Moogles, and Chocobos, and…Kripke? Oh My!

Some Basic Issues in Contemporary Philosophy of Language, Kupo!

Richard Brown

 

 

Everyone knows that moogles are disgustingly cute. I know people who would kill to be able to have one in real life, but could there really be moogles? Say, for instance, that archeologists discovered a species of animal in some remote land that completely resembled the chocobo in every way.  Would that count as discovering that the beloved Final Fantasy creatures were real? Even if we don’t make such a discovery are chocobos and moogles metaphysically possible? That is, can we coherently imagine a situation which would count as one which contained moogles? The answer to these questions depends, surprisingly, on what the meaning of ‘moogle’ and ‘chocobo’ is; or so many contemporary philosophers of language think. In particular one contemporary philosopher, Saul Kripke (1940- ), has argued that the answer to both of these questions is a resounding no. In order to understand why he thinks this and whether he is right we’ll have to begin by looking at the debate philosophers have had over the meaning of names.

 

Meaning and Reference

“So you believe a given name has a meaning?

Boy, you have been bewitched by the light of the blue moon.”

–Garland Final Fantasy IX

 

The philosophy of language is part of a larger cross-disciplinary science of semantics –broadly speaking, the study of meaning –that is composed of philosophers, linguists, and psychologists.  One of the basic questions in semantics is that of how it is that some marks on a piece of paper, or some vibrations in the air, could have meaning at all. Philosophers in the early 20th century were especially interested in names, like ‘Sephiroth’, ‘Cloud Strife’, and ‘Professor Hojo’, so-called natural kind terms like ‘mako’, ‘materia’, ’chocobo’, etc, and definite descriptions like ‘the hero of Final Fantasy VII, ‘the person who wrote this article’, and ‘the discover of the Jenova Reunion Theory’’. These descriptions are ‘definite’ because they pick out one unique object. These are contrasted with indefinite descriptions like ‘a student of Plato’s’, ‘a person who wrote an article’, and ‘a great analytic philosopher’, which pick out or apply to many individuals. Though there is a lot of disagreement in this area it is natural to try to make a distinction between the meaning of a word or phrase and the word or phrase’s reference.  The meaning of the word was thought to be something like a description that allowed you to pick out some object (or set of objects) in the world (the reference).  So, for example, the word ‘cat’ is defined in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as ‘a carnivorous mammal (Felis catus) long domesticated as a pet and for catching rats and mice’. This allows us to determine the reference of the word; the set of cats. 

One early idea about names, held by John Stewart Mill (1806-1873) and which has come to be known as the direct reference theory, was that they were meaningless tags used only to refer to some object. Names, according to Mill, do not have meanings. They are simply devices for calling to mind the person who we want to talk about. One way to make this point is by pointing out that whatever meaning that the word(s) used as a name have independently does not determine the reference of the name.  For example, consider Main St. in New York City. It is not the main street in New York, though it probably was when they named it. Now it is a rather small side street downtown. But this does not mean that we have to change the name of the street. We can call it ‘Main Street’ whether it is or isn’t the main street in New York. We simply use that phrase as a way to talk about a certain street. So also ‘Richard’ may technically mean ‘strong ruler’ but you can use it to talk about me whether or not I am correctly described as a strong ruler or not. This common sense idea is sometimes called the direct reference theory of names. The meaning of a name simply is the reference of the name. For instance the meaning of ‘Aristotle’ is Aristotle the person. This is why the term ‘tag’ is appropriate. A name for Mill is like the nametag on a display.

Direct reference runs into problems rather quickly. In particular there are four traditional problems. First, if all there is to a name is the individual that it picks out then what are we supposed to say about names that don’t pick anything out? ‘Sephiroth wants to destroy Gaia’ seems like a perfectly meaningful sentence but given that there is no person in the world that wears the ‘Sephiroth’ nametag what are we supposed to say about the name? Is it nonsense? Does that make the sentence that the name occurs in true? False? Neither? This is the puzzle of empty names.  Secondly, suppose that I wanted to tell you that Sephiroth doesn’t exist. I should probably do so by saying ‘Sephiroth doesn’t exist’. According to Mill and others who hold the direct reference theory of names, the name ‘Sephiroth’ is supposed to be a meaningless tag we use to talk about or call to mind a certain individual but in this case there is no individual that bears this tag. So it appears that the sentence is either nonsense, which is odd since it seems meaningful, or we are committed to saying that there is a Sephiroth that the name tags after all and so the sentence is false, in which case we can’t even say that Sephiroth doesn’t exist without him existing! This is known as the puzzle of negative existential statements.

