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by John Dupré
Oxford University Press, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Sep 20th 2002

Human Nature and the Limits of Science

Much of Human Nature and the Limits of Science sets out an argument against evolutionary psychology and the way that the science is used to draw political conclusions.  I have discussed this aspect of the book elsewhere (in The Philosophers’ Magazine) and here I will simply say that Dupré makes a very convincing case that, in his words, “evolutionary psychology is … a largely bankrupt approach to understanding human behavior” (p. 15). 

The sixth chapter turns to rational choice theory as used in economics and the rest of the social sciences.  Dupré concedes that using rational choice and game theory may be helpful in understanding patterns in people’s purchasing and selling property and goods.  But he argues that it is a mistake to extend these models to the rest of human life, and he decries the imperialistic tendencies of rational choice theory to quash other ways of understanding social behavior.  His two examples to make his case are Philipson and Posner’s economic approach to understanding the AIDS epidemic and Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker’s account of human partner choice in his Treatise on the Family.  Both accounts assume that humans are fundamentally motivated by personal-utility-maximizing considerations.  They give little or no place for altruism or more complex motivations.  Dupré is highly critical of such reductionist approaches, which he argues lead to “the obliteration of the most interesting and important aspects of human behaviour” (p. 132) and instead he promotes non-reductionist metaphysical pluralism. 

Dupré’s arguments are simple and somewhat obvious; what is surprising is that serious thinkers were ever tempted to take the oversimplifications of evolutionary psychology and rational choice theory seriously.  These theories may well have a place in the overall explanation of human behavior, but it takes only brief thought for it to be clear that they cannot provide the whole story.  Dupré makes his case well, but he is hardly the first to point out the deficiencies of evolutionary psychology or rational choice theory as global approaches to understanding human social life, and Dupré himself often refers to the other critics who have made similar points previously.  It is only in the final chapter on free will that Dupré’s book makes strikingly original claims. 

In Chapter 7, Dupré’s aims “to show how disposing of both the bad metaphysics and its scientistic spawn opens the way for a proper account of human autonomy” (p. 154).  He argues that we do not have good reason to believe in determinism, and without determinism, there is room for an account of freedom of the will.  This is well-trodden ground, but Dupré’s argument shows clear understanding of how simple randomness (from the phenomena of quantum theory or chaos theory, for example) does not help to understand free will.  The strength of his account is to provide an alternative way of understanding the relationship between the falsity of determinism and the possibility of free will. 

Dupré holds that freedom has little conceptual connection to being able to act otherwise.  He is concerned to develop the concept of the autonomous agent as the originator of an action.  This idea has been developed by the philosopher Roderick Chisholm and is captured by the phrase, “agent causation.”  But unlike Chisholm, Dupré does not argue that agent causation can provide an account of alternative possibilities of action, and he takes agent causation to be similar to other forms of causation.  Indeed, he argues that human freedom relies on our causal powers. 

Traditional determinism is committed to the thesis of causal completeness, which requires that “there be some quantitatively precise law governing the development of every situation” (p. 157).  Even an indeterministic theory such as quantum mechanics is committed to causal completeness, according to Dupré; it assigns probabilities to events rather than making predictions with certainty, but it still is governed by the assumption that it is applicable to every physical event.  Dupré rejects the thesis of causal completeness, because he holds that, “few, if any, situations have a complete causal truth to be told about them” (p. 157), and “causal order is everywhere partial and incomplete” (p. 158).  Of course, Dupré believes that objects have causal powers, and indeed, the key to human autonomy lies precisely in the fact that we are dense concentrations of such powers.

If the behavior of the microphysical components of our bodies is determined, then it follows that the movements of our bodies are determined.  The exact relation between the higher levels of descriptions and the lower levels is a matter of philosophical dispute; reductionism holds that the higher levels are reducible to the lower levels, eliminativism holds that the higher levels are simply false and only the lower levels of description are true, and supervenience holds that both levels of description are true and one level is not reducible to another, but the higher level does in a metaphysically significant way depend on the lower level.  The same relationships between levels will hold even if determinism is not true, but causal completeness is.  Dupré insists that all these view of the relationship between different levels of description make the causal powers of ordinary sized objects at best epiphenomenal.  Higher structural levels lack causal autonomy.  But with the denial of causal completeness, one can save the causal autonomy of higher structural levels.  Structures at each level have distinctive causal powers, and the different levels will interact with each other.  (Dupré first set out these ideas in his groundbreaking 1993 book The Disorder of Things.)

Dupré’s argument against determinism starts by pointing out what a strong metaphysical claim it makes, and to shift the burden of proof onto determinists to make the case for their view.  He then argues that there is nothing in our empirical knowledge of the world to suggest that determinism must be true.  Indeed, even the greatest successes of scientific reductionism are modest and limited, and give no support to a strong claim of universal determinism. The success of apparently deterministic theories such as Newton’s laws of motion is restricted to simple systems such as the solar system.  As has been pointed out by Nancy Cartwright in her influential 1983 book How The Laws of Physics Lie, the laws of physics rarely describe the actual behavior of objects, and are only true under a ceteris paribus (other things being equal) condition.  Most systems are very complex, and so other things are not equal.  Dupré moves from this straightforward point to a more surprising claim:

The assumption that the laws of Newtonian mechanics are, in some sense, carrying on regardless under the overlay of increasingly many interfering and counteracting forces is not merely sheer speculation, but actually of dubious intelligibility.  What are these laws supposed to be doing, given that the objects, subject to such diverse other influences, are not behaving in any sense in accord with them?  (p. 166)

This is a bizarre suggestion, for it seems that Dupré is suggesting that some laws of motion cease operating in cases of complex interaction of objects.  His idea that the continuation of the laws of physics might even be unintelligible in complex situations is surely just plain wrong, since most physicists would claim to have a clear and distinct idea of what it means.  It is not clear why he makes this claim, since he does not need it order to attack his target of causal completeness.  His basis is the empiricist view that we should not extrapolate beyond the available evidence, and there is little empirical evidence for causal completeness. 

