The World Knot

Welcome to the World Knot. The main topic here is metaphysics. Metaphysics is a muddle in western academia. Over the centuries the problems of philosophy have been tangled into a knot of such complexity that they may seem intractable. The essays here are an attempt to show that they are not, and that all that would be necessary for their solution is a rigorous simplification of the issues and a rough understanding of the perennial philosophy.

There are very few topics that are not relevant to metaphysics, however, and vice versa, and so there will also be discussions of mathematics, psychology, physics, biology, music and other things.

The writings on the blog should be systematic regardless of the topic. This may not be the case but it is the intention.

The pages are more like essays than posts and are usually longer, and the topics covered are not linked to the tag cloud.

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Sri Krishna Prem and the Language of the Seers

The following is a passage from Sri Krishna Prem’s book, Initiation Into Yoga, from an essay entitled ‘Symbolism and Knowledge’.  Thanks to Don Salmon for posting it elsewhere so that I could borrow it. The point about language here, and the variability in the language of mysticism, would be of crucial importance, since this variation in language might be seen as a variation in the message, while any such variation would render the message implausible. If the knowledge of the seers is empirical, as is claimed, then it should not vary from case to case except in extent and depth of insight.


“Many who study mystical literature from outside think that because the descriptions of the Path vary, they therefore refer to different paths, and some even make the further inference that they are ‘purely subjective’.  But no conclusion could be further from the truth.  The teachings of all genuine seers are in reality in complete agreement; it is only the verbal descriptions which vary. All descriptions, whether those of ordinary common-sense or those of so-called exact science, are symbolic.  The words refer to something beyond themselves, something whose nature they can only suggest.

There is a story of a small boy who was being given a lesson in elementary astronomy by his teacher.  Having been told that such and such a star was Sirius, and such another Aldebaran, the boy became thoughtful and said, “how do we know that those are their names?’ It is doubtless a truism, but it is one which we too often forget in practice, namely, that words mean only what we have agreed that they shall mean. 

The work of scientists is seen to refer to a common body of experience because we have hammered out a common terminology.  If, instead of being in very general touch with one another, scientists had to work in little, independent groups, scattered in time and space, each group evolving its own terminology, it would by no means be easy to correlate their researches, though it would always be possible for one who had both sufficient first-hand experience of science and sufficient patience.

The writings of seers are in a somewhat similar case to such hypothetical scientific studies.  They are the products of isolated individuals or groups of individuals, often quite out of touch with similar groups elsewhere, and each of them has used such terms to describe his experience as were suggested by the tradition with which he was most familiar.  The results often appears chaotic; but anyone who cars to follow the Path for himself will soon find that the chaos is only apparent, and that the various terms used in any one system are easily translatable into those of another. There will not always be a one to one correspondence, for the groupings of experiences under one head is also largely a personal matter. Whether a given complex of experience is to be taken as a whole or divided into aspects which are given various names is a matter which will vary with the point of view of each individual experiencer.

In the ancient world such ability to translate from one symbolism into another seems to have been more common than it is at present.  We read how Greek priests could visit Egypt or Chaldea and at once recognize a given ‘foreign’ God as a correspondence of such and such a Greek one. The equation of Thoth with Hermes is a well-known example, but its by no means unique.  It was possible for any initiated priest of the ancient religions to wander, like Apollonius, over the whole world and recognize his own Gods wherever he went.

The decay of this ability seems to have been connected with the development, somewhere in the first millennium B.C., of the power of abstract thought.  Such thought is itself a symbolism, as philosophers are now once more beginning to realize. It is a symbolism, and a very powerful one for certain purposes, but it seems to carry with it a fatal tendency to take itself too seriously and to pose as being more than symbolism.  To say that the world is  a product of the union of consciousness with content-form is no less symbolic and no more true than to say that it is the marriage of the sun and moon, the union of the Sky God with the Earth Mother; and to say that the universe is an interrelatedness of atoms is as definitely symbolic a statement as that it is the morning stars singing together.”

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Sticking Up For Philosophy

Yesterday I again bumped up against the claim that philosophy does not produce answers. This issue is a constant source of irritation. It would not be rigorous to say that philosophy does not produce answers. It is something that is said all the time at all levels of philosophy, and it goes without saying in physics. Nevertheless, it would not be a rigorous statement. The truth is that not everyone agrees about this. In reality, it is more the case that some philosophers say they have found the answers, and all the rest don’t believe them.

Of course, they may not have found the answers. They may be deluded. This is irrelevant. What matters is whether we can actually prove that they are deluded. If we cannot do this, then we cannot prove that philosophy does not produce answers and should not be simply stating it as a fact.

So, can we prove that they are deluded. No, we cannot. Not all of them. The answers given to philosophical questions by the mystics of all recorded ages, cultures and lands are unfalsifiable in philosophy. This is how we can know that we have found the correct interpretation of their answers, that they are unfalsifiable. It is considered good practice in mysticism never to say anything that is falsifiable.

This immunity from prosecution would be both possible and necessary. It would be an ineluctable consequence of the nature of Reality that words that are strictly true will seem to be paradoxical, and it is very difficult to falsify a statement that seems to be paradoxical.

Heraclitus says we are and are not. So do Nagarjuna, Plotinus and Al-Halaj. This would be an answer to a number of philosophical questions, perhaps even all of them by extrapolation. Can we prove it is not a correct answer? If not, then we have no choice but to qualify any claim that philosophy does not produce answers with the phrase, ‘in my opinion’, or ‘so it seems to me’, or ‘according to the Western tradition of philosophical thought and most people working in the natural sciences at this time’.

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Reductionism and the Limits of Science

I first began to participate on internet forums and chat groups as part of a research project. I had worked out in logic that Buddhist doctrine was almost certainly true, but still knew very little about it. Perhaps there were objections I had not yet spotted, problems it could not address. Accordingly, for some years I travelled around the internet making bold statements in hostile environments in order to encourage objections and learn whether they could be dealt with and how best to do it.

I had many surprising adventures. Quite early on I found myself on the private chat group for a well-known astrophysicist. My background is not academic, and I was extremely nervous. It was my first opportunity to talk to a group of professional scientists about the ideas I was exploring, or, come to that, about anything. It was also the first time I realised that scientists are not immune from being utterly confused about religion and philosophy and tend to assume that everyone else, since they are not scientists, must be equally or even more confused, and therefore feel free to pluck their views out of a hat with almost no thought let alone any honest research. It was the beginning of what quickly became a complete mistrust of professional academics when it comes to matters of religion and philosophy. Over time I have come to see the professors as no better than the priests, keeping the truth from us because they themselves are fearful of discovering what it is, or want to protect their commitment to some pet conjecture or dogma. I remember mentioning Erwin Schrodinger, who preached the truth of the Hindu Upanishads for forty years, in order to give my comments a vaguely respectable background, and was informed authoritatively that Schrodinger chose the religious view that best suited him, just like everyone else, as if he was a brilliant physicist and philosopher and a blithering idiot all at the same time.

