Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Sherlock Holmes Solves my Case

Something disturbing happened to me last month, shaking my belief in the consistency of nature, and exposing me briefly to realms of reality that I’d never suspected were there. I had spent the day in the library, and came home tired at seven o’clock to my room in college. I unlocked the door, walked inside, and walked across my room to open the window. But as I crossed the room, I noticed something in the corner of my eye: a brown shape on the ground. I picked it up. It was a half-eaten cheeseburger.

This was really odd: Jew as I am, I don’t eat cheeseburgers, let alone leave them on the floor. There was really no way it could have gotten there. My second-floor window had been shut and my door had been locked. I hadn’t had a guest for a few days. And I’ve never drunk enough in my life to be able to do anything without remembering it later.

In The Sign of the Four, Sherlock Holmes says that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” This statement gets mocked by rationalists for being wildly unprobabilistic. In its original context, though, it makes perfect sense. Holmes is explaining to Watson how a one-legged man got into the room:
“How came he, then?” I reiterated. “The door is locked, the window is inaccessible. Was it through the chimney?”
“The grate is much too small,” [Holmes] answered. “I had already considered that possibility.”
“How then?” I persisted.
“You will not apply my precept,” he said, shaking his head. “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains,
however improbable, must be the truth? We know that he did not come through the door, the window, or the chimney. We also know that he could not have been concealed in the room, as there is no concealment possible. Whence, then, did he come?”
“He came through the hole in the roof,” I cried.
My own case bore an odd resemblance to Sherlock’s. He was wondering how a man got into the room, and I was wondering about a half-eaten cheeseburger. Applying just about the same evidence as me, he concluded that his suspect couldn’t have gotten into the room except through the hole in the roof.

But I have no hole in my roof. What am I supposed to think? The door and the window are impossible. The improbable remaining possibility is goblins.

There are obviously no good spirits in the world. There are no happy elves under the grassy hill, nor terrifying fairies revelling in palaces that melt away at dawn. But what if there are goblins here and there? Scheming, lecherous, mean-spirited goblins? That would be the cruelest joke that the universe could play on our materialist century. Perhaps there is a supernatural realm, but it’s even pettier than our own. God doesn’t exist, but Puck does, and he assigned his little thralls to leave a cheeseburger in Staircase U, room 5.

*     *     *

I almost ended the post there. But reviewing what I’d written, I thought a second time about the excerpt from Holmes, and noticed something. He decides that the one-legged man could not have come through the window, the chimney, or the door. I had unconsciously dismissed the possibility of a chimney in my own case, because I don’t have one.

Then I realised: in fact, I do have a chimney! Its fireplace was boarded up in the seventies and filled with a radiator:

It looks completely sealed, but there is a little slit at the bottom, which opens up into a hollow chimney. It could be that someone climbing on the roof dropped her burger into the chimney, through which it fell at just the right angle to bounce and land intact on my floor. Sherlock was right to exclude the possibility of a man coming down the shaft, but a cheeseburger is smaller than a man. It’s improbable—extremely improbable actually, but happily more likely than goblins. One day I’ll admit the existence of other realms, but not today.

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