Alchemy as the Forerunner of Complexity Theory

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John 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:

  • Alchemy is interpretable as a science of the transformation of complex systems.
  • Its principles are sufficiently general, abstract, and broadly applicable that they may be compared to mathematics or logic.
  • Many alchemical principles are relevant to the modern systems theory.
  • Study of alchemical literature may reveal many useful ideas for systems theory. Special attention might be given to stages of alchemical transformation as identified by medieval and Renaissance alchemists."



System science aspects of alchemy, by John Uebersax:

9. The ancients discovered metallurgy and primitive chemistry; this was the origin of alchemy.

Alchemy began as metallurgy in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and elsewhere. Extraction of metal from ore was a major step. Another was the combining of metals, such as copper with tin to make bronze. Substances like mercury and sulfur were important for these processes.

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."

10. They saw that certain principles governing metallurgy and chemistry apply in other domains.

Alchemists recognized principles like purification and ennobling. An end product of a process, such as a pure metal, especially gold, seemed a fitting analogy to advanced psychological or spiritual attainment. 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.

11. As alchemy developed, the principles became increasingly codified, general and abstract.

That is, a set of regular concepts and principles applicable in general to alchemical transformation were identified and named.

12. Alchemy identified general steps or stages of transformation.

These include:

  1. Calcination (Calcinatio) or heating;
  2. Separation (Separatio);
  3. Purification (Purificatio);
  4. Conjunction (Coniunctio) or conjoining, uniting;
  5. Solution (Solutio) or dissolving;
  6. Coagulation (Coagulatio) or congealing;
  7. Sublimation (Sublimatio) or distillation;
  8. Mortification (Mortificatio) or stressing;
  9. Decomposition (Putrefactio);
  10. Whitening (Albedo)
  11. Blackening (Nigredo);
  12. Reddening (Rubedo);

Other terms or concepts include Precipitation, Impregnation and Volatilization.

==13. Alchemy considered the dynamic tension of opposites a basic principle of change.]]

The beginnings of this view may be found in Chinese systems and in pre-Socratic philosophy (Pythagoras, Heraclitus, etc.)

14. These principles are analogous to those of mathematics and logic.

Like those of mathematics and logic, these general alchemical principles are an abstract representation of a domain of reality.

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

15. As with mathematics and logic, there are benefits with the recognition and study of abstract principles of transformation.

Understanding of general principles lets one see lawfulness and regularity and applicability to diverse instances. It aids both our thinking and powers of observation. It may improve prediction and control. 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."


16. Many famous scientists were alchemists.


  • Isaac Newton (c. 1700). He reputedly devoted more time and writing to alchemy than to physics and mathematics. Until recently, people have ignored or denied Newton's alchemy. The full scope of his work is still unknown and awaits systematic, impartial study of his remaining notes.
  • Paracelsus (c. 1600), considered by some one of the fathers of modern medicine, was an influential alchemist.
  • Roger Bacon (c. 1250). Philosopher, cleric, scientist with encyclopedic interests and early advocate of the modern scientific method.
  • John Dee (c. 1600). Dee was a brilliant and versatile mathematician, the most famous of Elizabethan England. His credits include valuable contributions to astronomy, navigation, cartography and cryptography.

Several treatises on alchemy are attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1250).

17. The poor reputation of alchemy must not unduly prejudice our opinion.

Alchemy was firmly distinguished from neither science nor philosophy up until the Age of Enlightenment (c. 1700). After this, rationalism dominated the cultural landscape. Chemistry diverged from Alchemy, and the latter fell into disrepute.

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.

18. The long tradition of esoteric alchemy suggests some valid basis.

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.

19. We do not suppose that all of alchemy is relevant to modern science.

We allow that, from its beginning, due to the seemingly magical nature of empirical chemistry and metallurgy, that, as alchemy developed, science, philosophy, religion, and primitive superstition were not always firmly distinguished.

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.


23. Alchemists were interested in psychological transformation.

As Carl Jung fairly convincingly demonstrated (Alchemical Studies, Psychology and Alchemy and Mysterium Coniunctionis), much mediaeval, Renaissance and later alchemy can be understood in psychological terms. 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)."