John S. Uebersax
Someone I know recently questioned the value of my studying (fairly casually) the history and literature of alchemy. They expressed the not- uncommon belief that alchemy is mere fantasy, lacking even the remotest scientific value. Somewhat chagrined, and perhaps partly even in need of justifying this activity to myself, I felt that a re-examination and statement of my reasoning would be appropriate. Accordingly, I contend here that: (1) alchemy is basically, though perhaps not in every detail, scientific; (2) it contains a proto-science of what we now call systems theory; and (3) its principles in this sense are very relevant. I am especially interested in possible social science applications, particularly in psychology, social change and international conflict.
We first address a common misconception: that alchemy was mainly concerned with the transmutation of lead into gold. Actually, the desideratum of alchemy was to produce the philosopher's stone, believed to have broad magical and transforming properties. For example, it could produce immortality as well as gold.
In it earliest stages, alchemy was basically metallurgy. Even up to the 17th century, alchemy and scientific chemistry were not separated. No evidence suggests that any more than a few, mostly disreputable alchemists sought material wealth by producing gold. More, it seems, understood "transmutation of lead into gold" as allegorical and symbolic-in particular, as a process of purifying the soul or mind.
We now proceed to the task proper. To state our central theses:
It may interest the reader to know that I am a psychologist and a computer scientist, and able to keep these views separate in own mind as required. I develop my argument here in the latter capacity.
A series of statements follow, analogous to the propositions of a logical or mathematical exposition. By these we wish to show that alchemy may be seen as a valid and productive area of scientific study.
If a proposition appears obvious to the reader, there is no need to read the amplifying material which follows it.
Definition of complex system: a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole, often hierarchically composed of other systems, and often with a definable goal, purpose, or course of development.
Atoms are complex systems, composed of subatomic particles. Molecules are complex systems. Metals, ores and minerals are complex systems.
Human beings are complex systems.
Systems theory is now widely studied. There are many professional societies (e.g., International Society for the System Sciences, Federation for Systems Research), journals (e.g., Complex Systems, Journal of Complex Systems) and scientific centers (e.g., Santa Fe Institute) devoted to it.
Aside: Interestingly, the emblems of several professional societies devoted to systems studies see to have alchemical reference. See Figure 1.
The rightmost three seem clear allusions to the yin-yang symbol associated with Chinese alchemy. The leftmost emblem, for the American Society of Cybernetics shows a green dragon and red salamander, symbols in medeival alchemy (however, we find no reference to the word "alchemy" on the ASC website, suggesting perhaps a kind of ambivalence towards alchemy, or a recognition of its relevance that is only sub- or unconscious).
True by definition. For example, a biological organism contains cells, groups of cells, and interactions among cells; societies consist of individuals, institutions, and relations; and so on.
True by definition. Some general principles are listed below.
Systems come into being, evolve, and transform.
Complex systems may grow or decay; may progress or regress; may accelerate or decelerate their rate of change. They may be static or volatile, stable or unstable.
Change may be linear and gradual (example: simple growth of an organism), or it may be nonlinear, occurring in distinct phases (example caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly)
Change may be self-initiated, or produced by outside factors. It may be spontaneous or scripted. Example: DNA contains a general script for the operation and development of a cell.
Some early alchemists also studied fermentation and the art of brewing alcoholic drink. Later alchemists invented distillation and hard alcohol. Alcohol was called "aqua vitae" (water of life) and believed to have metaphysical properties. We still refer to alcoholic beverages as "spirits."
Other basic principles of alchemy include: that things evolve and change in form; that things may be more accurately be viewed as processes, than as disjoint, unrelated states.
That is, a set of regular concepts and principles applicable in general to alchemical transformation were identified and named.
Other terms or concepts include Precipitation, Impregnation and Volatilization.
Rather than consider these principles obsolete and atavistic, one could view them as progressive. Just as not all people yet know or apply many basic principles of logic, mathematics or algebra, so too these principles of transformation are very gradually disseminating and being incorporated into human culture.
Example: It is advantageous and accurate to see reality in terms of processes, not states. But few people yet have this perspective; else we would show greater patience and foresight in affairs with other persons or nations
With mathematics we have algebra. With logic we have Boolean algebra and predicate calculus. So too we may potentially construct and profit from a symbolic "calculus of transformation."
S(x) --> (A, B)
the separation of a composite system x into components A and B.
S(cinnabar) --> mercury and by-product
S(hematite) --> iron and by-product
We may define other functions and operators, chaining them to describe more complex functions, operations, processes and sequences of change.
The study of alchemical manuscripts, which contain many suggestive symbols, might in fact show that some alchemists employed such a calculus. [Note: Perhaps this is so and is common knowledge; those more well-versed in the subject may inform me, if so.]
Several treatises on alchemy are attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1250).
Even before the Enlightenment, alchemy was often viewed negatively by religious institutions. (This is ironic given that Western alchemical writers were, almost without exception, unusually devout adherents of Christianity, Judaism and Islam; see, for example, Theisen, 1995). To avoid censure or persecution, alchemists often used intentionally oblique and esoteric language and images.
