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Snooker, Pool, and Determinism


Dear Professor M.,

Your article is one of the most brilliant that I can recall reading in the New Criterion, to which I have subscribed since its inception. But I wonder how much good it does to argue against the determinists in so general a fashion—or, rather, in that fashion alone, since you provide an admirable frame for further arguing.

I take it that the principal reason for worrying about the issue while a God was involved was that it indeed seemed unreasonable of that God to be angry about what Adam and Eve did—or about all manner of other human behaviours—if he had set things up so that they could not but do as they did, any more than the clock could help striking twelve when the two hands both became vertical.

But if one leaves God out of it and wants to retain ethics and, in some sense, freedom, without necessarily having to bring in Dostoevsky?

Doesn’t one have to keep pushing the determinists into specific situations?


A few years ago, rather late in life, I began shooting pool, mostly against myself but occasionally with a friend or two, and enjoyed watching it and, even more, snooker, on the box.

I gathered that there were indeed physical laws involved, in the sense that if one struck the cue ball in a certain way the ball that it hit would go in a certain direction at a certain speed. Presumably a scientist who knew perfectly the relationship of weight, speed, force, momentum, etc., could indeed, looking at pool balls abstracted into a diagram, and knowing all the factors involved in a specific instance, predict exactly where the struck ball would go, and how far, and where the cue ball would end up.

Again, in a way which helps keep sports commentators in business, one can tell after something has been done (given the positions of the balls before the stroke was made), why the things happened that did happen—a red ball pocketed, the cue ball brilliantly back where the black can be pocketed again; or a lousy new lie of the cue ball.

But pool—well, let me stay with snooker, having embarked on that example—is an affair of multiple, perhaps almost infinite minutiae, what with the exact degree of hardness of the rails (cushions) at every spot, and the position of hand and cue, and all the adjustments of muscles while making the stroke. With great players, as at times with great writers or great artists, it may indeed look simple enough for the actual movements of balls to match the abstracted map or chart of law-governed balls in motion. Stephen Hendry’s reds keep going in, and the white keeps coming back so that the black can be sunk and replaced and then another red can go in, until only the other colored balls remain, to be sunk in sequence, and the whole table may be cleared that way. I once had the thrill of watching on the box young Ronnie O’Sullivan clearing the table in under three minutes for the maximum possible score, the most memorable example of genius in action that I’ve witnessed.

I suppose that “in principle,” it would be possible for scientists to create a robot, and perfectly consistent rails, that would make such a result possible every time. But that would be a bit like the stupid flesh-creeping predictions one used to hear about the “abolition” of man by machines. Abolition in what sense? A back-hoe may dig a trench that formerly would have required several labourers with picks and shovels, but someone is still operating it, and it’s being operated because someone else needs to have a trench dug on their property. The back-hoe doesn’t choose to dig a trench.


What I’ve been talking about isn’t the actual experiential game of snooker that keeps contests going and prizes being awarded, let alone the related fumblings of someone like myself at the pool table, where I not only didn’t know where exactly I wanted the cue ball to end up, let alone predict where it would end up, but couldn’t even be sure that the struck ball would go into the pocket I had in mind.

Moreover, once the opponent has entered the game, the simple paradigm of a whole run of successful strokes amounting to a very complex actual or tacit understanding of the “laws” involved and a complex imaging ahead of the entire sequence (as I’m sure was happening with Ronnie O’Sullivan, who barely gave the referee time to replace the black on its spot before cueing again) goes out the window. Once there are two players in action, what each does is partly, inescapably, determined by what the other does and what one thinks the other might do if one did such-and-such oneself.

Well, then, can we not place the determinist there at the match, or simply in front of a game between a couple of imperfectly competent amateurs, and say, “OK, now predict—and tell us, if you please, what you take those ‘laws’ to be that, every time a stroke is made, are at work in muscles, eyes, mind as well as in the balls, cues, and rails?”

