Two ideas of uncertainty

It may best be said that in the latter part of the twentieth century critical thought around truth has taken two quite distinct forms. In the one case the conception of truth itself is subject to criticism, whilst in the other the expectation of finding dependable, clear, and simple truths is subject to criticism. The first step in the argument of this essay is simply to indicate the two different strands of thought involved, since both the comparison and contrast seem to have been neglected in recent philosophical debate.

The more familiar – in most philosophical circles – strand, vaguely indicated by the term ‘post-modernism’, minimises the function to be allocated to truth in thinking. In some cases the argument draws upon the ‘deflationary’ theory which came from the Vienna Circle and Ayer early in the twentieth century, and which, roughly, held that to say a statement or proposition is ‘true’ is a mere confirmation which adds no information to the statement or proposition itself. For instance, Richard Rorty’s (1991) version of this argument has been to defend a form of pragmatism which denies truth any explanatory function and which rejects a metaphysical dichotomy between whatever statements or propositions we may express in words, or beliefs we may hold and which may be expressed in words as statements or propositions, and something outside in the world which can confirm or refute these beliefs and statements. In his work Rorty has tried to develop a structured philosophy drawing on his interpretations of Davidson and William James, and even of Dewey, Quine, and Wittgenstein. However, many other postmodernists have tended to refuse that kind of systematic argument, holding that we ought to accept and even welcome inconsistency, so that, for instance, Derrida actually praised Nietzsche for lack of consistency in his remarks (a lack which has perhaps been exaggerated).1 At the centre of much of this sort of thinking are the notions that language is a social practice and should not be expected to carry clearcut truths from the outside world into our minds, and, further, that even science along with its methods of observation, classification, and analysis is a social construct and does not provide us with dependable truths external to ourselves.

Naturally, such a way of thinking leads to at least minimising, if not rejecting altogether, any idea of certainty. But it also leads to rejecting something else; namely, objectivity, so as to include even the provisional and practical kind of knowledge which scientific method endorses. Rorty (1991: 35-45) presents his substitution of ‘unforced agreement’ for ‘objectivity’ in science as dropping subservience to a nonhuman power and taking a more relaxed attitude to pursuit of knowledge. He explains it thus:

On this view there is no reason to praise scientists for being more ‘objective’ or ‘logical’ or ‘methodical’ or ‘devoted to truth’ than other people. But there is plenty of reason to praise the institutions they have developed and within which they work, and to use these as models for the rest of culture. For these institutions give concreteness and detail to the idea of ‘unforced agreement.’ Reference to such institutions fleshes out the idea of a ‘free and open encounter’ – the sort of encounter in which truth cannot fail to win. On this view, to say that truth will win in such an encounter is not to make a metaphysical claim about the connection between human reason and the nature of things. It is merely to say that the best way to find out what to believe is to listen to as many suggestions and arguments as you can. (‘Science as solidarity’, Objectivity, relativism, and truth, 1991, 39).

In the first place, this seemingly plausible view meets up with the objection that innovating scientists frequently have to challenge orthodox opinions held by incumbents of their professional institutions, and they can do this only by appeal to different, and ‘objective’ (not mind dependent), truths which they have found in their own observations. That is not to ignore the point that, in the final analysis, scientific innovations prove their worth through observation and experiment using practical technologies suitable for the task, and then through development of technological applications which serve human purposes. That is, the final justification for the new ideas is practical experience, and not a metaphysical argument. But that in its turn arises from the nature of the universe in which we live, which, subject to the ongoing argument about quantum indeterminism2, appears to endorse a ‘rational’ approach to knowledge. It might be noticed that reliance on conventional opinion, even in science, may lead people to dismiss as irrational those who, for example, turn to homeopathy not out of blind faith in its strange claim that energy may be retained when molecules of a substance are absent, but out of cool recognition that conventional medicine has little to offer for their particular condition unless further innovations are made, and so the gamble of homeopathy appears worth taking. This last point illustrates that what Rorty does is not really to deny certain knowledge, since science does not, strictly speaking, claim it, but rather to impose further restrictions on that already basically pragmatic form of certainty which scientific research with its empiricist philosophy seeks. Moreover, like many others Rorty is sometimes inclined to confuse the matter of objectivity with the very different matter of certainty in knowledge. Even if scientists are successful in seeking to establish facts and propositions through observations which, because they are repeatable by others using appropriate methods, can be treated as establishing those facts and propositions ‘objectively’, that is no guarantee that the results will remove uncertainty from the picture. Part of the point of the second criticism of ideas of certain truth to be considered presently is that scientists and technologists themselves are finding, as an objective fact, uncertainty to be ubiquitous in the natural world and present even in mathematical systems.

Another objection to Rorty’s view of science is that it is well known from history and social anthropology that forms of knowledge, and claims to truth, which rely on social solidarity are more likely to end by insisting that they hold certain truth, and that anyone who denies them is apostate and deserving of punishment, than the model of empirical science. The development of scientific understanding requires precisely that the solidarity of scientific institutions be kept fluid enough to allow dissenting views to be put forward, just so that the ‘free and open encounter’ which Rorty seeks actually happens.

