“I’ve always been hard-headed,” confesses Lucas Taylor, “and I have lots of trouble listening to other people’s views. I like math, though. There’s always one right answer.”
The first semester has ended, and Taylor and I sit outside a coffee shop not far from the college. Taylor stands six feet, three inches tall, weighs 340 pounds, and sports a thick brown beard. On this day, he wears dark glasses and a baseball cap turned backward. He is 28 years old.
Two months earlier, in my introduction to philosophy class, students often seemed taken aback at Taylor’s assertive, even arrogant, demeanor during discussion sessions. On several occasions, when he spoke up forcefully, it struck me that an attempt to keep a lid on tight was failing.
Taylor returned to community college in the fall of 2014 to begin forging a new career. After once giving up on school at 19, he’d been pursuing a life of professional crime — and chaos. During that period, he came to be known as “Grizzly.”
“I am the poster boy for the idea that a disastrous childhood leads to lifelong crime,” he had written in an assignment. “Now if that is true, I should never be able to turn my life around.”
In his second try, Taylor wasn’t finding college academics hard, though maintaining concentration was a problem at first. The particular difficulty he had in my class, he says, was stopping his intolerance from flaring up. The variety of opinions that students express he seemed to be finding hard to take.
But in one tangent on cybersecurity, Taylor struck a more knowledgeable than confrontational tone. He displayed a comfortable familiarity with computers and information technology. At the time, he attributed his expertise to experience he’d gained working as a bill collector. He held forth for several minutes on how easy it is to track people online.
As we continue sipping coffee in the afternoon sun, I try to learn more about his technical knowledge. “Remember what you told the class about being a bill collector?” I ask.
“Oh, that was a euphemism for what I learned doing identity theft. I was leery of my classmates dwelling too much on something I didn’t want to explain.”
But it was something else that first piqued my interest in Taylor’s story. A segment of the course on the topic of free will versus determinism, long a staple of introductory philosophy courses, brought forth Taylor’s most passionate expressiveness. He first wrote an essay rejecting criminality as a fate, arguing that anyone could move beyond it to productive activity. Then, in class, he raged against the kind of defeatist attitude that keeps the doors revolving from mean streets to incarceration and back again.
Taylor’s college major will be electronics engineering, he says — to be used eventually for legal purposes, of course. He is sure he can create his own destiny. But does reality allow this to happen? Our unique heredities and the environments we live in often seem to dictate the outcomes of our lives. That is, in fact, what a view called hard determinism maintains. The universe is a vast system of material causes and effects that play out like clockwork. It’s difficult sometimes to see how powerful the influences on us are because the world is so complex. But whatever has happened in our lives could not have been otherwise. And what you “choose” to do today and tomorrow is already written in the blueprint. In other words, our belief in free will is an illusion.
This view was the reason why Taylor became so agitated. He’d already been down a hard road. Were that road and his make-up determining what he thought to be his newest choice? Or will his history bite him in the future and fling him back to the dissolute life again? It’s early yet, and there is no guarantee that Taylor’s turnaround will last. But listening to determinists, he thinks, could cause him to give up. It would be as though he accepts being doomed already.
Many seductions could pull Taylor back into crime. Take only the money. During his criminal life, Taylor claims he swam in bundles of cash. These days he and his girlfriend subsist on his freelance computer troubleshooting work and her steady but low-paying job. He’s no longer the big shot high roller. Isn’t the temptation powerful at times to go back into the fast lane again?
No, claims Taylor, because “I frittered away most of the dough anyway, on drugs and booze.”
How about the chemical dependencies? His drug and alcohol use became so extensive that he’s had to start taking medication to repair his liver. Again, Taylor is confident. It would seem naively so. But he says he’s not had anything to drink nor taken any drugs for six months. Did he attend Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12-step programs? How about a treatment program? Neither one. “I just decided to stop one evening while staring at the ocean from the shore in Mission Beach,” he tells me.
Taylor credits two sources of help. Weekly, he receives psychotherapy, and he has been prescribed medications to help overcome the substance addictions. “I think the doses have to be large,” Taylor recently tells me, “because of my size.”
Football, drugs, and crime
I was curious about the criminal life Taylor says he led, and the extravagance of his story eventually turned me incredulous in regard to many of its details. He tells me he started running afoul of the law when he was in a Spring Valley grammar school.
“I had trouble controlling my emotions, especially anger,” he says. Threatening another student in the fifth grade led to his being expelled. “At the next school the following year, I shanked a student and got expelled again. It wasn’t so much a conscious decision as a violent outburst. I felt bad about it afterwards and, to this day, I still don’t know what the thought process was that led me to do that.” The incident resulted in the transfer to a third school.