Overthinking Black Sabbath or Why I Never Finished Issue 7…

I never finished issue 7 of Bloodbath ‘Zine, issue 6 was “published” away back in 2016 and so I decided to just post this article which I never finished as a way of showing folk why the issue never came to be. So, ‘ere it is…good luck!


The 1960’s in Britain (as elsewhere) was a time of change, the scale of this change was almost as huge as the coverage it received. Various popular movements strived throughout the decade to increase democracy and decrease inequality. Last issue I wrote a piece about my search for the end of this cultural momentum, the high water mark as it were, this issue I decided to reign in the scope a touch and focus on the birth of heavy metal which happens to coincide with the aforementioned progressive curtailment; there is a link, there’s always a link. I chose to take (conforming to classical metal doctrine) the release of Black Sabbath in 1969 as that starting point. Now, I’ve listened to that song quite literally countless times over the years but what I hadn’t done until recently was attempt to reframe the lyrics into the context of the end of the 60’s, which is of course the original context in which it was both written and heard. This re-framing unsurprisingly led me re-assess the song within a wider philosophical structure.

Now, I know fine that Geezer has spoken at length about the lyrics and his reasons for writing them, his occult dabblings, disappearing books and shadowy apparitions etc. but when people write, they rarely write in isolation from their surroundings (the context to the work) that’s why we have literary trends. Same goes for cinema and music. But why do these trends exist? Artists influencing each other? Publishers / record labels pushing for commercial success? Or a general mood that seems prevalent at the time, for example paranoia during the cold war, post war optimism etc. In reality there are probably many factors which allow a group of artists to be lumped together into an identifiable trend, but what’s important is not to lose the context against which the artwork was originally perceived, otherwise Animal Farm is just a story about a bunch of talking animals…which it is, unless you take account of the context.

What is this that stands before me?
Figure in black which points at me,
Turn around quick, and start to run,
Find out I’m the chosen one.”

This verse suggests an incomprehension of the situation or events unfolding, Ozzy’s wavering voice providing an element of palpable foreboding. The following lyrics display feelings of persecution and inescapable fate. Bleak determinism. Made bitterer given the frivolous optimisms of the previous few years, seeing as they did a perceived increase in civil liberties and freedoms. Arguably if the rest of the 60’s had embraced the spirit of free will then Black Sabbath captured the dark realization of cold Determinism and hopelessness that characterized the end of the era. Or maybe they just reflected the vast disillusionment of swathes of people left out from the euphoria, condemned to observe this new way of life from the confines of their own unchanging place in a decaying, stagnant world. The savages existing on the fringes of a brave new world.

This juxtaposition between freedom and oppression, between free-will and a predetermined future is as old as the hills, in 1814 the notion of free will was dealt a blow when Pierre Simon Laplace wrote “A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities” in which he stated that

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes”

This ‘intellect’ became known colloquially as “Laplace’s Demon”, this is particularly pertinent in the context of Black Sabbath. So, according to Laplace, as we are part of the physical material universe there can be no such thing as free will, our future being already determined by the past movements of our constituent atoms.

In the same way as balls on a snooker table are not free to move at will, their movements are clearly reactions to causes (either being struck by the cue or by collisions with other balls), the exact position of the balls after the break can easily be calculated prior to actually striking the cue ball. Likewise the original positions of the balls can easily be back calculated from their current positions, both past and future calculated by observations of the present. To continue the snooker analogy slightly further, the red ball which went into the far right pocket had no choice in the matter, as soon as the chain of events was set in motion by the cue striking the white ball it could only ever follow the path set out for it. For Laplace that cue striking the white ball was the big bang at the beginning of the universe (where all the matter in the universe exploded outwards from a single point of incredible density, expanding forth in all directions giving rise to what we currently recognize as the universe). Every atom from that point onwards has just been following an endless set of causes, all your thoughts and dreams have never had any choice but to exist exactly as they are. In short all events are caused by past events such that other than what does occur could occur.

This miserable concept is known as Determinism. Determinism not only invalidates free will but also has very serious implications for the concept of morality. Since a person has no choice but to act the way they do then there can be no moral judgement of their actions. So if you get caught stealing a car you’re not really responsible for your actions since it was effectively the ‘will’ of the universe that was acting upon you…you might still end up in prison to prevent you committing further crimes though so I wouldn’t recommend it.

All this is painting a picture of both an amoral and decidedly un-free world, which in the mind of someone in 1969 (or now for that matter!) must have seemed more like 1984, more like hell.

