Kant’s Version of Knowledge

For those who don’t know, there is a school of philosophy called, unfortunately enough given the passage of time, Modern Philosophy. It had several features, but the main one was that it denied that knowledge was really possible. It was rarely that explicit, and oddly enough started in the 1600s with René Descartes’ proof that knowledge is possible. It ended with Immanuel Kant’s work in the 1700s trying to come up with a workable substitute for knowledge. It’s a common school of philosophy, these days, and no one has ever been able to figure out how its adherents are acting in good faith—especially since its adherents deny that good faith is really possible—but everyone acts like they are anyway since they seem to claim to, and academia is a very polite place (in front of students, anyway). There’s a joke about Modern Philosophy which runs:

Modern Philosophy was born with Descartes, died with Kant, and has been roaming the halls of academia ever since like a zombie: eating brains but never getting any smarter for it.

The most pernicious effect of Modern Philosophy—and I say this despite Modern Philosophy’s causative relationship to the existence of Post-Modernism—is the version of knowledge which Kant came up with in order to try to solve the problems of Modern Philosophy. (In technical terms, Kantian epistemology.) What Kant proposed was, roughly, the following:

We can’t have any direct knowledge of things apart from ourselves, so the best that we can do is to ape the scientific method: create theories of the world and then test them, refining them over time as we get more evidence.

Kant went on to say that we must believe in God, free will, and the immortality of the soul, because the alternative hypotheses predict an irrational world, which is not what we live in.

Most everyone else who takes Modern Philosophy seriously was quite happy to believe that we live in an irrational world, and so they will happily reject all three. (Interestingly, Kant was reputed to be a creature of extreme habit that never varied; I don’t know if that was of any significance to his intuitions.) But this has become the dominant idea of what knowledge is. It is not a direct communion of the mind with things outside of the mind, which everyone up until this point had meant by knowledge whether they affirmed or denied it.

The tricky thing to recognizing this is that Kant was very intelligent, and of a philosophical disposition. Most people are not very intelligent, and more importantly most people are not of a philosophical disposition. The result, taking these two things into account, is analogous to what has happened in physics after Newtonian mechanics was shown to be false.

Someone unfamiliar with how physics is conducted might think that once Newton’s laws of motion were shown to be wrong, they would have been discarded, but they were not. The reason they were not is that they are not very far from correct in low-mass and low-velocity situations, but they are much easier to compute. Since most everything that happens on the earth is in a low-mass, low-velocity situation compared to where the errors in Newtonian mechanics become noticeable, people just go on using Newtonian mechanics whenever they know that the error would be small. Basically, they know that the laws are wrong, but since there is always measurement error and other sources of imprecision in practice, the laws can be used anywhere we know that the error would be so small as to be insignificant compared to our measurement tolerances.

People do the same thing with the theories of reality which they substitute for knowledge. Instead of, like Kant, coming up with one consistent theory which is the best theory they can possibly come up with, they will use several theories—which they know to be quite wrong in some cases—and just make sure to restrict their application of these theories to the parts of life where these theories produce correct results. (Also, emotional reaction is commonly used as the test of whether the theory is right—does the theory say something that makes people feel worse than the alternative.) Neck-down Darwinism is probably the best example. (If you’re not familiar with it: below the neck evolution explains everything about the human body, but above the neck all men are created equal.)

The result is that people are completely unfazed when you point out the contradictions in their beliefs. They already knew that their beliefs contradicted. They just have some sort of rule (possibly a rule-of-thumb) for which belief they apply in the cases of contradiction. Most of them take this as part of the nature of knowledge: since a universally correct theory is impossible (so far) to construct, the best that you can do is several contradictory universal theories which are only applied where they have been experimentally verified to produce “correct” results. Many people with Kantian epistemology consider it a sign of mental weakness to be unaware that your own beliefs contradict; only the small-minded or extremely inexperienced think that one theory covers everything.

The truly sinister thing about this epistemology is that it deprives the victim of the obvious means of escape. For most wrong theories of the universe, running into an unresolvable (actual, rather than apparent) contradiction is evidence that the theory is wrong, and a sign that alternatives must be sought. Someone suffering from Kantian epistemology won’t even pause at contradictions, so God alone knows how they will know to look for something better.

The Butler Did It Again

(This is a follow-up to a series of blog posts on the subject, the most recent being here.) As I was reading another article on the origin of the phrase, “the butler did it,” my attention was drawn to the story The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner, by Herbert Jenkins. Published in 1921, it preceded The Door by nine years. (Interestingly, Herbert Jenkins owned the publishing house which published P.G. Wodehouse’s books, most famously the stories of Jeeves and Wooster.) I tracked down a copy and read it. (There’s a free ebook version of the book Malcolm Sage, Detective on kindle, which collects all of Jenkins detective stories—if you want to read it I suggest you do it now because there will be spoilers below).

Jenkins’ detective was Malcolm Sage, who was at least vaguely in the mold of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, by which I mean that he was both very observant of physical details and very eccentric. All of  the stories about Malcolm Sage were short stories, which is very significant to understanding the relationship of this story to the phrase, “the butler did it”.

Novels and short stories are very different things in any genre, but this is especially true of murder mysteries. Novels tend to focus on the unraveling of intertwining mysteries, which is to say the elimination of red herrings. This is somewhat necessitated by the length of a novel; each red herring forms a sort of sub-mystery, which allows one to enjoy the solving of mysteries over and over throughout the course of a novel. There are exceptions, of course. It is possible to combine a mystery with some other genre where the other genre takes up most of the page count. Adventure is the obvious example; a mystery/adventure works well where each clue is the reward at the end of an adventure. To some degree the Hardy Boys books were like this, and to a lesser extent this is often true of the Cadfael stories. The Virgin in the Ice and The Summer of the Danes are both great examples of where the adventure takes up more pages than the mystery. (Both are excellent novels.)

For related reasons—though there are notable exceptions—murder mystery novels don’t tend to focus on figuring out a single ingenious mechanism for concealing the murder(er) for which the evidence was present at the crime scene. By contrast, this is extremely common in short stories. Among other things, they don’t have the space for disentangling red herrings. Short stories which were printed in magazines tended to be extremely short, sometimes only a few thousand words. It also is simply the right size for that sort of game.

The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner is a locked-room mystery. There is one obvious suspect: a nephew of whose impending marriage the deceased disapproves and who will be disinherited on the morrow. The butler was the last to see the deceased alive, and the body was discovered in the library, with all of the doors and windows locked from within. The deceased was staged to look like suicide, and the local police take it at face value. Malcolm Sage makes numerous measurements and observations, and also directs that the photographer attached to his detective agency take a number of photographs. Malcolm Sage is so fond of photographs as evidence that he gives a lecture on their importance to the local police detective inspector. Eventually he reveals that the butler, who had only been working in his position for six months and was highly praised for the excellence of his work, is the culprit. Sage had taken supposedly exclusionary fingerprints from everyone, and used those to find out that the butler had a criminal record and was still wanted. Further, he explained that the butler had put a small metal rod through the hole in the key’s handle and using a string attached to it turned the lock by pulling on the string with the door closed. Once the key turned far enough, the metal rod fell out of the hole in the key’s handle, and he used the string to pull the rod under the door and retrieve it.

Unlike the butler in The Door, this time at least the butler was actually taking advantage of his role as butler in committing the murder. His master didn’t think anything about his coming from behind because it’s the sort of thing that butlers do, and moreover he had an excuse for being in the house after the rest of the household had gone to sleep because he lived there. So at least in this case butling was relevant to the butler’s commission of the crime.

None of the articles I’ve seen so far have cited The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner as having had any influence on the phrase, but then again none of them have cited any evidence for why The Door did have influence, either. It leaves me wondering whether any of this is actually relevant to the phrase I’ve been considering. It might well not be. With murder mysteries having been quite popular ever since Sherlock Holmes first studied scarlet, I assume that there were a great many short stories in the weekly and monthly publications of the early 1900s which have largely been lost to the sands of time. In the days before television and even before radio plays were particularly popular, theatrical plays were quite popular. Wherever there is a maw gaping for novelty, there will be people trying to fill it. Certainly this is the source that the character Broadway cited as his authority that all murders were committed by butlers in the 1933 short story, What, No Butler? I’m disinclined to think that much of the source was movies, though I don’t have any hard evidence for that. Murder mysteries don’t lend themselves well to silent films, though I have no doubt that somebody tried it at least once. The Jazz Singer was the first talkie, in 1927. Talkies took over quite quickly, as I gather, dominating film no later than the mid-1930s and probably in the early 1930s, but that’s rather close to when What, No Butler? was written to have embedded itself in the culture as a common trope by then.

