About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Rationally Speaking podcast: James Ladyman and naturalistic metaphysics

Compared to other fields of philosophy, "metaphysics" doesn't get a great rap - it's both dauntingly obtuse and often derided as nonsense.

In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Massimo and Julia chat with James Ladyman, Professor of philosophy at the University of Bristol and the author of Every Thing Must Go.

The conversation covers: what is metaphysics, exactly, and where (in Ladyman's opinion) has it gone off the rails? Where does traditional science err in its classification of the "building blocks" of physics? What would a new, improved, metaphysics look like - and what implications does that have for age-old questions like "What is causality?" and "Is the world real?"

James's pick: "The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe"

"Understanding Philosophy of Science"


  1. Oh no, a bad start, Ladyman goes from the "particularly dominant way of looking at reality" (reduction to physical objects with properties) at 5.50 min, to his own "field difficult to conceptualize", and then allows Massion to assume that this means his fields has the new fundamentals. In fact it is the field of the new unknowns and possibilities that follow from failed explanations of Quantum behavior due to limited ability and experimentation. That's why it's so difficult to conceptualize, but I shall continue and see if he does.

  2. Sanity returns briefly at 27.00 min, where we get to the view that, absent any reason to go with physical reduction to objects, why not leave the door open for Ladyman's view that there is nothing physical at the bottom. I will leave that logic with you. It is a very weak support for Ladyman, who relies on uncertainty (lacking absolute measurement) & duality (lacking conceptual understanding) as reasons why reductive certainty fails. It fails for now due to limits to measuement & concepts.

    At 32.40, Massimo accepts that Ladyman's might be one way to "start thinking" about science / philosophy. Indeed, it is not an established science, it is a new way and highly speculative (abstract, in my view). Try to bridge physics & bilogy using chemistry, not by going round the outside and getting dizzy. Hard, hard, grinding work, I can tell you, as I have done it (took 30 years of Sundays).

    At 35.50 min Ladyman accepts real objects, but they are uncertain, dualistic etc as above so he can say reality is non-physical at root. In fact it would be physical without being well understood at root, that's all. But while its not my cup of tea, I hope some people pursue the ideas. Did he conceptualize the field? No, he realized there are a few gaps in physics and he drove a truck through them. Go to www.thehumandesign.net for my free book explaining reality and bridging the gap.

    On Platonic Idealism, a bit of a cop out again. I was hoping for something more wild than falling between Pythagoras (math describing reality) and Plato (reality materializing math). I though he was Platonic. Anyway, the upshot is that its a lot less certain than Massimo's article, but I am not disappointed. Cop outs from silliness are to be commended.

    1. Marcus,

      > and then allows Massion to assume that this means his fields has the new fundamentals. In fact it is the field of the new unknowns and possibilities that follow from failed explanations of Quantum behavior due to limited ability and experimentation. <

      Congratulations, an inveterate postmodernist couldn't have crafted a more obscure or meaningless sentence. It takes quite an effort. (My name is Massimo, incidentally, not Massion.)

      > Try to bridge physics & bilogy using chemistry, not by going round the outside and getting dizzy. Hard, hard, grinding work, I can tell you, as I have done it (took 30 years of Sundays). <

      I'm sorry to hear that, though I wonder what it has to do with the topic of the podcast, since we were talking about the relationship between metaphysics and physics. And what does it mean to go "outside," outside of what?

    2. As obscure and meaningless as it can get? That's very harsh. The way it works is that developments are proposed and eventually they create a groundwork. The work of Ladyman does not constitute the current groundwork, rather it is a consequence of problems with that groundwork. Mine is a respectable narrative based on the crooked path of discovery and the opportunities that arise from the weaknesses of others - its more survival of the fittest than postmodernism. The misspelling was unintentional as I tend to flip out these replies to save time as it's so easy to do in this forum and argue well nonetheless.

      The podcast talks about the different levels. Did you listen to it all the way through? I recall you all expressed concern at explanations in psychology or biology beng based on physics that has gaps (thus problematic in itself and as a basis for upper levels in any case). The answer would not be to invoke spirituality (Idealism). Never fear, I am here! Psychology & Biology have a secure basis in Physics via Chemistry! No need to go outside of the established groundwork of reductionism to physical properties, merely define the properties properly and build with them.

      Where I can offer a concession is in the fact that these physical properties described by numbers (math) including pure ratios between them ("dimensionless" but only determined by physical measurement) are real. If you & Ladyman think they are interesting, that might be because they are, as real properties and the numbers that define & relate them. Simply remove the notion that they exist other than in application to physical states and explore them as properties, and see how you go. Happy trails!

    3. I should say, as you seem to like throwing around 'postmodernism' as a fiction, that it not only does not apply to my sensible view of one theory exploiting the weaknesses in another theory to gain prominence (without trying to close the gaps in the other theory), but it might apply to you quite squarely. I suspect from reading your Smolin posts that you take a postmodern approach to the constants of nature.

