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NEWTON AS ALCHEMIST

2012-October-30

NEWTON AS ALCHEMIST.

Although alchemy is generally viewed as a precursor to science (and it has that role), it was so much more. Alchemy incorporates Hermetic principles which include ideas from mythology, religion, and spirituality. Below HJ Sheppard outlines the dualistic nature of alchemy as both external (in the material world) and internal (spiritual) practices.

Alchemy is the art of liberating parts of the Cosmos from temporal existence

     and achieving perfection which, for metals is gold, and for man, longevity,

     then immortality and, finally redemption. Material perfection was sought

     through the action of a preparation (Philosopher’s Stone for metals;

      Elixir of Life for humans), while spiritual ennoblement resulted from some

      form of inner revelation or other enlightenment.

the only notable remark about methodology is the famous passage from the General Scholium added in the second edition as a final, parting statement:

English: Isaac Newton's first edition of his P...

English: Isaac Newton’s first edition of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have not as yet been able to deduce from phenomena the reason for these properties of gravity, and I do not feign hypotheses. For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this experimental philosophy, propositions are deduced from the phenomena and are made general by induction. The impenetrability, mobility, and impetus of bodies, and the laws of motion and law of gravity have been found by this method. And it is enough that gravity should really exist and should act according to the laws that we have set forth and should suffice for all the motions of the heavenly bodies and of our sea. [P, 943]

Two aspects of the general thrust of the method are perfectly clear. First, Newton viewed it as contrasting with what was then called the method of hypotheses — that is, the method of putting forward hypotheses that reached far beyond the available data and then marshalling evidence for them by deducing testable conclusions from them.[58];

Second, Newton viewed the method as requiring that questions be regarded as open when empirical considerations had not yet yielded answers to them. Whatever may have been required for empirical consideration to establish a theoretical conclusion, and whatever the status, provisional or otherwise, any such established conclusion was supposed to have, Newton viewed the method as allowing — even mandating — that theoretical answers to some questions could be established even while other closely related questions remained in abeyance. In particular, to use Newton’s phrasing from the Scholium that ends Section 11, the physical species and physical proportions of forces could, in the appropriate sense, be established even though the question of their physical causes remained open. The clear aim of the method was accordingly to limit theoretical claims to “inductive generalizations,” as specified by the Rules of Reasoning, of conclusions dictated by experiment and observation. (Principia, Isaac Newton, Newton’s principia  1846)

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3 Comments
  1. The pursuit of perfection, alchemical dream, have the expression:
    “And so we have given in this Corollary a solution of that famous Problem of the ancients concerning four lines, begun by Euclid, and carried on by Apollonius; and this not an analytical calculus, but a geometrical composition, such as the ancients required.”
    from NEWTON S PRINCIPIA., Ed 1846, LEMMA XIX, Cor. 2, or
    Atq; ita Problematis veterum de quatuor lineis ab Euclide incæpti & ab
    Apollonio continuati non calculus, sed compositio Geometrica, qualem Veteres
    quærebant, in hoc Corollario exhibetur. Ed 1687

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  1. Alchemy as a philosophical and spiritual discipline | By Dee
  2. Book Review: Isaac Newton by James Gleick | Indian Mithila Heritage

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