I’m left where I was before, wondering where this trope came from. Perhaps I’ll be successful in tracking down contemporary reviews of The Door, which might be illuminating, but unfortunately a quick google search didn’t turn up anything. I might have to resort to going to the library!

The Problem With Know-Nothing Atheism

A little while ago I wrote a post about The Problem With Agnostic Atheism. That was a more philosophical approach to the subject. This post is going to be basically the same thing, but from a rhetorical, rather than philosophical, perspective. Agnostic atheism is not really a philosophical position; one meets it almost exclusively as rhetoric. The purpose of this post, then, is to provide some rhetorical tools for meeting it. Accordingly, I’m going to refer to it, in this essay, as know-nothing atheism.

To save you the trouble of following the link above just to get a definition, here’s the position I mean by know-nothing atheism, in the sort of reasonable-sounding language used to pretty it up:

There is insufficient evidence to prove the existence of God, and the default in the absence of evidence that a thing exists is to assume it does not, so until such evidence exists I’m going to go with the default position that God does not exist.

This is a reasonably adequate translation of its use in practice:

I don’t care about whether there’s a God, so I’m not going to consider the question unless you can make me.

Just a word of warning, know-nothing atheists generally combine a great deal of arrogant confidence with incredibly thin skin. Because their position is one of refusing to think, they will never see any parallels between what you’re saying and what they said; they will call you arrogant the moment you counter their confidence with your own confidence, and they will call you mean if you counter their claims that you are mentally defective with claims that they are the one who is mentally defective. It’s like arguing with a ten year old because in many ways it is; this is a position held by people who have refused to grow up, so they behave like they have refused to grow up. Complete with the certainty that not only do they know everything and those who disagree with them are idiots, but that they’re unappreciated geniuses suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. (Individuals will vary, of course.)

If you want to see this in action, to verify it for themselves, just test them out. Here is a hypothetical exchange:

Atheist: The burden of proof is on the person making a positive claim.

Theist: Does France exist?

Atheist: Of course.

Theist: What evidence do you have that France exists?

Atheist: You can go there and see for yourself.

Theist: That isn’t evidence, that is a suggestion for how to get evidence—supposing France actually exists, as you claim—at great effort and expense on my part. [At this point the theist could say, “If that counts, then just commit suicide and you’ll go to hell and that will prove I’m right.” but I recommend against it, as it will just confuse the poor atheist.] Just as I thought, you don’t have any evidence.

Atheist: I don’t have the time for nonsense. I don’t need to show you the evidence that France exists, go do look it up for yourself. We’re talking about whether God exists.

If you’re doing this on Twitter, you’ll probably get a number of epithets insulting your intelligence and honesty added in. But the key thing is that they clearly don’t believe in the standard, think anything they don’t understand—no matter how clear—is nonsense, and get upset with you if you try to actually explain what you mean rather than just bowing down to their superior intellects.

The whole goal of the know-nothing atheist is to try to get you to fight on his terms. In particular, he wants to make himself the jury for the argument. This may be tempting to give into, since a person sincerely inquiring into the truth must receive it according to their present understanding. However, the know-nothing atheist is not pursuing truth. He’s only after a rhetorical victory. (This can be an unpleasant conclusion to come to, because we would like to believe that everyone is acting in good faith, and moreover it is bad manners to accuse someone of acting in bad faith, but in real life people do act in bad faith, and pretending otherwise helps no one. I do recommend always coming to this conclusion reluctantly, because there is always the danger of dismissing someone honestly seeking the truth, which can do great harm.)

Because the know-nothing atheist is only after rhetorical victory, it is a complete mistake to allow him to set himself up as the jury who must be convinced. When he tries to do this, a strong counter is to shift the argument to whether he’s arguing in good faith. Since he’s not, this is a weak position for him. To give an example:

Atheist: what is your evidence that God exists?

Theist: To know what book to recommend you, I’ll need to know whether you want a philosophical approach or more of a practical, common-sense approach.

Atheist: I’m not going to read a book. I want to know what *your* evidence is.

Theist: What sort of evidence would you accept as proof for God, if I could produce it for you?

Atheist: Stop evading. The truth is you don’t have any evidence and you know it.

Theist: I have plenty of evidence. What evidence do you have that you’re capable of understanding it?

Now, at this point, the atheist is very likely to go one of several routes:

  • They will take this as a personal insult and claim it’s evidence you have nothing.
  • They will claim that you’re evading.
  • They will just repeat their demand for evidence like they’re a broken record.
  • They will make some weird epistemological claim like evidence doesn’t need to be understood, because evidence directly points to the thing it’s evidence for.

Any of these responses are not too far from the end of the argument, because the atheist is being brought onto uncomfortable ground. They will try various rhetorical tricks, mostly accusations of ad-hominem fallacies and claims of having been insulted. You can explain that an ad-hominem fallacy is arguing that an argument is false because of some bad quality in the person putting forward the argument, it is not asking for evidence that the other person does not have a fault which renders them incapable of understanding argument. Mostly, though, I think that the best line is to just stick to the strong position, which amounts to asking, “What evidence do you have that you’re capable of understanding a reasonable argument?” If they can’t actually demonstrate this—and many people can’t; I’ve run into people who don’t know the difference between an assertion, an analogy, and an argument—then why you should spend time and effort trying to explain something to them is in fact a legitimate question. Most classes in school have prerequisites for a reason.

A slightly less confrontational tack to take—though I think a certain amount of blunt honesty is warranted; know-nothing atheists rarely want anything besides a confrontation and they’re hoping for the advantage of being the only person violating tea-time rules of politeness—is to shift the argument from burden of proof to duty to investigate. Basically this amounts to denying that you have an emotional investment in the other person’s holding any particular position. They want you to feel the need to convince them. Be clear you don’t feel that need. Basically, “I’m happy to help if you want recommendations for where to begin, but it’s your job to investigate the answers to the most important questions in life, not mine to do it for you.” To give an example dialog:

Atheist: Theism is irrational because there is no evidence for the existence of God.

Theist: There is plenty of evidence for the existence of God. You’re just defining evidence in an overly narrow way.

Atheist: if there was evidence, it wouldn’t be possible to deny that God exists.

Theist: anyone can deny anything if they want to. That’s a useless standard of evidence.

Atheist: do you deny science?

Theist: Do you affirm it? Even the parts that are wrong and will be contradicted by future discoveries?

Atheist: No, science is just the best method for finding the truth that we have.

Theist: leaving aside that you could only know that if you already had access to the truth to compare it to science, and further leaving aside the fact that “science” isn’t one thing nor do scientists only operate by one method, what you’ve said is that you don’t actually know anything. So the best we have are our guesses which seem to work?

Atheist: That’s right. Make a hypothesis, test it with evidence. That’s the best we can do.

Theist: But if the evidence confirms the hypothesis, you still don’t know that it’s right. Some evidence might come along later which contradicts it?

Atheist: of course. That’s the beauty of science—it’s self-correcting.

Theist: But if you need to make a decision, you will act as if the hypothesis is true?

Atheist: Yes. What would you do?

Theist: Actually, it would depend on how good the evidence is because evidence is not a binary yes/no thing, but that’s irrelevant. The point is that you will act as if a scientific hypothesis is true when you need to act, but outside of that case, you will hold that you don’t know anything because of course every theory might be contradicted by evidence which comes along later?

Atheist: Yes…

Theist: So you don’t know anything, you just have guesses which you are going to follow because you can’t think of anything better?

Atheist: I wouldn’t put it that way…

Theist: Of course not. That’s why I had to worm it out of you; it doesn’t sound very good without the poetic hand-waving to distract us from what you really mean. So that brings up the question: how are you any better than a horse? Horses have their guesses about the world that they will follow in default of some better guess, and don’t have any propositional knowledge which they affirm to be actually true.

Atheist: Why do you need to feel superior to other animals?

Theist: I don’t need to feel superior. The obvious fact that I am superior to a horse is evidence that your entire approach, which leaves you in the position of being no better than a horse, is wrong.

