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Not Exactly: In Praise of Vagueness by Kees…

Not Exactly: In Praise of Vagueness

by Kees van Deemter

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Having written my masters thesis on adjectival semantics in Montague Grammar many years ago, I very much looked forward to reading Kees van Deemters book. And I was not disappointed. He manages to explain very convincingly "what the fuss is about": where it is we meet vagueness and why it is that it is an advantage and a necessity in dealing with the world, both scientifically and on a day-to-day basis. He also gives a very gentle explanation of the rather dense linguistic, logical and philosophical theories that underpins this area, without the resulting picture being in any way oversimplified. I can highly recommend this book for both the general "uneducated" reader and academics in linguistics, mathematics, philosophy, logic and computer science. ( )
  sharder | Feb 17, 2015 |
The limits of technology are philosophical. The challenge, according to Van Deemter, is to come to terms with our inability to know anything with certainty. Boolean logic restricts reality to two alternatives, true or false, and is unable to deal with gradations or subtle changes. Because most objects in the world are not clearly distinct, and because conditions are contingent and events must be situated in a context, boundaries and measurements are always vague. Language and mathematics can reflect vagueness, and fuzziness, supervaluation and penumbral connections can model vagueness, but we cannot avoid it.

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1 vote MusicalGlass | Apr 11, 2014 |
A book in praise of vagueness that begins with an epigraph from Robert Musil, describing the weather? Count me in.

Van Deemter engages language, mathematics, psychology, computer science and literature in this exploration of vagueness and the models developed to mimic vagueness in the quest for Artificial Intelligence. He begins with the Sorites Paradox—when does a collection of stones become a heap?—then launches into a discussion of how the either/or dichotomies of classical logic are inadequate as a basis for the scientific enterprise. The problem is that most indicators are gradable rather than “crisp,” whether the referent is species, temperature, length, intelligence or culture. Not every difference is a step change, or a change in kind. Quantitative adjustments—like the mathematical theory of computational complexity—remove vagueness while introducing a certain arbitrariness, and qualitative reasoning captures regularities but suppresses details. Alas, a machine cannot translate a poem.

Science counts on the hedge, the qualification, the exception. Scientific theories are, at best, approximations of the facts. Thinking about the world in crisp, Boolean terms may be justified, writes Van Deemter, but such simplifications often produce false clarity that can cause misinformation. It may now be necessary, he concludes, to invent new ways of thinking about truth, meaning, and communication. ( )
  HectorSwell | Mar 21, 2014 |
Interesting book that gives readers an idea about what vagueness is, how it functions and how/why we use it. The subject is treated from different points of view (linguistic, logical, mathematical, philosophical, ...) It's not an easy read: some sections are more difficult to grasp than others, especially the theories of vagueness in the second part. It's not a compelling book, and at times rather tedious, but still interesting enough to keep one's attention going. ( )
  Akubra | Apr 15, 2013 |
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'Private investigator, huh?', he said thoughtfully. 'What kind of work do you do mostly?' 'Anything that's reasonably honest,' I said. He nodded. 'Reasonably is a word you could stretch. So is honest.' I gave him a shady leer. 'You're so right,' I agreed. 'Let's get together some quiet afternoon and stretch them.'

Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister
A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward towards a high-pressure area over Russia, without as yet showing any inclination to bypass it in a northerly direction. The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature (...) In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913.

Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities
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Vagueness is the topic of many scholarly books for professional academics.
The world may be best measured in terms of neatly quantifiable entities such as millimeters, grams, and millibars, but we often speak more loosely.
A few years ago, the BBC carried a news story entitled 'Students feel unsafe after dark'.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0199545901, Hardcover)

Our daily lives are full of vagueness or fuzziness. When we describe someone as "tall," for example, it is as though there is a particular height beyond which a person can be considered "tall." In this stimulating book, Kees Van Deemter cuts across various disciplines--including artificial intelligence, logic, and computer science--to illuminate the nature and importance of vagueness. Van Deemter shows why vagueness is both unavoidable and useful, and he demonstrates how tempting--and how wrong--it often is to think in terms of black and white, instead of the richly graded spectrum of the world around us. Vagueness, the author argues, allows us to focus on what matters, leaving out irrelevant details, and adding texture to what would otherwise be unintelligible facts. The embrace of vagueness, however, comes at a price, for when degrees of grey are accepted, concepts like truth, belief, and proof lose their power, and we are banished from that paradise in which truth and falsity are the only possibilities.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:46 -0400)

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Van Deemter shows why vagueness is in various circumstances both unavoidable and useful, and how we are increasingly able to handle fuzziness in mathematical logic and computer science.

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