No doubt he—at least I assume it’s usually a self-styled hard-nosed “he”—might claim that if we knew all about the balls, the table, the physical make-up of the players, their states of being (an incipient cold, a hangover, age with its stealing steps, a self-defeating near-certainty, like Jimmy White’s when playing Stephen Hendry, that even when he himself is five games ahead he’s still going to lose the match)—that if we knew all those things, we could not only explain in detail after the fact why what happened happened (and “had” to happen), but could predict what was going to happen.

Which would be, wouldn’t it? tantamount to saying that if someone’s mind was like the mind of God at the moment when the tip of the cue struck the cue ball, he would be able to win a bet of a hundred bucks from a less privileged fellow spectator.

And this is just about spectators. We haven’t even introduced what it means to be, experientially, a player trying to see patterns, make predictions (I want the balls to end up in such-and-such a way), and turn them into realities successfully.


All of which would seem both to carry us in the direction of that almost infinite variety, or at least complexity, of “laws” covering both inorganic, organic, and psychological factors at every instant, and also to remind us of the fact, which I seem to recall meeting in Spinoza, that in such a situation the objective “laws” and the experiential or phenomenological thinkings of the players, or simply of a solitary tyro like myself at the table, are different kinds of things, though of course the latter would not be possible without some knowledge of the former, or at least of significant patterns of relationship.

In a general way, one indeed tries to master the “laws” governing cue and ball, so that the balls will go where one wants, rather than occasionally being flipped off the table altogether. But if one wants to do moderately well, one can’t simultaneously be making a stroke and standing back and studying oneself making it, any more than the archer of Eugen Herrigal’s classic Zen in the Art of Archery strives to persist in such a double vision.

And one can make mistakes when playing, and know that one has made a mistake, and one can make shots that occasionally surprise one by their excellence, and one can admire shots make by one’s opponent.

Anyway, all the values come into play, including those values of “character” that were memorably on display in the Paul Newman/Jackie Gleason /George C. Scott movie The Hustler.


Doesn’t arguing along some such lines call the bluff of lazy-minded general claims that what happened had to happen, so that there’s no reason to admire the steady greatness of a Stephen Hendry, or the at times genius of a Ronnie O’Sullivan? For after all, the question isn’t really, as it was with the Eden story, why something happened, but how it happened, particularly when what happened, once one knows the difficulties involved, is the consequence of prodigies of natural endowments and vast deals of hard work—the “how” being the kind of stroke-by-stroke account given by expert commentators on the game.

Of course if a robot made perfect scores every time, there would be nothing there to praise, except, I suppose, the skills of its makers and programmers. But we’re not robots, and the existence of such a robot wouldn’t affect our own existential humanity. Personally I doubt that the robot could exist anyway, given the very high degree of knowledge of the game that would be required of its designers, particularly if an opponent robot were added to the table. But that’s neither here nor there, and even if it did exist, it wouldn’t have any bearing on either my own fumblings or the greatness of all those wonderful players who inevitably do not play to perfection all the time, and in consequence keep us watching them in action and empathizing with every shot they make.


I think the determinists get far too much of a free ride when they’re allowed to argue at their chosen level of abstraction.

For that matter, I wonder how many of them really know what a “law” in a non-legal sense is. I’m not sure I do myself. I guess it’s something to the effect that when X conditions occur together, Y will inevitably follow. When the mother penguin hears the hunger cry of its chick it will inevitably want to feed it—can’t help itself, isn’t being “unselfish.” But when you start talking about the behaviour of human mothers, things get looser pretty fast.

Lots of mothers do feed their crying babies. But some don’t, because they’re depressed, or stoned, or have been told not to pamper, or don’t recognize that those particular cries indicate hunger, or are in bed with a lover. A mother’s feeding of a crying baby isn’t inevitable.


But I don’t want to proceed further along that track, with its attendant questions of blame and responsibility, and its almost inevitable tangle of generalized hypothetical examples.

