Respectful Insolence

Your Friday Dose of Woo: The Alchemy of Woo

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You know, I really wish I could have made it to The Amazing Meeting this year. It would have been really cool to have a chance to hear in person such skeptical luminaries, such as The Amazing Randi, Penn and Teller (although I do concede that Penn’s Libertarianism does occasionally border on credulity for some dubious propositions), and Phil Plait. And who wouldn’t want to meet the purveyors of what’s become my favorite skeptical podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, such as Steve Novella and The Skepchick? And, of course, it’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to visit Las Vegas, a.k.a. Sin City (“what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”).

Oddly enough, though, there’s one more chance this year to make it to Vegas for a meeting if I wanted to. All I’d have to do is to go with the flow and agree to feel the woo. And who knows? As shown to me by Stupid Evil Bastard and pointed out to me by John Lynch, if I attended this other meeting, maybe it would be the start of a beautiful new career as an alchemist. Yes, I mean it. We’re talking about the International Alchemy Conference in October:

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Don’t miss this rare opportunity to meet and work with practicing alchemists from around the world! Practitioners will share both practical and spiritual techniques in this intensive, multimedia event. The emphasis is on real alchemy, and the goal is to inform and empower individuals with the ancient wisdom. Practical methods of transformation in both laboratory and inner work will be featured throughout the event. There will be lots of opportunities for informal meetings, plus free prizes, entertainment, and other fun surprises.

Learn ancient wisdom and get free prizes? Who could resist? Surely not me. So I delved deeper into the website to see what they’re offering. After all, I had no idea that alchemists still even existed? Did you? Well, read on as we learn of what is billed as the largest meeting of alchemists in 500 years:

Learn!

  • Discover the secret history of alchemy and how it is practiced today.
  • Learn the secret formulae and processes of the alchemists.
  • Learn how to set up an alchemical laboratory in your own home.
  • Be able to recognize hidden “signatures” of people and events.
  • Learn to make tinctures and elixirs that capture spiritual energy.

Experience!

  • Resonate with the magical power of alchemists’ symbols and drawings.
  • Awaken powerful energies to fuel your continuing transformation.
  • Understand how the ancient principles work in your own life.
  • Learn how to transmute emotions and thoughts into purified consciousness.
  • Take part in meditations and experiments demonstrating esoteric principles.

Accomplish!

  • Discover ways to harness the life force for alternative healthcare and continuing rejuvenation.
  • Exchange the latest research in such diverse areas as the history of science and quantum chemistry.
  • Learn to make alchemical tinctures, oils, elixirs, and other products in the privacy of your own kitchen.
  • Become a certified alchemical practitioner or apply the principles in your present career.
  • Turn lead of everyday life into the gold of health, wealth, and new opportunities.

I really love the last part about turning the “lead of everyday life into the gold of health, wealth, and new opportunities,” don’t you? It’s just so perfect. I’m also amazed that alchemists have discovered quantum theory. Maybe I shouldn’t be. Quantum theory and alchemy, two great tastes that go great together–if you’re into woo. Of course, if you recall, alchemy is the ancient science/philosophy that combined chemistry, metallurgy, medicine, mysticism, spiritualism, and astrology, among other things. It was actually a precursor to modern science, but modern science has supplanted it completely, and for good reason. Even so, I really like the idea of learnign to make tinctures, oils, elixirs, and other products in the privacy of my own kitchen. Of course, I have an advantage over most of these guys in that I actually have my very own real laboratory. Imagine what I could accomplish! I wonder if I could get NIH funding for this. Hey, there’s always NCCAM.

Things like this:

As Carl Jung discovered, the energies of alchemy are universal principles that find their expression in the human mind and imagination. In this fascinating presentation, a respected alchemical researcher and Jungian psychoanalyst explores the deep inner work of alchemy and relates the sol niger (Black Sun) and the nigredo (Black Phase) to the Philosophers’ Stone. The lecturer will also address the fundamental split in the alchemical imagination between spiritual and laboratory work. Dr. Stanton Marlan.

Jumpin’ Jesus on a pogo stick! Why didn’t I think of combining Jungian psychology with the energies of alchemy? Think of the possibilities! If you think the human mind can be messed up using relatively simple methods, just think of what could be accomplished combining analytical psychology with alchemy. Maybe I could learn to analyze dreams and transmute lead into gold at the same time–true multitasking!

