Scientific Realism and the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements
Sides, Jonathan David
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The periodic table poses a difficulty for both scientific realists and anti-realists. The antirealist has difficulty accounting for the success of the table during a period in chemistry when many theories and concepts changed; the spatial relations of current tables in use do not show fundamental changes from the original tables proposed by Mendeleev. Yet, most versions of scientific realism are based upon the understanding that theories are some collection of written propositions or equations. The table as an image successfully functions very much like a theory: it is an organization of known facts, has been used to make predictions, and is plastic enough to accommodate unforeseen novel facts. Assuming the truth of the representational relations between the table and the world poses interesting issues for the realist. Ian Hacking's entity realism and the structural realism of several philosophers are both possible versions of scientific realism that fail to account for the table. Hacking's version fails in this case because the role of representation is central to understanding the history of the table; structural realism fails because it diminishes to much the role that first order properties have as they relate to the formulation of the second order relationships that comprise the table. Philip Kitcher of Science, Truth, and Democracy leaves himself open to two interpretations about the metaphysics of pluralism. One of these is indefensible; the other is quite well supported by the plurality of successful periodic tables.
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