Most people are pretty clear that the laws of physics are real, and that fictional characters are not. But I’m not so sure the distinction is as easy as that.
When people, even people who are students of philosophy, hear the word “metaphysics”, they typically think of ghosts, gods, and souls. This list isn’t wrong, exactly, but it is terribly limited. Using this list as their guide, people reject metaphysics as anti-empirical, and affirm without a trace of irony that “reason” tells them to reject anything not empirically validated. But there’s a lot more to metaphysics than the supernatural – reason itself is a metaphysical construct, a grammar for thinking that has no physical form. Ideas and concepts are metaphysical. Descriptive categories are metaphysical. Mathematical abstraction is metaphysical.
In order to function, we have to at least nominally believe – or pretend to believe – that most of what we can see and measure and know is filtered through some level of metaphysical processing. Otherwise, everything I’ve listed above (and more) could have no existence whatsoever. To a pure physicalist – an eliminative materialist, one who believes that the only things which have ontological status (meaning, whether and how a thing is a substantively real) are those which have extended physical substance. Even such things as the laws of physics could be no more real than fictional characters.
I’m sure that at a first glance, that last sentence seems contradictory; how could a physicalist think that the laws of physics were of the same status as fictional characters?
It boils down to one simple question – what counts as “real”? – and then builds up to a much more complicated question: What is the ontological status of an abstracted mathematical representation of a pattern of observed physical phenomena?
For our purposes, I’ll break it into two questions: 1) In what way can the laws of physics be said to be “real”? and 2) In what way can fictional characters be said to be real? After laying these questions out, I’ll attempt to bring the answers to both questions together.
I turn to Feynman to lay out the first question:
(I) once asked Richard Feynman whether he thought of mathematics and, by extension, the laws of physics as having an independent existence. He replied: The problem of existence is a very interesting and difficult one. if you do mathematics, which is simply working out the consequences of assumptions, you’ll discover for instance a curious thing if you add the cubes of integers. One cubed is one, two cubed is two times two times two, that’s eight, and three cubed is three times three times three, that’s twenty-seven. If you add the cubes of these, one plus eight plus twenty-seven- let’s stop there – that would be thirty-six. And that’s the square of of another number, six, and that number is the sum of those same integers. one plus two plus three…Now, that fact which I’ve just told you about might not have been known to you before. You might say Where is it, what is it, where is it located, what kind of reality does it have?’ And yet you came upon it. When you discover these things, you get the feeling that they were true before you found them. So you get the idea that somehow they existed somewhere, but there’s nowhere for such things. It’s just a feeling…Well, in the case of physics we have double trouble. We come upon these mathematical interrelationships but they apply to the universe, so the problem of where they are is doubly confusing…Those are philosophical questions that I don’t know how to answer.
-Richard Feynman, cited by Paul Davis in ‘The Mind of God’
While I won’t address the question of conceptual permanence, there’s a lot here to work with. The laws of physics are universal theoretical descriptions of the behavior of a class of physical objects. These laws are drawn from observation of particular objects, but are then applicable to all things within that class. For a law to be true, it must not be contradicted by empirical experience, however logically consistent it may otherwise be. Physical laws can take the form of descriptions of homogeneities, definitions of physical phenomena, and approximations which apply generally across classes.
It seems simple enough to say that the laws are real because we can observe them in action – but what we’re observing isn’t the law itself, but individual objects which are behaving in a particular way. The law isn’t tied to these objects, but could also apply to any other object of the same class under the same circumstances. It has existence apart from any particular thing, and as such, can only be known through some kind of representative sign: as a logical pattern demonstrated in words – an object at rest stays at rest unless an external force is applied to it, an object in motion stays in motion unless an external force is applied to, etc, – as a mathematical equation or diagram, or some combination of the two.
No matter how you slice it, a physical law is a function of language, of signs and symbols which anchor concepts that otherwise have no tie to a particular physical object that can be observed. Physical laws can only exists in our minds through a representative model. Numbers have no empirical reality in and of themselves. Categories like “object” don’t exist in any place outside of our minds. Relationship signifiers like “external” have no meaning without rational judgement.
Put this way, the supposedly solid reality of physical laws feels a whole lot less solid. I’m not saying they’re not real, just that they require a more nuanced ontological status than we typically afford them.
The second question – in what way can fictional characters be said to be real – is a little easier to understand, and the answer seems like it should be obvious: its in the very definition of the word “fictional”. “Fiction” conjures up notions of make-believe, imagination, flights of fancy, and in general that which is explicitly not real.
But when you read about a fictional character, you read about something. There is something in your mind that causes you to feel and to think. Fictional characters can say things that change your perspective – they have an existence in your mind and can cause real consequences. Fictional characters can inspire people, shape expectations, fulfill our wishes, transport us to faraway places, and model behaviors. They tell can tell us things about ourselves we didn’t know, teach us how to cope, and make us feel grief and despair. Really feel them.
We have crushes on Mr. Darcy and have nightmares about Nosferatu. We live inside their stories, learn their languages, and even aspire to be like them. Some of us even define ourselves by which characters have the greatest impact on us (as attested to by the wild popularity of the myriad “which character are you?” Buzz Feed quizzes, the popularity of role playing games, and the communities built around fandoms).
The point is, fictional characters have an interaction with reality that makes them a lot more real than they may initially seem. I’m not saying that people are confused about whether or not fictional characters are real, but that even when know that the characters aren’t real in the obvious way, they can play a real role in our minds and in our lives.
The laws of physics and fictional characters are different, to be sure, but not so different as it may seem on the surface. While the laws physics are mental constructs that come from demonstrable patterns in physical reality, fictional characters are mental constructs that can cause things to happen in physical reality. I don’t mean to say anything definitive here about the reality of either of these things, only to call into question the power and simplicity of this things we call “reality”. Numbers and characters are metaphysical, but they’re nevertheless not something to easily dismiss, even though they don’t materially exist somewhere in the universe.
They exist in a space in between phantoms and reality, and we give them credence – even if we don’t tend to believe in anything beyond what we can see and sense.