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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Meyer and others produced similar tables, with horizontal similarities. Mendeleev had other non-tabular representations of chemical periodicity.
For example, the question marks “?=68” and “?=70” represents such predictions.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.
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).
This is related to the claim that microstructural features of the elements explain some of their macroscopic properties (Bursten 2014).
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.
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).
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).
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.
These experiments included elements in the lanthanide and actinide series, which are too heavy to occur naturally in large quantities.
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.
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.
For further support of this first point, see (Ereshefsky and Reydon 2014).
For an analysis of the explanatory role of the periodic table that attends to modeling practices and theory construction, see (Weisberg 2007).
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.
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).
Abrahamsen, A., & Bechtel, W. (2014). Diagrams as tools for scientific reasoning. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 6(1), 117–131.
Allen, L. C., & Knight, E. T. (2002). The Löwdin challenge: Origin of the n + l, n (Madelung) rule for filling the orbital configurations of the periodic table. International Journal of Quantum Chemistry, 90(1), 80–88.
Batterman, R. W. (2010). On the explanatory role of mathematics in empirical science. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 61(1), 1–25.
Bechtel, W., Burnston, D., Sheredos, B., & Abrahamsen, A. (2014). Representing time in scientific diagrams. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, 36(36), 164–169.
Bechtel, W., & Richardson, R. C. (2010). Discovering complexity. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Bohr, N. (1938). Biology and atomic physics. Il Nuovo Cimento, 15(7), 429–438.
Bursten, J. R. (2014). Microstructure without essentialism: A new perspective on chemical classification. Philosophy of Science, 81, 633–653.
Chang, R. (2007). Chemistry (10th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Clayton, D. D. (1983). Principles of stellar evolution and nucleosynthesis. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Ereshefsky, M. (2001). The poverty of the Linnaean hierarchy: A philosophical study of biological taxonomy. New York: Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology.
Ereshefsky, M., & Reydon, T. A. C. (2014). Scientific kinds. Philosophical Studies, 172, 969–986.
Gordin, M. D. (2004). A well-ordered thing: Dmitrii Mendeleev and the shadow of the periodic table. New York: Basic Books.
Griesemer, J. R. (1991). Must scientific diagrams be eliminable? The case of path analysis. Biology and Philosophy, 6(2), 155–180.
Hempel, C. (1965). Aspects of scientific explanation. New York: The Free Press.
Hofmann, S. (2002). On beyond uranium. New York: Taylor and Francis.
Housecroft, C . E., & Sharpe, A . G. (2010). Inorganic chemistry (3rd ed.). Essex: Pearson Education Limited.
Housecroft, C . E., & Sharpe, A . G. (2012). Inorganic chemistry (4th ed.). Essex: Pearson Education Limited.
Houten, J. V. (2009). “Jeopardy” in the inorganic classroom - Teaching descriptive chemistry using a television game show format. In Chemistry Education in the ICT Age (pp. 11–17). Dordrecht: Springer.
Joffe, M., Gambhir, M., Chadeau-Hyam, M., & Vineis, P. (2012). Causal diagrams in systems epidemiology. Emerging Themes in Epidemiology, 9(1): 1 .
Kitcher, P. (1989). Explanatory unification and the causal structure of the world. Scientific Explanation (pp. 507–531). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Krebs, R. E. (2006). The history and use of our earth’s chemical elements (2nd ed.). Westport: Greenwood Press.
Mendeleev, D. I. (1869). On the relationship of the properties of the elements to their atomic weights. In W. Jensen (Ed.), Mendeleev on the periodic law (pp. 405–406). Mineola: Zeitschrift für Chemie.
Mendeleev, D. I. (1871). On the periodic regularity of the chemical elements. Annalen der Chemie und Pharmacie, 8(Suppl), 133–352.
Mendeleev, D. I. (1899). How I discovered the periodic system of elements. In W. B. Jensen (Ed.), Mendeleev on the periodic law. Revue Générale de Chimie Pure et Appliquée.
Meyer, J. L. (1870). Die natur der chemischen elemente als function ihrer atomgewichte. Annalen der Chemie, 7, 354–364.
