In response to John Gray’s “The enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes”

Yesterday I came across an opinion piece on the BBC news website titled The enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes, written by political philosopher and author John Gray, in which he claims that we are living “in an age when we have lost faith in the power of reason to solve problems”. I have serious objections to the messages conveyed by this piece. Since I will only be quoting passages from Gray’s piece here, I suggest that you follow the first link above and read it for yourself before continuing. Don’t worry I’ll wait.

Finished? Good. Now there are three main points that I’d like to make in response to Gray’s article. You probably noticed that much of it is spent describing Sherlock Holmes’ methods, despite Gray’s assertions that “it’s not the methods used by the fictional detective that fascinate us. It’s the contradictory figure of Holmes himself.” So I thought I’d start by responding to the attempt to surprise us with the description of Holmes’ methodology.

The scientific method isn’t reasoning?

“What’s striking is that Holmes relies on guesswork and imagination, supplemented and corrected by observation, as much as much on reasoning.”

And what’s wrong with that? It isn’t “striking” at all. What Gray has described is often referred to as the scientific method. The physicist Richard Feynman summarised it as follows:

So we see that Gray’s rambling about Holmes’ methods boils down to being, in principle, the same as those employed by scientists the world over. Is he suggesting that the entire scientific community has abandoned reason? There is no contradiction in Holmes’ character in this regard (as Gray later claims).

Nurses lack human sensitivity?

“From the health service to care homes and prisons, institutions and services have been remodelled to obey principles of rational efficiency, with the result often turning out to be lacking in human sensitivity and at worst a mere shambles.”

I agree with Gray that institutions such as the National Health Service are not perfect, but to state that it lacks human sensitivity is to offend and demean the doctors and nurses who work for it, doing an incredible job while receiving woefully little pay in recompense. I challenge Gray to travel to any ward of any hospital in the UK, watch the nurses at work, and then accuse them of “lacking human sensitivity”. These people are shining beacons of humanity’s capacity for caring and selflessness.

I admit that it is true that the system with which they must work appears coldly rational, but that is precisely what is required to counterbalance emotional attachment and ensure that no individual receives preferential treatment.

We need myths?

“Aside from a few relics of Victorian rationalism who find a curious comfort in Darwinism, most of us now accept that reason can’t give meaning or purpose to life. If we’re not content with the process of living itself, we need myths and myths very often contain contradictions.”

What utter nonsense! What sheer vanity and egotism! Why does life need a meaning or purpose? The universe owes you nothing; no explanation, no meaning and no purpose for your existence. Some people may find this to be a rather bleak outlook on life, but in fact this is what I find so wonderful about a rational world view: I give my life meaning. It’s up to me. Nobody can dictate that. Does this make me a “relic of Victorian rationalism”? If so, I wear that badge with pride.

Since I have already made it clear that I have no need for myths (other than as entertaining works of fiction), I am compelled to ask why Gray thinks we do? The following quote from Douglas Adams seems particularly appropriate: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

Myths offer us nothing but a fallacious, distorted view of the world. Who has the time or need for that? The universe is filled with such wonder and beauty, all of it real. Who needs myths when reality is so much richer, grander, wonderful, awe-inspiring and intriguing? How can anyone condemn reasoning, when it has granted us those gifts? Sadly, Gray offers no rationale for his statements regarding our ‘need’ for myths and, since his article appears to be stating that the power of reasoned thought is itself a myth (the irony of which should be apparent to anyone), I doubt that there is a rational answer.

The power of reason is not a myth. I’m using it right now to compose this post. If that’s not enough to demonstrate its validity and efficacy, then how about science, medicine, democracy and justice? Just a few of mankind’s greatest achievements, and all products of rational thought.

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2 Responses to “In response to John Gray’s “The enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes””

  1. huwser Says:

    Well said! The author of the BBC piece has an argument, a point of view to get across, and isn’t going to allow evidence to the contrary to get in the way.

    Far from lacking reason, Holmes is the very apotheosis of reason. His deductive methods so searingly exact, his observations so complete and his encyclopaedic knowledge so all-encompassing that to the less-developed mind it appears to be magic, guess-work, blind luck. But Holmes himself is always very clear on this point; anyone could in principle do as he does, and he often encourages Watson (and even Lestrade) to try. He just happens to be much, much better at it than others.

    As for

    “Aside from a few relics of Victorian rationalism who find a curious comfort in Darwinism, most of us now accept that reason can’t give meaning or purpose to life. If we’re not content with the process of living itself, we need myths and myths very often contain contradictions.”

    This is pure sophistry. Where is the evidence for this statement? People are no more susceptible to myths now than they have ever been; probably less so. How are those UK church attendance figures looking? For every chakra-bothering crystal worshipper, there’s at least one Brian Cox-loving, Dawkins-reading rational human being. (Not that I’m saying that Professors Cox and Dawkins are necessarily perfect examples, but you get the point.) I went last year to an audience with Stephen Hawking at the Albert Hall. Sold out. Completely.

    Anyway, I think these BBC articles are there to stimulate debate. It’s a shame they can’t put up people who are capable of starting one without talking bollocks.

    • thinkofhappysquirrels Says:

      Good point. I’d forgotten about Holmes’ constant encouragement of Watson to apply his methods: ‘”My dear Watson, try a little analysis yourself,” said he with a touch of impatience. “You know my methods. Apply them, and it will be instructive to compare results.”‘

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