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Sherlock Holmes and the Limits of Modern Knowing

By: for Back to Godhead Magazine on July 4, 2013
Opinion
Photo Credits: theculturalgutter.com

"Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary."

Might the methods we employ to learn about day-to-day things fall short when we pursue transcendent truths?

“Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.”

Fans of the world’s most famous fictional detective will recognize these words as the prelude to an incisive display of reasoning sure to astonish even the most clever. (The phrase never appeared in exactly that form in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, but that hasn’t hampered its notoriety.) And fans there are aplenty. In fact, when Doyle tried to kill off the sleuth in 1893 to move on to other projects, public outcry forced him to revive the character. Since then, avid followers have reenacted and re-imagined Holmes in a multiplicity of media, including movies, television programs, radio dramas, stage plays, animated features, pastiches, and parodies. A current British television-series adaptation modernizes many of the original storylines.

What is the source of this enduring fascination? Perhaps it is because Holmes’s approach to problem solving epitomizes the modern approach to acquiring knowledge. That is to say, he does what most of us (including scientists) do when we want to figure something out—look, listen, think, conclude—only better and faster. No wonder he is the intellectual hero of multitudes. But what about those of us seeking to understand religion? Can Holmes serve as our model here as well? Or does the spiritual quest require something more than scientific inquiry—and its paragon Sherlock Holmes—can provide?

To answer these questions, we must first understand more thoroughly the methods Holmes (and his contemporary scientific counterparts) uses to comprehend material phenomena. He exemplifies an approach to knowledge that applies logic to observations. In the first episode of the latest British series, Holmes starts off using one of his sharp senses—his acute eyesight—to notice scratches around the charging port of Dr. Watson’s cell phone. To interpret the scratches, he then makes some logical inferences. In particular, he uses the techniques known as induction and abduction. (Although he is described in the stories as using deduction, this is probably not the most accurate characterization.)

Induction is a form of reasoning in which if the premises are true the conclusion is probably true. The most well-known type of induction is the generalization, in which one infers a general rule from specific examples. Here, having observed scratches on the phones of some alcoholics, Holmes uses induction to conclude that the phones of all alcoholics have scratches (he explains that these individuals have trouble plugging in their phones because their hands are always shaking). Abduction is a form of reasoning in which one observes a result and then guesses at the cause. When he comes upon Watson’s scratched phone, Holmes takes the rule he has already derived from induction, applies it using the process of abduction, and ventures that the best explanation for the scratches is that the phone once belonged to an alcoholic. (Dr. Watson later confirms that his sister gave him the phone and that she is indeed an alcoholic.)

Modern science similarly manufactures knowledge by combining sense perception with these two forms of logical inference. First, scientists make observations, usually using some extension of their senses, such as a microscope or telescope. Then, they apply induction to these observations to derive theories and principles. Finally, they make scientific hypotheses, applying these theories using abduction to explain new observations.

Limitations

So how well does this process serve the spiritual seeker? Two limitations seem especially problematic: First, both induction and abduction are inherently uncertain. As for induction, Holmes may have observed that the cell phones of many alcoholics are scratched, but this does not necessarily mean that the cell phone of every alcoholic on the planet is scratched (e.g., we can imagine a woman who is an alcoholic but whose cell phone is unmarked because she bought it yesterday, or an alcoholic man who always asks his spouse to plug his phone in). Srila Prabhupada several times made an analogous point: A man may conclude that all human beings are mortal because everyone he has ever met has eventually died, but this leaves open the possibility that he has just never happened to meet an immortal. As for abduction, even if it were true that the cell phones of all alcoholics are indeed scratched, the damage to Watson’s phone may be due to some other reason (e.g., maybe the previous owner was farsighted and never had on her glasses when plugging in the phone).

For one exploring religion and seeking absolute knowledge, this uncertainty is unacceptable. If it turns out that my theory about the migration pattern of humpback whales is wrong, I might be a little embarrassed, but life will go on. If my understanding of God is off, on the other hand, the fate of my eternal soul hangs in the balance.

A second limitation is that the modern approach to acquiring knowledge seldom goes beyond what the senses can perceive. A near-ubiquitous requirement of valid science is the production of tangible proof. To the extent that induction and abduction are grounded in sense perception, however, the theories and explanations they generate will be confined to the physical realm. While this restriction on potential explanations is likely irrelevant to Holmes’s conclusion about the cell phone, it is problematic for metaphysical conclusions concerning the nature of God. After all, one of Holmes’s maxims is that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Thus, what he accepts as a possibility in the first place is pivotal. On a similar note, Srila Prabhupada said that one seeking to understand the fundamental nature of reality can use his or her intelligence to eliminate mundane explanations through the process of negation but that one cannot thus affirmatively access transcendent truths.

Intelligence in the Spiritual Arena

If Holmesian observation and reasoning are of limited value to inquiries into the divine, does that mean religion entails shunning your intelligence? Quite the contrary. The Vedic literature expounds a sophisticated philosophy of knowing that fully employs the modern approach, but only as a subordinate and auxiliary part of a more comprehensive traditional approach especially suited to spiritual investigation.

