Adam's Opticks

‘Every Thing Must Go’: James Ladyman in conversation with Raymond Tallis


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.

I first came across James Ladyman‘s work in 2010 (through an interview in Damian Veal’s excellent Collapse V), and I continue to find the metaphysics outlined in his book Every Thing Must Go (co-authored with Don Ross) a thrillingly comprehensive worldview that absorbs an impressive array of cutting-edge science.

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:

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