Big black shape with eyes of fire
Telling people their desire
Satan’s sitting there, he’s smiling
Watches those flames get higher and higher
Oh no, no, please God help me

Laplace’s Demon smiling, an all knowing entity, predicting all human desires, machinations, dreams, aspirations and all associated, necessary outcomes. A plea to God for salvation from all this grimness as the world burns and society eats itself. This plea to god is kind of relevant here since it suggests with the existence of such a being that there must also exist a human soul or consciousness which exists beyond the material world and thus beyond the reach of determinism. This proposition stretches away back in one form or another to Plato and Aristotle and is generally known as Dualism. Possibly the most famous proponent of Dualism was René Descartes, who after what must have been a particularly intense bout of introspection decided that the only thing in the universe that he could truly know existed was his mind, famously stating “Cogito Ergo Sum”, I think therefore I am. In this famous experiment all physical aspects of self were brought into question and ultimately dismissed as they could be tricks of the mind. Doubting everything except doubt itself, to doubt you need to be able to think, hence; I think therefore I am. You’ve seen the Matrix right?

All this Left Descartes with only one final ‘truth’ that his mind existed because it was able to think. Thus the mind or soul of Descartes was out with the icy claws of Laplace’s Demon’s causality and determinism.

Meanwhile Immanuel Kant, the great moral philosopher, added the effects of the passage of time into the Dualism / Free-Will debate by suggesting that all actions are necessarily based on previous causes whether they be internal or external to the body and that since we have no control over the past it can be said that we have no control over our actions regardless of the source of the causation, unless, he continues, our consciousness existed outside of time and the forces of the physical world (the noumenal self).

Unfortunately for the dualists, progress in neuroscience has pretty well confirmed that our minds exist very much within the physical framework of our brain. Neuroscience aside, when I drink alcohol it’s pretty obvious that it affects both my body and my mind, making my mind a subject if not a normal part of my physical body…

Is it the end, my friend?
Satan’s coming ’round the bend,
people running ’cause they’re scared,
The people better go and beware,
No, no, please, no.

The pace quickens, is this the end? Are we all doomed to our fate? Satanic descent.in to an inescapable nihilistic future. Well maybe Geezer was right to be worried, but then these days we know that determinism isn’t quite as clear cut as it seemed away back in the 19th century.

As soon as scientists started looking at matter on the quantum level, deterministic absolutism started to wither while the specter of fate fell silent. But while determinism lost ground in the battle for our future, free will didn’t gain an inch, because at the quantum level, these tiny particles they were studying seemed, in fact, to be the subjects of pure chaos and random chance, slipping in and out of existence willy and indeed nilly.

Out of the demon’s frying pan and into the fires of chaos, in bondage then, are we to remain, forever tumbling uncontrollably towards the end? Are we just agents of chaos doomed to wander with no meaning or rationale through the abyss?

Well, possibly not. According to Professor Patricia Churchland we do have an element of self-control, the analogy she gives is that of a fox hunting a chicken. The fox exercises great control in stalking its prey, moving silently and slowly, creeping and waiting so as not to scare the chicken away. The young fox though, in contrast, just runs straight at the chicken with its mouth open subsequently scaring it away. However, over time the young fox learns to hunt, learns to resist instant gratification, learns to control the urge to just rush straight at the chicken, in short it learns self-control. This learning causes physical changes in the brain which influences future behavior and responses. Hard determinism can’t really allow for this sort of change within its rigid framework. So while it looks like we probably are subjects of determinism, to what extent do the numerous causes for our actions stem from external sources or from internal sources?

Robert Kane in his Reflections of free will, determinism and indeterminism also suggests that we have a mixture of determinism and free will, stating that “Not all acts have to be undetermined, but only those by which we made ourselves into the kinds of persons we are, namely “self-forming actions”. Now I believe these undetermined self-forming actions occur at those difficult times of life when we are torn between competing visions of what we should do or become. Perhaps we are torn between doing the moral thing or acting from ambition, or between powerful present desires and long term goals, or we are faced with a difficult task for which we have aversions. In all such cases, we are faced with competing motivations and have to make an effort to overcome temptation to do something else we also strongly want. There is tension and uncertainty in our minds about what to do at such times, I suggest, that is reflected in appropriate regions of our brains by movement away from thermodynamic equilibrium–in short, a kind of “stirring up of chaos” in the brain that makes it sensitive to micro-indeterminacies at the neuronal level. The uncertainty and inner tension we feel at such soul-searching moments of self-formation is thus reflected in the indeterminacy of our neural processes themselves. What is experienced internally as uncertainty then corresponds physically to the opening of a window of opportunity that temporarily screens off complete determination by influences of the past”. Kane’s neat model cunningly allows us to have elements free will even within a system of determinism and chaos. This is my preferred option, it kind of feels about right doesn’t it?

Then again, Edinburgh philosophy legend, David Hume pointed out that if your action is what you wanted then what’s the difference if it was free or not? Let’s say you ask me for a sandwich, I offer you a choice of cheese or ham (but in fact only have cheese in the fridge), to which you reply you’d like cheese. Upon receiving the cheese sandwich the fact that you could have chosen nothing other than a cheese sandwich is kind of irrelevant since you got what you wanted, it would only have been an issue if you had asked for ham and been both disappointed and probably confused by my initial offer of both. So basically Hume says, pah! Free will? Who cares?