A Chemist Discovers Philosophy

A Chemist Discovers Philosophy

G. K. Chesterton tells of an “English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.”1 Seeing it with fresh eyes, he was enchanted by all the things he formerly overlooked.

This story became Chesterton’s parable for his “rediscovery” of the beauty of orthodox Christian beliefs. Thus, the name of his book became Orthodoxy—and it was a natural follow-up to his scathing evaluation of the intellectuals of his day in his prior book, Heretics. This picture comes to mind as I also feel like a yachtsman traveling to different disciplines in preparation to be an effective Ratio Christi chapter director.

As a physical chemist with 20 years of experience teaching at the college level, I feel comfortable fielding science-faith questions on chemistry in particular and science in general. But I know there are gaps in my education that need to be filled.

The gap in my knowledge of philosophy distresses me the most, so I am actively engaged in learning more. My interest has been fueled as well by scientists who have made statements in books, blogs, memes, and the news that were 99.9% philosophical and 0.1% (or less) scientific.2 Philosophy is the rhetorical battleground, so one must study it to understand the conversation.

Philosophy or Science?

Consider one such rhetorical battle, featuring two atheists. Scientist Richard Dawkins offered this opinion on one of the origins questions: “To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer.”3

Philosopher Michael Ruse countered with this response:

I have written that The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist and I meant it. Trying to understand how God could need no cause, Christians claim that God exists necessarily. I have taken the effort to try to understand what that means. Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, “What caused God?” as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery.4

If we set aside the rhetorical fireworks we can also make this point. One cannot follow this discourse without some passing knowledge of contingent and necessary entities. These are not scientific terms; they are philosophical terms. These types of interactions led me straight to philosophy so that I could better engage these ideas in my thinking, writing, speaking, and behavior.

The Power of Logic

The benefits of studying philosophy have been immediate and life-changing. I began—as most people do—by learning the logical fallacies and how to make a sound argument. I learned this mostly through podcasts and video lectures along with some online lecture notes. But how has this cursory study of such a simple set of philosophical topics changed my life?

  1. Learning about ad hominem attacks alerted me to when I have used these fallacies (even when unspoken). Awareness keeps me from dismissing an argument just because I don’t “like” the person.
  2. Learning about straw man fallacies made me a more careful listener. I want to deal with a person’s actual ideas rather than my preconceived version of their position.
  3. Learning the logical fallacies (though there are many) has helped challenge me to improve and grow—and will do the same for any learner.

The goal is to sharpen our thinking rather than sharpening our rhetorical machete to wield against others, as some self-appointed “logical fallacy police” seem to do.

Philosophical Framework

Next, I explored the framework of the philosophical endeavor. This exploration was aided by a couple of Ratio Christi training talks by Dr. Richard Howe. He presented an excellent hierarchical approach to knowledge and metaphysics. Reality is buried beneath the disciplines of discovery, as I call them.

  • Hermeneutics—How do we understand what is communicated about what we know of that which is?
  • Linguistics—How do we communicate what we know of that which is?
  • Epistemology—How do we know that which is?
  • Metaphysics—What is that which is?
  • Reality—that which is.

These categories are vital for being able to think about thinking. They help me organize my thoughts and questions into categories that lend themselves to different modes of inquiry.

Other essential terms that depend upon the above disciplines of discovery are:

  • Values—What matters about that which is?
  • Ethics—How should I act regarding what matters about that which is?
  • Political philosophy—How should we act regarding what matters about that which is?
  • Philosophy of (religion, science, law, history, etc.)—How do we apply the above disciplines of discovery to a particular field of inquiry?
  • Logic—How do we think about all things?

Obviously, these questions can generate endless discussions for establishing a philosophical framework. But they do help to know “where a person is coming from.”

Words as Representations

What do our words mean, anyway? The most introductory material in Peter Kreeft’s book, Socratic Logic, deals with the difference between concepts, terms, and words.

Any communicator knows that most disagreements stem from the differing definitions of the words that people use. Thus, the first task seems to be to define our words. Even this is difficult or impossible because of the unnecessary emotional investment people place in “their” definitions of a particular word—as if every word has one and only one “correct” definition.

But as per Dr. Kreeft, it is helpful to introduce some more tools to the task of communication.

A concept is the subjective knowledge of a term. The concept is held privately in the individual’s mind. A term is in the public domain and expresses objectively what is known subjectively in a concept. Finally, words are the linguistic expressions of terms. The objective term “Love” is expressed with different words in many different languages “love,” “caritas,” “agape,” “leib,” “amor,” and “amour.” The same term in six different words describing the concepts in the minds of 7 billion people.5

Some universal terms are invariant. (By the way, I like the moderate realism of Aristotle, Avicenna, and Aquinas.) We know how our subjective concepts are connected to other peoples’ concepts by the usage of descriptive words. In fact, it helps to understand that words do not have definitions, per se. They have usages that tie them to the terms they represent. So when the usages are different, then perhaps the terms are also different and we have equivocation (two voices). The example, “I love my wife, and I love chemistry” obviously displays two different usages. I assure you, this example stems from two different subjective concepts in my mind even though I am implying one term by using the same word “love.” To sort this out, an astute conversation partner would explore my love for chemistry in contrast to my love for my wife.

This understanding that words (and for that matter, signals from chemical instrumentation) are representations of universal terms (or phenomena) has made me a better thinker, a better communicator, a better theologian, and even a better chemist.

Journey of Rediscovery

I acknowledge that careful chemists have done this kind of cross-training for centuries, which is why the PhD is a doctorate of philosophy. Therefore, like G. K. Chesterton, I am thrilled to have embarked on a journey to explore a separate discipline only to rediscover the tools that made my own discipline flourish.

Perhaps clearer thinking will allow me to advance my own small branch of chemistry. I am sure it will benefit my students. And as I seek to explain what I believe and why I believe it, clear thinking will lead to clear writing and clear discourse. I trust good philosophical thinking will do the same for you and, ultimately, will help bring others to faith in Christ.

To Find out more about Darren Williams, please check out his bio.

  1. Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Chicago: Moody Classics, 2009).
  2. The use of percentages in this post are meant to convey the concepts of “very high” (99.9%) and “very low” (0.1%). They are not quantitative measures.
  3. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (London: W. W. Norton & Co, 2015), 141.
  4. Michael Ruse, “Dawkins et al Bring Us Into Disrepute,” UK Guardian, November 2, 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/nov/02/atheism-dawkins-ruse.
  5. Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic: A Logic Text Using Socratic Method, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), 40–43.