Philosophy of chemistry

Philosophy of chemistry

The philosophy of chemistry considers the methodology and underlying assumptions of the science of chemistry. It is explored by philosophers, chemists, and philosopher-chemist teams.

The philosophy of science has centered on physics for the last several centuries, and during the last century in particular, it has become increasingly concerned with the ultimate constituents of existence, or what one might call reductionism. Thus, for example, considerable attention has been devoted to the philosophical implications of special relativity, general relativity, and quantum mechanics. In recent years, however, more attention has been given to both the philosophy of biology and chemistry, which both deal with more intermediate states of existence.

In the philosophy of chemistry, for example, we might ask, given quantum reality at the microcosmic level, and given the enormous distances between electrons and the atomic nucleus, how is it that we are unable to put our hands through walls, as physics might predict? Chemistry provides the answer, and so we then ask what it is that distinguishes chemistry from physics?

In the philosophy of biology, which is closely related to chemistry, we inquire about what distinguishes a living thing from a non-living thing at the most elementary level. Can a living thing be understood in purely mechanistic terms, or is there, as vitalism asserts, always something beyond mere quantum states?

Issues in philosophy of chemistry may not be as deeply conceptually perplexing as the quantum mechanical measurement problem in the philosophy of physics, and may not be as conceptually complex as optimality arguments in evolutionary biology. However interest in the philosophy of chemistry in part stems from the ability of chemistry to connect the “hard sciences” such as physics with the “soft sciences” such as biology, which gives it a rather distinctive role as the central science.

Foundations of chemistry

Philosophers of chemistry discuss, for example, whether nature is symmetric as between right-and left-handedness. Organic (i.e., carbon-based) molecules are those most often handed one way or another, i.e., "stereo-specific." Left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars are the basis of the chemistry of life. Chemists, biochemists, and biologists alike debate the origins of this stereo-specificity. Philosophers want to know if life emerged as it did contingently, amid a lifeless and symmetrical chemical world, or did life emerge, in part, because chemistry was already stereo-specific? Some speculate that humans will know the answer only when we can compare earth-bound life with extraterrestrial life. Some philosophers question whether humans "want" nature to be symmetrical, thereby causing them to resist or ignore evidence to the contrary.

One of the most topical issues is determining to what extent physics, specifically, quantum mechanics, explains chemical phenomena. Can chemistry, in fact, be reduced to physics as has been assumed by many, or are there inexplicable gaps? Some authors have recently suggested that a number of difficulties exist in the reductionist program, notwithstanding our increasing knowledge of the microcosmic realm. The noted philosopher of science, Karl Popper, among others, predicted as much.


Chemistry is in a sense the paradigmatic laboratory science, one that predates both experimental and theoretical physics. While astronomers have to get along without experimenting directly on the distant objects of their attention, and biologists have to experiment within ethical and legal restraints on more available objects, chemistry conforms to, and indeed gave rise to, textbook explanations of what constitutes the scientific method.

One theme arising from chemical experiments is the value of ambiguity as a spur to the type of science that chemists do. Emily R. Grosholz and Roald Hoffmann, for example, have argued that equivocations in chemistry have helped bridge the gap between experiment and theory, thereby advancing the field. Such an argument challenges preconceptions to the effect that the more fully concepts are clarified, the more useful they will prove.

Philosophers of chemistry

Several philosophers and scientists have focused on the philosophy of chemistry in recent years, notably, the Dutch philosopher Jaap van Brakel, who wrote "The Philosophy of Chemistry" in 2000, and the Maltese philosopher-chemist Eric Scerri, editor of the journal "Foundations of Chemistry" and author of "Normative and Descriptive Philosophy of Science and the Role of Chemistry in Philosophy of Chemistry", 2004, among other articles. Scerri is especially interested in the philosophical foundations of the periodic table, and how physics and chemistry intersect in relation to it, which he contends is not merely a matter for science, but for philosophy.

Although in other fields of science students of the method are generally not practitioners in the field, in chemistry (particularly in synthetic organic chemistry) intellectual method and philosophical foundations are often explored by investigators with active research programmes. Elias James Corey developed the concept of "retrosynthesis" published a seminal work "the logic of chemical synthesis" which deconstructs these thought processes and speculates on computer-assisted synthesis. Other chemists such as K.C. Nicolaou (who has published "classics in total synthesis") have followed in his lead.

External references

* [,11855,4-0-70-35545882-0,00.html? "Foundations of Chemistry"] , An international peer-reviewed journal for History and Philosophy of Chemistry as well as Chemical Education published by Springer.
* [ "Hyle: International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry"] an English-language peer-reviewed journal associated with the University of Karlsruhe, Germany.
* [ "International Society for the Philosophy of Chemistry"]
* [;jsessionid=aaaeI64wZUcz2T "Of Minds and Molecules:] "New Philosophical Perspectives on Chemistry", 'Nalini Bhushan and Stuart Rosenfeld (eds.), Oxford University Press, 2000, Reviewed by Michael Weisberg
*"Philosophy of Chemistry", J. van Brakel, Leuven University Press, 2000
*"Philosophy of Chemistry : Synthesis of a New Discipline", Davis Baird, Eric Scerri, Lee McIntyre (eds.), Dordrecht: Springer, 2006. ISBN 1402032560
*"The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance", E.R. Scerri, Oxford University Press, New York, 2006. ISBN 0195305736

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