I gave up the research project in the end. There is no fault in Buddhist doctrine that I can find. It is perfect. It sheds light on physics, solves metaphysics and is an ideal science of the mind. It is strictly empirical and makes no claims that cannot, according to its metaphysical scheme, be verified in practice. It is easy to defend from telling objections once one has seen why there cannot be any. The logic is unbreakable. Even if it is not true it would be best explanation of everything on grounds of consistency, simplicity, elegance, usefulness, happiness, hopefulness and universal justice. Its explanatory reach is total in respect of what can be explained. Physics looks like a lost infant alongside it. Western metaphysics looks like chaos.

Since then I have been learning, or trying to learn, how to understand and talk about the relationship between the perennial philosophy, of which Buddhism would be one of many examples, and metaphysics, physics, psychology, mathematics, biology and so forth. It is a completely fascinating area of research and although sparsely populated is full of interesting characters and amazing texts. In an earlier post I likened this to playing Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, and although this was only a casual connection at the time it has grown on me as an apt metaphor.

The idea would be to construct an intricate model of the universe from first principles. This is a much easier game than trying to construct the model from the roof down, as it were, in the way that physicists try to do. There is no way to line up the roof with the foundations unless the foundations are already in place, so much better to start where the universe starts, with basic principles. If the principles are correct then the truths of physics, mathematics, psychology and so forth will emerge naturally and fit neatly into place.

To take this approach is not difficult in principle. There is plenty of literature, even if it is often found well off the beaten track of the academic curriculum. The problem would be only that this approach requires that we see metaphysics as coming before and after physics, and although this is how we define metaphysics, and have always defined it, this is not how we treat it these days. Just this week I saw a classic example of the way we ignore metaphysics.

It was a discussion of reductionism, and whether it is plausible that all the detail of the world could be contained, in potential, in the fundamental particles of the standard model and emerge ineluctably. This, so it seems, is what physicists call reductionism. It is as if we have built the whole house except for the foundations, and then tried to sell it to an unsuspecting young couple with a lot of estate-agent hype. Given a moment to think through this matter it becomes obvious that a myriad of particles whizzing about in space-time is not reductionism, not a solid foundation for fundamental theory. The best example of reductionism that I know of, the only successful example of which I am aware, is Middle Way Buddhism and its equivalents. Nothing would really exist and nothing would ever really happen. This is proper reductionism. It is a view that would be too strong for most physicists, however, since for a complete reductionism we would have to concede that physics is non-reductive not just at present, but for all time.

Why can we not simply concede that physics is non-reductive? Do physicists fear for the stature of their discipline? If physics is reductive, fundamental, then what is the point of metaphysics? Why does it exist? It exists because a reduction of the universe that speaks only of physically observable phenomenon cannot reach all the way down. It is certain to fail. There is no hope of success. Until this is widely understood in physics we can have only profoundly naïve conversations about religion and philosophy on internet physics forums.

Thinking that physics is reductive is an elementary error. It would be a more plausible idea if it could be tested, or if it helped explain anything, but as things are it is an idea that clearly does not work. If reductionism (or holism) is ever to work, or be achieved, then it must begin and end in metaphysics. Otherwise it is not reductionism.

In a religious context, reductionism is the idea that religion can be reduced to superstition, misunderstandings, ignorance and so on. Those who endorse the idea that physics is, or ever can be, reductive will naturally gravitate towards this secondary form of it. After all, if we don’t need to reduce physics for a fundamental theory then religious reductionism becomes unavoidable. How a scientist can hold either of these positions is, even after all these years of trying to understand the ways in which people think, quite beyond my comprehension, and I have come to see it as no more than a matter of temperament and prejudice.

Time will tell, but I see no way forward for science, philosophy and religion except a complete reconciliation. I am very sure that this can be achieved by anyone on an individual basis, but it will not be achievable in the academic community until scientists stop refusing to concede the limits of their method of study and grant to metaphysics a reason for existing.

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The Paradoxical Size of the Universe

In metaphysics it is important to keep in mind that our object of study is a totally unique phenomenon. If we forget this then we may fall into confusion on many issues. One such issue would be the problem of the size of the universe. If by ‘universe’ we mean ‘the world as a whole’, all possible mental and corporeal phenomena as well as the container that contains them, or the ‘multiverse’ and whatever contains that, then this question may seem to present us with an intractable paradox.

The universe appears to be extended in space and time. In this case, it must be finitely or infinitely extended. To say that it is finitely extended, like a football, is to say that it is not, after all, the world as whole. This idea must be rejected. To say that it is infinitely extended is possible, mainly because the idea is so confusing, but it would directly contradict the scientific evidence and explain exactly nothing.

The root of this topological problem is our idea of extension. This seems a harmless enough concept in our everyday classical or Newtonian universe, but it unravels in quantum mechanics and metaphysics. If the ‘world as a whole’ means what it says, then the idea that it is extended in space and time is incoherent. Then space would be extended in space and time would extended in time. It would be unsurprising if this idea caused paradoxes and contradictions. If we remember that in metaphysics we are dealing with a unique phenomenon, a phenomenon that encompasses all other phenomena, and thus adopting an ultimate perspective on the world, we can avoid this paradox. To think of the universe as a giant football or as infinitely extended is to make it incomprehensible. For an ultimate level of analysis our everyday Newtonian idea of extension would have to be abandoned.

The mathematician Hermann Weyl wrote much that is relevant to this topic. I discuss his thoughts in a previous post. He concludes that the idea of an extended continuum is paradoxical and has no empirical support.

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Taming the Tiger

From Taming the Tiger: Tibetan Teachings for Improving Daily Life, by Akong Tilku Rinpoche.

Unfortunately, our background as members of a modern civilised country does little to equip us for accepting things as they are. Our kind of society has an altogether different approach to situations which are held to be disagreeable or imperfect in some way. For example, we invent complicated machinery to take the boredom out of certain kinds of work. Then we have to make lots of people redundant, leaving them more bored than they were before. Moreover, we bulldoze whole communities and build high-rise flats to improve living standards, only to find that no-one wants to live in them; while the people who must live in them feel isolated and miserable. We are always trying to increase and improve things without realising the consequences or knowing where to stop.

Rather than directing all our energy into futile attempts to make life perfect, we could be using some of this effort to develop our tolerance and appreciation of the way things are. Such inner peace brings deep and lasting happiness…

It seems highly unlikely that there are many of us who could not benefit from this advice, regardless of our religious views. Buddhist practice is such a simple thing, and it is quite easy to verify its efficacy. It is only by way of a lot of sophistry that we can justify rejecting its underlying cosmology as untestable, and testing its daily practices for their effect on our inner peace and happiness is a simple project. Not even a telescope would be required. This book is brilliant and completely practical. It is about how to get the job done in the least difficult way. The ‘tiger’ in the title would be our ego, so it might as well be called Taming the Human Race.

