Philosophy of Chemistry Essay

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  • Subject: Chemistry
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Philosophy of Chemistry

The work of Scerri (2000) asks the question of what could the connections between chemistry and philosophy possible be "apart from the obvious superficial one of their both representing quests for knowledge?" (p.1) Scerri states that in the view of the chemist "the philosopher -- who conducts no experiments whatsoever -- is not worthy of very high esteem. From the scientific perspective, philosophical views do not seem very dynamic, since they sometime stem from established philosophical doctrines or a priori beliefs about the ways the world should be." (2000, p.1) It is reported as well that philosophers "for their part are proud of their training in rigorous ways of thinking. They freely admit to not engaging in the grubby details of the experimental world because such activities might limit the generalities of their claims and of their attempts to depict reality in its broadest terms." (Scerri, 2000, p.1)

Belief of Philosophers of Science

It is the belief of philosophers of science that "chemistry has been reduced to physics and is therefore of no fundamental interest" and that chemistry "has no bid ideas to compare with quantum mechanics and relatively in physicians and Darwin's theory of biology." (Scerri, 2000, p.1) Over the past decade there has been a rise in interest in the field of philosophy of chemistry resulting in questions being posed in regards to the stated misconceptions and philosophers of science are reported to have realized that "while they have paid great attention to physics and more recently biology, they have almost completely neglected the central science of chemistry." (Scerri, 2000, p.1) Simultaneously, there have been deeply reflective books and articles produced by several chemists and commentators which explore "the essential nature of chemistry and the chemist's practices and particular ways of thinking." (Scerri, 2000, p. 2)

II. Questions Addressed

Scerri (2000) reports that there has been a critical analysis of the "question of the reduction of chemistry to physics" with the term reduction referring to "the increasingly prevalent view, that all the deep questions of science can be resolved by appealing to the more fundamental theories found in physics." (p.2) Scerri reports that the nature of chemical models "is providing a rich source of examples of philosophers who are interested in obtaining a wider view of these scientific entities." (2000, p.3) The question of realism in relation to scientific terms in chemistry is reported to have also been "revisited in recent articles in philosophy of chemistry" and the example stated is the "commitment to realism, which some believe to be a feature of chemistry, has received a serious challenge in the form of molecular structure controversy…" (Scerri, 2000, p.3) Stated specifically is that Woolley and others

"Suggest that the concept of molecular structure, which is so central to modern chemistry, is nothing but a metaphor having no objective reality at the quantum mechanical level. The basis of this claim lies in the fact that the appropriate Hamiltonian used in quantum mechanical calculations for a molecule such as C3H4 only contains terms describing interactions between protons and electrons in the system. Woolley claims that the structure of the molecule (or the relative positions of the nuclei) is introduced somewhat artificially in calculations by invoking the Born -- Oppenheimer approximation, which assumes that only the electrons move within a rigid framework defined by the positions of the nuclei, which are assumed to be fixed in space. This approximation is based on the large differences in mass between electrons and nuclei, with the assumption that the electrons can respond instantaneously to changes in position of the nuclei." (Scerri, 2000, p.3)

Scerri and McIntyre (2000) state that the debate over reduction "has a long and storied history within the philosophy of science, and there is continuing debate over the adequacy of different accounts of it." (p.215) Conceptual reduction is examined by Scerri and McIntyre who stated that conceptual reduction refers to "attempts to reduce chemical concepts such as composition, bonding, and molecular structure" and state that Mario Bunge "has made the point that the concept of chemical composition cannot be reduced to physics." (Scerri and McIntyre, 2000, p.219) Bunge is reported to have stated as follows:

rst sight chemistry is included in physics because chemical systems would seem to constitute a special class of physical systems. But this impression is mistaken, for what is physical about chemical systems is its components rather than the system itself, which possesses emergent (though explainable) properties in addition to physical properties. (Bunge 1982)" (Scerri and McIntyre, 1997, p.219)

