“I say let it be known that I am acting in self-defense!” Sherlock Holmes
One the greatest literary caricatures of the last 100 years is Sherlock Holmes. The image of the pipe bearing detective with an eye for the most indiscriminate detail is burned firmly into the minds and hearts of thousands of people. What I am interested in today is to talk about the reasons why Sherlock Holmes and the majority of western thinking about problem solving is indeed wrong.
Not-so-elementary my dear Watson
Sherlock Holmes often cautioned Watson not to come to a conclusion about a crime until he had the ‘facts’. Watson was framed as the bumbling detective who never really put the pieces of the puzzle together. Holmes, the figure of the rational/logical detective espoused ad nausem in today’s crime shows, always reasoned through available facts, evidence and such things. Watson was always leaping to conclusions that were off the cuff, spontaneous and available. Putting the pieces together in a logical fashion as Holmes did actually is not all to dissimilar to Watson’s approach. Consider for a moment that we all making meaningful gestures at what we think problems are all the time. As we come to understand the situation we are faced with we immediately think of solutions. Chances are that we come to the conclusion that problems we faced have many ‘not-so-elementary’ elements that are not obvious. Conjecturing is one way we can actually tease out the not so obvious and begin to build better solutions.
Reasoning Versus Conjecturing?
These two practices are not mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact they are deeply connected. For a moment think of a problem you have. Tell me what’s the problem? I guess you have either spoken out loud and said ‘the problem is…’. Have you ever watched the news and a story caught your attention enough for you to whine about it? Say it was about the rental crisis. What’s the problem… well I guess you could say the problem is a lack of housing at a cheap enough price. Immediately you have just conjectured what the problem is and now we have available to us certain types of conclusions. Whenever you say… the problem is… you are conjecturing (either based on no or limited ‘evidence’). Getting more information may be important so we can reason but the ideas that underpin our reasoning processes are even more important.
Facts come after we beginning looking for evidence
People often say to me, ‘well this has been my experience.’ I then sit back and wonder why can’t people see that their experience (or the evidence in this case) happened and the facts they have collected are coming from a way of thinking about that experience. Facts are always available. When we conjecture as to what we think the problem is, we begin to look for support for our ideas. NOT the other way round. Human beings are wired up to believe things first then either confirm or deny later. To say that we come to conclusions through reasoning is true to a point BUT the vast majority of our decision making takes place on the back of ideas that have little or no confirmatory evidence. Sherlock Holmes was ridiculing Watson for doing precisely the same thing he was!
Reasoning comes from somewhere
Reasoning comes from a set of underlying ideas. If you think that there is a problem the chances are you may be the only one thinking that it’s so. Contrary to the majority of western thought… the ideas that form the problem take place in the human mind and may not even have support from other people. If you think people are saying nasty things about you… that’s a problem you have conjectured. You will then act on these assumptions, build a new way of defending yourself and even begin treating everyone as a possible threat. Holmes allow the ‘facts’ to speak him as he often said but these facts led to a reasoning process which in turn leads to Holmes conjecturing (taking an educated guess) as to what his problem is. Holmes ‘faith’ was created through the facts which led to certain conclusions as a result. We all do it! It’s not like we are immune to it. It’ s just this false consciousness we create whereby we think that we are being ‘scientific’ but we are not. Things like faith and belief establish the conjecture or set of ideas and we follow through to a conclusion from there.
In concluding this post I would like to add that Sherlock Holmes was right to trust the evidence he found but if you read what he did he used an awful lot of guesswork, theorising, brainstorming and creative thinking. All of which require no so-called ‘evidence’ to lead to conclusions. They are merely ideas that suggest certain kinds of possibilities, concepts that suggest ways of thinking and educated guesses that stimulate the problem solving process. Take a look at your own life and begin to see the conjectures you have floating around in your head. What are you worried about? What makes you fearful? These are nothing more than ideas you have attached your emotions to which in turn creates a new reality for you to believe. Remember, it’ s not the ‘facts’ but where the facts come from that are important.
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