Of Turtle Bones, Arrows, and Awo

Wed 10/07/09 at 10:12 am

The Teaching Company offers a 24 lecture course entitled “The Great Philosophical Debate: Free Will and Determinism.” The “Buy-This-Course” blurb uses Saul Smilansky as its example of a contemporary philosopher who “believes that we do not have free will but that we must keep it a secret from the masses” because “ if all people knew their behavior was determined, they would stop behaving morally.” Huh?

I’m still unsure who to believe, all those angels of print and screen who are ticked God gave humans, but not them, free will, or Calvin and his categories of the elect, the damned, and the preterites who are damned simply because they are not meant to be saved. I’d like to believe we have free will, but the ironist in me suspects that the notion God needs to damn a whole class of people just so certain others can feel special is the more likely scenario. Of course this presupposes the existence of God. Take that presupposition out of the equation and what’s left is a universe that either operates according to a set of laws (even if the “unified theory” continues to elude), or is some random conglomerate of matter and energy.

Two isolated (and admittedly minor) events in my life caused me at one point to contemplate whether it really is futile to try to outmaneuver an inexorable fate that has been correctly predicted. The first incident occurred sometime in the year 2000 when I saw my first picture of a PT Cruiser. I simply had to have one. I went shopping, but, early on, supply exceeded demand. By the time supply caught up with demand, and I was once again in the market for a new vehicle, I chose practicality over visceral response and purchased a Wintergreen Subaru Outback (beige interior) instead. Fast forward to 2007, where, for a few months, I exchanged the Subaru for a well-loved-but-too-small-to-accommodate-my-oxygen-tank 1999 green Mazda Miata convertible (beige interior). Unfortunately I was pretty sure it was incapable of getting me safely to LA where I needed to go to see my beloved brother. Enter the newly designed Scion xB. It reminded me of the mini-hearse Harold built in the movie Harold and Maude, only Teal. Blue neon interior lights. I loved it. I priced it. I slept on it. On the way back to the Toyota dealership to buy it, I took a detour into the Chrysler dealership where I found a Tangerine Pearl PT Cruiser Touring Edition with power moon roof, YES Essentials├é┬« cloth low-back bucket seats, pastel pebble beige interior, and body-color spoiler. I bought it instead of the Scion. A few weeks later, I spotted a Teal Scion xB driving down the street. I distinctly remember saying to myself, “Self, they’re driving my car.” (I think in inclusive language, grammar be damned.) And then I realized I meant what I had just said. I really did want the Scion. So why had I bought the PT? Was I destined to own a PT? Did I really have a choice? Even knowing then what I know now, I’m unsure whether I could have left the dealership that day and driven the extra mile down the road to Toyota.

The second incident also began in the year 2000. Darcy and I were in the midst of designing the residence we later built just behind the Biopark here in Albuquerque. We had a rule that served us in good stead during this time. We called it the “Ick” rule. If either of us was categorically opposed to anything in connection with the planning, construction, or furnishing of the house, all either one of us had to say was: “That’s an Ick.” End of discussion. The only challenge ever raised with respect to the “Ick” rule occurred during the design phase when Darcy wanted to have a bay window in what would be her office. I invoked the Ick rule. She countered it was in her space. I stood firm, and she agreed to a design modification whereby the window would be built out like a bay window so there would be ample shelf space for cat beds, but it would be squared as opposed to angled with no side windows.
Last year Darcy’s Mom, Margaret, decided to move to a senior facility, and we decided to purchase her home because it was a single story. My space in our old house was a wonderful loft on the second floor called the “Aerie,” but I hadn’t been able to use it in literally years given the effort required to climb the stairs. When Margaret first bought the house in which we presently reside, she performed some fairly extensive renovations (including building the addition that has been transformed into Walking Raven Central). The living room looks east onto a park and then onto a view of the Sandia Mountains. To optimize her view, she added, . . . wait for it, . . . a bay window. (Hey, I’ve mellowed somewhat over the years.) Was I fated all along to have a bay window?

Still unconvinced? Well, how about this one. I started law school in 1983. Shortly thereafter, I attended some sort of mock trial event presided over by Justice Mary Coon Walters. Justice Walters was the first woman appointed as a Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court. I thought she was way cool and remember saying to myself, “Self, I’m going to work for her someday.” Three years later, Justice Walters sat down at her desk, arranged the resumes of the prospective law clerks she’d interviewed according to class rank, and started making calls. She moved down the list until Jana accepted her first offer and continued on down the list until I accepted the second.

I’ve just finished reading the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. In each book, after a hero is given a quest s/he must go consult the oracle in the attic. The role of prophesy, at least in “Western” art and literature certainly suggests free will is an illusion. Moreover, even if the hero is told that the outcome of a prophesy is evitable, I’ve been unable to come up with, or be directed to, an example where a prophesy has been thwarted or gone unfulfilled. (Although one “quest-ending” continues to trouble me. Frodo put on the Ring.) The same holds true with quest literature, except we’re often informed that the back-story involves other wannabe heroes who have tried and failed. I’d like it if my destiny included finishing my novel, The First Voice, since that means my number won’t come up until I finish it. In the meantime, I continue to listen for that voice in my head that signals I may have just been given a glimpse into my future, keeping in mind, of course, that inherent in oracular prophesies is they are understood only after the fact.

next post: In Memoriam
previous post: Happy Bloomsday


  1. I’m not so sure our lives are destined as much as they are shaped. Nothing we do could change anything so ephemeral as “destiny.” But once we identify the forces that shape us, we decide what to do with (or against) them.

    We need several hours next summer to sort this out.

    Comment by Al — October 7, 2009 #

  2. On a tangentially related note: http://www.whingingit.com/?p=226

    Comment by Al — October 7, 2009 #

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