The autonomy of chemistry: old and new problems
- First Online:
- Cite this article as:
- Vihalemm, R. Found Chem (2011) 13: 97. doi:10.1007/s10698-010-9094-5
- 137 Views
The autonomy of chemistry and the legitimacy of the philosophy of chemistry are usually discussed in the context of the issue of reduction of chemistry to physics, and defended making use of the failure of reductionistic claims. Until quite recent times a rather widespread viewpoint was, however, that the failure of reductionistic claims concerns actually epistemological aspect of reduction only, but the ontological reduction of chemistry to physics cannot be denied. The new problems of the autonomy of chemistry in the context of reductionism seem to be ontological and metaphysical. In the present paper it is argued that there is no need for some kind of metaphysical-ontological underpinning for rejection of the secondary positions of chemistry and philosophy of chemistry with respect to physics and philosophy of physics. The issue can be elucidated in terms of the philosophy of science accepting practical realism (also known by other names).
KeywordsAutonomy of chemistryMetaphysicsNatural kindsOntologyPractical realismReduction of chemistry to physics
The autonomy of chemistry and the legitimacy of the philosophy of chemistry are usually discussed in the context of the issue of reduction of chemistry to physics, and defended making use of the failure of reductionistic claims. Until quite recent times a rather widespread viewpoint was, however, that the failure of reductionistic claims concerns actually epistemological aspect of reduction only, but the ontological reduction of chemistry to physics cannot be denied. A paper by Lombardi and Labarca “The Ontological Autonomy of the Chemical World” (Lombardi and Labarca 2005) (see also: Lombardi and Labarca 2006) was welcomed as “a landmark paper” in which a view of chemistry as an ontologically autonomous field was presented, arguing that “the question of ontological reduction of chemistry has been insufficiently discussed and that the lack of such discussion explains why philosophers at large generally continue to ignore any special attention to chemistry” (Scerri 2005a: 119). So, the new problems of the autonomy of chemistry in the context of reductionism seem to be ontological and metaphysical. In this paper I would like to discuss whether there is a need for metaphysical ontology in the philosophy of chemistry. It seems to me that there is no need for some kind of metaphysical-ontological underpinning for rejection of the secondary positions of chemistry and philosophy of chemistry with respect to physics and philosophy of physics. In the present paper I would like to argue that the issue can be elucidated in terms of the philosophy of science accepting practical realism (similar position is also known by other names, such as critical scientific realism, constructive or perspectival realism, experimental realism, referential realism, non-representative realism, et al.).
The above mentioned (Lombardi and Labarca 2005) (see also: Needham 2006; Lombardi and Labarca 2006) was the main stimulus for writing this paper. But it is not, so to say, the Lombardi’s and Labarca’s case alone what I am proceeding from in my paper. Metaphysical-ontological questions concerning chemistry and its autonomy have been raised also in connection with the concept of chemical element and the problem of natural kinds in chemistry. In this connection I will refer to the works by Eric Scerri again but also to those by Robin Hendry, Rom Harré, Jaap van Brakel, and others. So, I agree with the view that the ontological reduction of chemistry to physics is a foregone conclusion is not acceptable. I mean that there is no reason to believe that fundamental physical theories are the only ones to tell us something about the real world and therefore have ontological priority over the others. However, my point is that for justification the autonomy of chemistry and the legitimacy of philosophy of chemistry we don’t need any metaphysical ontology in philosophy of chemistry.
This book is an exercise in metaphysics done as naturalistic philosophy of science because we think that no other sort of metaphysics counts as inquiry into the objective nature of the world.… [W]e aim to show why, despite the fact that our book is about metaphysics, almost all our discussion… will engage with problems and disputes emanating from the philosophy of science and from science itself. (Ladyman et al. 2007: 7)
These new tendencies in the development of metaphysics and ontology deserve special attention. However, it is not possible to expand on these in the present paper. I would only mention that the approach of Ladyman et al. as an approach in the philosophy of science seems to be problematic. For discussing the abovementioned problems in this paper the tasks of philosophy of science and philosophy of chemistry as its part are understood differently: philosophy of science is regarded as an aspect of science itself that is necessary for its better functioning and understanding, not as a sort of metaphysics, though naturalized, the aim of which is to develop an ontology based on sciences as their unification and generalization.
