Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Fallacy that is 'Free Will'

I've never considered myself to be a 'man with a plan'. Rather, I'm a man of ideas. Indeed, the idea for this blog entry came to me while walking to Williams this evening, and the words that follow just poured out of me in the span of an hour.

Ideas can be powerful things. They have the power to take over your life. Where plans can be constricting, ideas are free to grow, and change, and take you places you never dreamed. "A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death." (It was John F. Kennedy who said this, inter alia, in a way that only he could.)

Moving on, "you have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea." Pablo Picasso said that. To be true, I can recall an episode of the program South Park where underpants gnomes had an ingenious idea whereby the stealing of underpants could lead to wealth beyond their wildest dreams. The idea went a little something like this:

Phase 1: Collect Underpants.
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit.

See what I mean? Powerful stuff, however vague.

Returning to the quoting of giants upon whose shoulders I am standing, Oscar Wilde has purportedly said a great many things, one of which being, "we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." Stephen Fry is fond of reciting this quote, which I am reminded of each time I see his cameo appearance in a second series episode of the BBC comedy Extras. But I digress. What does it mean? I can take an educated guess - but it has very little to do with what I am writing here. What matters \ is that this is one utterance of Mr. Wilde which has stayed with me through the years and now takes me to this other, more prescient utterance: "an idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all." Very true.

Looking back almost seven years to the day, an idea occurred to me that I should attend law school - to what end, I don't know, but I'll try to describe it in a moment. The idea did not spring to my mind through a process of spontaneous generation. No! I'm sure very few ideas - if any - ever come about that way. This idea was placed in my mind by one of my professors partway through a lecture on Fluid Dynamics. Odd? Yes. To all of us in the lecture theatre as well. Due to the way the various gears and sprockets of his mind were connected at the time, on that occasion, in that lecture, he professed to us the utility of having both an engineering degree and a law degree: how very indispensable we would all become to our employers, and how very much money we would all be sure to make. The idea, which took at least 20 minutes to convey, went a little something like this:

Phase 1: Combine our mechanical engineering degrees with law degrees.
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit.

Pratt & Whitney fit in there somehow, as the company did in many of his ideas, though as for how: your guess is as good as mine. I understand he's done some work for them. Maybe they were on his mind that day. If ever a man could be accused of 'prattling on', he could. In any case, the grandiose ideas he conveyed from time to time were generally lost on all of us, with the exception of this particular idea, on this particular day, on this particular individual. Thanks to me, it wasn't lost on two of my classmates either, who then formulated a plan which included yours truly.

Was this a dangerous idea? Well, danger is in the eye of the beholder. But as Oscar Wilde was purported to have put it, "an idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all." What follows is pure profit.

To bring this up to speed a little faster, and without dwelling on too many of the details, I successfully wrote my LSAT; applied to the law program at UWO; and began my concurrent degree program the following September. I quickly assumed the herd mentality of a first year law student - which was thrust upon me in the first few days of law school - and, without much delay, I began offering my services to law firms as a first year law student. Given my technical background, the law firms that expressed interest and scheduled interviews saw me as a candidate for their 'intellectual property' practices. It is only in this last year that I have even begun to understand what exactly 'intellectual property' is, and if you asked me to define, it I would say it is a nebulous concept that probably includes copyright and patents. But I couldn't even say that in first year law school.

Needless to say, I did not get hired as an intellectual property lawyer by any of these law firms, so by December (indeed, only three months in!) I gave up on the prospect of becoming a captain of industry under my original idea. I was stuck on Phase 2.

As it happened, at about that time there was a tsunami off the coast of Southeast Asia, so a new idea occurred to me: I would drop out of school and join some kind of rescue or rebuilding operation in Southeast Asia. I relayed this idea to a friend of mine, and he liked it, but he had a better idea: we would wait until the summer and we would both go to Africa and dig wells. Brilliant! So, the following April, he and I went to Africa, and while we didn't dig wells, we did other humanitarian work that planted the seed in me that has taken root and irrevocably altered the course of my life.

This new idea was that I would use my law degree to become a 'human rights lawyer' (whatever that is) and, paid or not, the last five years I have been doing whatever I can to get the necessary experience to make that possible. This new idea was so good, it was almost a plan: only the details were missing. If expressed as an equation, it would have looked something like this:

Get international human rights experience + Time = You will become an international human rights lawyer

Ask me what 'human rights' are? I can't answer that. Not any better than I can answer what 'intellectual property' is. The concept is so nebulous that a consensus of nations can't agree on what should be included. But I've put in the work, I've put in the time, and now it seems I can't get a job that doesn't have something to do with international human rights. Seriously.

But get this: before I go any further - and I do apologize, for this is proving to be one of the longer blog entries (and has very little to do with Djibouti or my being there) - I want to briefly relate three conversations I've had over the last year with three gentlemen working in the public international sphere: be it human rights, development, or other humanitarian efforts.

