Thursday, November 16, 2006

Seduction and the sorites

Consider a red-yellow sorites sequence. Famously, "There is a red patch right next to a non-red patch" looks awful. But deny it (assert its negation) and you have the major premise of the sorites paradox. Plenty of theorists want to say that the "sharp boundary" sentence turns out to be true. They then face the burden of saying why it's unacceptable. Call that the burden of explaining the seductiveness of the sorites paradox.

There is a fair amount of discussion of this kind of thing, and I have my own favourites. But in reading the literature, I keep coming across one particular line. It is to explain, on the basis of your favoured theory of vagueness, why we should think that each instance of the existential is false. So, theorists explain why we'd be confident that this isn't a red patch next to a non-red patch, and that isn't a red patch next to a non-red patch. And so on throughout the series.

However, there's something suspicious about that strategy. Consider the situation that generates the preface "paradox". Of each sentence I write in my book, I'm highly confident that it's true. But on the basis of general considerations, I'm highly confident that there's some sentence somewhere in it that's false.

Suppose we accept that, of each pair in the sorites series, we have grounds for thinking that the red/non-red boundary is not located there. Still, we have excellent general grounds (e.g. a short logical proof, from obvious premises using apparently uncontroversial principles) for the truth of the existential claim that the boundary is located somewhere. So far, it looks like we should be something like the preface situation. We should be comfortable with the existential claim that there is a cut-off somewhere (/there is an error somewhere in the book) while disbelieving each instance, that the cut-off is here (/the error occurs in this sentence).

But, of coures, the situation with the sorites is strikingly not like this. Despite the apparently compelling general grounds we can give for the truth of the existential, most of us find it really hard to believe.

The trouble is this: the simple fact that each instance of an existential appears false does not in general lead us to believe that the existential itself is false (the preface situation illustrates this). So there must be something special about the sorites case that makes the move seem compelling in this case. And I can't see that the authors that I've been reading explain what that is.

(A variation on this theme occurs in Graff Fara's "Shifting sands". Roughly, she gives a contextualist(-ish) story about why each instance asserting that the cut-off is not here will be true. She then says that it is "no wonder" will count universal generalization (the major premise of the sorites) as true.

But again, it's hard to see what general pattern of inferring this falls into (remembering that it has to be one so compelling that it survives confrontation with a short proof of the truth of the existential). After all, as I look around my room, the following are successively true: "my chair is currently visible" "my table is currently visible", "my cabinet is currently visible" etc. I feel no temptation to generalize to "all of the medium sized objects in my room are currently visible". I have reasons to think this general statement false, and that totally swamps my tendancy to generalize from the various instances. So again, the real question here is to explain why something similar doesn't happen in the sorites. And I don't see that question being addressed.)