Simanaitis Says

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HOLMES TRUTH

TRUTH IS being assaulted these days through alternative facts. Early a.m. tweets claim this truth is spread by “enemies of the people.” Truths of intelligence and science are downplayed or ignored. In such times, I seek refuge in Sherlock Holmes, another world but no more fictional than a lot of today’s goings-on.

Sherlock Holmes, 1854–timeless, English consulting detective, his adventures chronicled by colleague Dr. John H. Watson. Illustration by Sidney Paget.

Holmes’ most familiar quote on truth is cited by Watson in The Sign of the Four: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

The Sign of the Four was published as Watson’s second novel-length chronicle,1890.

How often does Holmes say this? Indeed, he repeats this truism in The Sign of the Four as well as in “The Adventure of the Beryl Cornet,” “Silver Blaze,” “The Adventure of the Priory School,” “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” and “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier.”

Not that mere repetition of something inherently makes it true. Except in Washington, D.C.

Repetition also works in the fanciful world of mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodson aka Lewis Carroll: From The Hunting of the Snark: “What I tell you three times is true.”

The Red Queen lectures Alice, Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll, 1871. Illustration by John Tenniel.

In Through the Looking-Glass, Alice’s Red Queen says of believing impossible things, “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Apparently even before 3 a.m. tweets.

Also in Through the Looking-Glass, “ ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’ ”

It’s not exactly a podium, but, golly, do you suppose…. Illustration of Humpty-Dumpty and Alice by John Tenniel.

Let’s return to Holmes and truth. His comment about eliminating the impossible has given rise to lively philosophical commentary. I offer three examples for additional perusal on the readers’ part: Philosiblog.com offers logic applicable to personal life. Rebresearch.com discusses Holmes and the Scientific Method. Theness.com addresses the meaning of “impossible.”

In particular, is the absence of evidence the same as evidence of absence? Loosely, if you don’t know something, then does it even exist?

Carl Sagan, astronomer/cosmologist/astrophysicist/science communicator, would have likely disagreed with this philosophical point. Why else send a message to extraterrestrials?

I’m also reminded of Flanders and Swann and their charming satire, The Ostrich Song. “Peek-a-Boo, I can’t see you/Everything must be grand./Boo-ka-Pee, they can’t see me/As long as I’ve got me head in the sand.”

Others even raise the question of the supernatural in Holmes’ perception of the impossible. Sci-fi author Isaac Asimov offered a wonderful response to this: “As far as I’m concerned, if, when everything impossible has been eliminated and what remains is supernatural, then someone is lying.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

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