The other strand of criticism of orthodox notions of truth, especially in science, is in fact a more thoroughgoing critique of certain truth, just because it has arisen from within the scientific tradition itself. Significantly, whereas most of the followers of postmodernism, apart from dissentient philosophers like Rorty and Derrida, are to be found within the realm of literary criticism and linguistics, most of the advocates of ‘fuzzy logic’ and related ideas are to be found amongst practitioners of engineering, computer science, expert systems, and similar disciplines related to technical application of scientific knowledge itself. These latter ideas do not oppose use of the concept of truth either in philosophy, or in everyday life where the postmodernists (or deflationists) would say we use it only in a very limited way, a claim many would dispute. What ideas based on fuzzy logic challenge is any presumption that we can eliminate uncertainty, even from mathematical systems and a scientific view of the universe. Further, these notions of ‘fuzzy logic’ and recognition of vague and uncertain propositions go a step further than classical probability theory, which considers the chance of particular events or patterns being found to occur within a range of possibilities, each of which has no certainty of occurring, but where the level of probability is either known or at least may be estimated with some degree of confidence. In the theory of vague propositions the propositions are no longer treated as having some known or knowable probability p of being true (or false) in entirety, but as being in themselves partly true and partly false.

On this view, which in its own terms deals with vagueness as distinct from the form of pragmatism developed by Rorty in particular, there is after all a non-linguistic universe outside of ourselves which we can investigate and analyse, but that universe is itself subject to an inherent vagueness leading to degrees of uncertainty in what we can know about it. One way to distinguish these two views in terms of metaphysics would be to say that Rortian pragmatism, and even more the critiques of Derrida, insist that there is no definite world outside our languages so that nothing determines which concepts we have to use, whereas the vagueness of the fuzzy logicians insists that while we can and must use particular concepts to deal with the universe these will perforce be vague concepts. Here there will, after all, be a dualism of the sort Rorty rejects but it is a loose and fuzzy dualism between categories of ourselves and our means of expression or communication on the one hand and the external universe on the other, categories which in fact interact with each other to varying degrees.

Uncertainty and truth

Where these two metaphysical outlooks agree is that both deny that our limited resources of observation and expression can provide us with entirely trustworthy and reliable knowledge of an exterior universe around us, and insist that we should not expect otherwise. Now, it is not obvious why, whatever may apply in the more esoteric regions of mathematics and particle physics, we have to resign ourselves to an inherent uncertainty about what we can know and understand in our everday world, and therefore about the truths which we can grasp and express on that level. Benson and Stangroom (2007: 40-3) suggest that, at least for purposes of ordinary living, we do experience certain ‘foundational’ truths as being dependable and not subject to uncertainty (or vagueness as to how we express them). As they put it: ‘…walls are solid; knives cut; jumping off a cliff will cause serious injury; it hurts more to be hit with a rock than with a violet; rain is wet…’ These are things we know from our instinct to survive. Further, any sceptical argument about certain truths encounters what Blackburn (2006) has termed the ‘recoil argument’ which can be traced back to Socrates and Plato – that the scepticism must itself claim to be reliably true, thereby undermining its own claim about certain truth.3

However, even in terms of accepting ‘foundational’ truths on a sort of pragmatic basis as, so to speak, a necessary but reliable convenience for everyday living, there are two caveats which need to made. Both of these caveats arise from the nature of human activities in the contemporary world, and not just from use of language: (a) Until very recently it could be taken for granted (including by myself)4 that the uncertainties which prevail in the realm of quantum effects are not relevant for purposes of ordinary human living. This assumption must now at least be called into question as not only scientific observation but also technical application enters into the realm of particle action where quantum effects are really important, so that, for example, in the future we may have to factor in quantum effects for purposes of industrial processes, something hitherto inconceivable. (The traditional conception of probability may still suffice.) But, in addition, there is a wider point which was already applicable where basic facts of the physical world, such as the examples given by Benson and Stangroom, are concerned. Simple technologies, like use of an umbrella or hood in rain, do not of course obviate these facts but they can and do very much limit their impact on our lives. Once technology extends its scope into areas felt basic to human existence, like contraception and fertility, many facts of our own physical existence and not just of an external physical world similarly become limited to a greater or lesser degree in terms of their impact on human living. One way of viewing this is to say that although the foundational certainties remain, they cease to ensure human conduct is confined to a certain and predictable path. A fact often been neglected in discussions of freedom in relation to determination of human life is that as choices appear, as a practical reality, in areas where there was previously no choice, the degree of uncertainty and unpredictability about human affairs increases, since free choices by their very nature cannot be entirely ascertained in advance. (The neglect of this fact arises from the ancient assumption that irrational behaviour, as distinct from considered free choice, is unpredictable. That may be true with individuals in some cases – not all, as mental illness demonstrates – but in a broader social context rationality is not dependent on determination.) Salmon (1998) has suggested that indeterminism is compatible with causality for physical systems and that interesting theories of probabilistic causality are already available. But that kind of analysis may or may not be applicable to (intended) human actions. Even if we can apply it, for example, to human behaviour as influenced by either, or both, genetic inheritance and culture, that may tell us surprisingly little about what possibilities may be open with the advanced technologies of today. Perhaps all we can say on the basis of a biological and cultural past is that humans are likely to continue to develop and use technologies, even when these are presenting new issues and choices which had not previously existed.

Once we arrive at the question, and recognise that it is a question with no certain answer, as to whether homo sapiens will make a swift exit from the ecological scene through either (or both) mass destruction weapons or environmental chaos, we find human life is very much an uncertain matter. (b) Closely related to that first caveat about any ‘foundational’ truths of human life is the second, namely, that nothing which is said in social science, and analysis of social facts, can be treated with the degree of certainty that we expect with some facts about the physical world. (Even in relation to those facts, we are thinking on the level of practical human affairs, so that the uncertain behaviour of individual molecules does not prevent us from experiencing – say – the inverse pressure law as a reliable certainty and not at all vague.) Moreover, it is usual in the context of social analysis that not only will the facts carry a measure of uncertainty and approximate estimates have to be made about them, but also we have to expect that the statements we make or the propositions we put forward about social phenomena will not be entirely true, and it will not be possible to eliminate vagueness and uncertainty from them, however rigorous we may be in defining our concepts. The concepts we use in areas like ethics, sociology, history, anthropology, economics, etc., are always liable to modification for different cases and epochs and rarely describe anything with the precision expected in natural science. So far, so often said, but it deserves to be noticed that whatever logical problems attach to the methods of fuzzy logicians, their basic ideas are relevant here because vagueness and uncertainty extend both to the concepts used and to the phenomena being described as well as to the probability of particular phenomena occurring in particular ways. In these cases the notion of rough sets by which greater precision of conceptualisation may be sought through replacing one vague concept with a pair of more precise concepts can be helpful in some social analysis cases, but it cannot manufacture certain (entirely true) propositions about inherently vague phenomena.

