Thursday, May 29, 2008

Philosophy of Chemistry: Why Only Now?

Taught a class this semester on the philosophy of chemistry with a friend who is a physical chemist. (You can always tell the physical chemists, they're the one's with the bruises -- much tougher crowd than those chemists who don't get physical.)

What is interesting for me is that it is a rare chance for an academic to be able to teach a field that is in its infancy. There are two journals -- Hyle which has been around since 1995 and Foundations of Chemistry which began in 1999. There are a handful of scholars devoted to the field, Eric Scerri from UCLA is probably the biggest name and, as editor of Foundations of Chemistry and a number of very nice authored and edited volumes, one of the main organizational engines driving it forward. I was fortunate enough to attend the annual meeting of the International Society for the Philosophy of Chemistry a couple of years back when it was at Georgetown. A dedicated group of smart folks who together fit comfortably into a good sized classroom.

This is certainly not the case with philosophy of physics which has a long and storied history. Philosophy of biology and psychology likewise are significant intellectual forces in their own right. Political, sociological and economic theory go back to ancient Greece with significant advances in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Even the philosophy of geography has been an organized field of study for the better part of at least half a century. Why so late with chemistry, a study whose alchemical roots go back to the ancient Egyptians?

This was the last question on the final exam, and it's one to which I'm not sure I know the answer. Why has there been no serious movement around the philosophy of chemistry until the late 1990s?

Seems like there are four possible answers:

(1) There are no big questions in chemistry that are not already somewhere else.
Physics has the origin of the universe, biology has the nature of life, but chemistry doesn't have anything deep that is particular to chemistry.

(2) Chemistry does not actually exist -- or at least it won't forever.
Maybe the reason is that chemistry is not really a science, just a placeholder connecting physics to biology and once we have the proper physical theory to reduce everything chemists do, it'll all go away. Right now we have chemists because physicists haven't completed the reduction yet, but it's really just a matter of time.

(3) It's the chemists -- they just aren't a philosophical bunch
Chemistry is to its core a practical science, funded by corporations in order to find practical solutions to real life problems. Chemists think in terms of things they can manipulate and solutions they can create. Theory is only important as far as it serves practical, hands-on chemistry. As such, there is no philosophical culture amongst chemists to worry about the philosophical questions there.

(4) It's the philosophers -- they just don't know any chemistry
Maybe the problem isn't that the philosophical problems aren't there, it's just that we don't have chemically trained philosophers the way we have philosophers who have backgrounds in physics, biology, psychology, mathematics,... Philosophically-minded chemists could only do so much until they actually had legitimizing figures in the phil depts -- and those folks simply were not to be found.

So, which one is it? A combination or some other factor?