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PY4804 Philosophy of Logic

Week 5: Supervaluationism
Agustı́n Rayo
ar29@st-andrews.ac.uk
October 29, 2003

The Sorites Paradox


Consider the vague predicate ‘bald’. Each of the following seems to hold:

• A man with 0 hairs on his head is bald.

• If a man with 0 hairs on his head is bald, then a man with 1 hair on his head is bald.

• If a man with 1 hair on his head is bald, then a man with 2 hairs on his head is bald.

• If a man with 2 hairs on his head is bald, then a man with 3 hairs on his head is
bald.
..
.

• If a man with 199,999 hairs on his head is bald, then a man with 200, 000 hairs on
his head is bald .

• A man with 200,000 hairs on his head is not bald.

But a contradiction can be derived from these premises by repeated applications of modus
ponens. Where does the problem lie?

Degrees of Truth
According to degrees-of-truth accounts of vagueness, a sentence can be true to a degree.
Typically degrees comprise the real numbers from 0 (completely false) to 1 (completely
true).

1. Logical connectives
We normally characterize the truth conditions of ‘¬’, ‘&’ and ‘⊃’ as follows:

1
• v(‘¬φ’) = 1 if and only if v(‘φ’) = 0
• v(‘φ & ψ’) = 1 if and only if v(‘φ’) = 1 and v(‘ψ’) = 1
• v(‘φ ⊃ ψ’) = 1 if and only if v(‘φ’) = 0 or v(‘ψ’) = 1

Where 1 is truth and 0 is falsity. But what are we to do when dealing with truth
values other than 0 or 1?

2. Here is Kenton Machina’s suggestion:

• v(‘¬φ’) = 1 − v(‘φ’)
• v(‘φ & ψ’) = min(v(‘φ’), v(‘ψ’))
(
1 if v(‘ψ’) > v(‘φ’)
• v(‘φ ⊃ ψ’) =
1 − v(‘φ’) + v(‘ψ’) if v(‘ψ’) ≤ v(‘φ’)

One is free to consider other options, as long as the connectives turn out to be truth-
functional (the degree of truth of, e.g. a conjunction must be a function of the degree
of truth of the conjuncts).

3. How would this solve the Sorites?


For Machina, each conditional in the Sorites is true to a degree slightly less than
1. Accordingly, the degrees of truth of the conclusions one gets by applying modus
ponens steadily diminish:

• v(‘A man with 0 hairs on his head is bald’) = 1


• v(‘A man with 1 hairs on his head is bald’) = 1 − ²
• v(‘A man with 2 hairs on his head is bald’) = 1 − 2²
• v(‘A man with 3 hairs on his head is bald’) = 1 − 3²
..
.
• v(‘A man with 200,000 hairs on his head is bald’) = 1 − 200, 000²

4. A problem
But wait! Suppose that ‘φ’ is ‘The car is red all over’ and ‘ψ’ is ‘The car is pink all
over’. Suppose, moreover, that the car is a shade of color such that:

• v(‘φ’) = v(‘ψ’) = 0.5

Since ‘φ & φ’ is logically equivalent to ‘φ’, v(‘φ & φ’) should equal v(‘φ’):

• v(‘φ & φ’) = 0.5

But, by truth-functionality:

2
• v(‘φ & φ’) = v(‘φ & ψ’)

So

• v(‘φ & ψ’) = 0.5

But this is crazy! The degree of truth of ‘The car is red all over and the car is pink
all over’ should be 0.

5. Diagnosis
One diagnosis of the problem is that a degrees-of-truth accounts of vagueness ignore
the fact that we use language in such a way that ‘Nothing is both red and pink all
over’ must be true.

Supervaluationism
1. A simple example
Define the predicate ‘nice∗ ’ as follows:

(a) n is nice∗ if n > 15


(b) n is not nice∗ if n < 13

What about 13–15? According to (one variety of) supervaluationism, the meaning of
‘nice∗ ’ is incomplete. A precisification of ‘nice∗ ’ is any way of completing its meaning.
One can then say that a sentence involving ‘nice∗ ’ is super-true if it is true on every
precisification of ‘nice∗ ’.
So we get a three-fold classification of the truth-status of sentences involving ‘nice∗ ’:
super-true, super-false (i.e. has a super-true negation), and neither super-true nor
super-false.

2. Back to ‘red’ and ‘pink’


Supervaluationists might say that the case of ‘red’ and ‘pink’ is relevantly similar to
the case of ‘nice∗ ’.
Like ‘nice∗ ’, ‘red’ and ‘pink’ have incomplete meanings. A precisification of English is
any way of completing incomplete meanings of English terms. So, any precisification
must respect the fact that ‘Ripe tomatoes are red’ is true, and also the fact that
‘Nothing is both red and pink all over’ is true.
One can then say that a sentence involving ‘red’ and ‘pink’ is super-true if it is true
on every precisification.

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3. Back to ‘bald’
What should supervaluationists say about the Sorites paradox?
They can say that although ‘A man with 0 hairs on his head is bald’ is true on every
precisification (and therefore super-true), a conditional such as

If a man with 30,000 hairs on his head is bald, then a man with 30, 001
hairs on his head is bald is true.

is true on some precisifications and false on others. So it is not super-true.


Supervaluationists are therefore in a position to say than not every premise in the
Sorites paradox is super-true.
4. Higher-order vagueness
Consider the following:

• Since a man with 0 hairs on his head is a clear case of baldness, ‘A man with 0
hairs on his head’ will count as super-true.
• Since a man with 200,000 hairs on his head is a clear case of non-baldness, ‘A
man with 200,000 hairs on his head’ will count as super-false.
• If a man with 50,000 hairs is a borderline case of baldness, then ‘A man with
50,000 hairs on his head’ should count as neither super-true nor super-false.
• But now suppose that than a man with 15,000 hairs is a borderline case of a
borderline case of baldness. Then ‘A man with 50,000 hairs on his head’ should
count as a borderline case of super-truth.

That means that the notion of super-truth is itself vague. Is this a problem for
supervaluationism?

Further Reading
1. There is a required reading for Friday’s seminar:

• Fine, K ‘Vagueness, Truth and Logic’ (1975), in Keefe and Smith Vagueness: A
Reader, MIT Press, 1996.

Section 5 of the text is quite difficult, and may be skipped.


2. Enthusiasts could also look at:

• Machina, K ‘Truth, Belief and Vagueness’ (1976), in Keefe and Smith Vagueness:
A Reader, MIT Press, 1996.
• Chapter 5 of Williamson, T. Vagueness, Routledge, 1994.