From the first time I opened up A Study in Scarlet as a young boy and was introduced to Sherlock Holmes I wanted to become the detective who could spot some whiskers and a tattoo from across a street and know someone was a retired Royal Marine sergeant, or recreate an entire crime scene from wheel ruts, some tobacco ash and footprints in the dust. So I purchased The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook and set off.
It did not go as planned.
Contrary to what juvenile fiction authors would have you believe, major crimes did not happen with regularity in my suburban elementary school. Moreover, even my off-duty deductions were disappointing. The details that might allow you to make insightful conclusions were all there but so were millions of other details which were completely unimportant, and it was darned difficult to tell one from the other. Sherlock Holmes deduced with inescapable logic that allowed for no other interpretation of the facts. Holmes’ very appeal was the utter certainty of his conclusion, a certainty I did not achieve then, and rarely experience now.
Which is why later in life I have grown to appreciate another detective, Father Brown, the unassuming little priest in G. K. Chesterton’s series of stories. One of my very favorite scenes in all of detective literature comes from The Honour of Israel Gow, in which the priest and his colleagues, Flambeau and Inspector Craven, are investigating an apparent murder in Glengyle Castle. The pieces of evidence are varied and perplexing: diamonds with no settings, tiny metal wheels and springs, wax candles with no candlesticks, and heaps of loose snuff. Inspector Craven is flummoxed:
“By no stretch of the imagination can the human mind connect together snuff and diamonds and wax and loose clockwork.”
But not Father Brown:
“I think I see a connection,” said the priest.
Father Brown then calmly described to his colleagues how the incongruous clues could actually be bound together by an infatuation with the last Bourbon rulers of France.
“Both the other men were staring at him with round eyes. “What a perfectly extraordinary notion!” cried Flambeau. “Do you really think that is the truth?”
“I am perfectly sure it isn’t,” answered Father Brown, “only you said that nobody could connect snuff and diamonds and clockwork and candles. I give you that connection off-hand. The real truth, I am sure lies deeper.”
The little Essex priest then took all the very same pieces of evidence and demonstrated that they all could be tools for burglary so the suspected killer must have been a thief caught in the act of robbing the castle.
“Diamonds and small wheels,” repeated Craven ruminating. “Is that all that makes you think it the true explanation?”
“I don’t think it the true explanation,” replied the priest placidly; but you said that nobody could connect the four things. The true tale, of course, is something much more humdrum.”
A third time, Father Brown took the same four items and built yet another scenario involving nearby shepherds and a buried treasure.
“Is that all? Asked Flambeau after a long pause. “Have we got to the dull truth at last?”
“Oh no,” said Father Brown.
…“I only suggested that because you said one could not plausibly connect snuff with clockwork or candles or bright stones. Ten false philosophies will fit the universe; ten false theories will fit Glengyle Castle. But we want the real explanation of the castle and the universe.”
Whether Chesterton is using the priest’s more humble approach to the evidence to take a playful jab at the Sherlock Holmes’ conceit of certainty, I don’t know. But I think about Father Brown today as I search the Internet. “Ten false philosophies will fit the universe…” The data points are manifold; there are whiskers and ashes and candles and gemstones strewn across my digital landscape “…but we want the real explanation…” In so many cases it isn’t the first explanation, or the most obvious, or the cleverest that is the “real” one. Would that we all had Father Brown’s ability to perceive multiple potential solutions, because only in doing so do we discipline ourselves to be patient until one reveals itself as authority.
Father Brown reminds me of three competing truths. The first is that there are, of course, multiple explanations to any set of data points. But the second is that all explanations are not equally valid. There is a “real” truth. There are some perspectives that are better than others just as, in the detective metaphor, there is an interpretation of the evidence that reveals the true killer.
But there is a more sobering third truth: transcendent uncertainty. Though there may be real truth, we may not always, often, or easily comprehend it. In commerce, politics, relationships, even religion we are called upon to make business decisions, to vote, to love, to purchase, to pray when the facts are uncertain or insufficient, or when they are too complex to know thoroughly and when our expert guides have become biased or partisan. Performing well within uncertainty has become a civic prerequisite made so much more ironic and acute in our age by the masses of electronic data at our disposal.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Father Brown is a priest. In an odd way people of faith may be advantaged in a world defined by ambiguity. The author of the biblical book of Hebrews calls faith “the assurance of things hoped for” a beguiling tribute to both the conviction and uncertainty that mark the experience of every mature believer.
But religious or not, we must all develop the subtle capacity for complex thinking and humility such that when required, we can evaluate, contemplate, and decide even with incomplete and insufficient knowledge.
I once had a manager whose intelligence frustrated his colleagues because, as one privately said “he saw so many sides of an issue that it rendered him completely incapable of making a decision.” It is right to want the real explanation of the universe; but we will likely be forced to decide a great many things without it.