But, of course, that’s not all. There’s the Spagyrics Workshop:

Spagyrics (spa-gîr-iks) is a Greek word meaning to separate and recombine. Spagyrics was the basis of Paracelsus’ work, and he is often considered its father. The spagyric process is a three-fold process of separation, purification, and cohobation (reunion of the purified parts). During the process, the essences of the substance are exposed and reborn under planetary influences. The spagyric product is considered to be at a higher level of potency able to effect not only the physical body but also the underlying or spiritual cause of disease. This class will meet twice during the conference. Certificates of completion and credit in the Alchemy Home Study Program will be provided by Flamel College. Taught by Robert Allen Bartlett, chief chemist at the Paracelsus Research Institute.

The Paracelus Research Institute? Shades of Don Lemmon, may he rest in peace! In any case, this stuff kind of reminds me of homeopathy. Consider: Suposedly the “essences” of substances are “exposed and reoborn under planetary influences” to produce a product that is at a “higher level of potency” to effect both the physical and spiritual cause of disease. I had no idea that homeopathy was rooted in alchemist thought, but maybe it was. Certainly this whole “spagyrics” thing makes me think this to be the case. Truly, woo goes back many centuries. Of course, hundreds of years ago, one could understand why alchemy was considered science and some of the most learned scholars considered it to be high learning, given the primitive state of understanding of chemistry, physics, and biology. In the year 2007, it’s pretty hard to understand how anyone could take this stuff seriously anymore. Certainly, until I heard of this conference, even I had no idea that there were still people calling themselves alchemists out there. Maybe I shouldn’t be, given how much woo appeals to vitalism, invoking a life “energy” like qi. I mean, look at this workshop offered in the alchemy conference, The Life Force: Universal Agent of Transformation:

This lecture explores the nature and operation of that mysterious alchemical agent, the Universal Life-Force. The outpouring of this primal force serves at both the cosmic and personal levels as the connection between “spirit” and “matter,” cause and effect, subjective inner self and objective outer world. As such, it is the power that is brought to bear in all alchemical transmutations…These transmutations are applied to our subtle bodies (or energy fields of vitality), emotions and desires, and analytical or concrete thought…The final goal is to develop and perfect the Causal Body: our immortal vehicle of abstract thought and gateway to the Spirit. Also known as the Karana Sarira, Augoeides, and Robe of Glory, it represents our Inner Gold — the true Holy Grail, the only vehicle which can contain the “Holy Spirit.” Finally, depictions of the crude and perfected stages of our astral, mental, and causal bodies that develop in the course of the Great Work of Inner Transformation will be shown. Dr. Bruce Fisher.

i-3ff0a073043e3ce8be69ff70aaed16f5-amcl83.jpgNow, I’m all for the Great Work of Inner Transformation just as much as the next person, but I had something different in mind. For me, the inner transformation that I’d like to see people undergoing is learning to embrace the scientific method and skepticism–particularly towards claims about “subtle bodies,” “alchemical transmutations,” and “astral, mental, and causal bodies.” But, hey, that’s just me. Your mileage may vary.

One thing that amused me about this whole Alchemy Conference was that they actually hired a magician, Jeff McBride (official website), and he’s hosting an alchemical fire circle. And, of course, this begs the question of whether McBride actually believes this woo, or whether he’s just doing his act, and the “alchemists” are lapping it up. Calling The Amazing Randi STAT! I think we need an intervention here. Either that, or he needs to show up at this conference; maybe he could go in disguise. That’d be really cool.

In the end, it’s hard to understand why there could be people still calling themselves alchemists in the world. Alchemy may have made observations that eventually formed the core of modern chemistry, but it got so much wrong. As our understanding of the physical world grew through observation and experimentation, it became clear that alchemy could not stand, even though it may have taken hundreds of years to fall. Modern chemistry supplanted alchemy long ago for very good reason: the amazing level of understanding science has achieved answering the very questions about the physical world that alchemists were interested in and providing a logical framework for continuing to answer the questions that we do not yet understand. That framework, of course, is the scientific method.

Comments

  1. #1 Grumpy Physicist
    February 2, 2007

    Ah Alchemy, the ancient, arcane knowledge of how to turn Bullshit into Gold!

    When you define it like that, it’s obvious that it “works”, although it might also involve some well-deserved jail time.

  2. #2 The Duke of Exeter's daughter.
    February 2, 2007

    At least one of the inventions of “Mary the Jewess”, is still used in labs today.

  3. #3 Simon
    February 2, 2007

    Speaking of woo….BBC News has a story about ‘A claim by Gambian President Yahya Jammeh that he can cure Aids in three days’ using some ‘secret medicinal herb ingredients’! It would be brilliant if he were right, but I somehow doubt it works.

