About the SA Blog Network



Critical views of science in the news
Cross-Check Home

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Pointless Universe–Solved?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

The Sherlock Holmes era of my life has, sadly, ended. I just completed The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Kindle edition, four novels and 56 short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. In a previous post, I commented on an anomalous riff by Holmes–who usually dwells with autistic obsession on crime-solving and shuns metaphysics—in “The Naval Treaty” on whether a rose is evidence of God.

In "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box," a gruesome double murder provokes Sherlock Holmes--shown here, center, examining two ears--to ponder the problem of evil. Sidney Paget produced this illustration of the story for Strand Magazine, 1893. Wikimedia Commons,

I found another philosophical gem embedded in the penultimate story of The Complete Holmes, “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box.” The tale begins when a woman is mailed a box containing two ears, one female and one male. Holmes eventually solves the case, which involves a love quadrangle that culminates in double murder and mutilation.

The gruesome story concludes with Holmes, in melancholy mood, musing to his sidekick: “What is the meaning of it, Watson?… What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

In “The Naval Treaty,” Holmes contemplates the problem of beauty. In “Cardboard Box,” he touches on the problem of evil, the flip side of the problem of beauty. Yes, life, for some people, some of the time, can be wonderful, filled with love and friendship and fun, but for many it is a “circle of misery and violence and fear.”

I share Holmes’s incredulity that we are here through “chance,” sheer happenstance, as well as his bafflement over why, if we are products of a divine plan, it entails so much suffering. One response to this mystery is that of physicist Steven Weinberg. He once wrote: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.” We must face the hard truth, Weinberg suggests, that there is no divine plan, no overarching purpose to life. Shit happens.

In his 1993 book Dreams of a Final Theory, Weinberg emphasizes that he has no complaints about his own life. He has been “remarkably happy, perhaps in the upper 99.99 percentile.” But he has seen “a mother die painfully of cancer, a father’s personality destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease, and scores of second and third cousins murdered in the Holocaust.”

He rejects the popular theological proposition that evil is the price we pay for our God-given free will. “It seems a bit unfair for my relatives to be murdered in order to provide an opportunity for free will for the Germans,” he notes, “but even putting that aside, how does free will account for cancer? Is it an opportunity of free will for tumors?”

Although I find Weinberg’s reasoning compelling, I prefer the view of another great physicist, Freeman Dyson. In his 1988 book Infinite In All Directions, Dyson ponders why life is so filled with tribulation, and he suggests that existence may be governed by “the principle of maximum diversity.” This principle, he continues,

“operates at both the physical and the mental level. It says that the laws of nature and the initial conditions are such as to make the universe as interesting as possible. As a result, life is possible but not too easy. Always when things are dull, something turns up to challenge us and to stop us from settling into a rut. Examples of things which made life difficult are all around us: comet impacts, ice ages, weapons, plagues, nuclear fission, computers, sex, sin and death. Not all challenges can be overcome, and so we have tragedy. Maximum diversity often leads to maximum stress. In the end we survive, but only by the skin of our teeth.”

Dyson’s personality is an odd mixture of arrogance and modesty. I once asked him about the principle of maximum diversity, and he downplayed it. “I never think of this as a deep philosophical belief,” he said. “It’s simply, to me, just a poetic fancy.”

Dyson’s “poetic fancy” is remarkably similar to the “timewave theory” proposed—independently, as far as I know–by psychedelic trickster Terence McKenna. Beginning in the 1970s, McKenna’s drug-induced visions convinced him that the purpose of existence is to generate “novelty,” which can be horribly destructive as well as delightfully creative. The history of the universe and of humanity, McKenna claimed, showed novelty increasing at an accelerating rate, particularly as a result of advances in science and technology.

Like Dyson, McKenna seemed not to take his own proposal entirely seriously. When I interviewed him in 1999, less than a year before a brain tumor killed him, McKenna called himself a “visionary fool,” who “propounds this thing which is a trillion to one shot”–the timewave theory–and then “gets to live out the inevitably humorous implications of that.”

McKenna and Dyson’s convergent solutions to the problem of evil nonetheless strike me as profound. The creator, if there is one, inflicts “evil”—induced by humans and other vectors–on us so that existence never gets boring. The ultimate purpose or “end” of existence is for there to be no end, only more drama, excitement, adventure, novelty.

Most will probably find this a chilly, unsatisfying theodicy–which leaves unanswered the question of whether “novelty” is for our delectation or God’s–but I haven’t found a better one. I bet Holmes would have liked it.

Further Reading: “Did Sherlock Holmes Believe in God?”

