Does Sherlock Holmes Exist?

Can John admire Sherlock Holmes, even though Sherlock Holmes does not exist?

To ask the question "Can John admire Sherlock Holmes, even though Sherlock Holmes does not exist?" is to ask a question that requires answers at two interrelated levels. One is the nature and definition of "exist", the other is interaction and reaction to different types of existents.

Starting from the position of everyday experience it's easy to see that people do have emotional reactions to fictional characters. All people do this by reading or listening to stories, watching movies, playing video games, seeing plays, etc. We therefore know that there is both a phenomenological experience and reaction to fictional characters. The deeper question pertains to the nature of an object that does not "exist".

If we ask "Does Sherlock Holmes exist?" we get two answers, both yes and no. If we want to obtain the birth record or the government ID of Sherlock Holmes we will not find an authentic version, because he's not a real person, not a real existent. But, we will find fake records, letters, articles written about him, articles written about books about him that contain letters that he wrote. We will find pictures of him, and in those pictures he will have different faces and be different heights and weights. We can find people having discussions about things that Sherlock Holmes did, and what he would do in different situations. We seem to have evidence that he exists from the fact that people act as if he exists.

Acting "as if" is a common human activity. When playing, children naturally act at times as if they're older, younger, someone famous, various professions, animals of all varieties, and maybe even Sherlock Holmes. If a child crawls on the floor and meows is she a cat? If she's not a cat, do cats not exist?

The elements that are needed for roleplaying to be successful are informative about fictional objects. You need a shared reference frame, a shared referent, and content for the referent. A child playing the role of a cat is simple. The shared reference frame is the current situation, the shared referent is the concept of cat, and the content for the referent are the normal attributes and behaviors of cats. These same elements can be expanded to encompass entirely fictional worlds as encountered in many fantasy novel series, completely fictional shared referents ranging from household supplies to vehicles to people to creatures, and content for the referents that include life histories of characters going back for generations, technical blueprints, and the properties of fictional elemental materials.

If we take the view that Sherlock Holmes does not exist then it's an empty referent. Nothing can be said about such a non-existent nothingness. And yet, the referent of Sherlock Holmes has a large set of content. And since something is being referred to, it is certain that a referent with content does in fact exist. That is why a person can admire Sherlock Holmes, or despise him. He is a content filled referent. The nature of a fictional referent is different than a non-fictional referent, but that does not mean that we can deny the existence of such a thing.

A fictional referent is a mental creation. In some cases such a mental creation precedes a physical creation. For instance, if a carpenter wants to carve the leg of a chair into a unique creation, then he must first conceptualize this carving in his mind. A fictional referent does not have to take physical form, although many do. Even in the case of Sherlock Holmes, the character is a creation put into words, then drawings and paintings, then costumed performers, then statues and figurines. The mental creation has taken physical form many times over.

In order to get to this place the fictional referent must first be created. This is done by first abstracting content from other real or fictional objects encountered and experienced. By taking a piece, a part, an attribute, and leaving other things behind. Different abstracted attributes are taken and put together to form a unique creation, often in a single mind. These abstracted attributes act as variables. Elements that can be exchanged, mixed, and adjusted according to the mental capability of the thinker. The context of that variability can be expanded or restricted according to the imagination of the creator.

This conceptual creation has content, has attributes. If a painter has taken the idea of the shape of one flower, the size of another flower, the color of another flower, and combined them, there is a flower that does not exist in the physical world that now does exist as a concept in the mind of the painter. It exists as attributes that have been abstracted and then reified back into a concrete that can now be painted. Once the concept is painted another person can look at it and have an emotional reaction, just as they do to the three other real flowers that the artist was inspired by, but now in a new and unique combination. A private referent has become a shared referent. This creation even has the potential to inspire a biochemist to work on genetically modifying plants to create an organic reality from a mental conceptual creation. That which does not exist can be made to exist, first in concept and then in the world.

This is the same reason that John can admire Sherlock Holmes, because he is real as a conceptual creation. It is important to be able to distinguish the difference between fictional and non-fictional existents. This difference is often communicated by implicit and unexpressed differences in context, which at times it's important to be able to make explicit.

This can be done by making explicit in which context a statement is being applied, because fictional referents can be talked about on both levels. For instance, Sherlock Holmes is an addict means that within the fictional context in which he was created Sherlock Holmes is an addict. This context would not be applied in an instance where the appropriate context is the actual world, e.g. Sherlock Holmes is about a genius detective with a tendency toward addiction. If a contextual statement was added to this, it would simply be to include "In the real world" to the beginning of the statement.

Fictional and non-fictional referents exist. They are different in their natures, but they share the fact of existence. Emotional and value judgment reactions to such creations are both reasonable and natural.



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