On the Channel Islands, Neil Peart Wrestles with Determinism
Neil has updated his blog with a post about two adventures he took earlier this summer to the Channel Islands, which are about a dozen miles off the Southern California coast. The post, called “Magnetic Mirages,” caught my attention because I had been to the Channel Islands myself at around the same time, and although our paths didn’t cross, I was interested to compare his notes with my own.
His adventures were a little more . . . adventurous, to say the least, since he got there by hitching a ride on the boat of his motorcycle buddy and security chief, Michael, while I just hopped on a tour boat. And he went to four of the eight islands, and I only went to one, Anacapa. (See “Inspiration Point” pictures.)
Comparing notes was interesting but what caught my attention the most was Neil’s observation that the history of the channel Islands is a history of unintentional abuse and mismanagement by ordinary people trying to scrape out a living in difficult conditions. Neil’s conclusion is that people can’t help doing what they can’t help doing, and then he wades waist-deep into determinism, a kind of philosophical quicksand that philosophy professors and students consume a lot of time fruitlessly trying to resolve.
Like all the best questions of philosophy, determinism has no resolution. It’s a kind of intelluectial Möbius strip, in which any argument you make gets ensnared in an infinite regress. The more you argue, the more you simply come back around to where you started.
In Neil’s case, he talks about how he had little appreciation or patience for annoying, difficult people when he was a young man, but now that he’s older, he takes the more forgiving view that difficult people are the product of the genes and their upbringing. “People we encounter with insecurities or anger issues likely came by them ‘honestly,’ and they can no more choose to react differently to the world—to you—than they can change the scars that made them that way,” he says. “Sometimes the extreme scope of that notion—like nothing any of us do is our fault, or our choice—feels overwhelming. Because you start running into people who hurt others and ‘can’t help themselves.’”
These ruminations are exactly what being ensnared in the determinism debate is all about. We are products of our genetic heritage and how we are “programmed” (Neil’s word) from childhood. Since that is the case, we are who we are and therefore not responsible for what we do, because we had no other choice but to do it. In other words, it’s the question of whether or not we have free will.
Free will is a big topic in Rush’s music, of course, and not just because of the band’s 1980 hit, “Freewill.” A number of Rush’s songs are about it, including “Roll the Bones,” several of the other songs from that same album, “Prime Mover,” and “The Way the Wind Blows.”
Since Neil isn’t a professor of philosophy, he has the luxury of breaking out of the determinism trap any way he wants. And he breaks out of it by saying people are capable of changing themselves, through self-improvement. “People can change their wilful ignorance, their nonsensical beliefs, and especially their anti-social behavior,” he says. “Many could be helped in the battle against their self-defeating demons by therapy—however long it might take.”
To Neil, good behavior is “behaving better than we are” or “better than we feel. In other words, being good often takes some effort. Maybe even, like magic, it requires some planning.”
On this view we’re not determined. And that’s reflected in “Freewill”—“If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
Of course, a philosophy professor could argue the point. “Are you really choosing not to decide or was that decision already programmed into you by your genes and upbringing?”. . . and back into the infinite regress we go.
It’s an unresolvable question, which is why philosophy professors will still be arguing over it 100 years from now—that is, if our universities still have philosophy professors in them. They might be cut as belt-tightening universities concentrate on fields of study that lead to jobs, increased productivity, new businesses, or to solving problems, like the kind of environmental damage man has done to places like the Channel Islands. That latter would be a field of study Neil might be interested in, since he says in his blog post he’s always wanted to be a forest ranger. “They are the real rockstars,” he says of rangers and botanists.
They might be the real rockstars, but they probably don’t get to talk about determinism in songs that a lot of people listen to.—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault
Read “Magnetic Mirages” in its entirety.