creatures of fiction, objects of myth

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  • Creatures of fiction, objects of myth

    JEFFREY GOODMAN

    Many who think that there exist contingent abstracta are fictional creation-ists, asserting that Sherlock Holmes, for example is an abstractum dependenton Doyles authorial activities. Some prominent fictional creationists, notablyBraun (2005), Kripke (1973) and Salmon (1998, 2002), dont stop at fic-tional creationism, but further embrace mythical creationism. They hold thatsome objects (mythical objects) that figure in false theories (or myths) arelikewise abstracta of our production. Paradigm examples here would bephlogiston, the substance once alleged to account for rusting or burning,and Vulcan, the planet proposed by Le Verrier to be the cause of perturb-ations in the orbit of Mercury. I shall here offer an argument for thinking thatone may not reasonably take the route travelled by Braun, Kripke andSalmon. Even if one holds that fictional characters are artefacts, one oughtnot further hold that mythical objects are, too.1

    One argument for realism regarding fictional characters has by nowbecome familiar to many, and the same style of reasoning has been takento further establish the existence of mythical objects.2 Sentences such as

    C: Sherlock Holmes is a character thought up by Conan Doyle.A: Sherlock Holmes appears in the story A Scandal in Bohemia.

    seem straightforwardly true; unlike Holmes smokes a pipe, they are not sen-tences concerning what is ascribed to Holmes in the stories. Now, if the theor-etically most attractive way to provide the semantics of sentences like C and A isto take them at face value, as many contend, then Holmes should be consideredan extant object which exemplifies the properties expressed by the predicatesappearing in those sentences. And a line of reasoning that parallels the one justgiven may be given for mythical objects. All we need to do is simply substitute

    P: Phlogiston is a hypothetical substance proposed by some 18th Centurychemists to explain rusting and burning.

    and

    V: Vulcan is a hypothetical planet proposed by Le Verrier to explainperturbations in the orbit of Mercury.

    Analysis Vol 74 | Number 1 | January 2014 | pp. 3540 doi:10.1093/analys/ant090 The Author 2013. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Analysis Trust.All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com

    1 I dont wish to weigh in here on any realism/anti-realism debate regarding abstracta, nordo I wish to weigh in on any debate regarding the semantics of fictional names or mythical

    names. It is worth noting here, though, that Braun (2005) and Salmon (2002), both

    Vulcan realists, disagree about the semantics of Vulcan.

    2 Many have defended versions of this argument; the locus classicus, however, is VanInwagen (1977).

    cREATURES OF FICTION, OBJECTS OF MYTH | 35

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  • for C and A above. But since Holmes is no flesh and blood crime-solver to be

    found in 19th Century London, and since no inventory of physical substancesincludes either phlogiston or Vulcan, a successful argument for these entities

    plausibly amounts to an argument for abstracta.3

    Nonetheless, even if realism regarding abstract fictional characters and

    mythical objects is warranted, this does not establish fictional creationism or

    mythical creationism. But it is natural to think that Holmes came about be-cause Doyle thought him up, and Vulcan came about because Le Verrierthought it up. Were there no Doyle or Le Verrier, there would be no

    Holmes or Vulcan.4 Of course, the intentions of Doyle and Le Verrier differedin ways that led one to produce a work of fiction and one to produce a scien-

    tific theory. Crucially, the former involved intentions to not to lie but also not

    to tell the truth, while the latter set of intentions crucially involved a desire todescribe reality. And while both Doyle and Le Verrier wound up telling stories

    (in a sense) that were, in toto, false, that was consistent with Doyles aims, notLe Verriers. Nonetheless, mythical creationists say that each had intentionsand performed activities that were sufficient to bring about an abstract object;

    Le Verrier inadvertently brought about Vulcan given his particular sort ofintentions and activities, while Doyle in some sense aimed to create Holmes.5

    3 There is much controversy regarding the success of this style of reasoning. One might

    reject the idea that there are no suitable paraphrases that uncover the real (lack of) onto-logical commitments, as do Sainsbury (2010) and Walton (1990). Or one might reject the

    idea our activities are capable of bringing about abstracta, as do Yagisawa (2001) and

    Brock (2010). This is not the place, however, to defend this sort of argument. For presentpurposes, think of the thesis being defended here as a conditional: If there are compelling

    reasons to be fictional creationists, similar reasons that seemingly lead us to accept myth-

    ical creationism cannot ultimately be good reasons.

