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

mike99 mike99 at lascruces.com
Tue Aug 3 21:53:53 UTC 2004

Another version of the alchemical quest for self-transformation is found in
the so-called Fourth Way teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff and similar teachers.
Gurdjieff had a rather elaborate system (as described in his student P.D.
Ouspenky's book "In Search of the Miraculous"). His belief was that
physiological and biochemical changes took place within individuals who
"worked on themselves" to advance to a higher level of functional existence.
Supposedly, bodily substances were transmuted in a step-wise fashion, where
the output of one step became the input substance for the next. But if one
did not know how to properly conduct this process, one could not advance
very far.

Unfortunately, much of the Gurdjieffian system is a closely guarded secret.
In order to test it, one would have to "buy into" the group-think of the
Gurdjieff Institute. And by going that far, one would probably lose the
objectivity necessary in order to test this theory scientifically.

It's probably a moot point, anyway. Transhumanism is very likely to take us
beyond anywhere that Gurdjieff and his followers could even imagine.


Michael LaTorra

mike99 at lascruces.com
mlatorra at nmsu.edu

"For any man to abdicate an interest in science is to walk with open eyes
towards slavery."
-- Jacob Bronowski

"Experiences only look special from the inside of the system."
-- Eugen Leitl

Extropy Institute: www.extropy.org
World Transhumanist Association: www.transhumanism.org
Alcor Life Extension Foundation: www.alcor.org
Society for Technical Communication: www.stc.org

> -----Original Message-----
> From: wta-talk-bounces at transhumanism.org
> [mailto:wta-talk-bounces at transhumanism.org]On Behalf Of Amara Graps
> Sent: Tuesday, August 03, 2004 11:56 AM
> To: extropy-chat at lists.extropy.org; wta-talk at transhumanism.org
> Subject: [wta-talk] book: Promethean Ambitions by William R. Newman
> 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
> http://www.iht.com/articles/532091.html
> 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:
> http://transhumanism.com/index.php/weblog/more/eternal-city-grapso
> dy-5-parmigianinos-golden-transformations/
> 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
> --
> 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
> _______________________________________________
> wta-talk mailing list
> wta-talk at transhumanism.org
> http://www.transhumanism.org/mailman/listinfo/wta-talk

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list