of science John Dupré, like Nancy Cartwright, Paul Feyerabend, and others, has
developed powerful and influential criticisms of reductionism.  Whereas Cartwright is best known for her
criticisms of reductionism in
the context of physics
, Dupré has tended to focus instead on
(though both have addressed the other sciences as well).  Like Cartwright, his style is less
mischievous and polemical than Feyerabend’s
.  Dupré’s essay “The
Miracle of Monism”
is a useful overview of his approach, and
contains lessons especially relevant at a time when science (or at least the
use to which it is put in public policy) has become ideologized.

The “monism”
Dupré has in mind is related to the notion of the “Unity of Science,” which, he
notes, can be interpreted in either or both of two ways: as entailing a unity of method or a unity of content.  On the first interpretation, there is a
single “Scientific Method” that all the sciences apply in their respective
domains.  Baconian inductivism and
Popperian falsificationism would be stock examples.  On the second interpretation, there is a
single subject matter that all the different sciences are ultimately about.  The stock example here would be the
reductionist thesis that all the facts of chemistry, biology, psychology, etc.
are really “nothing but” facts about basic particles and the laws governing
them, so that anything we say about the former should at least in principle be
translatable into statements about the latter. 

Belief in
“unity of method” traditionally lent plausibility to the “unity of content”
idea.  More ambitious versions of
reductionism are now widely rejected, but as Dupré notes, the spirit of
reductionism lives on (as is evident from the work of many prominent
and scientists).  It is the metaphysical vision represented by
the “unity of content” idea that Dupré has in mind by “monism.”  By calling it a “miracle,” Dupré is being
cheeky.  The empirical evidence, he
argues, is firmly against either interpretation of the “Unity of Science”
thesis.  Hence it would be a miracle if
monism were true.  The thesis is a “myth”
or an “ideology,” he says, and like other myths and ideologies it thrives not
because of any evidential merits but because it serves certain functions. 

Pluralism versus unity

The problems
with attempts to formulate a single “Scientific Method” have been well-known in
the philosophy of science for decades. 
As Dupré points out, the very idea that there is some uniform procedure
deployed by physicists when they search for a new particle, by molecular
biologists when they look for the genetic basis of cancer, by coleopterists
when they classify beetles, and by sociologists when they carry out a
statistical investigation of a hypothesis (to borrow Dupré’s examples), was
never terribly plausible in the first place. 
In reality, scientific methodologies are as diverse as the domains
scientists investigate and the very different problems those domains pose.

The bulk of Dupré’s
attention is devoted to criticizing the metaphysical interpretation of the
“Unity of Science” idea.  The problems
with various specific reductionist projects are also well-known.  Reductionist positions in the philosophy of
mind face notorious difficulties.  Dupré
himself has made important contributions to the literature demonstrating the
failure of reductionism in biology. 
Powerful anti-reductionist arguments have been developed in recent years
even in the philosophy of chemistry.  (I
survey all of this anti-reductionist literature in the philosophy of science in

One “monist”
solution to the problem posed by the failure of reductionism is to opt for eliminativism.  If classical genetics cannot be reduced to
molecular genetics, then, the eliminativist holds, we must simply eliminate classical genetics and replace it with molecular genetics; if
mental phenomena cannot be reduced to neural phenomena, then we must simply eliminate the mental from our picture of
human nature and replace it with a
purely neural description of human behavior; and so on.

Now, none of
these eliminativist positions is ultimately coherent.  (Again, see Aristotle’s Revenge.)  But more
to Dupré’s point, there is no empirical
evidence for them whatsoever.  They are
motivated instead by the demands of an ideological metaphysical vision, not by
any considerations from genetics, neuroscience, or what have you.

Dupré notes
that the thesis of the “completeness of physics” is sometimes appealed to in
defense of the monistic metaphysical vision. 
This is the idea that whatever exists or happens in the world does so by
virtue of what exists and happens at the level of basic particles and the laws
that govern them.  As Alex
likes to put it, “the physical facts fix all the facts.”  But this thesis is itself merely another part of the “monistic” ideological position
dogmatically adhered to, for as Dupré observes, “there is essentially no
evidence for the completeness of physics.” 
Indeed, the failure of reductionism (in chemistry, biology, psychology,
the social sciences, etc.) is itself
empirical evidence against the
completeness of physics.  There is simply
too much about the world as we know it from actual
(as opposed to tendentious metaphysical theory) that cannot be
captured in a description that confines itself to the entities and laws
recognized by physics.

