Friday 17 January 2014

Is Sherlock Holmes the Paragon of Human Rationality?

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

What would philosopher Bernard Lonergan, S.J. (centre) say about Sherlock Holmes?

In the ideal detective story the reader is given all the clues yet fails to spot the criminals
– Bernard Lonergan

“Elementary!”, Sherlock Holmes is famous for saying to a baffled Dr. Watson when he grasps a key insight for solving a crime. There is something magical about Sherlock Holmes’s ability to see evidence in clues that people around him miss. It is a skill that we all admire and desire to possess for ourselves. Perhaps this is the reason the popularity of the two current television adaptations of this fictional detective, Sherlock (set in modern London) and Elementary (set in modern Manhattan). Both depict not only Sherlock’s uncanny intelligence but also his eccentric character and lack of social skills. Juxtaposed with his cerebral skills, these traits that make him a very entertaining character to watch.

In many ways, Sherlock Holmes’s methods of solving crime exemplifies the thought of a great Canadian Jesuit philosopher of the last century. Bernard Lonergan (1904–1984) believed that the key to solving many problems in philosophy, theology and other sciences is to grasp what we are actually doing when we come to know something. He explained that there are three fundamental, interlocking processes involved in knowing:
  1. First, there is experience. Knowledge begins with data. This is why Sherlock Holmes is so meticulous about gathering evidence and leaving no stone unturned. He knows that the solution to a crime cannot be dreamt up in a vacuum, but must be derived from concrete clues that can be observed and studied with the five senses.
  2. Second, there is understanding. This comes about through insights that say, “Aha!” when one perceives a solution in the data. It is here that Sherlock Holmes shines. Both he and Dr. Watson look at the same clues, but usually it is Sherlock that first has an insight about what the data actually mean. We have all had this experience of moving from not-understanding to understanding. Sometimes it comes when we least expect it, and it usually feels very satisfying. Lonergan observes that “insight comes as a release to the tension of inquiry.”
  3. Third, there is judgement. Not all insights are correct, and thus Lonergan has remarked, “Insights are a dime a dozen.” Sometimes we think we see something in the data but closer scrutiny shows that it is wrong. Thus, the third step in knowing is verifying that an insight is actually realised. We need to return to the data at hand—and usually gather new data—in order to conclude that a theory is correct. Lonergan calls this a “reasonable affirmation”. It is the sense we have that our interpretation of data “fits”: it is that moment when we finally become satisfied that our theory truly reflects reality.

Holmes as a Model of Knowing

Ciphers from “The Blind Banker”: they must mean something.

The episode “The Blind Banker” in the first season of Sherlock is a nice illustration of this process. In it, Holmes and Watson encounter a series of ciphers left in spray paint at various key locations in the story. These are data that they receive, and they have no idea what they mean. They look for an insight, and ask the question that all understanding asks: “What is it?” They have some ideas, but they turn out not to satisfy all the clues. So they turn back to the data and search for more of the ciphers. They look for ancillary data to help them, by speaking to other people and by looking in books. Finally, when it seems that the game is up, Sherlock has an insight that he affirms to be correct. The cipher is a criminal gang’s code and refers to words in a guidebook that need to be strung together to reveal a message. When he goes to the book he sees that his theory falls neatly into place, and has the satisfaction of judging that the theory is sufficient to the evidence.

The foregoing example shows that knowing is not always a straightforward path from data to theory to verification. It can move back and forth between data and theory and more data and further theories before verification finally obtains. It is only upon the satisfactory interlocking of the three processes of experiencing, theorising and verifying that knowledge results.

A further reason I like the example of the ciphers is that it shows our deep-seated trust in the rationality of the world. When Sherlock and Watson see the signs, they do not shrug their shoulders and move onto something else. Rather, they assume that the ciphers mean something, even though at first glance they look nonsensical. Our minds, Lonergan observes, are never fully satisfied to leave things unexplained. Ultimately, as he puts it, we want to know “everything about everything”. However, as he is well aware, human beings are not pure, rational spirits. We have other “patterns” of behaving. Sometimes we are more concerned with what kind of impression we are making on others—the “dramatic” pattern, as Lonergan calls it. Sometimes we have to resort to our most basic, animal patterns. For example, in “The Blind Banker”, Holmes has to fight a criminal in an apartment building. In his fighting mode, he certainly isn’t worried as much about knowing as he is about surviving! But what is fascinating about Holmes is that this is a rare exception: normally he is fully absorbed in the intellectual pattern and the drive for knowledge.

