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Eric Brennan

Dr. Grosholtz
PHIL 110
The reaction of an alkene with hydrogen gas in the presence of palladium catalyst will
result in a chemical reaction, producing an alkane in a process called hydrogenation. An alkene
is an organic compound that contains a carbon-carbon double bond and an alkane is an organic
compound that contains no carbon-carbon double bonds. The hydrogenation of an alkene results
in the addition of two hydrogen atoms: one on each carbon with both hydrogens added being on
the same side of where the double bond was, as in the diagram. This is called cis-addition, with
“cis” being the Latin prefix meaning “on this side of.” This reaction is the explanandum, or what
is being explained. The explanans, or what is doing the explaining, is the mechanism that the
reaction follows. A mechanism is the description of which bonds are formed and broken by the
movement of electrons between atoms during a reaction to create the product/s from the
reactant/s. In this reaction, a catalyst is necessary. A catalyst is something that partakes in the
reaction but is not used up. Palladium is a necessary catalyst in the hydration reaction, as it is
able to break apart the hydrogen-hydrogen bond in the hydrogen gas and adsorb the hydrogen
atoms onto its surface due to its high affinity for electrons. The alkene in the reaction then
adsorbs to the palladium surface, using its pi bond (the weaker of the two bonds in a double
bond) to complex with the palladium atoms by sharing electrons with them. A hydrogen atom is
then transferred from the palladium to one of the carbon atoms in the alkene that is participating
in the double bond. This forms an intermediate with a newly formed carbon-hydrogen bond and
carbon-palladium bond. A second hydrogen is then transferred from the palladium to the second
carbon that participated in the double bond, thus creating the final alkane product and
regenerating the palladium catalyst. The hydrogens were added in a cis fashion due to the fact
that the organic molecule was bonded to the palladium, thereby not allowing it to rotate and only
exposing one face of the molecule to the available hydrogen atoms (McMurry).
This explanation would not have been understood one hundred years ago. This
mechanism was discovered in 1964 by Geoffrey Wilkinson and the methods used for figuring
out the manner in which the reaction proceeds did not exist in the early 1900’s and therefore
there would exist no justification for this explanation, no reason to believe it, and there would be
no reason to even suggest this mechanism. I believe that this tells me that scientific knowledge
is always changing. The anti-realists will point out that there are theories that, even though they
were empirically sound, have been proven wrong (Okasha, 63). This in and of itself, regardless
of which train of thought you follow regarding realism and anti-realism, shows that there will
always be more to learn about a subject. This is not to say that this mechanism for the
hydrogenation of an alkene is incorrect in any way, but simply that there now exists an
explanation where there was none before. Scientific knowledge is truly a living entity; it will
keep growing and growing as long as there are enough of those who feed it with their curiosity.
I believe that the explanation given is a good example of scientific reasoning. Following
Hempel’s model, it provides the general laws that opposite electrical charges attract each other
and like electrical charges repel each other and the idea of electronegativity, which is the
tendency of an atom to attract electrons toward itself. The explanation also operates under the
particular facts that the reactants are in the presence of palladium, palladium has a low
electronegativity and will therefore give its electrons up easily to bonding, and that the energy
required to break a pi-bond is easily attained at room temperatures. It is given in a deductive
manner; even though you could ask “why?” to some of the steps, there are further explanations
available that will provide insight into things like bond formation, bond dissociation, the
adsorption of hydrogen to palladium, the strength of pi bonds, etc. The premises given in the
explanation, although many, when true, the outcome of the creation of an alkane must occur.
This follows the deductive reasoning described in Okasha’s Philosophy of Science (19). This
mechanism also serves as a good example of scientific reasoning because it can be used to
predict future reactions that occur under the same circumstances. The mechanism tells the
chemist that for any alkene, not just 2-cis-butene as depicted in the diagram, will react with
hydrogen gas in the presence of palladium catalyst to produce an alkane with the cis addition of
hydrogen atoms to the carbons participating in the double bond. As long as the same
circumstances are applied, a chemist can predict a reaction correctly without that reaction ever
having been performed before—just as I can correctly predict that reacting ethylene (C2H4) with
hydrogen gas under the presence of palladium will result in the formation of ethane (C2H6)
without actually running the reaction myself. The scientific reasoning is also able to make the
explanandum better understood through its use of deductive reasoning. The deductive reasoning
encourages understanding by taking away a sort of magic, for lack of a better term, from the
reaction. Without the proper mechanism to explain the reaction, the reaction seems to “just
happen” without any rhyme or reason—hence the “magic” explanation. With the introduction of
the deductive reasoning of the reaction mechanism, the hydrogenation of an alkene is explained
in explicit steps using laws of chemistry and physics as the justification of those steps.
I believe realist would take this explanation as evidence for his/her position. This is
because it offers an unobservable explanation to an observable phenomenon. The reaction itself
is observable, and therefore both realists and anti-realists can agree that it is explainable.
However, it is not observable that the bonds break and form in the manner that the mechanism
claims except through detection by sensitive instruments. As philosopher Grover Maxwell
proposed in his defense of realism, there can truly be no definitive line between unobservable
and observable—all things lie on a continuum (Okasha, 67). It is because of this continuative
nature of observability that it must be declared that everything is observable or nothing is
observable. Because we can clearly observe the desk in the corner or the painting on the wall,
everything that is even referred to as simply “detected” should be referred to as observable. A
realist would be able to follow this train of thought in order to defend his position.

Works Cited
McMurry, John. Organic Chemistry. 8th ed. Singapore: Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning, 2012.
Okasha, Samir. Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.