Monthly Archives: September 2006

Primitivism about vagueness

One role this blog is playing is allowing me to put down thoughts before I lose them.

So here’s another idea I’ve been playing with. If you think about the literature on vagueness, it’s remarkable that each of the main players seems to be broadly reductionist about vagueness. The key term here is “definitely”. The Williamsonian epistemicist reduces “definitely” to a concept constructed out of knowability. The supervaluationist typically appeals to semantic indecision, on one reading, that reduces vagueness to semantic facts; on another reading, that reduces vagueness to metasemantic facts concerning the link between semantic facts and their subvening base. Things are a little less clear with the degree theorist, but if “definite truth” is identified with “truth to degree 1”, then what they’re doing is reducing vagueness to semantic facts again.

If you think of the structure of the debate like this, then it makes sense of some of the dialectic on higher-order vagueness. For example, if vagueness is nothing but semantics, then the question immediately arises: what about those cases where semantic facts themselves appear to be vague? The parallel question for the epistemicist is: what about cases where it’s vague whether such-and-such is knowable? The epistemicists look like they’ve got a more stable position at this point, though exactly why this is is hard to spell out.

Consider other debates, e.g. in the philosophy of modality. Sure, there are reductionist views: Lewis wanting to reduce modality to what goes on in other concrete space-times; people who want to reduce it to a priori consistency; and so on. But a big player in that debate is the modalist, who just takes “possibility” and “necessity” as primitive, and refuses to offer a reductive story.

It seems to me pretty clear that a position analogous to modalism should be a central part of the vagueness literature; but I’m not aware of any self-conscious proponents of this position. Let me call it “primitivism” about vagueness. I think that perhaps some self-described semantic theorists would be better classified as primitivists.

At the end of ch 5 of the “Vagueness” book, Tim Williamson has just finished beating up on traditional supervaluationism, which equates truth with supertruth. He then briefly considers people who drop that identification. Here’s my take on this position. Proponents say that semantically, there’s a single precisification of our language which is the intended one, but which one it is is (semantically) vague. Truth is truth on the intended precisification; but definite truth is defined to be truth on all the precisifications which aren’t determinately unintended. Definite truth (supertruth) and truth come apart. This position, from a logical point of view, is entirely classical; satisfies bivalence; and looks like it thereby avoids many of Williamson’s objections to supervaluationism.

I think Williamson puts exactly the right challenge to this line. In what sense is this a semantic theory of vagueness? After all, you haven’t characterized “Definitely” in semantic terms: rather, what we’ve done is characterized “Definitely” using that very notion again in the metalanguage. One might resist this, claiming that “Definitely” should be defined using the term “admissible precisification” or some such. But then one wonders what account could be made of “admissible”: it plays no role in defining semantic notions such as “true” or “consequence” for this theorist. What sense can be made of it?

I think the challenge can be met by metasemantic versions of supervaluationism, who give a substantive theory of what makes a precisification admissible. I take that to be something like the McGee/McLaughlin line, and I spent a chapter of my thesis trying to lay out precisely what was involved. But that’s another story.

What I want to suggest now is that Primitivism about vagueness gives us a genuinely distinct option. This accepts Williamson’s contention that when we drop supertruth=truth, “nothing articulate” remains of the semantic theory of vagueness. But it questions the idea that this should lead us towards epistemicism. Let’s just take determinacy (or lack of it) as a fundamental part of reality, and then use it in constructing theories that make sense of the phenomenon of vagueness. Of course, there’s nothing positive this theorist has to say that distinguishes her from reductive rivals such as the epistemicist; but she has plenty of negative things to say disclaiming various reductive theses.

The present time

One notorious issue for presentists (and other kinds of A-theorist) is the following: special relativity tells us (I gather) that among the slices of space-time that “look like time slices”, there’s no one that is uniquely privileged as “the present” (i.e. simulataneous with what’s going on here-now). But the presentist says that only the present exists. So it looks like her metaphysics entails that there is a metaphysically privileged time-slice: the only one that exists. (Of course, I suppose the science is just telling us that there’s no physically significance sense in which one is privileged, and it’s not obvious the presentist is saying anything that conflicts with that. But it does seem worrying…)

One option is to retreat into “here-now”ism: the only things that exist are those that exist right here right now. No problems with relativity there.