So suppose we go back to the snooker table, or, better, the pool table, just before the cue is in motion, and the commenting experts are guessing that Steve Davis will attempt such-and-such a play, and he does something that surprises them but which, when done, is brilliantly better than the “obvious” thing and wins our instant outburst of applause. What determinist description in terms of “laws” can be offered that would make that applause, that praise, that admiration redundant?

Well, presumably someone could talk about all the bodily adjustments without which the stroke couldn’t be made—one muscle affecting another, which in turn, etc. But it isn’t the body that drove Davis to make that particular stroke, one physiological/neural stimulus leading to another until, hoopla! the cue tip advances and the balls go into their indeed now inevitable motions. What “drove” things was Steve’s sudden perception of new and better possibilities, so that he didn’t make the stroke that he at first intended and aligned himself for.

But what was the “stimulus” there? The balls, before the new stroke, haven’t moved, everything out there is identical. What changed was his perceiving a different configuration, a different sequence of events going on beyond the present stroke. But in what sense were they “there”? The commentators hadn’t spotted them. And if a tyro like myself had been at the table, there would have been a variety of positions, almost all unforeseen by me, in which the balls could wind up.


So in effect, if you want to talk about inevitability, you presumably have to start talking in broad-brush terms about a “law,” meaning a high degree of probability, that when Steve Davis , that lovely tall cool gracious Englishman, discerns the best set of possibilities at any point, he will go after it. But there was no way here of predicting what in fact he would do, what possibilities he would discern and, if hand and eye didn’t betray him, make “inevitable.” You come down to the uniqueness of this moment, this perceiving, this choosing, and in effect to the uniqueness of Steve Davis as the perceiver, the creator of possibilities. Where are the “laws”?

Merely saying airily, well, if one knew all the vast variety of factors here, Davis’s memories of previous times at the table, his particular degree of alertness that morning, how he slept the night before, his processing of all his perceptions of the lie of the balls, and the sequences inhering in them, and the subsequent strokes he might make, and the possible plays of his opponent if his own break ends, etc, etc, one could—or something like the mind of God could—describe everything that went on in a vastly complicated narrative. But the narrative would be so particularist that the “laws” would dwindle down from the indeed precisely law-governed movements of cue-tip and balls to the unbounded and only very loosely inspectable Gestalt of Davis’s mind and “character.”

The solid facts are that Davis made a brilliant, difficult, daring, and by informed spectators unpredicted stroke which made perfect sense, in terms of the strategies and demands of this particular game, after he had made it. With the now seeming naturalness of the stroke (but of course!) giving that illusion of inevitability that helps keep the inevitabilists in business, particularly if they have never tried moving balls around on a green-baize table-top with a stick themselves and learned how difficult it is to get the most elementary results that one wants.

There was no describable external stimulus here, and you’re left with the fact that the reason why that stroke with all its minutest particulars was made was because Davis was trying to win the game and considered, some might say knew, that it was the best possible stroke to make at that point.


A mother penguin, at least I assume so, doesn’t have a repertoire of possible projections ahead of her, whereby, when the chick cries, there are other things that she’d rather be doing, but which she unselfishly foregoes. But we’re not penguins. (Things get more complicated with primates and wolves, of course, with their variety of social interactions.)


I can still sense some idiot absolutist complacently saying that nevertheless (handy word) everything “had” to go the way it did—a move that of course is and must be infinitely extensible until it covers everything that has happened in the universe as preconditions of that precise stroke being made at that point. But when everything is the case, subsumed under a single reiterated principle, the fact, if it is a fact, becomes irrelevant because we cannot do anything with it when engaged in activities like trying to win games of snooker and pool, or enjoying watching such games with all their complex dramas, or feeding and caring for one’s young.


I suspect that part of the determinist’s satisfaction comes from feeling that the remarkable good things that someone else does, and which might make one feel inferior oneself, are not only not really remarkable in terms of virtue when looked at properly, but leave one feeling superior because understanding more truly then the doer and his or her admirers what’s involved. Ah the joys of irony!

