A reader inquires:
Have you read Nicholas Rescher's Nonexistents Then and Now? I read it recently and thought I'd bring it to your attention because it's relevant to your recent posts on fiction. If I understand the article, Rescher would agree with you that a fictional man is not a man, but he would say the same of a merely possible man (denying premise 6 in your post More on Ficta and Impossibilia): he argues that because nonexistents are necessarily incomplete, they are not individuals but schemata for individuals. In response to your post Imagining X as Real versus Imagining X as Unreal and a Puzzle of Actualization Rescher would probably say that the "table" before your mind is not an individual table but a schema for an individual table, a "schema to which many such individuals might answer" (p. 376). As your concluding apory implies, the argument against the possibility of actualizing Hamlet might apply to any nonexistent. Rescher seems to think it does. It would be interesting to read some of your thoughts on Rescher's essay, but I do see that you're now considering a different problem.
I was aware of this article, but hadn't studied it carefully until today. I thank the reader for reminding me of it. What he says about it is accurate. Herewith, some preliminary comments.
1. One objection I have is that Rescher tends to conflate the epistemological with the ontological. A careful reading of the following passage shows the conflation at work. I have added comments in red.
To begin, note that a merely possible world is never given. It is not something we can possibly encounter in experience. The only world that confronts us in the actual course of things is the real world, this actual world of ours -- the only world to which we gain entry effortlessly, totally free of charge. [This is practically a tautology. All Rescher is saying is that the only world we can actually experience is the actual world, merely possible worlds being, by definition, not actual.] To move from it, we must always do something, namely, make a hypothesis -- assumption, supposition, postulation, or the like. The route of hypotheses affords the only cognitive access to the realm of nonexistent possibility. [Rescher's wording suggests that there is a realm of nonexistent possibility and that we can gain cognitive access to it.] For unlike the real and actual world, possible worlds never come along of themselves and become accessible to us without our actually doing something, namely, making an assumption or supposition or such-like. Any possible world with which we can possibly deal will have to be an object of our contrivance -- of our making by means of some supposition or assumption. [In this last sentence Rescher clearly slides from an epistemological claim, one about how we come to know the denizens of the realm of nonexistent possibility, to an ontological claim about what merely possible worlds and their denizens ARE, namely, objects of our contrivance.](364, emphasis added)
As my reader is aware, Rescher wants to say about the merely possible what he says about the purely fictional, namely, that pure ficta are objects of our contrivance. But this too, it seems to me, is an illicit conflation. The purely fictional is barred from actuality by its very status as purely fictional: Sherlock Holmes cannot be actualized. He is an impossible item. I am tempted to say that not even divine power could bring about his actualization, any more than it could restore a virgin. But the merely possible is precisely -- possibly actual! The merely possible is intrinsically such as to be apt for existence, unlike the purely fictional which is intrinsically such as to be barred from actuality.
2. The conflation of the merely possible with the purely fictional is connected with another mistake Rescher makes. Describing the "medieval mainstream," (362) Rescher lumps mere possibillia and pure ficta together as entia rationis. For this mistake, Daniel Novotny takes him to task, explaining that "Suarez and most other Baroque scholastics considered merely possible beings to be real, and hence they were not classified as beings of reason." (Ens Rationis from Suarez to Caramuel, Fordham UP, 2013, p. 27) Entia rationis, beings of reason, are necessarily mind-dependent impossible objects. Mere possibilia are not, therefore, entia rationis.
3. As I understand it, the problem of the merely possible is something like this. Merely possible individuals and states of affairs are not nothing, nor are they fictional. And of course their possibility is not merely epistemic, or parasitic upon our ignorance. Merely possible individuals and states of affairs have some sort of mind-independent reality. But how the devil can we make sense of this mind-independent reality given that the merely possible, by definition, is not actual? Suppose we cast the puzzle in the mold of an aporetic triad:
a. The merely possible is not actual.
b. The merely possible is real (independently of finite minds).
c. Whatever is real is actual.