Self-plagiarism alert: I discuss the ideas of Weinberg, Dyson and McKenna in The End of Science and Rational Mysticism.


John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 25 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. tuned 11:49 am 04/7/2014

    If there is “God” that only makes it worse.
    All this is as I’ve said many times before.

    Suffering should never have existed.

    Life is locked into a titanic struggle of harm doing for survival at ALL levels. Suffering is integral to that. All of it is in the genes, “in the blood”.
    “Love” is bio-chemical response to that genetic survival demand. The notion of beauty is exactly that. It is the worm on the hook genetically. It has rewards and costs.

    If there is “God” it is undeniable this is all a puppet show, no more meaning than that. It will have justice at the end as part of the show.
    If there is no “God” it has even less meaning, random chance reactions and mutations full of pain and occasional “joy”, all driven bio-chemically.

    Either way you must determine your own morality and proceed accordingly.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Shecky R. 5:21 pm 04/7/2014

    this seems wholly “unsatisfying” and unprofound… one can imagine a plethora of ways to introduce novelty or fight boredom without EVER employing “evil” or intense physical pain. It would be more satisfying or “logical” to simply presume that evil agents or “Satan” are responsible.
    The occurrence of “evil” stands as the most difficult theological question there is, answerable only with concocted platitudes, even if one assumes it the result of randomness.

    Link to this
  3. 3. M Tucker 7:09 pm 04/7/2014

    “…why, if we are products of a divine plan, it entails so much suffering.”

    A very reasonable question to ask. It has been asked for several thousand years. I would ask, why would you expect to find a satisfying answer from atheists like Weinberg and Dyson? McKenna’s timewave theory had an ultimate result – timewave zero; we have gone past that. I would not consider Dyson’s concept of maximum diversity as equivalent to McKenna’s novelty. That is an equivalence that exists in your imagination and neither address evils like the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide. Why would you not include old age and eventual death in your list of evils? Wouldn’t the most loving God have made his creation not only free of evil and disease but also have created man and woman immortal and freed us from the suffering of hunger and thirst? Oh, wait, I think there is a Bible story about that…

    John, I really think you need to investigate beyond Doyle’s Holmes, Weinberg, Dyson and especially McKenna.

    BTW – Did Maria Konnikova have an answer for you regarding “Holmes’s religiosity?” It would be fun to know how a psychologist responded to your question about a fictitious character.

    Link to this
  4. 4. billbedford 7:26 pm 04/7/2014

    Of course the universe is ruled by chance. To think otherwise is to postulate an anthropocentric universe which just happen to come into being nearly 14 billion years before the emergence of the species which is allegedly the reason for the universe’s very existence.

    Also the idea that the human species will not at some stage become extinct and be replaced by others is no more than hubris.

    Link to this
  5. 5. carboncosm 12:48 am 04/8/2014

    ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ (like their imaginary supernatural sponsors) are artifacts of human perception. To attribute a probability or likelihood of a particular event adjudged agreeably good or disagreeably bad by different people and a diversity of backgrounds via a universe operating under statistical chance is an empty and futile exercise.

    The probability of a particular outcome (heads or tails in a coin toss or a win by a favorite team in a contest) isn’t the whole story. Preference or the identification of particular in an outcome – a ‘score’ in a coin toss or sport contest, or a ‘decision’ or a ‘judgment’ or a ‘selection’ – are operational functions that take place within the cognitive province of observers such as human beings (and even scientists) who are inherently geared to spotting difference and distinction in a very complex and detailed universe that would otherwise remain incomprehensible to any of its localized parts, as we are.

    Its no wonder we make choices and form opinions that eliminate, supplant or otherwise reject others. We are distillers; as metabolic beings in search of information toward building a meaningful conceptual model of a real world as part of our struggle to survive in it, we’re compelled to perform the work of its extraction. Fortunately, nature – in all its rich and many-faceted totality of outcome, is indifferent to our obsession for peculiarity – doesn’t have to.

    Link to this
  6. 6. rshoff2 12:16 pm 04/8/2014

    How many ways can it be viewed? Our perceived ‘conscious’ state is at best observing the actions of the universe from the biggest explosion to the smallest quantum particle, with human senses in between.

    We are along for the ride! That’s it! It’s all an illusion. We are complicated machines and it’s a complicate web we travel across. Yet we are only observers. We are not driving, we are not even navigating.

    So my best advice is that we sit back and try to enjoy the ride, if possible. Everybody does not have a great seat, you know.

    Whatever will be, will be.