It seems safe to say that what has been passed to the 20th and 21st centuries is a prejudiced view of the subject.
In any case, the esoteric associations of alchemy do not per se invalidate the potential scientific value of its principles.
For esoteric alchemy to have existed so long (perhaps 2000 years) implies possible value of its principles, psychological or otherwise. Other esoteric practices with comparable dates of origin and initial distribution (e.g., Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Mithraism, Orphism) did not remain popular so long.
Against the argument that these others were actively suppressed by the early Christian church, we note that this was also partly true of alchemy.
We further allow that among alchemical writers were imitators lacking genuine insight, and charlatans.
However, we recognize that these considerations do not invalidate the valid scientific, empirically-based ideas of alchemy, or the abstract principles concerning the nature of change derived therefrom.
Argument based on common language. Example: We routinely speak of a person changing his or her mind. Especially as this may be associated with observable behavioral changes, we do not doubt that some actual change of mind takes place.
Argument based on neurology. It seems beyond debate that brain neuronal systems constitute a complex system. Numerous parallels between neuronal activity and phenomenology or subjective experience are evident. Regardless of ones beliefs about causation between these two realms (if any), the parallels suggest that if the brain is a complex system, so is the mind.
Argument based on psychology and philosophy. Since Aristotle and before, philosophers and psychologists have referred to different "faculties" of the mind or psyche. These include memory, reason, sensation, conscience, etc. These presuppose mental structures, entities, and relations among them. More recently, Freud and others have postulated psychodynamic models. Widespread acceptance of some of these (such as the tripartite model of id, ego, and superego) suggests they are plausible, realistic and of practical value.
Most cultures have special rituals and ceremonies, rites of passage, to mark transition from one stage, phase, or state of life to another.
Psychologists like Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson have identified recognizable stages of human cognitive and personality development.
These and other examples make clear that we routinely accept that important changes to the human mind occur in a way interpretable as nonlinear transformation.
It is possible that such transformations have identifiable general principles, that we may discover them, and that they are in some way related to principles of transformation in other domains, including chemistry, physics -- and alchemy.
Some physiological models and data (for example, EEG studies) suggest that transitions among these states are nonlinear rather than gradual, and related to principles of systems theory like chaos theory and attractors.
Many alchemical treatises of the Renaissance and period and after were accompanied by sets of illustrations or emblems. These, which still exist, are richly symbolic, almost surreal. In many sets, the final emblems portray the end state of the alchemical process of producing the philosopher's stone.
Often this is understood as the result of a mystical or alchemical marriage between opposing forces. The basic duality united can be variously understood as masculine/feminine, solar/lunar, or spirit/matter principles.
The images and texts suggest that end result was a type of "superhuman" or trans-mundane state of the alchemist him- or herself. The state could be understood as one of advanced spiritual attainment, or else as total mastery (kingship) of oneself and ones relationship to the world.
It seems very evident that late alchemists were partly speaking of a resolution of basic conflicts between body and mind, instinct and reason, feeling and intellect, etc. Resolution of these conflicts might produce a state of anxiety- or neurosis-free self-actualization. Certainly we can imagine, without straining scientific credibility, that a person free from neurosis and undue anxiety would be "superhuman" in certain respects.
Later alchemists closely watched (meditated) on their experiments and chemical transformations. Their writings imply that by this they sought to induce or promote corresponding mental transformations. An intriguing possible link exists between Western alchemy and the practices of Tibetan tantric Buddhism and other Eastern spiritual practices.
A transformation of a personality from an initial state (in alchemical terms, base material or prima materia) to the end state would imply a series of intermediate stages and transformational processes.
The literature of religious mysticism presents a similar view, with its identification of stages of purification, and the "dark night of the soul" leading up to illumination and the "unitive life" (Underhill, 1911).
A preliminary step might be to consider some of the alchemical stages listed above (point 12) and to identify corresponding examples in psychology, political science, international relations or other areas.
Even if we do not formally study and scientifically apply principles of alchemy, we might adopt with profit a more alchemical outlook on the world.
John S. Uebersax
Jung, C. G. Psychology and Alchemy. Collected Works v. 12. R.F.C. Hull, trans. Princeton: Princeton University, 1953.
Jung, C. G. Alchemical Studies. Collected Works v. 13. R.F.C. Hull, trans. Princeton: Princeton University, 1967.
Jung, C. G. Mysterium Coniunctionis. Collected Works v. 14. R.F.C. Hull, trans. Princeton: Princeton University, 1970.
Jung, C. G. The psychology of the transference. In: Jung, C. G., Collected Works of C. G. Jung, v. 16, The Practice of Psychotherapy, R. F. C. Hull, trans. (p. 163-323). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1966.
Theisen, Wilfrid. The attraction of alchemy for monks and friars in the 13th-14th centuries. The American Benedictine Review, 1995, 46:3, 239-253.
Underhill, Evelyn (1911) Mysticism. London: Methuen. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/underhill/mysticism.html
Yates, Frances. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. London: Routledge, 1972.
(c) 2006 John Uebersax PhD
rev 21 July 2006 (first version)