Can you keep a dark secret?

caduceus.jpgThe Alchemist in me feels compelled to respond to the excellent documentary that aired on PBS the other week entitled Newton’s Dark Secret. The film profiled Sir Issac Newton’s fascination with the ancient art/science/craft of Alchemy.

Many of the experts interviewed regarded Newton’s Alchemical experiments to be shameful, perhaps reflecting more on our modern epistemic prejudices than on Newton. Contemporary experts seem threatened by the prospect than anybody in historical times understood things about the world that we don’t.

Beyond the shame of taking Alchemy seriously, they also considered Newton’s alchemy to be his greatest failure. Failure?!? During the period Newton was practicing alchemy he wrote the Principica Mathematica, and also catapulted his way into the power elite – he became knighted, was appointed the head of the Royal Society, and earned power, prestige and wealth beyond his wildest dreams. To this day one of the most respected chairs in physics still bears his name. From this perspective, his alchemical pursuits seem quite successful. Smashingly successful if you consider this blogs tagline “Aurum nostrum non est aurum vulgi” – Our gold is not ordinary gold.

The Alchemists understood metaphor, and it was essential to their theory and practice. Why do most modern thinkers insist upon interpreting the craft so literally?
My girlfriend shared a Bahá’í quote on a related subject.

“Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism.” — Abdu’l-Bahá, The Fourth Principle

Or, to paraphrase, Religion without Science is superstition, Science without Religion is reductionism”

I have long believed that Alchemy is a framework which seeks to reconcile spiritual integrity with material wealth, or more broadly, science and religion.

Perhaps the ancients might have been on to something that modern science has truly forgotten. It is tough to challenge Newton’s genius – maybe his alchemical theories deserve a more respectful examination.

3 Responses to “Can you keep a dark secret?”

  1. sky
    May 22nd, 2007 | 9:25 am

    The materialist (ooh, scary!) in me, needs to reply:

    1. The confluence of when Newton wrote the Principia Mathematica and other alchemical work hardly conjoins the quality of one to the other. An equally valid story is that he had descended into thinking about nonsense after coming up with the Calculus. Only the threat of Leibnitz and other scientists to publish ahead of Newton spurred him to write the PM.

    2. Newton was not beyond error. In my personal academic career, it came up in PDE that Newton’s error in solving a PDE equation possibly retarded the invention of powered-flight by a century or two.

    3. “Perhaps the ancients might have been on to something that modern science has truly forgotten.” is not something I’m implicitly averse to. I simply wait for your evidence. The industrial revolution–an apparent abandonment of alchemy has made the western pauper wealthier (and in some cases, even more powerful) than the royalty during Newton’s age. As a series of mnemonics, memory aids, and accoutrements to pre-chemistry, it seems to have held up. But alchemy was also responsible for ‘humour’ medicine–which created the rare historical moment when a wealthy person who could afford ‘doctors’ was more likely to die than those that could not afford ‘medicine.’ Those that used alchemy drifted pretty swiftly into chemistry when atomic/molecular ratios were discovered.

    4. Personally, I’d rather view it as a form of exegesis–like Marxist or Freudian critical analysis. Just like those exegetical methods, it opens certain windows when applied to literature, but can have strange and even malfeasant results when applied to medicine/science.

  2. jonah
    May 26th, 2007 | 6:30 pm

    Well, I certainly didn’t do justice to this hour long documentary, never mind the age old legacy of alchemy in this one short post.

    To respond to your comments all at once, I want to suggest that the alchemical method, at least as Newton practiced it, incorporated all of the necessary elements that modern philosophers of science would recognize as good science.

    Newton’s alchemy involved investigating empirical phenomena in the external world, meticulously recording their _reproducible_ transformations, and attempting to infer law-like patterns which tied together and might explain these observations. Like today’s modern physicists, they were very much interested in Theories of Everything which might tie together and explain widely disparate observations. Of course they embraced chemistry when atomic ratios were discovered. They were immediately able to recognize its value and explanatory power since they were committed to a particular methodology, but perhaps not any particular paradigmatic model of nature (other than its underlying unity).

    Imagine observing this phenomena – – without Stephan Wolfram, fractal geometry, molecular and crystal theory, and about a half a dozen other modern day fields of math and materials science. Doesn’t strike me as shameful to postulate an “active principle” responsible for growth like this.

    I think things get really interesting when you do view their discipline as an form of exegesis – their Theory of Everything incorporated and included meaning and consciousness, unlike many of the popular TOE’s floating around in today’s circles.

    As for something the ancients knew that we have forgotten, or gotten all mixed up, what about the notion that information or consciousness is primary, and matter and energy supervenes on it instead of vice-versa? Something along the lines of or (Elements of Reality: A Dialogue. Piet Hut. Bas van Fraassen – which more and more respectable theoretical physicists and philosophers of science are beginning to explore.

  3. Aharon Doewidh
    May 26th, 2009 | 3:24 am

    You gents both make excellent points. Since they were “Natural Philosophers” then, not “Scientists” they were open to all sources of information or knowledge. They were trying to understand REALITY, so necessarily viewed things wholisticly. Perhaps pert of their brilliance was recognizing causation beyond the purely material, as we currently think of it. I add that phrase because I suspect the multiverse concept is not only valid, but can explain the interaction of consciousness with objective reality, as well as much that is currently thought of as mystical phenomenon. (It’s WAY over my head, but I get the impression that it will clear some problems in physics and cosmology as well, or actually I have it backwards-PRIMARILY!) Perhaps the nefesh of humans and animals is actually an extension of the being onto a 2-dimensional brane; and a humans: ruach onto a 4-dimensional brane, neshama a 5 dimensional. If plants and inanimate objects also extend onto other branes of higher or lower dimensional complexity the interactions might explain the mechanism of various rituals… and I currently have enough in my pocket to ride the subway twice! lawl
    “When one often sees to the far horizon, and catches occasional glimpses past; navigating the mercantile bazaar isn’t very compelling, and the scattered toys can be significant obstacles.” Grandiose delusion, or accurate analogy? G_d willing time will tell…
    btw What do I have to do to learn the secret handshake etc. :->

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