Truth in Fiction: The Problem

I have divided philosophical problems into three categories:


1. Problems that philosophers and other people worry about.

2. Problems that other people worry about, transformed by philosophers into problems that other people basically never worry about.

3. Problems that other people basically never worry about.


Today's topic is squarely in the third category. In this post, I will pose a problem. In the next post, I will go over some solutions that have been proposed.


Sherlock Holmes lives at 221B Baker Street.


I will call this the '221B claim'. Do you think it is true or false?


As often happens in philosophy, it turns out that whatever your answer, you occupy an uncomfortable position.


Say you answer 'false'. There is an appeal to this answer. If you went to 221B Baker Street, you would not find Sherlock Holmes there; he wasn't there in Victorian times, nor will he ever be there. (Even if someone whose legal name was "Sherlock Holmes" were to live at 221B, that wouldn't be the Holmes the 221B claim is about.) 


But consider the 221C claim:


Sherlock Holmes lives at 221C Baker Street


This is clearly false. But if you say the 221B claim is also false, you have given up one way of distinguishing the 221B claim and the 221C claim. We want to say that the 221B claim is better than the 221C claim. Now we cannot say that the 221B claim is better because it is true while the 221C claim is false.


There are other problems with saying that the 221B claim is false. One is that there are clear contexts where you would want to say that it is true, for example, on an English exam, or a game show.


Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, philosophy style. Where does Sherlock Holmes live? B. 221B Baker Street. D. Nowhere -- he doesn't exist.

If philosophers wrote for game shows...


There are many contexts in which we want to make what look to be straightforward assertions about fictional characters, for example, if we are engaged in literary interpretation. So what happens if we say that the 221B claim is true?


There are going to be uncomfortable consequences here, too. It is true that I live in my house. We can point to things in the world that make this claim true: me and my house. But we can't point to Sherlock Holmes or 221B Baker Street. So what is this statement about, and what makes it true? We are reminded of the plausibility of thinking that the 221B claim was false because Sherlock Holmes does not exist. Do we really want to say that he lives somewhere?


Common sense pulls us both ways. We seem to have some good reasons to think the 221B claim is true and good reasons to think that it is false. In my next post, I will review some solutions that have been proposed. Some of them are quite wild!


You may have observed that we manage just fine telling stories and talking about them without a philosophical account of how we do so. This is why philosophical concern with questions in the third category is not one of the first priorities of civilization. But it is a great feature of being human that we get to ponder how things work!


Copyright 2019 by Sam Ruhmkorff

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