The other two puzzles come from thinking about different names that pick out the same individual. Suppose that we found out that Sephiroth and Cloud Strife were really the same person. Now in this imagined scenario ‘Sephiroth’ and ‘Cloud Strife’ tag the same (fictional) person.  But now consider the two following statements; ‘Sephiroth is Sephiroth’ and ‘Sephiroth is Cloud Strife’. The first is obviously true, but the second, if true, would be very surprising. This seems to be telling us something which ‘Sephiroth is Sephiroth’ doesn’t. But then there is a problem. According to Mill and those like him these two sentences have the same meaning since they both pick out the same (fictional) person (in our imagined scenario).  This is known as the puzzle of informative identity statements. Finally, consider the following sentences: ‘Sephiroth is hell-bent on destroying Gaia’ and ‘Cloud Strife is hell-bent on destroying Gaia’. Given our imagined scenario where ‘Sephiroth’ and ‘Cloud Strife’ name the same (fictional) person these two sentences are about the same person and in effect say the same thing. But I may believe ‘Sephiroth is hell-bent on destroying Gaia’ and disbelieve ‘Cloud Strife is hell-bent on destroying Gaia’. But how can the direct reference people explain these differing beliefs? This is known as the puzzle about belief reports.

Puzzles like these led philosophers like Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), and John Searle (1932- ), among others, to argue that we needed to postulate a meaning component for names in addition to their reference. The meaning of a name, called the ‘sense’ of the name by Frege, was thought to be a definite description (or group of descriptions according to some like Searle) that the speaker associated with the name and which allowed the speaker to uniquely identify the referent of the name.  For example, the name ‘Sephiroth’ might mean something like ‘the villain in Final Fantasy VII’ and ‘Cloud Strife’ might mean something like ‘the hero in Final Fantasy VII’. This allows us to solve the four puzzles that confronted the direct reference people.  

‘Sephiroth’ is not meaningless and the sentence ‘Sephiroth wants to destroy Gaia’ is perfectly meaningful and true. It really means ‘The villain of Final Fantasy VII wants to destroy Gaia’ and that is true simply because the story says that it is.  The puzzle about negative existential statements is solved, because the sentence ‘Sephiroth does not exist’ is really shorthand for ‘The villain in Final Fantasy VII does not exist’ and this just says that there is nothing in the world which can correctly be described as the villain in Final Fantasy VII; there is no puzzle about how it could be true or false even if there is no such entity. The puzzle about informative identities is also solved, because ‘Sephiroth is Sephiroth’ really means ‘The villain in Final Fantasy VII is the villain in Final Fantasy VII’ and ‘Sephiroth is Cloud Strife’ really means ‘The villain in Final Fantasy VII is the hero in Final Fantasy VII’. Now we can see why ‘Sephiroth is Sephiroth’ was uninformative but ‘Sephiroth is Cloud Strife’ was very informative even though they really are about the same (fictional) person (in our imagined scenario). And finally, the same response can be made with respect to problematic belief reports: my belief that ‘Sephiroth is hell-bent on destroying Gaia’ and my belief that ‘Cloud Strife is hell-bent on destroying Gaia’, become my belief that ‘the villain in Final Fantasy VII is hell-bent on destroying Gaia’ and my belief that ‘the hero in Final Fantasy VII is hell-bent on destroying Gaia’, respectively. My not knowing that ‘Sephiroth is Cloud Strife’ was true would explain why my belief that ‘the villain in Final Fantasy VII is hell-bent on destroying Gaia’ was true while my belief that ‘the hero in Final Fantasy VII is hell-bent on destroying Gaia’ was false.

The description theory of names looks very promising. It solves the traditional puzzles about names and has a certain common sense appeal. This view about names dominated philosophy until the late 1960’s/early 1970’s when it came to light that the description theory has problems of its own. In the next section we will examine the attack on the description theory and the resulting ‘new theory of reference’ that takes its place. This will allow us to finally address the question of whether moogles and chocobos are really possible or not.