An interesting distinction made by Dupré is worth mentioning here.  He concedes that science might do well to make a methodological assumption of determinism; that is to say, science might make progress assuming that there is an underlying order governing complex interactions, and this might lead to successful scientific laws.  But the helpfulness of the methodological assumption does not prove the truth of the metaphysical thesis of determinism.  All is shows is that the methodology helps us to discover what order there is in the world. 

Furthermore, Dupré emphasizes that there is plenty of evidence, including random events such as coin tosses, that the world is genuinely indeterministic.  While not conclusive, this evidence is certainly counterbalances the evidence from predictable events that the world is deterministic.  And if there is some indeterminism in the world, then it will not be contained but rather will have effects far and wide.  Dupré concludes this part of his discussion by pointing out that if there is some indeterminism in the world, the empirical evidence for causal completeness will be even weaker than it would be in a determinist world, and it becomes even less clear what we might mean by laws being true ceteris paribus, because it is not clear what we are holding to be equal.

If the evidence available to us does not lend good support to the thesis of causal completeness, then what leads so many to believe in it?  Dupré suggests that our intuitions may rest on our experience of complex highly organized structures such as machines and biological organisms.  It must at least be true that there must be some order in the world for it to be even possible to successfully build machines.  But Dupré points out that it takes enormously skillful engineering to create machines, and one of the marks of a successful design is that it minimizes the unpredictability of the operation of a machine. 

Dupré then points out that biological organisms are also highly reliable, even though they were not designed, and unlike machines, they lack controls.  Humans have autonomy, by which Dupré means that we have the capacity to control ourselves.  He emphasizes that our many skills and capacities are shaped by our social context, and they depend on that context.  But Dupré agrees with Kant that it is the human capacity to guide our actions by principles that makes human autonomy worth caring about, for it is our ability to be guided by our conception of the good that gives us hope that we can make the world a better place.  He further argues that moral principles are essentially linguistic, and as such, “depend essentially on the relationship between the individual and society” (p. 181).  He takes care to assert that this relationship is a dialectical one, i.e., it is one of mutual interaction and dependency. 

One might wonder what implications Dupré’s view has for the study and treatment of mental illness, and fortunately, in the closing pages of the book, he gives the reader some hints using the example of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  In the Introduction to the book, Dupré commented on the well-known increase in the diagnosis of the disorder and the associated increase in the prescription of the stimulant medication Ritalin.  He warns of the dangers of reductive approaches to understanding children’s restlessness, wonders how much research has been done comparing the relation of different teaching techniques to ADHD compared to the research done showing the efficacy of psychopharmacological remedies, and suggests that drugged children are “the price we pay for action on the basis of the reductionist myth” (p. 15).  In the final chapter, he argues that when we recognize the complexity of human behavior, we should then expect that a pharmacological solution might have both positive and negative effects.  Understanding the value of pluralism shows that the teaching of medical students should be broadened rather than becoming increasingly narrow.

These conclusions may strike humanistic philosophers as banal and they can of course be supported on far less controversial grounds than the metaphysical pluralism advocated by Dupré.  It takes only a little appreciation for the limitations of scientific knowledge of human life to see that it is important to be conscious of the social influences on human behavior and the dangers of a reductionist approaches to understanding the mind.  Nevertheless, Dupré’s advocacy of pluralism is very welcome and timely in the current reign of neurophysiological approaches to mental disorders. 

It is Dupré’s discussion of the relationship between autonomy and the rejection of causal completeness that is of more substantial philosophical interest.  His suggestions are certainly interesting even if they are somewhat sketchy; one might wish that his ideas were spelled in more detail in order to be able assess them fully, although to be fair, he does refer to some of his previous published work in support of his current arguments.  To a large extent, one’s sympathy with his views about freewill will be related to one’s sympathy to what he refers to in his Acknowledgements as the Stanford School of the philosophy of science, and in particular the philosophy of Nancy Cartwright on scientific laws and causality, as well as Dupré’s own work on the disunity of science.  His view that autonomy is a matter of a person’s causal powers does not by itself shed much light on the nature of autonomy.  For example, it does nothing to help resolve controversies about whether people who are diagnosed with addictions and obsessive-compulsive behavior, or even tics, have autonomy or not. In one footnote (p. 176) Dupré says that “‘I’ refers to the whole organism, not just some neurologically salient bits of it” but this does not help us to understand the autonomy of behavior that results from some kind of psychological conflict or is in some way a product of structures at different levels of the whole organism. 

One might hope that Dupré or other philosophers who are impressed by his approach will further develop his interesting suggestions about freedom.  Yet Human Nature and the Limits of Science is an exciting book for philosophy and deserves a wide readership.  It is written in an approachable style that should be accessible not only to professional philosophers and graduate students, but also to upper-level undergraduates and philosophically-inclined social scientists.


© 2002 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.