In social science contexts like economic forecasting, strategy, and so on, it is a commonplace to offer estimated ranges of probability for possible events or phenomena. For example, a 50 per cent to 70 per cent range of probability may be proposed for occurrence of a terrorist attack on the US food supply, or decline in number of divorces, or an increase in attendance at evangelical Christian services, and so on. Commonly, if the probability range estimates are vague they will prove of little real value in terms of either prediction or understanding. In addition, as hinted earlier, the uncertainties relating to human activities and to a degree even other animal behaviour are different in character from those relating to sheer random phenomena because the factors of choice and intention come into play. In some fields, especially psychology, repeatable experiments can be conducted, but in most instances relevant for social and historical analysis they cannot. Accordingly, we must expect to have to remain content with theories and statements that are as likely to be true and contain as much truth within them as possible with the information we have available, but are frankly not entirely true or may turn out actually misleading if more were known.

The case I argue in this essay is that we do not, as some ‘postmodernists’ might say, have to abandon pursuit of truth altogether in these cases, still less that we can do so in cases which are sometimes highly contentious and where fear and deception may be rife. What we do have to face is the dual character of truth as both incorporating indeterminacy and uncertainty and, at the same time, setting conditions for ethics. It is significant that important moral values – not only ‘liberal’ ones like tolerance but also, depending upon circumstances, many others such as honesty, courage, freedom, and even humility – actually fit with recognition of uncertainty, indeterminacy, and vagueness.

In at least some cases truths of a metaphysical character, chiefly of mathematics and logic, do appear to hold with certainty (at least outside the quantum realm) but that certainty does not carry over beyond the metaphysical proposition itself. For instance, we remain certain that the proposition 4 + 3 = 7 will hold for all cases, but that truth sets no limits on what we may have 4, 3, or 7 of. That is to say, the Platonic ambition to set other values from the standard of mathematics is still a chimera as a further stage of thought remains between identifying or measuring quantities and then selection of appropriate values and goals for where we may wish to use the quantitative information we have collected. Truth is left continuing to serve as a necessary standard and focus for knowledge being sought, precisely when the intention is to find genuine knowledge and not to deceive. Further, the need to combat deception leads us to seek objectivity, just so that the ‘independent’ witness may be obtained to refute the would-be deceiver and try to eastblish an honest claim to fact. But we cannot pretend that the standard is simple, not only because the propositions we can put forward cannot be proved – or disproved – with 100 per cent certainty for all times and cases, but also because people have an awkward liability to make free, or partly free, choices at times. We can never entirely predict when they will actually make free choices; that is, decisions between feasible alternatives for action and/or demand more freedom than they currently have, and when they will simply accept that they ‘have no choice’.

An illustration with the abortion case

An interesting attempt not to deny the presence of vagueness and uncertainty but to minimise their impact on our ability to think and address problems, comes from Williamson’s (2003) defence of classical logic with its assumption of bivalence (the principle that sentences, statements, propositions are treated as either entirely true or entirely false). Implicitly, Williamson is taking issue with postmodernism but the main thrust of his argument is a critique of fuzzy logic. He argues that because fuzzy logicians try to follow the template set by traditional logic, including use of truth functions to analyse compounds of simple sentences such as conjuctions or disjuntions, whilst at the same time employing the notion of degrees of truth so that these sentences may be partly true or partly false, they will be liable to obtain bizarre results. For instance, if we imagine two men who are both partly bald to the same degree, using fuzzy conjunctions in this way leads to a description of one as ‘bald’ and the other as ‘not bald’ working out as partly correct for both cases.5 So as to accommodate vagueness, whilst avoiding the problems he sees with fuzzy logic (or other ideas like ‘supervaluationism’)6, Williamson has proposed that we understand vagueness in terms of our lack of knowledge of the correct boundaries which would demarcate the scope of many of our concepts – and therefore set precise definitions of the words we use for them. Williamson illustrates what he calls his ‘epistemic’ position with the case of a heap of grains. We do not know, Williamson says, how many grains are required to make up a heap. That means that classical logic should still be applied generally, including in vague cases like the heap of grains, and so we can still treat the statement ‘this is a heap’ as being simply true or simply false, but we may not actually know which applies in any particular (borderline) case of a collection of grains because we do not know where the boundary is set whereby it may be called a heap.

