Readers wishing to understand the nitty gritty of this debate would be well advised to start by reading Dan Dennett’s paper, Real Patterns, discussed at length in the video.
Here’s an encounter I’ve wanted to arrange for ages.
Raymond Tallis first crossed my radar during conversations with Guy Saunders in 2013, and his contemporaneous Guardian article Philosophy isn’t dead yet, which discussed both Ladyman and Lee Smolin, confirmed me in my excitement that Adam’s Opticks was zoning in on something important. I’ve since had the pleasure of critiquing some sections of his forthcoming Of Time and Lamentation.
On a personal note, it was extremely satisfying to give these two very different philosophers – both warmly supportive of this blog – a chance to hash out their ideas in person. Ray’s remarks in the Guardian had been critical of James’s “scientistic” deference to the impersonal portrait of the world painted by mathematical physics. Conversely, in a comment on this blog, James has indicated that he believes in separating out a respect for personhood from a misguided critique of science typical of figures such as Tallis. On the basis of these rumblings, one might have expected some sparks to fly.
In the end, however, the conversation proved both intellectually invigorating and, for me, quite touching. Settling on an interview format at Ray’s behest, James was clearly flattered by Tallis’s attentive reading of Every Thing Must Go, and excited to have pressure put on key points. Ray, for his part, seemed gleeful at the opportunity to grill a philosophical bête noire on the details of his thesis.
Tallis’s criticisms centred on his concern that a metaphysics based strictly on diktats from third-person science necessarily excludes the first-person perspective. In the discussion he secures a striking admission from Ladyman that the notion of a conscious observer does indeed represent “a transcendental presupposition” of his theory. Pushing back, however, Ladyman stresses lessons derived from Wittgenstein: even if a fully-realised, relational science of the world turns out to omit the first-person perspective, it would remain the case that attempts to talk about conscious experience rely on a public language whose terms are defined relationally. To communicate the experience of a particular red requires comparison with other reds. And hence those who would place the first-person contents of consciousness at the heart of metaphysics return – naively – to a third-person view. As Wittgenstein puts it: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent”.
By way of collecting my own thoughts on the discussion, here’s a short list of stones I felt left unturned:
- Ray is certainly correct that Every Thing Must Go‘s account of material entities is observer-dependent (without agents, all that remains is the causal laws and regularities of fundamental physics). However, I wonder whether James need concede the necessity of a conscious observer. A non-conscious robot – or a bacterium, as in James’s example – may discern real patterns in the world and act accordingly. That James would speak of a bacterium’s “internal representation” of the world seems to me a misstep. One needn’t presume a kind of “Cartesian theatre” on the part of a bacterium when a non-conscious mechanism would do. And non-conscious mechanisms can track real patterns (like sodium gradients).
- Regarding James’s concern about how best to naturalise the notion of a human observer, it ought to be pointed out that the theory of real patterns was originally proposed by Dan Dennett in order to take account of human consciousness. Roughly speaking, consciousness for Dennett emerges from our ability to track real patterns in our environment. In a step up from the non-conscious bacterium, however, the human environment includes other human agents. And with an ability to track other agents comes an ability to track ourselves – hence consciousness. Viewed from this angle, Tallis’s concern that tracking real patterns in the universe presupposes consciousness gets things precisely backwards. Consciousness (on the Dennettian view) presupposes non-conscious pattern tracking.
- Moreover, in a recent reappraisal of Dennett’s early work, Don Ross – co-author of Every This Must Go – expresses optimism about the possibility of bringing Dennett’s informational theory of consciousness into metaphysical harmony with physics as the latter becomes expressible in information-theoretic terms. (That said, Ray may be relied upon to object that information talk is anthropocentric, or observer relative. I don’t think this is a problem for Every Thing Must Go‘s account of objects or entities. But if relations amongst objects in the special sciences are “a way of stating” realities in fundamental physics, then the latter had better turn out to be more than anthropocentric.)
- One may still object that Every Thing Must Go fails as a foundational ontology on the grounds that even the non-conscious computational observers required by the theory are still precisely the kind of “medium sized dry goods” the theory purports to bring “into existence”. I think this is a semantic quibble. Objects and patterns don’t become real because they’re observed (this isn’t an argument along the lines of “does the table disappear when I close my eyes?”). Rather, objects/patterns are to be considered real if they could be used by an agent to track the phenomena at a certain scale, regardless of whether an actual agent is present or not.
- I find Every Thing Must Go‘s “scale-relative ontology” easier to accept in one direction than the other i.e. I can accept that there are no macro-entities at micro-scales. However, I wonder if the non-existence of micro-entities at macro-scales is problematised by “butterfly and hurricane”-type situations where lone micro-entities, suitably amplified, really do make a big difference to the macro-level. Would an agent wanting to keep track of macro-economic trends not benefit from being informed about the individual psychology of an inventor creating a revolutionary new product? Or wouldn’t Schrodinger’s cat be very pleased to know whether the quantum particle determining its fate was due to spin this way or that? (And one more example.)
- Ray’s identification of the paradox inherent in taking cues in ontology from the ways in which science changes over time and from the particular state of quantum mechanics at the present time chimes with my own hunch that there may be problems with the latter. Specifically, I wonder whether the claim that quantum mechanics does away with self-subsistent objects may be tautological, or somehow reliant on more general arguments concerning relationalism in science. I need to do more homework to establish whether this is the case, but if it is, perhaps one ought to say that quantum mechanics demonstrates the relational nature of science in a striking way (rather than motivating a belief in that metaphysical framework).
- Finally, Ladyman asserts that “… any description of quantum fields, or general relativity, or evolutionary dynamics that doesn’t use the mathematical language that the scientists use is a misrepresentation of our scientific knowledge … As soon as we abandon mathematics and try to translate into ordinary language we’re losing much of what we’ve learned”. This seems eminently sensible, but I wonder how strictly this rule ought to be applied. Does it rule out, for example, attempts by philosophers of physics to solve the measurement problem in quantum mechanics? Doesn’t all talk of, say, multiplying universes (in the Everettian interpretation) step away from the maths and into linguistic misrepresentation? Does it not “domesticate” science with use of concepts from the manifest image? And might the same charge be levelled at scientific metaphysics in general? If not, then why not?
Due to overheating cameras, the tail end of the video is slightly truncated. But here’s the audio of that section:
References and further reading:
Dennett, Dan (1991), ‘Real Patterns’ in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 88, No. 1, pp. 27-51 – Also downloadable from here.
Ladyman, James & Ross, Don (2009), Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalised (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Ross, Don (2015), ‘A most rare achievement: Dennett’s scientific discovery in
Content and Consciousness‘ in Studies in Brain and Mind, Vol. 7, pp.29-48 – Also downloadable from here.
Tallis, Raymond (forthcoming), Of Time and Lamentation