  4. #4 Bronze Dog
    February 2, 2007

    What’s all this about subtle bodies and so forth? REAL alchemists know what makes a human.

    Edward Elric: Water, 35 liters. Carbon, 20 kilograms. Ammonia, 4 liters. Lime, 1.5 kilograms. Phosphorous, 800 grams. Salt, 250 grams. Saltpeter, 100 grams. Sulfur, 80 grams. Fluorine, 7.5, iron, 5, silicon, 3 grams, and trace amounts of 15 other elements.
    Rose: What’s that?
    Edward Elric: It’s all the ingredients of the average adult human body, right down to the last specks of protein in your eyelashes. (closes his notebook) And even though science has given us the entire physical breakdown, there’s never been a successful attempt at bringing a human to life. There’s still something missing. Something scientists haven’t been able to find in centuries of research….so what makes you think that hack-job priest with his parlor tricks is gonna be able to? And in case you’re wondering, all those ingredients can be bought on a child’s allowance. Humans can be built on the cheap. There’s no magic to it.

  5. #5 dzd
    February 2, 2007

    Man, I wish the anime had come out a year later or so, so that it could have picked up some of the wackier elements from the manga. The manga’s versions of the homunculi are about a million times cooler than the anime’s.

  6. #6 Jonathan Dobres
    February 2, 2007

    I don’t know, I think you might be hitting these guys a little hard. Spiritually, alchemy is as valid as any other belief system, and Jung did indeed endorse many alchemical concepts in his psychoanalytic theory, at least on the conceptual/metaphorical level. Sure, there’s a small chance that someone might accidentally poison themselves with a bad tincture, but this alchemy stuff seems mostly harmless. The vague claims about improvement of health are certainly nothing compared to the altie charlatans who say they can cure cancer, AIDS, MS, and a host of other diseases with their dubious (I’m being generous) treatments.

  7. #7 steve
    February 2, 2007

    wait… you’re telling me you don’t believe in Alchemy?!
    How could you deny the truth of alchemy?!

    ok… seriously..

    Jonathan – Jung endorsing something doesn’t make it valid – nor does comparing it to another belief system – some are valid some are not – clearly.

  8. #8 Baratos
    February 2, 2007

    Without alchemy, how will we ever learn how to transmute PYGMIES into DWARVES?

  9. #9 Ruth
    February 2, 2007

    Since the lab I used to work at in Ann Arbor is closing, maybe all the woo shops on 4th Ave can move into the old Pfizer buildings and do alchemy in state-of-the-art labs. With down-sizing, maybe I will become an alchemyst, as job prospects for real science are poor.

  10. #10 Blake Stacey
    February 2, 2007

    I’m a little surprised that Orac is surprised that there are still alchemists walking the Earth. How long has he been using the Internet? He should know by now that out there somewhere, tangled with one strand of the Web, is a person for whom alchemy is a sexual fetish.

  11. #11 Jonathan Dobres
    February 2, 2007

    Steve,

    I didn’t say that Jung endorsing something makes it valid. Nevertheless, Jung wrote heavily on the psychological significance of alchemy. It’s an uncharacteristic and poorly founded cheap shot for Orac to mock the alchemists for mentioning Jung.

    Also, I fail to see how the underpinnings of “modern” alchemy are any less ridiculous than the verbatim texts of any mainstream religion, or the thousands of people the world over who have taken Star Wars to heart and legitimately believe in the Force.

  12. #12 Robert M.
    February 2, 2007

    Actually, alchemy is (historically) very interesting. Like medieval Chinese medicine and middle-Eastern astrology, it was an attempt to apply the nascent methods of science to aspects of the world that were formerly the sole domain of religion.

    Now, of course–again, like Chinese medicine and astrology–it’s the “appeal to authority” fallacy mashed up with confirmation bias and magical thinking. Kind of a shame, when you think about it…

  13. #13 Orac
    February 2, 2007

    Robert M.: I agree that alchemy is historically very interesting, particularly if you study the history of science and the development of the scientific method. The point, of course, is that alchemy was supplanted as our knowledge of chemistry, physics, and the natural world increased.

    Jonathan: Why is it a “cheap shot”? You seem unduly annoyed by a comment that was just meant as part of the fun of YFDoW.

    Blake: I guess I’m surprised because, well, I really didn’t know that there were still alchemists around. Perhaps, given my experience examining all sorts of woo, I shouldn’t have been suprised.

