Three Kinds of Religious Vagueness

1. An Old Story on the Presence of Gods in Mundane Things

Aristotle refers a notable story about the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (Parts of Animals, 645a19-25; 1961, p. 101). Some strangers, who had came to his house for meeting him, stopped when they saw him warming himself by the oven. Seeing them hesitating, Heraclitus bade them enter without fear by saying “there are gods here too” (G). His guests were naturally surprised by these words: none of them would have expected to find gods there. Actually, according to mainstream Greek religious assumptions, the divine realm can be certainly accessed from everyday experience, but, if this be the case, something extraordinary or ritually established would occur. Contrary to such assumptions, Heraclitus is identifying gods in an unusual manner, namely, he is applying the predicate being a god independently of Greek standards.

The problem is how to account for the presence of gods in the fire within the oven: ordinary experiences of a fire within a oven do not usually have gods for content. Are they a real constituent of fire? Do they overlap with fire? Are there individuation criteria for gods at disposal? What, if any, provides evidence that gods are distinct from other entities there?

An Heraclitean philosopher may be tempted to handle the matter at stake along the following lines. Fire is the principle of all beings (Fragments 30; 1987, p. 25). It is thus the most valuable ontological stuff. Gods are valuable entities too. This being the case, gods can be defined as those beings which possess the fire-nature at a sufficiently high degree (Fragments 67; 1987, p. 44). Individuation criteria for gods can be then spelt out as follows:

Being a god=def if x possesses the fire-nature at a certain degree, x is a god;

There are two difficulties here. The first consists in the fact that such solution is not easy to reconcile with other pieces of Heraclitean ontology. Fire-like beings share their fate with non fire-like ones. Everything is in flux: the latter will become fire-like in the future because all contrary beings will necessarily change ones into the others (Fragments 76, 90; 1987, pp. 47, 55). The extant fragments by Heraclitus say nothing about how gods are involved in the cycle of becoming. However, according to the traditional interpretation of Heraclitean philosophy, non-negotiable propositions of its ontology are that every entity exists in reason of its being constituted by a certain degree of the basic stuff of fire, and that no entity has a substantial permanence due to the fact that any degree of fire is permanently in change. Heraclitus holds that a consequence of such a view is that all entities of becoming are one, i.e. both fire-like and non fire-like entities are one (Fragment 50). Therefore, even if gods are in the fire in reason of their fire-like nature, the definition of being a god in terms of the possession of a fire-like nature at the relevant degree does not work, because gods are one thing with non fire-like entities. As a consequence, it may be the case that they are in the fire simply in reason of the fact that they are involved in becoming.

However, suppose that the problem can be solved in terms of a non-ambiguous interpretation of Heraclitan ontology, namely, the definition of being a god previously advanced does not give problems of consistency; so that it provides the natural reading of G. The second difficulty then arises. This consists in that G turns out to be vague. Let us assume the definition of being a god. In an Heraclitean universe, entities gradually differ in reason of the degree of fire which they possess. Such conditions generate a sorites paradox:

  1. x is a god;

  2. Any decrease of one infinitesimal part of fire cannot provide reasons for detecting phenomenal differences among subsequent entities;

  3. If x is a god since it possesses the nature of fire at degree k, then any entity which possesses degree of fire k - 1 is a god too;

  4. Every entity is a god.

The conclusion of this argument is evidently false. Actually, Heraclitus accepts a rich ontological inventory of entities, namely, traditional elements (such as fire, air, earth and water), material beings, animals, human beings, and gods. Nonetheless, the premises of the argument are intuitively sound (to an Heraclitean thinker at least) and the argument is logically valid. The core of the difficulty is that it cannot be established with accuracy which value of fire-nature is required for individuating a god, and in a continuous universe low differences in degree seem to have no epistemic relevance (an epistemic agent cannot detect differences among succeeding degrees of something which are under the minimum detectable threshold). As a consequence, all entities appear to an epistemic agent to have fuzzy boundaries, contrary to the evidence that they do a not have them indeed (for example, an Heracliten thinker accepts difference among beings in accordance to their ontology).

2. Religious Vagueness

To my view, (G) is interesting because it provides a typical instance of the constitutive vagueness of basic religious beliefs, namely, beliefs about the referential target of a given tradition. In order to determine what I mean with such a claim, I will provide a short overview of vagueness.

