The metaphysics of a prog rock song.

One of my favorite bands of all time is Rush, who in my view have a perfect blend of 70s/early 80s hard rock and complex prog rock. Aside from the compositional and technical complexity of their music, the other thing that Rush are famous for is their heavy handed intellectual lyrics, taken from science fiction and philosophy. Ironically, despite being a major sci-fi fan and a philosophy wanna-be, their lyrics are the part of their music that I dislike the most.

My main beef with them is the fact that they are major Ayn Rand fans. Their songs “2112” and “The Trees”, among others, are based on her ideas. Personally, I would dismiss Ayn Rand as infantile and harmless, if it weren’t for the fact that so many people take her seriously, including several of our politicians and decision makers, which make her ideas positively dangerous for society. But I digress. Even those Rush songs that don’t invoke Ayn Rand strike me as pretentious and over the top. Which brings me to their song “Freewill”, from their album “Fly By Night”. Rush are openly atheist, and they sing about it all the time. See for example their song “Ghost of a Chance”, where they declare “I don’t believe in the stars or the planets or angels watching from above”.

The song “Freewill” is another perfect example of their atheist themed lyrics. In it, the band proclaim that free will is a much more positive view point than belief in a higher power which has the ultimate say in what course our lives take.  Here’s a passage which gives you a good idea of the song’s message:

“All preordained, a prisoner in chains

A victim of venomous fate

Kicked in the face, you can pray for a place

In heaven’s unearthly estate

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice

If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice

You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill

I will choose a path that’s clear, I will choose freewill”

There’s a major problem with the song’s message (and a good illustration of why I think Rush’s lyrics are pretentious): The whole premise of the song is built on a contrasting the freedom implied by atheism vs the helplessness implied by theism (or at least western monotheism). But this is a false dichotomy, materialism doesn’t necessarily imply free will, and vice-versa, theism doesn’t (always) imply determinism.

Several religious authors have written extensively on how theism and free will can be compatible, but as academics say, this topic is outside of the scope of this study. Mostly likely, Neil Peart (Rush’s drummer and main lyricist), would disagree with their arguments anyway.

Instead I would like to point out that atheism is perfectly compatible with determinism (or pre-destination if you are so inclined). Someone can be a materialist and also subscribe to hard determinism.

An atheist doesn’t believe in an eternal soul. To use fancier terminology, she doesn’t believe in substance dualism. She is either a materialist monist or a property dualist. Again, neither of these necessarily imply freewill, and I further propose that they are even arguments against free will.

Materialist monists basically believe in type identity: The mind is identical to the brain, and mental phenomena are just the sum of the bio-chemical and bio-physical events going on in your neurons. If this is case, feelings, beliefs and decisions are either completely determined by the laws of physics (i.e. hard determinism), or at best, have an element of randomness in them due to quantum effects. Not much space left for freewill in that. Some argue that quantum effects are exactly what makes free will possible. But quantum effects really means that there’s an element of randomness involved, not causality and certainly not intentionality. Claiming that some as yet to be known quantum mechanical process is what makes freewill possible seems to me like a 20th century version of Descartes pineal gland argument: “Let’s cover the gaps in our mind/body theory by resorting to some unexplained bio-physical process.”

If you are a property dualist, chances are you espouse Epiphenomenalism. This is the view that mind/body interaction actually works the other way around, it is the body that controls the mind. Sensory input and neurons firing come first, higher level mental events such as feelings and decisions come later as an effect of the former.  Besides the logical appeal of this theory, epiphenomenalism seems to be supported by recent results in neuroscience. Again, we have a materialist theory of the mind which leaves no space for freewill and deems everything to be predetermined by the laws of physics.

Russell, the prophet of atheism if there was ever one, defended the point of view in “Analysis of Mind”, that the self is an illusion all together. He explains how mental phenomenon can be perfectly explained without a self or an ego acting as concert master in the brain. And that what we perceive to be the self is just an illusion emerging from the combination of memories and perceptions that we have. But doesn’t there need to be a concrete self for there to be freewill?

To paraphrase the song’s lyrics: “there may be no ready guide from a celestial voice, but neither is there any guide inside your head”. Instead, there are only neurons and synapses going off and making your arms, legs and mouth do stuff without any real central authority controlling them. How can there be free will if there is nothing to do the willing in the first place?

Rush believe that the choice is between theism and free will, and that the proactive positive choice is free will. I wonder how they would react and how the song would have turned out if they knew that the choice was actually between atheism and free will? What would they choose then?


Categories: Philosophy, Progressive rock

4 replies

  1. Great post Skander. I would be interested in the argument that you said is beyond the scope of this entry: are theism and free will compatible.


    • Some argue that theism and freewill are compatible, because freewill is necessary for there to be true moral choices in the world, i.e. humans could not be truly good unless they had the choice to be evil. God had to give humans the ability to choose their own path for there to be real good in the world, as opposed to the hollow good that would come from humans being automatons following a pre-programmed trajectory (which is indeed the case for angels according to the old religious doctrines).
      Notice that this implies that a certain amount of evil is also necessary in the world, for there to be real good. In fact this argument was first advanced not as a justification of freewill but as an argument against the problem of evil (How can there be evil if God is both benevolent and omnipotent).

      Check Plantinga’s defense:


  2. I toil in these fields… I agree, materialism doesn’t imply free will (or vice versa). Not sure on the determinism thing (probably due to fear of being a computer). I think each one should look up to the skies and see [for him/her/itself]…

    As for pretentiousness, it is possible (and likely), but interpretation is way too subjective. There is this famous brazilian poem about a pebble, who had all kinds of philosophical interpretations until the author said something like: “I was walking home and there was a pebble on the way and the circumstances were such that I remember it. That is all there is to it.”

    It is not strange that an “openly atheist” band would preach as you say, but I keep wondering how can men who’ve never seen Light be enlightened? (there’s a blaze of light in every word!)

    I need a beer…

    ps: It’s hard to find a decent music/lyrics/voice combination, with some luck you can you pick two of these. Lets see what History keeps as “rock bands” for your grandchildren (some bands are Rushing to oblivion)…



  1. Do you want some Nietzsche with your seafood ? | Skander Hannachi, Ph.D

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