Of course, there are several works in philosophy of science as well, containing the word “ontology” in their title. These are mainly works discussing the existence of theoretical entities, referring to this as the question of the ontological status of these. The issue is also topical in the philosophy of chemistry, especially, as it was mentioned already, in connection with the problem of the autonomy of chemistry, which has usually been discussed in the context of the relationship between chemistry and physics. Thus, the issue of ontology in the current paper is basically a question whether it is correct to presuppose that science pursues knowledge about the world (or the nature) as it really is and consequently, philosophy of science should also, or perhaps even first of all, analyse ontological questions as those about the nature of being or about what kinds of entities actually exist. On the other hand, bearing in mind that ontology has usually been treated as a metaphysical discipline, the issue then also concerns the question whether science itself and/or philosophy of science should actually deal with metaphysical questions as well, though metaphysics has been criticized because of its speculative nature meant as empirically non-testable and therefore—as this is not logic or mathematics—considered if not arbitrary, then definitely not one belonging among scientific knowledge.
There exist, however, some special kinds of non-speculative approaches in philosophy of science, such as Nicholas Maxwell’s arguing that science actually needs metaphysics, or such as Ilya Prigogine’s arguing that non-classical science will serve as scientific ontology. These approaches need special attention and I have analysed them, especially Prigogine’s approach, e.g., in Vihalemm (2007a) and I am not going to dwell on them here. Here I would like to dwell on four questions concerning the attempts to introduce some kind of metaphysical ontology into the philosophy of chemistry: (1) why the proposal of Olimpia Lombardi and Martin Labarca to use H. Putnam’s internal realism for the defence of the ontological autonomy of chemistry is not a good idea; (2) why Eric Scerri’s attempt to refer to metaphysics when analysing chemical elements as “basic substances” is off the point; (3) why—agreeing to Rom Harré’s conviction that in order to construe chemistry as an autonomous science chemical substances should be interpreted as natural kinds—it is important to understand the problem of natural kinds in terms of the philosophy of science not as metaphysical-ontological issue; (4) why it is reasonable to prefer practical realism in philosophy of science to any kind of metaphysical-ontological positions (I am using the term practical realism to refer approximately to the same stance as Rom Harré’s referential realism and it coincides partly also with Jaap van Brakel’s anomalous monism, which is, as the author writes, “a form of pragmatic or pluralist realism or ‘realism-with-a-small-r’ (though nothing depends on terminology)” (van Brakel 2000: 191).
On the proposal of Lombardi and Labarca
Putnam’s internalist realism provides a fruitful philosophical framework for addressing the problem of the relationship between the physical and the chemical worlds. The internalist perspective leads to an ontological pluralism that preserves the autonomy of the chemical world but avoids the intrusion of phantomlike entities or properties lacking any scientific support (Lombardi and Labarca 2005: 136).
From an internalist perspective … there is no way of describing things “as they really are”: we have always access to reality through our conceptual schemes; there is no noumenal ontology. If we have given up God’s point of view, there is no privileged perspective, and all descriptions have the same degree of objectivity—all ontologies are equally real. Therefore, we cannot accept that the so-called fundamental theories describe reality as it is in itself—that is, the noumenal reality—since these theories are also conceptual schemes through which relative ontologies arise (Lombardi and Labarca 2005: 142–143).
Putnam is right of course that God’s point of view should be given up. My main criticism of the paper by Lombardi and Labarca is, however, that there seems to be no need to take one’s stand on Putnam’s internalist realism in order to give up God’s point of view (I will dwell on this question also later) and defend the autonomy of the chemical world criticising the untenable metaphysical thesis or simply uncritical belief that fundamental physical theories are the only ones to tell us something about the real world and therefore have ontological priority over the others.
I agree with Needham, but my concern is different. I have got excited not so much about the reduction problem as about the very attempt in philosophy of chemistry to place on the agenda the question that there is a need to deal with some kind of metaphysical-ontological underpinning of chemistry. Thus indeed, as Needham suggests, “the issue can and should be nipped in the bud”. However, I see this “bud” already in the opening of the door for metaphysical-ontological speculations in philosophy of chemistry, or if not speculations then at best merely illustrations philosophical terms by examples from chemistry instead of genuine philosophical research.
Philosophers of chemistry are said to deny epistemological reduction but affirm ontological reduction, which our authors diagnose as presupposing externalism or metaphysical realism and prescribe internal realism as the only antidote. I’ve tried to suggest that it is not necessary to go so far; the issue can and should be nipped in the bud. [- - - ] Above all, I’ve argued that the onus of proof lies squarely on the shoulders of the would-be ontological reductionist, who must first give a coherent account of what the thesis is, and secondly, give a convincing argument for it. Until then, there is no need for the non-reductionist to get excited (Needham 2006: 79).
