I can't figure out whether the following worries about fictional characters are interesting or silly. They are certainly amateurish, because I don't know the literature about fiction well.
I recently got a Nintendo Wii. You can receive emails on your Wii; you also get various sorts of system updates there. In my Wii inbox yesterday, there was an email from a character in one of the games I'm playing. (Not that it matters, but for sake of concreteness, the email was from a character called the 'mailtoad.')
Now I think there's something strange about the sentence
'Greg got an email from the mailtoad.'*
Why? Because the mailtoad is fictional, and I would've thought it was impossible for me to receive communications from fictional characters. I would've thought that fictional characters can only send letters to other fictional characters, and I'm pretty sure I'm not a fictional character.
Often, if there is a sentence about a fictional character that intuitively feels true, that's because in the fiction the sentence is literally true. That is, while 'Sherlock Holmes lives on Baker Street' is not literally true, nonetheless 'In the stories written by Conan Doyle, Holmes lives on Baker Street' is literally true. And that accounts for why there is some intuitive pull towards calling it true.
But this won't really work in the present case of my email from the mailtoad: I received an email -- in the actual world. But I am not a fictional character, and I do not appear in the fiction, as e.g. Napoleon appears in War & Peace. This looks analogous to the real-life Napoleon finding a letter from one of the fictional characters of War & Peace in his mailbox.
It seems like the least crazy thing to say is that the mailtoad did not send me a letter, but rather some combination of hardware and software --which are non-fictional things -- sent me the email. But then what is the relationship between the hardware + software combination and the fictional character? I don't have a well-posed worry here, but it does seem pretty different from the way words on a page are related to Sherlock Holmes.
* Actually, the email was addressed to Mario, the character I'm playing in the game. If you think this dissolves the problem, then for the rest of this post, just counterfactually suppose the word "Mario" was not in the first line of the email. But I think it is still weird to intercept a communique from one fictional character to another in my inbox... maybe not as weird, though.
I'll have a real post up soon, I hope, but in the meantime I wanted to let readers know about a new blog by Chris Pincock, Honest Toil. (Or maybe I'm just the last one to notice it.) His areas of interest are pretty similar to what you find on Obscure and Confused Ideas, and he's posting good stuff at an impressive pace.
Posted by Greg Frost-Arnold at 7:50 AM