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Ontological Status of Time in Chemistry

Published in Springer
Volume: 22
Pages: 353 - 361

While temporal considerations are of prime importance for chemical reactions, as well as for molecular stability, most chemical concepts (outside of the field of chemical kinetics) are not explicitly formulated on a diachronic basis (Earley in Found Chem 14:235, 2012). It will be argued here that a formulation explicitly incorporating temporal and epistemological considerations enables us to treat chemical reactions and chemical substances on ontologically equivalent terms, instead of assigning a more fundamental status to the latter. After all, in collision theory, a chemical substance is just a collision complex (a “resonance”) that takes too long. How long qualifies as “too long”, and “too long” in relation to what, are crucial questions that distinguish chemical substances from chemical reactions, and reversible reactions from irreversible ones, thereby introducing anthropocentric considerations into these distinctions. Too long for a lab chemist is very different from too long for an astrochemist studying chemical reactions between chemical substances in inter-stellar space on cosmological timescales. Examining several physical and chemical properties on the basis of which chemical substances are distinguished from one another, the role of temporal and anthropocentric considerations in defining molecular properties is emphasized. I conclude with some observations on the much-debated reduction of chemistry to other disciplines, arguing that such reduction depends on our aesthetic choices as to what kinds of observations demand explanation, and what kinds of explanation are acceptable.

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