When you have eliminated the impossible…

…whatever remains, however improbable, must be an unmanageable number of possibilities.

I relaxed over an episode of Sherlock Holmes on the TV yesterday evening. Not that recent BBC pastiche, but the Jeremy Brett series, which for me is the definitive Holmes. I found, like most of them, that I’d seen it before, but the production and acting are so good it didn’t really matter.

Sherlock Holmes is a classical creation, and so in one sense above criticism – it is what it is (as Paul McCartney said when someone was critiquing the double album: “Hey, it’s the Beatles White Album…”). But looked at dispassionately, the character actually embodies a popularisation of the very worst of Victorian rationalism and reductionism.

Holmes’ ability to solve crimes from the slightest of forensic clues, his authorship of a monograph on different types of cigar ash and so on, are really nothing but a hymn to the unbridled triumph of human observation and reason, albeit a reason not only of unusual acuity, but one aided by cocaine, shag tobacco and the playing of a Stradivarius. The astonishing accomplishments of Holmes actually rely on three assumptions fundamental to the Enlightenment concept of science:

1 – a train of causes will lead inevitably to just one set of outcomes.
2 – human observation is sufficient to assess those outcomes comprehensively.
3 – human reason is sufficient to trace the causal train infallibly back to the original events.

In other words, the Universe is thoroughly deterministic, and human observation and reason thoroughly competent to comprehend it.

Conan-Doyle famously conceived his detective from the example of Dr Joseph Bell, one of his teachers at Edinburgh Medical School, who employed similar careful observation to astound patients and students alike with the details of their occupation, journeys etc. Such careful observation and deduction are indeed useful medical skills – would that they were more widely valued in these days of instrumental diagnosis in lieu of clinical acumen. In the past I’ve not been above impressing patients (aka “giving them confidence”!) by telling them things about themselves before they told me, from observation. But there are very strict limits to this. In Dr Bell’s case it was, essentially, a party-trick – any wrong conclusions would be quickly corrected by the presence of a living patient. There’s a famous anecdote about Joseph Bell (which I believe he himself cheerfully told):

“Aren’t you a bandsman?” Dr. Bell asked, standing over the patient.

“Aye,” admitted the sick-man.

Dr. Bell turned cockily to his students. “You see gentleman, I am right. It is quite simple. This man had a paralysis of the cheek muscles, the result of too much blowing at wind instruments. We need only inquire to confirm,” Dr Bell said to his students proudly. Now turning to the patient he asked, “What instrument do you play my man?” The sick-man got up on his elbows, “Big Drum, Doctor!”

I suspect this kind of thing happened more than once, and even if Joseph Bell was some kind of savant, his imitators were not. The fictional Holmes would never admit to being caught in such error. And yet in the field of crime the dangers of error are even greater: a murder victim cannot correct the detective’s misapprehensions, the criminal does not wish to, and the wrongly accused… well, once he’s hanged there’s no longer any contention. The detective’s reputation becomes self-maintaining.

In the real world, there are countless examples of forensic science over-reaching itself, leading to false convictions. Often, it is still true that one reliable witness more than counterbalances a mountain of microscopic evidence. Fortunately, the field of crime has access to many such witnesses. The sad truth is that reality is not that deterministic – and even where it is, it is usually too complex to be fully encompassed by human observation and reason, even when that is augmented by shag tobacco.

There are at least two, still very active, fields in which the ideals of Sherlock Holmes continue to be over-represented, and hence dangerous to truth.

The first is Biblical criticism. It was a peculiarly Enlightenment conceit to believe that one could take a document like, say, the Pentateuch, and confidently reconstruct from it multiple literary predecessors of which there are no remains and for which there is no historical evidence. It is even more presumptuous to suppose that, from that reconstructed literature, one can resurrect an entire hidden history of Israel. And yet such overconfidence is the foundation on which nearly all Old (and New) Testament scholarship proceeds. And so it is not Victorians, but modern scholars, who will propose that the Pentateuch was clearly written during the Exile by scribes under pressure from King Cyrus to unify the disparate traditions of the two displaced kingdoms into one easily adminstered religion. That, frankly, is Sherlock Holmes building an entire life history from a pile of cigar ash. There are more – one might say infinitely more – possible explanations. As Pekka Pitkänen writes in his article Historical Reconstruction and Old Tesament Studies (unfortunately no longer available online, but I could mail you a copy):

We have demonstrated that the nature of historical reconstructions is such that multiple solutions are possible and that it is not enough to rely on a paradigm, or to establish that a solution is logically consistent and that it covers all of the available historical data. How can one then arrive at the best possible solution to the historical reconstruction problem? It is the opinion of this writer that, at face value, one can never be certain of the correctness of a solution. Rather, selecting a particular solution always involves faith.

But “faith” isn’t a word Sherlock Holmes would be comfortable with. The other field, of course, is evolutionary studies, where living witnesses are even less likely to be forthcoming than in Biblical studies. The Darwinian Just-So story is becoming proverbial, and is based on the same overblown confidence in the determinacy of nature, and the reliability of human observation and reason. But as Dr Joseph Bell discovered, you can’t reliably reconstruct the music of life from a pair of floppy cheeks. Pitkänen’s conclusion is equally true in biology: such reconstruction requires faith, as well as cold reason.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to When you have eliminated the impossible…

  1. Cal says:

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the movies that have recently come out with Robert Downey Jr as Holmes. However, in the first one there is a seen where he is ‘diagnosing’ Watson’s fiance and is all right until he explains the slightly paler loop on her ring finger. Sherlock paints that she was engaged and broke it off or divorced her husband (something of the sort) and with a tear in her eye she throws her wine on him and tells him that he died in India before storming out. Holmes is stunned for a moment but then returns to eating dinner without Watson.

    I lover Sherlock Holmes but yes, reason has its limits. There was actually also a video game that came out that blended the Holmes story with the Cthulu/Lovecraft mythos of cosmic horror and existential terror. Don’t know how it ends. Yet, truly, in the depth of the world lays Cthulu slumbering, the powers and principalities, and no amount of reason can cull that beast. Nothing but the Son of Man can do away with such darkness.


  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    HP Lovecraft – that brings back memories of early teenage! I confess that when we were in New England a few years ago my main reason for visiting Salem was to see if it looked like what I pictured from Lovecraft. It would have were it not for the theme-park witchcraft everywhere.

    I wouldn’t have put him and Holmes in the same universe, really, though of course Conan-Doyle had a gentler, and no doubt utterly rational, belief in Spiritism and fairies. But you’re right in observing that godless rationalism and complete inchoate occultism have a similar source.

  3. Avatar photo penman says:

    Gentlemen, some of you have been keeping secrets about your private pursuits.

    I’m a long-standing devotee of HPL’s fiction. I can even forgive him his atheism for the sake of his warm friendships with believers & his admiration of the Puritans. Are you familiar with the recent excellent film versions of The Call of Cthulhu & The Whisperer in Darkness? See cthulhulives.org, the site of the H.P.Lovecraft Historical Society…..

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Ah, “when I was a child…”. I’ve forgotten most of what I read of HPL, apart from the odd occultic phrase that stuck in the mind.

    I was reading his stuff whilst becoming acquainted with Benjamin Britten’s sublime “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.” In the penultimate movement there’s a line “darkness, burrowing like a mole,” which I still hear as “burrowing like a dhole.” How sad.

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