Atheist: Where is your evidence that you’re better than a horse?

Theist: I don’t argue with horses, which it is your contention to be no better than. Why should I argue with you?

Atheist: I can talk and a horse can’t.

Theist: But you have told me that what you say doesn’t mean anything more than a horse’s whinnies. Unless you’ve got some evidence that you’re more capable of rational understanding than a horse is, I can’t see why I should bother speaking with you any further. There are rational people whose words mean more than a horse’s whinnies with whom I could be speaking instead.

Atheist: !@#$ you.

Theist: I don’t believe in interspecies mating, but thanks for the offer.

Atheist: you’re just saying that because you’ve got nothing and you no it.

Theist: I’m saying that because I lack a minimally rational debating partner, and if I wanted to waste my time further, I could argue with the wall.

I’d just like to re-emphasize that this is a rhetorical approach, to be used in cases where someone is purely engaged in rhetoric, as distinct from honestly trying to find the truth. There is one other problem with a rhetorical approach like this: neutral observers will tend to blame one for using it, rather than for being maximally conciliatory. This is an odd reaction, and somewhat akin to the person who looks for his keys under a lamp-post despite having lost them in the dark because he won’t find them in the dark anyway. People who want peace at any price will often try to appeal to the person on the defensive, who is likely to be more reasonable precisely because they’re not the one initiating a rhetorical argument. I don’t think that there’s anything to be done about this besides when one is in the right being firm that one is. In any event the world seems to be getting less genteel, so I suspect that this will increasingly be less important.

So, The Butler Did It

I’ve been reading Mary Roberts Rinehart’s murder mystery The Door, which I talked about here and here, at five and twenty two chapters in, respectively. This was started off by my wondering about the phrase, “the butler did it”. I’ve finally finished the book, so this post will finish off my review of The Door, and also discuss the idea of the butler being the murderer. I’d warn you about spoilers, but, well, I think that you already know that the butler did it. I might spoil a few side-mysteries too, though, so caveat lector.

The book was in its entirety written in the style of the memoirs of someone who observed a very strange situation. I am used to murder mysteries and detective fiction being, roughly, synonyms, but The Door is very clearly a murder mystery while it is not at all detective fiction. There is a police detective—who does solve the case—but almost entirely outside of the narrative. Several members of the family play at a little detecting, but only occasionally. Only one of them does anything which does not simply anticipate a later discovery, and that was to effect a useful introduction, rather than any actual detection.

The story also maintains the style of foreshadowing hints until the end, abandoning it only as the police detective explains the solution, which is the last thing that happens in the book. I’ve concluded that I don’t like this style. It feels at best overwrought, and at worst like an attempt to spice up a dull narrative with chopped up bits of other parts of the same narrative. I don’t mean that all foreshadowing is bad, of course, but The Door seemed to use foreshadowing in place of a compelling plot.

There is also the very strange question of the narrator, Elizabeth Jane Bell, who narrates the story in a very personal way. Throughout the story alternately laments the tragedy, investigates it, and destroys evidence to try to protect the family. It’s that last part which is especially hard to reconcile with the narration; why on earth would she be narrating all of these scandalous details in a memoir when the character of herself within the memoirs would want all such scandal wiped out? Whether you take the inconsistency between herself in the story and herself as narrator to be a problem with the character or a problem with the narrator (I took it as the former), it is still an unsettling problem.

There is also the problem of the family which Elizabeth Jane was trying to protect. Her niece Judy was never really under any suspicion having, as I recall, an alibi from the beginning. She was the only really sympathetic member of the whole family other than Elizabeth Jane herself, and she mostly from a general pleasantness which seemed to be a combination of decent manners, comfortable circumstances, and little ambition. The rest were detestable. Towards the end I was hoping that the murder would be solved after the good-for-nothing Jim was executed, just so the wretch would be out of the story. The other characters were similarly unpleasant, which left me very unsympathetic to the family’s desire to avoid scandal, which was to a fair degree their only major motivation in anything that they did. But this brings up an interesting point in murder mysteries in general: it’s hard for likable characters to be suspects.

The mystery in a murder mystery obviously depends on there being more than one suspect. More properly, on there being more than one credible suspect. The problem is that a character can fail to be credible as a suspect by being too likable. It’s very difficult to write an enjoyable story about a good person who stoops to murder but then cheerfully covers it up. It’s that much harder to write several characters who are all credible in that way; to pull it off one must write good characters with depth, rather than the common approach of paper-thin automatons who are good merely because they’re not tempted by ordinary temptations. It’s much easier to make suspects credible by simply making there be nothing to which they won’t do for gain.

Another important distinction between suspects in a mystery is between those with an obvious motive and those without an obvious motive. Very often this does not line up well with the moral probity of the characters. In order to put an innocent person in peril (to heighten the tension) a morally upright person will get an obvious motive, while a moral degenerate will get none. This helps to spread the doubtfulness around, to be sure, but because both of these suspects have something obviously going for them as suspects, it is especially common to make the culprit someone who is not very morally offensive (apart from their murders) who has a hidden motive. Which brings us to the butler.

How much was the butler a character and therefore a potential suspect? It’s hard for me to say fairly because I already knew that he did it, of course, but doing my best to be fair, I would say somewhat, but not much. Joseph (the butler) gets progressively more tired, worn out, and on edge as the story progresses, which certainly was a clue (that he was running around doing things while everyone else was asleep). He had originally come from one of the victim’s household’s, which should have been a clue but actually wasn’t—his prior connection to the rich victim had no significance as far that was revealed in the story. Nothing was ever made of him having the opportunity for the murders, because they happened at times when everyone had opportunity, and the house was small enough that a butler’s ability to be unnoticed had no significance. In fact, all three murders happened outside of the house, so his position as butler was—if anything—a disadvantage. He had to sneak off to commit them, or commit them while he was off-duty. The one time his being a butler was an advantage was when he answered the door when one of the victims came to see Elizabeth Jane but he turned her away because Elizabeth Jane was sleeping. Any butler might have turned her away, and any murderer might have learned of her coming and consequently resolved to kill her before she could tell what she knew.

On balance, the disadvantages of Joseph’s being a butler far outweighing the advantages makes Joseph’s being a butler fairly irrelevant to his being a murderer. It’s really just his profession. Most murderers have a day-job and there’s no particular reason it shouldn’t be butling. In this case his being the butler of the narrator was something of a camouflage; it meant that she didn’t notice him. Also his many years of loyal service made her affectionate of him, and this combined with the murders happening nowhere he was supposed to be and her always thinking of him as having no existence past being her butler disguised him as a suspect. But it didn’t disguise him totally. One of the themes of the book is how little one really knows of the people one thinks one knows, and the fact that Joseph had a wife somewhere but Elizabeth Jane had no idea where does actually highlight this blindness in a way that makes it fair game for the reader to not be so blind. In fact, I would argue that line by Jane Elizabeth is a well crafted notice to the reader that Joseph is a potential suspect.

Further, if the test of victory in the contest between the reader and the writer of a murder mystery is that the writer wins if the reader doesn’t guess who the murderer is but blames himself rather than the writer for it, then I believe that The Door has the potential for victory. Reading it through while knowing what to look for, I think that Rinehart did play fair with the reader. Certainly it seems possible she knew who the murderer was from the first, and did not merely cast about for someone she hadn’t already ruled out when she came to the ending. So I don’t think that there’s any cogent criticism to be made of her choice of murderer. (Except, perhaps, that it’s a little odd for someone who engages in fraud, forgery, and conspiracy—which eventually leads to multiple murders to cover those up—to have no criminal history, but instead a long and unmarred career in positions of significant trust.)

So when we come to the question of whether it is legitimate that, as Wikipedia puts it (as of the time of this writing), “Rinehart is considered the source of the phrase “The butler did it” from her novel The Door (1930), although the novel does not use the exact phrase.” Not only does the novel not use that exact phrase, it doesn’t use any even somewhat similar phrase. I’m going to quote the reveal in the novel, but I need to mention a little context first. Joseph had been mysteriously shot in the collar bone about a week before, but he was not killed and recovered enough to come back to his duties, though with his arm in a sling. Elizabeth Jane had, therefore, given him leave to go on holiday to recover. We have not learned up to this point who Joseph’s wife is, but we can mostly guess it was a woman who figured into the plot somewhere else, who we knew to be dying of inoperable cancer. We’re picking up with the tail-end of the explanation given privately to Elizabeth Jane by the police detective. During the explanation he had been calling the murderer “James C. Norton”, which he told her was the pseudonym the murderer had used to procure a safe deposit box. So, with that said, here is the reveal in the novel:

“So we got him. We’d had his house surrounded, and he hadn’t a chance. He walked out of that house tonight in a driving storm, and got into a car, the same car he had been using all along; the car he used to visit Howard Somers and the car in which he had carried Florence Gunther to her death, under pretext of bringing her here to you.