    4 These intuitions may, of course, be off the mark, and some other realist theory that entails

    that fictional characters are necessarily existing Platonic abstracta, or Meinongian non-existents to be discovered (or stipulated or cut from whole cloth or what-have-you),

    may be correct. See, e.g. Zalta (1983) and Parsons (1980), respectively.

    5 Here is what Braun has to say in defence of the analogy between fictional creationism and

    mythical creationism:

    The activities that occur during mistaken theorizing, such as Le Verriers, are importantly

    similar to those that occur during storytelling. In both, names are used and predicative

    sentences containing them are formulated. Reasoning and other mental processes occur.Texts that are seemingly susceptible to evaluation for truth are produced. Thus, if story-

    tellers activities create fictional characters, then mistaken theorizers activities create ab-

    stract objects of a similar sort. So I grant that Le Verriers mistaken theorizing creates an

    abstract artefact (2005: 615)

    And here is Salmons line:

    Mythical objects are of the same metaphysical/ontological category as fictional

    characters . . .Myths and fictions are both made up. The principal difference betweenmythical and fictional objects is that the myth is believed while the fiction is only

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  • Against this backdrop, here now is the argument contra mythical

    creationism.6

    (1) If Vulcan is a created abstractum (like Holmes), then Vulcan is created

    by Le Verrier in every possible world where Le Verrier performs rele-

    vantly similar activities to those he actually performed.(2) There is a possible world where Le Verrier performs relevantly similar

    activities to those he actually performed and yet fails to create Vulcan.

    Therefore, its not true that Vulcan is a created abstractum (like Holmes).7

    Here is the support for premise 1. Imagine any possible world that is verymuch like ours, and in particular, imagine those that contain Le Verrier and

    Doyle situated in the same sorts of historical and social contexts in which

    they were actually situated. And imagine that Doyle performs all of the in-tentional, authorial activities in that world that he performed here, and im-

    agine that Le Verrier performs all of the intentional, scientific theorizing in

    that world that he performed here. If Doyles authorial activities succeed increating Holmes here, then those same activities (in the same historical/social)

    context will lead to Holmes creation in the alternate world as well. And

    given her analogy with fictional creationism, it seems as though the mythicalcreationist must say the same thing regarding the creation of Vulcan in such a

    possible world.But now imagine further, that among the relevant set of possible worlds,

    there are those that include the following two additional objects: (i) a flesh

    and blood, supremely clever crime solver (there) called Holmes, one who isfond of cocaine and pipe-smoking and deerstalker caps, one having a war-

    veteran doctor for a friend named Watson and an arch-nemesis named

    Moriarty, etc.; and (ii) a planet (there) called Vulcan by Earthlings (there),one that is located between the Sun and Mercury and is responsible for

    perturbations in the orbit of the latter (etc.). Call any such world an X world.Now, surely we should think that Holmes the created abstractum exists

    at every X world (if he exists in the actual world). And no X worlder meetingthe description in (i) above let us call such an alien individual Shlomes isidentical to Holmes. After all, if fictional creationism is true, then Holmes is

    make-believe. This difference does nothing to obliterate the reality of either fictional or

    mythical objects. (2002: 121, n28)

    6 In formulating this line of reasoning, I owe a huge debt to Phillips (2001). While his

    project is ultimately different from mine he aims to show that the direct reference the-orist may not plausibly identify the referent of Vulcan with a created abstractum much

    of what he says inspired the argument I present here against mythical creationism.

    7 Of course, there is nothing special about the appeal to Vulcan here (just as there was

    nothing special about the choice of Vulcan in the argument for realism above). Thus, if theargument is sound, we have a license to reject mythical creationism in its full generality.

    cREATURES

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