This is only one of countless excellent books saying the same things but to me it seems a particularly useful one. If only it was as easy to do the work as recommend the books.

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The Turing Test

Here is an inexpensive set-up for a Turing Test that anybody can try.

Talk to someone in an online forum until you are completely certain that he or she is conscious. You can use a volunteer or just pick someone at random and not let them know that they are a test subject.

If you are able to reach complete certainty that they are conscious and not an insentient computer programme, then you must have reached complete certainty that a computer programme could never pass the Turing Test. You ruled out this possibility when you became certain you were not speaking to one.

If you cannot reach complete certainty, and have not yet found a way of settling the matter, then you must believe that an insentient computer programme could pass the Turing Test, just as long as you are running the test.

It is questionable whether it matters to anything whether a machine could ever pass the Turing Test. All the same, it is an interesting game to play, reading other people’s posts as if they were part of such a test and then seeing whether it would be possible to be completely certain that they are conscious, and, if it is possible, what it is about their messages that makes it so.

The same experimental procedure can be used to examine the plausibility of philosophical zombies, creatures that behave exactly like human beings on internet forums but who have no idea that they are doing it.

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The Hindu Swami Initiation Ceremony and its Implications for Metaphysics and Physics


The biddidisa or elaborate initiation into swamiship includes a fire ceremony, during which symbolical funeral rites are performed. The physical body of the disciple is represented as dead, cremated in the flame of wisdom. The newly-made swami is then given a chant, such as : “This atma is Brahma” or “Thou art That” or “I am He.

This description is taken from Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. A footnote explains, “This atma is Brahma” means literally “This soul is spirit.” It continues,

The Supreme Spirit, the Uncreated, is wholly unconditioned (neti, neti, not this, not that) but is often referred to in Vedanta as Sat-Chit-Ananda, that is, Being-Intelligence-Bliss.

Many people would read of this ceremony and immediately dismiss it as superstition and fantasy, as having no bearing whatsoever on science, perhaps even as having no bearing on rational philosophy.

In fact, this short passage explains the founding principle of a systematic philosophical doctrine that solves all metaphysical problems and which would, if physicists would only award it some study as a community, allow the construction of a fundamental theory that would serve as a workable interpretation of quantum mechanics.

The case can be put quite briefly. The four phrases; “This atma is Brahma”; “Thou art That”; “I am He”; and “neti, neti” have the same meaning. The Universe, Cosmos or Reality would be reducible to a phenomenon that cannot be spoken of as being ‘this’ or ‘that’, because ‘it’ would be undifferentiated. All metaphysical theories asserting otherwise would be false. This claim is made plausible by the well-established conclusion of philosophers the world over that all counter-theories are logically absurd.

It is the logical absurdity of partial positions that renders metaphysics in Western academia a muddle, so there is no doubting it. Philosophers here, on average, simply cannot make sense of their result, but they almost always reach it. For the swami it would be inevitable that all such positions are absurd. This would follow inevitably from the fact that they are false. This is precisely what the chants of the swami’s initiation ceremony are asserting. By reduction the world would never be ‘this’ or ‘that’. This is the perennial philosophy. It is stated simply and clearly by every sage from the Buddha and Lao-tsu to Rumi and Nicolas de Cusa.

So, this deals with metaphysics. If the world is neti, neti then there can be no such thing as a metaphysical dilemma. As for physics, the implication is immediate. If the Ultimate is undifferentiated, or if for an ultimate view the world is undifferentiated, then physics will never find the Real. This God of the Gaps, by being absent from physics, renders physics nonreductive. Its absence means that physics cannot explain what anything is or where it came from, and many phenomenon – nonlocal effects would be a clear example – become utterly incomprehensible. This is not a criticism of physics, but a recognition that it stops where metaphysics properly begins.

The phrase neti, neti gives us a solution for metaphysics and for all philosophical problems. The world would be a unity. It would be extended in space-time and not extended in space-time. It would have these two aspects. It would be as if there two worlds. Non-local effects would be local after all. Ulrich Mohrhoff and the Sri Aurobindo school has shown that a philosophically sound interpretation of quantum mechanics is made possible by this axiom of unity.

For this reason and many more, the idea that religion has nothing to offer science and philosophy is ridiculous. It is only that they do not take what is offered. The constant refusal to concede that the world’s oldest and most well-developed philosophical doctrine might be true, after all, accompanied by an almost complete lack of effort to show that it would not work, begins to look more and more like a fear of being found out in a mistake, or a blatant instance of ‘not invented here’ syndrome.

The primary aim of religion, metaphysics and physics is to discover what is true. It would not be surprising if discovering the truth required some joined-up thinking. To divide these three methods and areas of knowledge up and then to study one or two of them in isolation or exclusively would be a recipe for confusion and failure, and the evidence is all around us.

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The Case of the Missing Ingredient – Episode Three


Episode III


A Walk in the Park


“You have a grand gift of silence, Watson,” said Holmes, “which makes you an invaluable companion.”

They had walked briskly through the cold, quiet streets to St. James’s Park, and having warmed up now strolled at a more leisurely pace through the fallen leaves of the great elms that lined the southern promenade.

“Well, I suppose that is something.”

“It is a great deal, Watson. Perhaps more than you know. Have you given further thought to our problem?

“I can’t make head or tail of it. There seems to be no piece of evidence that might not be doubted, in which case there is nowhere to begin.”

“And yet we must begin, Watson, and we must do much more than that. If we cannot solve this problem then we cannot rebut the charge laid at my door by your fellow in the Times, who predicts that an obstacle in my intellectual make-up will prevent me from ever doing so.”

Watson shakes his head in wonderment.

“It is surely only you, Holmes, alone among all men, who would see in this speculation a personal affront.”

“That may be so, Watson, but I rather doubt it. By implication the charge is levelled against all men equally.

“No doubt. But I don’t suppose many of them would feel so offended as to attempt to refute it personally. To me it seems more reasonable to assume that if it is beyond the abilities of professors of philosophy to overcome this mysterious obstacle then there wouldn’t be much point in me trying. Whole thing is far too confusing.”

“Such an assumption may well appear reasonable, Watson, or not, as the case may be, but it remains an assumption either way. If we took this attitude whenever we were consulted by a client with a problematic case then where would we be? We would be of little use to them if we began by assuming that because they cannot solve the problem, nor can we.”

Watson claps his gloved hands together to warm his fingers.

“Well, if you put it like that, Holmes, I suppose you’re right. But is it not true that more often than not in our investigations we depend as much on your ability to uncover fresh evidence as on your painstaking methods of deduction? What if there is no more evidence to be found than has already been found and is already available to everyone. This lessens the likelihood of your succeeding where so many have failed.”