      Take, for instance, you error in describing G as dimensionless. It might be, as you say, that you were in a rush, but it might be that you are "rationalizing" that excuse to hide a deeper lack of understanding of what the constants are. You haven't shown an understanding of them at all in your posts, compared to mine. Your excuse would be a rationalization to support a "postmodernist" personal view. That's my theory anyway, from reading your posts on the constants.

    4. Marcus,

      if you seriously think I'm a postmodernist you are far more gone than I even thought. Sorry.

    5. I'm only using the term in inverted commas, as I interpret it as subjectivity anyway. No need to apologize for what you think, as long as you can back it up. So, far gone? Do back it up. On reading your posts, they seem to follow rigid preconceptions or hopes of maintaining a track you set off on, without the flexibility to adjust as you learn. I seriously doubt you have much knowledge of the groudwork of physics, but are pretending it.

      Your posts on the constants either show error or nothing at all by way of argument (except silly jokes about subjectivty & being far gone). Now, read my posts in comparison and decide who is far gone. Rationality requires an honest effort to reform when it is due, and politness to those those who are instructing you, not rudeness. If anything, your approach is an impediment to rationality and a poor example to readers. It's a good thing I'm here to keep it all on the straight and narrow.

  3. I am fascinated by Ladyman's project and trying to understand it. I am particularly confused by his, and Massimo's objection to emergence, though. Perhaps I don't understand what it means to most philosophers, but when L argues that Laplace's computer, if tracking only particles, would not be able to account for statistical mechanical phenomena such as heat, pressure and volume, that sure seems like emergence to me.

    1. OneDay,

      good question, but the issues are separate. Ladyman's argument about Laplace's demon is that it fails if there are no individual particles, but only diffuse non-local patterns, simply because there is nothing (as in no thing) to keep track.

      Emergence is different because the concept has been defined in different ways. For some it is simply the existence of non-linear effects, which is uncontroversial. At the other extreme it is the coming into existence of phenomena at certain levels of complexity that are in principle irreducible to lower levels of analysis. For me it is something in between: if Ladyman is right, then emergence is a way to describe patterns at certain levels of analysis, but it says nothing about the in principle reducibility (or not) of such patterns.

  4. Marcus,

    > If anything, your approach is an impediment to rationality and a poor example to readers. It's a good thing I'm here to keep it all on the straight and narrow. <

    Wow, I'm so honored, I don't know what I would do without you. Meanwhile, before you accuse me of postmodernism (do you even know what that means?), pause advertising your own book and check out my Nonsense on Stilts (link on the "Books" page of this blog). You will see that I ain't no postmodernist.

    1. I'm not one either, you started the whole thing.

  5. Good discussion - the podcast, not this anti-postmodernist stuff

    So off to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy I went, and was happy to discover Floridi's "Informational Realism". Could not quite understand how it is a flavor of OSR, and reconciles Ontic SR with Epistemic SR but do like how he lowers the floor a bit.

    Floridi says that when one reduces stuff to its essentials, you wind up with informational content. But he is on board with the structural realists with their notion of a mind-independent reality. Can't win em all. I give him credit for trying to explain the philosophical stance near the end.

    This is his key paper:


    Those who follow object-oriented programmimg will get a kick out of it.

    Again am perplexed as to why anyone would object to the term 'reality' as shorthand for 'agreed reality'. Then it makes sense, because we would require at least two entities, information being beamed at both. The extent to which they interpret the information the same way is the extent they agree the reality.

  6. I listened to this today, and I was curious as to what the difference between strong emergence and weak emergence would be. Why does "strong emergence" exclude the physical, while "weak emergence" not?

    And in terms of non-reductive physicalism, the best argument I've heard in favour of it was in David Deutsch's book The Fabric Of Reality. The argument was that if you took a string of functional genetic material and non-functional genetic material and subjected them both to random mutation via cosmic rays, that natural selection would mean that the DNA down the generations would look very different between the functional and non-functional counterpart. He took this to mean that life does have something intrinsic to it which cannot be explained by the atoms that composed it - information content. Does such an argument satisfy non-reductive physicalism, or would a reductive physicalism be able to handle it?

    (The other thing about life, as far as I can tell, is that no atoms in the body are goal-directed, but parts of the body together are. Is the approximation of bosons and fermions just wrong in being able to explain a lemur drinking while looking to the sky for eagles?)

    1. Kel,

      no, I don't think Deutsch's argument is a good one. Of course the two strands of dna would look differently, but that's because they started out differently and natural selection has "found" different solutions to the same problem. Generally speaking, treating life (or information) as special categories seems to me a non-starter.

      The difference between various forms of emergence is best explained here:


      Briefly, weak emergence says that the reductionist model is metaphysically correct, but epistemically we have to behave "as if" there were emergent properties because we don't have (and likely will never have) the tools to do otherwise. Strong emergence is the metaphysical concept that there are true emergent properties, i.e., types of behavior of matter that cannot be reduced to lower level laws.


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