Sunday, May 9, 2010

What I learned as a scientist from the 7 steps in alchemical transformation

I am a scientist, and I use the current method that applies for investigating theories. It is my opinion that I would be an arrogant scientist if I think previous students of nature such as Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, Issac Newton, and Nicolaus Copernicus could not teach me thing of two about learning new things. Since they studied by the Alchemical method of Transmutation, I looked into this and tried to understand how this mutated into the modern scientific method, and how I could perhaps improve my own approach to understanding a subject.
Apparently I am not the first scientists to look back on this old philosophy.
People like Albert Einstein and Ernest Rutherford also spent their later years studying these principles.

In the alchemical transmutation the seven steps are: Calcination, Dissolution, Separation, Conjunction, Fermentation, Distillation, and Coagulation.

Before we begin I must make a note that these steps not only applied to the study subject in this method, but also the investigator. The understanding of the study subject was also to change (transmute) the mental and physical aspects (as close to perfection as possible) of the alchemist.

Basically this means to destroy the substance. Normally by burning it to ashes. Mentally it is the destruction of the ego.
Scientifically we still do this. Breaking down something into components we can understand. Dissecting and describing. Testing endurance and limitations. Fundamental in understanding something as the components. Sometimes this knowledge seems to boost the ego in those who study, rather than humble it, and can be worth a thought. I think this step is supposed to give the impression of how little we actually know, or can hope to know.


This is an extension of the calcination (as are the rest of the steps). This is the process of getting the calcinated ashes dissolved and create a solution. Mentally this is a process of flow, and accessing parts that is normally restrained or inaccessible.
In scientific work this could be understood as finding the relations to which the essential parts connect (dissolve) by attributes. The mental part, the lesson to be learned, is kind of rediscovering
playing, or removing the boundaries (such as ego or prejudices) that allow us to make discoveries. This is basically what my kid do in the kitchen sink every time I turn my back - mixing everything he can find, just to see what happens. Or, what we do in cooking, pulling on experiences from what happens when the contents in the pot mixes together. For example, it is not irrelevant when the milk goes in or at any temperature. It is one of my most favorite activities.

At this step the dissolved material is processed by filtering and removing the unwanted materials. Mentally it is the exercise of discovery. Finding the essence and looking beyond rationality.
Here science begin to fall a little short. Or, rather this is the end for most modern studies. We want to find the important and surprising discovery nobody thought of, or was just at our nose tip. Physics is probably the best metaphor, since it uses imaginary models such as quantum theory, which works very well in practice too. But though finding this beautiful simplistic model of understanding something like matter, we still know we are not quite there yet. I understand this part as being able to understand when you reached something of
quality. Really good evidence or model of your subject, and know what to ignore/reject (probably the latter is the hardest part).

Now knowing what is of quality/essence from the previous steps the experimentation continues as combining them into something else. Something new. Merging experiences and parts of the investigator into intuition and freeing himself from previous constraints on his perceptions such as social and programmed morals.
If we as scientists ever reach a point like this, where accumulated wisdom is allowed to correlate and come to word, it may often contradict with the established norm, data, and moral status quo. I would say only the bravest of our scientists speak aloud if they have such insight. And often we probably are likely to think of them as arrogant or nuts (especially if we have not passed step 1 ourselves). In other words, a scientist reaches a point where the freedom and flow of his mind makes new unexpected connections that he previously would not even consider of find possible. I think it is this kind of insight that has led our great physicists to conjure the amazing theories of our time - and often succeed in proving them too within their lifetime.

Alchemically this is a two-step progression of the Conjuction step above. Firstly the subject is broken down, not by chemicals, but by living things (yeast, fungi, bacteria etc.) Secondly, it is adding of new life into the subject. Mentally this is a spiritual awakening that the alchemist is now intellectually ready for. The miracle of life and its diversity unfolds like a "Peacocks Tail".
I think this is to be understood that this is the step where it is possible to understand the life of the subject in its natural life (death and rekindling of itself) since the connections are now understood (Conjuction).
I can understand many scientist split at this point. Some being reductionists in their beliefs would not be likely to accept elements beyond control. But we do hear scientists being awe of the never ending source of inspiration something as simple as a drop of water can be to them. Interestingly the difference between yoga-masters and such scientists begins being a matter of titles.

The fermented subject is now distilled to remove impurities and obtain the pure version possible for the last step following. The process of evaporation and condensation is as if letting it go and creating the conditions of it to return in its pure form. Mentally the alchemist also seek to remove the final elements of his ego and attitudes that hinder his true understanding. This is to raise the power of his psyche to the highest level possible.
As a researcher I choose to interpret this as a
humbling of one-self. Knowing so much, only having more questions, could or should lead to a state of acceptance that ones study subject is beyond you. And that you will only be allowed a glimpse of what might be its place in everything. Truth or facts do not exist, but something can be experienced as an almost disillusioned state.

The final state is the control over matter. The subject comes into existence in its purest form with perfect attributes. Its existence itself allow it to transmute other elements/subjects. This is also known as the Philosophers Stone. The mental aspects of the alchemist is now reborn. A threshold has been reached where he can leave his old life behind and redefine himself in existence (the phoenix metaphor). The aim of all experiments was the wisdom of a God: the ability to differ good from evil, right from wrong. The alchemists knew that is an unachievable goal, but the Coagulation is the closest man could hope to aspire.
As scientists we aspire to control matter and life too. Nanotechnology, chemistry, gene-modifications, cloning, etc. However, I see an important lesson from the 7 steps of transmutation. In alchemy it is imperative that the researchers undergo a mental development that lead to a humbling and redefinition of himself and his morals. Without this purification, science can be Thor's hammer in the hands of ignorance - or worse, arrogance. Not a merry picture.

Learning is not a 9-5 job - it is an experience we are supposed to constantly change ourselves with. Adaptation according to wisdom accumulated. I think we scientist have to a large degree lost this most fundamental power of all. We got the
know-how, but not the know-why.

Further reading

1 comment:

Haerjapoelwlane said...

There was a quote in Goethe´s "Faust" which I unfortunately can´t find in English or in German.

But the point of it was -
"The one who studies living matter, by his actions, drives off the essence of it. And when he finally has the details of his subject of study - he unfortunately lacks the connections between the details"

Somehow it reminds me of studying a single protein and it´s interactions without actually knowing what it does inside the organism.

Alchemy is a philosophy which gives one an ideal, a goal to achieve. Somewhat universal and yet very personal. Enlightenment is hard to pass on - everyone must walk down the lane by himself to find the Grail or to become a Buddha.

Interesting piece, Brian.