I was idly wondering about the following line: say that it’s (ontically) vague which time-slice is present, and so (for the presentist) say that it’s ontically vague what exists. As I’m thinking of it, there’ll be some kind of here-now-ish element to the metaphysics. From the point of view of a certain position p in space time, all that exists are those “time-like” slices of space time that contain the point, then it will be determinately the case that p exists. But for every other space-time point q, there will (I take it) be a reference frame according to which p and q are non-simultaneous. So it won’t determinately be the case that q exists.

The details are going to get quite involved. I think some hard thinking about higher-order indeterminacy will be in order. But here’s a quick sketch: choose a point r such that there’s a choice of reference-frame that make q and r simultaneous. Then it sort of seems to me that, from p’s perspective, the following should hold:

r doesn’t exist
determinately, r doesn’t exist
not determinately determinately r doesn’t exist

The idea is that while r isn’t “present” (and so fails to exist), relative to the perspective of some of the things that are present, it is present.

What I’d like to do is model this in a “supervaluation-style” framework like that one I talk about here. First, consider the set of all centred time-like-slices. It’ll end up determinate that one and only one of these exists: but it’ll be a vague matter which one. Let centred time-like-slice x access centred time-slice y iff the centre of y is somewhere in the time-slice x.

Now take a set of time-slices P which are all and only those with common centre p. These are the ontic candidates for being the present time. Next, consider the set P*, containing a set of time-slices which are all and only those accessed by some time-slice in P. And similarly construct P**, P*** etc etc etc.

Now, among space-time points, only the “here-now” point p determinately exists. All and only points which are within some some time-slice in P don’t determinately fail to exist. All and only points which are within some time-slice in P* don’t determinately determinately fail to exist. All and only points which are within some time-slice in P* don’t determinately determinately determinately fail to exist. And so on. (If you like, existence shades of into greater and greater indeterminacy as we look further away from the privileged here-now point).

Well, I’m no longer sure that this deserves the name “presentism”. Kit Fine distinguishes some versions of A-theory in a paper in “Modality and tense” which this view might fit better with (the Fine-esque way of setting this up would be to have the whole of space-time existing, but only some time-slices really or fundamentally existing. The above framework then models vagueness in what really or fundamentally exist). It is anyway up to it’s neck in ontic vagueness, which you might already dislike. But I’ve no problem with ontic vagueness, and insofar as I can simulate being a presentist, I quite like this option.

There should be other variants too for different forms of A-theory. Consider, for example, the growing block view of reality (the time-slices in the model can be thought of as the front edges of a growing block: as we go through time, more slices get added to the model). The differences may be interesting: for the growing block, future space-time points determinately don’t exist, but they don’t det …det fail to exist for some amount of iterations of “det”; while past space-time points determinately exist, but they don’t det …. det exist for some amount of iterations of “det”.

Any thoughts most welcome, and references to any related literature particularly invited!

Ontic vagueness: the shape of the debate

(cross-posted on metaphysical values)

One of my projects at the moment is writing a survey article on ontic vagueness. I’ve been working on this stuff for a while now, but it’s time to pull things together. (And writing up comments on Hugh Mellor‘s paper “Micro-composition” at the RIP Being conference got me puzzling about some of these issues all over again.)

One thing I’d like to achieve is to separate out different types of ontic vagueness. The “big three”, for me, are vague identity, vague existence, vague instantition. But there also might be: vagueness in the parthood relation, vague locations, vague composition, vagueness in “supervening” levels (it being ontically vague whether x is bald); vagueness at the fundamental level (it being ontically vague whether that elementary particle is charged). These all seem prima facie different, to me. And (as Elizabeth Barnes told me time and again until I started listening) it’s just not obvious that e.g. rejecting vague identity for Evansian reasons puts in peril any other sort of ontic vagueness, since it’s not obvious that any other form of ontic vagueness requires vague identity.

[Digression: It’s really not very surprising that ontic vagueness comes in many types, when you think about it. For topic T in metaphysics (theory of properties, theory of parts, theory of persistence, theory of identity, theory of location etc etc), we could in principle consider the thesis that the facts discussed by T are vague. End Digression]

Distinguish (a) the positive project of giving a theory of ontic vagueness; and (b) the negative project of defending it against its many detractors. The negative project I guess has the lion’s share of the attention in the literature. I think it helps to see the issues here as a matter of (i) developing arguments against particular types of ontic vagueness (ii) arguing that this or that form of ontic vagueness entails some other one.

