The missing link

These days any high school student is likely to open a textbook and find STM images of atoms and molecules. He or she might then be perplexed by hearing the debate surrounding the reality or otherwise of atoms that has taken place over the years. However, as chemistry becomes increasingly sophisticated the need for philosophical analysis of all aspects of the subject, including perhaps the true significance of STM images, will continue to increase. As someone once said,philosophy begins with the recognition of the difference between appearance and reality1

A scientist (but I could say any honest person) should be first and foremost self-critical. Recognising one’s shortcomings and limits is the first step to overcoming them. Scrutinising oneself, or one’s own experimental data, from an (as much as possible) objective viewpoint is instrumental in achieving that integrity that we often yearn for, both in everyday life and in scientific conduct.

If there were anything I could change about me as a scientist, I would definitely try and make up for the lack of philosophical background. I am already doing my best to fill this gap the hard way, but it is an exceedingly difficult enterprise to undertake at my tender age, and in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of a busy academic life. Yet, I think that is the missing link in the education of today’s scientists.

Whenever I dare open an article in Hyle, one of the leading journals in the philosophy of chemistry (along with Foundations of Chemistry), it is a humbling, daunting and yet exciting experience, and I feel as thought I were wading into swampy water to reach for an invisible coastline, or I were hacking my way through a jungle with a blunt blade, looking for a hidden treasure. I often wonder, is it already too late to sharpen that blade, to get to the cutting edge? Sometimes I feel discouraged, and I think it is. I wish that I had studied more philosophy of science, or even just a bit more history of chemistry, when I was an undergraduate.

Of course, one might remark that not all scientists share the same interest in philosophy (or they have simply better things to do) and I expected this criticism: fair enough. However, there are nagging questions that too often go unanswered: “Why are we doing science at all in the first place?”, “Why are we doing science this way, and is this the only, the best or just the least-worst way of doing it ?”. “What can we learn from past and present philosophical debates in our own discipline and from other fields of science?”.

Think about this: the discussion on the fundamental nature of the orbitals. Should one think of them as useful conceptual holograms, purely (non-existing) mathematical tools or veritable entities? As correctly pointed out by leading philosophers of chemistry2, this is a crucial question that impinges directly upon the very way in which our own discipline is taught. Senior academics ought to devote more attention to how the next generation of chemists is nurtured and trained, acting as careful gardeners who tend for fragile, young tree shoots, and philosophy of chemistry is poised to become their sharpest pair of pruners.

On a more methodological level, I bumped straight into a philosophical dilemma when I was discussing the results of IR experiments with an undergraduate student the other day. An IR signal that we did not expect to show up on the basis of the available literature appeared reproducibly, experiment after experiment. We analysed together all possible IR vibrations giving rise to that particular signal, and we identified the molecular vibration most likely to be active. In logical terms, I would rather say that we chose an “inference to the best explanation”. In this particular case, we went one step forward and we also chose the most “economical” explanation, the one that needed the least outlandish assumptions about molecules adsorbing onto the surface in weird configurations. Therefore, we applied “Ockam’s Razor” too. Yet, were we right to choose the simplest explanation, when the world (of men and molecules alike) is known to be a dastardly complex place? Again, I myself do not have the philosophical tools to argue in favour or against this approach, and I had better redirect the reader to an article in Hyle on the surprisingly close encounters between Ockam’s Razor and the mechanisms of chemical reactions3.

“It must be admitted that many scientists today take little interest in philosophy of science, and know little about it. While this is unfortunate, it is not an indication that philosophical issues are no longer relevant. Rather, it is a consequence of the increasingly specialized nature of science, and of the polarization between the sciences and the humanities that characterize the modern education system” 4

Philosophy, like an invisible veil, surrounds our everyday scientific conduct: do we want to be spiders, and learn how to weave our web, or entrapped, helpless flies? It is up to us to choose.

Footnotes

1. E.R. Scerri, Philosophy of Chemistry – A New Interdisciplinary Field?, J. Chem. Educ., 2000, 77, p 522 (quote from pages 524-525) DOI:10.1021/ed077p522
2. E.R. Scerri, op.cit.; O. Lombardi and M. Labarca, The Philosophy of Chemistry as a New Resource for Chemistry Education, J. Chem. Educ.,2007,84, p. 187 DOI: 10.1021/ed084p187
3. R.Hoffmann et al., Ockam’s Razor and Chemistry, Hyle, 19973, p. 3, available free of charge on the website of Hyle
4. S. Okasha, Philosophy of Science – A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2002 (page 13).

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