Friday, May 30, 2008

Fictional objects

There is more stuff on existence going on at Bill Vallicella's place. This time, 'fictional objects', which I cannot bring myself to take seriously.

The gist of it is, characters such as Bilbo, creatures such as hobbits and imaginary places such as Hobbiton are objects in some sense. And if they are, and given that the fiction is all the information we have about them, these objects must be in some sense incomplete. We are not told what Bilbo's mother was called. So she is incomplete, not having a name. Indeed, we are not told whether Bilbo had a mother at all. So, he is incomplete. And so on.
Now this really is language on holiday. Suppose I write:

In 1998 a planet the size of Jupiter was miraculously created in the orbit between the Earth and Venus.

Does writing this miraculously create a fictional object the size of Jupiter? And does it get created just now, in May 2008, or 10 years ago in 1998, when it was claimed to have been created? Or should we be more prosaic and say that no object was created at all? For it says above that such a planet was created, and, as far as we know, no such planet ever was.

And if we do believe some object has just been created, is it really incomplete in the sense that Vallicella et alia suggest? Isn't it just the reverse? I can go on to make any false statement I like about this planet: it is a gas giant, not a gas giant, has frozen helium at its core, a black hole, whatever. Since any statement 'about' this planet has to be false, it does not matter what I say. All are equally incorrect. For information about x to be truly incomplete, there has to be at least the possibility that there are further true statements that could be made about x, i.e. statements that say that x is so, and where x is in fact so. No such possibility exists in this case. For example I can say

In 1998 a planet the size of Jupiter was miraculously created in the orbit between the Earth and Venus. It was made entirely of iron.

Which simply adds more falsity to what is already there. There is a great temptation to talk like this, and many serious and respectable people do. Perhaps it is enlightening, from the standpoint of human psychology, that they do. But perhaps it ought to be resisted.


Brandon said...

Does writing this miraculously create a fictional object the size of Jupiter?

That's not really what's being claimed, as far as I can see; the question actually should be "Does this describe a fictional miraculously created object the size of Jupiter?"

Edward Ockham said...

A good and Brandonesque objection there, Brandon. Well, the claim seems to be that fictional statements (as opposed to merely false ones) 'bestow' properties on fictional objects. Thus, as I've pointed out elsewhere, fictional statements have to be true. A statement that A is B 'bestows' B upon the fictional A, so A now has B, and the statement 'A is B' is true as a result.

This raises the question of when the fictional A begins to exist. I suppose it could coherently be held that A always existed, because the author was going to write about A, but that doesn't altogether make sense. What if the world were to turn out otherwise? What happens to the fictional object in a possible world where no one wrote about 'it'?

More plausible (plausibility being relative) is that the fictional object is created just as soon as I talk or write about it. It doesn't possess any properties until I 'bestow' them by making the fictional claim. So why shouldn't we suppose that the existence of the object is also bestowed at the point of writing. Another argument for this is that it is absurd for the the object to exist before it has any properties 'bestowed' upon it, so that there exists an object without any properties whatsoever (except perhaps of existence). Another problem is that this view requires existence being a property, so does it possess this property before the author has said that exists, i.e. bestows existence upon it?

I have many more questions like these.