Philosophy and Science

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Philosophy can be described, not altogether accurately, as the things that science can’t address. With the modern urge to compartmentalise things, we designate some problems as philosophy and science, and conveniently ignore the fuzzy boundary between the two disciplines.

The ancient Greek philosophers didn’t appear to distinguish much between philosophy and science as such, and the term “Natural Philosophy” described the whole field before the advent of science. The Scientific Revolution of Newton, Leibniz and the rest had the effect of splitting natural philosophy into science and philosophy.

Statue of Isaac Newton at the Oxford Universit...
Statue of Isaac Newton at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Note apple. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Science is (theoretically at least) build on observations. You can’t seriously believe a theory that contradicts the facts, although there is a get-out clause. You can believe such a theory if you have an explanation as to why it doesn’t fit the facts, which amounts to having an extended theory that includes a bit that contains the explanation for the discrepancy.

Philosophy however, is intended to go beyond the facts. Way beyond the facts. Philosophy asks question for example about the scientific method and why it works, and why it works so well. It asks why things are the way they are and other so called “deep” questions.

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One of the questions that Greek philosopher/scientists considered was what everything is made of. Some of them thought that it was made up four elements and some people still do. Democritus had a theory that everything was made up of small indivisible particles, and this atomic theory is a very good explanation of the way things work at a chemical level.

Democritus and his fellow philosopher/scientists had, it is true, some evidence to go and to be fair so did those who preferred the four elements theory, but the idea was more philosophical in nature rather than scientific, I feel. While it was evident that while many substances could be broken down into their components by chemical method, some could not.

Antoine Lavoisier developed the theory of comb...
Antoine Lavoisier developed the theory of combustion as a chemical reaction with oxygen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So Democritus would have looked at a lump of sulphur, for example, and considered it to be made up of many atoms of sulphur. The competing theory of the four elements however can’t easily explain the irreducible nature of sulphur.

My point here is that while these theories explained some of the properties of matter, the early philosopher/scientists were not too interested in experimentation, so these theories remained philosophical theories. It was not until the Scientific Revolution arrived that these theories were actually tested, albeit indirectly and the science of chemistry took off.

Model for the Three Superior Planets and Venus...
Model for the Three Superior Planets and Venus from Georg von Peuerbach, Theoricae novae planetarum. Image enhanced for legibility. The abbreviations in the center of the diagram read: C[entrum] æquantis (Center of the equant) C[entrum] deferentis (Center of the deferent) C[entrum] mundi (Center of the world) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Before that, chemical knowledge was very run by recipes and instructions. Once scientists realised the implications of atomic theory, they could predict chemical reactions and even weigh atoms, or at least assign masses to atoms, and atomic theory moved from philosophy to science.

That’s not such a big change as you might think. Philosophy says “I’ve got some vague ideas about atoms”. Science says “Based on observations, your theory seems good and I can express your vague ideas more concretely in these equations. Things behave as if real atoms exist and that they behave that way”. Science cannot say that things really are that way, or that atoms really exist as such.

English: Adenine_chemical_structure + atoms nu...
English: Adenine_chemical_structure + atoms numbers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Indeed, when scientists took a closer look at these atom things they found some issues. For instance the (relative) masses of the atoms are mostly pretty close to integers. Hydrogen’s mass is about 1, Helium’s is about 4, and Lithium’s is about 7. So far so tidy. But Chlorine’s mass is measured as not being far from 35.5.

This can be resolved if atoms contain constituent particles which cannot be added or removed by chemical reactions. A Chlorine atom behaves as if it were made up of 17 positive particles and 18 or 19 uncharged particles of more or less the same mass. If you measure the average mass of a bunch of Chlorine atoms, it will come out at 35.5 (ish). Problem solved.

English: Chlorine gas
English: Chlorine gas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Except that it has not been solved. Democritus’s atoms (it means “indivisibles”) are made up of something else. The philosophical problem is still there. If atoms are not indivisible, what are their component particles made of? The current answer seems to be that they are made of little twists of energy and probability. I wouldn’t put money on that being the absolute last word on it though. Some people think that they are made up of vibrating strings.

All through history philosophy has been raising issues without any regard for whether or not the issues can be solved, or even put to the test. Science has been taking issues at the edges of philosophy and bringing some light to them. Philosophy has been taking issues at the edge of science and conjecturing on them. Often such conjectures are taken back by science and moulded into theory again. Very often the philosophers who conjecture are the scientists who theorise, as in famous scientists like Einstein, Schroedinger and Hawking.

:The Black Hole, Los Alamos
:The Black Hole, Los Alamos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The end result is that the realm of philosophy is reduced somewhat in some places and the realm of science is expanded to cover those areas. But the expansion of science suggests new areas for philosophy. To explain some of the features of quantum mechanics some people suggest that there are many “worlds” or universes rather than just the one familiar to us.

This is really in the realm of philosophy as it is, as yet, unsupported by any evidence (that I know of, anyway). There are philosophers/scientists on both sides of the argument so the issue is nowhere near settled and the “many worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics is only one of many interpretations. The problem is that quantum mechanics is not intuitively understandable.

Diagram of one interpretation of the Nine Worl...
Diagram of one interpretation of the Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “many worlds interpretation” at least so far the Wikipedia article goes, views reality as a many branched tree. This seems unlikely as probabilities are rarely as binary as a branched tree. Probability is a continuum, like space or time, and it is likely that any event is represented on a dimension of space, time, and probability.

I don’t know if such a possibility makes sense in terms of the equations, so that means that I am practising philosophy and not science! Nevertheless, I like the idea.