  14. #14 ilya zlatkovsky
    February 2, 2007

    wow! i’m shocked that somebody would even get upset about a cheap shot at jungian psychology. everything i’ve ever of his and about him calls for just that. are there even any practicing jungian psychologists out there? just think of criticizing jung’s metaphysics in the same vein as criticizing freud’s cocaine endorsements.

  15. #15 Skeptyk
    February 2, 2007

    No, I don’t think Jeff McBride “actually believes this woo, or whether he’s just doing his act”. I think it is strictly neither. He is an artist, illusionist, a very disciplined, talented magician, who loves to explore the history, anthropology and myth as it relates to his profession and to his audience. He is a perpetual student and, AFAIK from watching him and reading his site and from his colleagues, a meticulously honest man.

    IMO, he recognizes, and helps create, rituals, ceremonies, creative spaces, the placebo-inducers that churches often provide. To do this without claiming any literal belief in the myths he is playing with, I think he does more to honor the intelligence of humans by pointing out that historic shamans were magicians, i.e., folks who used art and technology to create illusions.

    Rather than the common notion that the shamen/whoevers were cynically fooling people, Jeff seems to open the idea that the “audience” was aware that that their shaman was practicing deception, with a purpose. The purposes can be healthcare (when placebo and distraction and some mind-altering concoctions are pretty much all you had), or rites of passage, or preparing for a task (if you have had a ritual to evoke – or hope to invoke – some “spirit” of the hunter or the hunted, it can help you keep to task in the critical job of feeding the group).

    I think that, as today, a whole lot of folks do not literally believe in the words of their religions, but ride the metaphor and say “live and let live”. And I think that it is fine, but, as Sam Harris and Orac and PZ and many others have pointed out, it is the mealymouthed handwaving that wants to have their fairycake and eat it, too, the “belief in belief” that Dennett named, which emboldens the monoreligionists.

    Anyway, I hope this illuminates my take on Jeff McBride, maybe someone can ask him.

  16. #16 DuWayne
    February 2, 2007

    Damn, I wish I could remember the name of the novel. I read a novel several years ago, that was based on the premise that Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Darwin and a few other key scientists had never been born. Alchemy was still considered science, persecuted by many Abramaic religionists.

    I rather wish there were more books out about alchemy, that do not support the woo. Nearly everything I have ever found on the subject, do not look at it from a strictly historical perspective. All too often they are chock full of crap. One even makes the claim that, because it is actually possible to change lead to gold (ignoring the fact that while theoreticaly possible, the cost would far outweigh the value of the gold produced), then all the woo behind alchemy is “obviously” accurate.

    I have a longtime fascination with alchemy, being a lifelong scifi/fantasy lover, and having spent much of my life interested in religion/spirtuality. I just prefer clear deliniations between fantasy, fiction and reality. While these lines are sometimes inherently muddled, especialy in scifi, there should be more accurate depictions of alchemy. Because it played such a huge role in the developement of legitamate science, it is important to clearly deliniate between the contributions that alchemy made to science and the bullshit.

  17. #17 Jonathan Dobres
    February 2, 2007

    Orac,

    Your woo criticisms, no matter how cavalier and entertaining they can get sometimes, always spring from some factual basis, as far as I’ve read. The Jung/alchemy shot just felt like playground name-calling compared to your other points, and I was surprised. I fully admit that I may have overreacted a bit. :-)

    To address Ilya, I think you’re being a little dismissive. Certainly, there are more time efficient and efficacious therapeutic methods available today, but to call Jung’s theories valueless is pretty insulting. All metaphysical/spiritual “frameworks” are equally laughable if you want them to be. I see no reason why Jung is particularly deserving of ridicule, especially since unlike, say, Deepak Chopra, he actually listened to his patients, helped them, and was fairly well respected in his day.

  18. #18 mtraven
    February 2, 2007

    Wow, I have to defend this stuff.

    It is precisely because it is so patently NOT science that makes it more legitimate than some other forms of woo. Nobody going in here is going to mistake alchemy for modern chemistry. This sentence that you yourself highlight:

    Turn lead of everyday life into the gold of health, wealth, and new opportunities.

    indicates that both seller and customers are well aware that the transmutation stuff is a psychological metaphor, rather than a pseudoscience.

    There should be a difference between woo that is fraudulent (that is, it pretends to a certain degree of concrete physical effect) and woo that is obviously marked as psychological/spiritual/ritualistic.

