Interviews of James Ladyman on metaphysics

The other day I did a post on structural realism. If you found that interesting, you might find this interview of James Ladyman by Sean Carroll worth listening to (or reading, since there’s a transcript). Ladyman is the author of the SEP article on structural realism I linked to, and seems to be a major proponent of the view. The more I think about structural realism, the more I like it. It seems to nicely thread the needle between traditional scientific realism and instrumentalism.

The interview also ranges over Ladyman’s other views on metaphysics, most of which I agree with. It’s causing me to consider again whether I should read the book he wrote with Don Ross: Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized.

That book was reviewed positively by Massimo Pigliucci several years ago (part 1 and part 2). Massimo’s second post is worth reading for another description of structural realism. He gave the book a positive review despite being annoyed with the title of the first section: “In Defense of Scientism”. There’s also an old Rationally Speaking podcast interview of Ladyman, which I’m sure I listened to years ago, but probably need to revisit.

I’ve always held off on the book because it’s a little pricey, there’s no preview for the Amazon entry so it’s hard to know how academically dense the writing might be, and I’m not sure how interested I am in metaphysics anyway, even what appears to be mostly a take down of it. Although I am very interested in the philosophy of science angle, which might make it worth it.

Anyway, if interested, check out the interviews.

9 thoughts on “Interviews of James Ladyman on metaphysics

  1. If you are going to posit that electrons and protons are real, then why not red or blue? Where do you draw the distinction between basic sensory representations and things that are even more abstract representations of reality? Certainly red or blue should be even more real than electrons or protons since the latter are unobservable, whereas we can see red or blue. If you buy into it all being real, you are now in Donald Hoffman’s conscious realism territory. I would rather accept the idea that it is all equally unreal but maybe occasionally useful approximations.

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    1. For me, it comes down to what has causal effects. Colors are categorizations, conclusions reached by our brain based on sensory conditions. And they effect behavior. Aside from allowing us to discuss the redness of red, they alert us to conditions in the world, such as ripe fruit. As part of the causal chain, I think they’re real. They’re as real as my laptop recognizing my face to log me in.

      It’s only if we want to talk about them as having an existence out there in the world that we run into an issue. That’s when it pays to remember the dress.

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  2. I’ll illustrate my comment with three examples.

    Example 1: electrons and positrons.
    The realist sees electron and positron as real categories. The anti-realist sees them as human constructed categories, which are used because they that helps us make good predictions.

    I tend toward the realist view here, but I will admit some ambivalence. I can see the other side.

    Example 2: cats and dogs.
    The realist sees the cat category and the dog category as real. The anti-realist sees them as human constructed categories. I think most people would see themselves as realists about cats and dogs. I’m not aware of any anti-realists on this. So I will count myself as a realist here. But I can see that there is an issue. Quine’s “gavagai” argument illustrates that our categories are slippery at best.

    Example 3: real and unreal.
    The anti-realist position here should be that real and unreal are human constructs. We cannot even define them clearly. What makes something real or unreal depends a lot on a consensus of subjective opinions.

    In this case, I’m very much inclined toward the anti-realist position. And that probably undermines the whole idea of realism vs. anti-realism.

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    1. My take is the unreal is what we can ignore without consequence. So, I when it comes to Darth Vader, I can ignore his ability to force choke people, because he isn’t real, nor are Force powers. Of course, ignoring Vader the fictional character, in certain contexts, does have consequences. For example, if I’m writing my own fiction, and want to have a masked cyborg character with superpowers, I have to carefully consider how close to the now Vader-stereotype I want to get.

      Electrons, cats, and dogs can’t be ignored without consequence. In the case of dogs and cats, consider what happens to your house if you ignore their presence. In the case of electrons, we can’t observe them, but they are nevertheless necessary to explain a lot of what we can observe. Of course, you can always come up with alternate constructs, but those typically involve extra assumptions that do no work toward explaining what we do see. It’s very possible electrons aren’t what we think they are, but it seems like we’re in miracle territory if electron theory just happens to predict what it does without something electron-like being there, and whatever the electron-like thing is, we might as well call it “the electron”.

      This reminds me of the old scholarly joke that the Iliad and Odyssey weren’t written by Homer, but by another poet with the same name.

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  3. I did some reading of a middle chapter in Ladyman and Ross’s book. It is indeed academically dense philosophy, but you can probably handle it. It tends to presume a lot of familiarity with past philosophy of science, which is not a very strong area for me. Thus a lot of their premises might look lacking in sufficient credibility – e.g., why do we have to assume that current science is a valid starting point? But if you’re familiar with the failures of brilliant past philosophers to work out an alternative, their approach looks more reasonable.

    I think ontic structural realism is a great idea, mostly because it correctly avoids unnecessary work. If a holographical principle applies to N-dimensional spacetime, is reality N- or N-1 dimensional? Yes, i.e., whatever, i.e., use whichever formulation is convenient. They say the same thing.

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    1. Thanks for the assessment. I probably will order their book, but it sounds like the kind of thing I might read more selectively than comprehensively. I’m not confident I’ll have all the priors though, as least not in the detail they’ll probably expect.

      Ontic structural realism does seems to have a lot going for it. A part of me says we can’t be sure there aren’t intinsic non-relational properties, but then I remember we’d never be able to know about them, and it seems safe to ignore them, which means that at least for us, they don’t exist.


  4. Mike,

    I’ve just stumbled across this discussion from nearly a year ago. I don’t know whether you’ve got around to “Everything Must Go” since then — if not, you might find the below useful.

    I had a chance to talk to Ladyman in Oxford (UK!) in 2018. He was giving a talk to OxfordPhilsoc, so at a coffee break I tackled him , as one does :-), to say that I really liked his key suggestion in “Everything Must Go” to build on Dennett’s “Real Patterns” by basing ontology on computational compressibility of descriptions (which is how understood the proposal). To my surprise, he made a face and just muttered that unfortunately it didn’t pan out — and quite clearly didn’t want to talk about it. If one discards that particular idea, what is left of the book is a sharp criticism of academic ontology and defence of the principle of primacy of physics. In fact, the lecture he was giving us amounted to an extended (and to some extent justifiable) whinge about the book being ignored and misunderstood by academia. So I was left somewhat scratching my head.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Mike. I actually never did get around to reading it. From the preview, the writing seemed academically dense and I wasn’t sure I was interested enough to wade through that.

      I might need to dig up that Dennett paper. It sounds interesting.

      That’s an interesting story. But would you say he had soured on structural realism overall, or just the point you were asking him about? I just did a search on his most recent output, but couldn’t make anything out just based on the titles. He wrote the SEP article on structural realism, which hasn’t had major updates since 2014, although it has had some minor ones as late as 2020. Hopefully if he has soured on it, he’ll put something out on his reasons.


      1. It is academically dense. As for the Dennett paper, it’s certainly worth reading. You can get it on-line —

        Don’t really know about Ladyman’s current view on structural realism. After that encounter I rather took my eye off him. In any case, my impression is that structural realism’s stronghold is philosophy of mathematics. Stewart Shapiro seems to be one of the key people. Sorry, can’t tell you more — it’s been over 10 years since I looked into the subject. It was essentially all about number theory and integers in particular. When I tried to prod one of philosophers giving a lecture on the subject into commenting on the miracle of exponentiation (a short-hand for repeated multiplication evolving by a series of forced moves until Euler’s formula falls out of it) he just waved it aside — it was a problem for mathematicians, apparently. So I gave up.

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