Friday, July 17, 2009

Is Ladyman recanting?

James Ladyman was supposed to give a plenary session (with Anjan Chakravartty) at the most recent BSPS on Tuesday. Sadly he could not deliver it in person; he was ill with swineflu and told to stay at home by authorities; I hope you feel better soon, James!
Steven French was kind enough to deliver Ladyman's talk (which exists as powerpoint slides). It sounded like Ladyman is recanting on some of the crucial issues in chapter 1 of *Every Thing Must* Go (discussed below). (Pressed in Q&A, French said Ladyman "has mellowed".") In particular, I wrote a few weeks ago: "1C: Many of their arguments against far-fetched metaphysics may also be directed at topics in mathematics (the vast majority?) that have no hope of ever being applied to our world. Why can't we be tolerant of a priori metaphysics in the same way we are tolerant of much of mathematics?" To me the new, mature Ladyman agrees with this now. If Ladyman now has a principle of tolerance, much of the polemic bite of the book disappears. Perhaps French misunderstood Ladyman, or I French/Ladyman.
Anyway, I hope to return to my running comments soon.


  1. I don't think it is the metaphysics per se that Ladyman/French was objecting to, but rather the purported connection between that metaphysics and science. There was an admission that there might be inherent value to mapping out areas of "logical space", which does seem to lead to tolerance of metaphysics as well as pure maths. What is objectionable about metaphysics is its claim to be based on science, where that "science" is for example Aristotle, or "some weird misunderstanding of quantum physics" to paraphrase French.

    That was my understanding of the talk, at least...

  2. Seamus, since we don't have a text in front of us, and French was reporting Ladyman's views bases on a powerpoint presentation, we must be careful indeed.
    But this is so amusing, so let me respond anyway!
    First, I think the paraphrase by French that you quote was directed at certain NYU/Durham metaphysicians who are inspired by what French called Aristotelian science (I think Kit Fine and EJ Lowe were named in that exchange).
    Second, even the admiision that there might be inherent value to mapping out areas of 'logical space' (or in pure math) is something of a climbdown from the book.

  3. even the admission that there might be inherent value to mapping out areas of logical space is something of a climbdown from the book

    It certainly sounds like a climbdown from the position James was holding in this thread.

    (Btw, if you are reading this, get well soon, James.)

  4. Thanks for the well wishes and no I am not recanting. The main point of the paper for the BSPS conference was the same as the talk I gave a couple of weeks ago at the Metaphysics of Science conference in Melbourne, namely to scrutinize the claim that by using theoretical virtues such as explanatory power to adjudicate amoung empirically equivalent theories, analytic metaphysicians are breaking the underdetermination of theory by data in just the same way theoretical scientists do. I point out in the paper that there are a number of disanalogies between the cases and that explantory power in science is coupled to precise empirical predictions and in any case is only ever a temporary criterion for theory choice. I do have one slide where I consider the claim that metaphysics can be defended as the mapping of logical space but I do not endorse that defence and remain committed to the idea that metaphysics should be informed by and should potentially be fruitful for science. I hope to post a version of the paper on the archive soon (it was partly written as a response to a forthcoming paper defending metaphysics by Laurie Paul). (The argument about underdetermination uses special relativity as an example as is essentially the same one I sketched in the earlier thread Garbrielle mentioned.)

    I was very sorry to miss the conference - I would have attended had a doctor not told me to isolate myself.

  5. Thank you for clarifying, James! Hope you feel better by now.

  6. Hi James,

    Hope you're feeling better!

    Let me ask you this: Do you believe that "pure maths" should be informed by and should potentially be fruitful for science? If that is the case then it seems that would tell against quite a lot of mathematics research as well as metaphysics. If not, then what is the difference which means that pure maths is OK but metaphysics is not?

  7. For Seamus Bradley (July 21).

    The difference is that metaphysics the subject-matter of metaphysics is 'physical reality' (construed widely), which also happens to be the subject-matter of natural science, notably physics. This prompts the question how metaphysics and natural science, physics in particular, are related. Are they in competition? Surely not?
    Mathematics has no possible competitors in natural science. This is one difference.

    A second difference is that mathematics is
    consciously applied in natural science, and
    is often being developped for natural science.
    Metaphysics is not.