Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Counterfactuals and Ontic Vagueness

Following on from the idea I floated in this post, I'm posting a draft of a note on why you shouldn't use counterfactuals to characterize commitment to ontic vagueness (which won't surprise those who know that I tend to think you probably shouldn't use counterfactuals to characterize anything metaphysically interesting ...). Comments very welcome, as always.


Anonymous said...

Counterfactuals bother me.

Daniel Elstein said...

Hi Carrie,

Seems you're right on the main issue, as usual. But I wonder whether those who are tempted by counterfactuals here could retreat to a different sort of modal conditional. After all, one of your key points is that when we consider a world vis-a-vis some metaphysical modal claim we keep the meanings of our vague terms fixed. But if you believe in such a thing as conceptual necessity (I'm thinking 2D semantics) then there can be "counteractual" conditionals which allow meaning shifts. E.g. If it had turned out that "red" was precise, then there would have been no borderline cases of redness.

I suspect that those kind of conditionals can do the work that the semantic theorist wants. But it may be pretty unsurprising that they do.

(See you tomorrow!)

Elizabeth said...

Hi Carrie,

Enjoyed reading the updated version. It made me yell 'this is so false!' at several points -- hallmark of a fun read.

Right. So. Before I defend the counterfactual analysis, I'll say this: I think there's a tu quoque challenge looming here. The semantic theorist can agree with your V*. Vagueness could occur in virtue of the way the world is, or because of the way the world is, without commitment to worldly vagueness. Take the color case: it's plausible to suppose that color terms are vague because certain shades are indistinguishible to the human eye; i.e., because the subvenience base is at the micro-level. And that's a fact about the world. But it's not ontic vagueness. So V* doesn't look sufficient.

Moreover, I don't think V* is necessary for ontic vagueness either. Suppose you've got a mixed case -- a sentence which is vague with respect to both semantic and ontic components. It looks plausible to suppose that there could be such a case in which the *explanation* of the vagueness phenomenology is in the semantic component, yet there's some underlying ontic indeterminacy that we're just not sensitive enough to pick up on. So the ontic theorist needn't accept V*.

Now. Counterfactuals. They are nice and you should learn to love them. Anyway, I still think you're working with a bit of a strawman, because the appropriate counterfactuals won't have as much vagueness-prone vocabulary, and they will be indexed to specific precisifications (something many of your counterexamples relied on ignoring). The best chance looks to be this:
V**: A sentence is ontically vague iff: were all the representational content precisified, there would be a precisification according to which the sentence still lacks a determinate truth value.

No worries about 'red' or 'borderline' or even 'obtains' there. And indexed to precisifications, so no worries about some but not all acceptable truth-conditions obtaining. Not sure your argument touches this one.

One more thing -- re: vagueness in the reference relation, seems to me this isn't a problem for the counterfactual account, because (as I ended up saying in the seminar) I think the most plausible reading of this kind of vagueness is that it's indeterminate between semantic and ontic vagueness. When you start talking about, as it were, 'semantic ontology', the distinction breaks down and you've just got vagueness simpliciter.

Right. I'll stop now. Great paper!

ps -- be warned, if you persist in this 'explanation' nonsense, we shall be forced to truss you up in a sack and send you back to Cambridge. :-)