I don’t know what kind of a redaction the authors are intending to propose, but I am afraid that there are no better alternatives than a sort of practical realism. I agree with Ilkka Niiniluoto’s criticism of internal realism and his reconstruction of this view as critical scientific realism (see Niiniluoto 1999: Chap. 7) which in its turn belongs, I think, to the conception that one might call practical realism in the philosophy of science as it stresses the practical nature of science.
Internalist realism, as proposed by Putnam, still has certain shortcomings that cry out for a philosophically adequate solution. In particular, Putnam … does not present a notion of truth acceptable from a realistic viewpoint. [- - - Thus it needs certain reconstruction in order to recover] … basic realistic intuitions which cannot be easily accommodated in Putnam’s original proposal” (Lombardi and Labarca 2006: 90).
I have already referred to the practical realism in my earlier works (see, e.g., Vihalemm 2003b, 2005) and will present my main considerations about it here as well, but later as my last, i.e. fourth point of this paper. But now let us take the second point, i.e. the question, why there is no need—contra to Scerri’s attempt—to refer to metaphysics when analyzing chemical elements as “basic substances”.
Is there a need to understand chemical elements as “basic substances” in metaphysical sense?
is concerned with the ancient question of how the elements survive, if at all, when they form compounds. This conundrum has been classically resolved, since the time of ancient Greek philosophers, by appealing to the dual sense of the term ‘element’. An element can be regarded as a ‘simple substance’ that can be isolated and that can take several different structural forms, such as diamond or graphite, in the case of carbon. In addition, an element can also be regarded, more fundamentally, as ‘a basic substance’, which is the bearer of properties while at the same time being devoid of properties. (Scerri 2005b: 129)
[- - -]
It is proposed that Paneth’s view of the elements might serve to illuminate a number of issues in contemporary philosophy of science as well as in chemistry. But before doing so it is important to summarize the changing view of elements as basic substances from that of the ancient Greeks through Mendeleev’s and Paneth’s views. For some Greek philosophers the elements as basic substances were completely unobservable. For Mendeleev elements as basic substances remained “invisible” to cite his own word, but were characterized by one main property, namely atomic weight. It would appear that the elements as basic substances had lost their fully metaphysical characteristic of being completely unobservable, and devoid of properties, since they now possessed one important attribute. Similarly, Paneth’s understanding of elements as basic substances did not imply complete unobservability and was not a thoroughgoing metaphysical view in the literal sense mentioned earlier. For Paneth elements as basic substances possessed one important attribute, namely atomic number. (Scerri 2005b: 130)
Scerri appreciates Paneth’s ‘intermediate position’ between naïve realism and a metaphysical view, characterized by Scerri also as naïve (or metaphysical in literal sense), or as it has been described at other times, ‘intermediate position’ between a macroscopic view of chemical phenomena and a microscopic description as reduction to physics, which represented for Paneth “a process leading to less and less observability of the kind that is more familiar to chemists” (Scerri 2005b: 130).
Of course, it is without doubt that a scientist and a philosopher should be critical of naïve views. It is not enough, however, to take an ‘intermediate position’. I appreciate Scerri’s defence of “a realist view of the periodic law that requires believing that groups of elements, as well as elements themselves, are natural kinds” (Scerri 2005b: 138). But I think that the concept of elements as “basic substances” in the metaphysical sense as unobservables is not enough from the point of view of philosophy of science. Referring to metaphysics cannot actually explain anything in science and in philosophy of science. The question whether chemical elements are natural kinds should be analysed in terms of philosophy of science, instead of appealing to metaphysics. Chemical elements are natural kinds, as they are identified through the procedure of scientific idealization as scientific-theoretical entities in the periodic law (see, e.g., Vihalemm 2003a). I suggest that instead of speaking about chemical elements as “basic substances” in metaphysical sense one should speak about them simply as elements in scientific-theoretical sense.
Paneth’s basic points are that ‘element’ is ambiguous, and that the notion of a free element is incapable of doing explanatory work in chemistry. These are well taken. Care is needed, however, in interpreting this notion of a basic substance. If we can refer to elements in abstraction from their state of chemical combination, the free elements are included also in that reference. Here there should be no opposition between ‘free element’ and ‘element’. Opposition is implied, however, in the claim that basic substances belong to a ‘transcendental world devoid of qualities’. [- - -] … but there is no need to understand basic substances as incapable of exhibiting sensory qualities, or inhabiting a noumenal world. (Hendry 2006: 325)
The problem of natural kinds in chemistry
The problem of the status of chemical elements is one special problem among the general issue of the status of natural kinds in chemistry. So, as promised, the third question I will dwell on will be why it is important to construe the problem of natural kinds in chemistry not as metaphysical-ontological, but in terms of philosophy of science.
