Free Will

Jerry Coyne, at the University of Chicago, has published a short essay on his website. It nicely details his views on free will, and he argues that the very idea if will being ‘free’ is an anachronism, and that it’s loss would be beneficial by allowing us to judge actions through a system of secular morals whereby actions are evaluated from their impact in society, rather than being seen as inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

In his essay he quotes the Bishop if Worcester’s wife, who, when she heard about Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, allegedly said: “My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it will not become generally known.”

I think it is very interesting how the expression if this and similar fears suggests that people worry the illusion if free will is our last line of defence against an imagined innate nihilism; that if we became aware of our will not being ‘ours’ we would degenerate into assuming inhuman ways and values.

This argument strikes me as weak — as weak, in fact, as the opinion that we would become immoral without religion to guide us, the logical implication of such arguments being that the only reason for people to believe in god(s) is to prevent them from becoming animals; that religion and free will are the illusory foundations upon which our humanity is built.

This is of course wrong, as the intellectual developments if recent years attest: the number of people who believe both that there is no God and that there is no free will is on the rise, without society being worse for it.

Sherlock

Most of my social sphere seems to be abuzz with the latest developments in BBC’s ‘Sherlock’. I haven’t watched a single episode if the show myself. Regardless, I find its almost universal appeal both fascinating and intriguing, my ignorance if it’s contents allowing me to remain objective in a world that has been taken by storm.

Growing up, I very much enjoyed Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. As a child I didn’t find the plots anything but mesmerising: with kind and (relatively) harmless mysteries that rendered the novels a parlour game of the mind. I was however also very enchanted with the hero, who inhabits a world if his own. For a socially isolated child it was reassuring to know that living in your own mind needn’t be so peculiar, after all.

Growing up, my opinion of the character and novels have since changed. As for the novels, I found them aged and wanting for novelty upon a recent re-reading, being disappointed that the plots are not as intricate as I’d remembered them to be: their intelligence being the result if readers being deliberately kept in the dark. However, the novels were novel during the time when they were written, their continued popularity being testament to their lasting legacy in popular culture and consciousness. ‘Shelock’ is just the latest of many tributes to the stories and characters that have come to be beloved by so many.

But it is this very popularity that I myself find troubling. Without their hero the phenomenon would not be the same: Sherlock Holmes us the heart and soul if the novels, and without him, they would not be the same. This is particularly obvious in the BBC adaptation, where Benedict Cumberbatch’s character takes centre stage — giving his name and tone to the show.

Sherlock is, by definition, an original character whose eccentricity us the subject of much amusement and admiration. And that is all very well as far as novels and television are concerned, but I wonder if the large fan base of the character of Sherlock Holmes — in any and all incarnations — would be as large if they came across the character in real life, should he exist. Because truth is that the lone and misunderstood her’ is an attractive character — but only on the page.

In social settings people fear the unknown, of which eccentricity and other-worldliness are only two manifestations, neither of which are compatible with social approval. Indeed, peculiar non-literary characters are seldom appreciated, mainly because they are not understood. If a person fails to perform according to social norms and expectations, they show themselves unable to adhere to the behavioural codes by which our fellow men and women are judged and approved.

I myself struggle with social interactions, as they don’t come naturally to me: being an artform that I forcefully perform with a lack of talent. It is for this reason that I know how people approach the strange and the peculiar: with curiosity, until the novelty has worn off and indifference takes it’s place. And it is for this reason, because if the hypocrisy, that I find the large fan base surrounding Sherlock Holmes rather distasteful: it is easily done to admire a character in a book it on television, and another to admire the same character in real life — where you don’t have access to their inner life or ability to put their actions into context.

Fans of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon are exploiting eccentricity as something unreal and exotic, sensationalising the condition rather than recognising it as a perfectly normal character trait exhibited by some people, willingly or not.

I am not saying that I am myself anything like Holmes, but I know from experience that there are very few Watsons in this world: the kind of people who accept and forgive, although they don’t always understand. Many more are those who are too quick to judge, for the benefit of none. I hope that the fans of ‘Sherlock’ remember this the next time they come across someone not exactly like themselves: that it’s the differences and eccentricities of the people that surround you that give life its spice.