23. This is the song that did it for me too. Around high school. "That," I said, "is the dumbest goddamn thing I have EVER heard in my whole LIFE!"
    It was one of those moments where you feel like you're dealing with space aliens.
    I actually simplified it a little more at the time "What do you mean, you will choose free will? If you have the ability to choose, you must already have it – you didn't choose it. It's by definition the one thing you can't choose!"
    I note that stoner logic meshes very well with this sort of lyric, and that's a big indictment of stoner logic, indeed.

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