The Trouble with Holmes

Bernard Lonergan agreed with Aristotle’s diagnosis that man is a “rational animal”. We are most human when we exercise our rational faculties. Does this mean, though, that Sherlock Holmes is the paragon of human excellence? This would be odd, because in many ways he is a repulsive character. He has a surprising lack of attention to social etiquette and is shockingly indifferent to the feelings of those around him. He is often haughty and cold. He has difficulty making friends. He struggles with a drug addiction. What would Lonergan (or Aristotle, for that matter) make of him?

The answer is to expand our understanding of rationality, in two ways. First, Lonergan insists that there are many kinds of knowing. The abductive reasoning at which Sherlock Holmes excels is by no means the only kind of knowing. There is knowledge that flows from the arts, from the social sciences and even from common sense—in fact, Lonergan was particularly interested in exploring how our common sense knowledge really is valid and worthwhile. Thus, Holmes’s propensity to ignore social convention and common sense does not mean that he is more rational that those around him, but rather that he is particularly irrational in certain areas.

Second, and more profoundly, Lonergan embraces the famous dictum of Blaise Pascal: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” Sometimes this famous saying is interpreted as being anti-intellectual. Lonergan, however, sees it quite differently. The “reason” that “knows nothing” refers to the kind of reason that Sherlock Holmes is good at: judgement of insights into empirical experiences. But the “reasons of the heart” points to a further faculty of human rationality beyond the three capabilities of experience, insight and judgement. Lonergan taught that to fully account for our unlimited desire to know the world, we need to acknowledge our ability to perceive values that transcend the kind of knowledge that Holmes seeks. In other words, we seek knowledge not only of what is true but also of what is good and beautiful. Finally, for the human heart to be fully satisfied, it needs faith in God. “Faith”, Lonergan said, “Is knowledge born of religious love.”

Our lives will always be lacking if we remain in a merely Holmsian mode that is content only with discovering facts. Experiencing, having intelligent insights and making rational judgements are all necessary to the human enterprise, but they are not enough: they need to move beyond themselves to an encounter with the goodness and beauty of the world around us, and ultimately to a contemplation of the infinite and transcendent God. If we join Sherlock Holmes in his quest for factual knowledge, we begin well; but if we go no further it will be like his cocaine addiction: satisfying at first but eventually debilitating. Our native desire “to know everything about everything” will only be satisfied when it rests in the love of God.


  1. And if this quest ends in the Catholic Christian faith, should we then be satisfied? What about some other religion or version of Christianity that seems either 1) overwhelmingly authoritative (less reason to think) or dramatically emotionally fulfilling (less reason to ponder)? We've certainly seen many people take these routes and it is hard in both counts to have a discussion with them, given the immensity of their certainty..

    1. This is really excellent question, and thanks for posting it. I won't attempt a full answer, but here is a sketch.

      I did not mention it in the post, but one of Lonergan's frequent themes is the need for “self-appropriation”. That is, he thought that his cognitional theory of experience, insight and judgement is only valuable if a person is able to affirm that it is operative within himself. The epistemological, moral and metaphysical consequences of his philosophy can only follow if this self-appropriation actually occurs.

      There are two consequences of this that are relevant.

      First, to your question: “If this quest ends in the Catholic Christian faith, should we then be satisfied?” This can only be answered by someone who dares to embark upon the quest and to appropriate it for himself. Ultimately, I cannot answer this question for you or anyone else in a way that will be satisfactory. I can only propose that it is worth undertaking.

      Second, your question bears a solution within it. What will utlimately satisfy you? If it really is true that we want to “know everything about everything”, nothing will satisfy us until we come to contemplate God, who is the source of everything, face to face. The Catholic faith, in its earthly form and expression, is the way to God, not an end in itself: that is why the Council speaks of a “pilgrim Church”: she is journeying towards an end.

      So: someone who belongs to a religion that is excessively authoritative or relies on a dramatic emotional pull has to be honest with himself. Is this way of life satisfying my most authentic desires? Am I on pilgrimage to God? I'm reminded of the Rolling Stones song “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction)”. In a elemental way it speaks to our fundamental desire and how it gets frustrated when we look in the wrong places. “'Cause I try and I try and I try and I try …” Relying on authoritarianism or emotionalism can provide temporary relief to what the Rolling Stones were complaining about, but it will only be temporary.