Firstly, something is vague if it gives rise to taxonomical problems (Fine 1975; van Inwagen 1988; Varzi 2007; Barnes 2013). A term, a notion, a proposition, etc. are used without having the possibility of establishing precisely what falls under their extension (van Frassen 1975). This being the case, borders among group of entities appear fuzzy. Consider (G). Since in a Heraclitean context there are not commonly shared and agreed methods to individuate which degree of fire an entity should equate for being counted as a god, the boundary between gods and - say - human beings is blurred.

Secondly, vagueness concerns fluctuating characterizations of things (Russell 1923; Lewis 1987). While it is evident that certain features belong to a thing and others do not, there is an imprecise area of disagreement over whether a continuous group of features does or does not belong to it. For example, according to (G) gods are made of fire, and stones are certainly not gods. Nonetheless, saying whether a burning stone (e.g. lava) is a manifestation of deity, and individuating which degree of heat and fluidity are necessary for considering a piece of burning stone as lava, would be a matter of indeterminately long and virtually unanswerable debates.

Thirdly, if something is vague, sorites paradoxes are generated (Varzi 2008). Such a paradox asserts that, given that little differences in degree have not epistemic relevance, things which resemble each others for something which is continuous over a range of features turn out to be indiscernible as regards to such something, contrary to the evidence that they are overall discernible.

Now, basic religious beliefs are vague because religious experiences are constitutively obscure and imprecise in content. In more refined words, the content of religious beliefs is a referentially opaque experience. Opacity implies a slippery ground wherein similarity changes into identity. What I mean is that a few of similar but different experiences of one (or more) alleged divine entity (or entities) support a single belief about one and the same entity (or group of entities). Accordingly, the difference among experiences comes to be understood in terms of a plurality of different representations of one and the same divinity. Such a plurality plus the unity of reference generates a continuous field of representations. However, continuity involves a problem in articulating what counts as a sound exemplar of something, because it involves borderline cases and blurred boundaries among entities which are in fact clearly distinct. Consequently, once a religious feature is defined, then a version of the sorites paradox is generated. The conclusion is then that religious beliefs make claims whose assessment involves wrestling with propositions which are not fully determinate in content.

With all this in mind, my claim can be restates as follows: basic religious beliefs involves the use of vague terms, notions, propositions, etc. to such an extent that imprecision in reference generates taxonomical problems concerning the main ontological assumptions, fluctuating characterizations of the referential target of the relevant tradition, and sorites paradoxes relating to how to deal with such a target.

3. The Varieties of Religious Vagueness

According to my intuition there are three basic forms of religious vagueness, namely, vagueness of statements about the nature of the divine realm (call this substantive), vagueness about what counts as a revelation of the divine realm (this variety is interpretive), and vagueness about how the divine realm makes sense of the mundane reality (epistemic). In the preceding definition I use divine realm as an umbrella word for the referential target of a given tradition. Consider the following examples for each of these kinds.

Acts 17.19-34 is a report of the Apostle Paul’s preaching at the Areopagus in Athens. It provides a clear case of substantive vagueness. Some Greek philosophers adhering to Epicureanism and Stoicism asked Paul to be taught about his doctrine of God and Salvation. The Apostle begins his speech with a rhetorical move, i.e. by noting that Athenians are true believers. Evidently, he imagines that finding a link between traditional Greek understanding of religious topics and his new proposal may induce his audience not to reject the Christian doctrine before having considered it. Consequently, Paul mentions a deity which the Athenians worshipped, namely, the unknown God to whom they dedicated an altar in the Areopagus, and identifies such a God with the Christian one. Then, the Apostle claims that God is who he made the world and everything in it. However, differently from traditional Greek deities, the God introduced by Paul does not live in temples, he is the unique lord of the sky and the earth, he does not need any work from a human being’s hand, because he is who he gives life, breath, and anything to everyone.

Now, these sentences about God’s nature require an explanation. For example, Athenians are not familiar with such a notion of deity. Nonetheless, Paul says that God is not far from each of us. Actually, in him we live, move and exist (Acts 17.27-28). How is it possible that a a believer is acquainted to a divinity and yet she ignores who and what such a divinity is? In order to unpack the exact meaning of his claims, Paul thus asserts that human beings are the offspring of God, and that, accordingly, there is a genus-continuity between God and us (Acts 17.29).

This assumption is the rule by which a believer can approach God and refute any understanding of his nature in terms of a pagan deity (Acts 17.29-31). Is this manœuvre sufficient to determine a strict notion of the divine realm? It does not seem the case.

