In 400 AD, in his Confessiones, Augustine wrote
quid est ergo tempus? si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio
that can be translated as
What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.
To go a little further (because often, if we are asked to explain, we have some ideas), in A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, published in 1887, we have the following exchange, between Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson
– “I wonder what that fellow is looking for?” I asked, pointing to a stalwart, plainly-dressed individual who was walking slowly down the other side of the street, looking anxiously at the numbers. He had a large blue envelope in his hand, and was evidently the bearer of a message.
– “You mean the retired sergeant of Marines,” said Sherlock Holmes.
then, as it turns out that the person is indeed a sergeant in the navy (as is another character in the story, someone named Arthur Charpentier), Dr. Holmes asks him for an explanation, he wants to know how he arrived at this conclusion
– “How in the world did you deduce that?” I asked.
– “Deduce what?” said he, petulantly.
– “Why, that he was a retired sergeant of Marines.”
– “I have no time for trifles,” he answered, brusquely; then with a smile, “Excuse my rudeness. You broke the thread of my thoughts; but perhaps it is as well. So you actually were not able to see that that man was a sergeant of Marines?”
– “No, indeed.”
– “It was easier to know it than to explain why I knew it. If you were asked to prove that two and two made four, you might find some difficulty, and yet you are quite sure of the fact. Even across the street I could see a great blue anchor tattooed on the back of the fellow’s hand. That smacked of the sea. He had a military carriage, however, and regulation side whiskers. There we have the marine. He was a man with some amount of self-importance and a certain air of command. You must have observed the way in which he held his head and swung his cane. A steady, respectable, middle-aged man, too, on the face of him – all facts which led me to believe that he had been a sergeant.”
(to be honest, it is Liu Cixin who talks about it in The Three-Body Problem). For the record, this is the first story of the Holmes-Watson couple, which introduces Sherlock Holmes’ working method. For those who are familiar with the short stories, this narrative approach will be widely used thereafter: Sherlock Holmes states a fact, Dr. Watson is astonished and asks for an explanation, and Sherlock Holmes explains, point by point, how he arrived at this conclusion. This is a bit like the approach we try to implement when we build a predictive model: on the basis of the Titanic data, if we predict that such and such a person will die, and that such and such a person will survive, we want to understand why the model arrives at this conclusion.
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