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The Paradox of Existence: Part II


The Paradox of Existence: Part II


Existence claims stand as some of the most fascinating and interesting claims people make on a daily basis. For instance, we often talk about what a character did on a TV show or a movie and other people, perhaps our friends, assess whether our claims about that character are true or false. But how can any claims about something fictitious be false? I could say something like, “Santa Claus is a skinny French guy,” but most people would say that is false because Santa Claus is a fat guy who lives in the North Pole. However, Santa Claus does not exist. How can something that does not exist instantiate any properties? In essence, then, the question comes down to the content of existence claims.

Since this is Part II of an ongoing discussion, let’s recap our progress from Part I. In the last entry, we discussed two ways that we might try to make sense of the meaning of a similar fictional claim: more specifically, we assessed a claim made by Kaizer, a character on an MMO. If you remember, Kaizer made the claim, “I exist only on the Internet.” If we interpret his claim to be that he is, in fact, exclusively an Internet personality, then that does not jive with other evidence we have about Kaizer the person who created the character Kaizer. If we ask what the “I” in Kaizer’s claim refers to, we find that the claim seems even more puzzling because the “I” does not make sense for the character or the person who created the character. So, what does Kaizer’s claim mean? Does Kaizer the character have an ontological status? In order to attempt an answer to these questions, we should examine the approach of Bertrand Russell, a 20th century philosopher, for understanding non-existence claims.


Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell


Russell’s “Propositional Functions”


In order to solve the mysterious puzzles of claims such as “The King of France is bald” or “Santa Claus does not exist,” Russell developed a theory of propositional functions. These propositional functions can only be understood by unpacking Russell’s somewhat special theory of denoting and denoting phrases. By a “denoting phrase,” Russell meant, “a phrase such as any one of the following: a man, some man, any man, every man, all men, the present King of England, the present King of France, the centre of mass of the Solar System at the first instant of the twentieth century, the revolution of the earth round the sun, the revolution of the sun round the earth” (873). We could also fit our two “characters” into Russell’s definition of a denoting phrase, that is, Kaizer-the-character and Kaizer-the-person-who-created-the-character-Kaizer. But notice that these “denoting phrases” really have no form. In other words, they are just phrases. However, as many of us have discovered painfully at some point in time, if you put phrases in different contexts, the meanings change considerably. For this reason, Russell also distinguished between three cases or “contexts” for denoting phrases: “(1) A phrase may be denoting, and yet not denote anything (e.g. ‘the present King of France’); (2) A phrase may denote one definite object (e.g., ‘the present King of England’ denotes a certain man); (3) A phrase may denote ambiguously (e.g., ‘a man’ denotes not many men, but an ambiguous man)” (873).

But how do we actually assess claims with denoting phrases? This is where Russell’s propositional functions come into play. Because Russell thought that so many philosophers had misunderstood the way language actually works and, as a result, developed incorrect methods for analyzing denotations, he sought to reduce sentences (or claims) to an algebraic formula like “ ‘C(x)’ is true” or “ ‘C(x)’ is false.”[1] Basically, “C(x)” represents the propositional function in which “x is a constituent, where x, the variable, is essentially and wholly undetermined” (874). Note, though, that Russell thought “denoting phrases never have any meaning in themselves, but that every proposition in whose verbal expression they occur has a meaning” (874). (Or, more simply, the phrase itself has no meaning, but the sentence, as a whole, does. Note that only the entire sentence, i.e. proposition, has meaning for Russell.)

So, according to Russell, if we want to understand Kaizer’s claim, we have to strip Kaizer’s claim of all the vagaries of daily language and analyze it somewhat like an algebraic formula.


