One of the great ideas of childhood is spying.
The conceptual schema you use when you are eight is far from a computer program, with its tight binaries. It resembles, instead, a bunch of brightly colored hot air balloons, trailing strings that you crush in your hot little palm.
Spying was a particularly grand balloon. There were two types of spying: one was on animals, the other on humans. Spying on animals meant lurking behind a tree or stepping carefully down a path to view a dog or a cat or a raccoon or a bird doing something doggish, cattish, raccoonish or birdish that, presumably, would have been disturbed if your approach had been sensed. The other kind of spying was on sisters, brothers, neighborhood kids, and sometimes grownups like at a party where the party was upstairs in your house and the kids were supposed to be downstairs gathered around the tv and instead you were hiding in the shadow of the hallway taking in adult laughter and jokes and shit.
Spying is a peculiar form of seeing and hearing. Usually the senses are mere vehicles for capturing sense objects, but in spying, the objects were given a somewhat spurious glamour by being observed or heard without the object knowning that she or he was being observed or being heard. A remnant of this is still with me. When I go into a store and I look at the monitor that broadcasts what the cameras throughout the store are showing, the store looks automatically more interesting, more tabloid, more like a crime scene, rather than a buncha trails to the peanut stand and the cooler with the beers.
The glorious idea of spying was eventually combined with the glorious pasttime of reading. This happened at some point in the fifth or sixth grade, and I know exactly the point of fusion: the study in scarlet. Or perhaps another Sherlock Holmes stories. I devoured them all at that age.
Now, by then I was fairly well acquainted, as a faithful Baptist Sunday School goer, with the Bible. The Bible was a great book partly because certain sentences were supposed to leap off the page and lodge in your memory and conscience. It was that kind of book – biblical, you might say. It turned out that the Sherlock Holmes saga was the same kind of thing. Certain situations, certain dialogues, certain sayings of Holmes carried that same talismanic weight. I can still recall being blown away when Holmes, in The Study in Scarlet, disclaims any knowledge of the heliocentric theory of the solar system, about which Watson has just informed him:
"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."
"To forget it!"
"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
In spite of the fact that my bent was to the fool’s position – I was a boy who liked nothing better than an odd fact, or any fact, the population of Bristol, Virginia, for instance –this struck me as a view to contend with, rather like offering your right cheek to a person who had just slapped you on the left cheek.
There were, as well, Holmes’ hints about how to go about spying on people – or being a detective, which came to the same thing. In a Case of Identity – a rather obscure story, really, the one about the typist with the inherited income whose stepfather tries to prevent her from marrying and moving her income away from home - Holmes’ presents the difference between observation and seeing that was, to me, as the burning coal was to Isaiah:“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”
“Well, some hundreds of times.”
“Then how many are there?”
“How many? I don’t know.”
“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”
This little passage has clung to me ever since I read it, in almost irritating way, and I think of it often when I climb the stairs from the garage to our apartment. I’m old enough now to suspect that there are some steps missing in this parable of the steps. For instance, it is obviously possible to know the number of the steps and never to have seen them – in which case I am not sure we would speak of observation. This problem leads us to the necessary and sufficient conditions for distinguishing seeing from observation, and perhaps leads us to doubt Holmes’s pat common sense.
This, of course, leads us to Holmes’ famous method. First, a little excursis.
In the great age of the British Renaissance, which stretches – if one pulls hard enough – from Bacon to Newton, the most advanced thinkers wanted to free science from the cage of logic. Following Bacon, the way they did so is subordinate deduction to induction. The latter was what let us out of the dreary deducing of what is the case, and freed us to observe what is the case, or to bend circumstances in such a way that we could observe it in experiment. In this sense Newton – to the embarrassment of philosophers of science since – was quite serious about his hypothesi non fingo – I make no hypotheses. In the nineteenth century, this became a problem, because philosophers – notably Mill – were worried about what science was doing outside the cage of logic. In the twentieth century, of course, attacking induction became something like target practice for philosophers, who from Mach to Popper were down on it. And yet the hypothetical-deductive model, to us, seems more than a little musty, since we have crept back toward’s induction’s corner, with our little Bayesian nets all aquiver.