The Philosophy of Chemistry
Name: Patrick K. Kimuyu
Philosophy of chemistry is a sub-branch of the philosophy of science. It is a new field that was hived from the traditional philosophy of science. It has acquired autonomy from the philosophy of physics under which it was regarded as a part. Its late evolution was due the assumption that most philosophers and scientists made in regard to the relationship between physics and chemistry (Justi & Gilbert, 2002). The assumption was that the chemistry can be reduced to physics. Most scholars in the philosophy of science argued that physics, under the principle of quantum mechanics, is the science that describes reality at its best, whereas chemistry, as the phenomenological science describe phenomenon as they are seen by human beings (Lombardi & Labarca, 2007). This paper discuses the philosophy of chemistry.
Approached from this perspective, chemistry is only a part of the physics discipline and does not have problems that need philosophical analysis. The advocates of this perspective argued that any philosophical problems appertaining to chemistry are essentially belonging to philosophy of physics. Therefore, the philosophical problems concerning quantum mechanics were discussed by philosophers of science (Gabbay et al., 2011). However, in mid 1990s the interest in the philosophy of chemistry began to engage the minds of philosophers, who increasingly questioned the traditional assumptions on the relationship between physics and chemistry. Today, many scholars are convinced that chemistry can not be reduced to physics. However, although philosophers of chemistry strongly argue in support of the opinion, many in the scientific community still hand on to the reductionist position (Schummer, 2010). The reductionist approach has led to the tendency to explain some issues of chemistry, for instance, the atomic structure, through physics principles. The reason chemistry is considered as a branch of physics is because it deals with particular processes that, however, be explained through quantum theory. The net effect is that physics is placed at the top of the hierarchy while chemistry is positioned at the bottom as an appendage of physics (Lombardi & Labarca, 2007). However, chemical philosophers have established the need to introduce philosophical discussions intended at establishing chemistry as an independent discipline free from the fundamentalism of physics.
Some scholars have argued that the issue of reduction is at the heart of the understanding of the philosophy of chemistry. They posit that it is essential to distinguish between the two views of reduction. These are the ontological and epistemological reduction. Ontological is the study of metaphysics and concerns itself with reality, its structure, and the components in it. Epistemology, on the other hand, deals with knowledge, its scope and limits. Consequently, ontological reduction makes reference to the ontological dependence of the properties and regularities of a part of reality upon the properties, entities, and regularities of another stratum that is considered to be ontologically fundamental. Consequently, ontological reductionism can be construed as a metaphysical thesis that displays the ontological priority of a given level of reality on which other levels of realities indirectly or directly reduce. Epistemological reductionism is a thesis upon which science should be unified (Schummer, 2010).
In the last two decades there have been efforts to liberate chemistry from the shackles of physical thoughts. These scholars have defended chemistry as an autonomous discipline on historical grounds citing the different historical traditions that saw the evolution of physics and chemistry (Ebbing & Gammon, 2005). The scholars argue that the epistemological reduction of chemistry to physics is not possible. The philosophical question is, therefore, raised, and calls for a philosophical discussion to address it (Lombardi & Labarca, 2007). Although the philosophy of science has not given much attention to the philosophy of chemistry before the 1990s, scholars opine that the historiography of philosophy of chemistry simply ignored what earlier philosophers had commented about chemistry. Schummer (2010) observes that the philosophy of science in the communist world had been broad enough to accommodate chemistry, especially between the years 1950s to 1900 (Schummer, 2010). The communist approach to the philosophy of science drew on the dialectical materialism promoted by Engels. According to Engel, chemistry was a facet of French materialism or mechanical materialism. For the chemical, mechanical and physiological level, he saw different types of movement each following its law as well as dialectical laws that would lead the transformation to higher levels (Lombardi & Labarca, 2007). The twentieth philosophers saw some merits in Engels theorization and expanded on it. They recognized that the chemical phenomena could be used to illustrate the universal laws as advocated by Engels doctrine. For example, the philosophers saw the acid-base reactions could be used to exemplify Engels law of contradictions in regard to counter-acting forces that are found in nature (Schummer, 2010). The communist philosophers had an established position in tertiary science education so they could be committed to interpreting specific scientific facts, developments or problems in the framework of dialectical materialism. The philosophers were free to deal with chemistry as an autonomous field because Engel in his handling of the chemistry had reserved an own kind of movement for chemistry (Lombardi & Labarca, 2007).
In the western countries, the professional philosophers did not give the philosophy of chemistry much thought; however, scholars from other disciplines approached it albeit from their own perspectives and with specific issues. Scholars of chemistry education did recognize the need to reflect on the methodology and worked on the clarification of concepts (Brakel, 2000). Working chemists also did come across some philosophical questions when they were challenged by their research to reflect either on received notions or methodological ideas. For instance, some chemists working on isotope reflected on the theory of chemical elements. Others reflected on the notion of causation prompted by their studies on chemical catalysis. Theoretical chemists, working on the development of quantum models for chemicals, started questioning the reductionist perspective (Görs et al., 2005). Critics have observed that in the western world, there were no distinction between history and philosophy of science; consequently, historian of chemistry approached the field of philosophy of chemistry through philosophical concerns of the past; such as the metaphysical problem of atomism and the methodological problem of conceptual change as exemplified by such scholars as Kuhn in his chemical revolution (Görs et al., 2005).
A new discourse on philosophy of chemistry has been opened with the realization that the chemical environment is the key to most aspects of humanity well being. Chemists have devised processes used in the production of goods that are accepted as contributing to the conditions of life (Gilbert et al., 2003). Chemistry can also contribute to repairing the damage caused to the environment by the exploitation of chemistry in the past. The philosophical question to ask is whether chemists should be expected to scrutinize the projects they undertake to the effects the project achievement could have on the practitioners and other people. Clearly, there are many questions that can be philosophically explored in the study of chemical philosophy (Brakel, 2000). The observation is buttressed by Stephen Toulmin in his book Human Understanding where he asserted that, Men displays their rationality, not through ordering their concepts in tidy formal structures, but through their readiness to respond to new situations with their open minds (Schummer 2010, p. 189). Hence, chemists engage in philosophical musing by questioning their activities and seeking clarification on some aspects of their work that are not too clear. Consequently, the philosophy of chemistry needs to define the research and international programs so as to make intellectual progress in regard to the nature of science, humanity, and human knowledge (Gilbert et al., 2003).