There is a God, who made and governs the world. This God has a nature which is continuous with ours. We are his children, so to speak. What are then the differences between him and us? Are we Gods us too? Further problems burst on the scene. We move and exist in God. This is a harsh way to communicate. Indeed, it is hard to deny that from a pre-reflexive viewpoint any human being holds that she moves and exists in an external world which is not one and the same with God. Imagine to swim in the blue sea of an exotic island. Are you swimming in God? Suppose, on the contrary, to be swimming in a crowded and noisy swimming pool of a chaotic city. Are you still swimming in God? If yes, God is then the world, contrary to a long deal of rooted commonsense intuitions. If no, why not? What are the divine properties which the blue sea possesses and the crowded and noisy swimming pool does not?

Evidently, Acts 17.19-34 reports a group of propositions which generate difficulties in individuating God, human beings, and mundane entities. The reason of this is that the text works by the appeal to the continuity between God and human beings, and between God and the world. Consequently, Paul’s religious claims can be arranged in a sorites paradox:

  1. God possesses a nature F;

  2. Human beings are the offspring of God;

  3. Being offspring of x implies possessing the same nature of x;

  4. Human beings possess nature F at least at some degree;

  5. Any decrease of one infinitesimal degree of F cannot individuate phenomenal differences among subsequent entities;

  6. If God possesses the nature F at certain degree (say n), then any entity which possesses F at degree n - 1 is God too;

  7. Every human being is God;

  8. The external world in which human beings live, move, and exist is God;

  9. The external world possesses nature F at least at some degree;

  10. Every thing is God.

Propositions (7) & (10) conclude against the evidence that God, human beings and the world are different entities. This means that, if God is the entity in which human beings live, move, and exist, then there are borderline cases among different groups (for example, people who reject God are possibly not his offspring, but some of them may have no inclination to do evil, and behave in conformity with God’s decrees: do they belong to the group of the damned?), and blurred boundaries (has the crowded and noisy swimming pool its actual constitution in God’s existence?). Therefore, Acts 17.19-34 make vague claims which can be followed only if such vagueness is addressed.

Possibly, a believer denies that substantive vagueness is a necessary condition for any religious claim about the divine realm’s nature. A way out is to postulate a radical transcendence of this over the mundane reality. In such a case, continuity is broken. Set aside problems concerning how two ontologically not communicating entities can affect each other. Even if this possibility is conceded, vagueness comes back in its interpretive variety, because it turns out to be unclear how to identify authentic and inauthentic communications from the divine realm to the mundane reality.

Psalm 19a provides an example of the interpretive vagueness I have in mind. According to traditional Jewish approaches to the doctrine of the creation of the world, Jahweh made the world out of nothing. Since He works according to a plan, all mundane entities directly connected with His creative actions convey the signs of their divine origin. The skies (Psalm 19.1), like the succession of days (Psalm 19.3) and nights (Psalm 19.4), declare the glory of Jahweh. Whoever looks at the natural world with the right disposition, she listens to the speech of God and knows Him. It is not a matter of understanding a propositional arrangement of words, but of having direct access to His voice (Psalm 19.5). The whole earth spreads the divine design, and “nothing is deprived of His warmth” (Psalm 19.7).

To the psalmist’s view, the world is thus a revelation of God. Traditionally, two competing readings account for the notion of revelation here at work. In his seminal work on the theology of Old Testament, Gerhard von Rad notoriously claims that, although the world is certainly ordered, planned, and magnificent, nothing about God can be inferred by moving from such an evidence, since the only communication which the world conveys is that it completely depends on God’s government, and is a possession of him. Particularly, the faith of Israel should be characterised as a rejection of the attitude of idolatrous religions, which look for the testimony of a sacred content constituting a positive knowledge of God within the natural world (von Rad 2001, pp. 336-356). Contrary to such a reading, recent Bible scholarship has highlighted that wisdom literature flirts with the idea that God reveals itself in the creation of the natural world, and that a careful study of this world provides a bottom-top, or empirical, approach to the Torah (Brueggemann 2003, pp. 305-318). Now, it is a consensus view that Psalm 19 belongs to wisdom literature and is a paradigmatic statement of creation theology (Klein 2013, pp. 137-156). Typical of this theology is the polemic against the tendency to the make the natural world a divine thing: all created beings have their only value in coming from Jahweh. Consequently, all of creation reveals the order and handywork of its author.

Both readings involve that the religious claims of Psalm 19a are vague due to how revelation claims are conceived. Actually, independently of whether a silent or a positive approach to the communicative nature of the natural world is preferred, any mundane phenomena counts as a divine communication in reason of a property they all share, that is, their having a dependency on God’s creative plan. This being the case, there would be no criteria for discriminating among revelation contents of different natural events and things, and, consequently, appreciating the revelation nature of the mundane reality. This means that no phenomenal difference individuates any difference in content.