Now, the case of abortion, and the issues surrounding it, is especially illuminating for dealing with vagueness and uncertainty not least because it shows up in sharpest relief the weakness in Williamson’s metaphysical proposal. In fact the weakness appears even with the case of a ‘heap’; since, if we had ever needed to do so, we could have set a precise cutoff point so that there must be a minimum of (say) 20,000 grains for a collection of them to qualify as a ‘heap’. In such cases the language (for instance, English) has never been made so precise simply because we have never needed that degree of precision for describing a heap. However, when a highly charged issue like abortion comes into view we find that the borderline between a ‘zygote’ or ‘foetus’ and a ‘person’ is vague despite – or rather because – there has been intense and even violent dispute on the very question of where the conceptual boundaries should be set, sometimes in the glare of publicity, with no one being prepared to concede their position. That is, the problem of vagueness here, and also of uncertainty for many people as to how they should respond to a particular pregnancy, is not that we do not know what the boundary is between ‘foetus’ and ‘person’ but that we have not decided it. More precisely, there is a plurality of groups and religious positions each of which have decided that boundary for themselves, but they differ between each other on where the boundary should be set or even on its significance. For that very reason, contra a traditional Catholic interpretation, metaphysics cannot place the boundary for us and the issue is not one of epistemology (theory of knowledge). If the case is one of vague or incomplete information or understanding then identifying boundaries will be an epistemic problem, but wherever vague concepts are themselves in dispute as in the case of ‘person’ and many others, further information cannot necessarily be expected to settle the argument. This perspective also illustrates the basic point that logic can tell us where we will come to if we argue from a given starting point but it cannot settle the starting point to begin with. We have to decide on the truth (or falsity) of the starting point first, and in the case of statements like ‘a foetus becomes a person after 15 weeks gestation’ or ‘the zygote becomes a person at the moment of conception’ we have not done so. In that case the problem of vagueness or uncertainty is is the more disturbing because it brings in the elements of intentional and consciously chosen action, sometimes in the harshest of circumstances (thereby showing particularly clearly that the matter is not one of lack of knowledge), and yet because owing to the raw emotions and ethical impulses the abortion question arouses the desire to eliminate vagueness and uncertainty is especially strong. Protagonists basing their case for or against legal abortion on either religious grounds or on a certain ‘right to choose’ are apt to claim certain truth for that case and their information. Here pursuit of truth where vagueness is present becomes an especially sensitive matter.

A natural response for both protagonists driven by moral claims and the intending scientific analyst would be to try to minimise the significance of intentional action – i.e., action resulting from a decision by a conscious agent rather than action following unconscious impulses or instincts. For the former that arises naturally from the desire of those of those with a strong moral commitment (as ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ enthusiasts both have) to avoid the conclusion that large numbers of people might be prepared to defy their respective moral imperatives to the point of either accepting a serious surgical procedure and giving up a child, or to the point of organising their lives to accommodate an unintended pregnancy. For the latter the response arises just as naturally from the analyst’s desire to find clear and predictable results for the question of how people will in fact behave, as distinct from the wish of the committed that they should behave in a particular way. Some of the directions which intentional behaviour can take are indeed perplexing.

For instance, argument between the respective lobbies extends to the factual question of how many women will be willing to accept abortion if either abortion information is readily available or alternatives like adoption and raising the child themselves (perhaps with external support) can be pursued. This includes the vexed question of how far cultural differences will affect the decision a woman might make between keeping her child (and under what circumstances) and abortion.7 It is only natural that ‘cultural’ factors will be involved, since these include what people believe and beliefs can be expected to have some bearing on actions. Accordingly, the results of any such survey as that among pregnant sexual assault victims carried out by Dr. Sandra Mahkorn (1979) are likely to differ at the beginning of the twenty-first century between the United States, which is a strongly religious society, and northern Europe where religious belief and practice is less widespread. In turn, results in either would probably differ – perhaps very sharply – from those in a ‘shame culture’ in which the self is held to depend upon a collective family or clan identity recognised throughout the community and not upon personal individuality. The willingness of some Christian pro-life believers to celebrate those women who choose to keep a child even from sexual assault (and indeed enlist their active support) contrasts with what might ever have been expected to happen in a shame culture, as well as with the record of many Christian societies in the past when the domestic forms of the honour and shame conceptions were more potent than they are in contemporary America with its individualistic culture. It might be noticed in this context that contemporary America is quite at home with the military form of honour (as witnessed by the ‘Duty, Honor, Country’ motto of West Point military academy) even as the domestic family form is alien to American mores.

Although these elements of religious and secular belief about the rights and choices attaching to abortion, child rearing and family life clearly differ between cultures and historical epochs, accurate cross-cultural comparisons of the impact of these beliefs and their differences (such as might confirm or disprove my own suggestions made above) is not only unavailable at present but likely to be exceedingly difficult. Individual choices will obviously be affected by the amount of practical support available, for instance, for raising a child from public, family, or charitable sources, and opportunities for working mothers (and fathers), and that in turn will be influenced by cultural beliefs. Amongst such should be counted not only specifically religious ideas but also the complex history of individualism and collectivism. That connects with an historical past of Protestant and Catholic ideas in addition to the ancient threads of reasoned judgement, family honour, and patriotism, which have the character of secular ideologies. The cultural influences are of course joined by more easily definable influences of political and economic resources. But as will be discussed shortly, the range of possibilities is widened by the impact of another powerful influence here, namely technology8, with the most direct instance concerning abortion being the new development of emergency contraception. The sheer complexity of these influences, and the sheer diversity of both particular cases and personal needs and inclinations renders it unreasonable to expect quantitative precision about how readily or otherwise people turn to abortion, including when they may actually feel pressured to either have an abortion when they do not want one, or, for instance, try to cope with a disabled child when they fear they may not be able to. The investigator will indeed be fortunate if counting numbers alone, let alone any more subtle analysis, yields exact truths in these matters. Whatever various dogmatists may yearn for, we have to be content with statistical approximations and generalisations, all carrying exceptions to their rules. Put another way, any propositions we may advance about the abortion issue and women’s choices in particular cases will be, perforce, ‘fuzzy’ propositions with a recognised degree of vagueness. The abortion question turns on human intentional conduct and cultural values and is not simply a question about the workings of the natural world, but the major part of vagueness and uncertainty attaching to any propositions about it and women’s choices turns out to be of a kind described by fuzzy logic rather than being problems of the concepts and language involved. But that way of putting the matter draws attention again to Williamson’s point about treatment of such propositions being apparently not amenable to precise mathematical methods (including use of functions). It may be inherent in the nature of vagueness that precise methods cannot be used to deal with it.

