Edgar Morin, who calls for a transdisciplinary way of thinking, wrote an amazing short essay entitled “A New Way of Thinking”. (A New Way of Thinking.pdf)  One of the principles of this new way of thinking involves recognizing that wholes and parts are mutually interactive:  “properties emerge from the organization of a whole and may have a retroactive effect on the parts”  

Liquid dreamConsider water.  Water is commonly thought to be the simple combination of two hydrogen atoms with an oxygen atom.  We say “H2O” like we know exactly what we mean, and usually what we mean is something like H2O = H + H + O.  

But this way of thinking is wrong; something fundamental is missing from this thinking.  We cannot conceive of water as a simple addition, because in the process of coming together, the very nature of the individual pieces is changed.  

A hydrogen atom in a water molecule is NOT THE SAME as a hydrogen atom in isolation.  It’s very structure changes, precisely because it is now in a relationship, or rather, we could say, a continual process of relating, and this relational process has consequences for both the hydrogen and the oxygen (and the other hydrogen!).  

“Water” is thus a picture of a certain ongoing relationship between hydrogen and oxygen in a complex way.  The emergent properties of water coincidently retroact on the process of this relation.  The properties of water are both more and less than the sum of the individual parts.   

An alchemical understanding of water jives with this understanding from the realm of transdisciplinarity.  Water, alchemically, can be considered “process”.  It is the substantive manifestation of the principle of relation.  The alchemists understood that relationship always had a transformative effect, whether on a physical substance or a soul-substance.   

Dissolution was thus a phase of the Great Work; the bringing together of disparate elements via a liquid phase served to lessen the tendency to interpret the individual elements individually, as separate and isolated bits.  This occurs through the careful application of heat.  This ‘phase-transition’ set the stage for a further transformation, in which substances dissolved in solution could be further refined through an additional application of warmth, driving off the more volatile substances that were invisibly suspended in solution, while simultaneously the less volatiles substances precipitated out of solution and became an ash, which itself had to be purified so it could later come back into a completely new relationship with the volitalized elements.  

Alchemy embodied the holographic principles held as foundations for transdisciplinarity by Morin: the whole in the part, the part in the whole, with retroactive effects and emergent effects as a consequence. 


Commenting area

  1. Seth..could you ramble on a bit about how you imagine alchemy connects to the theoretical physics, from the Bohm/Peat camp?

    • Francie, alchemy and theoretical physics, huh? Definitely an interesting avenue to explore; I'll keep it in mind as a potential topic for a future post… (the topic could probably use a book…)

  2. I meant to subscribe to all replys…

  3. Francie, alchemy and theoretical physics, huh? Definitely an interesting avenue to explore; I'll keep it in mind as a potential topic for a future post… (the topic could probably use a book…)

  4. Regarding the article on water…I'm not quite grasping the "retroactive" aspects of what you are teaching. I think I get the rest of it…Thanks

    • What is retro-active is the way that the 'whole' of the water molecule changes the properties (read: potential relations) of the 'parts'. What used to be just a lone hydrogen atom is now expressing something new on the basis of its relationship with another hydrogen and an oxygen atom. "Retro" is meant not as 'backwards in time' but as 'applying back'; in this case back to the part from the whole. So a retroactive effect is that a hydrogen atom bound in a water molecule has different properties (read: potential qualities of activity) than one that is unbound. Emergent effects come forth as expressions of relational activity that were simply not possible before, for example, the bonding angle of water; a property (read: dynamic expression of continual relation) of the molecule, not of the individual atoms. Higher-level emergence such as membrane formation and distinction between an 'inside' and an 'outside' are possible when multiple water molecules begin to dance…

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