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Chemical atomism: a case study in confirmation and ontology

Authors
  • Brown, Joshua D. K.1
  • 1 Gustavus Adolphus College, Saint Peter, MN, USA , Saint Peter (United States)
Type
Published Article
Journal
Synthese
Publisher
Springer Netherlands
Publication Date
Nov 12, 2014
Volume
192
Issue
2
Pages
453–485
Identifiers
DOI: 10.1007/s11229-014-0581-4
Source
Springer Nature
Keywords
License
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Abstract

Quine, taking the molecular constitution of matter as a paradigmatic example, offers an account of the relation between theory confirmation and ontology. Elsewhere, he deploys a similar ontological methodology to argue for the existence of mathematical objects. Penelope Maddy considers the atomic/molecular theory in more historical detail. She argues that the actual ontological practices of science display a positivistic demand for “direct observation,” and that fulfillment of this demand allows us to distinguish molecules and other physical objects from mathematical abstracta. However, the confirmation of the atomic/molecular theory and the development of scientists’ ontological attitudes towards atoms was more complicated and subtle than even Maddy supposes. The present paper argues that the history of the theory in fact supports neither Quine’s and Maddy’s accounts of scientific ontology. There was no general demand from scientists to “see” atoms before they were reckoned to be real; but neither did the indispensable appearance of atoms in the best theory of chemical combination suffice to convince scientists of their reality.

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