Philosophical View Illuminates Different Facets of Science

The periodic system of chemical elements is the result of a great collaboration but also an idealization and construct.
The periodic system of chemical elements is the result of a great collaboration but also an idealization and construct.

Measuring has often been considered an objective process because it gives numerical—hence non-subjective—information about the world. Numbers are seen as the characteristics of things and phenomena. However, research performed at the University of Tartu reveals that measuring depends on assumptions that we take for granted but which are not always verifiable.

Ave Mets, research fellow in the philosophy of science at the University of Tartu, said that these assumptions are more like beliefs. She brought the example of chemical elements: “It was not possible to prove the existence of chemical atoms while variables (quantities) were attributed to the chemical elements, although it was known atomic essence was crucial for this,” she explained.

Mets added that measuring processes and their metaphysical or pragmatic assumptions create a bunch of features that are the bases for determining measurable phenomena. “However, the features have been specified by us, they do not exist in nature exactly in that form, waiting for the humankind to discover them,” she noted.

Concept helped to systemize Complex Topic

For her soon to be published article[1], Mets studied the representational and pragmatic aspects of measurements, as well as the philosophy of chemistry and the history of the periodic system of chemical elements. She uncovered several interesting factors. For example, in 19th century the actual existence of the atom was not important to chemists, it was more like a pragmatic tool or concept that helped to create some kind of a system in this complicated world, make it more predictable.

What is more, Dmitri Mendeleev was not the first chemist to notice the regular connection between atomic mass and the other characteristics of elements—the periodical system was a result of the collaboration of many scientists and the work lasted many years, Mets said. “Mendeleev had to deviate from empirical (measured) data—it was an active process of idealization and construction; he did not simply discover order already existing in the world. Also, the concept of an element is an idealization of simple substance, as Mendeleev admitted,” Mets explained.

Inspiring Workshop in Tartu

Mets identified her research as a contribution to the philosophy of chemistry. “The results can be applied to the philosophy of measurement for developing the practical examples of chemistry or other close fields,” she said. Practice-based philosophy of science strives toward the adequate understanding of research.

Endla Lõhkivi, associate professor in the philosophy of science at the University of Tartu, said that Ave Mets has initiated an original research project on the measurement theory based on examples gained from real scientific practice and her work has attracted international attention. “We are very proud to host an international workshop with Professor Hasok Chang (University of Cambridge) in March[2],” she said.

Next, Mets would like to continue exploring the theory of measurement as the practical basis of science. She hopes that the workshop on the practice-based philosophy of science that will take place in Tartu could give new ideas for the future, as the event will also involve performing experiments in the laboratory. “It could give a new perspective for researching the connection between research practice and the scientific worldview as well as its relations with traditional worldviews,“ Mets underlined.

Lõhkivi added that interest in the practice of science characterises their entire research group. “We participate in the work of the International Society for the Philosophy of Science in Practice (SPSP) since its establishment in the early 2000s. We have been studying both historical cases and contemporary topics in various fields of research. Currently we run an Estonian Research Council’s personal research grant project, the aim of which is to achieve a better understanding of interdisciplinarity in practice,” she noted.

[1]https://www.etis.ee/Portal/Publications/Display/f0397de3-8ae9-4497-a4d0-af85f6402080

[2]http://www.flfi.ut.ee/en/workshop-hasok-chang-pragmatist-realism-philosophy-history-and-science

This article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.