“But he was too quick for us, Miss Bell. That’s why I say I bungled the job. He had some cyanide ready. He looked at the car, saw the men in and around it, said, “Well Gentlemen, I see I am not to have my holiday—”

“Holiday! You’re not telling me—”

“Quietly, Miss Bell! Why should you be grieved or shocked? What pity have you for this monster, whose very wife crawled out of her deathbed to end his wickedness?”

“He is dead?”

“Yes,” he said, “Joseph Holmes is dead.”

And with that I believe that I fainted. [that’s the last line in the book]

There is nothing there remotely similar to the exact phrase, “the butler did it.” As you can see, there was nothing there even related to him being a butler. There were a few things which happened in the house that his living in the house enabled, but much of the criminal activity actually in the house was not in fact Joseph’s doing. The door referred to in the title was a hotel door where a fraud was performed, and was not in the house in which Joseph was a butler. It was not even in the same city as the house in which Joseph buttled. Except possibly as a violation of the tacit convention that the butler is the one person who never, ever commits the murder(s) in a murder mystery, his being a butler is utterly irrelevant either to the murders or to whether one suspects him of those murders.

After a bit of research, I found what seems like evidence that Damon Runyon’s What, No Butler? was first published in Collier’s Weekly, August 5th, 1933. That is not so early that the joke that the butler always does it was necessarily common by the time that The Door was published, three years earlier, but I think it does suggest it. Given what the book actually is, and the timing of it relative to jokes about the butler always being the culprit, I really doubt that The Door was in any way the origin of the phrase. It’s not impossible, but I’d really like to see better evidence for it besides this being the first (and nearly only) book which anyone can find in which a butler actually did it.


The Butler is Still Doing It

As I mentioned, I’ve been reading Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Door. Right now I’m in Chapter 22 (page 266 of 381). When I had finished the first two chapters I said:

It will be interesting to see where the story goes. So far, it promises to be complicated.

I am at the moment rather unclear as to whether I would call the story complicated. There are a reasonably large number of characters, and in a sense there’s a lot going on, but mostly what’s happening is all detail work and hand-wringing. So far three people have been murdered, three people have been assaulted and knocked unconscious, and the narrator herself has been locked in the basement all night. And yet it doesn’t much feel as if anything has really happened.

Now, it is possible that since I already know that the butler did it, things are not as suspenseful as they would be the first time I read through. This is likely to be the case, and though it piques my interest to look at the clues which are given to see how well we’re able to guess who the murderer is, I can’t really read it giving equal weight to red herrings. But at the same time, in good detective fiction red herrings are essentially mini-mysteries. Part of the task of detection is to unravel the intertwining mysteries.

Which actually brings me to one of the big problems I have with The Door. There is no detective. The Door is, basically, the memoirs of a woman who was present while a mystery happened and was eventually solved. She had, at the time, some interest in figuring out what happened, but not a great deal. She actively destroyed evidence at one point, and bellyached about it interminably before it turned out to have been pointless. And all of the memoirs are filled with description of how emotional everyone looked and how anguished it later turned out to be. Which brings me to her use of foreshadowing.

The Wikipedia page on Mary Roberts Rinehart says that she “is also considered to have invented the ‘Had-I-But-Known‘ school of mystery writing, with the publication of The Circular Staircase (1908).” I’m coming to wish that she hadn’t. In The Door it takes the form of never-ending hints about what terrible things were to happen, together with confirmations or denials of things discovered in the present. It seems to me that these are used primarily to liven up the story whenever it gets slow, which it does quite often. But spicing up bland food (already cooked) is not often very successful, even with food, and the effect after a while is somewhat akin to “DANGER! SUDDEN DROP!” signs placed periodically along a bumpy railroad to convince you that you’re actually on a roller coaster. Worse, when you finally get far enough along in the narrative to see the description of something which was foreshadowed, it’s typically underwhelming. When this has happened a few times, one becomes very skeptical of fresh foreshadowing.

Which also brings up the problem of the constant use of foreshadowing. To stretch the metaphor a bit, two thirds into the book you shouldn’t be foreshadowing any more, you should have moved on to the actual shadowing. (I know the metaphor is really from the shadow which precedes a back-lit person into a room, but it works better here if we take it to be like watching someone draw a picture, and there is some vague outline shadowing done before the picture begins in earnest, and real shadowing must be done to make the picture look realistic.) The book feels a bit like one of those songs that’s all introduction without ever getting to the main part of the song. I’ve given up hope that the preparation was for anything but the last chapter, and I’m almost a little inclined to be sympathetic to Raymond Chandler’s complaint that in a conventional mystery all of the scenes exist solely for the ending. Certainly that’s not true of Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, or Ellis Peters, though Chesterton is a somewhat unfair comparison because all of the Father Brown stories were short stories, which are artistically very different from novels. (Chandler’s complaint is also not true of Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, but it’s not quite so entirely wrong of Christie as it is of the others.) But perhaps Chandler had only read Mary Roberts Rinehart’s novels. That still doesn’t excuse his own detective stories, but perhaps it does contextualize them, at least.

With respect to the question of whether the butler is a legitimate suspect, at the moment I’m actually inclined to say no. There is enough evidence sprinkled throughout that might line up to him, but outside of one small moment when he helped the main character to burn a piece of evidence that her cousin might have been the murderer, he really has no personality or other characteristics. Curiously, this is not true of the prime suspect’s manservant, who actually is enough of a character in the story that one might reasonably suspect him. So this is not a case of the servant/rich person divide, but simply one of the character not being rendered as much of a character. I think that it’s mostly that anything that the butler has done so far falls entirely within the stereotype of the faithful butler; as such he really is like a piece of the furniture. Now, a butler would not need to violate the stereotype to a great degree in order to qualify as a legitimate suspect; we really just need someone in the story to treat him as human. It would be enough for someone to suspect the butler, even if it’s just a fellow servant who reports some suspicious activity of the butler to the detective.

To give an example of something very similar being done well, in Gaudy Night Dorothy L. Sayers makes the college servants all very credible suspects. The college professors are not very willing to accept this, but it is very much painted as the contrast between their social prejudices and their conscious desire to avoid their social prejudices which in the end keeps them from looking at the servants as credible suspects. To the reader, however, they remain very much within the realm of possibility throughout the book.

There is still about a third of the book for me to get through, so there is certainly time for things to change, and I’m curious to see whether it in fact does. In fairness the murderer is described from the outset as being very clever and cunning, and a clever, cunning murderer would not be an obvious suspect right from the beginning.

The Problem with Agnostic Atheism

Going back at least as far as Bertrand Russell, there has been a strain of atheism which proponents call agnostic atheism, and a more literal English rendering might be know-nothing atheism. The most sympathetic rendering is something to the effect of:

There is insufficient evidence to prove the existence of God, and the default in the absence of evidence that a thing exists is to assume it does not, so until such evidence exists I’m going to go with the default position that God does not exist.

In practice it can be phrased more parsimoniously:

I assume that there’s no God, and I won’t defend that position.

Quite a bit of effort has gone into explaining why they won’t defend that position. There are all sorts of arguments about the “burden of proof”, which may or may not apply to any particular debate (where it is possible to have rules about who has the burden of proof), but this entirely misses a very significant point. Human beings, as rational creatures, have a duty to the truth. A man who does not seek the truth to the best of his ability is simply a failed human being.

The agnostic atheist takes a position which is basically a form of modified radical skepticism. Most of them are scientismists and consequently they—or at least the ones who’ve put any thought into it—take a position that reason works very slightly, enough that it is possible to use it where confirmation can be gotten by way of control. I.e. they will believe in technology. This is akin to the wife who will only believe that her husband loves her if he constantly buys her the expensive presents she wants but will not specify. She will believe in his love only if she can control it. Past this, all else depends too much on the use of reason to be believable.

