Newton’s Alchemy: a New Appraisal
Many are shocked to learn that Newton the polymath and virtual founder of modern physics (and by implication modern science) could ever have actively practiced and extensively written many notebooks about alchemy. This bias is nothing but the modern arbitrary believe that what constitutes science is only its modern doctrine and not its history and philosophy of nature over the ages. Alchemy, we are warned is an ‘occult’ science, i.e., a science whose ontology is unknown and in contradiction of common knowledge regarding causality. Those practicing occult arts while claiming to be scientists are not thereby actually scientists. For, we are told, science does not and never will embrace occult principles (phenomena or forces) and the basis for scientific explanation. Any attempt to introduce an occult force as a scientific principle must, so science says, be rejected as non-science.
Today we hear of such examples of occult principles as ‘spontaneous generation’ (of life from non-life), vitalism, panpsychism, ‘inheritance of acquired traits (Lamarkism)’, phlogiston, etc. But there are other principles that were regarded as occult, that have been retained, most notably ‘action at a distance’, e.g. gravity, today regarded as Newton’s most brilliant discovery. What IS gravity? We don’t know and have never known. The same holds for ‘magnetism’. What IS magnetism? We don’t know and never have. Faraday was accused of occultism when he suggested that the lines of magnetism were real but had no mass or inertia. Electricity saw the same fate. Scientists, especially physicists whose entire system is based on gravity, have always strived to interpret gravity to be ‘non-occult’.
Einstein, often called the father of 20th century physics, hated ‘spooky action-at-a-distance’ (his words) and tried to redefine gravity as a function of an incestuous space-time matter interaction, where matter distorted the fabric of space, and by so doing, created the illusion of gravity as a force, where gravity was merely the manifestation of space constraining the path of a particle in a curved space. Picture, for example the image of a thin, strong, but highly elastic membrane. Imaging dropping a billiard ball on to this membrane, resulting in a depression well. Now imagine rolling a ball-bearing across the material in such a way that is it cause by the edge of the ‘gravity’ well created by the billiard ball. You can see an any science show how this works: the ball-bearing now begins to circle the interior of the well moving faster and faster until it finally touches the billiard ball. Of course this is only an analogy, and suffered from the fact the real gravity is accounting for the depressions in the fabric of ‘space’. Yet this was Einstein’s basic argument. Einstein argued in his General Relativity, where he exlpains gravity that if one cannot experimentally detect the difference between two phenomena, then they are the same, and that to hold that they are two is a form of occultism. Thus one can never experimentally demonstrate absolute position or location, thus this notion (another key concept in Newtonian Physics) is occult and non-scientific. The same Einsteinian objection was made for the notion of absolute time and absolute motion.
Most devastating to Newton was Einstein’s ‘falling body in a close-walled elevator’ thought experiment in which:
Einstein became convinced that this inability to distinguish a region with a gravitational field from one without was not just restricted to observations of falling bodies. He postulated that it holds true for any physical measurements at all: No experiment, no clever exploitation of the laws of physics, he claimed, can tell us whether we are in free space or in a gravitational field. This statement is called the equivalence principle. One of the consequences: In a reference frame that is in free fall, the laws of physics are the same as if there were no gravity at all – the laws of physics are those of special relativity! from ‘The elevator, the rocket, and gravity: the equivalence principle’, Einstein OnLine
Thus if your were standing on the floor of an enclosed ‘elevator’ being pulled up at the rate of 23 feet/sec/sec, you could not using any instruments inside the elevator distinguish the sensation of from that of standing still an earthly gravitational field. Thus virtually demolishing the foundations of Newtonian Physics. Yet, without the concepts of absolute space, absolute time, and absolute motion, as the foundations of Newtonian Physics, the entire history of physical science and mathematics and its enormous achievement could never have occurred, for prior to Newton, the authority of Aristotle was embraced (and enforced by the institution of Scholasticism). And what did Aristotle say regarding time, space and motion? He held and proved that they were all relative. These brilliant insights on the part of Aristotle were all ‘forgotten’ as Aristotelianism went out of favor in preference to the dominant renaissance doctrines of Neo-Platonism.
But some of Aristotle’s ideas were retained, by Alchemy. Namely that there were four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. Before we get ready to leap with all fours on Aristotle again, consider that today there are still held by modern science to be four forms of matter: solid, liquid, gas and a special matter-equivalent: energy. So does not earth, summarize that was know about solids before modern geology and chemistry? Does not water constitute the vast instances of all forms of liquids before modern chemistry? Does ‘air’ not constitute a vast majority of what we now call ‘gases’ before modern chemistry? As for ‘fire’ that was the only known form of what we now call energy, before modern science….and all of its marvelous inventions of instruments for measuring the invisible.
So now that we have taken a more mature and historic perspective, let us revisit Newton’s Alchemy. As we have said repeatedly, before modern science, which certainly has its methodological origins in Newton (and its mathematical origins in Pythagoras). Virtually nothing was know about the internal nature, let alone the ontology, of earth, air, fire, and water. Newton, in his embracing the works of alchemy was looking for the very answers we seek today. He was not satisfied with arm-chair philosophizing, especially the ‘clock work’ model of the universe offered by Descartes, but believe that only that which could be reproduced in the laboratory and tested there should be offered as science. So Newton went to his laboratory to try to discover the various forms of matter and how they could be combined with one another. There were no a priori assumptions about matter and substances, so it could not be ruled out as absurd that one heavy substance could not be transformed into another heavy substance by the proper addition of an intermediate substance (or substances) plus the application of intense heat. Case in point: the conversion of lead to gold. This was not the specific purpose of alchemy for Newton, for he was only interested in studying the alchemic procedures that actually worked and could be reproduced in the laboratory and explained. Recently, a scientist, Bill Newman, discovering Newton’s alchemical notes (all written in secret code, since alchemy was outlawed in Newton’s day, as was the rejection of the trinity) was able to decode his papers and then perform his experiments, which turned out to produce exactly what Newton said that would.
* Not for citing or referencing. Under development.