Chemical Laws, Idealization and Approximation
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- Tobin, E. Sci & Educ (2013) 22: 1581. doi:10.1007/s11191-012-9445-9
This paper examines the notion of laws in chemistry. Vihalemm (Found Chem 5(1):7–22, 2003) argues that the laws of chemistry are fundamentally the same as the laws of physics they are all ceteris paribus laws which are true “in ideal conditions”. In contrast, Scerri (2000) contends that the laws of chemistry are fundamentally different to the laws of physics, because they involve approximations. Christie (Stud Hist Philos Sci 25:613–629, 1994) and Christie and Christie (Of minds and molecules. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 34–50, 2000) agree that the laws of chemistry are operationally different to the laws of physics, but claim that the distinction between exact and approximate laws is too simplistic to taxonomise them. Approximations in chemistry involve diverse kinds of activity and often what counts as a scientific law in chemistry is dictated by the context of its use in scientific practice. This paper addresses the question of what makes chemical laws distinctive independently of the separate question as to how they are related to the laws of physics. From an analysis of some candidate ceteris paribus laws in chemistry, this paper argues that there are two distinct kinds of ceteris paribus laws in chemistry; idealized and approximate chemical laws. Thus, while Christie (Stud Hist Philos Sci 25:613–629, 1994) and Christie and Christie (Of minds and molecules. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 34--50, 2000) are correct to point out that the candidate generalisations in chemistry are diverse and heterogeneous, a distinction between idealizations and approximations can nevertheless be used to successfully taxonomise them.