The agnostic atheist is, to all appearances, in this basic position. Agnostic atheists mostly deny anything that they don’t want to believe in except that which no one but a devout skeptic would deny. Usually they’ll make a few exceptions for things like political beliefs, but will get angry with you if you point out the contradiction to them. Not impressive, but in itself nothing very remarkable. Plenty of people know little and think about their beliefs less.

But the curious thing about the agnostic atheist is that he thinks himself on the high end of functional, as a rational being, and expects the rest of us to take that view too. In fact, he has demonstrated nothing beyond his not suffering from catastrophic brain damage. He is not as non-functional as it is possible for a human being to be—especially when considered as a clever beast—but he hasn’t really demonstrated any of the higher function of a rational creature: to know. Worse, his banging on about the burden of proof highlights just how little appreciation he has for his duty to investigate. As a rational creature, it’s not our job to do his thinking for him, it’s his job to do his thinking for himself. His complaining loudly and vociferously that we haven’t done a sufficiently good job of doing his thinking for him only calls attention to how little of it he has done for himself.

This manifests further in how very little thought agnostic atheists ever seem to put into considering what the world is, according to their theory of it. Just ask them some time about any particular implications of their views, and they won’t know anything about it. Any of the obvious problems such as, “if there’s no meaning in life, why is murder (that you can get away with) bad?” Most of the time you’ll get some vapid response about not wanting to murder people, as if their lack of ambition is a solution to the general philosophical problem.

And there is something especially telling in the odd insistence which some agnostic atheists place on the idea that all babies are atheists. I think that this is a significant misunderstanding of both babies and knowledge, but it is at least true that babies do not propositionally affirm the existence of God, since they don’t propositionally affirm anything at all. But so what? How can anyone be proud of knowing no more than a baby does? It’s very rhetorically strange for an atheist to say, “Intelligent people might believe in God, and even partial idiots might believe in God, but complete idiots are all atheists!” But it does get to the point. They are claiming to be in a state which is not distinguishable from being an utter failure as a rational being. Which raises the question: are they?

The way to tell, of course, is to find out what they do believe in. What knowledge have they gained in however many decades they’ve been alive, so far? And if the answer is none—that they know nothing, that there are only bets that have generally worked for them reasonably well in the past, or there are sense experiences which they routinely anticipate, or whatever skeptical substitute for knowledge they might have—then perhaps they simply are failed human beings. If a person shirks their duty to learn about the world, they genuinely can avoid learning about it. They can achieve a sort of anthropoid approximation to a cow chewing its cud in its field, unaware of and uninterested in any of the important questions like:

  • what is good?
  • What is the relationship between goodness and happiness?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?

The agnostic atheist is in a relatively unassailable position. He does not, in fact, know whether there is a God, and he is in fact assuming that there isn’t one. But he has achieved this unassailable position by a sort of intellectual suicide. He’s done just enough thinking to get to a place where he will never do any more thinking, and there he remains, loudly proclaiming that we should be impressed with him because he knows no more about the world than does an infant in its mother’s arms.

Whether it is possible for us to help him out of this position, and if so how on earth we are to do it, I have no idea. It may be impossible for man. It is all the more fortunate, then, that all things are possible for God. Pray for them.

The Door

It has been claimed that The Door, by Mary Roberts Rinehart was the origin of the phrase, “The butler did it.” Published in 1930, it’s the only example of a serious (as opposed to satirical) mystery in which the butler actually did do it. When I read Wikipedia’s entry on Mary Roberts Rinehart, it described her as the American Agatha Christie, in that she sold a great many copies of her books. No one, so far as I know, has actually come close to Agatha Christie, whose books have sold something like 2 billion copies, but still, Rinehart was apparently quite popular in her day.

So I became curious. Most of my exposure to American mystery so far has been the hard-boiled detectives which I didn’t like at all, so I was curious what an American attempt at the sort of mystery which I like better would look like. I’m also interested to see what the mystery story in which the butler did it looks like. Obviously I won’t get the full effect since I already know who the culprit is, but even so, it will be interesting to see how it was constructed.

I’ve read a little over five chapters so far, and Rinehart has an interesting style. She makes heavy use of foreshadowing. I think that this has two effects. One is to suggest a well-designed plot, since the author clearly knows enough about what happened later to talk about it now. The other is closer to making a virtue of necessity, since without the foreshadowing the story would so far have been deadly dull. For some reason Rinehart introduces most of the characters and places right at the beginning, without having much of anything for them to do yet, so the foreshadowing helps us to know that they are actually relevant.

It’s also interesting to note that she makes use of the dogs not barking proving that a culprit was known to the dogs. It is fairly realistic to dogs, though it’s often somewhat unrealistically used because dogs often can’t tell who someone is until they see him, and will bark when they first hear him, or when a noise wakes them up, etc. Detectives often take probabilities as certainties, so it’s a common fault, and so far not much of anything has been made of the dogs not barking.

It will be interesting to see where the story goes. So far, it promises to be complicated.

Bad Philosophers

I recently read up on Russell’s Teapot. A super short version Russel gave was:

Nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice.

Upon further reading about it, I discovered that Russell was the first to formulate what might be called the Insufficient Evidence Argument against God’s existence. There are various wordy versions of it, but they can be sufficiently summarized as:

There isn’t enough evidence to prove God exists.

The clever thing about this argument, from the perspective of rhetoric, is that the only practical answer is “yes there is,” which is weak because it’s mere contradiction. A simple contradiction will end the conversation, and so it is generally bad form.

There is a more complex answer possible, but the problem is that it’s very complex. Specifically, it is possible to debate the standard of evidence. That is, to debate what is and what is not sufficient evidence to establish the truth of a proposition, such as, “God exists.” But while this is a viable line of argument, most people are simply not up to it. Whether it is too difficult for them, or they are simply not fitted to it by personality, this is solidly within the realm of epistemology, the branch of philosophy which studies knowledge. Now, as has been observed, if a man won’t do philosophy for himself, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a philosophy, it only means that he has a philosophy he hasn’t thought out for himself. The big question is, therefore, who has thought it out.

This brings me back to Bertrand Russell. Russell’s Teapot is a cleverly dressed up form of question begging. (I’m not sure what the name is for the practice of creating a clever metaphor in order to distract from the fact that you are begging the question; it’s basically asking somewhat to watch the straw man waving his hands while one begs the question.) The example discusses a proposition which no one ever had a reason to believe. This is a fair way of dismissing the Invisible Pink Unicorn, but has no relationship to historical religions. He’s using a fancy metaphor to distract from the fact that he’s refusing to consider the evidence for historical religions.

And the real problem I have is that Russell was certainly too well educated to have honestly claimed that there is no evidence for historical religions. Now, I do not know what the state of Bertrand Russell’s soul is; that gets to culpability for what he did, for which no one but God has sufficient knowledge. Certainly, I hope for Russell’s salvation as I hope for the salvation of all human beings. But it is possible to evaluate Russell’s actions, and I do not see any plausible case for him having been an honest man. This made me very suspicious of how he lived the rest of his life, in particular, I had the strong suspicion that he probably lived in conveniently immoral ways. So I looked up his biography on Wikipedia. (Not the most reliable source, to be sure, but it’s a start.)

So, after a little reading, it turned out that the man was an adulterer; he fathered children outside of both of his first two marriages. (I don’t know about his third marriage; I stopped reading at that point.) It would be silly to say that I was not shocked since I went into the article expecting to find something like that, but alas I did find something like that. Which got me to thinking about the relationship between atheism and immorality.

I am not, in general, sympathetic to the idea that atheists become atheists because they want to be immoral. First, it is not very true to my experience of atheists, some of whom are indeed as moral in their behavior as most religious people. Second, this is not very true to psychology. When someone wants to do something immoral, he will generally come up with some reasoning why this case is an exception to the general rule, he will not attempt to redefine morality. Bank robbers do not approve of stealing in general; at the very least they don’t approve of stealing from them or (typically) their families.

