Vagueness in Communication, Thinking, and Reality

Is vagueness a feature of language, a feature of reality, or a feature of both?

Vagueness permeates our communication, our thinking, and our reality. Each of these are interrelated areas that it will be useful to examine separately and then bring back together. The problem of what is and is not vague and how to handle that has significance ranging from everyday actions to technical philosophy and science. 

Communication has a variety of purposes and therefore different types of statements and tones. Let’s take a common interaction in the imperative tone, “Go to the store and buy some milk.” This is a normal occurrence that is usually workable for most people. However, there is a level of vagueness in the terms that usually isn’t addressed, because in a given context it isn’t necessary. If the two people know each other and know the area then these potential variables have already been worked out at some point. Let’s assume that the two people don’t know each other and that they don’t know the area. They both just arrived in town for a meeting that they are setting the room up for.

Since this example is using just two people we can assume who the subject is and work with the predicate. The person that has been given the directive to go to the store and buy some milk has some obvious particulars that need to be answered and decided. One category of questions involves going. Should they take their car? Do they have a car? The other person’s car? A bus? A train? A subway? Should they walk? Ride a bike? A second category of questions involves which store. It could be that there are many stores in the area. If so, which ones sell milk and which ones do not? If there are multiple that sell milk, which one should they go to? A third category of questions involves the buying. Should they buy with their own money, the other person’s, the meeting location’s, the meeting organizer’s? A fourth category of questions involves some. Is that a half-gallon or ten gallons? Finally, the fifth category of questions involves milk. What kind? White milk, chocolate milk, strawberry milk? Whole milk, skim milk? Raw milk, powdered milk? Cow milk, goat milk, camel milk?

Each of these decisions will be made dependent on the desired result, preferences, convenience, accessible information about the context of the area, the meeting, the available resources, the time constraints, and the people involved. This is an immense amount of needed information for a simple everyday task. It reveals that our use of language for communication is vague. “Go to the store and buy some milk.” could be expanded to say “Drive your car to the convenience store .6 miles down the road to the north and use your cash to buy one gallon of whole white cow milk.” This could continue to be expanded, for example the brand of milk could be designated. Realistically in this situation such clarifications would probably occur as part of a conversation with the person asking for the information they need and not for the set of data that they don’t believe they need, e.g. “Could you go to the store and buy some milk?” “How much do you think we need?” “I’d say a gallon will do.” “Is anyone that’s coming lactose intolerant?” “I’m not sure, we better get some just in case.” “Is anyone a vegan, do you want me to get almond milk too?” “Sure.” Since the person didn’t ask which store to go to or where it is, we assume that they already have that knowledge or are able to get it through other means.

Therefore, the vagueness in our language has a pragmatic function (Peirce). It allows us to give and to receive the amount of information selected from the potentially limitless set of information that we believe is necessary to achieve the end that we believe we desire and are oriented toward. When possible, through communication this data set can be adjusted in real time through feedback mechanisms to the necessary level and type of information to create the desired result.

Vagueness in thinking is similar to vagueness in communication, in that both use language. Therefore the same considerations apply. The difference being that thinking could involve a single individual dealing with the determinations on the various categories of variables that exist in the given situation.

Vagueness as it concerns reality is equally complex and more difficult. How much milk is truly in a gallon? Approximately, it’s a gallon. If you took one drop out of the gallon would it be approximately one gallon minus one drop? Or is it still just approximately one gallon? If we spill milk on the table, what is the exact surface area that the milk is covering? Is there an exact number?

In practice, taking or adding one drop to a gallon of milk would be solved by that amount being within the limits of an acceptable variance, and this tolerance being an assumed expectation between the involved parties. Here again we see that the measurement serves a pragmatic function.

Finding the exact surface area of milk spilled on a table is a difficult technical problem. One reason is that the situation is dynamic. Even after the milk has stopped spreading and settled, and even if the surface is level so that it will stay that way, and even if there were no air currents, you would still have to deal with evaporation. Even if this is minimized to the extent that it can be, change cannot be fully eliminated.

The milk carton should give us an easier example to work with because it is stable and the demarcation between the carton and the milk seems obvious. To determine the exact point where the milk and the carton are separated we would need to go down to a very small level. Where one atom from the carton contacts one atom from the milk. And yet, we know that atoms are made from sub-atomic particles. Maybe at some point the universe is a plenum, but we have not found such a point (Leibniz).

We need to be able to measure the location of the atoms and sub-atomic particles to be able to say that at x particular time the demarcation between a given carton substance and a given milk substance was y. Currently this can’t be done, it’s uncertain if it will be able to be done, therefore even if we work from the notion that the substances must have a location at a given time we have a knowledge gap (Schrodinger). Therefore, whether or not reality is vague at the most foundational levels is yet to be determined, and our interaction with it here too becomes pragmatic in that we work with the level of exactness necessary for operating according to the given context. Thus, we act as if vagueness exists in reality and deal with it through variance toleration.

In communication, thinking, and reality we deal with vagueness limitations in a dynamic and functional way to operate within the context of our given environment.

A Simplified Reference List:

Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmatic maxim

Gottfried Leibniz’s theory of monads

Erwin Schrodinger’s famous cat in the box mental exercise



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