Jessica is half asleep as the silver-tongued popularizer of free thought drones on about the implications of a cosmos devoid of mythological deities.
“What Christians need to recognize,” the philosopher onstage continues, “is that they too are atheists. That’s right! They are atheistic toward all the other thousands of gods people have believed in throughout the centuries. We freethinkers just believe in one less god than they do.” A hearty chuckle swarms over the modest crowd.
“Responsible,” I whisper to myself. When Jessica is with me, and not her fanciful mother, my conscience mandates that I expose her to the callous truth. No God awaits her when she dies, there is no golden gate, or heaven waiting for her. I won’t lie to my children. Though I can’t help but sense the irritating nag of guilt that her mother would be horrified, she did suggest we have a father daughter date-night, after all.
The girl rouses as a notification causes her phone to gently vibrate in her hand. She checks it, and then winces to focus again on the lecturer.
“ . . . and so you see, in a godless universe all that occurs is the result of a closed system of cause and effect. Everything that happens, including your thoughts, your emotions, and what we call your decisions, are the result of what amounts to a chain of dominoes falling in a line. Those past events resulted in the circumstances of your life. Those circumstances determined how you think. They resulted in the impulses and desires that culminate in the firing of neurons in your brain that . . . you . . . call . . . choices.” Jessica’s eyes are wide, and her brow furrowed as she works it around in her own brain. Exhilaration tingles through my frame as I recognize the hint of interest in my daughter. This, however, quickly subsides as she slumps back into the chair and checks more digital alerts. Who is she talking to?
The ride home is quiet. We are both undeniably aware of the subtle betrayal of my ex’s faith. It’s our secret though. We’ll roll the topic around more, tomorrow night at . . .
“Dinner?” Jessica asks, to no one in particular as she stares at the illuminated screen in her hands.
“What . . . you hungry?” I ask in confusion.
“No,” she says, never looking away from the device. She deactivates the screen and spins to face me in her seat before continuing. “Okay, dad . . . Seth wants to meet you, and . . .”
“Seth?” I ask, cutting her off.
“Dad, come on. I told you about Seth. Seth? The cute pair of sunglasses that sits behind me in biology,” She reminds with a questioning tone. I nod as she carries on. “Well . . . okay, he’s into all this . . . weird . . . philosophy stuff you like. He wants to come over for dinner, and talk it over with you.” What? A boy wants to meet his girlfriend’s father. This has got to be a first.
With a pleasant and contemplative frown, I answer, “I like it.” Then I look at her and smile. “I’ll look forward to it.”
“Okay,” she says with nervousness, “but . . . Oh my gosh . . . don’t embarrass me.”
“Seriously, drama queen? I won’t.”
Pulling into the driveway I noticed that Frank’s lawn hasn’t been mowed in two weeks. I started to get frustrated, but then reminded myself that he . . . can’t . . . really . . . help it. Like the good doctor on stage tonight said, “All is determined.” I can’t really blame him. It’s that darned chain of dominoes. The personless universe resulted in this. No one really chooses. All is determined. In that sense, it is a genuine fact that Frank had no choice, but to neglect his lawn. Darned if this isn’t downright therapeutic.
The bed seems particularly lonely tonight. My thoughts drift to my ex, Grace. It was one of life’s subtle comforts to watch Grace sit at the vanity and remove her make up. It was just nice that she was . . present. I ruined my marriage. NO! I had no choice. I comfort myself with the reality that the lecturer presented. Determinism did this to our marriage. The neurons in my brain fired according to my passions, and life experience. It felt like a choice, but it was an illusion. It was the dominoes. At this moment, the dominoes are my heroes. They absolve me.
“Take out, Dad. For real?” Jessica asks.
“Hey, babe, I’m no chef. You should thank me.”
“Ugghh . . . whatever, let’s just get it on the table, he’s pulling up now.” Glancing out the window I see it. The cobalt blue sports car produces the cute pair of sunglasses that my daughter finds so charming.
“That! That’s the guy?”
“Dad, chill! You promised . . .”
“I know, I know,” I say with palms up. I’ll be cool.” Winking I move to the door.
The kid seems alright, I think to myself as we finish the pizza. The lid with a large red domino flops down.
“Sir, Jessica tells me that you took her to the free thought lecture last night.” He has anticipation in his eyes. Finally.
“Yes, Seth. We had a nice time, I think. Jessica tells me you’re into philosophy. Is that right?” Jessica monitors the conversation as though she’s delicately putting the finishing touches on a house of cards.
“Yeah, no joke, I am! I would of killed to go to that lecture. I’m reading a book on determinism right now.”
“Yeah,” he says flashing his eyes with excitement. Wrinkling his eyebrows, he produces a disgusted look and goes on, “Look, I’m a skeptic, but I’m not like those newbies who won’t go all the way.”
“What do you mean, Seth?”
“You know, most atheists still hold on to the belief in some kind of . . . of . . . libertarian freedom.” He rolls his eyes. “I don’t even call it that. It’s a lie. There is no freedom. We do what the wiring dictates.” I couldn’t have said it better. I like this guy already. He continues, “We’re like animals. We follow our instincts.” Well . . . he’s right . . . but as he finishes his thought, and tears into the crust of his pizza it all seems a bit primal. This is especially true since he’s now glaring at Jessica in the same manner he glared at the pizza a moment before. I didn’t like that one bit. Nevertheless, as I stare across at the novice philosopher slobbering over his food, I see myself. Is that a good thing?
What should I say next? Do I have a choice? I know I don’t, so then how do I choose? Will I only know what was determined after I make a move? It is at this point that it dawns on me that determinism works much better when considering "decisions” already made, rather than those yet to be made.
The kids have gone. I feel a bit bad about invading the privacy of my daughter’s computer, but I can’t get Seth’s look out of my head. After all, my actions are justified by the justiceless determinism that mandated I would do this very thing. The dominoes are actually pretty helpful. If I’m honest, it does seem like I can just do as I please and then assume I had no choice. It’s liberating and perplexing at the same . . . NO! . . . NO! NO! NO!
As Jessica’s message app materializes on the screen I see the sort of conversation no father wants to read.
Racing along the road I scan for the cobalt blue nightmare for twenty minutes before I see it. It was in the last of the three “lover’s lanes” where the kids go to park. I sit here for a full five minutes before working the handle and stepping out. They don’t drive away. Jessica emerges and with the angriest of scowls approaches.
“What are you doing here?” She says with her arms crossed.
“What are you doing here? I fire back. “What are you doing with this guy . . . in a car . . . HERE?”
“Whatever I want, dad. You and mom can war over my life all you like. But I’m living however I choose.” With this she turns to walk away. I’m startled and stunned by the word. Choose. As I think through my existential predicament regarding the choiclessness of life, and my anger at Jessica’s choices, she sums it up well. Turning to approach me again she adds, “Oh, and I did listen to your beloved lecturer last night. Happy? If you have any further problems with my life choices, just blame it on . . . determinism!” she finishes with a look of sarcasm.
The car door shuts as I’m still thinking of what to say. My eyes fall to the many rock band stickers on the back window of the sports car. As it pulls away one logo catches my eye - five dominoes in a row, tumbling into one another. At this moment the dominoes are not therapeutic. They do not help me overcome my anger toward a negligent neighbor. Nor do they excuse me of my personal improprieties. They fill me with rage. They contradict everything inside me. The dominoes, at this moment, are obviously a LIE!