Chalmers: The Scientist's Atom and the Philosopher's Stone

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Alan Chalmers, The Scientist’s Atom and the Philosopher’s Stone : How Science Succeeded and Philosophy Failed to Gain Knowledge of Atoms. New York : Springer, 2009. 288 pages.

It’s reasonable to see philosophy and science as natural partners, complementary in their application and intimately related. However, there is some distrust between the disciplines. Massimo Pigliucci discussed the problems in his paper: "The borderlands between science and philosophy: an introduction". The March 2008 special issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology has other papers dealing with these problems.

Scientists often feel that some philosophers can be hostile towards, or misrepresent, science. Some philosophers have an "armchair approach" which inhibits a proper understanding of the scientific process. But there are other philosophers who promote a respectful relationship with science.

Alan Chalmers' textbook is an example of the healthy relationship that can, and often does, exist. It is therefore a welcome addition to the philosophy of science and should benefit students of philosophy and science alike.

In particular, it will help put the relationship between science and philosophy into the right perspective. And what better subject to do this than atomism with its clear roots in philosophical thought but is clear proof in experimental science. Chalmer’s epistemological history shows how "the philosophical atomists’ miniature stones were replaced by the scientist’s quantum-mechanical atom." This serves to provide a comprehensive history of the relationship between philosophy and science.

Epistemological history of atomism

The book describes the epistemological history of atomism. The author makes his approach and terms clear in the early pages. He sees "philosophical, as opposed to scientific, claims about the structure of matter are not confirmed by, but at best only accommodated to, the phenomena."

The origin of modern science is also revealed by Chalmers as he shows "the emergence of scientific knowledge that was both general and experimentally confirmed as distinct from what was referred to as natural philosophy." This was "very much tied up with the story of the emergence of atoms as a scientific theory."

Chalmers begins with the philosophical ideas of the Greeks – Parmenides (early 5th Century BCE), Leucippus, Democritus, Aristotle and Epicurus (late 4th and early 3rd century BCE). Concepts of the atom as the basic indivisible particle of matter did not dominate. There were contrasting ideas such as Aristotle’s ideas of form and natural minima and these were taken over and developed by the Romans, medieval Islam, and Christian Western Europe of the 13th Century CE.

The mechanical philosophy of Pierre Gassendi and Robert Boyle in the 17th Century CE revived the ancient atomism. Chalmers discusses Newton’s atomism, alchemistry and emerging chemistry, Dalton’s atomic chemistry, thermodynamics, Avagadro’s ideas, statistical kinetic theory and Brownian motion. What comes through clearly is that even until the late 19th Century CE atomistic ideas were still philosophical. They were not being confirmed by experimental practice; rather they were being accommodated to experimental findings. Even when researchers talked about atoms they remained philosophical ideas rather than experimentally determined entities.

Final contact – with electrons

Experimental contact with atoms was made only at the end of the 19th Century. And then it was via the electron – which sort of destroyed the whole indivisible atom concept of the philosophers. Zeeman and Thomson were able to make fairly direct identification of charged atomic and subatomic particles. Of course the seemingly late contact depended on the development of appropriate pre-conditions, such as development of the necessary electrical, vacuum, and spectroscopic technolgies.

This epistemological history is fascinating and instructive. I would welcome its extension to include details of the philosophical, technological and scientific contributions from other cultures. In particular those of medieval Islam, China, India and Egypt. Sensibly, though, the research in these areas has probably yet to reach fruition.

From “natural philosophy” to science

From the modern perspective it’s interesting to consider the divergence of "natural philosophy" into philosophical and experimental science tracks in the 17th century. Here we begin to see attempts to validate philosophical atomistic hypotheses in practice. This separation has lead to the clear distinction of today’s demarcation. As well as producing a distinct discipline of science, with a strong empirical and experimental basis, it has also lead to a change in the character of philosophy. Although there are still philosophical trends which would love to return to the past and impose some "parental discipline" on what they consider an "unruly child".

Modern philosophy is more abstract and has largely left behind speculation on what today we would see as untested scientific hypotheses about reality. Many parts of the old philosophy are now incorporated into science.

Chalmers also provides some brief discussion at the beginning of the book on the nature of science and philosophy, what claims they make and how they set about confirming them. He discusses experimental activity and conceptual innovation. Also of use is his description of inference to the best explanation which provides a useful description of scientific epistemology. This is valuable to the student and advanced reader alike.

A positive evaluation of science

The book helps counter a common assumption equating early philosophical atomism with modern scientific concepts of the atom. It also provides a much more sensible and positive appraisal of science than we sometimes meet in philosophical presentations. As Chalmers points out: "Scientific knowledge has a validity that has no analogue in philosophy."

And he finishes the book with this:

Because of the stringent way in which scientific knowledge is required to pass experimental tests, it is the best kind of knowledge we have. As far as providing knowledge of the deep structure of the world is concerned, science has progressed in a dramatic way and proved itself capable of answering questions that were once supposed to be the province of philosophy. This does not render philosophy redundant. Many areas of philosophy, such as moral philosophy or philosophical logic, do not contest ground claimed by science in a way that some tradit6ional metaphysics does.

Science and philosophy can co-operate fruitfully in the modern world. We are seeing this in fields like cognitive science and the study of consciousness.

This book encourages a respectful attitude between the disciplines and will contribute to such fruitful cooperation.

I just wish it was available in a less expensive edition.

-- Notes by KP

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