Regarding (i), Evans’ argument is the most famous case, specifically against vague identity. But it won’t do what Evans claimed it did (provide an argument against vagueness in the world per se) unless we can argue that other kinds of ontic vagueness give rise to vague identity (and Evans, of course, doesn’t say anything about this). Vague existence is another point at which people are apt to stick directly. I think some of Ted Sider‘s recent arguments against semantically or epistemically vague existence transfer directly to the case of ontically vague existence. And we shouldn’t forget the “incredulous stare” maneuver, often deployed at this point.

Given these kind of answers to (i), I think the name of the game in the second part of the negative project is to figure out exactly which forms of ontic vagueness commit one to vague existence or vague identity. So, for example, one of the things Elizabeth does in her recent analysis paper is to argue that vague instantiation entails vague existence (at least for a states-of-affairs theorist). Implicit in an argument due to Katherine Hawley are considerations seemingly showing that vague existence entails vague identity (at least if you have sets, or unrestricted mereological composition, around). (I set both of these out briefly and give references in this paper).
Again, you can think of Ted Sider‘s argument against vague composition as supporting the following entailment: vague composition entails vague existence. And so on and so forth.

[A side note. Generally, all these arguments will have the form:

Ontic vagueness of type 1
Substantive metaphysical principles
Ontic vagueness of type 2.

What this means is that these debates over ontic vagueness are potentially extemely metaphysically illuminating. For, suppose that you think that ontic vagueness of type 2 occurs, but that ontic vagueness of type 1 is impossible (say because it entails vague identity). Then, you are going to have to reject the substantive metaphysical principles that provide the bridge from one to the other. For example, if you want vague instantiation, but think vague existence is, directly or indirectly, incoherent, then you have an argument against states-of-affairs-theorists. The argument from vague existence to vague identity won’t worry someone who doesn’t believe in or in unrestricted mereological fusion. Hence, if cogent, it can be turned into an argument against sets and arbitrary fusions (actually, it’s in that form — as an argument against the standard set theoretic axioms — that Katherine Hawley first presented it). And so forth.]

So that’s my view on what the debate on ontic vagueness is, or should be. It has the advantage of unifying what at first glance appear to be a load of disparate discussions in the literature. It does impose a methodology that’s not in keeping with much of the literature by defenders of ontic vagueness: in particular, the way I’m thinking of things, classical logic will be the last thing we give up: though non-classical logics are often the first tool reached for by defenders of ontic vagueness (notable exceptions are the modal-ish/supervaluation-ish characterizations of ontic vagueness favoured in various forms by Ken Akiba, Elizabeth Barnes and, erm, me). I’ll have to be up front about this.

Still, I’d like to use the above as a way of setting up the paper. It can only be 5000 or so words long, and it has to be comprehensible to advanced undergraduates, so I may not be able to include everything, particularly if the issues allude to complex areas of metaphysics. But I’d like to have an as-exhaustive-as-possible taxonomy, of which I can extract a suitable sample for the paper. I’d be really interested in collecting any discussions of ontic vagueness that can fit into the project as I’ve sketched it. And I’d also be really grateful to hear about other parts of the literature that I’m in danger of missing out or ignoring if I go this route, and any comments on the strategy I’m adopting.

Some examples to get us started:

If composition is identity, then it looks like vague parthood entails vague identity. For if it’s vague whether the a is part of b, then it’ll be vague whether the a’s are identical to b.

Indeed, if classical mereology holds, then it looks like vague parthood entails vague identity. For if it’s vague whether the aa’s are all and only the parts of b, then mereology will give us that that object which is the fusion of the aa’s is identical to b iff the aa’s are all and only the parts of b. Since the RHS here is ex hypothesi vague, the LHS will be too.

If the Wigginsean “individuation criteria” for Fs are vague, it looks like vague existence will follow when it’s vague whether the conditions are met.

An argument for conditional excluded middle.

Conditional excluded middle is the following schema:

if A, then C; or if A, then not C.

