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Decision making under indeterminacy

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Nicky Reeves.

When making a decision, sometimes we know what consequences each course of action will lead to. In other cases, we have to act without being sure whether the action we take secures the outcome we want. Decision theory (à la Ramsey, Savage, Jeffrey) is an attempt to analyze such situations.

But sometimes, we know (under at least one description) what outcome will result from each course of action open to us, but this is not enough to tell us whether what we want will be secured. This situation can be generated when our desires are formulated in terms infected with vagueness, indeterminacy and the like. For example, you might wish to refrain from killing a living being, but judge that there is ‘no fact of the matter’ whether a destructive act counts as such a killing. Or you might want to secure good things for your future self, but judge that it is indeterminate whether the person who benefits from a given action is really you.

I will develop a model of rational action under indeterminacy, drawing on work on ‘imprecise probabilities’ (prominent advocates of this as a model of uncertainty include Isaac Levi, Richard Jeffrey and Bas van Fraassen). The story will recommend a certain kind of mixed or randomized action, which fits nicely with a kind of ‘inconstancy’ that Crispin Wright has long argued is characteristic of our judgements in borderline cases of vague predicates. The decision-rule I describe at first glance recommends certain kinds of inconsistent patterns of behaviour over time – I show how it can be implemented to avoid this.

Finally, I’ll apply the machinery developed to a touchstone puzzle of vagueness – the forced march sorites. The nice predictions it delivers here are evidence that the model of the conception of indeterminacy being developed is on the right track.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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