For example, consider an unstoppable fire which burns a vaste forest (and has terrible consequences as killing all animals inside it) and a beautiful sunset from a mountain top. Since their property of being revelations in reason of being created things is continuous over the range of natural phenomena, they cannot be really distinguished, and they have not different revelation contents. On the one hand, the ground on which a forest grows and a mountain are vague referents. On the other, the feature of being revelation qua created beings conflates them into a single content of experience. The following argument supports my claim:

  1. A small size of earth e0 is a physical part of the ground on which the burning forest grows;

  2. If a small size of earth ek is a physical part of the ground on which the burning forest grows, then the small size of earth ek+1 is part of it;

  3. Consequently, any small size of earth en is a physical part of the ground on which the burning forest grows;

  4. Therefore, each small size of earth which is a physical part of the mountain from which a beautiful sunset may be observed is a part of the ground on which the burning forest grows;

  5. Now, a small size of earth m0 is a physical part of the mountain from which the beautiful sunset can be observed;

  6. If a small size of earth mk is a physical part of the mountain from which the beautiful sunset can be observed, then the small size of earth mk+1 is a physical part of the mountain from which the beautiful sunset can be observed;

  7. Consequently, any small size of earth mn is a physical part of the mountain from which a beautiful sunset can be observed;

  8. Therefore, each small size of earth on which the burning forest grows is a part of the mountain from which the beautiful sunset can be observed;

  9. Now, any small size of earth which is a physical part of the ground on which the burning forest grows is a divine revelation qua created being;

  10. And, each small size of earth which is a physical part of the mountains from which a beautiful sunset may be observed is a divine revelation qua created being;

  11. The burning forest and the mountain are the same thing because they have all their parts in common and these are the same divine revelation;

  12. Consequently, the burning forest and the mountain have the same revelation content.

Evidently, the conclusion contradicts commonsense, and clashes on ordinary assumptions about numerical identity and distinctness among entities (e.g., the numerical difference among a forest and a mountain, or the difference in content among experiencing a devastating fire or a beautiful sunset).

However, this is not the only problem. Think again at the burning forest. Suppose that none sees it. Is this event a communication from God? It is prima facie evident that a divine revelation requires someone who understands that a given arrangement of mundane phenomena is a communication from the divine realm. Actually, if none sees the burning forest, who is the receiver of the message? And, if a message from the divine realm to a mundane receiver has no mundane receiver, is it still an authentic communication? Now, suppose that you stipulate that any event or things within the world constitutes a revelation from God, provided that someone understands that it is a message. This stipulation gives a criteria for discerning authentic communications from inauthentic ones. This notwithstanding, the topic still looks problematic. What intrinsic differences can be detected in two states of affairs which differ only in terms of being or not being perceived by a spectator? It seems that if the perceived state of affairs is a revelation from God because of its bearing a creative relation to Him, the non perceived one should be a revelation as well.

Like for the substantive case, interpretive vagueness depends on the continuity of a property over a determinate class of particulars. Define a revelation all which bears a communicative relation to God - say natural phenomena, historical facts, mystical experiences, texts of sacred literature. Each member of a class of phenomena is not primarily a revelation, but something which is continuous with other members of the class, namely, all natural phenomena are such in reason of sharing natural phenomenality, all historical facts are such in reason of sharing historical factuality, and so on. If some of these (possibly, all) are also continuous as member of the class of the divine revelation, how can be prevented that they mix themselves in an undifferentiated blob?

The problem consists evidently in avoiding that all be a revelation. All religions assume that from the viewpoint of revelation there is a difference in the content of different facts. Actually, the history of revelation within any traditions consists in establishing what counts as a divine communication in the mass of materials which claim to be a divine communication. For example, all religions individuate natural phenomena which have a religious meaning and distinguish them from natural phenomena which do not have such a meaning. The same holds for historical facts, mystical experiences, and texts of sacred literature. Therefore, being unable to discriminate whether candidates to revelation facts are actually such, due to the continuity of their relevant properties, contradicts the evidence that religious traditions have actively searched for individuation criteria of revelation facts.

Let us now move to epistemic vagueness. It is the most easy type of vagueness which can be found in the religious domain, because it is constitutive of the doxastic commitments of religions. Such commitments may be spelt out as the ambition to capture the meaning of the mundane reality in terms of the divine realm. Vagueness follows from the assumption that what accounts for the how the divine realm is, it also accounts for how the mundane reality is. That is, the feature which provides understandability to one domain of discourse applies to the other as well, and turns out then to be epistemically continuous over both domains.