Description Theories?!?!? You Impertinent Fools.

I, Kripke, will Knock them all Down!

 

It is a bit of a misnomer to describe the attack as “Kripke’s” since there were others who hit on it at around the same time but the movement has become largely associated with Kripke, due in large part to a single publication –Naming and Necessity— which is a transcript of a series of lectures he gave at Princeton University in 1972. The attack on description theories changed the face of analytic philosophy dramatically. The basic point that Kripke wants to make is simple. Suppose that you were having a conversation about Final Fantasy VII with someone who is not a big fan of the game, or of the series. More specifically, let’s say that you are trying to explain the plot of the game to this person. You would begin by talking about Cloud Strife and Sephiroth and the battle between them. Sephiroth actually turns out to be the result of Professor Hojo’s work on the Jenova Project. Later in the game we find out that Professor Hojo develops a theory he calls the Jenova Reunion Theory, which hypothesizes that a creature injected with Jenova cells will be drawn to the place where the reunion has been set. This is ultimately the reason why Cloud ends up where he does. He thinks he has been chasing Sephiroth but he has actually been drawn there. To see Kripke’s point, let us take some liberties with the plot. Suppose that it turns out that Professor Hojo did not actually come up with the Jenova Reunion Theory. Perhaps it was an unknown scientist working on the Jenova Project who comes up with it. Let’s call this person John Smith. Now, let’s say that Professor Hojo sees it, steals it and kills John Smith so that he (Hojo) can take all the credit. Now, none of this actually happened. The point is that when you tell your friend that Professor Hojo came up with the reunion theory you are referring to Professor Hojo and not to John Smith even if this scenario were true. That is, even though John Smith is actually picked out by the description ‘the originator of the Jenova Reunion Theory’ (in our imagined scenario) you do not refer to John Smith when you use the name ‘Professor Hojo’. You refer to Hojo in spite of the fact that the description you associate with the name does not really describe him (in our imagined scenerio).

This is Kripke’s argument from error. The descriptions that we associate with a name may be wrong and not apply to the person that we are referring to but even so we are able to refer to the person.  This shows that the descriptions we associate with a name cannot alone determine the reference of the name (as was held by the description theory of names).[1] On top of this problem of error he also gives an argument from ignorance. Suppose that your friend, after your discussion, remembers that Professor Hojo discovers something in Final Fantasy VII but mistakenly thinks that Hojo is the one who discovers Jenova and mistakenly thinks that she is Cetra. Remember, this is supposed to be all that your friend knows about Professor Hojo. He simply associates the description ‘the discoverer of Jenova’ with the name ‘Professor Hojo’. Yet when your friend uses the name ‘Professor Hojo’ it is hard to believe that your friend is really referring to Professor Gast (who is the person who actually discovers Jenova). These kinds of cases seem to show that the descriptions we associate with names may radically miss-describe the person we are referring to and so fail at determining the reference of a name. An associated description is neither necessary nor sufficient to determine the reference of a name. This suggests that the reference of the name is fixed in some other way which casts doubt on descriptions being plausible candidate for the meaning of names. A meaning is supposed to determine reference and descriptions are unable to do that.

Kripke offers two more arguments aimed at showing that we get very strange results when we think of names as descriptions. To see this we have to think about what are called counter-factual situations. We did this a little already when we imagined that Professor Hojo did not really come up with the Jenova Reunion Theory and that Sephiroth was really Cloud Strife.  But consider the following sentences; ‘Professor Hojo is Professor Hojo’ and ‘Professor Hojo is the originator of the Jenova Reunion Theory’. Both of these sentences are true as far as we know but they seem to behave very differently when we consider counter-factual situations. For instance, it certainly seems possible that Professor Hojo, the person who is portrayed as an evil scientist, could have done something else with his life that did not include science at all. Perhaps he instead became interested in administrative work and became the Dean of a college or perhaps his life took a very different path and he became a short-order cook at a diner, or an airship pilot. Now in such an imagined scenario ‘Professor Hojo is Professor Hojo’ would still be true. It is the same person we are imagining as before who has chosen this different path (in our imagined scenario). But ‘Professor Hojo is the originator of the Jenova Reunion Theory’ would be false in this imagined scenario. Some other person would be the evil scientist in our imagined scenario and surely that person is not Professor Hojo; as we are imagining that he does something else. Since these sentences have different truth conditions they cannot have the same meaning. But according to the description theory they should have the same meaning.