I wonder if there isn’t even a shadowy presence of laws in the legal sense there too, laws that must be “obeyed.” But do such laws compel action, or simply say that if you do or don’t do certain things—driving at over the posted speed limit, having a malfunctioning muffler—and are caught, you may or will be punished?

You know, it rather takes me aback to learn that people are still saying the dumb things that they were saying with equal certainty a century ago. But then, I led a sheltered existence in a still humanistic department of English, and could always, when I needed it, draw sustenance from the argumentation of Leavis when dealing with arrogant oversimplifications.

Yours sincerely,

John Fraser,
Professor Emeritus,
Dalhousie University

PS. That line about the absurdity of moral judgments is surely in-the-head-only bunkum, the individuals who peddle it making moral judgments all the time in their own lives, particularly if they have kids, and knowing perfectly well that there’s no way they can refrain from doing so.

A determinist’s teen-age son who gets drunk and slams the family car into a street-lamp wouldn’t get far with arguing that he was predestined to do so—though I suppose that a determinist with a sense of humour, if there are any such, could explain that when he grounds the kid he himself was predestined to do so.

Interesting to extend that notion, as Wittgenstein might have done, so that everyone in the family has a card with “Predestined” on it that they hold up at appropriate moments.


Dear Professor M.,

A bit more.

I’m sure the Pavlov ghost isn’t laid yet, and maybe never will be, the simple outlasting the complex in most people’s minds.

The bell of the ice cream van rings, the scholar at his study desk hears it and has a “thought,” ICE CREAM, and out he trots. Which is to say, an essentially passive model.

I realized this morning that in talking about Steve Davis making that shot, I was myself forgetting something, namely reasoning and language.

Some decisions are indeed made with a Zen-like instantaneity, and I am ignorant of what goes on in the minds of master pool players or, for that matter, sports and games masters of any kind.

But it seems likely or possible that Davis would be thinking to himself in bits of language, “Hmm? … a bit more spin … the white off the top rail … down to the side rail, back up on the 5 … then the bottom rail again … and then the 6 …”.

Of course that’s a very crude representation. But still, I think the verbal, the reasoning, the in a sense logical exists inside the non-verbal, the seeming “instantaneous” or “instinctive” in such situations, if only as a residue from all the previous long learnings of the art and craft of pool playing, the discussions with others, the observing of other players in action. Davis himself, after all, has served as a commentator at times.

For that matter, while some people can indeed, from the outset in childhood, do some things well without being told how, the Zen “effortlessness” in, oh, martial arts, has in or behind it the long and in a sense analytical apprenticeship in which move after move, combination after combination, is practiced, learned, internalized so as to be able to be made without conscious thought at the moment when it’s needed.


So again there’s the question of what kind of detailed account a determinist could give, or envisage being given, of the thinking aspect of that particular pool stroke that would explain how during those successive moments during which Davis’s eye and mind were flicking back and forth across the actual table and envisaging changes in the lie of the balls, he wasn’t “free” to notice, and extrapolate, and decide what he did.

And if the determined determinist were to insist, yes, but IF we knew how all the seemingly infinite variables, the brain cells firing in sequence, etc, etc, interacted, … well, that would simply take us back out to the mind of God, or an imagined secular equivalent, with everything being both necessary (for of course there are sequences even in objects moving around in liquid in a shaken jar) and irrelevant to what is at issue here. Namely, the rightly praiseworthy brilliance of that stroke, and its welcome evidence, if one’s a fan of his, that Davis, having made the daring switch from snooker to pool as his snooker skills started fading with the passing years, is still a master player.

A pool table is not an ice-cream van.


John Fraser.


Implicit in the stroke that my hypothesized Davis made, in addition to the substantially different “obvious” one that he turned away from, were a variety of microscopically different strokes that he chose not to make—slight increases or decrees in speed, slight shifts in angle.

What happened to the cue ball after the cue tip struck it was predetermined, or close to it, in two senses, the laws of mechanics at work in that particular configuration, and his decision (imaging and reasoning ahead) to have the cue ball end up where it did. But it was not predetermined that he would make that stroke. And a less good player, attempting something like it, could botch it.