Vishishtadvaita Vedanta is a strand of Hinduism which originates from the intellectual, monastic and cultic legacy of Yamuna and Ramanuja. It consists in a theological and ritual doctrine providing a conceptual grounding to Srivaishnavism. Srivaishnavism is a sub-tradition of Vaishnavism. Vaishnavism is a monotheist religion which assigns divine ultimacy to Vishnu. Srivaishnavism is distinct in assigning soteriological and divine ultimacy to the divine couple of Vishnu and Sri Lakshmi (Sydnor 2014, pp. 7-8).

Vishishtadvaita Vedanta accepts the authority of the Veda, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Mahabharata. Authors of the school typically try to reconcile the Vaishnavist monotheism with the Upanishads doctrines about the impersonal nature of the divine realm, and the prescriptive reading of Veda rituals by the mimamsakas. Commonly, they provide interpretations of traditional notions, divinities, and literary figures as brahman, Narayana, or Purusha in terms of strict monotheism.

Distinctive of Vishishtadvaita Vedanta is the view that, although there is an ontological asymmetry between God and the mundane reality (i.e. God does not depend on anything else, while the world depends on God), God’s ontological complexity accounts for the reality of mundanity. For example, differently from Vedantins which assert the illusory nature of all things within the world, Ramanuja holds that mundanity is veridical by referring to the plural constitution of the ultimate divine realm. Notoriously, he differently names such divine ultimacy as Brahman, Vishnu, or Narayana accordingly to which exegetical and cultic contexts he is working on.

Traditionally, Vishishtadvaita is defined as a qualified non dualist ontology which accounts for the existence of things as specifications of God. Qualified non dualism is the claim that brahman alone exists (this is the non dualist feature), although it is a complex substance which contains plurality in itself, because non mundane and mundane things are its endless determinations (this is the qualified feature).

According to the school, knowledge is the most important among God’s specifications. Unfortunately, in spite of its crucial role in accounting for the divine realm constitution and, consequently, the ontology of the world, a number of potentially conflicting characterizations of it are provided. Actually, knowledge is said to be a substance, a cognition which has become a characteristic, an attribute. In cultic context it is identified with Sri Lakshmi, in metaphysical context is thought to be intensionally equivalent to God, even though God comes first, and knowledge becomes something just in reason of God’s independent existence (Freschi 2018, p. 243-249).

Now, there are two problems. First, different readings of the notion of knowledge involve the assumption of different options in ontology. Second, knowledge is used in an analogical manner. Focus on the latter. Consider a typical Srivaishnavist belief as the ultimate divine reality is Narayana, which is worshipped as the divine couple of Vishnu and Sri Lakshmi. Popular devotion holds that the couple acts together and cooperates in the creation of everything, and in liberation. Nonetheless, each of the two plays a particular role: Vishnu creates, preserves, and destroys the world, while Sri Lakshmi provides moksha. Adherents to Vishishtadvaita Vedanta ordinarily understand this claim by identifying the divine couple with the Brahman, or God: Vishnu is the divine substance and Sri Lakshmi is the divine knowledge. God is infinite and is the existence in whom everything is comprehended. Accordingly, the plurality of the world is spelt out in terms of the plurality of the contents of God’s knowledge. This being the case, the account of the ontological constitution of the divine realm is an account of the ontology of the mundane realm. Knowledge is continuous over the two domains. Religious beliefs about God’s nature have an epistemic content which makes sense of mundanity. The conclusion is that for Vishishtadvaita Vedanta all things are in God, because each thing is the content of an act of knowing by God. Similarly as God does not exist without knowledge (because God has constitutionally a plurality in itself), although he has a logico-metaphysical priority on it, in a devotional context, Vishnu does not exist without Sri Lakshmi (because their mutual love is the source of their joint agency), although he has a religious priority on her (Lakshmi occupies the second degree of the distinctions between God and man, Vishnu occupying the first; Pande 2006, p. 117).

However, what is such a knowledge? Evidently, it is the act by which mundanity comes into reality: divine knowledge has the capability to provide existence to things. That is to say that the content of an act of knowledge by God is a mundane existence. The world is the global content of God’s knowledge.

