‘The Present King of France is Bald’: On Possible Worlds
Leibniz once stated that ‘many stories, especially those called novels, may be regarded as possible, even if they do not take place in this particular sequence of the world which God has chosen.’ That is, God’s world did not include Don Quixote, although it could have done; it only included a certain Cervantes who ‘invented’ him and his adventures – indeed, invented him so vividly that he ‘lives’ on in readers’ heads to the present. Similarly, God’s London did not include Sherlock Holmes or Mrs Dalloway, nor could they have met, say, on Regent Street or in Kensington Gardens – being fictional, they could not have met anyone anywhere, except in the pages of a novel. In Leibnizian terms, it was not in God’s plan to instantiate or actualise Don Quixote or Sherlock Holmes or Mrs Dalloway: they are possible entities only, whereas we ourselves and all the people who have ever lived or will ever live are not only possible but were, are, or will be, also actual.
For Leibniz God was, amongst other things, a sort of master-logician: he chose out of the infinity of possible worlds the one that was best. This was a claim that met an often sceptical response, most famously in Voltaire’s Candide, in which Leibniz was caricatured as Doctor Pangloss. No one but a philosopher could think that we live in the best of all possible worlds – except for a theologian: for it is hard to see why a God who was omniscient, omnipotent, and supremely good would invent a world in which there was unnecessary evil. However, even if Leibniz was orthodox in this sense he was heterodox in another. In line with the science of the day (and, largely, of ours), Leibniz’s universe was a deterministic one: if God had a choice to instantiate the world that he did (and it is hard to see even there that he had much leeway, given the need to maximise goodness), once he had made that choice, it is even harder to see that there is any choice for us.
That is, once God has selected this world as the best, and instantiated it, there is no room for manoeuvre: everything in it is already chosen. In what Leibniz calls the ‘complete concept’ of myself is everything that I have done or will do, and this was inherent in the world from the beginning. This runs counter to our intuitions: we like to think that we could have turned left, not right, or taken another path, that our lives could have been otherwise than they are. Robert Frost famously took the road ‘less travelled by, / And that has made all the difference’. Not so, for Leibniz: Frost had no option but to take the road he did. So is it for everyone. On the Leibnizian view I could not have turned left that day or taken another path, because according to the complete concept of Roger Caldwell (which can only exist in the mind of God) it was necessary to the plan of this world that I should have turned right that day and taken this path and not another. The possibility of my doing otherwise exists only as a possibility – a possibility, however, that could not have been actualised in this world but only in another of the infinity of possible worlds. In other possible worlds I did turn left that day: in other possible worlds are counterparts of myself who did or will do things I never did or will do in this world. It is also in other possible worlds that Don Quixote and Mrs Dalloway and Sherlock Holmes and all those others live who are fictions in this world but actualities in their own.
Philosophers, from the Greeks onwards, have often found problems in explaining how we can speak of fictional entities – as Parmenides puts it, ‘For you may not know what-is-not – there is no end to it – nor may you tell of it’. To speak of something comprehensibly is in some sense to bring it into existence, if only an imaginary or conceptual one. Thus philosophers such as Meinong are sometimes led to embrace extravagant ontologies in which all sorts of entities from golden mountains to chimeras to the square root of minus one somehow bizarrely coexist in this world along with more familiar objects. Bertrand Russell hoped in his theory of descriptions to avoid such a plethora of unnecessary entities. Famously, he gave a logical analysis of the proposition, ‘The present king of France is bald’. Now, this seems a meaningful proposition, is unambiguous in what it says, but it remains puzzling: in the absence of a present king of France can it be said to be true or false? For Bertrand Russell it was false, because, on his analysis, the statement claims that there is at least one thing that is the present king of France, that there is at most one thing that is the present king of France, and that that thing is bald. The statement is therefore false, because it fails to refer: in our world there is no present king of France. But, of course, its contradiction is also false: it is likewise not the case that the present king of France has a good head of hair. He is in no position to fit either option as he does not exist – at least not in our world.
In fiction, of course, things are different. In a fictional world – say in a novel in which the French Revolution never occurred (one that Roger Scruton might like) – there may well be a present king of France, and he may be bald, or he may have a good head of hair. Perhaps an important part of the plot may depend on the issue. But it may likewise be the case that nothing turns on the issue, so that we are not informed one way or the other, in which case the issue is undecidable: the statement that ‘The present king of France is bald’ has a fictional referent, but his baldness doesn’t; again the statement is meaningful but is neither true nor false. Fictional worlds are not completely filled, like ours, in which every hair on our head is counted, but gappy, partial: in these worlds Hamlet is neither left- nor right-handed, Lady Macbeth has an indefinite number of children, and Mrs Dalloway might or might not like oysters. In their respective fictional worlds these are matters of no importance.
What, then, is of importance? If so much is indeterminate, what is essential to a fictional character, and what is accidental? We are told that Sherlock Holmes plays the violin and that he takes tobacco from a Persian slipper. Is a Sherlock Holmes who does neither still Sherlock Holmes? In fact, it seems that neither characteristic is essential – we
Roger Caldwell: ‘The Present King of France is Bald’: On Possible Worlds