Rom Harré has stressed: “The philosophical question of the viability of the concept of natural kind is surely the most important in philosophy of chemistry” (2001: 179). According to him, each science has its own system of natural kinds and related concepts on the basis of which it is constituted as an autonomous science. The same should hold true if there is in fact “a science of chemistry which is not just physics” (Harré 2001: 179).
I have analysed the problem of natural kinds in chemistry in (Vihalemm 2003b). I would like to stress here again three points which together with my conception of φ-science and analysis of laws of nature in chemistry, especially of Mendeleev’s Periodic Law (Vihalemm 1999, 2001, 2003a, 2004, 2005, 2007b) are relevant also for discussion problems raised in the present paper. These points are: (1) it is just philosophy of science where the natural kinds are clearly definable and, most important, they appear in laws of nature and play an explanatory role; (2) the problem of natural kinds proves to be different in the, so to say, pure philosophy (i.e. not some kind of special discipline between philosophy and science, but such philosophical disciplines as metaphysics and philosophy of language) and in philosophy of science (as some kind of theory of science, which has its own conceptual framework)2; (3) in philosophy of science, one can demonstrate that there exists a third option between—to use Putnam’s terminology—metaphysical realism and internal realism.
And now I am going to show what this third option is and why it is preferable to the alternatives, i.e. let’s go to the last section of my present paper: why to prefer practical realism in philosophy of science to any kind of metaphysical-ontological positions.
The conception of practical realism
The idea of the practical nature of science was in fact one of the cornerstones of Kuhn’s account, as stressed especially by Joseph Rouse (Rouse 1987: Chap. 2; Rouse 1996, 2002, 2003). But, for example, Hacking’s experimental realism (Hacking 1983), Harré’s referential realism as I mentioned already (Harré 1986), Giere’s constructive realism (Giere 1988), developed by him later as perspectival realism (scientific perspectivism) (Giere 2006), or Chalmers’s non-representative realism (Chalmers 1986) are to my mind close to what one might call versions of practical realism in the philosophy of science. I mean that, broadly speaking, a sort of practical realism is an alternative to traditional (naïve or metaphysical) realism, internal realism, instrumentalism (and pragmatism, more generally), and social constructivism.
The central ideas of the conception of the practical nature of science or practical realism in the philosophy of science, as I see it, are: (1) science does not represent the world ‘as it really is’ from a God’s Eye position; (2) the fact that the world is not accessible independently of theories—or paradigms, more precisely speaking—developed by scientists does not mean that Putnam’s internal realism is acceptable; (3) science as a theoretical activity is only one aspect of it (of science) as a practical activity whose main form is scientific experiment which in its turn takes place in the real world itself, being a theory-guided constructive, manipulative, material interference with nature3; (4) science as practice is also a social–historical activity which means, among other things, that scientific practice includes a normative aspect, too, and that means, in its turn, that the world as it is actually accessible to science is not free of norms either; (5) though not naïve or metaphysical, it is certainly realism as it claims that what is ‘given’ in the form of scientific practice is an aspect of the real world.
What concerns the idea of ontological pluralism and understanding of, e.g., scientific-theoretical entities including natural kinds, there is an essential difference between internal realism and practical realism (or Niiniluoto’s critical scientific realism), as the former belongs to the tradition of Kantianism and cannot actually be qualified as realism at all.
It is admitted that the scientific account of the world is mediated by our practical and theoretical activity, which means, indeed, that our descriptions of the world, our ‘world-versions’ are always relative to us. This does not imply, however, that the world itself (we can call it THE WORLD) is relative to us or that our ‘world-versions’ cannot be versions of THE WORLD (cf. Niiniluoto 1999, 218–226). Our scientific ‘world-versions’, although they represent the world through conceptual frameworks or, more precisely, through paradigms in Kuhnian sense, still do tell us something about THE WORLD, as do theories we have constructed, which, in their theoretical models, contain experimentally substantiated idealizations, since theoretical models are similar to the real systems in specified respects and to specified degrees. As Niiniluoto writes: “Conceptual frameworks are selected on the basis of our cognitive and practical purposes, and they can always be improved and made descriptively more complete” (Niiniluoto 1999: 216). If we use the cookie cutter metaphor we can say: “A cake [THE WORLD] can be sliced into pieces in a potentially infinite number of ways, and the resulting slices [say, natural kinds and laws of nature identified by us] are human constructions made out of the parts [unidentified (complex, inexhaustible) objects, their properties and relations] of the cake” (Niiniluoto 1999: 222).