People who
think the predictive and technological successes of physics prove otherwise are
drawing precisely the wrong lesson, in Dupré’s view.  It is, as he points out, extremely difficult to get physical reality into the right sort of artificial
laboratory conditions in which the laws of physics will actually accurately describe
it.  Most real world circumstances are
simply too complex for the laws to be anything more than approximations.  The idea that the description physics gives
us of such idiosyncratic systems is true of the
as a whole is an
extrapolation for which there is no empirical warrant.  What physics describes are abstractions from physical reality,
rather than physical reality in all its concrete richness.  Its precision is, accordingly, a “red
herring” in Dupré’s estimation.  (Here Dupré
is, of course, making a point that has also been developed in depth by Nancy
Cartwright in a number of works.)

What actual
experience reveals to us is a plurality
of domains of physical reality to which a plurality
of methods must be applied if we are to understand them – rather than a single
monolithic reality that can be captured via a single monolithic “Scientific

Functions of the myth

Why does the
ideology survive if there is no evidence for it?  Dupré notes that it serves a couple of
interests.  First, the idea that there is
a single monolithic “Scientific Method” that all scientists employ serves the
function of lending unearned prestige to the less solid areas of scientific
inquiry.  It “distributes epistemic
warrant” and thereby “provides solidarity and protects the weaker brethren,” as
Dupré says.  If physics, chemistry, evolutionary
psychology, macroeconomics, meteorology, epidemiology, etc. are all really just
the same thing – ScienceTM, applications of The Scientific MethodTM
– then some of the eminence of an Einstein or a Schrödinger thereby rubs off on
the likes of (say) a Neil Ferguson or an Anthony Fauci. 

If instead we
see that there is no single “Scientific Method” but rather a patchwork of
diverse enterprises, some of which are more solid and successful than others,
then each has to fend for itself.  One
can no longer pretend that, say, doubting the wisdom of lockdowns (my example,
not Dupré’s) is like doubting quantum mechanics, as if they were somehow
equally plausible deliverances of “the science.”

A second
reason the myth survives, Dupré tentatively suggests, is that it sometimes
serves the interests of the rich and powerful. 
He gives the example of the overuse of drugs to treat emotional and behavioral
problems, such as the use of Ritalin to deal with ADHD in boys.  The reductionist assumption that mental
phenomena are really “nothing but” neural phenomena can make the use of drugs
falsely seem “more scientific” than an approach that emphasizes the psychological
level of description or environmental factors. 
Those in authority can satisfy themselves that they have solved a
problem with a chemical “quick fix,” and drug companies can reap profits.  (The way in which the myth of a monolithic
Scientific Method can function as an instrument of authoritarian social control
is a theme of F. A. Hayek’s classic The
Counter-Revolution of Science

Science ain’t all that

rightly admires the achievements of the sciences, but rejects the scientism
that would deny the necessity or legitimacy of other approaches to studying
reality.  Though there is no single
scientific method, there are “epistemic virtues” that science at its best
exhibits, such as “understanding, explanation, prediction, and control.”  However, fields of study other than the
sciences can exhibit such virtues as well. 
Indeed, drawing on Thomas Kuhn’s The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions
, Dupré notes that in some ways,
scientists often think less critically
than people working in other fields (such as philosophy) do.  He writes: “Of course, scientists have very
heated disputes about the details of their empirical or theoretical claims, but
these take place within a context that is not, on the whole, called into
question.”  (What he has in mind here is,
of course, Kuhn’s thesis that “normal science” involves solving problems within
a “paradigm” that is dutifully upheld rather than challenged.)

What the
advance of knowledge requires is a plurality
of overlapping approaches – both scientific (physics, neuroscience, etc.) and non-scientific
(philosophy, history, etc.) – to the study of a plurality of kinds of reality.


America’s State Religion

particle collection that fancied itself a physicist

physicists fall for

One Long
Circular Argument

Science and

Blinded by Scientism


and Cosmos roundup


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