This is not to say that problems of language do not appear here. But, except in case of the new techniques of emergency contraception, these do not relate to the definition of abortion itself. It is sufficiently clear, for example, that the term ‘abortion’ in moral argument refers to deliberate termination of a pregnancy and not to miscarriage or ‘spontaneous’ abortion. That reflects the point that ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ thought relates to choice, and does not come into play when there is no choice. Where vagueness of language acquires more significance is as regards the philosophical concepts regularly employed by apologists for both ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ positions. In the case of the former, probably the most difficult concept is that of ‘innocent life’, bearing in mind that in the context of just war (an ancient part of Christian doctrine and argument) there remains a dispute as to whether ‘innocent’ means blameless, presumably lacking in responsibility, or harmless following on from the Latin derivation nocere (to harm).9 In the case of any unborn child, the notion of blameless (as distinct from shameless) would clearly apply, but a notion of harmless might not necessarily apply, most obviously where the life and health of the mother is in danger. Many, but not all, ‘pro-life’ apologists indeed accept legal abortion if the mother’s life is in danger, as do most religious teachings except the Catholic. Where a ‘pro-choice’ position is concerned, the most difficult concept is likely to be that of ‘choice’ itself, not least because in many instances ranging from economic poverty to a severely disabled foetus, mothers – and fathers – may feel they have no choice but abortion, so being ‘given the choice’ or ‘allowed’ abortion hardly feels like a right, let alone a privilege. It is in the cases where career prospects or social convenience apply (the term ‘convenience’ itself being more appropriate in a relatively liberal setting than it would be in a culture where pregnancy outside marriage is either strongly disapproved of or shameful) that a notion of choice between practicable alternatives seems to fit the case more easily.

However, to say that in harder cases abortion is less likely to appear to the mother (and frequently father also) as a ‘choice’ in that amiable sense simply turns out to replace one conceptual problem with another. It is a commonplace, especially but not exclusively amongst religious commentators, to talk of abortion as a ‘moral tragedy’ and, indeed, it is precisely in the most difficult cases that those turning to abortion will often feel their situation to be tragic in a common sense of that word. Unfortunately, in the realm of moral philosophy the concept of ‘moral tragedy’ is invoked, for instance by Alasdair MacIntyre (1981), to refer to any situations where there is, in MacIntyre’s terms, an ‘incommensurable’ conflict between moral values each held absolute by the protagonists. None is supposed able or willing to set an order of priorities, i.e, make a choice, between these conflicting absolutes. Now, one of the strengths of MacIntyre’s analysis has been to recognise that conflicts of this kind are indeed a regular feature of contemporary culture. Abortion is one of the most potent of them, but there are numerous others ranging from the vexed question of international intervention in wars or internal conflicts of other states to assisted suicide. Not the least of the impacts of developing medical technology is to multiply the number and complexity of such moral conflicts, whilst other technical developments have a similar effect; for instance, between expanding freedom of travel and commerce and generating atmospheric pollution which can have adverse effects on many populations around the world. The problem with an analysis such as that of MacIntyre, and, more generally, with describing abortion or any other example of intense moral conflict as a ‘moral tragedy’ is that we implicitly deny the possibility of making any (moral) decisions at all. MacIntyre suggests that resolution of incommensurable moral dilemmas requires a common language of values, but in the context of any particular cases, including abortion, that in effect means one particular standpoint must become accepted by everyone. The prospect of that happening in reality, let alone happening peacefully, would appear to be remote indeed. The weakness of philosophy in this case is compounded both by the notorious reluctance of a liberal tradition to consider a world of harsh choices – even in economics – at any length, and the corresponding reluctance of religious traditions claiming divinely inspired values to recognise any possible conflict between them.10 From the point of view of ordinary people the situation is tragic if it is unavoidably painful (for such, together with sheer misfortune, is the common understanding of the word ‘tragedy’), but for philosophers, politicians, or theologians to then describe it as a moral tragedy, thereby implying that even a difficult choice must not be made unless an entire society can be brought to agree on what it should be, is to add insult to injury.

None of this, however, serves to do other than emphasise the point that a simple analysis of ‘choice’ in terms of differing utilities hardly meets the task of describing cases of harsh and difficult choices where alternatives do in fact exist, but none is even remotely painless, not to mention pleasurable. Possibly the best approach to clarifying the choice concept would be employment (at least in effect) of a rough set analysis to break the concept of choice into relevant components used by the protagonists themselves – choice for and against abortion, choice for and against continuing pregnancy, choice about sexual relations in the first place, and so on – would serve to leave matters of language as clear as we can ever expect them to be. Abortion is in fact a good example of how clarification is sought not by analysis of language in itself, but by scientific investigation so as, for instance, to try to determine when a foetus becomes capable of feeling pain or other mental processes, as well as pressing a partisan case. The hope may be to thereby obtain a definition of when the foetus becomes a ‘person’ which everyone would have to accept as convincing. Neither campaigners nor scientists have believed they could achieve that by simple linguistic analysis of the term ‘person’. That aspect, alongside the nature of the issues which are likely to confront individual people where abortion is concerned so that, for instance it appears that few potential mothers care about the precise nature of innocence whilst many are willing to accept that they have no welcome choices, indicates that most of the uncertainty which indeed applies to the abortion question is about what people are actually willing to do or accept rather than arising from the concepts which they employ to express the issues.

