Saturday, April 7, 2012

The improbable and the impossible

This discussion from Douglas Adams' The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (pp. 165-166) struck me as quite interesting:

[Kate:] "What was the Sherlock Holmes principle? 'Once you have discounted the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'"
"I reject that entirely," said Dirk sharply. "The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely impossible lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something that works in all respects other than one, which is just that it is hopelessly improbable? Your instinct is to say, 'Yes, but he or she simply wouldn't do that.'"
"Well, it happened to me today, in fact," replies Kate.
"Ah, yes," said Dirk, slapping the table and making the glasses jump, "your girl in the wheelchair [the girl was constantly mumbling exact stock prices, with a 24-hour delay]--a perfect example. The idea that she is somehow receiving yesterday's stock market prices out of thin air is merely impossible, and therefore must be the case, because the idea that she is maintaining an immensely complex and laborious hoax of no benefit to herself is hopelessly improbable. The first idea merely supposes that there is something we don't know about, and God knows there are enough of those. The second, however, runs contrary to something fundamental and human which we do know about. ..."

This reminds me very much of the Professor's speech in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn't tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.

Both Dirk Gently and the Professor think that we need to have significantly greater confidence in what we know about other people's character than in our scientific knowledge of how the non-human world works. This seems to me to be just right. Our scientific knowledge of the world almost entirely depends on trusting others.

So, both C. S. Lewis and Douglas Adams are defending faith in Christ, though of course Adams presumably unintentionally. :-)


Unknown said...

I like this. :]

Luis Estrada-González said...

Nice. Only the second occurrence of 'impossible' in line 4 should be 'improbable'.

entirelyuseless said...

One problem with this is that people can and do take deliberate advantage of it; e.g. the magician Teller says, "You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest." And this happens precisely because people follow this reasoning process.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Good point. But we are fooled so rarely (if only because it is so rare that people want to fool us).