Moeller, T., Bailar, J . C., Kleinberg, J., Guss, C . O., Castellion, M . E., & Metz, C. (1980). Chemistry with inorganic qualitative analysis (3rd ed.). New York: Academic Press.
Myers, R. (2003). The basics of chemistry. Westport: Greenwood Press.
Nath, B., & Cholakov, G. S. (2009). Pollution control technologies (Vol. 1). Oxford: EOLSS Publishers.
Niaz, M. (2009). Critical appraisal of physical science as a human enterprise. Dordrecht: Springer.
Rayner-Canham, G. (1996). Descriptive inorganic chemistry (1st ed.). New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Rayner-Canham, G., & Overton, T. (2010). Descriptive inorganic chemistry (5th ed.). New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Reutlinger, A. (2016). Is there a monist theory of causal and noncausal explanations? The counterfactual theory of scientific explanation. Philosophy of Science, 83, 733–745.
Rutherford, E. (1919). Collisions of alpha particles with light atoms. An anomalous effect in nitrogen. The London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, 37(222), 581–587.
Rutherford, E., & Soddy, F. (1903). Radioactive change. The London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, 5(29), 576–591.
Saatsi, J., & Pexton, M. (2018). Reassessing Woodward’s account of explanation: Regularities, counterfactuals, and noncausal explanations. Philosophy of Science, 80, 613–624.
Scerri, E. R. (1997a). Has the periodic table been successfully axiomatized? Erkenntnis, 47, 229–243.
Scerri, E. R. (1997b). The periodic table and the electron: Although electronic configurations are traditionally invoked to explain the periodic system, their explanatory power remains only approximate. American Scientist, 85, 546–553.
Scerri, E. R. (2007). The periodic table: Its story and its significance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Scerri, E. R. (2011). The periodic table: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Scerri, E. R. (2012). The periodic table. Philosophy of chemistry (pp. 329–338). Oxford: Elsevier.
Scerri, E. R., & Worrall, J. (2001). Prediction and the periodic table. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 32, 407–452.
Seaborg, G. T. (1959). Recent work with the transuranium elements. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 45(4), 471–482.
Seyler, D. U. (1987). Read, reason, write (2nd ed.). New York: Random House.
Shapere, D. (1977). Scientific theories and their domains. In F. Suppe (Ed.), The Structure of Scientific Theories. University of Illinois Press.
Strong, F. C. (1959). The atomic form periodic table. Journal of Chemical Education, 36(7), 344.
Weisberg, M. (2007). Who is a modeler? The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 58(2), 207–233.
Weller, M., Overton, T., Rourke, J., & Armstrong, F. (2014). Inorganic chemistry (6th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Williams, A. F. (1979). A theoretical approach to inorganic chemistry. Berlin: Springer.
Woodward, J. (2003). Making things happen. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Woodward, J. (2014a). A functional account of causation; Or, a defense of the legitimacy of causal thinking by reference to the only standard that matters: Usefulness (as opposed to metaphysics or agreement with intuitive judgment). Philosophy of Science, 81, 691–713.
Woodward, J. (2014b). Scientific explanation. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-explanation/#PraTheExp. November 2017. Standford Encylopedia of Philosophy.
Woodward, J. (2016). The problem of variable choice. Synthese, 193(4), 1047–1072.
Woody, A. I. (2014). Chemistry’s periodic law: Rethinkingrepresentation and explanation after the turn to practice. In L. InSoler, S. Zwart, M. Lynch, & V. Israel-Jost (Eds.), Science after the practice turn in the philosophy, history, andsocial studies of science. NewYork: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
Wulfsberg, G. (1991). Principles of descriptive inorganic chemistry. Sausalito, California: University Science Books.
I would like to thank Jim Woodward, Eric Scerri, Julia Bursten, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful feedback on this paper.
About this article
Cite this article
Ross, L.N. Causal explanation and the periodic table. Synthese 198, 79–103 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-01982-0
- Philosophy of chemistry
- Causal reasoning