PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Lessons from the Baconian Sciences: The Case of Preparative Chemistry

Bacon conceived of manipulation and control as the principal goal of scientific inquiry. This aspect of Baconianism lives on in large swaths of the modern scientific landscape— sciences that in large measure create their own subject matters and evaluate their theoretical products in terms of the manipulative power and control that they provide over that subject matter. These modern Baconian sciences have rich experimental and theoretical cultures, but this experimental and theoretical work is not principally devoted to establishing the truth of abstract theory. Instead, both experimental work and the theories used to rationalize it are principally concerned to expand the range of the scientists’ ability to manipulate and control their domain.
Central among, and perhaps representative of, these modern Baconian sciences is what Joachim Schummer has called “preparative chemistry.” Chemistry is the most active science (in terms of the number of papers produced per year), and—at least according to Schummer— most chemists are involved in the preparation of substances. The substances produced are for the most part new and do not exist in nature without human intervention. Those substances that do already exist are typically prepared, as in the total synthesis of a natural product, in novel ways. Although “before 1850, organic chemistry could boast of virtually no synthetic achievements” (Woodward 1956, 155), by May 2011 over 60 million chemical substances had been recorded in the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) database. Over the course of the twentieth century, not only did the absolute number of synthetic products increase but so did the range. In fact, some chemists were willing to speculate that “there is practically no imaginable small molecule of reasonable stability that cannot be made by existing methods in sufficient quantity to examine its properties—given enough time, money and effort” (Cornforth 1993, 167–68). This enhanced manipulative ability and control over chemical reactions is the product of over a century of interaction between chemical theory and the laboratory work of organic chemists. In spite of the evident power of this interaction, very little philosophical attention has been paid to either the theoretical products of organic chemistry or how those products interact with the experimental work in the discipline. Perhaps because chemical theories do not assume the same mathematically intensive form as their counterparts in physics and instead rely heavily on models of structure, fields like organic chemistry have been regarded, as some chemists have put it, as the “kingdom of crawling empiricism” (Smit, Bochkov, and Caple 1988, 455). Conceiving of organic chemistry, or other modern Baconian fields, in this way obscures the rich interactions between scientific theorizing and modeling, experimental work, and our capacity to manipulate and control the world. It is therefore, in my estimation, crucial for philosophers interested in science to acknowledge not only the Baconian currents in, say, modern physics but also the distinct experimental and theoretical work in those sciences that have maintained the explicit Baconian focus on the manipulation and control of nature.
This talk will focus on some general lessons for the philosophy of science that can be made explicit by focusing on preparative chemistry as the paradigmatic Baconian science.

Author Information:

William Goodwin    
University of South Florida


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