Thursday, May 21, 2009

Is everything that can be imagined real?

A couple of days ago, I went to see the Mythic Beasts special exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. It's a fascinating collection of artifacts and stories from around the world.

Now, I have previously written about beasts like unicorns that (probably) don't exist. What about the unicorn's cousin, Pegasus?
How can we talk about Pegasus? To what does the word 'Pegasus' refer? If our answer is, 'Something,' then we seem to believe in mystical entities; if our answer is, 'nothing', then we seem to talk about nothing and what sense can be made of this? Certainly when we said that Pegasus was a mythological winged horse we make sense, and moreover we speak the truth! If we speak the truth, this must be truth about something. So we cannot be speaking of nothing.
The quote—or perhaps it's a paraphrase—is from the Wikipedia entry for philosopher W.V. Quine. In the philosophy of language, this is known as the problem of empty names, and I stumbled on it yesterday by chance. But it reminded me of a curious quote I'd seen at the entrance to the exhibition:

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Blogger Ketan said...


Nice concept!

Though am not a philosopher, I felt, the Wikipedia article has considered an option too less. More specifically, both the questions--'what does Pegasus refer to?' and 'If we speak the truth, this must be truth about something(?)' can be answered by "hypothesis/piece of imagination/idea".

I've no problems accepting that one could come up with an entirely imaginary entity attributing characteristics (derived from day-to-day observation and maybe exaggerating them) to it such that that entity just doesn't exist.

And as a matter of convenience, we give proper names to the ideas. For instance one could say "hand with six fingers". Here, the ideas of 'hand', 'finger' and the number 'six' are all real, yet such a combination is unusual, but not nonexistent (polydactyly). If I choose to give it the proper name of 'xand', it won't face the same problem as 'Pegasus' with regard to the questions you'd asked above. If someone asks 'how many persons have hands with six digits?', we'll have a tangible and 'real' answer. And one would also be able to answer 'how many xands are there in the universe?'. Let's answer it arbitrarily as 6 millions. The question 'how many xands have ever existed in the Universe?' could also have a countable answer. The answer to the question--'how many Pegasus have ever been in the Universe?' would simply be "zero"! What's the big deal about it? Remember, here both the ideas--'horse' and 'wings' are real (hand, fingers and six), just that a combination of two is not known to exist.

But I'm afraid I might have looked at the question too superficially considering such great philosophers have pondered over it! Do let me know what's flawed in my analysis, or if this was merely your attempt at humor, which I miserably failed to understand. ;)

Take care.

2:35 PM, June 15, 2009  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Hi Ketan,

Thanks for your comment. Though I have sometimes claimed that I'm only joking half the time (but which half?), here I was just pointing out a curiosity.

The Wikipedia entry on empty name provides some help. In particular, "an empty name is a proper name that has no referent". That explains why "Pegasus" is the classic example of an empty name. Pegasus is a specific winged horse. But it's odd to be specific about something that doesn't exist. A proper noun after all is a noun representing a unique entity.

I think that's roughly the argument, although like you, I don't think I fully grasp it! I do like your six-fingered hand example though.

11:19 PM, June 16, 2009  
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