From vague parts to vague identity (x-posted from T&T)

(Update: as Dan notes in the comment on theories and things, I should have clarified that the initial assumption is supposed to be that it’s metaphysically vague what the parts of Kilimanjaro (Kili) are. Whether we should describe the conclusion as deriving a metaphysically vague identity is a moot point.)

I’ve been reading an interesting argument that Brian Weatherson gives against “vague objects” (in this case, meaning objects with vague parts) in his paper “Many many problems”.

He gives two versions. The easiest one is the following. Suppose it’s indeterminate whether Sparky is part of Kili, and let K+ and K- be the usual minimal variations of Kili (K+ differs from Kili only in determinately containing Sparky, K- only by determinately failing to contain Sparky).

Further, endorse the following principle (scp): if A and B coincide mereologically at all times, then they’re identical. (Weatherson’s other arguments weaken this assumption, but let’s assume we have it, for the sake of argument).

The argument then runs as follows:
1. either Sparky is part of Kili, or she isn’t. (LEM)
2. If Sparky is part of Kili, Kili coincides at all times with K+ (by definition of K+)
3. If Sparky is part of Kili, Kili=K+ (by 2, scp)
4. If Sparky is not part of Kili, Kili coincides at all times with K- (by definition of K-)
5. If Sparky is not part of Kili, Kili=K- (by 4, scp).
6. Either Kili=K+ or Kili=K- (1, 3,5).

At this point, you might think that things are fine. As my colleague Elizabeth Barnes puts it in this discussion of Weatherson’s argument you might simply think at this point that only the following been established: that it is determinate that either Kili=K+ or K-: but that it is indeterminate which.

I think we might be able to get an argument for this. First our all, presumably all the premises of the above argument hold determinately. So the conclusion holds determinately. We’ll use this in what follows.

Suppose that D(Kili=K+). Then it would follow that Sparky was determinately a part of Kili, contrary to our initial assumption. So ~D(Kili=K+). Likewise ~D(Kili=K-).

Can it be that they are determinately distinct? If D(~Kili=K+), then assuming that (6) holds determinately, D(Kili=K+ or Kili=K-), we can derive D(Kili=K-), which contradicts what we’ve already proven. So ~D(~Kili=K+) and likewise ~D(~Kili=K-).

So the upshot of the Weatherson argument, I think, is this: it is indeterminate whether Kili=K+, and indeterminate whether Kili=K-. The moral: vagueness in composition gives rise to vague identity.

Of course, there are well known arguments against vague identity. Weatherson doesn’t invoke them, but once he reaches (6) he seems to think the game is up, for what look to be Evans-like reasons.

My working hypothesis at the moment, however, is that whenever we get vague identity in the sort of way just illustrated (inherited from other kinds of ontic vagueness), we can wriggle out of the Evans reasoning without significant cost. (I go through some examples of this in this forthcoming paper). The over-arching idea is that the vagueness in parthood, or whatever, can be plausibly viewed as inducing some referential indeterminacy, which would then block the abstraction steps in the Evans proof.

Since Weatherson’s argument is supposed to be a general one against vague parthood, I’m at liberty to fix the case in any way I like. Here’s how I choose to do so. Let’s suppose that the world contains two objects, Kili and Kili*. Kili* is just like Kili, except that determinately, Kili and Kili* differ over whether they contain Sparky.

Now, think of reality as indeterminate between two ways: one in which Kili contains Sparky, the other where it doesn’t. What of our terms “K+” and “K-“? Well, if Kili contains Sparky, then “K+” denotes Kili. But if it doesn’t, then “K+” denotes Kili*. Mutatis Mutandis for “K-“. Since it is is indeterminate which option obtains, “K+” and “K-” are referentially indeterminate, and one of the abstraction steps in the Evans proof fail.

Now, maybe it’s built into Weatherson’s assumptions that the “precise” objects like K+ and K- exist, and perhaps we could still cause trouble. But I’m not seeing cleanly how to get it. (Notice that you’d need more than just the axioms of mereology to secure the existence of [objects determinately denoted by] K+ and K-: Kili and Kili* alone would secure the truth that there are fusions including Sparky and fusions not including Sparky). But at this point I think I’ll leave it for others to work out exactly what needs to be added…

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