Bunge is reported to cite as an example of such an emergent property "that of having a composition that changes lawfully in the course of time. The atomic and molecular components do not show this property of composition. Primas, as quoted earlier, says that we can calculate certain molecular properties, but we cannot point to something in the mathematical expressions, which can be identi-ed with bonding. The concept of chemical bonding seems to be lost in the process of reduction." (Scerri and McIntyre,1997, p.219) Stated as another possible area of interest in the philosophy of chemistry and "closely related to the concerns of reductionism" is that of the investigation "into the nature of chemical explanations." (Scerri and McIntyre,1997, p.220)

While it would seem that "the close ontological relationship between chemistry and physics would inevitably bias chemical explanation in favor of reductionism…there is good reason to support the autonomy of chemical explanations." (Scerri and McIntyre,1997, p. 221) Stated as an important form of explanation that "pervades all areas of chemistry, from teaching to frontier research" is that of the discussion of "electron shells or orbitals…the formation of bonds, acid-base behavior, redox chemistry, photochemistry, reactivity studies… all regularly discussed by reference to the interchange of electrons between various kinds of orbitals." (Scerri and McIntyre,1997, p.222)

Schummer (2006) writes that "the objects of chemistry…beyond simple definition issues…are subject to many ontological debates, which also impacts epistemological and methodological issues." (p.1) Schummer states that atoms and molecules are taken by many philosophers and chemists as the "basic objects of chemistry." (2006, p.1) However, molecule is a theoretical concept with many model assumptions that cannot be applied to non-molecular substances such as water, metals and salts and it is "not so much the lack of optional microstructural descriptions for these substances, but the variety of models which are continuously refined and adapted to certain contexts and problems" that result in these models formulating such a "weak basis for defining the objects of chemistry." (Schummer, 2006, p.1) Stated as an ontological issue that is related is that concerning natural kinds in chemistry. Water is reported as a natural kind since it is determined by a microstcutural essence. The third ontological issues is stated to be concerning "whether substances (or microstructures) or transformations are the basic objects of chemistry" stated to be referring to the general debate "between substance and process philosophy." (Schummer, 2006, p.1) When substances are not contained in bottles, that are reported to undergo a continuous process of chemical reactions and as such are "only intermediate states in an ongoing process" described in quantum chemistry as processes.

Schummer states that substances and transformations are generally considered objects of chemistry and the "metaphysical distinction between natural and synthetic pervades both common sense and chemical reasoning." (2006, p.2) The isolation of natural substances from natural resources on the basis of purification is reported as a questionable practice since purification is a "technical operations, almost most elements would have to count as synthetic as long as natural resources are lacking." (Schummer, 2006, p.3) Schummer reports that a primary epistemological issues is "whether chemical knowledge can be complete or not." (2006, p.3)

According to Schummer "Chemistry differs from other sciences in that its theoretical concepts need to serve different methodological goals. Besides the classical goals of truthful description, explanation, and prediction of phenomena, theoretical concepts in chemistry also fulfill classificatory and synthetic purposes." (2006, p.4) Stated as the primary methodological issue in the current debate on the philosophy of chemistry is bringing order "to that complex picture without imposing methodologies tailored to other disciplines upon chemistry." (Schummer, 2006, p.4) Rather than theory realism, entity realism is found to be a methodological ideal in chemistry that is appropriate.

The question of whether chemistry is reducible to physics is addressed in the work of Schummer who states that philosophers have been careful in distinguishing between various meanings of 'reduction' with ontological reductionism stating the claim that the "supposed objects of chemistry "are actually nothing else than the objects of quantum mechanics and that quantum mechanical laws govern their relations. In its strong eliminative, version, ontological reductionism states that there are no chemical objects proper." (Schummer, 2006, p.3) The argument of anti-reductionists states that "theoretical entities are determined by their corresponding theory, such that theoretical entities of different theories cannot be identified." (Schummer, 2006, p.3)

Summary and Conclusion

Scerri reports that there are various connections between chemistry and philosophy and that the chemist and philosopher while…

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