A Fable of a Snake

 

… Thus the orb he roamed
With narrow search; and with inspection deep
Considered every creature, which of all
Most opportune might serve his wiles; and found
The Serpent subtlest beast of all the field.
Paradise Lost. Book IX.
The Commons of England assembled in Parliament, [find] by too long experience, that
the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England …
—Parliament of England. “An Act for the Abolishing of the House of Peers.” 19 March 1649.

 

Imagine,” wrote the literary critic Terry Eagleton some years ago in the first line of his review of the biologist Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, “someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” Eagleton could quite easily have left things there—the rest of the review contains not much more information, though if you have a taste for that kind of thing it does have quite a few more mildly-entertaining slurs. Like a capable prosecutor, Eagleton arraigns Dawkins for exceeding his brief as a biologist: that is, of committing the scholarly heresy of speaking from ignorance. Worse, Eagleton appears to be right: of the two, clearly Eagleton is better read in theology. Yet although it may be that Dawkins the real person is ignorant of the subtleties of the study of God, the rules of logic suggest that it’s entirely possible that someone could be just as educated as Eagleton in the theology—and yet hold arguably views closer to Dawkins’ than to Eagleton’s. As it happens, that person not only once existed, but Eagleton wrote a review of someone else’s biography of him. His name is Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas is, of course, the Roman Catholic saint whose writings stand, even today, as the basis of Church doctrine: according to Aeterni Patris, an encyclical delivered by Pope Leo XIII in 1879, Aquinas stands as “the chief and master of all” the scholastic Doctors of the church. Just as, in other words, the scholar Richard Hofstadter called American Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina “the Marx of the master class,” so too could Aquinas be called the Marx of the Catholic Church: when a good Roman Catholic searches for the answer to a difficult question, Aquinas is usually the first place to look. It might be difficult then to think of Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor” as he is sometimes referred to by Catholics, as being on Dawkins’ side in this dispute: both Aquinas and Eagleton lived by means of examining old books and telling people about what they found, whereas Dawkins is, by training at any rate, a zoologist.

Yet, while in that sense it could be argued that the Good Doctor (as another of his Catholic nicknames puts it) is therefore more like Eagleton (who was educated in Catholic schools) than he is like Dawkins, I think it could equally well be argued that it is Dawkins who makes better use of the tools Aquinas made available. Not merely that, however: it’s something that can be demonstrated simply by reference to Eagleton’s own work on Aquinas.

“Whatever other errors believers may commit,” Eagleton for example says about Aquinas’ theology, “not being able to count is not one of them”: in other words, as Eagleton properly says, one of the aims of Aquinas’ work was to assert that “God and the universe do not make two.” That’s a reference to Aquinas’ famous remark, sometimes called the “principle of parsimony,” in his magisterial Summa Contra Gentiles: “If a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do it by means of several; for we observe that nature does not employ two instruments where one suffices.” But what’s strange about Eagleton’s citation of Aquinas’ thought is that it is usually thought of as a standard argument on Richard Dawkins’ side of the ledger.

Aquinas’ statement is after all sometimes held to be one of the foundations of scientific belief. Sometimes called “Occam’s Razor,” Isaac Newton referred to Aquinas’ axiom in the Principia Mathematica when the great Englishman held that his work would “admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” Later still, in a lecture Albert Einstein gave at Oxford University in 1933, Newton’s successor affirmed that “the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” Through these lines of argument runs more or less Aquinas’ thought that there is merely a single world—it’s just that the scientists had a rather different idea of what that world is than Aquinas did.

“God for Aquinas is not a thing in or outside the world,” according to Eagleton, “but the ground of possibility of anything whatever”: that is, the world according to Aquinas is a God-infused one. The two great scientists seem to have held, however, a position closer to the view supposed to have been expressed to Napoleon by the eighteenth-century mathematician Pierre-Simon LaPlace: that there is “no need of that hypothesis.” Both in other words think there is a single world; the distinction to be made is simply whether the question of God is important to that world’s description—or not.