But Bertrand Russel was not an ordinary atheist; he was a very intelligent one. There are two main implications of that that are relevant to the present discussion, one contingent on the historical context of him being an university-educated Englishman born in 1872 and one contingent only on him being a fallen human being. In the first case, he lived at a time when there was still among the educated English some idea that they were at the dawning of the age of reason and that once God had been thrown off philosophy would be free to construct new and wonderful things that the age of superstition only hinted at. The second case concerns an odd mistake many people make with regard to the results of intelligence. It is often supposed that intelligent people are more likely to be correct than unintelligent people. It is true that they are more likely to understand things, certainly, but intelligence is not the same as wisdom, and intelligence does not guarantee a correct answer, only a complex answer. Intelligent people are quite likely to make mistakes. Indeed, their intelligence makes it more likely that they will be able to come up with convincing arguments for their mistakes. If you want a truly huge error, it actually requires an intelligent person to make it.

I will need to do more reading before I think it safe to conclude that Bertrand Russel was the father of the modern know-nothing atheism that talks about God as a sky-fairie. According to wikipedia he was influenced by David Hume, who didn’t really believe in knowledge (he said that all we thought of as knowledge was merely anticipated sense experience), so perhaps Hume was originated this line of thinking. I’ll need to do more investigation into Hume (I’ve only read about 30 pages or so of Hume’s work). But if Russell did inherit his know-nothing atheism, it is at least clear that he gave it a polished, modern expression it didn’t have before, and this brings me back to the question of morality and atheism.

For most atheists, I think that immorality is a side effect. Most will notice at some point that if God is dead, all things are permitted, and after all human nature isn’t good so there’s no real foundation for any sort of morality. Most atheists in my experience will wail about how morality doesn’t depend on God, and that they don’t need God to be good, but they then proceed to do approximately no moral philosophy of any kind except occasionally noting that some depravity which doesn’t cause bodily injury to anyone doesn’t cause bodily injury to anyone. In general if they don’t face temptation, they won’t give into it, and I suspect often enough how they were raised will even carry them through temptation. But their children tend to be in a bad place because they don’t raise their children the way that they were raised. (Why do so few people notice that degeneration tends to happen by generations? It’s right there in the word!)

I have a sneaking suspicion that this was not the case for Bertrand Russell, though. He was in the right time and place for God to have been in his way academically. God’s rules were in the way of where he wanted to put his genitals. And he was clever enough to come up with a convincing way to help him forget about God. This has the effect of simultaneously making that forgetfulness attractive because it proves his intelligence, but also significantly reduces the time and effort it takes to forget God. It is more tempting to do easy things than it is to do hard things. And once he came up with the clever arguments, people who were far less clever than he could use them. People often understand far more complicated things (especially when explained to them) which they couldn’t come up with on their own.

Worse for those repeating Russell’s arguments, the objections to an argument you understand but can’t make yourself are often unpersuasive because you (naturally enough) assume that the guy who came up with the argument could come up with a response, if he were around to do it. A person’s ability to see the brilliance of the one who made the argument he couldn’t have come up with himself supports regarding the creator of that argument as an authority. The less intelligent followers of someone like Russell have, in essence, little defense against him. This is (part of) why intelligent people have so much responsibility to use their intelligence well.

Analysis of Detective Fiction

Detective fiction is a curiously self-referential genre. Other genres may discuss themselves, for all I know, but this does seem to be a very common theme in detective stories. Sherlock Holmes talked about C. Auguste Dupin, Dorothy L. Sayers talked about the plot to one of the Father Brown stories in Busman’s Honeymoon, and both Agatha Christie and Sayers introduced successful female mystery writers as important characters into their stories. Moreover, more than one popular mystery writer wrote a list of rules for detective fiction, and The Detection Club had this initiation oath:

Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?

It makes sense that a genre so thoroughly about analyzing people and situations should consider itself; indeed it does this both of curiosity and necessity. The necessity arises from the sort of game which is typical of mysteries, where the author “wins” if the reader does not guess the villain, but does blame himself and not the author once the detective’s reasoning is revealed. Once a trick has been used, readers are on the lookout for it and will probably spot it again. Conversely, because they are on the lookout for it, that expectation can be used to hoodwink the reader. Since both authors and readers play this game, both must analyze the stories written so far.

Especially in their early days, detective fiction did not garner a great deal of respect, even sometimes from its authors. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually killed his detective off in order get more time to write historical novels, and SS Van Dine lamented once his real name was revealed that he would never be taken seriously again. Charges that murder mysteries are unserious literature, or make sport of death, or a host of other complaints abound, though people who love mysteries abound more.

A Franciscan brother who is a philosophy professor and fan of murder mysteries (and spy thrillers) told me the following theory: in a murder, intelligence has been used for a wrong end, damaging the natural order of things. The murderer benefited unjustly from his crime, and since no man is an Island, all of society shares in this unjust benefit. (It also shares in the unjust harm of losing the victim, but that can’t be repaired.) The detective, through a right use of reason, untangles the web which was tangled by the murderer, and restores the right order of things. Once the murderer is brought to justice, the unjust benefit is removed and neither the murderer nor society by extension enjoys unjust benefit any longer. Murder mysteries are, therefore, symbolic of our redemption from sin.

I rather like this theory as it explains several things. First, it explains why it is acceptable when the detective catches the murderer but lets him escape when the murderer was doing no more than justice. A good example of this is Murder on the Orient Express. I think it was especially well done in that Poirot propounds two theories, one the misdirection which was intended and the other the true solution, and leaves it to the train manager to decide which to present to the police. In this way reason is used to pursue truth, and judgment is left to mercy. When Sherlock Holmes lets Ryder go free in The Blue Carbuncle, it lacks a little of this perfection because Holmes allows mercy to overrule truth, though I think it is made up for when Holmes points out that he is not retained by the police to remedy their deficiencies. Both because it is a good line, and because it does locate Homles’ mercy in the context of a fallen world that is not always strong enough to handle the truth well. The detective exists to restore the natural order, but in a fallen world that restoration must, perforce, be incomplete.

The other thing which this theory explains is why I so greatly dislike hardboiled detective fiction like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. (The Thin Man wasn’t as bad, but it wasn’t as hard boiled, either.) Chinatown (the movie with Jack Nicholson) was similarly awful. The detective does nothing to restore the right order injured by a misuse of intelligence. He just gets by, often by misusing his intelligence, and leaves the world as badly off has he found it, if typically not particularly worse, either. (Please note that all of the stories I mentioned were very skillfully told; they are very well done versions of what they are supposed to be. My objection is not to their execution but to their goal; to what they are supposed to be should not be done.)

I think that this theory of my friend is largely correct, and that it also explains why it is that those of us who love detective fiction love it so very much.

The Butler Did It?

By an unimportant series of coincidences, I was looking up the origins of the phrase “The butler did it.” The top two relevant results I got were for a trope on tvtropes.com and an article on Mental Floss. The tvtropes article links a Straight Dope on the same subject. All three note that examples of a murder mystery in which the butler was the murderer are rare, but what’s curious is that all three mention a list of rules for murder fiction which SS Van Dine (the pen name of the author who wrote the Philo Vance mysteries) wrote for American Magazine. Though I do have a sneaking suspicion that the two more recent ones may be based on the Straight Dope answer, it is odd that all three cite these rules of detective fiction as if they are authoritative either to what makes a good detective story or to what common tastes were.

Murder Mysteries have been popular for more than a hundred years now, and the idea that there are rules that everyone follows, or that all fans of the genre follows, is absurd. There have been commonalities to detective fiction, to be sure. Giving the readers enough clues to figure out who did it is very common, and very popular, but by no means universal among enjoyable detective fiction. Paranormal, supernatural, and other sorts of detective fiction have been popular. Solutions which could not possibly have been guessed by the reader can be enjoyable as the gradual revealing of an answer. I don’t tend to go for those myself, but pretending that one author’s preference in the 1920s is somehow normative doesn’t accomplish anything.

Within the context of mysteries which aim to be solvable by the reader, most rules (such as Knox’s 10 commandments) aim to give guidance to mystery writers for thinking about the construction of their mysteries. The rules are not meant in an absolute sense, but rather to give sign posts where extra thought is probably required. If the butler, rather than one of the guests, is the murderer, the writer will need to include him as a character enough that the reader thinks that it’s within the spirit of the story to consider the butler.

Now, some might object that it is snobbish to think that the butler is not a possible suspect because he’s just a servant, and indeed it would be, but all problems come with unstated rules, and solving them relies on knowing what these unstated rules are. Consider the classic illustration for teaching people to think outside of the box: Four dots, arranged like the corners of a square, with the instructions to “connect these four dots using only three straight lines without lifting your pen, ending where you started”. The classic solution is to use three lines forming a right triangle where one side goes through two vertices and the other two sides go through one vertex each. This is supposed to surprise people and teach them to “think outside the box” because the rules never said that the end of the lines have to be on one of the four dots. “Don’t limit yourself!” The self-help guru says cheerfully.

