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.”
“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.”
“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 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 –