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Sherlock Holmes And The Case Of Robert Rauschenberg

When I read the following words from artist Robert Rauschenberg, I realized that they could be interpreted as having two, quite opposite, meanings: “Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea.” Rauschenberg could be commenting that interesting ideas ought to be subjected to the simple test of whether they match reality, or, could be delivering a warning that concern about being correct has a stifling effect on creativity.

detective versus artistA more complete selection from Rauschenberg’s statement indicates that the latter was his intention. He said, “Screwing things up is a virtue. Being correct is never the point. I have an almost fanatically correct assistant, and by the time she re-spells my words and corrects my punctuation, I can’t read what I wrote. Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea.”

These thoughts strike me as I read through the recently published book Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes, by Maria Konnikova. I haven’t gotten all the way through the book yet, but so far, Konnikova seems to be encouraging her readers to try to train their brains to adopt what she calls System Holmes – a way of thinking in which, through the exertion of control over our own consciousness, we can cultivate a superior, more accurate grip on reality, and structure our lives in a more rational manner.

Konnikova admits that people cannot be purely rational, but she urges us to go beyond the capabilities of System Watson, which is represented by the friend of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson. Dr. Watson never catches on to the clues as quickly as Sherlock Holmes, Konnikova points out. While Holmes in our focuses in on what’s relevant through trained control of his mind, Konnikova says, Watson fumbles around randomly, hoping to come across something important without knowing what he’s looking for. Holmes is always more successful than Watson, Konnikova observes.

Of course, the reason the approach of Sherlock Holmes consistently outperforms Dr. Watson is that Arthur Conan Doyle wanted the stories to work out that way. Sherlock Holmes was a fictional character, embedded in fictional scenarios entirely controlled by their author. Holmes was set up to succeed in the most wild conjectures, and Watson to fail despite his efforts, because it made for a pleasingly predictable relationship between the two characters. Conan Doyle didn’t want anyone, not even his readers, to have a chance to out-think Sherlock Holmes, and so he hid crucial clues from everyone but Holmes, not revealing them until Holmes had a good long time to mull them over and come to his supposedly brilliant conclusions.

How can we learn to think like Sherlock Holmes? We can’t. Sherlock Holmes never thought at all.

The real world isn’t as constrained as a Sherlock Holmes story. In real life, the amount of data available in any environment exceeds the ability of any human brain to fully process and rationally master. In real life, we cannot fully master our minds through conscious exertion. Apparently rational decisions are often made quickly and subconsciously, and justified by the conscious mind, not arrived at through a disciplined exercise of cold logic. In real life, people who attempt to cultivate the brilliant certainty of Sherlock Holmes usually end up humiliating themselves by extending their assertions far beyond what the available evidence actually merits. In real life, Arthur Conan Doyle was duped by little girls with fake photographs of fairies, and with Spiritualists conjuring up cheap seance hoaxes that had already been debunked.

However, in my criticism of Konnikova’s devotional work to the character of Sherlock Holmes, I may be falling prey to the reality-based narrowness that Robert Rauschenberg warned about. It’s true that people can train themselves to be more logical in their decisions. It’s also true that people are better at sticking to a training program, physical or mental, when they can hold the thought of an ideal – such as Sherlock Holmes – as an exemplar of their aspirations.

It would be a mistake to accept the ideal of Sherlock Holmes too literally – but then, as Rauschenberg advises, making mistakes can lead people to startling discoveries. It is all too reasonable to conclude that Konnikova’s advice for thinking like Sherlock Holmes is unsupported by the literal facts. Follow the interesting idea of the Holmes Mastermind, if you like, but as an exercise in creativity, not in true mental development.

Just as Holmes needs Dr. Watson to function, perhaps Maria Konnikova could use a dash of Robert Rauschenberg to temper her mental discipline.

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