Causal explanation and the periodic table


The periodic table represents and organizes all known chemical elements on the basis of their properties. While the importance of this table in chemistry is uncontroversial, the role that it plays in scientific reasoning remains heavily disputed. Many philosophers deny the explanatory role of the table and insist that it is “merely” classificatory (Shapere, in F. Suppe (Ed.) The structure of scientific theories, University of Illinois Press, Illinois, 1977; Scerri in Erkenntnis 47:229–243,  1997). In particular, it has been claimed that the table does not figure in causal explanation because it “does not reveal causal structure” (Woody in Science after the practice turn in the philosophy, history, and social studies of science, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, New York, 2014). This paper provides an analysis of what it means to say that a scientific figure reveals causal structure and it argues that the modern periodic table does just this. It also clarifies why these “merely” classificatory claims have seemed so compelling–this is because these claims often focus on the earliest periodic tables, which lack the causal structure present in modern versions.

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  1. 1.

    Even those philosophers who ascribe some explanatory status to the periodic table deny its role in causal explanation (Kitcher 1989, pp. 428–429) (Woody 2014, p. 143).

  2. 2.

    A non-exhaustive list of different accounts of scientific explanation include: causal (Woodward 2003), non-causal (Batterman 2010; Saatsi and Pexton 2018), mechanistic (Bechtel and Richardson 2010), unificatory (Kitcher 1989), and deductive-nomological accounts (Hempel 1965).

  3. 3.

    Meyer and others produced similar tables, with horizontal similarities. Mendeleev had other non-tabular representations of chemical periodicity.

  4. 4.

    For example, the question marks “?=68” and “?=70” represents such predictions.

  5. 5.

    He claimed that the correct weight of Tellurium was less than Iodine, which restored the periodic pattern (Mendeleev 1871). Mendeleev’s reversal of these elements can be seen in Fig. 2.

  6. 6.

    The relevant notion of an intervention here is an “ideal intervention,” which guarantees that X is manipulated without also manipulating factors that cause or are associated with Y. For more on this see (Woodward 2003).

  7. 7.

    The control is “hypothetical” because we often talk about factors causing particular outcomes, even though we lack the ability to actually intervene on the causes. What we mean is that if such causes were manipulated, they would produces changes in the effect (Woodward 2003).

  8. 8.

    A further requirement that is assumed in this analysis is that these variables and relationships represent true claims about actual properties in the world (Woodward 2014a, 2016).

  9. 9.

    Here I refer to “difference making” information that is relevant to manipulation and control as a kind of hallmark of causal explanation. This should not be confused with the claim that all explanations (e.g. non-causal explanations) require such information. In fact, a significant amount of recent work has examined non-causal explanations that involve counterfactual or “difference-making” information, where such information need not be relevant to manipulation or control (Saatsi and Pexton 2018; Reutlinger 2016).

  10. 10.

    In order to see the similarities between Mendeleev’s table in Fig. 2 and the modern periodic table, Mendeleev’s table should be rotated by 90 degrees and reflected across the vertical axis (Gordin 2004, p. 28). Some of Mendeleev’s later tables captured group trends in a vertical manner, similar to the modern table.

  11. 11.

    Mendeleev states that tables of elements have a “pedagogic importance as a means of learning easily various facts, systematically arranged and united one to another” (Gordin 2004, pp. 28–29)(Mendeleev 1871).

  12. 12.

    Notice that these scientists connect the notion of “theory” to “explanation” in a way that might appear similar to earlier theory-centered accounts of explanation (Shapere 1977; Scerri 1997a). While these earlier views take explanation as involving reductions or derivations, I suggest something different. In many cases, the use of “theoretical” by chemists can be understood as referring to important causal relationships that explain how various properties of elements change as a result of changes in atomic structure. In this sense, genuine understanding and explanation is provided by atomic theory, which specifies a causal relationship between some explanandum (atomic structure) and explanans (chemical behavior) of interest.

  13. 13.

    For example, if \(P_g\) represents the cluster of chemical behaviors displayed by group 17, elements in this column have value of 1 for this variable (representing the presence of these behaviors), while elements in other others have a value of 0 for this variable (as they lack these behaviors).

  14. 14.

    This is related to the claim that microstructural features of the elements explain some of their macroscopic properties (Bursten 2014).

  15. 15.

    This is the case with neutrally charged atoms, which are assumed in standard characterizations of the periodic table (Myers 2003, p. 41), (Hofmann 2002, p. 6).

  16. 16.

    The Madelung rule is also referred to as the (n + l) rule, the Janet rule, and the Klechkowsky rule. This rule is related Bohr’s Aufbau (or “building up”) principle, which states that atoms are built up by adding protons and electrons, where electrons occupy orbitals of lowest energy.

  17. 17.

    Notice that electrons are not added in a manner that tracks increasing shell number. For example, electrons are added to the s orbital of the fourth shell (4s) before the d orbital of the third shell (3d).

  18. 18.

    These features have to do with the fact that the valence electrons are more available for bonding, the degree to which they fill up the outermost shell influences stability, and their orbital location alters how close protons can pull them centrally (Rayner-Canham and Overton 2010, pp. 30–31) (Myers 2003, p. 66).

  19. 19.

    This is not to say that proton number plays no role in these causal explanations. As discussed in the rest of this section, the table assumes that changes in chemical properties follow from changes in both proton and electron structure, and clearly both are involved in producing such chemical differences. Moving along the explanans overlay of the table assumes that changes in proton number and electron configuration go hand-in-hand and the table clearly provides information about both.

  20. 20.

    Interest in transmutation dates back to the alchemists of ancient Greece who sought to turn base metals into gold and silver and who postulated that a special material called “the philosopher’s stone” was a required catalyst for such a process (Hofmann 2002, p. 1) (Krebs 2006, 4).

  21. 21.

    These experiments included elements in the lanthanide and actinide series, which are too heavy to occur naturally in large quantities.

  22. 22.

    This point is motivated by (Woody 2014, p. 142) and early papers by (Scerri 1997a, p. 239), which emphasize the non-causal and non-explanatory character of the table, respectively. In recent work, Scerri argues that electronic explanations of the table are “approximate” or partial. Scerri’s claims are resistant to my first point in this section and I view them as largely consistent with the main thesis of this paper, although we provide different interpretations of how these explanations work.

  23. 23.

    Of course, some classifications do involve causal information. This makes the “merely” classificatory claim somewhat puzzling, because classification and explanation are not mutually exclusive. I take it that worries about cases of “mere” classification are situations where a system can can classify, but not explain.

  24. 24.

    For further support of this first point, see (Ereshefsky and Reydon 2014).

  25. 25.

    For an analysis of the explanatory role of the periodic table that attends to modeling practices and theory construction, see (Weisberg 2007).

  26. 26.

    Mendeleev did sometimes suggest that such a rationale would come from an understanding of atomic structure, but he and his contemporaries merely hypothesized about how exactly this would work.

  27. 27.

    For example, it has been claimed that with respect to atomic structure and chemical properties “the relation is best conceived as one of cause and effect, with atomic structure determining chemical properties” (Strong 1959, p. 344).


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Correspondence to Lauren N. Ross.

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I would like to thank Jim Woodward, Eric Scerri, Julia Bursten, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful feedback on this paper.

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Ross, L.N. Causal explanation and the periodic table. Synthese 198, 79–103 (2021).

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  • Causation
  • Explanation
  • Philosophy of chemistry
  • Classification
  • Causal reasoning