            In response to these problems, Kripke introduces the concepts of rigid designators and a causal-historical account of names. He calls something a rigid designator if the thing in question picks out the same object in any imagined scenario. The argument against description theories is then that names are rigid designators while descriptions are not. A name will pick out the same person in every imagined scenario. ‘Professor Hojo’ picks out the same person whether we imagine that person as a banker, an evil scientist, or something else.  But who a description picks out will vary from imagined scenario to imagined scenario. For instance ‘the originator of the Jenova Reunion Theory actually picks out Professor Hojo but we can imagine a world where someone other than professor Hojo was the originator of this theory. In that imagined world the description picks out that person and not Hojo.  

In place of the description theory Kripke offers the causal-historical picture of names.  The basic idea is very simple. There is an object in the world and someone wants to name it. They perform an initial ‘baptism’ by announcing that they will call the thing ‘Professor Hojo’. They then use ‘Professor Hojo’ as a way to talk about the object. Other people acquire the ability to talk about the object by using ‘Professor Hojo’ intentionally in the same way as the others. So, I can talk about Professor Hojo, the actual character, even though I have never played the game. The reason I am able to do this, on Kripke’s view, is because the name ‘Professor Hojo’ has been passed down to me from people who interacted with the actual character. Names on this theory refer to the thing that the causal chain ‘grounds out’ in. For ‘Professor Hojo’ it is the originator of the Jenova Reunion Theory and the creator of Sephiroth. Descriptions are not rigid designators. Who they pick out doesn’t depend on a causal-historical link to the world, but rather on how the world is described.

What about the meaning of names? Is Kripke’s picture just a modern version of the direct reference theory advocated by Mill? Not necessarily. Kripke suggests that the meaning of a name is the particular causal-historical route that a particular name traces.  Suppose that there are two very different causal-historical chains leading back to the same individual, such as the causal-historical chains for ‘Sephiroth’ in New York and Los Angeles. The name spreads through these language communities in different ways; they each have very different links in their chains and so have different meanings. Yet ultimately these links all trace back to the same (fictional) person and so they all have the same reference. So the causal-historical picture need not be a direct reference theory like Mill’s, but it can postulate a meaning for names. Their meanings are their specific causal-historical chains.

The Impossibility of Chocobos and Moogles

“Oh! Cloud! You're hair looks like a Chocobo!”

- Tifa Final Fantasy VII

So what does any of this have to do with whether or not I can ride a chocobo to work or not? Well, one of the things that Kripke and others did was to emphasize the similarities between the way that names behaved and the way that natural kind terms behaved. So, take words like ‘tiger’.  The meaning of this word cannot simply be some description like ‘yellow striped carnivorous mammal’ for the same reasons as given against such a theory for the meaning of names. We might find out that what we call tigers are not really described by our current definitional description but what we refer to when we say ‘tiger’ would still be the same group of objects.  We can also imagine the opposite. That is, we can imagine that there are some animals that look very different from the way that tigers around here look. But we could, after looking at their DNA, discover that they really were tigers. So no description seems to fix the reference of this word and so doesn’t give us the meaning of the word ‘tiger’. Rather it looks like we have tagged a species with the name ‘tiger’ and these kinds of words refer to the stuff which was initially baptized.

Hillary Putnam (1926- ) introduced an interesting way to see the point.[2] Imagine a place called Twin Gaia, which is a place exactly like Gaia in almost all respects. If the average citizen of Gaia were kidnapped and taken to Twin Gaia without knowing it they would not be able to tell the difference. Things there look and work exactly as they do on Gaia. There is a difference though. On Gaia we know that materia is compressed mako. As every fan of Final Fantasy VII knows mako is a liquid form of ‘spirit energy’ composed of the souls and memories of deceased persons. On Twin Gaia they have stuff that they call ‘materia’ and this stuff that they call materia looks just like the stuff called material on Gaia. It fulfills exactly the same function as materia on Gaia does. It comes in different colors, can be used to enhance the powers of weapons, and cast spells, except that this stuff isn’t made out of compressed mako. It’s made from something completely different, say a radioactive substance that is a completely non-spiritual and has nothing to do with the life force of the planet. Let’s call this stuff ‘fako’. So the stuff that is called materia on Twin Gaia is composed of compressed fako not mako. The question then is, “is there materia on Twin Gaia?’. Putnam argued that the answer was ‘no’. The word on Gaia has its meaning determined by the kind of stuff (a natural kind) originally picked out when it was named, and that stuff was compressed mako. So on Gaia, ’materia’ picks out compressed mako and not compressed fako. Given these arguments there seems to be a close affinity between natural kind terms and names with respect to rigid designation.