“A good point, Watson. I think it more than likely that this is the case regarding the evidence. At any rate, I must admit to being temporarily at a loss as to where any fresh evidence might be sought. Here we seem to have one of those cases where the art of the reasoner must be used rather for the sifting of the essential data than for the acquiring of fresh evidence. The problem is so uncommon, so complete, and of such personal importance to so many, that the outcome can only be a plethora of surmise, conjecture, and hypothesis. This muddies the waters. The difficulty in such cases is to detach the framework of facts – of absolute, undeniable facts – from the embellishments of theorists and reporters. Having established ourselves on this sound basis, it is our duty to see what inferences may be drawn, and which are the special points upon which the whole mystery turns.”

“All the same, Holmes, I still cannot see where your deductions will begin. After playing the guinea pig in your experiments this morning I’m having some difficulty deciding what I do think is a fact and what I don’t. How on earth do we know anything at all?”

“We must begin where we always begin, Watson, with the facts as they appear to be. Later, perhaps, we will discover that they are facts only in appearance, or that they are irrelevant facts, or even that there are no certain facts to be found, but we must start from what appear to be the facts. We have no other option. When asked to solve a difficult case we do not usually ask our clients to go away and come back when they are more certain of the facts. It is our first task to discover the facts, and we can only start with the facts as they appear to be.

“Alright, yes, I see all that. But what I mean is that there don’t even appear to be any facts.”

Holmes stops and consults his pocket watch.

“Let us turn for home here, Watson. If we do so now we can stroll along and still be in time for Mrs Hudson’s glorious tea and crumpets.”

“I certainly shan’t object to that. Indeed, I daresay I’d rather walk more briskly and persuade her to make tea a little earlier than usual.”

“A capital idea. Let us make haste.”

Half an hour later Watson and Holmes are once again settled in their armchairs by the fire. They do not speak for a while. Watson breaks the silence.

“So, Holmes, what are your thoughts? Can the obstacle be overcome?”

Holmes carefully places his cup and saucer on a table at his side and takes up his pipe and tobacco.

“Of that, Watson, I am not yet certain. But I have begun to discern the shape of it, and I see now that almost as soon as we have begun to examine the problem of consciousness we are confronted by this obstacle.”

“We are?”

“Consider, Watson, the simplicity of this problem. In virtue of tight shoes, drops of water and suchlike, there is no doubt that material objects appear to exist, and in virtue of the thoughts that we have about these objects there is no doubt that mental objects appear to exist. To whatever extent either of these phenomena are real or illusory, it remains the case that either one gives rise to the other or both arise from something else. Your two philosophers have concluded that they could not have arisen one from the other. Were they not very sure of this they would not be speculating in the Times that we cannot solve this problem without an extra ingredient and talking of metaphysical problems. They conclude that in order to explain mind and matter we would need an extra ingredient. The case is quite clear.”

“Why not God, then?”

“Why not indeed. This was my first thought. But during our walk I realised that He is not the only suspect. There is at least one other.”

“And this would be …?”

“Awareness, Watson, or what your philosopher chap calls ‘what it is like’, the very thing we are trying to explain. You were aware of what it was like to feel discomfort at the tightness of your shoes, but for which you would not have needed to borrow a pair of mine for our walk. This awareness cannot be the same thing as the experience, otherwise you would have become unaware when you took them off. ”

Holmes gazes into the fire and follows his thoughts. . .

“Had there not been something that this discomfort was like for you, Watson, then you would not have noticed they were too tight. Yet what is it that noticed? Awareness must precede experience, for experience, or ‘what it is like’, if it is not identical with awareness, must be contingent. As for the rose we discussed earlier this morning and my remarks about religion, it was not the rose that turned my thoughts to God while I examined the window frame for clues on that summer’s day, but my experience of its beauty, for while it seems undeniable that this beauty was in my experience, nonetheless it seems inevitable that its beauty lay only in my eye as the beholder, and not in the rose itself. That we may experience the beauty of the rose despite this therefore seemed suggestive. But I am wandering. It is an odd idea, I must admit, that it may be the thing we are trying to explain that is what is missing from our explanation, and I cannot say it will not turn out to be a red herring of an idea, but as we noted this morning, if there is a mysterious ingredient missing from our mind-matter theories, in the absence of which we cannot explain experience, then the fundamental condition for experience will be what is missing. Yet immediately, before we have hardly even begun to explore this innocent idea, we meet what is surely at least a temporary obstacle in our make-up, for it is not easy to imagine a phenomenon that is neither mental nor physical, yet which would serve as the condition for experiences, including our experience of our thoughts and even of the tightness of our shoes.”

“Some believers say that we cannot imagine God. Perhaps this is not a coincidence.”

“The point had not escaped me, Watson, but I would rather refrain from making such bold conjectures quite so early in the investigation. Let us rather follow the facts.”

A light knock at the door is followed by the entrance of Mrs. Hudson, but it is not, as expected, for the sake of the tea tray.

“Mr. Holmes, I’m very sorry, but there’s a gentleman downstairs says he won’t go away without seeing you. I told him this is Sunday and not a day for calling without a by your leave, and at tea time as well, but he takes no notice, and so I must leave it to you to send him on his way. This is his card.

Holmes takes the card and examines it with his customary care.

“It is alright, Mrs. Hudson, perhaps our visitor might provide us with a break from our arduous philosophising. You may scold him and tell him that I will make an unusual exception, and that I require five minutes to become presentable. Please show him up at the end of that time.”

Holmes turns back to his friend.

“Quickly, Watson, we must make ourselves ready for visitors.”



To be continued….

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Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Ingredient – Episode Two


Episode II

Some Facts Examined


Half an hour later Mrs Hudson has delivered tea and biscuits and seen to the fire. Holmes and Watson are resettled in their armchairs, one clipping a cigar and the other sipping tea. Holmes lowers his cup to its saucer.

“Now, Watson, where were we? It is a strange affair. We have a missing ingredient in our theories of mind and matter, a missing clue that is not going to come to light, a crime that looks quite impossible to explain, a problem that has mystified us for centuries, and a deep-seated obstacle in our intellectual makeup. We must consider where it would be best to start.”

“You should read the article.”

“And why should I do this?”

“Because it explains what the problem is and why it cannot be solved.”

“But my dear chap, the problem could not be more clear. For a complete mind-matter theory a third ingredient is required, or, at least, a new idea which would have to be very different from anything considered so far, certainly not some minor tinkering with one of the theories currently around. We cannot argue with the professors.”

“But you can’t be sure of that, Holmes. Perhaps these fellows have made a mistake. You might be able to prove that another ingredient is not required, or that some minor tinkering would do the trick after all. It’s not like you to put so much trust in someone else’s reasoning.”

“An excellent point, Watson, and I have considered it. But in this instance I think it highly unlikely that a mistake has been made. No, we must take the experts at their word. If there were even a slight chance that some other solution to this problem might be found, a solution requiring neither an extra ingredient nor a radical new idea, then these philosophers would not be suggesting otherwise in print. It would be to offer too great a hostage to fortune. If tomorrow one of their students stumbled across a different solution they would be made to look foolish, and competent philosophers do not take such risks. No, these chaps are confident that nobody can refute their suggestions. If they say there is no solution for this mind-matter problem other than to suppose there is an ingredient missing from our theories or the need for a radical new idea, and presumably both, then we must assume that this is one of the facts of the case.”

