Part 32b

Why Alchemy is Wrong

January 7, 2022

The (alchemical) process follows these lines= The (alchemists) take a substance possessing primary preparedness. They use it as the basis. In treating and processing it, they imitate the way nature processes substances in mines and, eventually, transforms them into gold or silver. They (try) hard to increase the active and passive powers (in the process), so that it will be completed in a shorter time (than required by nature). It has been explained in the proper place that an increase in the power of the agent shortens the time needed for his activity.

The generation of gold in the mine is completed only after 1,080 years, which is the period of the great revolution of the sun. 1095 If the powers and qualities used in the process are greatly increased, the time needed for the generation of (gold) will necessarily be shorter than (1,080 years), as we have stated.

Or, through processing, the (alchemists) choose to give the (basic) substance a form of composition to make it like yeast, and thus capable of producing the desired transformation in the processed matter. That is “the elixir,” mentioned before.

Every generated elemental thing must contain a combination of the four elements in different proportions. If they were all alike in proportion, no mixture would take place.

Therefore, there must always be a part that is superior to all the (others). Likewise, everything generated through mixture must contain some natural heat which is active in creating it and preserves its form.

Furthermore, everything that is created in time must go through different stages and pass from one stage to another during the time of its creation, until it reaches its goal. For instance, man goes through the successive stages of semen, blood clot, and lump of flesh. 1096 Next, he receives his form, becomes an embryo, a newborn child, a suckling, and so on, until he reaches the end of his (development).

The proportion of the parts varies in quantity and quality at every stage. Were that notthe case, the first stage would be identical with the last. The natural heat, too, is different at each stage.

One may now consider through how many stages and conditions gold (must have) passed in the mine over (a period of) 1,080 years. The alchemist has to follow the action of nature in the mine and imitate it in his treatment and processing, until.it is completed. (Now,) it is a condition of (every) craft that (its practitioner) perceive (and know, tasawwur) the goals he intends to reach with the help of that particular craft.

A current saying of the sages to this effect runs= “The beginning of action is the end of thinking, and the end of thinking is the beginning of action.” 1097

Thus, the alchemist must perceive (and know) the different conditions of gold in the numerous stages of its (development), the different proportions (of its component elements) belonging to the different stages, the resulting differences in natural heat, how much time is spent at each stage, and how much of an increase in power (is needed) to substitute for and supplant (the natural development).

All this should finally enable him to imitate the action of nature in the mine or to prepare for a certain substance a form of composition that would be what the form of yeast is for bread, active in the particular substance in proportion to its powers and quantity.

All this is known only to the all-comprehensive knowledge (of God). Human science is unable to achieve it.

Those who claim to have made gold with the help of alchemy are like those who might claim the artificial creation of man from semen. If we (could) grant to someone an all - comprehensive knowledge of the parts of man, his proportions, the stages of his (development), the way he is created in the womb, if he could know all this in all its details, so that nothing escapes his knowledge, then we (would) grant him the (ability to) create a human being. But where does anyone possess such (knowledge) ?

Let us present here a short restatement of the argument, so that it can be easily understood. We say= The general lines followed in alchemy and the sum total of the claims (alchemists) make for the (alchemical) treatment are that it follows and imitates mineral nature by artificial action, until a particular mineral substance is generated, or until a substance is created that has certain powers, a (capacity to) act, and a form of composition acting upon a given substance as nature does, thus changing and transforming it into its own form.

The technical action must be preceded by detailed, consecutive perceptions (tasawwur) of the various stages of the mineral nature one intends to follow and imitate, or in which one intends the powerful substance to be active. Now, there is an unlimited number of such stages. Human knowledge is not able to comprehend even a lesser number.

It is comparable to wanting to create human beings or animals or plants.

This is the sum total of the argument. It is the most reliable argument I know of. It proves the impossibility (of alchemy), but neither from the point of view of the (specific) differences (of the metals), as above, 1098 nor from that of nature.

It proves it from the point of view of the impossibility of complete comprehension and the inability of human beings to have (an all-comprehensive knowledge). Avicenna’s remarks say nothing of the sort.

There is another aspect to alchemy proving its impossibility. It concerns the result of alchemy. This is as follows. It was God’s wise plan that gold and silver, being rare, should be the standard of value by which the profits and capital accumulation of human beings are measured. (Now,) if it were possible to obtain (gold and silver) artificially, God’s wise plan in this respect would be foiled.

Gold and silver would exist in such large quantities that it would be no use to acquire them.1099

There is still another aspect (to alchemy) proving its impossibility. Naturealways takes the shortest way in what it does. It does not take the longest and most complicated one. (Now) if, as (the alchemists) suppose, the artificial method were sound, shorter, and took less time than that which nature follows in the mine, nature would not have abandoned it in favor of the method it has chosen for the generation and creation of gold and silver.