Now consider ‘chocobo’. This is a natural kind term like ‘tiger’. It is supposed to name a species of animal, albeit a fictional species.  If the description theory were correct then finding an animal that exactly matched the description of the chocobo would be finding a chocobo. But as we have seen this theory has problems. So what does the causal-historical picture say? Well, what does this word trace back to? There are no actual chocobos. This fictional animal was invented by a designer (Koichi Ishii) and so the word traces back to a creative act of an individual. This means that chocobos are essentially fictional. Suppose that we discovered an animal that matched the description of chocobos perfectly. We can even imagine that they come in different colors and that they behave in exactly the way that they are described in Final Fantasy.  Kripke argues that this is not evidence that chocobos are real. Fool’s Gold perfectly resembles real gold but isn’t real gold. We know this because we know that having a certain atomic number is essential for something to be gold. But in the case of chocobos we do not know enough about the species to know if this newly discovered animal really is a chocobo or not.  It could be a “fool’s chocobo” for all we know.

Kripke makes the stronger claim that no situation that we imagine can be correctly described as one where chocobos are other than fictional. Imagine a world where there are animals that look just like chocobos and there are creatures that look just like moogles. Is this a world where chocobos and moogles exist? How could we tell? There is no way for us to tell what the internal makeup of chocobos is or whether moogles are reptiles or mammals unless it is explicitly built into the fictional story.  So we may be imagining “Fool’s moogles”; things which look like moogles are described but that do not have the same essential trait. There is no way for us to tell and so no way for us to correctly imagine these creatures. The same is true for fictional names. Since ‘Sephiroth’ is grounded in a creative act of Tetsuya Nomura, Sephiroth is essentially fictional. But if it turns out that Sephiroth was not based on a purely creative act of Tetsuya Nomura but was, let’s say, the real name of a real mythic person (from before Time began) and that Tetsuya had discovered some ancient documents detailing the adventures of Sephiroth and Cloud Strife then those names would refer to those actual people. So whether or not chocobos are real or Sephiroth exists depend on where the causal chain ends.[3] [4]     

What this means is that not every work of fiction is really possible. For instance, if I were to write a book about a boy who is transported to a world where chocobos exist and Sephiroth wants to exterminate all of them, I would be writing something which was strictly speaking impossible. This is because, as we have seen, chocobos are essentially fictional and so cannot actually exist. This has some interesting implications. We are not always imagining what we think we are.  We may think that we are imagining a counter-factual situation where chocobos exist but we are really imagining a situation where there are things that look like chocobos are said to look but aren’t really chocobos (since we are imagining that they are real and not fictional).

            One last point made by Kripke is that in the fictional world names will have their ordinary meanings and whatever it is that determines the reference of names in the actual world is presumed to be fulfilled in the fictional story. So, in the fictional world of Final Fantasy ‘Sephiroth’ refers to a person and it is true to say that Sephiroth exists and wants to destroy Gaia. However, in the real world ‘Sephiroth’ does not refer to a real person and it is false to say that Siphiroth exists (except in the sense that he exists as an abstract object) or that he wants to destroy Gaia (except in the sense that this is true in the story). So whether or not the sentence ‘Sephiroth exists’ is true or false depends on whether or not we are evaluating it in the story or in the actual world. This leads us to the final issue which is the backlash against Kripke.

What if Gaia were Real?

