Monday, December 26, 2011

It must be the ball

Sometimes, when my golf game isn't going particularly well, when I'm struggling to find a swing that works, or to have any feel for how hard to hit a putt, superstition will just happen to drop by on a sales call. "So, I saw that snap hook drive on the fifth hole. Man, doesn't it suck playing out of that wet rough on the left side? And you skulled that chip on four, too. You know, I'll bet it's that ball. It was working ok to start, but something's gotten into it, I think. It's not your friend anymore. I never liked that brand anyway. Must be the ball. Yeah, that's the ticket."

Now experience has taught me that unless there's a substantial physical defect like a cut or some mud on the ball, it's never the ball. It's always me. Golf balls today are remarkably uniform and consistent. There are some actual performance differences between them due to design tradeoffs (e.g., spin vs. distance), but for the average amateur golfer, they're so small as to be inconsequential. Almost all the variations in shot outcomes are due only to how the player hits, or more to the point, mishits the ball.

I endeavor to have no superstitions. Really, none. I don't believe in ghosts or gods, black cats or lucky rabbits' feet.  Superstition makes one fearful of imaginary threats and expectant of imaginary help. But it's hard to keep superstition and the perception of supernatural agency at bay. In our imperfectly evolved brains, it's always loitering there in the wings, waiting for a momentary lapse in our reasoning to pounce and intrude anything from the trivial to the apparently profound in our minds.

Superstition, institutionalized as religion or not, is seductive. It's easy. It's colorful, even lyrical. There are no bothersome theorems, experiments or evidence to get in the way. If it doesn't fit, you can ignore it. After all, it's your subjective experience that counts, right? You make all the rules. It's your own private Idaho.

That's the lazy way out, a facile and pat explanation or solution to any problem. When complexity or facts intrude, well, either a miracle occurred or God works in mysterious ways. And miracles and mystery are definitely more intriguing and entertaining than say, Avogadro's Number or Bernoulli's Equation.

But ultimately, belief in supernatural agency is just ducking your responsibility, passing the buck to some imaginary being or cause. "It's not my fault. There's nothing I can do. It's not possible to understand why this is happening."

Reasoning, on the other had, requires work. There aren't any short cuts. You can't appeal to a simple supernatural explanation or agent, declare victory and go home. Reality has this annoying tendency to reassert itself. It exhibits randomness, unpredictability. It's capricious, complicated, stubborn, inscrutable, unyielding to argument or entreaty. It doesn't play nicely with wishful thinking or hand-waving.

Reason doesn't have a back door. You can't throw up your hands when you don't have an answer and say, "Well hey, it must be God's will." But spurning superstition for reason and real work yields far more useful and ultimately satisfying results, because they're real and repeatable not imagined or hoped for.

As Arnold Palmer once said, "It's a funny thing. The more I practice, the luckier I get."


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