It’s Just Chemistry: Rush Try to Make Sense of Reality
[Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of essays that looks at selections from Rush and Philosophy (Open Court Press: 2011), edited by Jim Berti and Durrell Bowman. The book came out in March 2011 and looks at Rush’s music through different philosophical lenses.]
Rene Descartes ushered in modern philosophy with his acknowledgement in 1637 that everything we perceive in the world is subject to doubt. You act like you’re my friend but how do I know you really just aren’t interested in using me to advance your career? In other words, I really know nothing for certain about the reality of the world external to myself; I only know what’s inside my head.
When you take this idea to its extreme, you become a solipsist: the only reality is what’s inside your head; everything else is a projection of that. In a sense, everything outside of you is simply your dream.
The opposite of solipsism is behaviorism. Since you act like you’re my friend, then you must be my friend, because the only reality is your behavior. If you stop acting like my friend after you become a vice president with my help, then you’re simply no longer my friend.
Todd Suomela, a Ph.D. student in communications and information technology at the University of Tennessee, in his essay “The Inner and Outer Worlds of Minds and Selves,” says much of what Rush was trying to express during its techno phase in the 1980s concerns this divide between our inner reality and the world around us. Although Suomela doesn’t point to the image of the three orbs on the cover of Hold Your Fire, released in 1987, he might as well have because that image expresses the “alone-yet-together” character of the human experience. Alex, Geddy, and Neil are each individuals, encased in their own sphere, but they travel in a cluster as a unit. They’re separate but together at the same time.
And so it is with all human experience. Each of us is a sphere that travels alone through the world but we interact—try to communicate—with one another without any certainty that we’re understanding one another correctly or even that were seeing the world in the same way.
Think of President Barack Obama pushing through health care reform in the United States a couple of years ago. Supporters say the law encompasses free-market solutions to the problem of out-of-control medical costs in the country. Critics say it’s a form of socialism. Which is the truth? The language in the law is the same for supporters and critics alike. Both sides are reading (or reading about) the same words, yet one side takes away one meaning and the other side takes away the completely opposite meaning. It’s almost like people are living in separate worlds. What is the truth, and how can people of such different views find a way to agree on what constitutes the truth?
You can see this problem expressed in lyrics like “truth is after all a moving target” in “Turn the Page” on Hold Your Fire or in the classic “Limelight” line in which Neil thinks the person approaching him might just be some star-struck celebrity hound: “I can’t pretend a stranger / Is a long-awaited friend.”
Into this problem comes Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian-born philosopher whose posthumous work, Philosophical Investigations, suggests our doubt about the world arises out of the artifice of our language. Each of our thoughts are unique, yet we’re forced to communicate them using a set of agreed-upon words that can’t capture the essence of what we’re thinking, and indeed, that corrupt our own understanding of what we’re thinking because we think in these words, which are imperfect. As Suomela says, “The grammar of our expression forces a certain mode of thought upon us.”
Thus, imagine the orbs on the cover of Hold Your Fire agreeing to a set of words to describe things, yet none of these words really captures what the orbs are trying to say, and in fact, the use of the words actually clouds the orbs’ thinking on the matter. You might say it’s the insufficiency of language that keeps the orbs separate. Maybe if the orbs could communicate perfectly, there would be no doubt about the reality outside each of them.
So, Rush is wrestling with the same problem we all are. As Neil writes in “Show Don’t Tell” on Presto from 1989, “Who can you believe? / It’s hard to play it safe.”
Since there really is no answer to this problem, you might conclude that we’re doomed to live in doubt. But do we have to despair? Drawing on Wittgenstein, Suomela suggests not. “We don’t need to be certain of what an opinion actually is in order to go on living in a language community with other people,” he says. In other words, we can and do make it work, by not relying on language.
But what do we rely on? The answer is probably our thoughts, our intuitions, even if we don’t have the language to express them. Like good friends, or an old married couple, who don’t need to talk to one another to know what’s going on with one another, we stay in communication in other ways. You might just call it chemistry:
Reaction making impact
Exchange of energy
Reaction making contact
Eye to I
Reaction burning hotter
Two to one
Reflection on the water (“Chemistry,” Signals, 1982)
—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault
Read the first essay in this series, “Philosophy of Mind has a Headache; Cygnus has Aspirin.”
Read the third: “Is Rush Helping Humanism Out-maneuver Religion?”
Read the fourth: “The ‘Rand’omness of Rush’s Libertarianism.”
Read the fifth: “Rush’s Table of Virtues.”
Read the sixth: “Rush’s Rosier Shade of Reality.”
Read the seventh: “The Trees: More Than Meets the Eye?”
Read the eighth: “Plato: ‘Rush Non in Forma Petra Musica'”
Read the ninth: “Rush Music: Spontaneous as a Baroque Jam Session”