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Indeterminacy: Where Semantics Meet Metaphysics

December 21, 2018

Portrait of David Taylor

Portrait of David Taylor
Photo by Phuong Tran, CLAgency student

Think about what it means to be wealthy. Let’s say for the purpose of discussion that being wealthy is defined by your net worth and nothing else. Some people are very obviously wealthy, such as Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, whose net worths climb into the billions of dollars. On the other end of the scale, someone deep in debt without a cent to their name would clearly not be considered wealthy.

The word “wealthy” makes sense in each of these cases, but how should we use it in the case of a woman who has $300,000? If she is not wealthy, then what about someone who has $400,000, or one who has $400,000.01? The meaning of ‘wealthy’ becomes unclear when we try to apply it to these middle-ground cases.

Defining Indeterminacy

So where do you draw the border between what is considered wealthy and what isn’t? Can you?

“To say that there is a sharp line is to say that one cent can make a difference between being wealthy and being not wealthy, but the thought is at least prima facie [at face value], that's not what's going on,” says David Taylor, a new professor in the philosophy department, whose research focuses on the intersection between metaphysics and the philosophy of language. “If you think there is no sharp line, then you think that there are some people for whom there's just no fact of the matter” about whether they are wealthy or not. 

This is indeterminacy, which describes cases where there is simply no fact of the matter. Indeterminacy is not a mere epistemological phenomenon. Going back to our wealth example, it’s not that there is an invisible sharp line between being wealthy and not being wealthy and we don’t know where it is; it’s that the “sharp line” just doesn’t exist. Those people in the middle ground have no fact about them whether they are wealthy or not wealthy, so we can’t use either term to describe them.

On Semantic Theories

So we know what indeterminacy is and how weird it appears, but the concept gets more controversial when we try to pinpoint its source. To explain this, philosophers are split into two camps: the first and more fashionable of the two is to adopt a semantic theory, which says indeterminacy is nothing but a semantic problem; that is to say, a problem about the meanings of our words. These theories say that we are confused because we are working with an imprecise language, and we can blame indeterminacy on the lack of exactness in our terms. We struggle to say if the woman with $300,000 is wealthy because the term “wealthy” is not properly defined by its usage. 

So far, the majority of Taylor’s work argues that semantic theories fail to explain indeterminacy and are ultimately unsatisfying. He occupies the second camp, asserting that there must exist some indeterminacy in the real world, independent of our representation of it. Taylor reasons that if all indeterminacy is semantic, you fall into an infinite regress and never bottom-out to an actual source of the confusion.

The argument goes like this: if there is some indeterminacy about whether or not a person can be called wealthy, then there is something imprecise about what the word “wealthy” means. Now, we could artificially fix the meaning at $300,000 and up, but that would change the meaning of the word, as that’s not the way we use it in natural language. Being wealthy is indeterminate due to some lack of precision in the term “wealthy.” What is this imprecision exactly? It has to do with the indeterminacy of the meaning of “wealthy.” But then what explains this indeterminacy? If we posit another case of imprecision, and from there, indeterminacy, then we are off on an infinite regress that requires explanation.

Instead of allowing for these infinite chains, Taylor asserts that at some point, we have to bottom out in some indeterminacy in the world itself. There can still exist semantic indeterminacy, but its existence requires that there is something indeterminate about the world itself. For more details on this argument, see Taylor’s paper "What In The World Is Semantic Indeterminacy?"

What’s Next?

So there has to be indeterminacy in the real world: what is its nature? What does it look like? What logic can we use to describe it?

Professor Taylor has already embarked on the ambitious expedition of answering these questions. He is defining a minimal characterization of what it means to be indeterminate, laying the groundwork for a logic of indeterminacy, and painting a metaphysical picture of what it could actually be. This research, abstract as it seems, is pivotal to philosophy as a whole. Taylor tells us, “the concept of indeterminacy is employed throughout philosophy and all sorts of domains. Personal identity, causation, meaning, people claim all of them could be indeterminate. I'm just trying to figure out what exactly that phenomenon is.”


This story was written by an undergraduate student content creator in CLAgency. Meet the team.