The problem with this conclusion is that these sorts of problems are trivial if we’re not helping the person who stated the problem by figuring out what the rules they didn’t state are. No thought would be involved if I just picked up a paint brush and connected all four lines with one thick line. I could even hold my pen against the paper the whole time. Some versions of this mention to not fold the paper; but I haven’t see any rules against cutting and taping the paper. The rules never specified a euclidean geometry; one could easily draw a square then define a geometry in which there were only three straight lines. One could draw new dots and point out that the rules did specify which four dots were the four it was talking about. I could draw three unconnected lines with a pencil while never lifting a pen. etc.

The people who hold this question up as a major revelation are actually practicing a cheap parlor trick. They are really just asking you to try to read their mind and magically know which implied rule they are suspending without telling you. If you were to draw three straight lines plus one curved line, they would balk, rather than applauding you for your willingness to think outside the box in the way that they wanted you to.

The same problem can apply to the butler as the culprit. It would be too easy to assume that the servants are off limits as suspects simply because they all have the opportunity to commit the murder without being noticed, and since detective fiction so often focuses so heavily on alibis, figuring out who had the opportunity is often a large part of the puzzle. Hence this complaint in the tvtropes article:

The butler is the avatar of the most unlikely suspect that, of course, turns out to be guilty because the author wasn’t creative enough to come up with a better way to surprise the reader.

This is a problem only if the butler is the least likely suspect because no time was spent on the butler. Authors who don’t figure out the mystery ahead of the detective, and so who come to the reveal and then have to solve the puzzle for themselves, as it was written so far in order to come up with the ending can run into this. The butler is a good candidate both because he would be surprising since he wasn’t a real character up to this point, and because the servants all have means and opportunity for murder in a great house. This is cheating according to the rules the author implied; to do a good job making the butler the culprit, the author would have had to include the butler as a character in a way that made it clear he wasn’t off limits.

I suspect that this is primarily a problem in mysteries where the author doesn’t know who the culprit is, because it’s all too easy as the evidence is being discovered and alibis are being produced to have accidentally ruled out all of the actual suspects by the end. If that happens, the author will need to introduce a previous non-character who hasn’t been ruled out simply because the author hadn’t thought of the character as a suspect before. I can’t see how such a story can be well crafted; if the author doesn’t know what’s going on, it seems far too likely the story will be inconsistent and not hang together well, though for any technique there is probably someone who can pull it off decently.

But for an example of art criticism which simply wants there to be rules in order to make the task of art criticism easier, consider this from the Mental Floss article:

While The Door was a hit for Rinehart and her sons, who released it through a publishing house they’d just started up, her pinning the crime on the butler has gone down in history as a serious misstep…That The Door was a commercial success while flaunting a hallmark of what some considered lousy mystery writing made it an easy target for jokes. Stories and books like “What, No Butler?” and The Butler Did It soon turned murderous manservants into shorthand for a cheap ending.

Of course this attempt to invoke normative rules of fiction makes heavy use of the passive voice. “Has gone down in history as a serious misstep,” and “flaunting a hallmark of what some considered lousy mystery writing” buys authority with anonymity. There are indeed things which do not need to be attributed—that people will talk about the weather in default of another topic in common does not need to be established with evidence—but common opinion of literary techniques certainly doesn’t fall into that category.

This attempt to have rules of fiction, or more properly rules of art criticism, is not really about the fiction. It is about the desire for stability and intelligibility by a person not willing to do the work of understanding, or without the courage of owning up to their own prejudices and so attempting to displace those preferences onto everyone else.

Incidentally, I looked up the two works cited. “What, No Butler?” seems to be a short story by Damon Runyon. I can’t find much information about it; according to Wikipedia it was in a book called Runyon on Broadway. It was performed on radio in 1946 and that performance is available on youtube. I don’t know when it was originally published. The story does have humor in it, but to call it satire seems like quite a stretch. Early in the story, the character Broadway (who I believe is a theater critic) says authoritatively upon finding out that a man was murdered that the butler did it. When he’s told that the victim didn’t have a butler, he insists that they have to find the butler, because in every play he sees with a murder in it, the butler did it. No one pays attention and he is dismissed because this is stupid advice. In the end we learn that the murderer was a neighbor of the victim, who heard that the victim was rich and so he broke in to the apartment with a duplicated key and killed the victim when he was caught in the act. When asked why he would stoop to robbery, he explained that he was out of work and wasn’t likely to get it again soon. He had served some of the best families in New York, and couldn’t accept just any old employer, because he was an excellent butler. Very clearly, in context, this was not a criticism of the butler as a culprit, but playing with the audience’s expectations to set up a joke.

In 1957 P.G. Wodehouse published a book called Something Fishy. When Simon & Schuster published it in America they used the title,  The Butler Did It. Wikipedia gave this plot summary:

The plot concerns a tontine formed by a group of wealthy men weeks before the 1929 stock market crash, and a butler named Keggs who, having overheard the planning of the scheme, years later decides to try to make money out of his knowledge.

(Tontines are in themselves an interesting read. It’s easy to see why they would show up frequently in older detective literature.)

According to the further description of the plot, Keggs is long retired by the time the book takes place. His being a butler is incidental to the story, so far as I can tell, and doesn’t seem like it can be taken as any sort of criticism of detective fiction where the butler is the murderer. This seems doubly true given that The Butler Did It was not the original title, and was only changed because it would resonate better with Americans.

And now that I mention that, it occurs to me that all of the discussion of butlers, from Rhinehart’s story to the supposed criticism of it is all American. Aside from Poe’s character of Dupin starting the genre of detective fiction, much of the most influential detective fiction is British. Now I wonder whether “the butler did it” is a primarily American phenomenon. In any event it does seem to be a very curious example of a saying without much basis, used at least as often to joke about the saying as even to say anything about detective stories.

If I had to guess, I suspect that it originated with someone who was complaining that detective fiction is very formulaic. If so, it is ironic that they picked to exemplify this putative formula a feature which is extremely uncommon in detective fiction.

Having said that, it occurs to me that this idea could even have originated to mean nearly the opposite. It could have started as a parody of the sort of person who doesn’t know how detective fiction goes, and who leaps to the butler as the obvious suspect because he had the means an opportunity for the murder. It would make a more effective criticism of a naive reader than of murder mysteries. “Pffh. He’s the sort of guy who decides ten pages in that the butler did it!” As it stands, I see no more evidence for any other theory of where the phrase came from.


Intelligent Murder Mystery Suspects

I’ve recently watched the episodes in the thirteenth and final series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, starring David Suchet. It included Curtain, which of course must be the last episode, but it had several episodes which differed very greatly from their source material. In particular, The Big Four and The Labours of Hercules.

The former was described by the screenwriter as an unadaptable mess, which it certainly seems to be looking at the plot summary. It is basically a spy thriller with dozens of characters set throughout Europe, which is not very viable for a TV show, even if it is nearly two hours long. The one which really interests me, though, is The Labours of Hercules. The original is a collection of twelve unrelated short stories, which the screenwriter turned into a single long-form mystery by taking one of the stories as the central one and using several of the other stories as the red herrings which one expects in a Christie novel. At this point, I should warn you that this post will include spoilers. You have been warned.

Given what a challenging prospect that is, the writer did a good job, but there were problems in the story which I do not think were avoidable for structural reasons. As everyone knows, a murder mystery must have suspects, with the plural being imperative. Every man having free will, anyone who was anywhere near the victim is a suspect, which is why an isolated setting—a mansion, a private island, etc.—is so interesting. Unless the author is cheating, the suspect list is known at the outset. When doing this, the author must be very careful to make all of the suspects believable suspects. That’s a universal criteria, but a murder in the middle of a city means that we see a great deal less of the suspects, so each one has far greater scope for unseen action, including accomplices we don’t know about yet, than people in an isolated setting.

The episode, The Labours of Hercules, was set in a hotel on the top of a mountain in Switzerland, with the funicular train that is their only link to the outside world having been shut down by an avalanche. Short of a ship in the middle of the Atlantic ocean or an aeroplane in the sky, it’s about as isolated as it is possible to get.