    Link to this
  7. 7. solspot 3:22 pm 04/8/2014

    Mr. Horgan,
    Your search for meaning and purpose seems doomed to failure, but only because of your assumptions. Weinberg, for example, is looking for purpose in the physical universe. But logic demands that ultimate (absolute; divine) purpose must transcend the physical; otherwise, meaningless relativism is his only alternative. Weinberg is looking for meaning with blinders on, and protesting “I can’t see it.”.

    The same is true for Dyson and McKenna, since their philosophy assumes that physical experience, call it diversity or novelty, is the source of meaning. In order to solve the problem of suffering, you cannot start by assuming that the “source of meaning” is trapped, like us, within the meaningless physical universe.

    Holmes’ writer considered that beauty is a necessary counterpoint to suffering. But he recognizes that this is a futile answer as well because, again it proposes physical experience as the source of meaning. This is why Holmes concludes that we are still far from an answer to the problem of suffering.

    I do not propose some ethereal, non-physical solution; I merely do as Holmes would do, and eliminate the impossible. If it is impossible to find meaning in physical experience, then what remains, however improbable, must be true. If you begin with the assumption that physical experience is all that exists, then you ASSUME that nothing remains. You give up the search; you live with the blinders that prevent you from finding an answer to your question. Holmes rejected that conclusion by saying “It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable.”. He allowed for the improbable to exist. In logical terms, any other conclusion may be internally consistent, but it can never be logically “complete”. Perhaps this is why Kurt Godel refused to give up Platonism.

    Link to this
  8. 8. rshoff2 4:42 pm 04/8/2014

    @sol – “If you begin with the assumption that physical experience is all that exists, then you ASSUME that nothing remains.”

    It’s not an assumption that the physical experience is all that exists. It is a fact that the physical experience does exist. That is exhibit A. Is there an exhibit B? Does something else exist? THAT is the crux of the argument. It doesn’t exist until you prove it. Just ask Judge Judy!

    Link to this
  9. 9. solspot 7:53 pm 04/8/2014

    @comment 8
    Hi again. In logic, you must start with some given; no proof required. In geometry, the first axiom is that the POINT exists. In number theory, the first axiom is that the EMPTY set exists. In classical (Einstein) physics, it assumes that space-time exists…and so on.

    So I can validly assume that nothing else exists; but I must state the assumption which then becomes the foundation of the logical arguments that follow. Most mathematicians believe that numbers exist. “Numbers are as real as the stars in the sky.” Are they physical objects in space-time? See the realism arguments going on among mathematicians like Stewart Shapiro, John Conway, They can be very convincing if you keep an open mind.

    My point is that you don’t have to be a creationist to believe that non-physical objects exist. Check out “The Road to Reality” by Roger Penrose.

    Link to this
  10. 10. rshoff2 8:17 pm 04/8/2014

    Sol – I appreciate the fact that you took the time to respond to me from #8. Here’s a few of my comments following quotes from yours.

    “So I can validly assume that nothing else exists” I’m not sure what the word ‘else’ pertains to. Nothing else other than what?

    “Most mathematician believe that numbers exist” I didn’t realize that. I thought they understood numbers to be language.

    “They can be very convincing if you keep an open mind”. It’s hard to keep an open mind. I’m afraid of getting confused. Realism arguments are probably beyond my capability of comprehension, but I’ll give them a try.

    “you don’t have to be a creationist to believe that non-physical objects exist.” I don’t have an issue with people ‘believing’. I have an issue with people expecting me to believe what they believe, or when they are convinced their beliefs are reality and expect me to accept a life or world understanding based on their beliefs. They are beliefs until otherwise demonstrated.

    I’ve noticed a couple of science articles today where they reflect new discoveries and observations without telling us what to think. e.g., electrical stimulation activates an unknown control mechanism for some people with spine injuries that allows them to overcome paralysis of an isolated muscle. It’s reported as an accidental discovery and the researchers don’t know why it works. It’s nice to see reports of incomplete science indicating it’s incomplete. Hopefully, no one is going to credit god with that.

    The other interesting one is that ‘they’ discovered the mechanism behind lithium batteries. (!) You mean they didn’t know how the batteries worked?! :-)

    Link to this
  11. 11. mntmn3 8:21 pm 04/8/2014

    Potentially interesting article until it is ruined with vulgarity and profanity, part way through. Didn’t bother with the rest as profanity displays lack of thought and disrespect to the reader.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Tack717 10:27 pm 04/8/2014

    @comment 8
    Does something else exist? Truth, beauty, love, significance, information, numbers (h/t solspot). These things do not exist in a strictly material sense, but they are clearly real. That is the door through which you seem to not want to step. I wonder why. It doesn’t invalidate any materialist truths. It doesn’t make you dumb. If you’re simply not interested, I suppose I could understand that. It poses fascinating questions, but it is absolutely beyond any empirical validation and can therefore be pretty frustrating.