Anticipating the next question Watson looks back to the paper.

“I’m not sure what the author means by mind. I suppose he means whatever we think with.”

“Possibly. We shall see. I’m more concerned at the moment with what he means by consciousness.”

“Ah, that’s an easy one. He says it is what it is like.”

“Like what?”

“No, it’s not like anything. He says that what it is like is what it is.”

“Surely he means that what it is like is like what it is.”

“Er, well no, I’m quite sure he says what it is like is the same as what it is, and that what it is simply is what it is like.”

“My dear fellow, a sausage is what it is like. Everything is what it is like as far as you and I will ever know. How could it be otherwise? We might as well say that what it is like is what it is like, or that what it is is what it is. A useful definition needs to do more than restate Aristotle’s law of identity.”

“Don’t blame me, Holmes. It’s not my definition.”

“Quite so. My apologies. So, consciousness is what consciousness is like?”

“Yes. No. Well, it was something like that.”

“But you’ve only just read it, Watson, you can hardly have forgotten already.”

“Well, no. Now you’re confusing me. He says that consciousness is what it is like to have an experience. In fact I think he says that consciousness is experience.”

“Ah, that is slightly more clear.” Holmes considers for a moment. “Or perhaps not. It is a most ingenious definition, I must say. But it hardly seems sufficient for a scientific theory. And he says that it is the existence of this ‘what it is like’ that we cannot explain?”

“That seems to be it, yes.”

“Well now, I can see that consciousness is something of a very different kind to matter, and cannot be explained as a physical thing. I wonder why he avoids concluding that there is a third category of phenomenon that is not mind or matter, and that this is what is missing.”

“Can’t be that simple old chap.”

“Presumably not. But then, we cannot start by presuming anything. The difficulty of a problem is a poor guide to the complexity of its solution, and often it is quite the reverse, so we cannot rule out a solution because it is simple. At any rate, we must remember to return to this idea later and examine why these philosophers dismiss it. Well, we have the essential facts. Now we must take a little time to put them in order.”

“My dear Holmes!” Watson starts to object but Holmes raises his hand.

“Yes, Watson, there are, no doubt, many more facts to be considered. Nevertheless, we have as many as we can manage for now.”

“Hardly seems a fact in sight to me, old chap. All hypothesis and conjecture. Nothing like evidence to go on.”

“A lack of evidence is not our problem, Watson, far from it. The principle difficulty for philosophical problems is usually that there is far too much evidence. What is vital is often overlaid and hidden by what is irrelevant, and it is no simple matter to decide which is which. No, in philosophy we must, as far as possible, build theories from as little evidence as possible, albeit that it should be of the highest quality.”

“Surely not, Holmes. How many times have you told me that we should do no such thing? Time and again you’ve said we must fully acquaint ourselves with all of the available evidence before we start to construct theories.”

“Quite right, Watson, quite right, and I have not changed my mind. Nevertheless, to construct a cosmological theory all we would need to acquaint ourselves with is one piece of evidence, for we can infer all the principle facts about the universe from this, or all that it would be possible to infer.”

“Holmes, that is a ridiculous statement.”

“How so?”

“You mean to say that you could deduce the explanation of the universe from any single fact, whatever it is?”

“This I do not know. The evidence indicates that it would not be possible to infer the entire explanation of the universe from one or even a great many facts. It certainly cannot be an easy thing to do or else your two philosophers would not be speaking of missing ingredients and ancient mysteries, and there would be such a thing as progress in our theology and metaphysics. But as far as it is possible to do so, then any single fact would do for a starting place, and ideally we would use no more than this.”

“But this can’t be right, Holmes. Surely with more facts to go on we would, well, we’d have more facts to go on.”

“One would think so, Watson, and in a way it is true. As we build our theory we must continually test it against the evidence to ensure that it remains on the right track, and for this the more evidence the better. But the ideal philosophical theory would be derived from a single fact. It is much the safest way to proceed. Have you not read Descartes? I have him here somewhere.” Holmes pulls himself out of his chair and walks to a cabinet in the corner. “I think it may be rule number nine of his Rules for the Direction of Mind that I’m after, if I remember correctly. Here he is.” Taking a book from the shelf Holmes returns to his chair and searches for the relevant page. “Yes, here we are. He says this about facts. I have no doubt it is good advice.”

We ought to give the whole of our attention to the most insignificant and most easily mastered facts, and remain a long time in contemplation of them until we are accustomed to behold the truth clearly and distinctly.

“Sounds like something you might have said yourself, Holmes.”

“I would certainly concur.”

“But he doesn’t say that we should start with just one fact.”

“No, but the implication is clear. If we are to give the whole of our attention to the most easily mastered facts and remain a long time in contemplation of them, then the fewer the better.”

“Is this the chap who said he thinks therefore he is?”

“That’s him, yes.. Taking cogito to be a fact he attempts to construct a grand philosophical theory, just as one might grow an oak from an acorn. His project fails in the execution but the plan is sound. When we are called in to assist in a criminal investigation we can usually take it for granted that the crime has been committed. This is the singular fact that must be explained. Given this singular fact, we proceed to gather whatever evidence may be available to us and derive from this an explanation of how it came to be a fact. In philosophy, however, life is not so simple. Here we must first establish that a crime has been committed, and then exactly what kind of crime it is. Descartes chose cogito as his crime, we might say, the fact that he had to explain, because it seemed clear to him that this crime had definitely been committed. It seemed to him to be an undeniable fact from which it would be safe to extrapolate to an explanation of an extended universe containing beings capable of thinking they exist. Or, as your fellow in the paper might say, of ‘knowing what it is like to think they exist.’ ”.

Holmes returns his gaze to the fire and puffs lazily on his old briar pipe.

“I’m not following you, Holmes. You seem to be saying that one fact is as good as another as a starting point for a cosmological theory, which doesn’t seem very likely to me, and I thought you didn’t take much interest in philosophy, yet here you are giving me a lecture.”

“Forgive me, Watson, I was thinking out loud. And yes, it is true that I have not devoted much time to philosophical matters. Indeed, I recall that soon after we met you assessed my knowledge of philosophy at nil. Yet I am not ignorant of the main issues.”

“I must apologise again, Holmes. Hoped you’d forgotten.”

“Quite alright, old fellow. But you might have surmised at the time that my methods of deduction could hardly have been developed without reference to Aristotle, and I discuss the matter presently at hand in the first of my published articles, which you did me the honour of reading.”

“You did? I did? Surely not.”

“Do you not recall ‘The Book of Life?”

“The title is familiar.”

“In it I said that from a drop of water a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other, and that all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it.”

“Ah. I do remember you saying something like that.”

“You were sceptical at the time but perhaps you have changed your mind since. I am now only reiterating the same point. The ideal reasoner, once he or she has been shown a single fact in all its bearings, would deduce from it not only all the chain of events which led up to it, but also all the results which would follow from it. As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents should be able to accurately state all the other ones, both before and after.”

