Does Spiderman Exist?

Posted on July 15, 2012 by richardgoulter

As everyone is a deep, pursuer of truth on Facebook, images like the following inevitably will make the rounds:

The clear point of the picture is making a point against some fallacy; implicitly this must be an argument along the lines of “God exists, the proof of this is the Bible”, or similar. To paraphrase the point of the picture, one might say “the existence of a text doesn’t necessarily lead to its existence”. (I should think any theological argument similar to “Bible ergo we-know-that-God-exists” would point out special qualities of the text, but anyhow).
–That said, I don’t see all too many folk going around making the argument the picture here argues against. Still, there’s no reason why we can’t go for a good train of thought if we see one.

And while the existence of God makes for quite an argument, and I don’t think that the artist of the image is wrong in their argument about the fallacy here, as such, I reckon there’s an interesting thought to be had here.
I’ll get to that in a minute…

About a year ago, I was recommended a very interesting book, Sophie’s World (by Jostein Gaarder). I’ve no authority to say it’s the best of its kind, but it’s a narrated discussion/introduction of philosophy, suitable for kids. (‘suitable for kids’ makes it sound unsuitable for adults; anyhow, seeing as how it’s suitable for kids, it’s not tainted by academic wording so much).
Within the final few chapters of this book, which must have been quite fun to write for Gaarder, the author discusses how ‘real’ these imaginary characters are. It’s bizarre to read, but Gaarder points out that the spiritual things are not necessarily ‘less real’ than more concrete things. (He gives an illustration, where a man and an angel are walking side by side. The man points out he’s more real than the angel, since when they were walking, the man had to walk around and over the logs and stones which blocked their path, while the angel walked right through. The angel pointed out that when they walked through the mist, they passed right through it, as they were more solid then the mist itself…).
He discusses that his fictional characters, and other fictional characters from stories before his, are ‘eternal’; they don’t die, nor do they grow older.
Or, at least, that’s what I understand Gaarder to be going on about. I was only reading the English translation of the text, after all, and I’m not so clever as Gaarder.

We now return to the point:
I’m no great student of philosophy. (And I dunno if even philosophers are great students of philosophy). But I get the impression with the above in mind, the author wouldn’t be so displeased if we stopped and asked “Does Spiderman exist?”.

You see, while I agree with the artist of the image, he does make the assumption that Spiderman doesn’t exist; that sets up the logic of the picture quite nicely:
“The existence of the Bible proves that God exists. [The existence of Book-about-X proves that X exists]. The existence of Spiderman comics proves that Spiderman exists. Counter-example: We know that Spiderman does not exist, therefore, the general proof is invalid.”
And if there’s anything to be taken away from the image, it’s how to concisely encode the above logical sequence into a nice picture, that can be shared by those deep thinkers on Facebook. (The logical sequence itself would be a second takeaway, but people are no strangers to argument, so it’s not as rare).

Perhaps the discussion which could come from considering this image could be better if the artist added an extra two panels to this image:
I would add “Proof that I exist is my blog”, and perhaps “Proof that Socrates exists is the historical writings about him”. (With that, I suppose I’m stretching ‘exists’ to mean had-existed or do-exist-now; but I guess if I were asked “Does Socrates exist”, I would reply that he did once exist).

I understand some good philosophers have discussed whether they really exist, or what existence really is.
For myself, I’m happy to assume that I exist, even if I shouldn’t. I can’t vouch for whether the reader of this blog exists, but I don’t derive that doubt from any philosophical thought…
I’m not particularly concerned about heading this discussion in that kindof direction, so let’s move on.
I guess we really do need some definition or understanding of ‘existence’ to clarify things; I’ll not bother.
In absence of that, a couple of thoughts that do come to mind:
It’s clear that Spiderman isn’t actually tangibly living in New York at the moment, nor has he ever. Yet, that might not necessarily be enough to say he doesn’t ‘exist’. Well, that’s arguable.
Secondly, even from the premise that ‘Spiderman exists’, or the premise that ‘Spiderman exists because his comic books exist’, is that this doesn’t seem to help us much with the whole ‘God exists’ proposition: or, at least, most devout believers would hardly say that God exists in the same sense that Spiderman exists.

– Perhaps the logic of the picture isn’t so entirely conclusive as the artist might hope. It might be that some X exists because some book about X exists: with the premise that ‘Spiderman doesn’t exist’, we know that ‘forall X, we know that X exists because book about X exists’ is false; but that doesn’t mean there doesn’t exist some X which satisfies ‘for some X, we know that X exists because a book about X exists’.
Oh, how horribly confusing and inconclusive.

I suppose, if I were one of those deep Facebookers, I would next question whether there does exist anything for which we know it exists, because some book about it exists. (From the discussion about whether fictional characters exist, it would seem Spider-man makes a perfect example of this).
But I’ll end any faux-philosophy here, I think. That should satisfy the deep quota for my social networking.

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