Insight into Chemistry: Introduction

by David Fleischacker

In Insight, Lonergan makes use of chemistry as one of the examples of higher and lower genii of things in this universe.  Biology is a higher integration of a coincidental manifold of chemical occurrences and schemes.  What I would like to do is to examine the history of chemistry to catch glimpse of the breakthroughs that led to its discovery.  The periodic table is a brilliant construct.  Before Mendeleev provided us with this final version, there were precursors, and before these precursors, there were a series of breakthroughs both in the way that sense data was gathered and in the way that the upper blade heuristics operated, upper blades of both classical and statistical heuristic structures, the former being formulated in terms of the relationships of matter and the latter being formulated in terms of reaction rates.  Even earlier, there was a series of descriptive breakthroughs with developing explanatory postulates that painted a complex path to modern chemistry.

Here are a few areas that I would like to explore.

  1. Whether there exist deductive and homogeneous expansions in chemistry.
  2. The role of inverse insights in chemistry.
  3. The degree to which classical and statistical heuristic structures developed in chemistry.
  4. The relationship of chemistry 1) to physics, 2) to biology (and on up).
  5. The explanatory conjugates in Chemistry.
  6. Schemes of recurrence in Chemistry.
  7. The nature of judgements in chemistry (eg. Provisional analytical principles)
  8. Epistemology in chemistry, especially in terms of the principle notion of objectivity.
  9. Vertical developments that emerged following the breakthroughs into modern chemistry, both heading down into quarks and heading up into DNA and replication.
  10. Chemistry and metaphysics – potencies, forms, and acts, along with generalized emergent probability.
    1. In this context, I would like to explore energy in chemistry (and whether Lonergan is right in suggesting a link between energy and finality.

Chemistry: A Deductive Expansion

I will begin by saying something about the first half of #1 above.

Lonergan introduces deductive expansion in chapter one of Insight to illustrate a particular type of development within mathematics.  It is deductive when the same operation is used over and over again.  Hence, when one adds over and over again:  1 + 1 = 2, 2 + 1 = 3, 3 + 1 = 4. Etc., etc., etc..  This type of deduction using addition can lead one to a viewpoint that is symbolized by addition tables. The key is that the mode of the expansion is entirely limited to a single operation, addition.

In Chemistry similar types of development take place.  Descriptively, one finds the growth of qualitative measures, that then became the “operation” used to investigate certain types of materials or substances. Examples include solubility in water and related to this, the formation of precipitates.  Salt and sugar dissolve in water for example. Wood and iron do not, at least in any rapid time frame.  One can take known substances, and see if these are soluble. Of course, one could switch water with acids, bases, or alcohols.  One could go on to mixing liquids or gases or gases with liquids, as well as liquids with solids.  Now, at first, it was not clear that solids, gases, and liquids are different forms of certain elements and molecules, but seeing the qualitative (descriptive) outcomes of such interactions is a general mode of operation that one finds in early chemistry (eg. Alchemy and medical chemistry).

Another kind of deductive expansion arose with the development of quantitative analysis in chemistry.  Basically, these sprung from long known units of measure, such as weight, volume, temperature, and to a lesser degree pressure.  One sees Boyle for example introducing the relationship of volume and pressure of gases.  You see a number of individuals introducing various means for measuring weight.  So a general operation was to quantify something.  I suppose one could argue that the real operation was a particular mode of quantifying, such as weight or volume.  One can repeat such an operation upon a number of different substances – gold, wood, water, etc., etc., etc..  This gets to be a bit more difficult with gases, but with some creativity it is not impossible with a bit of creativity. How does one weigh smoke for example? And is smoke a gas?

The point thus far is to show how there are developments like deductive expansions even in the early stages of chemistry.  Explanatorily, one also sees similar expansions.  In Dalton, one finds a proportionality of mass combinations. There are basic elements that combine in specific and definite ways with each other such that a particular substance is always composed of the same set(s) of elements, and hence have the same based masses.  Water is always formed of two hydrogens and one oxygen.  This is a deductive expansion that is even closer to math, because it says that adding particular elements in a certain manner always results in a particular compound of those elements that has specific properties because of how these elements are combined.

As a result, one can see how elements can be combined in twos or threes or fours.  And the masses of these compounds always equal the sum of the masses of the elements.  Of course, there is more to be discovered, because not just any element can be combined with any other element. Hence, this is where chemistry diverges from math.  In math, any number can be added to any number.


This is just a first set of observations about chemistry and its development, both descriptively and explanatorily.  I will return to this every so often and hopefully have something to say.

John Dalton’s Table of Elements and Compounds

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *