Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Existential Conservatism

Tanas objects: “Not sure I understand what existential conservativism would amount to. Wouldn't you agree that there is a detective in A.C.Doyle' stories?”. Agreed. A classic problem for theories of fiction, particularly ‘existentially conservative’ ones, is to explain how there can be true statements such as ‘Sherlock Holmes was a detective’.

But I should clarify what I mean by ‘existential conservatism’. Suppose someone says ‘Louis XIV had an adviser called D’Artagnan’. Without qualification, that is false. As far as we know, that French King had no such advisor. It is true that, in his "Muskeeters" stories, the novelist Dumas says the French King had such an adviser. And we say that ‘In the stories, Louis had an adviser called D’Artagnan’, or ‘According to Dumas &c’. I'm sure everyone agrees that the fictional statement is not true in an unqualified sense, and requires some qualifying statement such as ‘according to …’ or ‘in the story …’

So we agree up to this point. We disagree, I imagine, on the explanation of these qualifying statements. According to the conservative, the logical form of ‘According to S, p’ is ‘S says that p’. This can be true, even though p is false, for we are truly reporting that someone (or some story says) that p, not reporting that p itself. Thus ‘Sherlock Holmes is a detective’ is false without qualification. In a qualified sense, i.e. as meaning ‘According to the Holmes stories, Holmes is a detective’ it is true. Similarly ‘There are such things as hobbits’ is false, without further qualification. Taken as meaning ‘In Tolkien’s world’, or ‘According to Tolkien’ it is true.

According to existential liberals, on the other hand, the qualifying phrase directs us to a story-world or fictional universe, which really exists, in some sense, and which the story is truly about. Thus ‘there are hobbits in Tolkien’s world’ says of a really existing, but parallel fictional world described by Tolkien, a race of creatures called hobbits exist.

Who is right? According to the conservative, there is no argument evidence or evidence to support the existence of fictional worlds or fictional creatures or people, beyond the need of explaining the truth of statements like ‘Hobbits have furry feet’ or ‘Holmes was a detective’. But given we can explain the truth of such statements in terms of ‘S says that p’, which does not require the positing of an extra universe of things, we should prefer the more conservative explanation, which does not multiply things according to the multiplicity of terms. Or so the original Ockham would have argued.

[edit] By extraordinary coincidence, if it is that, Peter Smith is dealing with a very similar issue here.


David Brightly said...

I certainly wouldn't want to postulate parallel universes full of fictional characters. On the other hand, the 'S says that p' theory, though not wrong, hardly goes very deep, being little more than quotation. In particular, from 'S says that Pa' and '(S says that) Px-->Qx' we can't conclude 'S says that Qa', even though an author, especially one of detective fiction, fully expects us to help ourselves to the conclusion that Qa holds within his fictional world.

It seems to me that fictional characters and stories, symphonies, computer algorithms, architectural designs, and myriad other intellectual products do have a real existence as patterns in the minds of those who have been exposed to the concrete objects---novels, CDs, programs, drawings, and so on, which encode them. If you and I have read and absorbed some Holmes stories then there will be 'roughly isomorphic' patterns in our minds that we might as well label 'Holmes'. This seems close to what the earlier Ockham is saying about 'affections of the soul'. The problem is then to find a good way of talking and arguing about these 'objects', since classical logic doesn't seem adequate to the job. One possible way ahead is described here. I'd be interested to hear what you make of this work.

Edward Ockham said...

To avoid any confusion, the propositions in the story itself are not wrapped around by any operator, and so they are false. The 'according to' operator is brought in to explain how some of the statements we make about the story are true.


Bilbo has small feet
Bilbo is a hobbit
:. some hobbit has small feet

is valid (though, obviously, unsound).

Your point that fictional characters have some sort of existence in the mind is an old one, and the reply (Scotus, Ockham, Mill, Frege, Quine) is also old: "the idea of Sherlock Holmes" refers not to a detective, but to an idea. As for 'Sherlock Holmes', it refers to nothing.

On the Mally, he is a Satanic figure to us thins!

Vlastimil Vohánka said...

O and David,

W. L. Craig has an older and great post on abstract and fictional objects here: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5985

Edward Ockham said...

Thank you for the link to Craig, VV. This deserves more attention than I have space for here.