This fact raises a difficulty for accounting for the relationship between brahman and the world in terms of divine knowledge. Actually, considerations about human knowledge provides evidence that it is not possible that everything be the content of an act of divine knowledge. Human knowledge is indeed unable to be effective in the same manner like divine one is. For example, I can imagine an island with a definite number of palms on a beach - say three. Thus, I know that there are three palms on the beach of the island which I am imagining. Evidently, the content of my knowledge is not a mundane existence. Conclusion follows, it cannot be said that the content of whichever knowledge is a mundane thing: at least the contents of a few of my own knowledges are not. Vishishtadvaita Vedanta authors do not intend to claim that my act of knowledge are one and the same with divine knowledge (e.g., there are ontological distinction between God and human beings). Consequently, saying that the world is the content of divine knowledge turns out to be a vague proposition.

Like the previous varieties of vagueness, also the epistemic one which I have just exemplified can be construed as generating a sorites argument. I do not think necessary to develop it in details. I simply set forth a few comments. Analogy is the ground of any epistemic approach to the religious referential target. That is, both the divine realm and the mundane reality are conceptually articulated in terms of a property which varies over a range of degrees. Continuity is here mandatory: a conceptual apparatus should be understood to be an account of something. Consequently, if something gives an explanation of the divine realm, this something can be held only if it is at conceptual disposal. For example, knowledge is an analogical notion in Vishishtadvaita Vedanta. Accordingly, a sorites argument may be developed in terms of how the existence of things involves a certain degree of divine knowledge. The phenomenal evidence that the contents of my knowledge cannot be equated with the contents of God’s knowledge contradicts the conclusion of an argument of such a kind. This means that, once a sorites argument is given, the epistemic continuity between the divine realm and the mundane reality makes difficult discriminating among the alleged borderline cases (i.e. even if the acts of my knowledge do not ordinarily provide existence to their content, a few of these might have similar effects - for example, in a libertarian context, my intentions can ontologically generate events) and distinguishing among blurred boundaries (i.e. given that everything exists in God, what really counts as a divine knowledge if there are differences in the ontological relevance of different kinds of entity?).

4. Imprecision in Reference, Ambiguity in Content

My taxonomy for religious vagueness is provisional and does not aspire to individuate mutually exclusive categories. Possibly, religions make claims which are substantively, interpretively, and epistemically vague at once. In any case, I will now draw some evident consequences which follow from my characterization of religious belief in terms of vagueness. Any vague belief results problematic in establishing reference and extension of concepts and names. There are two basic cases:

A. propositions which asserts something about singular terms (the divine realm is …; the revelation is …; the ritual is …; the mundane reality is …; and so on);

B. universally quantified propositions about something (all which is divine is …; all which is revelation is …; all which is ritual is …; the mundane reality is …).

The vagueness of the former kind consists in a lack of determinate reference. For example, it may be asked what a divine figure, a revelation, a ritual, a mundane reality, and so on, actually is. Religious traditions abounds of conflicting accounts for these objects (for example, difference in deciding what counts as …): the spread of disagreements on whatever doctrinal matters within one and the same tradition attest that coreligionists ordinarily understand the same articles of faith in different manners. Actually, all coreligionists access a mass of contents which vary over a continuum of features gradually changing one into the other. Therefore, different accounts for a term are non convergent senses by which reference is established.

As to the latter, vagueness concerns which objects fall under a predicative constant. In this case, concepts, general names, universal, or anything else your linguistic ontology identifies in such a position, do not have a precise extension. Consider propositions like the Heraclitean saying about gods. The impossibility to offer criteria for individuating what counts as a god makes a believer unable to understand exactly to whom the proposition applies.

Now, the direct consequence of this indeterminacy of reference and imprecision of extension is that concepts and singular terms involved in religious theorising are subject to fluctuations of meaning and use. Religious beliefs picture nebulous landscapes, wherein objects blend together, boundaries are fuzzies, and a multiplicity of different perspectives on the same matters seems to be equally legitimate. Actually, as any other variety of vagueness, religious one is first of all a lack of meaning which generates an indeterminacy in the content of beliefs. Consequently, the same linguistic utterance of a proposition in the domains of religions may concern a cluster of different beliefs: vagueness resolves in global ambiguity (Fine 1975, pp. 282-283).

