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Week 5: Supervaluationism

Agustı́n Rayo

ar29@st-andrews.ac.uk

October 29, 2003

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

• 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 .

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?

• 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).

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 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:

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

But, by truth-functionality:

2

• v(‘φ & φ’) = v(‘φ & ψ’)

So

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:

(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.

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.

3

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.

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.

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.

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