The influence of technology

The case being argued here is that, however intricate particular applications such as the abortion arguments may be, applying a notion of approximately correct analysis which can accommodate vagueness while seeking the best guide for decisions, does not mean we are compelled to abandon the notion of truth. Provided the concepts and terms we are using to describe specific phenomena and classes of actions are at least capable of being criticised so as to yield a degree of clarity to their meaning, which seems to apply in the abortion case, truth remains a usable concept in relation to what are, after all, very complex realities. Vagueness and uncertainty apply anyway, however far the concepts are analysed, and that point is emphasised by the factor of technology. Even in that area of reproduction, where human (like other animal) behaviour is supposedly most ‘hard-wired’ and determined by basic instincts, the impact of technology is immense and increasing. In the first instance, technology in this context has meant technologies of contraception. The precise degree of their effect was always hard to gauge historically. Birth rates, for example in the UK, began to fall during the nineteenth century before contraception became widely known or available as improved sanitation (itself linked to scientific discoveries in biology and medicine) led to reducing infant mortality, so that people expected to lose fewer children in infancy. But the charged response to the ideas of Marie Stopes illustrated that scarcely anyone doubted that availability of contraception would change family life and the position of women in particular. That debate is still very much present in relation to the teachings of the Roman Catholic church and world poverty. Again, almost half a century since the contraceptive pill first appeared on the scene it remains a major step in the growth of sexual freedom for women (and men) or removal of healthy constraints on sexual conduct according to the ideological stance of the commentator. What is not in dispute is the power of chemistry, and its technical applications, to influence the most intimate parts of our lives.

Subsequently, technology has come to bear also upon the opposite side of reproductive anxiety: namely, fertility. At first sight it is a curious fact that despite the usual attitudes of moral traditionalists, technical devices, and resulting unconventional practices, in that area have proved quite as controversial as any contraception. The arguments become more understandable with the reflection that with practices like IVF and surrogacy children are being brought into the world in ways far removed from the ‘natural’ beginning of life. What bears repetition here is the further reflection that use of technology has always been part of human activity and it has been rare to refuse technical possibilities once they become available – on that basis, it can be argued that use of technical innovations even in regard to human life itself is quite ‘natural’.

Indeed, human reproduction is not the only field in which the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries have witnessed a dramatic transfer of those aspects of living and experience commonly felt to be most basic and immutable (described in terms religious and secular alike as ‘God given’, ‘hard wired’, ‘acts of God’, ‘Nature’, and so forth) into a sphere of technologically driven change, and therefore of human choice and responsibility. No less formidable in its own way is the seepage of that choice and responsibility into the field of purely physical systems, and most importantly weather and climate. Although these are subject to natural variations, in this context ‘natural’ is the operative word, implying changes not at all amenable to human control save by the grace of the spiritual world.11 In some instances, like late medieval Europe, people were vaguely aware of harsher climatic conditions but simply had to move or adjust if they could, with notions of choice and responsibility being irrelevant to their situation. There was, of course, uncertainty in such cases, an uncertainty which made the world a cruel and fearful place and which helped to establish the traditional, but not always correct, belief that predictability is benign. The new element in the twenty-first century is not uncertainty; on the contrary, we now have an expanding capability of prediction for weather and climate which is now being tested in the familiar way of scientific hypotheses. Indeed, the test is currently being made all the more rigorous by controversy over alleged concealment or distortion of data. Contrary to the facile notion in some quarters that the idea of climate change amounts to a ‘new religion’, the political reality is that the (anthropogenic) climate change idea would not survive long unless it continues to be supported by observation of significant warming in the oceans removed from any urban heating influences and the experience of disturbing and dangerous weather events.

Rather the added element is a new kind of uncertainty external to the physical system itself, namely, human intentionality and choice, not least in response to the information which scientific analysis affords. No one can be sure how far or fast strategies adopted by governments and corporations in response to the threat of climate change will be taken, whilst uncertainty is still greater at the 'grass roots' level. For instance, the emergent ‘Transition Towns’ movement, which may or may not prove to have a significant impact on energy consumption patterns – the future of that movement being itself very uncertain – illustrates just how unpredictable human response, and the speed of that response, might be precisely because it includes initiatives taken by groups of people in various localities.

However, even more than in the case of abortion the uncertainties generated by the presence of human choice and responsibility have only a minor connection with vagueness and limitations in the conceptualisation of climate and the related problems. The distinction between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’ is quite clearly understood, as is the question of whether, and how far, observed changes could be explained by other factors than so-called greenhouse gases produced by human activity, such as levels of solar activity. (The evidence suggests that increased solar activity can more easily explain developments prior to c.1940 than since that date.) The nature of variation in solar activity is still not properly understood, but the properties of gases like carbon dioxide and methane are well attested by measurement and the concept of entrapment of energy in certain wavelengths is fairly clear. Therefore, vagueness and doubt attach more to, first, the question of how much we really know about how an extremely complex physical system is likely to behave under unprecedented conditions and, second, the degree of sheer ‘chaos’ and unpredictability which may be generic to the system itself. As in the abortion case, vagueness of language may be a problem in relation to the degree of ‘choice’ and scope for action humans actually have.