5. Religious Vagueness is Primarily Semantic

Now, in order to handle religious vagueness, I find useful introducing Kelli Potter’s terminology for disagreements (Potter 2013, pp. 24-25)1. A group is doxastic if it can be individuated in terms of the acceptance of a cluster of assertions or doctrines propounded by a particular individual or set of individuals2. A religious denomination is defined an intentionally doxastic group because the adherents to the denomination intend to believe the same propositions that a certain individual or set of individuals have affirmed. The founder or founders of the doxastic group is its doxastic leader(s). Within a religious tradition, different denominations have in common the same doxastic leader, and disagree over the correct interpretation of her propositions and doctrines. This implies that there is a distinction between a belief and the verbalization of that belief. Call the latter a doxastic utterance. Adherents to the same tradition affirming the same doxastic utterances are in verbal agreement. Evidently, it is possible that they interpret them differently. For example, members of different denominations of the same tradition which accept a set of basic propositions by the doxastic leader are in verbal agreement, even though they may not hold the same propositions if they give a different meaning to the same verbalization of belief. In this case, their agreement is a pseudo-agreement.

In light of these definition, phenomena related to religious vagueness can be approached along the following lines. Basic religious beliefs for a tradition are a cluster of seminal propositions by a doxastic leader. Admittedly, many traditions have started from doctrines whose historical origin no-one remembers. Nonetheless, when such a situation occurs, a few oral narratives are transmitted along the passing of generations. Such narratives are the source from which a set of doxastic leaders establishes the core of basic beliefs for that religion (e.g., Indo-Aryan priests have bequeathed the Rigveda hymns from a generation to the subsequent ones; later, around the times when Indo-Aryan tribes have begun a sedentary lifestyle, these materials were canonised by evaluating them as being a primordial revelation which has no author). Distinctive of the basic religious beliefs of the doxastic leader is their understanding of the relationship between the divine realm and the mundane reality in reason of some property continuous over the two domains. As a consequence, religious beliefs turn out to be indeterminate in reference and imprecise in extension. Such indeterminacy in content inclines doxastic agents in verbal agreement over a set of basic propositions to develop a cumulative mass of interpretive doctrines. In the long run, such a mass introduces difference in content. The moral of the story is that verbal agreement changes progressively into pseudo-agreement, and doxastic distinctions enter within the belief body of the religious tradition.

This being the case, religious vagueness can be characterized as a semantic phenomenon3. That is to say that the lack of meaning in religious beliefs consists in imperfection of its descriptive features. Doctrinal debates within a tradition provides alternative manners to specify the vagueness of basic religious propositions into a precise content. Any religious traditions is indeed a conflicting field of doxastic fight for assigning a correct meaning to a few of basic religious beliefs affirmed by a number of doxastic leaders.

To my view, Evans’s argument for the inconsistency of vague objects provides a good characterization of the kind of vagueness I am addressing (1978). Suppose that it is indeterminate whether A is identical to B. According to Evans, this means that B has a property according to which it is indeterminate whether B is identical to A. However, it is not indeterminate whether A is identical to A. Consequently, A does not have one of the property which B has. Now, whenever two terms possess different proprieties, they are discernible. Conclusion follows: it is not indeterminate whether A is identical to B. Differently from the starting premise, it is false.

What does it mean that assuming the indeterminacy of identity between A and B involves a contradiction? Vague identity claims cannot be about precise designators, on pain of generating a contradiction. However, it follows from this that the vagueness of identity claims depends on the imprecision of the designators involved. That is to say, vagueness is primarily semantic. It is related to using descriptive terms in an indeterminate manner (Lewis 1988, p. 129).

Religious beliefs are paradigmatic examples of vague identity claims. To mention just a few, Indra is the Lord of the Gods, Jahweh is the author of the Torah, Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the second Person of Trinity, Mohammed is the receiver of an angelic revelation, a lingam is an aniconic representation of Shiva, Pure Land meditation practices are a road to the rebirth in another plane of reality. Accordingly, no term in these propositions should be a precise designator. The historical approach to religious traditions supports exactly Evans’s conclusion. Each of the things which is claimed to be identical to something else is not a well determined referential target. Rather, both of them are clusters of historically related representations which differ either in establishing a unified reference or in deciding effectively whether something belongs to the extension of a concept. A variety of differing but largely overlapping descriptions of the same object is the default option in the religious domain.

My conclusion is that religious beliefs stand in a very odd semantic position. In standard conditions, adherents to the same doxastic group confess unqualified beliefs which aim at being basic for the relevant denomination. Dogmas, articles of faith, doctrinal claims commonly address how the divine realm is and relates to the mundane one. Since they express their content by means of analogical reasoning or the individuation of some property which is continuous over the two ontological domains, basic religious beliefs comes in a vague form, i.e., they are indeterminate in reference and imprecise in extension. Nonetheless, within any tradition indetermination and imprecision move religious thinking to engage with such a vagueness. As a consequence, along the history of a religion, different precisifications of content develop a cumulative mass of nuances, conceptual distinctions, and glosses which progressively introduce ambiguity little by little.