    Link to this
  13. 13. Tack717 10:45 pm 04/8/2014

    @ comment 6

    But we are not just along for the ride. We are participants. We are independent, conscious moral actors. Our stage is very small from a cosmic perspective, but it is quite large enough for us to play our role and make a difference.

    You say “what will be, will be” and you are doubtless right. In the fullness of time, all of our lives will have had no impact on the final state of the universe, but why does that invalidate that what is now, is now. You have significance in this place at this time. Who cares that not an echo of your life will be left in a billion years? Here and now is quite a lot and we are in it and we are making a difference with every decision we make wether we like it or not.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Andrei Kirilyuk 7:20 am 04/9/2014

    “The ultimate purpose or “end” of existence is for there to be no end, only more drama, excitement, adventure, novelty.”

    Which “novelty” and “adventure” today? Is it “another mindless crime, another failed romance” (Queen)? Or another gadget serving only to realise ever more senseless exchange? And all the devil’s forces applied (never missing, these ones!) are obviously insufficient to induce anything less decadent.

    It was different until recently, including the time of Sherlock Holmes. But now all those “traditional”, practical-empirical ways of development and kinds of novelty are fundamentally, rigorously saturated (up to the Second Coming, extraterrestrials and other improbable external miracles).

    The fact that the only true (and rather evident) purpose of human existence escapes so easily its understanding by the top masters of the world only demonstrates once again that the “God’s plan” does exist, but is definitely failing right now, with clear signs of quickly growing and omnipresent degradation (even much more evident in “highly intellectual” activities like science and in the “developed” countries).

    There could be no such special situation before and there can be no feasible “revival” after the final stages of the current degradation (just in a few years from now), apart from the eventual “new beginning” from scratch (quite boring already in theory). Therefore right now it’s just that unique “moment of truth”, the point of unprecedented “bifurcation”, or the Last Judgement, if one prefers…

    If you don’t catch up with the genuine purpose of your existence right now, then the human battle is lost, including all the previous efforts and searches. For even with the best assumptions, it cannot continue any more by the purely empirical action of any “invisible hand”. And no arbitrary speculations about what could exist or not “in general” can change this very concrete reality.

    Link to this
  15. 15. rshoff2 10:01 am 04/9/2014

    Tact, you are pretty close and persuasive. But in my defense… Of course I’m interested! And yes I wish there was more to it. I have deep and intense feelings like you. It’s sad to reduce those to biology. But to face reality head on is strength, not weakness.

    Abstractions do exist in a sense, but they exist as human inventions. Merely side effects of our brain function. Is the virtual reality gaming world any less real than our concepts of love or beauty? I truly can’t see how they exist in a real sense.

    Link to this
  16. 16. rshoff2 12:45 pm 04/9/2014

    Tact – “Here and now is quite a lot and we are in it and we are making a difference with every decision we make wether we like it or not.”

    We do make a difference with every decision we make, however, those decision are the result of all the variables leading up to that point. It’s not ‘our’ decision in the sense of the moment. It’s the culmination of our lives to that point, and our lives are the result of many other factors.

    That is why everything could be predicted if we could collect and process all of the variables involved. The fact I’m typing this has nothing to do with my current choices and everything to do with what has been set into play all the way back to the….. er, Big Bang (?) -if that’s were people would like to think was the beginning.

    Link to this
  17. 17. Tack717 7:24 pm 04/9/2014


    I get what you are saying and I understand you point of view, but I could not disagree with it more. There is more going on here between you and me than a mere tumbling of chemical dominoes. This is as self-evident to me as the existence of my own hands and feet. Perhaps I’m wrong, but the alternative you propose just seems like sophist nonsense. If my moral liberty is merely an illusion, it is a very convincing illusion indeed.

    By the way, thanks for the respectful tone. There is not much of it out here in the www.

    Link to this
  18. 18. rshoff2 7:49 pm 04/9/2014

    Tack – what a really kind comment. Thank you. You know, I have come to accept living a duality. I do feel that what happens in these conversations are more than a row of dominos following the domino law. But I also think (believe) that biology and the laws of physics underly it. I feel the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but I know (believe) that it is not true. The whole equals exactly the sum of its parts.