To be sure, observation and logic have their place. Indeed, the first type of evidence, or pramana, described in the Vedic literature is sense perception. The term used is pratyaksha, literally “that which is before the eyes.” And the second type of evidence is logical inference, known as anumana, literally “that which comes from the mind.” Working in tandem, they are referred to in the Vedic literature as aroha-pantha, or the ascending process of knowledge; that is, knowledge derived from the ground up. For many day-to-day purposes, the Vedas deem it sufficient to derive knowledge from a combination of these two sources, in a manner closely akin to Holmes’s method. Indeed, even some basic spiritual truths—that my true identity is something beyond my physical body, that I am under the control of a higher authority—can be ascertained through the use of reason and perception, as Srila Prabhupada explains in Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.2.35.

But the ascending process does not function independently in the Vedic paradigm. Rather, it is secondary to an opposing—and more important—descending process, known as avaroha-pantha. For answering profound questions about the material world (e.g., the origins of life, the origins of the universe) this descending process is critical; for answering profound questions about God it is indispensable. Just as the ascending process involves starting with some foundational knowledge and then applying logic to it, so too does the descending process. However, both the source of the basic knowledge and the type of logic applied are different. Whereas Holmes starts with sense perception, the Vedas recommend starting with the third type of evidence, shabda, literally “that which is heard.” In other words, the voice of revealed scripture serves as the primary guide for a spiritual seeker.

(It is interesting to note that reliance on knowledge from authority is commonplace in modern society [e.g., students listening to teachers at school, viewers listening to news reporters on television], but that the approach is generally abandoned in spiritual matters.)

The type of inference also changes. Whereas Holmes reasons through uncertain and limited induction and abduction, the Vedas prescribe the infallible process of deduction. Deduction is a form of reasoning in which if the premises are true the conclusion is definitely true; in this way, it is essentially the opposite of abduction. Instead of observing all manner of results and attempting to guess their cause, as the secular scientist does, a spiritual inquirer accepts causal principles revealed by scripture and predicts with certainty various results. Thus, the ongoing task of the spiritualist is to apply scripturally revealed principles to the multitude of specific circumstances he or she encounters. Because the source of these principles is divine, their reliability is guaranteed and their scope is unlimited. In this way, shabda and deductive anumana together constitute a way of knowing that surmounts the two shortcomings of the ascending process.

An Illustration

To illustrate the descending process, let’s see what we can deduce from the Vedic literature about the proper diet for a serious spiritualist. In one verse of the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna explains that one who eats the remnants of sacrifice is purified whereas one who prepares food solely for personal enjoyment incurs grievous sin. In another, He instructs that everything one eats should be offered to Him. In yet another, He enumerates the types of items He accepts: leaves, fruits, flowers, and water. Accepting these verses as infallible scriptural truths, we can deduce that devotees of Krishna should eat only vegetarian food first offered to Krishna as a sacrifice, lest we take on the karma of killing even the simplest of living beings.

Furthermore, in the Srimad-Bhagavatam Krishna is described as a cowherd boy, living in the dairy village of Vrindavan. From the descriptions of His lifestyle, we can deduce that the consumption of milk by adult human beings is appropriate and even recommended, as long as the cows providing such precious food are maintained handsomely throughout their lives. We would not likely have derived either of these conclusions following a Holmesian approach, taking in what we observed and hazarding an explanation; but both easily follow when we apply our acumen to make inferences from broad scriptural principles.

Admiration for the astounding abilities of Sherlock Holmes is certainly not misplaced. The methods he and his contemporary scientific counterparts use for acquiring knowledge—observation and reasoning—are universal and necessary, and even the Vedic literature of ancient India recognizes them as valid for certain purposes. Nevertheless, they are not sufficient. Because they are imperfect processes, subject to limited certainty and scope, they should not be independently relied upon. Instead, they should be used as supplementary to scriptural revelation, particularly when it comes to questions of religion. The ascending process of knowledge that combines sense perception with induction and abduction simply cannot unlock transcendental truths. As an alternative, the Vedic canon prescribes a descending process of knowledge that combines authoritative revelation with deduction. Thus, Dr. Watson is wise to take counsel from his detective friend on many matters, but when he (or any other fan of Sherlock Holmes) is ready to search out God, he’ll need to find a different guru.

About the Author: Navina-Syama Dasa (Navin Shyam Jani) grew up going to ISKCON temples, first in Cleveland, Ohio, and later in Laguna Beach, California. He became serious about spiritual life while studying at Stanford University, and after graduation he spent time in several North American temples and farm communities. Later, he traveled to India with his wife, Krishna Priya Devi Dasi, where he earned a Bhakti Shastri degree with High Honors from the Mayapur Institute of Higher Education. He was ISKCON News' Managing Editor for over a year.

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