Displacement of a continuum body, from a refer...
Displacement of a continuum body, from a reference configuration to the current configuration. Continuum mechanics. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



cooked in this case. I'd like to try the raw v...
cooked in this case. I’d like to try the raw version even though this was good as is. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most people have a hand in food preparation at some time in the day. Even those who subsist on “instant meals” will at least zap it in the microwave for the necessary amount of time. Some people however cook intricate dishes, for their own amusement or for friends and families.

Most people eat cooked food although there is somewhat of a fad for raw food at the present time. All sorts of diets are also touted as having some sort of benefit for the food conscious, all of which seem bizarre when one considers that many, many people around the world are starving.

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Cooking can be described as applied chemistry, as the aim of cooking is to change the food being cooked by treating it with heat in one way or another. All the methods treatment are given names, like “boiling”, or “baking” or “roasting”. In the distant past no doubt such treatments were hit and miss, but these days, with temperature controlled ovens and ingredients which are pretty much consistent, a reasonable result can be achieved by most people.

Chemistry Is What We Are
Chemistry Is What We Are (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d guess that the first method of cooking was to hold a piece of meat over a fire until the outside was charred and much of the inside was cooked. However, human ingenuity soon led to spit roasting and other cooking methods. A humorous account of the accidental discovery of roasting a pig was penned by Charles Lamb. In the account the discovery came as a result of an accidental setting fire to a pig sty, and consequently, as the idea of roast pork spread this led to a rash of pig sty fires, until some sage discovered that houses and sties did not need to be burnt down and it was sufficient to hang the pig over a fire.

English: Slow-roasting pig on a rotisserie
English: Slow-roasting pig on a rotisserie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d suspect that while roasting may have been invented quite early by humans, cooking in water would have come along a lot later as more technology is needed to boil anything. That is, a container would be needed and while coconut shells and mollusc shells can contain a little water, and folded leaves would do at a pinch, when humans invented pottery, the art and science of cooking was advanced immensely.

Although the foods that we eat can pretty much all be eaten raw, most people would find cooked food much more attractive. Cooked food smells nice. The texture of cooked food is different from the texture of raw food. I expect cookery experts are taught the chemical reactions that happen in cooking, but I suspect that cooking breaks down the carbohydrates, the fats, and the proteins in the food to simpler components and that we find it easier to digest these simpler chemicals.

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Maybe. That doesn’t explain why cooked food smells so much nicer than raw food. If food is left to break down by itself it smells awful, rotten, and with a few exceptions we don’t eat food that has started to decay.

Maybe the organisms that rot food produce different simpler components, or maybe the organisms produce by products that humans dislike. Other carnivores don’t seem to mind eating carrion and maybe a rotting carcass smells good to them.

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)
Carrion Crow (Corvus corone) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rules of cooking, the recipes have no doubt been developed by trial an error. It is likely that the knowledge was passed from cook to cook as an aural tradition initially. After all, cooking is likely to have started a long time before reading and writing were invented. Since accurate measurements were unlikely to be obtainable, much of the lore or cooking would have vague and a new cook would have to learn by cooking.

However, once the printing press was invented, after all the bibles and clerical documents had been printed, I would not be surprised to learn that the next book to be printed would have been a cook book. I’ve no evidence for this at all though!

English: Fanny Farmer Cookbook 1996 edition Fr...
English: Fanny Farmer Cookbook 1996 edition Français : Livre de la cuisson Fanny Farmer 1996 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cooking changes the texture of meat and vegetables, making them softer and easier to eat. Connective tissues in particular are released making a steak for example a lot more edible. Something similar happens to root vegetables, swedes, turnips, carrots and parsnips. These vegetables can be mashed or creamed once they are cooked, something that cannot be done to the rather solid uncooked vegetables.

Cooking is optional for some foods – berries and fruits for example. Apples can be enjoyed while raw when they have a pleasant crunch, or cooked in a pie, when they are sweet and smooth. Babies in particular love the sweet smoothness of cooked apple and for many of them puréed fruits or vegetables are their first “solid” foods.

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Chicken eggs are cooked and eaten in many different ways. The white of an egg is made partly of albumen and when this is cooked it changes from translucent, almost transparent, to an opaque white. Almost everyone will have seen this happen, when an egg is cracked into a frying pan and cooked until the clear “white” of the egg turns to opaque white of the cooked egg.

Many other items when cooked change colour to some extent, but the white of the egg is most apparent. When you pair that with bread which is slightly carbonised on the outside, covered in the coagulated fat from cow’s milk (butter) and you have a common breakfast dish – fried eggs on toast.

English: Two slices of electrically toasted wh...
English: Two slices of electrically toasted white bread on a white plate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a whole other type of cooking – baking – that relies at least partly on a chemical reaction between an alkali (baking soda or sodium bicarbonate) and an acid (often “cream of tartar” which is weakly acidic). When the two are mixed in the presence of water, carbon dioxide gas is given off, leading to gas bubbles in the dough. When the dough is cooked the bubbles are trapped inside the stiffening dough, give the baked cake the typical spongy texture.

Some cooking utilises biological reactions. When yeast, a fungus, is placed into a liquid containing sugar, it metabolises the sugar, releasing carbon dioxide, and creates alcohol. In bread making this alcohol is baked off, but it may add to the attractiveness of the smell of newly baked bread. In brewing the alcohol is the main point of the exercise, so it is retained. It may even be enhanced by distillation.

I’ve just touched on a few highlights as regards the mechanisms of cooking (and brewing!), but I’ve come to realise as I have been writing this that there are many, many other points of interest in this subject. The subject itself has a name and that name is “Molecular Gastronomy”. A grand name for a grand subject.

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