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CEFISES Seminar: Vanessa Seifert, “Chemical Reactions as Causal Relations”

May 10@14:00-16:00 CEST

Series: Chemistry

Speaker: Vanessa Seifert (University of Athens)

Talk: “Chemical Reactions as Causal Relations”


I consider whether chemical reactions can be understood as causal
relations by examining three features to them. The first concerns reaction
mechanisms; the second equilibrium states; and, the third catalysis. From
their analysis I conclude that establishing reactions as causal relations
is far from obvious.

First, the prevalence of reaction mechanisms suggests that a mechanistic
account of causation is plausible for chemical reactions. Nonetheless, a
typical reaction isn’t an event where chemical substances irreversibly
transform into other substances (just like- say- a rock would irreversibly
cause the shattering of a window). Instead, it is a dynamic process which-
once reaching equilibrium- results in a state where the system transforms
into the products and reverses back into the reactants. When viewed from
the perspective of causation, this suggests that reactions exhibit causal
loops and as such they either shouldn’t be considered as genuine causal
relations, or they pose a challenge for those accounts of causation that
require the temporal priority of causes. Moreover, the presence of
catalysts can be said to partly cause a reaction (as their absence often
explains why a reaction doesn’t take place), even though they don’t
substantively participate in it (because they don’t transform into
products). So, it is unclear whether they should be construed as genuine
causes or part of the environment which accommodates a reaction’s

While I do not offer an answer to these puzzles, this analysis shows that
construing reactions as causal relations is far from uncontroversial. Some
features to reactions offer evidence for understanding them as causal
relations, yet others make the question around their precise nature quite
hard to answer.


May 10
14:00-16:00 CEST


Pieter Thyssen


Salle Ladrière
Place du Cardinal Mercier 14 (bâtiment Socrate, a.124)
Louvain-la-Neuve, 1348 Belgium
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