For example, one line of argument could be that intense action to combat climate change is already a matter of survival for millions of poor people and likely to become one for everyone else within the present century, in which case there would be on a common understanding no real choice at all. Such would be a great extension in scale from the cases where people in a particular situation might feel they have no choice but abortion, without that meaning that everyone else feels compelled to accept abortion generally, let alone make it compulsory. However, even if this sort of argument about climate eventually turns out to be correct, a degree of choice, i.e., of effective ability to follow more than one feasible alternative, might still emerge as regards priority given to social and economic changes like patterns of consumption and decentralised economic organisation on the one hand, and to technical developments like solar power or hydrogen powered cars on the other. Naturally, if the survival argument proves to be overstated there would be more choice, especially for the affluent, about how much action is to be taken of any kind. For example, decentralisation to local communities and help to the poor would appeal to some people quite apart from any issue about climate change, and therefore apart from any question of their own survival. It is only to be expected that this would be a more limited number of people than those who would be influenced by an argument pertaining to their own survival, but probably still enough to make an impact through charities, business enterprises, and so on. The major difference is that, without an issue of survival, such activity would normally remain voluntary (understood in the usual sense of the word that those who did not share commitment to such causes need not take part) without the wider sense of emergency.

The point which emerges from such considerations is similar to that coming out of debates about ‘choice’ with abortion; that is, even a question of language and conceptualisation may be at least clarified by a process of breaking the question down into component parts analogous to the creation of rough sets. It is easy to imagine that questions of language are impenetrable because of the nature of partisan rhetoric in which terms acquire an emotional charge of their own capable of obscuring their own references and then the concepts they may purport to represent. Naturally, the claims of Derrida and Rorty about the impossibility of resolving such questions have some force, and no one is likely to suggest that natural language can ever be completely precise or absolutely transparent to an outside world. But it seems bizarre to deny that the language is capable of conveying anything to people not already committed to one particular mode of expression and/or standpoint on what is, after all, an issue being debated in public. To call a process of breaking down, for instance, into a set of more limited sub-choices, ‘deconstruction’ can itself be misleading, since the point can be to show how particular components of the issue surrounding climate change or abortion give rise to particular choices of their own between alternative courses of action which people can actually find, and not merely reveal the issue dissolving into an incomprehensible morass.


Thinking about cases like abortion and climate change generally reckoned to carry a philosophical dimension with them (although they are obviously not purely philosophical issues) does show is that Wittgenstein’s ambition to resolve philosophical arguments purely by linguistic analysis is never likely to be achieved, at least where the issues involve a question of value or even of technical feasibility. At the same time, it is also apparent that even in cases where some of the central concepts are quite clearly definable and understood, language analysis can make a contribution especially for concepts which appear more vague, like those of choice or innocence. Sometimes, as in the argument over whether emergency contraception is a form of abortion or not, science may provide a resolution by showing a point at which the separate cell begins to develop or a foetus develops particular capacities. But then linguistic analysis is taking a subordinate role as assistant to the precise delineation of technical terms.

None of this, however, amounts to a justification for dismissing the concept of truth, unless it were held that truth must always be absolute as regards both certainty and objectivity so that vagueness or uncertainty is just not acceptable. But even then it might instead be argued that truth serves as a standard, perhaps better expressed as ‘whole truth’ or ‘complete truth’, to which we try to come as close as we can with approximations in cases of particular beliefs, arguments, propositions, statements, and so on, where some degree of vagueness and uncertainty is inherent. That kind of interpretation makes more sense if it is recognised that to say that any given statement such as ‘The majority of women prefer alternatives to abortion in any circumstances’ is true, or even is approximately or roughly or mostly true, is not to add a further item of information to the statement itself or to clarify it in any way, as would be the case if we specified the size of the majority or in which societies it may apply. What saying the statement ‘is true’, ‘is approximately true’, etc., does is verify that the source of the information, such as a survey of women’s opinions, is thought to be at least roughly reliable, to a certain degree. Needless to say, if we say the statement ‘is wrong’, ‘is false’, ‘is mostly wrong’, ‘is generally false’, etc., we are doing just the reverse and saying the source of information is unreliable, untrustworthy, again to a certain degree. Accordingly, any concept of complete truth might be seen as a standard of complete trustworthiness for sources of information, even if the standard is never fully met. Whether any totally reliable or trustworthy information sources actually exist in the universe in which we live is a controversial question in itself, for not only those with a faith in a divine source of absolute truth, but also, for example, those who hold that evolution theory has emerged as a incontrovertible certainty at least for biological systems, would say that such totally trustworthy information sources do exist. But even if that claim is disputed, it remains feasible to employ a concept of ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’ as a standard whether under oath or more informally, and it remains possible to do so even if the information being handled is vague or uncertain, provided that vagueness or uncertainty is recognised and acknowledged in stating the information, arguing the case, or whatever.

Accordingly, the nature of vagueness as deep rooted in our experience does not in itself require us to resign ourselves to ‘postmodernist’ despair (or relaxation in the case of Rorty) and say that truth is a lost cause, except perhaps as a convenient figure of speech. If the illustrations in this essay have worked as I intended they display the simple fact that people confronted with difficult decisions will try to find out as much information as they can about what advice and resources are available, whether others are likely to help them or take part in common schemes, and, indeed, what their own moral feelings or personal interests are in the situation. That is, that they think truth has relevance for them. At the same time, they are very likely to feel they must ‘do the best in the circumstances’ or ‘given the information available’, which means accepting a measure of uncertainty. They will decide whose expert opinion, for instance on medical matters about an abortion or on climate systems in case of climate change, they trust the most. Such an attitude recognises vagueness and uncertainty as an inescapable part of the situation, while trying to minimise the uncertainty so as to make a decision at all, and at the same time recognises truth as essential.


