Last Wednesday, Professor Diana Raffman from the Department of Philosophy presented a talk on vagueness, addressing the central question, “What is vagueness and why should we care about it?”

Raffman was recently awarded UTM’s 2015 Research Excellence Award, which honors excellence in teaching at an undergraduate level. This faculty award recognizes several qualities, including the individual’s ability to stimulate student minds and teach material effectively.

To begin, Raffman expressed that although there was disagreement within the academic community on the definition of “vagueness”, she would define it as the property of a word possessing “blurred boundaries of application”.

Examples of vagueness she noted include the words “adult”, “tall”, “blue”, and “green”. She pointed out that several examples of vagueness can be found within law, communication, and the moral domain.

When talking about how vagueness is frequently blamed for many problems within the aforementioned areas, she claims that it was actually the property of tolerance that was to blame. The property of tolerance is the propensity to tolerate small differences or the application across incremental changes on a decisive dimension—the tendency to “treat likes alike”.

This tolerance principle leads to what is called the sorites paradox—where, interestingly, “paradox” is being defined as an argument in which all premises are true and reasoning is impeccable, yet we still end up with a “contradictory conclusion”.

The sorites paradox is as follows: if 90 years is old, then 90 minus one day is old, and if 90 minus one day is old, 90 minus two days is old, and if 90 minus two days is old, then 90 minus three days is old, and so on and so forth, until we reach the conclusion that 10 years is old. This is the major premise of this paradox—that 10 years is old.

Through her own research, Raffman created an analogous scenario. Palettes were presented, ranging from evidently blue to evidently green, to research subjects. Raffman then asked her subjects to state whether each palette was blue, green, or unclear/unsure.

Among Raffman’s findings was the idea of hysteresis within the sorites paradox, which explains that depending how a subject judges the second palette, the first one will be the same.

For example, if a subject said one was blue, and was asked to return to the one they previously categorized, they will say it’s blue, even if they said green in the previous trial.

She also discovered how tolerance comes into play and falsifies the major premise of the paradox.

Raffman concluded her lecture by saying that vagueness is not paradoxical as the major premise of the sorites paradox is false. According to Raffman, vagueness allows us to talk about the constantly changing world that surrounds us. The world is not categorized, and this vagueness allows us to make categorizations that are compatible with continuous change. In terms of vagueness within the law, such issues don’t arise from vagueness of language; they arise from the need of the law to be precise.

The audience was largely composed of faculty and staff with a few students. During the Q and A portion, Raffman was asked whether the tolerance principle can be applied to grades, and the example given was that of a 69 percent or a 70 percent (to which she answered no, because grades have already been arbitrarily specified).

The idea of vagueness, why it matters, and how we can approach it is an intriguing one that I believe will continue to be debated in the future, as it holds significance in various fields.