It’s disputed whether everyday conditionals do or should support this schema. Extant formal treatments of conditionals differ on this issue: the material conditional supports CEM; the strict conditional doesn’t; Stalnaker’s logic of conditionals does, Lewis’s logic of conditionals doesn’t.

Here’s one consideration in favour of CEM (inspired by Rosen’s “incompleteness puzzle” for modal fictionalism, which I was chatting to Richard Woodward about at the Lewis graduate conference that was held in Leeds yesterday).

Here’s the quick version:

Fictionalisms in metaphysics should be cashed out via the indicative conditional. But if fictionalism is true about any domain, then it’s true about some domain that suffers from “incompleteness” phenomena. Unless the indicative conditional in general is governed in general by CEM, then there’s no way to resist the claim that we get sentences which are neither hold nor fail to hold according to the fiction. But any such “local” instance of a failure of CEM will lead to a contradiction. So the indicative conditional in general is governed by CEM

Here it is in more detail:

(A) Fictionalism is the right analysis about at least some areas of discourse.

Suppose fictionalism is the right account of blurg-talk. So there is the blurg fiction (call it B). And something like the following is true: when I appear to utter , say “blurgs exist” what I’ve said is correct iff according to B, “blurgs exist”. A natural, though disputable, principle is the following.

(B) If fictionalism is the correct theory of blurg-talk, then the following schema holds for any sentence S within blurg-talk:

“S iff According to B, S”

(NB: read “iff” as material equivalence, in this case).

(C) The right way to understand “according to B, S” (at least in this context) is as the indicative conditional “if B, then S”.

Now suppose we had a failure of CEM for an indicative conditional featuring “B” in the antecedent and a sentence of blurg-talk, S, in the consequent. Then we’d have the following:

(1) ~(B>S)&~(B>~S) (supposition)

By (C), this means we have:

(2) ~(According to B, S) & ~(According to B, ~S).

By (B), ~(According to B, S) is materially equivalent to ~S. Hence we get:

(3) ~S&~~S

Contradiction. This is a reductio of (1), so we conclude that

(intermediate conclusion):
No matter which fictionalism we’re considering, CEM has no counterinstances with the relevant fiction as antecedent and a sentence of the discourse in question as consequent.


(D) the best explanation of (intermediate conclusion) is that CEM holds in general.

Why is this? Well, I can’t think of any other reason we’d get this result. The issue is that fictions are often apparently incomplete. Anna Karenina doesn’t explicitly tell us the exact population of Russia at the moment of Anna’s conception. Plurality of worlds is notoriously silent on what is the upper bound for the number of objects there could possibly be. Zermelo Fraenkel set-theory doesn’t prove or disprove the Generalized Continuum Hypothesis. I’m going to assume:

(E) whatever domain fictionalism is true of, it will suffer from incompleteness phenomena of the kind familiar from fictionalisms about possibilia, arithmetic etc.

Whenever we get such incompleteness phenomena, many have assumed, we get results such as the following:

~(According to AK, the population of Russia at Anna’s conception is n)
&~(According to AK, the population of Russia at Anna’s conception is ~n)

~(According to PW, there at most k many things in a world)
&~(According to PW, there are more than k many things in some world)

~(According to ZF, the GCH holds)
&~(According to ZF, the GCH fails to hold)

The only reason for resisting these very natural claims, especially when “According to” in the relevant cases is understood as an indicative conditional, is to endorse in those instances a general story about putative counterexamples to CEM. That’s why (D) seems true to me.

(The general story is due to Stalnaker; and in the instances at hand it will say that it is indeterminate whether or not e.g. “if PW is true, then there at most k many things in the world” is true; and also indeterminate whether its negation is true (explaining why we are compelled to reject both this sentence and its negation). Familiar logics for indeterminacy allow that p and q being indeterminate is compatible with “p or q” being determinately true. So the indeterminacy of “if B, S” and “if B, ~S” is compatible with the relevant instance of CEM “if B, S or if B, ~S” holding.)

Given (A-E), then, I think inference to the best explanation gives us CEM for the indicative conditional.

[Update: I cross-posted this both at Theories and Things and Metaphysical Values. Comment threads have been active so far at both places; so those interested might want to check out both threads. (Haven’t yet figured out whether this cross-posting is a good idea or not.)]