[extropy-chat] book: Promethean Ambitions by William R. Newman

Amara Graps amara at amara.com
Tue Aug 3 17:56:18 UTC 2004

Yesterday, in the International Herald Tribune (and the New York Times)
an interesting book review appeared:

Promethean Ambitions:
Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature by William R. Newman
Reviewed by Edward Rothstein NYT


The following phrases in the Review especially caught my attention:


{beginning quote}

Even more temperate interpreters of science, though, have been
changing their ideas about alchemy. Historians now treat the
enterprise less as a naive activity supplanted by science than as an
intellectual discipline out of which science gradually evolved. In
"Promethean Ambitions," William R. Newman, who teaches the history and
philosophy of science at Indiana University, goes even further.

For him, alchemy, from its ancient origins as a servant to the
decorative arts to its 17th-century transmutation into modern
chemistry, provided the crucible in which many contemporary ideas
about nature and artifice were first examined.

Today, he writes, "we live in the era of 'Frankenfoods,' cloning, in
vitro fertilization, synthetic polymers, Artificial Intelligence, and
computer generated 'Artificial Life,'" an era in which Pope John Paul
II has warned of the "Promethean ambitions" of biomedical science, and
the President's Council on Bioethics has studied Hawthorne's
alchemical story, "The Birth-Mark."

But Newman argues that most current debates about boundaries between
nature and artifice, or boundaries between proper and improper
scientific exploration, echo debates that run through the history of
alchemy. Critics of alchemy argued that the natural world could not be
replicated or improved and that such goals should not be pursued.
Advocates found porous boundaries between nature and artifice that
could be explored and tested.

In Newman's view, this tension between nature and artifice is
fundamental. Alchemy is primarily an art of transmutation: One metal
is turned into another, one living creature erupts out of the
substance of another. Alchemy is concerned with the character of that
change. It thus pays attention to categories, differences and
boundaries. If one substance is changed into another, does it change
its essence or only some of its properties? Is nature being revealed
or overturned?

{end quote}

Alchemy is a topic that has intrigued me for some time, and I talked
about it in my article last year:


Eternal City Grapsody #5 - Parmigianino's Golden Transformations

Historians who study European and Eastern medieval life often
encounter two interpretations of the 'art' of alchemy. The methods of
concentration, distillation, maturing, and mixing could be considered
as a physical chemistry exercise or as human psychological
transformation, that is, a disguised form of a spiritual quest. What
confuses the two interpretations is that one of the origins of
alchemy- the Sufis, did indeed work in laboratories performing real
alchemy experiments.

The Sufi student is given an undertaking that may not seem scientific
by contemporary standards, and for the purposes of their
self-development, one must carry it out with complete faith. In the
process of planning and carrying through this effort, one attains
one's spiritual development. Even though the alchemical or other
undertaking might be impossible, it is the framework within which
one's mental and moral development is carried out. It is something
like the perspective that competitive sport or scholastic undertakings
are performed; that is, the mountain or the PhD or the muscular
development are the fixed points, but they are not the element which
is actually being transformed by the effort. 

For the Sufis, in the larger context of humanity, the physical and
spiritual process of alchemy is the regeneration of an essential part
of humanity, called "the Philosopher's Stone", an essence (inside each
man), which is thought to uplift humanity to the next stage. The
function of the Philosopher's Stone is as a universal medicine and a
source of longevity. The interesting fact about this stone is that the
stone or elixir is a state of mind. The elements to produce the Stone
(the essence) are sulphur (kibrit, homonym of kibirat, "greatness,
nobility"), salt (milh, homonym of milh, "goodness, learning"), and
mercury (zibaq, "to open a lock, to break").


I have not read _Promethean Ambitions_ so I don't know how far
the author takes alchemy, but he might be thinking in similar
ways based on this phrase in the International Herald Tribune review:

"There is more information gathered by Newman than the casual reader
can easily absorb, including difficult analyses of philosophical and
religious arguments taking place over centuries in Latin, Greek and
Arabic. But Newman, a clear and graceful writer, keeps his goal in
view. He is an initiate - tapping, testing and transmuting - until
something different, still called alchemy, gradually takes shape."

This book will go into my reading queue!



Amara Graps, PhD
Istituto di Fisica dello Spazio Interplanetario (IFSI)
Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF),
Adjunct Assistant Professor Astronomy, AUR,
Roma, ITALIA     Amara.Graps at ifsi.rm.cnr.it

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