One way to understand the point is to say that the scientists have preserved Aquinas’ way of thinking—the axiom sometimes known as the “principle of parsimony”—while discarding (as per the principle itself) that which was unnecessary: that is, God. Viewed in that way, the scientists might be said to be more like Aquinas than Aquinas—or, at least, than Terry Eagleton is like Aquinas. For Eagleton’s disagreement with Aquinas is different: instead of accepting the single-world hypothesis and rejecting whether it is God or not, Eagleton’s contention is with the “principle of parsimony” itself—the contention that there can be merely a single explanation for the world.

Now, getting into that whole subject is worth a library, so we’ll leave it aside here; let me simply ask you to stipulate that there is a lot of discussion about Occam’s Razor and its relation to the sciences, and that Terry Eagleton (a—former?—Marxist) is both aware of it and bases his objection to Aquinas upon it. The real question to my mind is this one: although Eagleton—as befitting a political radical—does what he does on political grounds, is the argumentative move he makes here as legitimate and as righteous as he makes it out to be? The reason I ask this is because the “principle of parsimony” is an essential part of a political case that’s been made for over two centuries—which is to say that, by abandoning Thomas Aquinas’ principle, people adopting Eagleton’s anti-scientific view are essentially conceding that political goal.

That political application concerns the design of legislatures: just as Eagleton and Dawkins argue over whether there is a single world or two, in politics the question of whether legislatures ought to have one house or two has occupied people for centuries. (Leaving aside such cases as Sweden, which once had—in a lovely display of the “diversity” so praised by many of Eagleton’s compatriots—four legislative houses.) The French revolutionary leader, the Abbè Sieyés—author of the manifesto of the French Revolution, What Is the Third Estate?—has likely put the case for a single house most elegantly: the abbè once wrote that legislatures ought to have one house instead of two on the grounds that “if the second chamber agrees with the first, it is useless; if it disagrees it is dangerous.” Many other French revolutionary leaders had similar thoughts: for example, Mirabeau wrote that what are usually termed “second chambers,” like the British House of Lords or the American Senate, are often “the constitutional refuge of the aristocracy and the preservation of the feudal system.” The Marquis de Condorcet thought much the same. But such a thought has not been limited to the eighteenth-century, nor to the right-hand side of the English Channel.

Indeed, there has long been similar-minded people across the Channel—there’s reason in fact to think that the French got the idea from the English in the first place given that Oliver Cromwell’s “Roundhead” regime had abolished the House of Lords in 1649. (Though it was brought back after the return of Charles II.) In 1867’s The English Constitution, the writer and editor-in-chief of The Economist, Walter Bagehot, had asserted that the “evil of two co-equal Houses of distinct natures is obvious.” George Orwell, the English novelist and essayist, thought much the same: in the early part of World War II he fully expected that the need for efficiency produced by the war would result in a government that would “abolish the House of Lords”—and in reality, when the war ended and Clement Atlee’s Labour government took power, one of Orwell’s complaints about it was that it had not made a move “against the House of Lords.” Suffice it to say, in other words, that the British tradition regarding the idea of a single legislative body is at least as strong as that of the French.

Support for the idea of a single legislative house, called unicameralism, is however not limited to European sources. For example, the French revolutionary leader, the Marquis de Condorcet, only began expressing support for the concept after meeting Benjamin Franklin in 1776—the Philadelphian having recently arrived in Paris from an American state, Pennsylvania, best-known for its single-house legislature. (A result of 1701’s Charter of Privileges.) Franklin himself contributed to the literature surrounding this debate by introducing what he called “the famous political Fable of the Snake, with two Heads and one Body,” in which the said thirsty Snake, like Buridan’s Ass, cannot decide which way to proceed towards water—and hence dies of dehydration. Franklin’s concerns were later taken up, a century and half later, by the Nebraskan George Norris—ironically, a member of the U.S. Senate—who criss-crossed his state in the summer of 1934 (famously wearing out two sets of tires in the process) campaigning for the cause of unicameralism. Norris’ side won, and today Nebraska’s laws are passed by a single legislative house.