  19. #19 Thony C.
    February 2, 2007

    Orac you say that you didn’t realise that there were any alchemists still around. You say yourself that alchemy is interesting if you are into the history of science if you google any sixteenth or seventeenth century scientists who were also alchemists you get tetra-hetra-detra-zillion hits for modern alchemy web sites each one more amazing and more insane than the previous one. If Jonathan hadn’t got there first I too would have commented on your comment that you wished you had thought of combining Jung with alchemy. I would not have criticised you like Jonathan but would have pointed out that Jung thought of it himself. There is a very famous dialogue between Jung and Wolfgang Pauli on the subject of alchemical symbolism and naturally quite a collection of academic papers on this exchange.

  20. #20 Christopher Gray
    February 2, 2007

    Why, WHY is there not yet a Wikipedia page for Woo? It really, really needs one, full of precise definitions and examples.

    Go to!

  21. #21 Joe
    February 2, 2007

    @C. Gray- Lots of the Wiki is devoted to woo, and those articles are mostly controlled by woomeisters. Saying anything negative about a topic is seriously discouraged; so, your tell-it-like-it-is article may never be allowed.

    Those people even argue over whether saying “naturopaths consider themselves primary care doctors” is too negative because of the word “consider.” It is a funny place, Wiki; “naturopaths have training equivalent to an MD” is not a “point of view” (which Wiki doesn’t allow); but “naturopaths don’t have training equivalent …” is a “point of view.”

  22. #22 Ann Nymous
    February 2, 2007

    Ilya,
    There are many Jungian psychologists practicing. Still more have moved towards transpersonal psychology. Yeah, it’s as bad as it sounds.

  23. #23 Koray
    February 2, 2007

    I am sorry, but how is it not fraudulent? It says “alternative healthcare”.

    Turning lead into gold was a useful aim, but it was just too falsifiable. Rejuvenating one’s spirit and recognizing hidden signatures in other people is just perfect.

  24. #24 Thinker
    February 2, 2007

    This was painful to read – Ouch! Especially this:

    Learn how to transmute emotions and thoughts into purified consciousness.

    Luckily, one of the “processes of the alchemists” is that wonderful unit operation called distillation. However, for “tinctures and elixirs that capture spiritual energy” and “awaken powerful energies to fuel continuing transformation”, my destination of choice would not be Vegas, but Scotland.

    So let us “turn the lead of everyday life into gold” and start the weekend by using this “way to harness the life force” for “continuing rejuvenation”.

    I raise my glass* and wish you all “health, wealth and new opportunities”!

    *Cragganmore, if you’re curious…

  25. #25 mtraven
    February 2, 2007

    Well, maybe it’s a little bit fraudulent.

    It’s just an interesting paradox to me — homeopathy is clearly fraudulent because it takes the form of something that actually works (real drugs). Whereas this stuff, because it is more fantastic, is actually less fraudulent. Or so it seems to me.

    Here’s a graf snipped more or less at random from the magician’s site:

    Our magic circle, or alchemical vessel, if you will, is formulated from a conglomeration of hands, hearts, minds and spirits, interwoven through music, chant, spoken word, and movement. There is no pre-scribed liturgy or pre-rehearsed form. By re-solving ourselves to dis-covering each other within the mystery of sustained, mindful engagement, and by consciously choosing to cross the threshold into the collaborative process of introducing, inventing, spinning and galvanizing spontaneously emerging themes, celebrants are empowered to witness and nurture each other’s creativity, beauty, process and art, thus becoming a harmony of communal inspiration, as we dance through the alchemical stages from darkness into light.

    I submit that, although this is mind-curdlingly wooful, it is not a fraud. It’s promising a ritual and an experience, and as such isn’t pseudoscience.

  26. #26 mtraven
    February 2, 2007

    BTW the images Orac found to illustrate this post are frackin’ awesome, and I wish I could find larger-scale ones to use as screensavers or something.

  27. #27 guthrie
    February 9, 2007

    Duke of exeters daughter- yes, that is correct. Would you like to elaborate upon its relationship to the discussion of the dodgy state of modern alchemy?

    mtraven- A great many alchemical drawings are like those Orac used. They look to be from a more modern re-print of the basilica chymica by Oswald Croll, from the 17th century.

  28. #28 Anne
    February 10, 2007

    Hey, if it was good enough for Isaac Newton it’s good enough for me … to maybe open an alchemical health facility called Spa Gyrics.

  29. #29 guthrie
    February 10, 2007

    spa gyrics?
    groan.

    Part of what gets up my nose is that some people like to use Newton as an example of “He believed in a deity and all this other stuff and was a great scientists, so my Creationism/ occultism must be right because Newton also believed in it!”

    I shouldn’t have to point out the stupidity here.

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