The following situation then obtains. When members of the same denomination confess the same basic religious beliefs, they usually agree over a vague claim. However, if they were asked to explain the meaning of their belief, they would understand it in terms of one among a set of conflicting readings. Global ambiguity takes the place of vagueness.

6. Conclusions

To my view vagueness accounts for an evident feature of religious thinking: religious beliefs arise from a collective, dialogical and historical effort of assessing, clarifying and construing the semantic value of basic claims which a community of faith accepts in reason of their alleged expressive force. Far from being a propositional attitude of acceptance or refusal of a discrete and well determined content, believing something in the field of religion is to become committed to a tentative and unfinished process of precisification of meaning.

In conclusion, my argument highlights how faith is not the possession of a stable certainty about what we believe, but an endless process of mutual learning from a collective inquiry.

Reference list

  • Aristotle 1961. Parts of Animals, translated by A.L.Peck, Cambridge Massachutes: Harvard University Press.
  • Barnes, E. 2013. Metaphysically Indeterminate Existence. Philosophical Studies, 166: 495-510.
  • Brueggemann, W. 2003. An Introduction to the Old Testament, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.
  • Evans, G. 1978. Can There Be Vague Objects? Analysis, 38(4): 208.
  • Fine, K. 1975. Vagueness, Truth and Logic. Synthese, 30(3/4): 265-300.
  • Freschi, E. 2018. God Not Without Qualities: The Unavoidable Relation Between God and His Qualities in Viśiṣtādvaita Vedānta. In D.Bertini & D.Migliorini, eds., Relations: Ontology and Philosophy of Religion, Fano, PU: Mimesis International, 235-250.
  • Heraclitus 1987. Fragments. A Text and Translation With A Commentary By T.M. Robinson, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Klein, A. 2013. Half a Way Between Psalm 119 and Ben Sira: Wisdom and Torah in Psalm 19. In B.U Schipper & D.A.Teeter, eds., Wisdom and Torah, Leiden & Boston: Brill, 137-156.
  • Lewis, D. 1988. Vague Identity: Evans Misunderstood. Analysis, 48(3): 128-130.
  • Pande, R. 2006. Srivaishnavism. In J.S.Grewal, ed., Religious Movement and Institutions in Medieval India, Oxford: OUP, Vol. VII.2, 110-120.
  • Potter, D. 2013. Religious Disagreement: Internal and External. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 74(1): 21-31.
  • Russell, B. 1923. Vagueness. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 1: 84-92.
  • Sydnor, J.P. 2014. Jaimini, Sankara, and the Alvars: Ramanuja’s Enduring Synthesis. Journal of Vaishnava Studies, 22(2): 5-22.
  • van Inwagen, P. 1988. How to Reason About Vague Objects. Philosophical Topics, 16: 255-84.
  • van Frassen, B. C. 1966. Singular Terms, Truth Value Gaps, and Free Logic. Journal of Philosophy, 53: 481-485
  • Varzi, A. 2007. Supervaluationism and Its Logics. Mind, 116: 633-75.
  • Varzi, A. 2008. Vaghezza e ontologia. In M.Ferraris, ed., Storia dell’ontologia, Milano: Bompiani, 672-98.
  • von Rad, G. 2001. Old Testament Theology, 2 voll., Louisville, Kentucky & London: Westminster John Knox Press.

  1. Kelli Potter released the paper which I refer to in my work before her gender change. Consequently, while I refer to her as Kelli, reference to her published paper is the following: Dennis Potter, Religious Disagreement: Internal and External, etc. ↩︎

  2. Potter thinks of such assertions or doctrines in terms of definableness. I see this matter from a more liberal viewpoint. That is to say, I am not sure that a doxastic group can be individuated by the assent to a defined set of beliefs. It suffices that it bears a foundational relationship to a few of identifiable assertions or doctrines of a founder. For example, within the same doxastic group some individuals may think that propositions A and B by the founder are the most relevant, while other individuals may think that A and C are. ↩︎

  3. I do not want to state that the semantic vagueness of religious facts cannot be treated as dependent on (or conductive to) the ontological vagueness of the referential targets of the religious domain. I am simply assuming the weak claim that the vagueness of religious beliefs is in any case at least semantic. Actually, if relevant objects are not vague, vagueness is semantic; and, if they are vague, given that the description of a vague object implies a lack of determinacy in content, semantic vagueness is a key to ontological vagueness. ↩︎