Lately, however, the action has swung back across the Atlantic: both Britain and Italy have sought to reform, if not abolish, their upper houses. In 1999, the Parliament of Great Britain passed the House of Lords Act, which ended a tradition that had lasted nearly a thousand years: the hereditary right of the aristocracy to sit in that house. More recently, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi called “for eliminating the Italian Senate,” as Alexander Stille put it in The New Yorker, which the Italian leader claimed—much as Norris had claimed—that doing so would “reduc[e] the cost of the political class and mak[e] its system more functional.” That proved, it seems, a bridge too far for many Italians, who forced Renzi out of office in 2016; similarly, despite the withering scorn of Orwell (who could be quite withering), the House of Lords has not been altogether abolished.

Nevertheless, American professor of political science James Garner observed so early as 1910, citing the example of Canadian provincial legislatures, that among “English speaking people the tendency has been away from two chambers of equal rank for nearly two hundred years”—and the latest information indicates the same tendency at work worldwide. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union—a kind of trade organization for legislatures—there are for instance currently 116 unicameral legislatures in the world, compared with 77 bicameral ones. That represents a change even from 2014, when there were 3 less unicameral ones and 2 more bicameral ones, according to a 2015 report by Betty Drexage for the Dutch government. Globally, in other words, bicameralism appears to be on the defensive and unicameralism on the rise—for reasons, I would suggest, that have much to do with widespread adoption of a perspective closer to Dawkins’ than to Eagleton’s.

Within the English-speaking world, however—and in particular within the United States—it is in fact Eagleton’s position that appears ascendent. Eagleton’s dualism is, after all, institutionally a far more useful doctrine for the disciplines known, in the United States, as “the humanities”: as the advertisers know, product differentiation is a requirement for success in any market. Yet as the former director of the American National Humanities Center, Geoffrey Galt Harpham, has remarked, the humanities are “truly native only to the United States”—which implies that the dualist conception of knowledge that depicts the sciences as opposed to something called “the humanities” is one that is merely contingent, not a necessary part of reality. Therefore, Terry Eagleton, and other scholars in those disciplines, may advertise themselves as on the side of “the people,” but the real history of the world may differ—which is to say, I suppose, that somebody’s delusional, all right.

It just may not be Richard Dawkins.

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The Razor’s Edge

… for that path is sharp as a razor’s edge, impassable,
and hard to follow, say the wise.
—Katha Upanishad 1.3.14
 

“Never start a ball over a hazard,” said the kid, with a confused look on his face. He was baffled, though he might not have described it this way, because while many might think that the patron saint of golf, if it has one, is Saint Andrew (whose ensign, an “X,” isn’t particularly encouraging for a golfer, and whose feast day, November 30, isn’t a particularly good one for golf, at least in the Northern Hemisphere), it’s actually William of Ockham, whose commemoration date is that ideal day of the 10th of April, and who is best-known for writing “Plurality should not be postulated without necessity,” otherwise known to philosophers as “Occam’s Razor.” Or, to put it in golf terms, the notion that you ought to play a hole in as few shots as possible. What was perplexing the kid was that the hole we were looking at smashed that straight to hell. Sorting it out, in turn—a phraseology not used lightly—necessitates considering Walt Disney, Tiger Woods, the Rules of Golf, long-handled putters and the recent changes regarding Q-School proposed by the PGA Tour, though getting there implies a less-direct route than William might like.

The kid and I were standing on the tee of one of the weirder holes I’ve ever seen: a sweeping dog-leg 5-par around an oxbow bend in the Buffalo Bayou, Houston’s main river. The tee shot is basically blind: you can see the beginning of the fairway but not the rest of the hole; the dogleg is so severe that hitting the ball that way is too short a distance for a driver. The only way to play that hole, in other words, is to flout deliberately one of those rules professional golfers live by, the rule that you should never intentionally put a hazard into play. But in order to play this hole in the fewest amount of strokes it’s necessary to take the risk of the hazard: the conundrum put the aspiring-tour-pro head of the kid into brain-lock.

