Philosophy of Chemistry - Foundations of Chemistry

Foundations of Chemistry

Major philosophical questions arise as soon as one attempts to define chemistry and what it studies. Atoms and molecules are often assumed to be the fundamental units of chemical theory, but traditional descriptions of molecular structure and chemical bonding fail to account for the properties of many substances, including metals and metal complexes and aromaticity.

Additionally, chemists frequently use non-existent chemical entities like resonance structures to explain the structure and reactions of different substances; these explanatory tools use the language and graphical representations of molecules to describe the behavior of chemicals and chemical reactions that in reality do not behave as straightforward molecules.

Some chemists and philosophers of chemistry prefer to think of substances, rather than microstructures, as the fundamental units of study in chemistry. There is not always a one-to-one correspondence between the two methods of classifying substances. For example, many rocks exist as mineral complexes composed of multiple ions that do not occur in fixed proportions or spatial relationships to one another.

A related philosophical problem is whether chemistry is the study of substances or reactions. Atoms, even in a solid, are in perpetual motion and under the right conditions many chemicals react spontaneously to form new products. A variety of environmental variables contribute to a substance's properties, including temperature and pressure, proximity to other molecules and the presence of a magnetic field. As Schummer puts it, "Substance philosophers define a chemical reaction by the change of certain substances, whereas process philosophers define a substance by its characteristic chemical reactions."

Philosophers of chemistry discuss issues of symmetry and chirality in nature. Organic (i.e., carbon-based) molecules are those most often chiral. Amino acids, nucleic acids and sugars, all of which are found exclusively as a single enantiomer in organisms, are the basic chemical units of life. Chemists, biochemists, and biologists alike debate the origins of this homochirality. Philosophers debate facts regarding the origin of this phenomenon, namely whether it emerged contingently, amid a lifeless racemic environment or if other processes were at play. Some speculate that answers can only be found in comparison to extraterrestrial life, if it is ever found. Other philosophers question whether there exists a bias toward assumptions of nature as symmetrical, thereby causing resistance to any evidence to the contrary.

One of the most topical issues is determining to what extent physics, specifically, quantum mechanics, explains chemical phenomena. Can chemistry, in fact, be reduced to physics as has been assumed by many, or are there inexplicable gaps? Some authors Roald Hoffmann have recently suggested that a number of difficulties exist in the reductionist program with concepts like aromaticity, pH, reactivity, nucleophilicity, for example. The noted philosopher of science, Karl Popper, among others, predicted as much.

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