Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Golf and Philosophy: Lessons from the Links

[from Andy Wible]

I enjoyed giving a talk at the Villages’ Philosophy Club on February 25th on some of the issues raised in my new book Golf and Philosophy: Lessons from the Links. I have been a lifelong golfer and I currently teach philosophy at Muskegon Community College. So, I decided to bring my two lifelong passions together in the book. I don’t think any other sport affects fundamental philosophical issues in our lives like golf. Golf affects where we live, such as the Villages and often who we our friends are. Also, unlike most other sports, we can play it nearly all our lives. The Power point presentation that on the book I gave is available at: http://www.muskegoncc.edu/PDFFiles/C&P_Arts/Wible_Villages.pdf The narrative below is a sketch of the lecture that accompanied the slides.

I started the talk by explaining a common theme that runs through the book and philosophy in general. The theme is the importance of finding the essence of a concept. The essence is what makes something what it is. Let’s look at a simple example. There are many different tables in the world, but what makes them all tables? One might say it is a flat surface with four legs. But four legs do not seem to be necessary for being a table. So, “four legs” should not be part of our definition of table. A flat surface is not enough for being a table for we know the floor is a flat surface and is not a table. To get the full essence of a concept, we are looking for the necessary (required) conditions that are jointly sufficient (enough). A better answer might be that a table is an elevated flat surface (this is close to what the dictionary says). This definition is closer to the truth but still does not seem to be sufficient for some things like buildings fulfill this definition.

We can use this conceptual framework to look at the essence of golf. The Casey Marin court case was an examination of the essence of golf. The question was whether giving Martin a cart would change the nature or essence of the game. If it did, then the cart legally did not need to be given. Is walking a necessary condition of golf? Many argued it was. Of course, many people use carts and are still playing golf. So, on the surface it seems that he should be given the cart given his disability (the majority on the Supreme Court agreed). It is a tough issue though, because we might argue that walking is an essential part of “professional golf” where greater excellence is demanded.

A similar issue is whether golf is a sport. Some have argued that it is not because there is not as much of a physical requirement as sports such as football or basketball. A cart clearly would change the nature of those sports. Running though does not seem to be a necessary condition of playing a sport. A tennis player who walks to her shots is still playing tennis. So, what makes some games qualify as sports? In chapter 15, Holt and Holt suggest that a sport be defined as a competitive game of inclusively gross physical skill. Do you think that this definition provides the necessary and sufficient conditions of the concept “sport?” If they are on the right track, then we can safely say golf is a sport.

We next turned ways golf can teach us about big issues in life. The first way golf can help us to understand personal identity or who we are. What makes me who I am? Why am I the same person as five years ago even though I have changed? If I change and yet remain the same, then whatever changed in me is not who I am essentially. That quality that changed was not a necessary condition of who I am. For example, many people say that their jobs make them who they are. “I am Joe the Plumber.” It is true that many peoples’ identities are influenced by their work, but we are not essentially our work. If someone changes his job he is still that person. We are also not our body or our soul for we could change our body or soul and still be the same person.

Golf helps us to get a better understanding of who we are by noticing the importance of memories when playing. If we remember a bad short putt, then that memory causes our current self to shiver over the next short putt. The reason is that we largely are our memories. I am who I am because of the memories that I have. If you lose all your memories, then you are no longer the same person (we often say that Alzheimer’s patients are not the same person, but cancer patients are the same person.). This theory of personal identity is not perfect for I could have false memories of something that I never did. I might remember playing golf with my Grandfather at Doral, but there could be good evidence that I never did.

Nonetheless, it does seem closer to the truth. Philosophy does not always give us the right answer, but attempts to get us closer to the truth.

We next turned our discussion to the meaning of life (chapter 16 of the book). I asked whether living a happy life is sufficient to living a meaningful life. One problem with saying that happiness if sufficient for a meaningful life is that a happy immoral person could be said to have a meaningful life. I think most of us would think that he does not for a generally moral life is necessary to live a meaningful life. Golf can again help see this. Our most meaningful rounds are not the ones where we cheat and win the bet we make with opponents. Our most meaningful rounds tend to be the ones where we did the right thing and achieved moral and physical excellence. We also looked into friendships and how golf (done right) can help us to make meaningful friends (moral friends).

I concluded by looking at ethics and golf. Does golf make us more or less moral persons? Beller and Stole argue in chapter 5 that golf is the one sport that the more people play it, the better their moral reasoning skills become. Other sports seem to have the opposite effect. Why is this? Is it correct? I think it might be due to players calling their own rules and the history and civility demanded by the game. Lumpkin talks of an interesting result of this data in chapter 7 of the book. She says that golf is the one sport that the professionals are moral than the amateurs when they play. The pro basketball player would never say that he fouled another player, but an amateur commonly does. In golf, amateurs touch their golf balls all the time for a better lie, but pros never do.

I don’t mean to make golf sound perfect. We know the elitism, racism, and sexism that has plagues the sport. As one questioner nicely pointed also pointed out, “Couldn’t be we doing something better with our time and money? Are we isolating ourselves from more important issues?” We should work to make golf overcome these problems. Some attempts are out there. The First Tee program helps to diversify the sport and the PGA tour has given over a billion dollars to charity. Pushing ourselves and others in the sport to do better is essential to preserving and improving the game.

