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 ). 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 Rosenberg 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 experience (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 world 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 Method.”
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
Dupré 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.