The Raving Theist

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Just to Prove I’m Not Dead

May 15, 2007 | 1 Comment

[Note: This post was originally begun and meant to run in early February, until personal circumstances resulted in my blogging hiatus].

Can a possible-worlds analysis of fictional reference overcome the problem of specifying the relevant identity conditions? “Q” The Enchanter of Meta and Meta disputes Kripke’s rationale for believing otherwise. I would weigh in — heavily — on one side or the other if I fully understood the question, but I don’t. So instead, I am going to make comments on some of the bits and pieces that I think I grasp, making conclusions where I feel comfortable and tying it into theology here and there.

First, the Kripke passage at issue:

Granted that there is no Sherlock Holmes, one cannot say of any possible person, that he would have been Sherlock Holmes, had he existed. Several distinct possible people . . . might have performed the exploits of Holmes, but there is none of whom we can say that he would have been Holmes had he performed these exploits. For if so, which one? [Naming and Necessity (22).]

“Q” explains that “on Kripke’s account, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ names an abstract entity — the fictional character Sherlock Holmes. Since names are rigid designators, Holmes is necessarily fictional — fictional, that is, in all possible worlds in which Holmes exists.

Kripke’s first point (“for if so, which one?”) appears to be that merely performing Holmes’ exploits would not automatically give a person his identity, because numerous people could perform them but obviously not all of them could be Holmes. The problem, however, isn’t so much that many people can’t share a single identity, but that personal identity isn’t conferred simply by imitation. Running around with a pipe in a tweed suit and delivering presents doesn’t make one person (or three) Sherlock.

This seems to be the essence of Kripke’s second and main point: that “Sherlock Holmes” is definitionally fictional so that it would be futile to try to locate a person in any possible world to fill his shoes. In a way, Kripke is proposing the reverse of the ontological proof — Sherlock Holmes cannot not exist because to imagine that he existed outside of our minds would strip him of the imperfection — fictionality — that is part of our mental construct of him. The point seems clearer with less anthropomorphic beings, such as cartoon characters. It’s almost silly to speculate about whether Bugs Bunny or Fred Flintstone or SpongeBob Squarepants could be “real” in some alternate world. If Bugs or Fred or SpongeBob do exist on another planet, they do so only as cartoons. Their fictionality is as much a part of their composition as the two-dimensional plastic strips from which they are projected. Put one more way, it’s as futile as asking who could be put inside a Barney the Dinosaur costume so as to make him the real Barney. It doesn’t matter, because the identity of “Barney” is controlled by the fantasy created by the costume, not by the identity of the person inside pretending to be him. It’s definitionally a fantasy, built into the very premise of Barney.

“Q” offers several objections to all this. First, he alludes to historical fiction. Although he doesn’t elaborate, I assume the point is that the “identity conditions” of the relevant historical figures are fully fleshed out. Consequently, if there were a book called “Eleanor Roosevelt Conquers the Martians,” we could imagine its heroine existing as a real character in other possible worlds just as she did in our own, even though she is fictional in that particular novel. In a related example, “Q” imagines himself (the equivalent of a real, historical figure) assisting Superman. He rejects the notion that the “‘Q'” in the daydream must viewed be a fictional character completely distinct from his real self (any more, I suppose, than one would view oneself as a fictional character when describing a planned but as yet unrealized trip to Paris).

Second, “Q” notes that the difficulties with specifying the identity conditions under which fictional characters could exist in the fictional world are the same as the difficulties with specifying those conditions in the real world. Is the “Holmes” in a story by Arthur Conan Doyle the same “Holmes” in a sequel written by a different author, or by a randomly-typing monkey? Is the Fred Flintstone who appears in the vitamin commercials the same one who stars in the old cartoons? Is it still Fred if he is depicted in a dream by Barney Rubble?

Third, “Q” posits a scenario under which a presumably mythological creature — the unicorn — might have its identity conditions realized through the archeological discovery of an equine skeleton with a protruding horn.

None of “Q”‘s objections, to my mind, directly address Kripke’s point. Historical fiction merely borrows the name of a person whose existence is undisputed for use by fictional characters. But once those fictional characters are created, they lose the most important identity condition — actual existence — possessed by the original person. It is little different than hiring an actress to portray Eleanor Roosevelt in a play, whether dealing with real or fictionalized events. The actress doesn’t become Mrs. Roosevelt merely by imitating her or pretending to share her past. Like Barney, she’s just wearing a costume.

I will grant that various difficulties exist in determining whether an invented character remains the “same” from one work of fiction to another. But this only reinforces Kripke’s point. If it’s hard to prove that it’s that the same “Holmes” from one story to another, it’s harder to prove when he’s stepped out of a story and into reality. Again, I think that under Kripke’s premise it’s definitionally impossible for him to make that leap.

As for the realized unicorn, I don’t know that it presents a question far different from that in the Holmes scenario. There might well turn out to be a man who now coincidentally resembles Holmes in many respects, including appearance, dress and profession, but Kripke’s objection to calling him “Holmes” would still apply. That a horned horse has some features commonly used to describe a unicorn does not warrant the use of that term to describe it. I might one day find a cat that is the first and only cat to exactly resemble the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, but I would not be entitled to say it is that cat.

Which brings us to Santa Claus and God. Atheists are fond of the comparison. Believers find it unfair, usually raising a point similar to Kripke’s. Santa is not real because “everyone knows” he’s invented, that by definition he’s a fictional character.

But God? Atheists certainly do argue that particular definitions of God contain contradictions which make His existence impossible, and in that endeavor they are enthusiastically joined by theists seeking to narrow the field down to the God that they proclaim to be the one true one. But this philosophical exercise seems to me different from that involved in discounting Santa. Fictionality is built in to every definition of Santa, his status as a non-existent “character” is presumed of whether the attributes used to describe him form a being consistent with the rules of logic or not. In contrast, the premise of the God debate is not that He is a fictional character, however much it may be the conclusion that His detractors labor to prove.


One Response to “Just to Prove I’m Not Dead”

  1. "Q" the Enchanter
    May 16th, 2007 @ 2:53 pm

    Your idea that Kripkean intuitions may underlie attitudes about the comparison between God and Santa (say) is interesting, and it might be right, but I think your analysis of the issues I was addressing (viz., the merit of the intuitions in question) is vitiated by a fundamental confusion. For example, you seem to want to deny that historical personages can be identified with their nominal counterparts in fictional works (e.g., the Newton of history with, say, the Newton of Quicksilver) because, you say, “once those fictional characters are created, they lose the most important identity condition — actual existence — possessed by the original person.” This argument, however, rests on a fundamental error: Kripke is talking about identity across possible worlds; as such, actuality can’t be an “identity condition” in any relevant sense.

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