SODOM & GOMORRAH: The American Association for the Advancement of Science met this year to investigate some issues before the scientific community. One such issue that was raised was alchemy, a long debunked and dead branch of science that most people associate with quackery and magic tricks. Dr. Lawrence Principe of Johns Hopkins University, however, is attempting to revive alchemy. He believes that alchemists were genuine scientists who simply had flawed theories, and their reputation for trickery arose after people deliberately played tricks with alchemy in order to lend credibility to the new science of chemistry.
It seems a few things could be developing. First, the “objective” sciences that gained prominence in the 17th century are failing to hold certain scholars’ attention. It may be that the great minds in these fields have long since died and current research simply explores niches, contests unimportant findings, and so forth. At least this seems to be the case with some medical studies, where one author suggests that alcohol harms pregnant women while another claims that it helps them, and a third says it won’t make a difference. The academic climate may be faltering; no doubt there’s talent in respective fields, but the incentives and freedom to allow that talent to grow aren’t as strong as they once were. Second, the political climate has called into doubt these sciences. As this author will likely always maintain that there is no such thing as an “objective” science and that all science builds upon fundamental assumptions about the world. These assumptions, call them faith, philosophy, or a priori givens, are inherently political and have consequences for how human society is structured (or not structured). By constantly preaching that everything is relative, perhaps some people believe that everything really is relative – even the “objective” sciences. Third, on the inverse, these sciences are still viewed as absolute. They remain unquestionable, the underlying assumptions may not be challenged, and scientists need to prove or disprove something in order to keep their jobs, grant money, and their own confidence (people feel better when they accomplish things). Disproving alchemy, or studying its failures, doesn’t challenge any status quos.
Will such a revival provide any insights? Unlikely. The old sciences of alchemy and hermetics rested on very different assumptions about the world. The English mystic Robert Fludd wrote that the mathematical approach taken by the new sciences like chemistry hinted at the “quantitative shadows” of nature. They come close to truth and can sometimes attain a glimpse into the nature of a substance, but the alchemists and hermetics “grasp the very marrow of natural bodies.” The belief in a substance of nature, the belief that humans can know a concrete nature of a thing is very different from the falsifiable statistical analysis done by today’s scientists.
Furthermore, alchemy held a certain mystical function in premodern thought. As Eric Voegelin writes:
“Alchemy, however, while not a science, had an important function in the life of the spirit. The Christian pneumatocentric attitude restricts the problem of the spirit and its salvation to the strictly human sphere; the more comprehensive problem of the life of the spirit in nature and of its liberation from matter, which is the concern of certain oriental religious movements, as for instance of Manichaeism, is suppressed; Christ is the Savior of mankind, not of nature. This other side of the work of salvation had found, during the Christian centuries, its most important expression in the operations of alchemists; the alchemic opus was in substance the attempt to extend the work of salvation to matter.” [169, volume 5]
In simpler terms, Christianity taught people about the salvation of their souls; alchemy was an attempt to extend salvation to the material world. Voegelin goes on to say that when the mathematical sciences won the intellectual debate, the desire to spread salvation to the material world still existed and reappeared in future political movements. Liberalism attempted to liberate humanity by controlling the material world and providing more “stuff” to people. Socialism attempted to liberate humanity from material oppression by abolishing the state and artificial restrictions on supply. National Socialism attempted to liberate humanity from racial impurity. “The common factor” writes Voegelin “is the faith in intramundane salvation through human action that will defeat the iniquity of matter.” Or in simpler terms, a faith in a this-worldly salvation through a material alteration.
Alchemy needs no revival, Dr. Principe, it lives on in virtually every government in power today.