On most days, I was the kid’s caddie, on what was then the Adams Tour, a mini-tour based in Texas during the late fall into winter, but since getting to Houston he’d had trouble breaking 90 in the stiff Texas wind, and, in need of cash, we’d both turned to looping like attractive would-be pre-med coeds turn to … well, whatever it is that they do. So there we were, at Houston Country Club, the oldest golf club in Houston and one of the oldest in Texas, and though the golf course isn’t as old as the club (which had moved from its old location in the 1950s), still it was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., one of the giants of golf architecture.

Houston Country Club is a posh joint run by old-time oil swells (one of its founders was Howard Hughes’ father, Howard Hughes, Sr.): all of which is to say that HCC is probably one of the most conservative places in the country, if not the planet. It’s disturbing, in other words, to find such a rebel of a hole at the golf course’s heart: in order to score well on that course a birdie is absolutely necessary there, which is to say that it demands precisely that rule-flouting that the club’s members, presumably, would abhor in their own lives. But you play the golf course as you find it, not how you’d wish it to be—and if the members of Houston Country Club are unaware of the ironies of their own course, then that’s one of the burdens of professional knowledge, I suppose. That doesn’t mean, to be sure, that the swells can’t suddenly re-discover the rules when it’s convenient, though—a point that has a direct bearing on the story that Houston Country Club and its caddie program is best-known for having a tangential connection with these days, since it was there that Taylor Smith completed his back nine on this planet.

Taylor Smith finished his days as a caddie at Houston CC in 2007, at the age of 40, apparently of pancreatitis. He’d never married, never had any children so far as anyone knows. He is, at best, a footnote in golf history: the guy who’d almost had to face down Tiger Woods in a playoff but didn’t and, because he didn’t, handed Tiger his second win on tour. The story of how he didn’t is a story about conflicting rules and how to apply them, and perhaps is instructive about golf and other matters.

The scene of the tale was Walt Disney World in October of 1996, the PGA Tour’s Orlando stop and one of the last chances for a player to make enough money to secure his tour card for the following season. Smith didn’t particularly need that chance: he’d already had two top-five finishes and would finish the season with a comfortable $220,000, which in those days was more than enough to make the top 125. Still, Smith was still looking for a win and at Orlando he not only made the cut, but spent Saturday night sleeping near the lead along with another guy whose career would also be cut short: Payne Stewart. Then there was a kid whose last name was Woods.

Back then Eldrick was still a young golfer trying to solidify his presence on the Big Show: though only a bit before the Disney he’d already won at the Las Vegas Invitational (beating Davis Love in a playoff), which meant his status for the next season wasn’t in doubt, he hadn’t yet become the Tiger Woods of whom other golfers were, for a time, afraid. Smith, in the final round, surely didn’t play scared: he calmly rolled in a putt on the last green to tie Woods at 267 for the tournament, 21 shots under par. And that despite the fact that, even aside from Woods, he had every reason to be anxious during that final round.

Earlier that day, while making the turn, Smith’s playing partner Lennie Clements, noticed something about the putter Smith was using: one of the two grips the long putter had was flat on one side. Clements knew this was a problem, and indeed a rules official confirmed that the putter violated Appendix II, 4-1c(v): “A putter may have more than one grip, provided each is circular in cross-section and the axis of each coincides with the axis of the shaft.” Smith played on anyway under an appeal of the decision and finished the round. But his protest—and the fact that, as many acknowledged then and now, there’s little reason to think that the flat grip could have assisted him any more than the fact that he had a broom-handle putter (perfectly allowable under the rules) already anyway—fell on deaf ears. Woods thereby won by default.

Smith won a lot of plaudits after the tournament though, via what many called the “classy” way he handled his DQ. When it was all over, he said that Clements “did the right thing” by calling over a rules official, and according the Orlando Sentinel a year later, Smith’s “noble handling of the disappointment gained him coast-to-coast style points.” But the same story (“As a Rule of Thumb, Give Smith His Due”) also hints at something darker: “tour insiders,” it says, “say he has had difficulty letting it go.” What Smith “dwelled on,” the story says, was “the revelations about the possibility that Woods, too, had been unknowingly playing Disney with a non-conforming putter.”