    Therefore, even though I truly am convinced that we are merely following the laws of the universe and have absolutely no free will, I also truly value that you believe we do. You make my world better, thank you for that.

    Link to this
  19. 19. John Horgan in reply to John Horgan 7:02 am 04/10/2014

    M Tucker: I’m sorry to say that I never got around to asking Maria about Holmes’s religiosity.

    Link to this
  20. 20. hkraznodar 6:11 pm 04/10/2014

    The universe is a pile of energy and matter on the perpetual verge of critical cascade. Some times small cascades happen and less frequently greater cascades happen. God is the cosmic joker that adds gains to the sand pile.

    Link to this
  21. 21. evelyn haskins 7:05 am 04/11/2014

    What I find most mystifying, is WHY do humans need to find a “point” to the universe?

    No other animals does,and I’m pretty certain neither do the plants of other life forms. And they seem to manage perfectly well, just getting along with life.

    Do we *need* a point? Surely the Universe just simply ‘is’.

    Link to this
  22. 22. thlej 11:04 am 04/11/2014

    The question of how / why there is “something” rather than nothing is a mystery. I haven’t found a satisfying scientific answer. Some scientists attribute quantum physics for the ability of something to come out of nothing. But it seems to me, this presumes the pre-existence of the laws of physics. I ask where did those laws of physics come from? (I’m not even sure it’s meaningful to say laws of physics precede the existence of the universe to which they apply.) Yet, if we can’t accept the original universe’s existence without an explanation, how can we not demand the same need for an explanation for the existence of a divine creator? If one can be assumed to simply have been, why not the other? Perhaps, it should be easier to accept the existence of an imperfect universe – a universe we can imagine could have been designed in a less complex manner – than to assume things began with a perfect entity. (One could speculate about a creator who wasn’t omniscient and omnipotent, but then at best the universe has a plan limited by some degree of ignorance and inability. If we assume an imperfect deity, we should also not assume a benevolent deity.)

    I’m not sure I understand the difference between Dyson’s law of maximum diversity and random chance. Pure chance will result in a variety of experiences. Probability suggests a bell curve. Is Dyson’s point that the distribution is flat rather than curved? Maximum diversity sounds like a possible foundation on which to carry out a scientific experiment to discover the consequence of each of the various aspects. Is the universe “meaningful” if it’s guiding principle is to have no particular direction specifically in order to find out where each direction leads?

    To make things interesting? As with a certain number of babies, when my grandson was 6 weeks old he had a condition in which the muscle between the stomach and intestines becomes too strong. Food can’t reach the part of the digestive system where nutrients pass to the rest of the body. Without surgery, these babies die of starvation (uncounted numbers did die this way before the condition was understood and surgery on 6 week old infants became viable). Is this “interesting”? If so, might we distinguish between desirable and undesirable “interesting”?

    Yes, Sherlock needed something to keep his life interesting. When he found nothing interesting, he escaped in drug use. But Holmes didn’t find it necessary that a case include a dead body or such for it to be interesting.

    Is the world the way it is so “existence never gets boring”? We might then ask why there is an existence which is always at risk of becoming boring. Why is there something rather than nothing? The question of diversity to avoid boredom only comes up after there is existence and that existence is of such a nature that boredom is possible and undesirable. Is such an underlying existence the result of pure chance or a divine plan? It doesn’t seem this was truly addressed.

    Link to this
  23. 23. rshoff2 1:17 pm 04/16/2014

    A long time ago… There was a radical idea that what we do in life, including our research and discoveries, actually defines and builds the universe.

    I don’t believe that, but what if it were true….

    A note: Just because I am a die-hard materialist doesn’t mean I can’t imagine other things… I am ‘endowed’ with the same capabilities as everyone else. The difference to me is what extent we are to indulge our fantasies and what risk we face as individuals and a society toward delusion and mild psychosis.

    Link to this
  24. 24. aidyan 5:17 am 04/18/2014

    I’m always surprised to see how scientific minded people so quickly and uncritically attach to “randomness” and “chance” a philosophical interpretation of “absence of meaning, teleological and final cause”. Randomness is only a human label which highlights our ignorance of the chain of causes and effects which is lost in the complexity of natural processes. Any extrapolations in regards of meaning and final causes is unwarranted.

    As to the existence of evil I think we can opt for an explanation which fits well with evolution. Would there be no evil and sufferance life would have not progressed. It is a common life experience that we frequently learn and “evolve” through painful crises. Ever considered this point of view?

    Link to this
  25. 25. rshoff2 2:33 am 04/20/2014

    I love the succinct simple elegance of your comment! You must speak louder and more often.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article