At-Tughra’i’s comparison of the (alchemical) process with individual similar instances noticed in nature, such as the (spontaneous) generation of scorpions, bees, and snakes, is sound, in as much as those things, as he assumes, have been (actually) observed (and thus proven). But nowhere in the world is there a report stating that anybody ever observed (the soundness of) alchemy and its method.

The practitioners of (alchemy) have constantly been groping in the dark. They have found nothing but lying stories. Had any (alchemist) found a correct method, his children, his pupils, or his colleagues would have preserved it. It would have been handed down among friends.

Its correctness would have been guaranteed by its later successful application. (Knowledge of) it would eventually have spread. Ourselves or others would have learned about it.

The (alchemists also) state that the elixir is similar to yeast 1100 and that it is a compound for transmuting and transforming everything with which it comes in contact into its own essence. However, it should be realized that yeast transforms the dough and conditions it for digestion. This is (a process of) corruption, and material destruction is an easy process which may be produced by the slightest of actions and of elemental (influences). However, the purpose of the elixir is to transform one mineral into a nobler and higher one. That is something creative and constructive.

Creation is more difficult than destruction. 1101 Thus, the elixir cannot be compared with yeast. The truth of the matter is that if it is correct that alchemy exists, as the philosophers who discuss alchemy, such as Jabir b. Hayyan, Maslamah b. Ahmad al-Majriti, and others, think, it does’not (at any rate) fall under the category of natural crafts, and it does not come about by any technical process. The discussion of alchemy by (alchemists) is not like that of physics (by physicists). It is like the discussion of magical and other extraordinary matters or the wonders performed by al-Hallaj 1102 and others. Maslamah mentioned something of the sort in the Kitab al-Ghayah. His discussion of alchemy in the Kitab Rutbat al-hakim points in the same direction. Jabir’s discussion in his treatises is also of the same type. This tendency of (alchemical) discussion is well known. We do not have to comment on it.

In general, (alchemy) as they understand it, has to do with universal creations 1103 which are outside the (sphere of) effectiveness of the crafts. Wood and animals cannot be developed from their (respective matters) in a day or a month, if such is not the (ordinary) course of their creation. In the same way, gold cannot be developed from its matter in a day or a month. Its customary course (of development) can be changed only with the help of something beyond the world of nature and the activity of the crafts. Thus, those who try to practice alchemy as a craft lose their money and labor.

The alchemical treatment is, therefore, called a “sterile treatment.” In so far as it is sound, it is the result of (powers) beyond those of nature and the crafts. It is comparable to walking upon water, riding in the air, passing through solid substances, 1104 and similar acts of divine grace that are performed by saints and break through the customary course of nature. Or, it may be compared to the creation of birds and similar miracles of the prophets. God says: “And when you created something like the form of a bird from clay with my permission, and you blew into it, and the form thus became a bird with thepermission of God.” 1105 The way in which (miracles of an alchemical nature) are performed depends on the condition of the person to whom (such miracles) are granted. They may be granted to a pious person who passes them on to someone else. They are in this case loaned to the other person, (but he, at any rate, is able to perform them). Or, they may be granted to a worthless person who cannot pass them on. In this case, they cannot be performed by someone else. It is in this sense that the performance (of alchemical miracles) is magical. Thus, it is clear that (alchemical miracles) are the result of psychic influences and extraordinary wonders, either as miracles or acts of divine grace, or as sorcery. Therefore, all the sages who have discussed (alchemy) use puzzling expressions whose real meaning is known only to those who have delved deeply into sorcery and are acquainted with the (magic) activities of the soul in the world of nature. (But) matters breaking through the ordinary course (of nature) are unlimited, and no one could get to know them (all). God “comprehends all you do.” 1106 The most common cause of the desire to practice alchemy is, as we have stated; a person’s inability to make his living in a natural way and the wish to make a living in some way that, unlike agriculture, commerce, and (handi)craft, is not natural. 1107 A person without ability finds it difficult to make his living in such (legitimate occupations). He wants to get rich all at once through some (occupation) that is not natural, such as alchemy and other things. Alchemy is cultivated mostly by the poor among civilized people. (The fact that economic status is decisive for the recognition or nonrecognition of alchemy) applies even to the philosophers who discuss the possibility 1108 or impossibility of (alchemy). Avicenna, who states that alchemy is impossible, was a great wazir and a very wealthy person, while al-Faribi, who states that it is possible, was one of those poor persons who have not the slightest success in making a living by any means. This is an obvious suspicion as to the attitude of people who are eager to try (alchemy) out and practice it.1109

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