The tour got a phone call, it seems, on the Monday after the tournament was over that alleged that Tiger’s Scotty Cameron putter—the same one that he’d also used to win at Las Vegas earlier that fall—did not conform to Rule 4-1b of the Rules of Golf, which mandated that the neck of a putter measure five inches or less from the point of contact with the shaft and the putter’s bottom. The tour called Tiger’s camp immediately—but didn’t actually inspect the putter until two days later, by which time it had already been replaced in Tiger’s bag by another, conforming, putter. Which, as it turns out, was something of a moot point anyway, since as Rule 34-1 holds, “a penalty must not be rescinded, modified or imposed after the competition has closed,” a rule that has something of the same effect as Article I, Section 9 (the rule against ex post facto laws) does in the United States Constitution. Because Smith’s non-conforming putter was discovered at the time, in other words, he suffered a penalty that Tiger, whose putter never did get inspected, escaped.

Almost certainly, of course, that Woods wasn’t subject to the same level of scrutiny as Smith was what bothered Smith—though more certainly Smith isn’t around to be asked about it. Why it’s of anything more than an antiquarian’s interest though is in light of the recent proposal of the PGA Tour to eliminate Q-School as a direct route to the tour. Smith originally got on the Big Show through Q-School, the annual tournament whose final stage is 6 days long and is probably the most grueling competition in golf, while Tiger, of course, never had to play Q-School because he got invited to tournaments through sponsor exemptions—and then he won. Yet the routes of both of these men to the tour would be closed if the tour has its way.

Under a proposal first outlined to PGA Tour players at the annual meeting on the Tuesday before the tour stop at Torrey Pines, Q-School as a route to the PGA Tour would be eliminated. Instead, the Fall Finish tournaments (of which the Disney used to be one) would become a three-event shootout between the top 75 Nationwide players and the 75 Big Show players on the bubble, with 50 PGA Tour cards at stake. The Q-School tournament, whose traditional dates in early December would in any case be disrupted by the new format, would become merely a route to the Nationwide Tour.

Or whatever they will call it, since the PGA Tour has also announced that Nationwide Insurance is pulling out as a title sponsor. One of the consequences of that decision might be that Tiger’s route to the PGA Tour might also be closed: a few potential sponsors of the Fall Finish tournaments have said that they aren’t interested unless their tournaments are part of the FedEx Cup chase, which means that the new PGA Tour season will have to start in October right after the Tour Championship. Instead of being events traditionally skipped by the bigger names on tour, who usually take a break after the Tour Championship—and thus allowing younger guys like Woods to catch some sponsor exemptions and get a chance to compete at a high level without directly facing the best of the best immediately—the change threatens to make the PGA Tour a constant, year-around affair.

And, perhaps solving some headaches for the tour’s staff, would immediately have the effect of dividing professional golfers rather handily into two classes: PGA Tour players and all others. Instead of the fluidity represented by the careers of Tiger and Taylor, we’d have very, very solidly defined career paths: players, even great ones, would have to spend a year on the Nationwide Tour (or whatever it is named in the future) without exception, while there also would be no way for a marginal player to catch lightning in a bottle for a week and ride to a fun (and lucrative) year on the PGA Tour. The new system would act … well, very much like a razor, sharply delineating who is deserving of special treatment and who is not with what is evidently a satisfying clarity to the tour.

It will also have the effect of multiplying the classes of golfers into two: those with access to the rich purses of the PGA Tour and those playing on whatever the Nationwide Tour will become, where the purses are roughly one-tenth as much. It might be worth noting, in this connection, that while generally speaking the kid’s rule about where you should never start your tee shot is valid, it’s also true that there is, in golf architecture, a species of golf hole known as a “Cape hole.” The species is named for the 14th at C.B. Macdonald’s National Golf Links of America, on Long Island; what makes it the archetype for the species is that a water hazard runs along one side of a fairway that curves around it, meaning that the further a tee shot is flown over the hazard the greater the potential reward in terms of distance left to the green. At times, in other words, it’s necessary to hit it directly at a hazard. Houston Country Club’s par-five is an example.

There are, also, others.