Thank you allowing me to talk about golf and philosophy. More in-depth analysis and topics are available in the book which is available at amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or can ordered by your local bookstore. The Villages is directly mentioned in the book. Can you find it? Comments and questions about all these topics or the book are welcome!


Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks, Andy, for giving your talk at The Villages Philosophy Club and sharing your spiffy set of Powerpoint charts and your summary with the TVPClub blog. I enjoyed your talk very much and it is a privilege to have you as an Authorized Author here at TVPC! You are welcome to post comments and new Topics as you see fit, and we will all be your students!

I think the idea of "essence" is an important philosophy concept. Is my knee a "table" if I rest my golf score card on it to write? Well, it is an "elevated flat surface". What about the multiplication "tables" or "Table Mountain"? It seems that metaphorical speech stretches relatively specific words out to near infinity. Yet, in most cases, we understand each other and most of us would agree that this is a table and that is a stool and the other is a desk, and so on.

I think it is sad that the Supreme Court has to waste its time on deciding whether a professional Golf association must allow a player to use a golf cart. It seems to me the government has gone way beyond its bounds to the point we are all treated like children in a nanny state. Yes, employers must make reasonable accommodation for handicapped people, but, if they have to provide physically handicapped people with special aids, are the mentally handicapped next?

I agree that an Altzheimer patient (like my late mother-in-law) is really not the "same" person she was in earlier days, yet a cancer patient (like my late mother) was the "same" person to the day she passed on. So, we are our memories and other mental processes. Does that mean if we put Einstein's brain in a vat and kept it alive, it would "really" be him? What if we made a faithful computer simulation of Einstein's brain? Even if we all agree with your very reasonable premise that our mentality is us, we may still diverge on hard cases such as when a person is drunk or has a seizure, or loses his temper, etc. Remember the "Twinkie" defense that a sugar rush changed a person such that he was not responsible for his bad acts?

And then there are "ethics". If no one sees you move the golf ball, is it still unethical? Well, according to almost any woman, if a man is alone in the woods and he says something, it is still "stupid" :^)

Ira Glickstein

Andy Wible said...

Thanks for the comments Ira. You make some very interesting and insightful comments. I cannot refuse to give a rambling reply.

Some people do argue for functional definitions of concepts. So, a table is something that functions in a certain way. Your knee can function as a table. I am not so sure this works though. It seems to me that your knee is not a table (it is a knee). It is just being used like we often use tables. I do agree it is amazing that we are able to understand each other even when it is tough to fully analyze concepts.

I agree also that we need to reasonably accommodate people. But what is reasonable is the issue for Casey Martin and a golf cart or the disabled. We shouldn't put a company out of business to accommodate, but we shouldn't discriminate just because we have to make small adjustments. We could all be in their shoes.

You do bring up some tough cases concerning a change in character or mentality and personal identity. Memory is only part of who we are. I think people who act out of character are usually the same person, but there are limits. The person who unknowingly drinks a spiked drink is not responsible for his actions while drunk. In fact, Locke thought that a drunk person who does not remember his actions is not responsible for those actions when drunk. It wasn't him. It is hard to know if people are telling the truth about their memories, so we end up holding them responsible. As we get better reading people's true mental states, we should not. Do you think he is right?

Finally, I think Einstein would be alive still if he was a brain in a vat, and I suspect he is playing virtual golf at the Villages right now. The computer simulation of Einstein's brain is the hardest one to answer. Some say that such a case would not be causeing the mental state in the right way and wouldn't be Einstein. But this reply seems to beg the question. So, I will just say it is a problem.

Howard Pattee said...

Hippocrates (400 BC): “Men ought to know that from nothing else but the brain come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations. And by this, in an especial manner, we acquire wisdom and knowledge, and see and hear, and know what are foul and what are fair, what are bad and what are good, what are sweet, and what unsavory; some we discriminate by habit, and some we perceive by their utility. By this we distinguish objects of relish and disrelish, according to the seasons; and the same things do not always please us. And by the same organ we become mad and delirious, and fears and terrors assail us, some by night, and some by day, and dreams and untimely wanderings, and cares that are not suitable, and ignorance of present circumstances, desuetude, and unskilfulness. All these things we endure from the brain . . ."

As a Nominalist I believe that the concept of “table” exists only in my brain and your brain (and we may disagree). There is nothing in the external world that is inherently a table. Only in a human brain is anything recognized as a table.


joel said...

It seems pretty straight forward to figure out how to punish the "temporarily insane." Make them permanently insane and then jail them. If someone commits a crime while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, we could keep him in a permanently drugged state while holding him in prison. (In fact, that seems to be the case anyway.) I think that Andy has it right. It's a question of responsibility. Being slipped a mind altering drug, is not the same as purposely taking it. If you use your knee as a table and you spill red wine on the new carpet, your spouse will hold you responsible.

This reminds me of the time my wife and I visited B&B in France. When we rang the door bell an elderly lady came to the door munching a very crispy baguette sandwich. There was a load of crumbs on her very ample bosom or what my art teacher would have called her "breast shelf." I vote for names being attached to functionality. A shelf by any other name is still a shelf if it has shelfiness.