Sunday, September 03, 2006

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.

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