Two-Dimensional Semantics

 

 

Not everyone is convinced by Kripke’s arguments. In particular there is a group of philosophers, led by David Chalmers (1966- ) at the Australian National University, who are involved in developing what they call a ‘two-dimensional semantics’ as an alternative to Kripke’s theories. The water becomes very deep here very quickly but the basic idea is quite simple. There are two different ways that we can think about a counter-factual situation: We could think of the imagined scenario as being counter-factual in the sense that we take the way the world is as given and imagine that the world might have been different. But we could also think of the counter-factual situation as if it were actual, as if it were the way the actual world was, as opposed to merely being possible.

To illustrate the difference let’s return to our materia example on Twin Gaia. If we take the actual Gaia as given then the word ‘materia’ picks out compressed mako and that means that there is no materia on Twin Gaia, since there is no mako on Twin Gaia. But we can also think of Twin Gaia as though it were actual, which would make the actual Gaia a counter-factual situation. We can imagine that the actual Gaia is really Twin Gaia. When we think of it that way ‘materia’ picks out compressed fako and it is true that there is materia on Twin Gaia and false that there is materia on (the actual) Gaia (when considered as counter-factual).  We can see from this that there is something, let’s call it ‘materia-ish stuff’, that is compressed mako on Gaia and compressed fako on Twin Gaia. Whether you call that material-ish stuff ‘materia’ is really only a verbal issue. The important issue is that we can coherently imagine a world where there is material-ish stuff that is not compressed mako.

            Given this, there are two distinct questions that we might be asking when we ask if chocobos might really exist. We could be imagining a scenario where we take the actual world as given and then ask if there is anything that can be described as being a chocobo. The answer is no. Given the way that things actually are chocobos are essentially fictional and so nothing that is described as actually existing will count as a chocobo. But what about our second question? In a world where the cast of Final Fantasy VII are real and not fictional (that is Gaia considered as actual) it is true that chocobos exist. The two-dimensionalist then argues that we can, in this sense, imagine a world where chocobos exist (whether we would call them that or not). We can coherently imagine a world where there is chocoboish stuff. Whether we want to call that chocoboish stuff ‘chocobo’ is merely a semantic issue. Call it whatever you want, but isn’t mooglish stuff all we want when we say we want a moogle? Who cares what its internal structure is like?

So what are we to conclude?  Are moogles and chocobos possible or not? Well, if Kripke is right, and given the way the world actually is, they are essentially fictional and therefore not really possible. However, if Chalmers is right then we can imagine things that are mooglish or chocoboish. Whether these things are really moogles or not will only matter to the most die-hard Final Fantasy fan.


BIO: Richard Brown is an Assistant Professor at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY in the Philosophy and Critical Thinking program. He has published on philosophical issues in neuroscience, cognitive science, and theories of consciousness, as well as co-editing (with Kevin S. Decker) Terminator and Philosophy: I’ll Be Back, Therefore I am.  More info available at http://onemorebrown.com. He is composed of mooglish stuff and is kupo for kupo nuts!


Notes



[1] It is also important to note that this fanciful imagined scenario is only a way to make the point vivid. This sort of thing really happens all of the time. For example, a lot of people seem to believe that Einstein had something to do with the invention of the first atomic bomb but this isn’t true at all. So even if all someone knew about Einstein were that he was ‘the inventor of the atomic bomb’ they would still be referring to the German scientist when they said ‘Einstein was a genius’ even though he did not invent the atomic bomb.

[2] Originally introduced in “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’” (1975) widely available in many anthologies.

[3] There is a subtlety there that we should pay attention to. Kripke notes that when we use a name we have to intend to use it in the same way as the link in the chain from which we get the name used it. So, take the example of Santa Claus. Though there may be an actual historical person that ‘Santa Claus’ grounds out in it is unlikely that we are referring to that person when we use the name since we no longer intend to be referring to that person.

[4] To bring home the point consider a variant. Suppose that a Martian video game programmer were designing a game called Earth Fantasy in which there were a species of creatures in every way like Human Beings. The spoke a fictional language that the Martian called ‘English’, looked and behaved in every way similar to the ways that we look and behave. Let us further suppose that this Martian programmer completely made all of this up out of thin air and in no way had any contact with Human Beings on Earth in any way at all. Are we the creatures that appear in Martian fantasy? According to Kripke we are not, and for the very same reasons that we have been talking about. We have no way of telling whether these fictional Humans have the same internal structure as we do, whether they are really of the species Homo Sapien or not.