Is Holmes Really Just Lucky?

So I’ll skip the third essay in “Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy” because it deals with personal identity issues that I’ve already discussed ad nauseum, and as usual I’m passing over “Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy”, mostly because it’s talking about a post-modern approach which has never appealed to me (I will eventually cover an essay from that book, I promise!). So now I’ll move on to the third essay in “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy”, entitled “Is Holmes Really Just Lucky?” by J. Solomon Johnson, which lets me talk a bit about my favourite epistemological view: reliablism.

First, what does Johnson mean when he asks if Holmes might just be lucky? Essentially, the idea is that Holmes forms his views on the basis of deduction from his exceptional observational powers. He observes far more than anyone else does, and so has more data on which to base his deductions, and his deductions succeed because he has, presumably, all of the relevant evidence at hand when he does it, unlike those who continually observe the same scenes and come to the wrong conclusions. From my recollection of the Holmes stories, most of the time the others jumped to the wrong conclusions because they were missing important data. So Holmes has more data and gets things right, which seems to support the idea that his method works. But is he justified in thinking that it works?

As outlined in the essay, the generally accepted definition of knowledge is of justified true belief. So in order to know something you have to believe that it’s true, it has to be true, and you have to be justified in your belief that it is true. The key problem for knowledge using this definition has always been around that “justification” part. What is required to be able to say that your belief is justified to the level required for knowledge? Descartes used deductive certainty, but that left us without any knowledge at all, perhaps beyond “I think therefore I am” (and even that has been challenged). Johnson uses an idea based around safety and sensitivity, talking a lot about possible worlds and the impact, which I find interesting — and which you should read — but which seems to only encapsulate a lot of ideas that come from the view I hold, which is, to remind you, reliablism.

So what is reliablism? Well, it replaces “justified” with “was produced by a reliable truth-forming faculty”, to which I always add the rider “under the conditions where it is reliable”. This means that to the extent that you can verify the truth of any proposition, you’ve noted that this method produces beliefs that turn out to be true a significant amount of the time. Working out the precise details of how reliable it has to be still needs to be done, but this does generally capture a sense of justification that allows for strong confidence while allowing for the method to produce false beliefs at times and still be considered reliable.

For Holmes, even his deductions can be wrong if he misses something or if he’s missing data. His trust in his methodology relies on his knowing everything that he needs to know, and with him seeking out extra data and/or testing hypotheses if he isn’t sure that he knows all that he needs to know to come to the right conclusion. But in general the inspectors and Watson think they know everything that they need to know to come to conclusions when they do as well. So how can Holmes be so sure that he has all the data? And the answer, from reliablism, is that when he thinks he has all the data and that there is only one obvious answer, he’s usually right. When the others think that, they are quite often wrong. So his combination of observation and deduction turns out to be reliable more often than not, and so he is justified in thinking that when it produces a conclusion for him that he knows that that is what is true. The more cases he successfully solves using that method, the more and more confident he can be that it is in fact, a reliable method and one that produces knowledge.

So, as Holmes succeeds and the others fail, the more he can come to trust that his remarkable powers of observation are, in fact, giving him all that he needs to know to solve the cases … and so can Watson and the others. Relying on Holmes’ conclusions works sufficiently well to justify treating it as knowledge without any additional demands for proof, or any worry that Holmes will typically miss an important clue. Holmes’ method, and Holmes himself, are both reliable truth-forming faculties, and so we are justified in thinking that when Holmes says what happened that he — and we — know that that is, indeed, what happened.



2 Responses to “Is Holmes Really Just Lucky?”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    It’s more than *just* observation. It’s also coming to the most logical conclusion from the given facts.

    Recall “The Sign of the Four”. The big twist at the end – one of Conan Doyle’s most clever – was that the boat they were searching for was under their noses the whole time, but disguised. It was the same trick that was used in “The Purloined Letter” by Poe, his best Dupin story.

    Holmes had every clue available to him for most of the novel. He just didn’t put the pieces together until the very end. Sure, he needed to gather information to verify his theories, but that was mop-up.

    So Holmes was able to read the clues more accurately than the police, which is how he solved the crime – not just from his remarkable observation skills, though that’s a huge part of it.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      True. But I think that focusing on the observational powers is better for this point because deductions can be checked more easily than observations can. For most of his work, Holmes not only has to assume that he’s observed everything important, but he also generally does and takes great pride in assuming that he’s observed everything important. The question is whether he is justified in thinking that he has and so using that as a justification for claiming to know what the answer is. I argue that since he generally HAS observed everything important he can be justified in trusting his observations.

      The same can be said for his deduction, but one might also ask him to check his work before declaring the answer.

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