“Well, I have certainly learnt, thanks to you Holmes, that with imagination a great deal may sometimes be deduced from a single piece of evidence. But this is not the same as saying that everything we might learn about the universe we could learn from any single piece of evidence.”

“This is not what I’m suggesting. We cannot learn how the stock market is faring from the examination of a drop of water. But if we are after metaphysical truths, as are your chaps in the paper, then a drop of water is as good a place to start as any.”

“I don’t get this, Holmes. Descartes’ approach I can understand. But a drop of water?”

“Choose any fact you like then, and we shall see what can be done with it.”

Watson rests his cigar in the ashtray and picks up his tea. He sips while he thinks.

“Alright then. I will choose the fact that my shoes are a little tight.”

“Oh, very good Watson, very good. Well now. Do you think of this as a fact?”

“Without a doubt.”

“Then you think. If you were Descartes you would immediately conclude you exist and proceed accordingly. Do you see? From the fact that you think that your shoes are too tight the rest of his philosophical scheme follows. Or, at least, would if his reasoning is correct.”

“Ah, Holmes, yes, but you said his attempt to deduce everything from cogito fails. Why would your attempt to do so from the tightness of my shoes not also fail?”

“I dare say it would, Watson. My point is only that it would be just as likely to succeed as Descartes’ attempt. We see from this silliness about shoes the general principle. Even the most trivial fact allows one to infer cogito. No doubt this is why Descartes chose it as an axiom.”

Watson takes some time to respond.

“Alright. I suppose I must grant you that anything I consider a fact is a thought, and so would imply cogito. But now you say that your attempt to deduce everything from this fact I gave you may fail. If so, then you have not made much it. Yet you said it ought to be possible to deduce all the significant facts about the universe from the tightness of my shoes.”

“Not quite, Watson, not quite. I said that one fact would be as good as another, which is not to say that any of them would be good enough. Besides, I do not accept the tightness of your shoes as a fact.”

“But I’m not making it up, Holmes. They are too tight. Damned uncomfortable.”

“So you say, Watson, so you say. However, I do not know what it is like to be you, so this is not a fact for me. It is just your report of what it is like to be in your shoes.”

“I say, Holmes, that’s just what this fellow says. Says we can never know about other people’s experiences, or even know that they have any. Calls it the ‘other minds’ problem. Talks about how hard it would be to imagine what it’s like to be a bat.”

“Indeed. Yes. Or a ball.”

“What? Oh very good. No, the flying kind.”

“Or a human being.”


“No doubt it would be impossible to imagine what it is like to be a bat, although we might deduce a little from a study of its behaviour and sensory apparatus. But it strikes me that it may be no easier to imagine what it is like to be a human being.”

“Doesn’t seem very difficult to me, old chap.”

“Are you quite sure, Watson? I wonder. Let us try an experiment. Close your eyes for a moment.” Watson complies. “Now, do your best to imagine what it would be like to be a human being.”

Watson re-opens his eyes.

“Humour me, Watson. Just try.”

Watson closes his eyes. Thirty seconds pass.

‘Do you see what I mean?’ asks Holmes.

“I certainly do.” Watson replies in a puzzled tone, eyes still closed. “I don’t seem to be able to imagine how to even go about it.”

“Now, try to imagine what it would be like to be bat.”

Watson closes his eyes again. “Ah, that’s a lot easier. No, wait a minute, this can’t be right.”

Watson opens his eyes. “How odd. It’s impossible to imagine what it’s like to be either me or a bat. But wait a minute. I can imagine what it would be like to be some other human being than me. If this were not so then I’d be unable to empathise with human beings any better than bats.”

“It does seem that way, yes. Perhaps you are right. Why not give it a try. Think of someone you know and imagine what it would be like to be them.”

Watson closes his eyes.

“Alright,” he replies a minute later, eyes still closed. “I have some idea of what it would be like.”

“No doubt you have a good idea of what it is like to be imagining what it is like to be them, Watson, but how can you ever know that your idea of what it is like to be them is even roughly correct?”

“Because I can roughly imagine what … ah. You have me again Holmes. I have no means of confirming that my rough idea is even slightly correct. It could be wildly incorrect for all I’ll ever know.” He opens his eyes. “Good gracious, Holmes, perhaps what it is like to be a human being is wildly different for each of us, more different than we can even imagine.”

“That may be so, Watson. It seems likely, although we can only speculate. Perhaps you are the only human being who has experiences. It does seem most likely that what it is like to be a human being is at least roughly similar for all of us, but even so, it may be roughly similar in some ways and unimaginably different in others. God alone could know what it is like to be a plurality of beings, and thus what our experiences as individuals do and do not have in common.”

“Let’s not bring God into it, Holmes.”

“You consider Him irrelevant to a Sunday morning discussion of human consciousness?”

“Well, no, I suppose not. Of course not. But religion is not a matter of deduction.”

“On the contrary, Watson, there is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner.”

“Well, honestly Holmes! I don’t know what’s come over you this morning, I’ve never heard you say such a thing before.”

“I think you’ll find that you have, my friend, for I happen to remember when I said it.”

“When was that?”

“I was leaning against the shutters of a bedroom window, examining it for scratches.”

“I have no memory of it.”

“Do you not remember the case? The stolen naval treaty?

“I certainly remember the case. Oh yes, and now I do remember you saying something like it. You were admiring a rose by the window in the bedroom. I thought you were talking any old nonsense in order to disguise your actions.”

“I am not so dim-witted that I must talk any old nonsense in order to disguise my actions, Watson, as you well know. It is true that I allowed a part of my mind to wander from the issue at hand. It was necessary to engage the audience in order to distract it. My mind wandered to the beauty of the rose by the window, and to the promise that such beauty holds for our hopes of God were we to extrapolate from it to a theory of the universe. A drop of water, uncomfortable shoes, the beauty of a rose, a cosmology can be inferred from any observation, fact, perception, axiom or item of evidence. As for religion, would you not agree that we would be foolhardy to adopt a religious belief, even if it is atheism, without first examining the issues with the full force of our intellect?”

“I would certainly agree, yes.”

“I had no doubt you would, Watson. To say that religion is not a matter of deduction is to say we are prepared to believe whatever happens to be agreeable to us, regardless of its truth or even whether it makes sense to us. Of course, this is not to say that our deductions can ever prove that there is such a thing as God, a soul, an afterlife and suchlike, but we must at least attempt to distinguish between what seems quite likely to be true and what seems utterly improbable. The beauty of a rose seems to me to affect the probabilities for the existence of some sort of God, though I doubt it could settle the matter.”

Watson finishes his tea and crosses the room to pour himself another. Returning to his chair he lights a second cigar. Once lit, he reviews the discussion.

