Friday, April 27, 2007

Kripke and Kryptonite

In response to news that a "new mineral found has [the] same composition as fictional kryptonite", Pete Mandik reminds us of Kripke's argument that unicorns are essentially mythical, and hence metaphysically impossible. But I wonder whether Kryptonite's presumed status as a mineral kind may complicate this story. We appear to have an inconsistent triad:

(1) Kryptonite is (numerically identical to) the mineral "sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide" [according to the label shown in the film Superman Returns]

(2) Kriptonite is essentially fictional

(3) Sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide is actual (and so not essentially fictional)

Is the triad truly inconsistent, and if so, which claim should we deny? I'm inclined to ditch (1). Kryptonite isn't really a mineral. When the fiction claims that Kryptonite is sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide, it is misrepresenting its essential nature. Kryptonite is a fictional, rather than mineral, kind. (It is only according to the fiction that Kryptonite is a mineral with such-and-such chemical composition, rather than a fiction. The fine thing about fictions is that they can claim things - like this - that just aren't true.)


  1. Kripke's argument is basically epistemological: because the descriptions of unicorns were underspecified and there was no ostensive definition nothing could count as evidence for there being a unicorn rather than something with the same nominal essence as a unicorn. Reference would be indeterminate between these indeterminate. If fiction had talked about a shiny yellow metal called "gold" and then we found both gold and fools gold there would be nothing to settle the matter which was the referent of the fictional term "gold" as both fit the fictional description.

    The case of Kryptonite is different in this regard as its real essence (according to the fiction) has been spelt out. All this is not to say that kryptonite is not essentially fictional only that this would be a different argument to Kripke's.

    Leaving this essentialist claim to one side, the problem seems to be that fiction can say false things about non-fictional existents and ascribe real properties to non-existents. So that kryptonite has this real essence according to the fiction is not sufficient to establish that a mineral with such an essence is kryptonite.

    What may settle this are the author's intentions or causal influences on the author?

  2. 1) it needs a bit of florine, which is likely to make it yelowish - although it might make it green.
    2) note that the movie is one if a large number of sources one could have tried to determine what the formulae is - ie we have multiple kryptonites for example this one doesnt contain krypton.

    Im inclined to think they were suggesting krypton difluoride suspended in jadeite.

  3. Richard,

    I think that whether we want to ditch (1) or (2) turns on very subtle authorial intentions, as well as very subtle issues in the philosophy of reference. Here is a case in which I say that we ditch (2).

    The author of Superman had a chemial fascination with sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide, a chemcial he thought never occurred. He decided to name that chemical 'kryptonite' and hypothesize about its properties. Having determined its properties to his satisfaction, he aplies these properties to his story Superman.

    I am very opposed to thinking that unicorns are essentially finctional, even though there are no unicorns. In fact, I bet that bio-engineers create a unicorn in the not too distant past.

  4. I think sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide (with fluorine) is the invention of the movie team not of the superman writers.
    I expect they looked for a substance that had not been discovered that could theoretically exist and would form a nice crystal. It would be an unreasonable statement (rather like the sort of claims I was referring to in the Moral Judgment thread) to say it 'doesn't exist' in the whole universe since it was a completely plausible (and build able chemical) and the writer probably knew that, just to say it hadn't been identified yet.
    An as I hinted I think they were implying that the scientist had mislabeled it (by not detecting the krypton which isn't hugely surprising since it is a noble gas and there might have just been a small amount).

    Which raises a new kripke issue - is it kryptonite if everyone thinks it is except that was not what he author intended (even if it was what he said?).


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