Vagueness. An exercise in logical analysis

Philosophy of Science 4 (4):427-455 (1937)
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Abstract

It is a paradox, whose importance familiarity fails to diminish, that the most highly developed and useful scientific theories are ostensibly expressed in terms of objects never encountered in experience. The line traced by a draughtsman, no matter how accurate, is seen beneath the microscope as a kind of corrugated trench, far removed from the ideal line of pure geometry. And the “point-planet” of astronomy, the “perfect gas” of thermodynamics, or the “pure species” of genetics are equally remote from exact realization. Indeed the unintelligibility at the atomic or sub-atomic level of the notion of a rigidly demarcated boundary shows that such objects not merely are not but could not be encountered. While the mathematician constructs a theory in terms of “perfect” objects, the experimental scientist observes objects of which the properties demanded by theory are and can, in the very nature of measurement, be only approximately true. As Duhem remarks, mathematical deduction is not useful to the physicist if interpreted rigorously. It is necessary to know that its validity is unaltered when the premise and conclusion are only “approximately true.” But the indeterminacy thus introduced, it is necessary to add in criticism, will invalidate the deduction unless the permissible limits of variation are specified. To do so, however, replaces the original mathematical deduction by a more complicated mathematical theory in respect of whose interpretation the same problem arises, and whose exact nature is in any case unknown.

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