Crítica, Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofía, Volume 11, number 31, April 1979
Ciencia y filosofía en El azar y la necesidad
Margarita Ponce T.
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

Abstract: Jacques Monod presents in Chance and Necessity some theses about man and the world, and other theses concerning the possibility of science. The aim of this paper is to elucidate the relations between science and philosophy as well as to point out the different levels of Monod´s thought. Hence, I expound his philosophical and metaphysical presuppositions and then I analyze whether or not they can be ‘deduced’ from a set of scientific hypothesis, as the author claims.
The presuppositions of Monod´s theories are: a) his basic beliefs, b) axioms or methodological principles, and c) some ‘scientific’ claims.

a) Basic Beliefs

1. Chance is the only source of novelty in the universe. Thus human existence is contingent. Monod ‘deduces’ this belief from the hypothetical statement that life might be the outcome of a “unique event”.
2. Life is unpredictable. This thesis is an illegitimate generalisation of evolutionary theory´s true statement denying the possibility of predicting the precise evolution or the appereance of particular phenomena.
3.Man is alone in the universe. There is no God, nor gods. This thesis is Monod´s profound credo. It is this presupposition which determines his choice of scientific facts and theories.
4. There is no plan or design in nature. This statement is justified, in Monod´s thought, by the “postulate of nature´s objectivity”.

b) Axioms

These are some fundamental methodological principles upon which, according to Monod, modern science is based.
1. “Nature is objective and not projective”. This statemente constitutes the so-called “objectivity postulate”, which in other words, consists in the assertion that no teleological explanation —which is made in terms of final causes— would ever give us real knowledge. Monod locates the origin of this postulate in the 17th century, when the principle of inertia was formulated by Galileo and Descartes. If Monod´s claim were accepted, it would follow that only since then could there be a real knowledge of nature, which is false. It is also erroneous to move from a methodological principle —the non-teleological explanation of phenomena— to an ontological one asserting that nature is objective.
2. Only what is objective can be known. In other words, the objectivity postulate is a necessary condition of knowledge.
3. The ultimate foundation of knowledge is an ethical decision: the adoption of the objectivity postulate. This principle is implied by the preceding ones and also, in Monod´s opinion, by the dubious hypothesis that ideas and life evolve similarly.
4. All the living organism´s properties can be interpreted in physico-chemical terms. Monod, therefore, holds strong reductionist theses.

c) Scientific claims

1. Every living object has two essential properties, invariability and teleonomy. The first one would consist in any organism´s ability to reproduce and to transmit without any variation the information that corresponds to his own structure. The second one would consist in the fact that every living creature expresses a purpose which is represented in its structure and accomplished through its behavior. For Monod, this is an empirical description but, in fact, it is an ad hoc definition which depends on the thesis that chance is at the origin of any novelty in the universe, as well as on the objectivity postulate.
2. Invariability is necessarily prior to teleonomy. Monod considers that a central problem for any conception of the world is the relation between those properties. The only scientific attitude would be the one which recognizes the priority of invariability. Those doctrines which accept the preeminence of teleonomy belong to the “animistic tradition”, which appeals to purposive explanations.
Monod´s statements show very clearly that our basic beliefs are an essential factor in both the formation of scientific theories and in the choice of the empirical facts intended to support our theories. This author uses as ground and confirmation for his philosophy the following notions of evolutionary theory and of molecular biology: the mutations´ fortuitous origin, natural selection and the non-predictive power of evolutionary theory.
From evolutionary theory, Monod ‘deduces’ his thesis about chance and novelty; he establishes an analogy in the evolution of life and ideas and asserts that life is unpredictable. From the molecular theory of the genetic code, he infers that life appeared only once on earth, and that all the organisms´ properties can be analysed in physico-chemical terms. He also finds there the models necessary to characterize the notions of invariability and teleonomy.
If we analyze the above mentioned scientific theories, it is clear that no metaphysical or methodological thesis can be ‘deduced’ from them, as Monod intends. Besides, the radical reductionism he holds is mistaken because it does not fit priperly with the richness and variety in nature nor with the variety of human interests that are revealed in the different levels of knowledge. Finally, he uses some terms ambiguously, as we can see when he says that life might be the outcome of a “unique event”. Without further precision, he opposes “unique” to “necessary”, thus making it a synonym for “contingent”.
For Monod, the aim of science consists in the elucidation of the relation that man has with the universe. Although he does not explicitly define science, from his claim that the objectivity postulate is “consubstancial” with science it follows that science is of an objective nature, that it constitutes the realm of true knowledge, and that it is a matter of choice, an individual´s ethical decision.
Chance and Necessity shows three levels of Monod´s thought: 1) the scientific one, in which the molecular theory of the genetic code and the evolutionary theory are developed. 2) A level between science and philosophy, where the “form” of scienfic theories —in this case, of modern biology— is found. It is here where the author commits the worst ambiguities. He presents pseudo-scientific propositions as legitimate extensions of empirical truths. 3) Lastly, the philosophical level, the one of the “humanly significant” ideas. These ideas are the outcome of pushing scientific conclusions to their limit.


The relations that Monod establishes between science and philosophy are distorted by a fundamental mistake: he takes his own basic beliefs as if they were legitimate scientific conclusions. Certainly, there are many connections between the two disciplines, but not the way Monod posits them. Philosophy can never depend totally on scientific theories, because there is no logical implication between their statements and because scientific theories change or are replaced due to new findings. Philosophy, on the contrary, is the subject that considers what is science, what its value is...

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