With a tyro, thrilled to have the target ball go in a pocket at all, what happens to the cue ball subsequently is predetermined simply in the first sense and, rightly, would earn him no informed plaudits, even if, with no foreseeing or intention on his part, and in an identical layout, it luckily ended up in the same position as Davis’s ball.

The reason why “my” Davis made the particular stroke that he did is that, having confidence in his ability to achieve what he aimed for, and knowing intimately the relevant laws of pool-table mechanics, he knew that this stroke would bring the cue ball to where he wanted it.

It would be meaningless, or stupid, or arrogant, or all three, to demand, “Yes, but why did he really make it?” Such a question would seek to introduce some further, looser, and more programmatic element—sibling rivalry, the will to dominate, male “aggressiveness,” whatever—that would take precedence over the precise elements already there, with the latter losing their moral potency and dwindling to mere supportive illustrations of some “position” to which the demander, in his or her superior wisdom, subscribed.

I suppose that insofar as such a ploy isn’t just knee-jerk village-atheist cynicism and lowest-common-denominator down-pulling, the real target is the admirer who’s enjoying and applauding a game, or family of activities, of which the demander disapproves.

Well, something along those lines. Of course the village-cynic’s perception of the world is itself a position—no such things as free will and unselfish actions.

June 2005

© John Fraser


Rob Stevenson writes (2012):

Physics, and the math used to calculate it, both agree without a shadow of a doubt that there really are unknowables. This concept has led to, among other things, a field of mathematical study called Chaos Theory. Here's a summary paragraph about it from Wikipedia, which bears directly on what you said above…

"Chaos theory studies the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions, an effect which is popularly referred to as the butterfly effect. Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for such dynamical systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general. This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved. In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable. This behavior is known as deterministic chaos, or simply chaos."

It's an odd concept, that a system which is deterministic can nevertheless be unpredictable. Since this bears on the point you're making in the discussion, I thought I'd better mention it.


Tiree MacGregor writes (2012)

Reflection upon section XII: It is an intriguing idea that Davis might be thinking in "bits of language." Maybe so, especially in the less demanding moments. And the use of language in thinking through what another player is doing, what needs to be done, or what the various options and contingencies might be, etc. probably varies from player to player.

But then I wonder about the process when the player is at the table, especially when he is in the flow. The process of thinking in bits of language then at least seems less likely. He can't be thinking in language as he is making the shot; there's no room for it; concentration of the sort demanded is surely non-linguistic.

The thinking through in bits of language has in common with executing a series of shots the analytic. There is no question that the brain is working impressively, and part of what's going on is analysis. If this involves "language," it seems to me more likely that it is mathematical/geometrical, rather than linguistic. And it is imagistic. A speedster like Jimmy White or Ronnie O'Sullivan would go through the same sort of analysis/execution as Davis but at a faster pace, and in such a case language--at least in terms of words--is even less likely to enter into it. The player is in the flow, with brain and body working in something approaching perfection for the purpose.

In a free-flowing game like basketball, hockey, or football (especially soccer and rugby and that barbarous and bizarre activity known as "Australian Rules Football"), the athlete performer who is at the centre of activity is in the flow, immersed in the moment. Just as an axe-wielding medieval peasant in the press never reflected in bits of language, the athlete performer at moments demanding action has no time for it. He is like a dancer executing a move with precision but spontaneously, without choreography, all the rehearsal having been in training, responding instantly to all of the variables and contingencies. If the striker thinks with language at the moment in which action is demanded, he's lost.

Years ago, an English commentator said in reaction to a goal scored by Portuguese winger Luis Figo, "Oh, fluid!"--which was fair enough. But for supreme fluidity, there is another Luis's goal, scored earlier this month, by Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez, playing for Liverpool against Newcastle. Here's a clip that redeems cliches about athletic performance as poetry:

No language process there, we can infer to a surety. Different game, of course.



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