Applying Russell’s Theory


In order to apply Russell’s theory to our major dilemma with Kaizer’s claim, we must first figure out whether or not his claim contains a denoting phrase. Since his claim is essentially an autobiographical claim (i.e. a claim about himself from his perspective), it might not seem like there is one. However, “I” is a referent in the claim “I exist only on the Internet.” The trick to this claim, as we discussed in the last entry, is determining what, if anything, the “I” refers to here. However, for the purposes of Russell’s theory, this issue is irrelevant. Remember, a phrase doesn’t have to actually refer to anything in order to count as a denoting phrase. For example, we can say, “The present king of France is bald,” but the denoting phrase “the present king of France” literally refers to nothing—because there is no such thing as “the present king of France.” So, we need to take Kaizer’s claims through a series of analyses in order to uncover which “paradigm” (i.e. “ ‘C(x)’ is true” or “ ‘C(x)’ is false”) it fits into.

Following Russell’s proposed methodology, we should translate “I exist only on the Internet” to an algebraic representation like, “There is an x such that x interacts, in some form, with the MMO, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, and x appears on the Internet and anything that interacts in some form with the MMO, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, and appears on the Internet is identical to x.” Now, as you can see, that small claim (that is, “I exist only on the Internet”) became rather long and exhausting to read in Russell’s analyzed version. This is a general difficulty with propositional analysis-based approaches. Also, notice that the word “exists” never appears in the analyzed version of the claim. The fact that the analyzed version makes no declarations of existence in any way will be very important for how we assess the truth conditions of it.[2]

The next step, since this is a claim about a fictional entity, is to say, “It is not the case that there is an x such that it interacts, in some form, with the MMO, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, and appears on the Internet.” However, it actually is the case that there is an x such that it interacts, in some form, with our MMO, etc. (you get the gist). Now, you might say that the original specifications for the analysis (i.e. the “such that it interacts, in some form, with the MMO”—blah blah) is at fault here, that, if we tried something else, we would find that this claim works just like Russell wanted fictional claims to work. But it seems that any way we frame the analyzed version it will have to refer to some quality or property of Kaizer the character—and there will always be something in our world such that x is Kaizer the character. After all, unlike a character in a novel or an actor in a movie, some person created Kaizer the character and played a direct role in crafting his appearance, fighting style, and “personality” (to be interpreted loosely)—and many other players see Kaizer the character and interact with him as well. In a sense, the “world” of video games seems to be like a subset of our world.

Now, we might try to avoid this problem by saying, “Ok. Perhaps, in a sense, there is a ‘world’ to video games, but that world is completely artificial. It is not physical in any real sense: it is composed of lines of codes and graphics engines that render it to look like a possibly physical environment.” While this is probably undeniably true, we are still admitting that Kaizer the character has an existence of some form. So, perhaps we will have to consider another approach to this dilemma in order to make complete progress. Russell provided us with an initial insight—that perhaps the claim has no meaning on its own and that the “world” of video games is less physical than ours—but we still need a way to either cut out the possibility of Kaizer the character having an ontological status or we should just ascribe some sort of ontological status to Kaizer the character. So, in the next and final entry, we will attempt to resolve the last issue surrounding claims made about fictional characters.



Works Cited


Russell, Bertrand, (1905). “On Denoting,” Mind,114:456 (2005), 873-887.

Zettel Film Reviewer. Bertrand Russell Portrait. Photograph. http://www.zettelfilmreviews.co.uk/2011/12/a-liberal-decalogue-bertrand-russell-not-to-replace-the-old-one-to-supplement-it/


[1] For Russell, the idea of variables being integral parts of our conversations were a fundamental truth.

[2] Now, the actual “analyzed version” of this claim could be rendered in several ways; however, since I did not want to presuppose any sort of ontological commitment to Kaizer, I went with “interacts, in some form, with the MMO, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn,” but the specific details of this first portion are not the incredibly crucial part of the analysis. After all, Russell himself claimed that we may never reach the fully analyzed version of any proposition, but the fact that, in principle, it is possible to analyze propositions to a functional form shows that the theory marks progress in our understanding of denotations.


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