Do you ever notice how often we moderns like to use the phrase “it doesn’t matter”?
“It doesn’t matter what race you are.”
“It doesn’t matter where you come from.”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman.”
“It doesn’t matter what your religion is.”
It’s really one of our chief points of pride. We like to boast of how many facts we don’t take into account, proudly advertise our supposed indifference in flyers, and consider it a mark of moral distinction to push to make even more facts “not matter.” Our ideal, apparently, is a world where nothing at all matters.
Well, except those things we’ve decided should still matter, of course. Such as the fact of agreeing that nothing matters.
Personally, the more you tell me that some fact or other “doesn’t matter”, the more I have to wonder just how well your philosophy corresponds with reality. It seems to me to amount to looking at the world with deliberately blurred vision.
The Philosophy of Detective Fiction
I read a lot of detective fiction (I also write it, though I’ve written much less than I’ve read so far) and find it most beneficial to the brain. There is a lot of good philosophy in Agatha Christie.
One of the core tenets of a good mystery is that all the facts of a case must be accounted for. Usually it will be structured so as to appear superficially to bear one particular interpretation, which the ‘official’ detective in charge will swallow wholesale. In the process, there will usually be one or two small facts or features of the case that don’t fit that official narrative—a pulled out chair, an overheard splash, an inconsistent suspect. But these seem so small and trivial that the police slur over them as ‘unimportant.’
But as our detective hero will point out, it is precisely these small, seemingly trivial details that are the most important simply because they do not fit. In any case, you can’t know for sure what the truth is until you have somehow accounted for all the facts.
For instance in Evil Under the Sun, someone at a seaside hotel is overheard to have been taking a bath at about the time of the murder. It seems completely irrelevant, but it is a fact and must be accounted for. And because no one will admit to it, Monsieur Hercule Poirot deduces that, unlikely as it seems, it must be significant. Naturally, it proves one of the keys to the unravelling of the mystery.
“It is just what some people will not do,” says Poirot in Death on the Nile. “They conceive a certain theory and everything has to fit into that theory. If one little fact will not fit, they throw it aside. But it is always the facts that will not fit in that are significant.”
It should be the mantra of all good detective stories and all good philosophy alike: if a thing is, then it matters.
This sounds obvious, and it really should be, but we so often ignore it.
It is, for instance, a point of contention to this day whether men and women are different mentally as well as physically. But this really shouldn’t be a question; we know men and women have different bodily compositions. And anyone who has been sick or tired or hungry knows that bodily composition affects the mind. So, unless we want to posit that two different sets of causes happen to work out to the same effect, it is obvious, even absent the evidence of experience and neuroscience, that male and female minds must operate differently.
The alternative would be to posit a magical understanding of reality, of causes without effects and effects without causes. Any cause will produce an effect, and different causes or sets of causes must produce different effects simply because they are different causes.
That is not to say that the point is necessarily relevant, of course. It may have no bearing whatever on the question at hand (whatever that particular question may be). Indeed, most classic detective stories fill up a good chunk of their word count by clearing up extraneous matter: facts that aren’t actually relevant to the murder, but which just happened to occur about the same time. Dorothy Sayers’ Clouds of Witnesses is, in fact, almost entirely extraneous matter, with one character remarking at the end that if the murder were the only event of the night there would have been no mystery at all. But herein lies the catch: you cannot tell whether a fact is relevant or not until you know what happened, and you can’t tell that until you have accounted for all the facts.
It is similar to Chesterton’s gate; until you know what a fact does mean, you cannot say for sure what it does not mean. Until the irrelevant matter is accounted for, you can’t tell whether it is relevant or not. Until Poirot knows how and why the murder was committed, he cannot say for sure whether the attempted robbery that took place on the same night was related or not.
In any case, it should be obvious that one is not likely to get a very clear view of reality by continually excluding or slurring over aspects of it that we don’t like. Modernism is the Inspector Sugg of philosophy.
Things Matter Because Truth Matters
All this, as I say, is fairly obvious and common sense. The chief objection is not a philosophical but a moral one. It is simply that people don’t want to accept even the possibility of discrimination, and so they default to “it doesn’t matter” to avoid providing an excuse for it. That is to say, they put truth second to expedience.
But this is a short-sighted solution. By prioritizing expedience over truth, we not only risk the expedient (since we are tacitly admitting that it is contrary to the truth), but we are opening the door for anyone to do anything on the grounds that it is expedient. Once set the rule that truth is no excuse, and any conceivable defense against any so-called expedient is gone.
Moreover, there is no need to shy away from the truth. Because if any of the categories above do in fact ‘matter’ in the sense of having real consequences, that does not in itself demand any specific response. It is for us to determine what, if anything, to do with the truth once we’ve faced it. But even for those purposes, it is better to know than to shut our eyes to reality.
As Poirot again points out, however unpleasant the truth may or may not be, not knowing, or reaching a false conclusion must be even worse. The increasingly shrill and angry demands for total equality from people who are already legally favored, the increasing friction of group to group as more and more radical claims are put forward should be a sign that our pretenses of unimportance are not really helping.
And as Father Brown said, it is not God, but the Devil that deals in forbidden truths and unspeakable secrets: “If the devil tells you some truth is too terrible to hear, hear it. If he tells you something is too horrible to look at, look at it.”
It is long past time to start prioritizing the truth, even and especially if we’re afraid of what it might be. Because however unpleasant or unpalatable the truth, the consequences of uncertainty, ambiguity, and out-right lies must be worse.
Photo Credit- criminalelement. com