“I must say, Holmes, I feel quite unsettled by our experiments. I’ve begun to wonder whether my shoes really are too tight or whether I’m only imagining it. Still, at least we have proved that I’m not imagining being me, for I cannot do it even if I try. I see why Descartes chose cogito as his single fact. He could not be imagining he was thinking, and therefore he must exist.”

“Ah, if only philosophy were that simple, Watson. We have certainly not proved that you are not imaging being you.”

“But I can’t imagine being me. I’ve tried to do it and I cannot.”

“I wonder if that is really true. These are matters of considerable subtlety and we can take nothing for granted. Close your eyes again for a moment, and for this experiment try to imagine that you are only imagining being a human being.”

Watson is silent for a minute or two.

“This is most confusing, Holmes,” he eventually reports, eyes still closed, “I’m not sure whether I’m imagining it or not.”

“Now, Watson, you see the gravity of Descartes’ problem. His deductive method is sound in principle, but ineffective if the chosen starting point is a doubtful fact, and worse than useless if it is not a fact at all. Yet it is surprisingly difficult to find a fact that cannot be doubted. For philosophers it is one of the most difficult of all tasks. For myself, I do not believe Descartes succeeded in finding one, and as a consequence his project was foredoomed.”

“But this is ridiculous, Holmes. Is it not a fact that I think?”

“This you must determine for yourself, old friend, I cannot do it for you.”

Watson settles back into his chair and closes his eyes. Holmes ponders the issues while nibbling one of Mrs. Hudson’s home-made biscuits. After a few minutes he continues.

“It seems to me our discussion has at least thrown some light on the curious definition of consciousness favoured by your two writers.”

Watson open his eyes.

“It has?”

“It leads me to the idea that the thing that thinks cannot be a thought. Or, to put it another way, and less than grammatically, if there is something ‘that it is like’ to have a mind, then ‘what it is like’ is not the same thing as mind. These must be two phenomena, in appearance at least, our mind and whatever is that is aware of what our mind is like. To make them one phenomena we would have to say that ‘what it is like’ is the mind, that minds do not have owners.”

“And why not say just that.”

“At this point, Watson, I do not know. It seems a vital issue. Yet it is clear that your two philosophers do not want to do this, for if they did then only two basic ingredients would be required for a fundamental mind-matter theory. There would be no mysterious missing ingredient. At the same time, they do not conclude that ‘what it is like’ is wholly distinct from mind, for this would give them their missing third ingredient. No, we must assume that there is a good reason for their reluctance to commit themselves to one view or the other. It seems that ‘what it is like’ must either be identical with mind or different, and yet your philosophers find neither idea satisfactory. At the same time, if we eliminate these two possibilities we seem to face a paradox. Perhaps this should be our first task, Watson, to determine whether ‘what it is like’ is or is not the same phenomenon as mind.”

“How on earth are we going to do that?”

“I fear it will take a little more time than remains before lunch, Watson, but I shall see what I can do. Why don’t you finish reading the article while I consider the problem.”

“Perhaps we could take a walk later and continue our discussion.”

“Ah, Watson, you and your dratted fresh air. But perhaps we should. Some exercise would not go amiss.”

“Despite what you have said, Holmes, I still don’t see how we can hope to solve the mystery with so few facts before us.”

“I have enough for now.”

“You see some clues then?”

“You have furnished me with seven, but I must test them before I can pronounce on their value.”

“You suspect there is a solution?”

“I suspect myself – ”


“Of coming to conclusions too rapidly.”


Episode III – A Walk in the Park –

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Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Ingredient: An Entertainment in which the Great Detective Faces Up to the Problem of Consciousness – Episode One

The Case of the Missing Ingredient


(With Apologies to Whom it May Concern)


Episode I


A Puzzle in the Paper


It is a late autumn Sunday morning. At 221B Baker Street Mrs. Hudson has lit the fire and cleared away the breakfast things. Holmes and Watson are comfortably settled in their armchairs reading the papers.

“I say Holmes, have you seen this piece in the Times about consciousness?”

Holmes folds his paper and lays it on the table at his side, exchanging it for his pipe. Leaning forward he knocks the pipe out on the grate. With yesterday’s ashes dislodged he sits back and reaches for his tobacco.

“About whose consciousness?”

“Well, I don’t know. Yours and mine I suppose.”

‘There’s an article about our consciousness in the Times, Watson? This is a breach of privacy.

“No, no, Holmes. Not our consciousness. The consciousness we all have. Everybody’s consciousness.”

Holmes holds a match to the first pipe of day. He draws on it a few times, pulling the flame down into the strong black tobacco. The pipe securely lit and the match thrown into the fire, he settles back in his chair.

“Then there is only one thing for it, old chap, we must bring a class action.”

“No, no, Holmes, why must you play these games. It’s not about our own consciousness, our own private thoughts and dreams and so forth. You know very well what I mean. It’s about human consciousness, the consciousness we all have.”

“Well now,” Holmes pauses to pull on his pipe, considering his next move, “if everybody has this same consciousness, then it’s not yours and mine after all. First you say one thing and then another.”

“Holmes, you are impossible sometimes. I’ll say no more about it.” Watson sits back huffily and makes a drama of re-opening his paper. Holmes relents.

“I’m sorry Watson. Our enforced idleness makes me irritable. Not a decent case for months. The criminal fraternity seems to have lost the ability to outwit the police. A sorry state of affairs. Please do carry on. What is so interesting about this article of yours?”

“What is interesting about it, Holmes, is that the author says that consciousness is the most baffling problem in the science of the mind.”

Holmes is quiet for minute or two. It is as if he has lost interest in the conversation. Watson knows better than to interrupt his friend’s calculations.

“I should have thought,” Holmes replies eventually, without shifting his gaze from the flames dancing around the coals in the fire, “that it is the only problem in the science of the mind.”

“Well, that may be so Holmes. I wouldn’t know. Anyway, he says it cannot be solved.”

“A preposterous idea, Watson. No problem cannot be solved. If it does not have a solution then it is not a problem but a misunderstanding. But this article begins to interest me. Who is the writer?”

“Some philosopher chap. Mostly quotes other people. Says that however we try to explain consciousness we keep finding that there’s a missing ingredient in our explanation. Well, no, the ingredient isn’t in the explanation, that’s the problem. Every explanation of consciousness they can think of has a gap in it. Without an extra ingredient they’re stumped.”

“Ah, my friend, how often have we faced this problem?”

“We have?”

“Most certainly. Are we not often consulted when our conscientious officers of the law have identified all of the suspects for a crime, but cannot prove that any of them could have committed it?”

“I suppose we are, yes. I remember a number of such cases. There was the time we first tangled with that chap Athelney Jones.”

“That would be an example, yes. In such cases the police find they cannot completely explain the crime by assuming that any of their suspects committed it. Yet a certain doggedness makes them keener to prove one of them guilty than make the more obvious but inconvenient inference. In such cases there is usually a suspect missing from the list in whose absence the crime is inexplicable.”

“By Jove, Holmes, I see what you’re getting at. There was an ingredient missing from their list of suspects.”