The central mystery, though Poirot stumbles onto it almost by accident, is the identity of a psychopathic killer and thief called Marrascaud. The mystery was set up in the beginning where Marrascaud managed to kill several people and steal several valuable items—one of them a large painting—from a crowded building, with disguised policemen and Poirot himself protecting them. From this we know that Marrascaud is a genius on a level with Poirot, and this forms the central problem once we get to the hotel.

As has been observed in countless murder mysteries, the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest; to hide a genius one must really put them amongst other geniuses, but the characters at the hotel were taken from other stories and thus had qualities appropriate to those stories, none of which involved unique genius. In this case, the beautiful daughter of Poirot’s former love interest who is fascinated with criminology stands out almost like a sore thumb; the only other person who comes close is the Countess Rossakoff, her mother, but it was very clearly established in the previous episode where we met the Countess that the character is not a murderer. Marrascaud kills for the pleasure of it, brutally, which is not something one degenerates to in old age. It is true that one can be cruel vicariously, through underlings, in old age, but it does not make sense as a personality change to go from an honorable thief to a psychopath who delights in killing.

An interest in criminology is also something of a red flag in a suspect. Though everything has by this time been used as a false flag in detective fiction, none the less the similarity of the violent nature of both crime and law enforcement is unavoidable. As the saying goes, the main thing which distinguishes a sheep dog from a wolf is who it bites. None of the other guests seemed sufficiently… canine.

I think that this is the reason why Conan Doyle put Moriarty as the mastermind, behind the scenes. The proxy of an evil genius need only be of ordinary intelligence, which makes it far easier for him to blend in. Indeed, executing a plan which requires greater intelligence than he himself possesses serves as a form of camouflage for the immediate villain. Still, as bumbling accomplices have long shown, it is best to choose someone intelligent enough to understand the plan once it has been created; an accomplice who can understand only his part and not what it fits into will make mistakes that will prove the undoing of both.

I think that fact is why some villains have tried to manipulate their accomplice into helping without realizing it; if done well the mistakes of the unwitting accomplice actually hide the involvement of the mastermind. I suspect that this is the ideal strategy for the criminal mastermind; it is the safest type of plan if a brilliant detective shows up. If done extremely skillfully, it is possible to conceal that there even is a brilliant plan at work; the brilliance can be disguised as coincidence.

Of course, mysteries can go the other way—the more realistic way—where the detective must make sense of genuine coincidences. The problem with writing this sort of mystery is that it is extremely difficult to pull off without the detective himself getting lucky. And while a comedic detective—Inspector Clouseau, for example, or taking the idea of a detective very loosely, Maxwell Smart—can stumble onto all of his solutions, it’s not entertaining if a serious detective does that. Though, I should mention that this is why Jessica Fletcher almost invariably figures out the solution of most episodes by chance. In order to make Murder, She Wrote accessible to a general audience, the writers would tend to throw in enough clues that one should be able to figure out the solution before Jessica does. Since Jessica does have to figure out the mystery, something must make her realize the solution, and because we the audience are supposed to already get it, it can’t be the last piece of critical evidence, but nor can it be slam-dunk evidence, because then you couldn’t feel smart during the reveal. So it’s usually something silly somebody says, and then Jessica says, “Wait, say that again? Of course! That’s it!” That’s not literally every episode, but it is basically a structural requirement imposed by the show’s relationship with its audience.

The solution to the mystery depending on figuring out coincidence without the detective merely getting lucky is typically easiest to pull off through exhaustive leg-work—checking every chemist’s shop in a 30 mile radius, that sort of thing. This is why that sort of mystery is most common when the detective is a public detective (i.e. a member of the police) rather than a private detective, or at least when the police and the detective are working together, rather than separately. And even then, Sherlock Holmes had his Baker Street irregulars.

The other approach, which is a compromise that keeps things closer to a  detective the reader can relate to, is for the detective to have something to go upon which through intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom allows him to rank coincidental possibilities according to an order they are likely to have happened, and to be right according to a Poisson distribution (basically, they usually get an answer by their third try to verify a coincidence, sometimes it takes a lot of tries, and because no one has infinite effort to give, sometimes they don’t get an answer). Fundamentally this is still the detective getting lucky, but it is a way for the detective to earn his luck. Since the detective doesn’t create the clues but only discovers them, that’s the best he can do in any case.

Pascal’s Wager Is a Better Bet Than It Seems

Before I begin, let me mention that there are much better reasons for worshiping God than Pascal’s Wager, especially as Pascal posed it. It would be far, far better for a person to take their time investigating the truth than to choose, indifferent to the truth, a course  based solely on the mathematically expected value of the outcome. But since most New Atheists (Horsemanites, as I’ve heard them called) seem rather indifferent to the truth anyway, they might as well at least make a sensible bet with their lives.

A very brief version of Pascal’s Wager, which will suffice for this discussion, runs as follows:

God either exists or he doesn’t and you must live as if one of those two alternatives is true. If God does exist and you live that way, you can be infinitely happy. If you do and God doesn’t exist, you lost out on at most a finite amount of happiness. If you don’t and God does exist, you lose out on infinitely much happiness. If you don’t and God doesn’t exist, maybe you gained a finite amount of happiness.

At this point the standard objection is “but that’s true of any god, and since this argument gives you no way to pick between them, the odds of you picking correctly are tiny, so after we cancel all the infinities atheism seems like the best bet”.  (Theists who dismiss Pascal’s Wager will usually omit the last part.)

Leaving aside that it is mathematically invalid to cancel infinities (∞ – ∞ is undefined), there is both a major and a minor problem. The minor problem is that you can break this down to: believe in any god vs. atheism, then it holds for any god, at which point it might be true that you have no better method than rolling dice to pick. Even if this objection were true, atheism would still be the worst choice possible.

The major problem with this is that it is a category error in comparing God with gods. God is self-existent, eternal, unchanging, perfectly happy, and the creator of everything that is (which we can interact with, at least). Moreover, these traits are not separable. God cannot lack for nothing and be unhappy. God cannot be the cause of his own existence and lack for something. And so on; it is beyond the scope of this blog post to explain why all of these are connected. If you’re interested, you’ll have to read the Summa Theologica or find a friend who can understand it and have them explain it to you. (There are other philosophers besides Saint Thomas Aquinas who can explain it, but he’s the best.) Thus anyone who posits a God with any of these attributes really posits them all. These attributes also uniquely define God, so whatever name one might apply to God, it names the same thing.

Thus there are three categories of choices: a self-existent creator, a contingent but powerful being in the universe, and nothing beyond human beings.

Contingent gods, that is, powerful beings who exist because something made or begot or otherwise caused them, have the problem that they have no way of granting infinite happiness. How they lack this ability depends on whether they are temporal or aeveternal (in a created eternity, like angels).

If the gods are temporal, they can’t give infinite happiness because true happiness cannot come from changeable things. It’s complicated to prove in detail, but the very short version is that continual novelty gets old, and if you try to appreciate things for what they are, they won’t be those things for long. Worse, nothing in time is really itself because the moments of its existence are disconnected, so its reality is at best completely inaccessible because it is shattered across time. You can only love what you can know, and you can’t know what you have no access to.

If the gods are not temporal, but rather aeveternal, it is more complicated to show that they cannot give infinite happiness, though it is also academic because no one has ever claimed the existence of an atemporal but contingent god. I suspect that this is because an atemporal contingent being immediately points to what it is contingent upon and an infinite logical regress is too obviously absurd since it can’t be hidden in the separate moments of time. Still, the core of the proof lies in the nature of free will (if one doesn’t believe in free will, this whole discussion is moot because there is no choice to make, you must do what you must do). Free will, which is a contingent substance that can originate causality, cannot depend for its existence on another contingent thing, since non-contingent things do not have the ability to create ex nihilo, and so the contingent aeveternal god would not have the power to convert our souls into aeveternal souls, thus its possibility for happiness cannot be transmitted—by its own power—to us.

Since contingent gods cannot give infinite happiness, they are  properly in the same case as atheism: they too are a bad bet, since the maximum payout is only finitely much happiness. Thus we are really only left with two categories: God, and no God. Little-g gods are just a distracting sub-category of no God.

Properly considered, then, Pascal’s Wager does evaluate in favor of betting on God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. There are much better reasons to believe in God, but since even the devil should be given his due, so too should this argument.