  1. Nietzsche’s refusal to write as a system builder in no way means there were no consistent themes in his thought, beginning with the problem of values without religion (a sociological and psychological problem at least as much as a philosophical one). From there the themes run onto power and leadership in various forms, rejection of objective truth outside our varying perspectives, and rejection of what Nietzsche understood as Christian humility, to name but some of the most significant. Moreover, there can be little doubt that Nietzsche himself saw these themes as mutually connected, as well as arising naturally, if not actually logically in the strict sense, from a general decline in religious faith and authority.
  2. Salmon (1998: 279-80) has expressed the belief that quantum indeterminacy, meaning the idea drawn from Heisenberg that exact values for the position and momentum of particles do not exist, is an objective feature of the world, but that the question of quantum indeterminism – meaning existence of a noncausal mechanism that is ‘irreducibly stochastic’ – remains open.
  3. Blackburn (2006: Ch. 2) argues that the sceptic or relativist can avoid a devastating self-refutation in the manner of the recoil argument, by backing away from the authority of reason on our minds, replacing this with the classic cultural relativist emphasis on the particular rules and practices we have developed in particular times and places. But Blackburn himself leaves open the question of whether this can be a satisfactory substitution, a question which history and sociology may guide us on as much as any abstract philosophical argument.
  4. Although my past writing from Politics and Morality under Conflict (1994) onward has consistently challenged any notion of shared certainties in ethics, whilst holding to the position that ethics and morality deal with practical requirements for human living, I have always accepted that the uncertainties which apply here have no connection with those applying at the quantum level. Instead, they are uncertainties arising from conflicts in cultural ideas and especially in their political and moral components, or sometimes tensions within moral principles themselves. But if the future is to see quantum phenomena playing a part in everyday human activities like industrial production, then we must be prepared for quantum uncertainties becoming involved in moral/ethical life.
  5. Williamson (2003: 707-9) also argues that fuzzy logic fails to deal adequately with identity. But by its very nature identity implies the opposite of vagueness, i.e., exactness or precision. For example, to say A is identical to B is understood as meaning that A is the same as B in all respects, which clearly cannot be said if either A or B, or both, is vague. Once again, as Williamson suggests, fuzzy logicians appear to be confronted with the challenge of constructing a logic which does not attempt to treat vagueness with precision.
  6. Williamson (Ibid: 698) argues that using an idea of ‘supertruth’ (reached when all ‘admissible’ valuations of a sentence/statement emerge as ‘true’) and rejecting the principle of bivalence gains nothing in terms of precision to compensate for loss of Tarskian biconditionals; such as ‘”Jack is bald” is true if and only if Jack is bald’ and ‘”Jack is not bald” is true if and only if Jack is not bald’. However, Williamson’s alternative suggestion of introducing another truth predicate which does satisfy Tarskian biconditionals, but which may itself be vague, might help with inference if the the vagueness really is an epistemic matter (i.e., our knowledge is limited or vague) but it is hard to see how it would in case of conceptual vagueness.
  7. Although American surveys featured on the Web suggest that some 70 per cent of women involved in abortion think it is (morally) wrong, there appears to be room for further cross-cultural study between societies with differing religions and levels of religious faith, as well as secular elements like individualism. Were such comparisons to reveal similar results, that might provide evidence for a biological and psychological interpretation of women’s attitudes to abortion, although the surveys which have already been done make clear that many women will resort to abortion even if they feel it to be wrong in abstract terms.
  8. I have explained elsewhere (O’Kane, 2004: 14-5) that, whilst I see technology as of immense importance for culture and values, my interpretation differs considerably from the classical Marxian. In Ethics and Radical Freedom, I gave much attention to the sheer destructive power of technology in addition to tools of work, but it may also be noticed that in some cases, for instance medical equipment, tools of work can impact profoundly on the lives and values of other people besides those actually working with them.
  9. Coates (1997: 234-5) has suggested in the context of just warfare that the problems of identifying who might be seen as innocent – not a legitimate target for attack – might be removed by interpreting ‘innocent’ as harmless or non-threatening in line with the etymological derivation from Latin, rather than as blameless. Naturally, those problems do not arise with regard to an unborn child, but if there is no logical ground for ascribing a different meaning to the word ‘innocent’ in that context from the one it may be given in the context of war, then innocence becomes a dubious basis for any ‘pro-life’ position.
  10. The story of Antigone, sometimes cited in discussions of moral dilemmas or moral tragedy, is not necessarily a good illustration for the questions which trouble present culture because from an emotional perspective Antigone’s decision to defy Creon’s prohibition on traditional burial practice did not imply a great sacrifice of commitment in the way that many contemporary moral dilemmas do whichever path is taken by the individual person confronting the dilemma.
  11. Frequently, including when speaking of ‘natural’ variations in climate, we use the word in a way analogous to the idea of the ‘grace of God’, as being outside human control, and subject to the control of God alone. Such a line of thought suggests it will be this idea of divine grace as leading to salvation which is most directly challenged by powerful human technologies, especially as they enter the most intimate parts of people’s lives.


  1. Benson, Ophelia and Stangroom, Jeremy, (2007), Why Truth Matters, Continuum, 42-3.
  2. Blackburn, Simon, (2006), Truth, Penguin Books.
  3. Coates, A. J., (1997), The Ethics of War, Manchester University Press, Manchester & New York.
  4. Mahkorn, Dr. Sandra, (1979), ‘Pregnancy and Sexual Assault’, The Psychological Aspects of Abortion, Mall & Watts (eds.), 55-69.
  5. O’Kane, S. G., (2005), Ethics and Radical Freedom, Melrose Books, Ely, Cambridgeshire. —(1994), Politics and Morality under Conflict, Pentland Press.
  6. Rorty, Richard, (1991), ‘Objectivity, relativism, and truth’, Philosophical Papers Vol 1, Cambridge University Press.
  7. Salmon, Wesley C., (1998), Causality and Explanation, Oxford University Press.
  8. Williamson, Timothy, (2003), ‘Vagueness in Reality’, The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics, Michael J. Loux & Dean W. Zimmerman (eds.), Oxford University Press.