“Exactly so. There would have to be an ingredient missing from all incorrect explanations of the crime, gaps in story from which we can deduce that it is an incorrect explanation. If this were not so then we would never find the crime difficult to explain but would simply arrest the wrong man. Consider the Sholto case. From the evidence I was able to infer that none of the police suspects could have committed the crime. By eliminating them one by one from our enquiry we proved that either there was a suspect missing from the list or the crime could not have been committed. But the poor chap had clearly been murdered and someone must have done it. Our detective friend Jones made an assumption and didn’t want to change it. How often over the years have I said to you, old friend, that when you have eliminated the impossible what remains, however improbable, must be the truth?’

‘True enough, Holmes. You’ve said it many times. Said it at the time if I remember right. Police were dumbfounded. All quite obvious to us of course.’

Holmes takes a few moments to tamp down his tobacco and puff it back into life.

‘Quite so, Watson. Quite so. They had all the suspects under lock and key. All that remained was to prove which one was the culprit. Elementary mistake. I expect this is what your philosopher chap is talking about when he says there is an ingredient missing from all his explanations.’

‘Well, yes, no doubt you’re right, Holmes. Usually are. Don’t know how you do it. Damn tricky business. Couldn’t follow the whole thing myself. Why don’t you read it?

He starts to fold the paper. Holmes makes no move to take it.

“Does your philosopher say how many ingredients there ought to be in his explanation?”

“No. Just says there’s one missing. ”

“Well, he just hasn’t looked everywhere. No doubt it will turn up. Our scientists have only recently turned their attention to human consciousness. No doubt a century from now his missing ingredient problem will seem trivial.”

‘But that’s the thing, Holmes. He says the ingredient will never turn up. Something to do with metaphysics.”

“Ah, that accursed game of chess with the devil. But never turn up? This seems unlikely. Which are the ingredients that are not missing?”

“I can’t answer all these questions, Holmes, you must read it yourself. He talks a lot about mind and matter, so perhaps it’s them.” Watson opens his paper and scans the page. “Quotes a fellow called Chalmers somewhere. Yes, here it is.”

We have seen that there are systematic reasons why the usual methods of cognitive science and neuroscience fail to account for consciousness experience. These are simply the wrong sort of methods: nothing that they give to us can yield an explanation. To account for conscious experience, we need an extra ingredient in the explanation. This makes for a challenge to those who are serious about the hard problem of consciousness: What is your extra ingredient, and why should that account for conscious experience?

Holmes rises from his chair and walks to the window. Clasping his hands behind him he stands observing the people passing in the street below. The middle aged man, not wealthy but secure enough on a major’s pension. The girl, a maid on an errand. A young couple holding hands, out for some air, married a few months. The older couple with their smart children walking over to spend the afternoon with relatives. The occasional cab clatters past. With the weather turning colder the street, the city, is a quiet as it has been for many months. He returns to the fire, gives it it a few pokes with the poker to cheer it up and settles back into his armchair.

“You know, old friend, your article interests me. Philosophy is an impractical activity. Still, if our criminals have lost their imagination and we have no private clients in immediate need of our services then we must somehow pass the time. Why don’t you read me some more of it.”

“Can you not read it yourself, Holmes? I can’t read you the whole thing from beginning to end. It’s too long, and I shan’t know which bits you want to hear and which bits you don’t. Haven’t finished it myself yet.”

“No, Watson, if you don’t mind I’d prefer to sit and listen. Start where you like. Choose whichever passage you care to. We will see what this fellow’s problem is about, and whether it is worthy of our attention.”

“I hardly think that even you, Holmes, given your neglect of philosophy, would be able to solve a philosophical problem that according to the experts nobody can solve. Damn it man, this is the Times. They wouldn’t have published the article if the chap didn’t know what he was talking about.”

“I am disinclined to think that the problem cannot be solved, Watson. And philosophy is not about expertise. It is about thinking clearly and methodically. This I feel capable of doing, as you know. As for your expert, he has a problem that he cannot solve. In this case we can be no worse at solving it than he is. If he is an expert, and if he knows what he is talking about, then this problem is not a trivial one, and it may even present a challenge. Perhaps it is a problem that can only be solved by Holmes and Watson. It wouldn’t be the first.”

“I say, old chap, I see what you mean. Like beating the police at their own game, eh.”

“In a way, yes. But the situation is not quite equivalent. The game of philosophy is not owned by anyone. On the contrary, it is a game we can all hardly avoid playing. We can only play it more or less enthusiastically. Why don’t you read the passage that first made you think I’d be interested in this problem. Where precisely did it first occur to you that I might want to read the article.”

“Well, yes, that’s it. There was a place. About half-way through. Struck me straight away.”

Watson straightens the paper and searches for the passage. “Lost it now. Quotes another philosopher talking about the same thing.”

“Take your time, old chap. Shall I ask Mrs. Hudson to bring up a fresh pot of tea?”

“Jolly good idea. I shall have a cigar. Ah, here it is. Now where’s the name. Oh yes, Colin McGinn.”

Maybe the reason we are having so much trouble solving the mind-body problem is that reality contains an ingredient that we cannot know. We have only a very partial grip on both mind and brain, but if we could remedy this ignorance the solution to the problem would be immediate and uncontroversial. It’s like one of those detective stories in which the detective has only limited information and cannot for the life of him see how to solve the mystery – the crime looks quite impossible to explain in his current state of information – but then he lights upon the crucial missing clue and everything falls into place. But with the case of the mind-body problem, I surmised, the clue is not going to come to light, which explains why we have been mystified by it for centuries. It might come to light, I thought, but it would have to be very different from anything considered so far; it would certainly not be some minor tinkering with one of the theories currently around. And in my bones I felt that there was some deep-seated obstacle in our intellectual makeup that prevents us from understanding the missing clue.

Watson lowers the paper and looks up. Holmes has been listening with eyes closed but now opens them. Elbows resting on the arms of the chair, he brings his fingertips together.

“There are points about this case that promise to make it a fascinating one, Watson. Well done for spotting it.” He is silent for a moment, tapping his fingers, reviewing the facts. He continues more slowly.

“As you would expect, I would be very unwilling to accept that there is a deep-seated obstacle in my intellectual makeup. Nevertheless, I cannot counter this charge unless and until I have found McGinn’s crucial missing clue. This is indeed a challenge.” Holmes continues to tap his fingers together but says no more.

“What about that tea, Holmes?”

“Ah, yes. Quite so. Must get our priorities right.” He pulls himself out of his armchair. “But once we have the tea poured and your cigar lit we must continue. Our intellect has been disparaged in print and we must set about defending it. We must see whether this McGinn chap’s ‘feeling in his bones’ is anything more than that.”

“What about some biscuits?”

Holmes bows ceremoniously, elegant in old blue dressing-gown over pyjamas and slippers.

“I shall see to it immediately.” He starts for the door. Watson stands and stretches.


Episode II – Some Facts Examined –

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