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

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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, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cardboard_Box.jpg.

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.

 

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

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