by Daniel A. Kaufman
1. You are talking with a friend who is, perhaps, a bit too taken with superhero comics. Halfway into an enthusiastic speech regarding the virtues of Captain America, you say to him gently, “You do realize that Captain America doesn’t exist, right?” What effect is this supposed to have on him?
2. Suppose your friend holds up the first issue of Captain America and says, “Of course Captain America exists. He’s existed since 1941.” Does this change anything?
3. Imagine he had confused Captain America with Superman and said that Captain America has existed since 1938. Would he be wrong in both cases or just in one? If in both, would he be wrong in different ways or the same way?
4. Assume that no one has ever created a Captain Yugoslavia comic. Both you and your friend agree that Captain Yugoslavia does not exist, yet you persist in disagreeing about Captain America. What is the issue between the two of you?
5. You tell your friend that of course, Captain America, the comic book character exists. It’s just that he isn’t real. Should this convince him?
6. Many Enlightenment philosophers used ‘real’ to connote ‘objective’, as in “colors exist, but are not real.” Does this help?
7. Your friend says: “Captain America was a model to me, during a difficult childhood. He gave me the strength and confidence to stand up for myself, when I was being bullied.” Suppose that he is telling the truth. Does this change anything?
8. Imagine that instead of superhero characters, the two of you are talking about elementary particles. Your friend claims that neutrinos do not exist. You say that they do and demonstrate your point by showing him photographs of tracks left behind by neutrinos, in a bubble chamber. In what way is this answer different than your friend’s point regarding the effect Captain America had on him?
9. What if there were scientifically sound studies showing that Captain America has had this effect on a statistically significant number of young people? Would that change anything?
10. Suppose you refine your point further and say, “Captain America doesn’t exist, in the sense that there is no such flesh and blood person in space-time.” Would this make a difference?
11. Would anything be different if the two of you were talking about God instead?
12. What is the point of trying to convince someone that something doesn’t exist or is not real, when he thinks it does/is?
13. Suppose we stopped concerning ourselves with what exists or is real and concern ourselves instead with what has efficacy? Would our lives or activities change much?
14. Is demonstrating that something does not exist or is not real supposed to undermine whatever efficacy it has?
15. It sometimes seems as if we are offended by the fact that someone thinks something exists or is real that we do not. Is it reasonable to take offense at something like this?
16. Is it the credibility of science that is the issue? That we give special credence to what science tells us exists?
17. Science has told us that any number of things exist that do not, like the luminiferous aether and caloric fluid. Does this affect science’s credibility?
18. Most people think that American states like New York and California exist. Does it matter that there is “no flesh and blood thing in space time” (or the relevant equivalent) that is New York or California?
19. American states certainly have efficacy. For example, they can tax and bring lawsuits.
20. According to political science and political economics, states are real. Does this matter?
21. Do different sciences enjoy different levels of “ontological credibility”? Which has gotten ontology wrong more often, the natural or the social sciences? Does it matter? Should it?
22. Most people think that The Tempest and Hamlet exist. Does it matter that there is “no flesh and blood thing in space time” (or the relevant equivalent) that is The Tempest or Hamlet?
23. In “On What There Is,” Quine worries about the “overpopulated universe” that results from expansive ontologies.
24. If a country is overpopulated, famine, housing shortages, and civil unrest may result. What are the negative consequences of ontological overpopulation?
25. Is the real problem a tacit fear of Platonism or other “queer metaphysics”? Is any such thing required in order for there be things like plays and states?
26. Is the problem perhaps that we take as a model of existence and reality discrete, material objects, such that it is difficult to imagine other sorts of things as existing or being real?
27. Shouldn’t natural scientists be the first to disabuse us of any such notion?