In the light of the discussion about the reality of the realm of physics or physical ontology on the one hand and the realm of chemistry or chemical ontology on the other, we should say that THE WORLD can be sliced into the realms of sciences in a potentially infinite number of ways, and the resulting slices are human constructions made out of the parts of THE WORLD.
metaphysical-ontological approach or some kind of philosophy of nature, e.g., metaphysical realism
internal realistic ontological stance;
practical realism as non-metaphysical-ontological (philosophy of science) position
The first position is, e. g., the one called by Putnam “the Big “R” Realism of the philosophers” (Putnam 1992: 28) and criticized by him as an externalist “God’s Eye point of view” (Putnam 1981: 49) or as “an impossible attempt to view the world from Nowhere” (Putnam 1992: 28). It is a philosophical position according to which ontology can, in a way, be seen as the description of THE WORLD as ‘it in itself really is’. In this connection it seems appropriate to quote also Karl Marx’s elegant formulation from his well-known 1845 ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ (the 2nd thesis) that “the dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question” (Marx 1934: 73). Not only some speculative philosophical theories have been concerned in such scholastic question and uncritically pretended to an impossible status; e.g., the above mentioned conviction that there is a privileged discipline—fundamental physics—which has the access to the real, true and ultimate ontology (let us call it THE ONTOLOGY), should as well be qualified merely as an actually uncritical prejudice.
In the second position which was presented here by Lombardi and Labarca’s paper, the realms of physics and chemistry or physical and chemical ontologies are supposed to be constituted internally, i.e. they are results of conceptual schemes applied to reality. I appreciate the authors diagnosis that “when the epistemological irreducibility of chemistry is accepted, there is no argument other than metaphysical realism for postulating ontological reduction” (Lombardi and Labarca 2005: 140) and their attempt to criticize this metaphysical-ontological view. However, it seems to me that for this criticism, there is no need to use another philosophical-ontological conception which moreover has serious shortcomings. I cannot see, actually, how such a philosophical-ontological conception (which might pretend to serve as THE ONTOLOGY) can be established and defended in philosophy of science at all.
In critical philosophy of science there simply seems to be no option but the above-mentioned third position. According to the followers of a sort of practical realism in philosophy of science the question of identifying a realm of a science, or speaking in terms of general philosophy—an ontology of a science, is a question of slicing THE WORLD by a special type of human practical activity called science. The conception of practical realism presumes—in order to be realism—existence of THE WORLD (which is complex, inexhaustible), but—as practical realism—cannot accept the possibility of THE ONTOLOGY, neither scientific nor, much less, metaphysical one.
See (Vihalemm 2003b: 62–65), where this difference is educed: the concept of a natural kind has an exact meaning in the conceptual framework of philosophy of science together with the concepts of laws of nature, scientific explanation, scientific theory. For instance, chemical elements can be regarded as natural kinds, as they can be identified as scientific-theoretical entities in the periodic law and periodic system. In “pure philosophy” this kind of concepts are missing and this is the reason why the problem of natural kinds remains indefinite as well.
Reality is bigger than us. The best kinds of evidence for the reality of a postulated or inferred entity is that we can begin to measure it or otherwise understand its causal powers. The best evidence, in turn, that we have this kind of understanding is that we can set out, from scratch, to build machines that will work fairly reliably, taking advantage of this or that causal nexus. Hence, engineering, not theorizing, is the best proof of scientific realism about entities. (Hacking 1983: 274).
Previous versions of this paper were read at the 10th Summer Symposium (2006, in Split, Croatia) and at the 12th Summer Symposium (2008, in Coburg, Germany) of the International Society for the Philosophy of Chemistry (ISPC). The author would like to thank the participants of these symposia for discussion. I am especially grateful to Rom Harré, Jaap van Brakel, Eric Scerri, Eugen Schwarz, Olimpia Lombardi and Martin Labarca for the correspondence concerning my paper also after the event. I would also like to thank the two anonymous reviewers of this journal whose comments helped me to improve this article. The writing of this article was partly supported by the Estonian Science Foundation Grant No. 7946.