Clearly, the members of this trio cannot all be true. Any two of them, taken in conjunction, entails the negation of the remaining one. For example, the conjunction of the last two propositions entails the negation of the first.
What are the possible solutions given that the triad is is genuinely logically inconsistent and given that the triad is soluble? I count exactly five possible solutions.
S1. Eliminativism. The limbs are individually undeniable but jointly inconsistent, which is to say: there are no mere possibilia. One could be an error theorist about mere possibilia.
S2. Conceptualism. Deny (b) while accepting the other two limbs. There are mere possibilia, but what they are are conceptual constructions by finite minds. This is essentially Rescher's view. See his A Theory of Possibility: A Constructivistic and Conceptualistic Theory of Possible Individuals and Possible Worlds (Basil Blackwell, 1975). He could be described as an artifactualist about possibilities: "A possible individual is an intellectual artifact: the product of a projective 'construction' . . . ." (p. 61)
S3. Actualism/Ersatzism. Deny (a) while accepting the other two limbs. One looks for substitute entities to go proxy for the mere possibles. Thus, on one approach, the merely possible state of affairs of there being a unicorn is identified with an actual abstract entity, the property of being a unicorn. For the possibility to be actual is for the the property to be instantiated.
S4. Extreme Modal Realism. Deny (c) while accepting the other two limbs. David Lewis. There is a plurality of possible worlds conceived of as maximal merelogical sums of concreta. The worlds and their inhabitants are all equally real. But no world is absolutely actual. Each is merely actual at itself.
S5. Theologism. Deny (c) while accepting the other two limbs. We bring God into the picture to secure the reality of the possibles instead of a plurality of equally real worlds. Consider the possibility of there being unicorns. This is a mere possibility since it is not actual. But the possibility is not nothing: it is a definite possibility, a real possibility that does not depend for its reality on finite minds. There aren't any unicorns, but there really could have been some, and the fact of this mere possibility has nothing to do with what we do or think or say. The content of the possibility subsists as an object of the divine intellect, and its actualizability is grounded in God's power.
4. Part of Rescher's support for his constructivism/conceptualism/artifactualism is his attack on the problem of transworld identity. For Rescher, "the issue of transworld identity actually poses no real problems -- a resolution is automatically available." (371) Rescher's argument is hard to locate due to his bloated, meandering, verbose style of writing. Rescher rarely says anything in a direct and pithy way if he can pad it out with circumlocutions and high-falutin' phaseology. (I confess to sometimes being guilty of this myself.)
But basically such argument as I can discern seems to involve equivocation on such terms as 'individuation' and 'identity' as between epistemological and ontological senses. He gives essentially the following argument on p. 378. This is my reconstruction and is free of equivocation.
A. All genuine individuals are complete.
B. All merely possible individuals are complete only if completely describable by us.
C. No merely possible individuals are completely describable by us.
D. No merely possible individuals are genuine individuals.
But why should we accept (B)? Why can't there be nonexistent individuals that are complete? Rescher just assumes that the properties of such individuals must be supplied by us. But that is to beg the question against those who believe in the reality of the merely possible. He just assumes the truth of artifactualism about the merely possible. Consider the following sentences
d. Bill Clinton is married to Hillary Rodham.
e. Bill Clinton remained single.
f. Bill Clinton married someone distinct from Hillary Rodham.
Only the first sentence is true, but, I want to say, the other two are possibly true: they pick out merely possible states of affairs. There are three possible worlds involved: the actual world and two merely possible worlds. Now does 'Bill Clinton' pick out the same individual in each of these three worlds? I am inclined to say yes, despite the fact that we cannot completely describe the world in which our boy remains single or the world in which he marries someone other than Hillary. But Rescher will have none of this because his conceptualism/constructivism/ artifactualism bars him from holding that actual individuals in merely possible worlds or merely possible individuals have properties other that those we hypothesize them as having. So, given the finitude of our hypothesizing, actual individuals in merely possible worlds, or merely possible individuals, can only be incomplete items, multiply realizable schemata, and thus not genuine individuals. But then the possible is assimilated to the fictional.