The first conversation was with a man I met in Djibouti who had lunch with me at the end of a conference on migration patterns in the Horn of Africa. He told me that I was at a crossroads in my life and it would be the decisions I make now that determine where I end up and who I'll end up with when I'm finally his age (he claimed to have about 20 years on me, and I believed him). He told me that when he was my age, he was married; he began having children; and he was all the while taking international posts with various international and intergovernmental organizations. Some posts were family friendly, and some were not. He told me it all worked for the first few years; his wife accommodated his career (to the detriment of her own); and his family followed him to the posts that would allow it. But he told me that, eventually, the day came when his career and his family life could no longer coexist and he had to make a choice of one or the other. His wife also wanted a career and she wanted some stability for her family. He's divorced now, he continues to work in exotic and exciting (and dangerous) places, and he sees his children from time to time.

The second conversation was with a man I was marooned with on a beach in Djibouti past a place called Doralei. We had just been snorkelling through a coral reef together and were then having a snack, watching the sun set behind the mountains. He told me that when he was in Spain and still married he used to go to work when it was still dark, sit in a room with no windows, and leave for home after the sun had set. This was his life, six or seven days a week. He told me he very rarely had an opportunity to do things like spend a weekend at the beach and watch the sun set behind the mountains. He said it was inconceivable that he could trade what he had now for his old life away from the sun. He said we were lucky to be doing the things we were doing and that people back home didn't know what they were missing (though, to be true, I've tried to convey some of it in this blog).

The third conversation was with a man I met in Canada - a friend of a friend - who has a similar life path to mine and, moreover, seems to share certain of my traits. He told me there are lawyers in Toronto that he went to law school with who do things like 'mergers' and 'acquisitions' and make a lot of money doing them. He told me they say things like "I wish I could do the things that you do," but he says that they can't because they're stuck where they are. He told me he'll never have a lot of money - and I agreed that I would never have a lot of money (what would I do with it?) - but he loves what he does and the choices that he's made have left him free free to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. He can put a sign on his door telling people they should find some other lawyer and he'll go to Africa for a week or a month. He said he and I are both young (I would argue I'm much younger) and there'll be plenty of time for each of us to worry about having families "years from now".

What do these three conversations amount to? More ideas to ponder.

It is now 2011, and I am not an engineer. I am a lawyer - an international human rights lawyer. I am these things because of a couple of ideas. Without a plan, or a prayer, I let these ideas of mine take root and here I am: unable to get hired to do anything that isn't 'international human rights', whatever those are. So I've accepted a job in Thailand, and barring anything unforeseen, it looks like I'll be heading there any day now. I'm to be the Associate Protection Officer. I'm excited and anxious and afraid that 'free will' might just be something intellectuals concocted to give themselves something else to argue about. My ideas - put in my head by other people - have taken root, taken over, and it seems I'm heading back overseas.

From time to time I worry that I'm not making the right 'choices' right now; but I also worry that maybe the idea that there is any 'choice' in the matter - any matter - is utter nonsense. These days I look back and wonder what might have been had I not been present in that Fluid Dynamics lecture and made the 'choices' that have lead to my becoming a 'human rights lawyer'. What might have happened had those ideas not been planted. I think about the conversations I've had with greater men than I and wonder what will become of me. But I can't see that far ahead. All I have are ideas, and Phase 2 is still a big question mark. The ideas take root and I somehow find myself a few years older and in Phase 3, whatever it is.

Does God have a plan for us all? Some people think so. Some people derive a great deal of comfort from that premise, so I use it as a reminder when I have nothing better to say. As for the voracity of that claim, I and others are still waiting for evidence beyond speculation, conjecture, and argument rooted in supposition. But when I find myself in Phase 3, confused as to how I got there, I wonder.

I should write a discourse on the fallacy that is 'free will' but I'm going to save it for another day - and another blog. I think this one is finished now. If I start writing somewhere else, I will post the new address in a new entry here. Warm wishes to everyone for 2011. Keep your sticks on the ice.


  1. I apologize to anyone reading this (does anyone read these?) for the incongruence between the text of this blog entry and the date it was purportedly authored. I began writing this entry on 18 December, but hit a wall, and walked away from it, returning some three or so weeks later (i.e., last evening).

    Moreover, I sign off the above by noting that I plan to begin a new blog. I really don't know what potential there may be for linking the two, or if this is evening necessary. It may be easier to just maintain this one blog and archive the 2010 entries somehow. In truth, I really don't know how this blogging stuff works to be honest. I could use a Staples® Easy Button™. In the next week or so - hopefully before leaving for Thailand - I should have it all sorted out. Stay tuned.

  2. All the best in Thailand James! I hope you find your job interesting and rewarding and make lots of great friends... and fewer bugs!

    I have a CS friend who moved there a few years ago and never came back... he now runs a dive operation and couldn't be happier.

    I'm moving back to Iqaluit and will see what job prospects there are up there... we'll see :) Maybe I'll have enough time to get back to my blog!

  3. Thanks Lindsay. :) It actually took less than 24 hours for me to come down with some kind of 'stomach bug' on arriving in Thailand - so one nasty bug already. Best of luck back up in Iqaluit!