Alchemy and the Emergence of Complex Systems

Alchemy and the Emergence of Complex Systems

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Alchemy has gone the way of the dodo, or has it? On any word analogies test, pairing alchemy with chemistry is like pairing astrology with astronomy. To be sure, alchemy and astrology each had their uses. In the history of ideas they helped focus interest in areas that eventually would submit to rigorous analysis–the properties of matter in the case of alchemy, the distribution and formation of stars in the case of astrology.  But both alchemy and astrology needed to be superseded. Alchemy had to give way to chemistry and physics, astrology to astronomy and cosmology. It was all fine and well for Isaac Newton still to dabble in alchemy (full fifty percent of Newton’s writings were devoted to alchemy and theology). But serious contemporary thinkers are expected to renounce magic in all its guises, and alchemy is a form of magic.

What makes alchemy a form of magic? In its heyday alchemy was purported to be a comprehensive theory of transmutation addressing not only transformations of base into precious metals, but also transformations of the soul up and down the great chain of being. Alchemy was not just a physics but also a metaphysics. Alchemy as metaphysics attracts interest to this day (cf. the writings of Carl Jung). But to include alchemy within natural science is regarded as irretrievably misguided. The scientific community rejects alchemy as superstition and commends itself for having successfully debunked it. For scientists the problem with alchemy is that it fails to specify the processes by which transmutations are supposed to take place. It’s this failure of specificity that makes alchemy a form of magic.

An old Sidney Harris cartoon illustrates this point wonderfully. The cartoon shows two scientists viewing a chalkboard. The chalkboard displays some fancy equations, a gap, and then some more fancy equations. In the gap are written the words: “Then a miracle occurs.” Pointing to the gap, one scientist remarks to the other, “I think you need to be more explicit on this point.” This is the problem with alchemy. To characterize a transformation scientifically, it needs to be specified explicitly. Alchemy never did this. Instead it continually offered promissory notes that some day it would make the transformation explicit. None of the promissory notes was ever kept.

Officially, the scientific community rejects alchemy and has rejected it since the rise of modern science. Unofficially, however, the scientific community has had a much harder time eradicating alchemy. Indeed, there’s reason to think that alchemy is staging a comeback within science. Of course, it’s not called alchemy. Instead, it’s referred to as “the emergence of complex systems.”  Now it is perfectly true that complex systems emerge from simple systems (e.g., the spiral structures of the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction). But unless the process by which a complex system emerges from simpler systems is specified, emergence remains an empty word. In this essay I argue that a significant proportion (though I wouldn’t say a majority) of what is called “the emergence of complex systems” is alchemy by another name.


Alchemy followed a certain logic, and it is important to understand the fallacy inherent in that logic. The problem with alchemy wasn’t its failure to *comprehend* the causal process responsible for a transformation. It is not alchemy, for instance, to assert that a certain one-dimensional polypeptide will fold into the three-dimensional conformation of a functional protein. How polypeptides fold to form proteins is an open problem in biology. Three-dimensional proteins *emerge*, one might say, from one-dimensional polypeptides. This happens repeatedly and reliably. We can describe the transformation, but as yet we cannot explain how the transformation takes place. Ignorance about the underlying mechanism responsible for a transformation does not make the transformation alchemical.

Things transform into other things. Sometimes we can explain the process by which the transformation occurs. At other times we cannot. Sometimes the process requires an intelligent agent, sometimes no intelligent agent is required. Thus, the process that arranges a random collection of scrabble pieces into a meaningful English sentence requires a guiding intelligence. On the other hand, the process by which water crystallizes into ice requires no guiding intelligence–lowering the temperature sufficiently is all that’s needed. It isn’t alchemy that transforms water into ice. Nor is it alchemy that transforms a random collection of scrabble pieces into a meaningful sentence. Nor, for that matter, is it alchemy that transforms a one-dimensional polypeptide into a functional protein, and that despite our ignorance about general laws governing protein folding.

What, then, is the problem with alchemy? Alchemy’s problem is its lack of *causal specificity*. Causal specificity means specifying a cause sufficient to account for an effect in question. Often we can specify the cause of an effect even if we cannot explain how the cause produces the effect. For instance, I may know from experience that shaking a closed container filled with a gas will cause the temperature of the gas to rise. Thus, by specifying the causal antecedents (i.e., a closed container filled with gas and my shaking of it), I account for the container’s rise in temperature. Nonetheless, I may have no idea why the temperature rises. Boltzmann’s kinetic theory tells me that the temperature of the gas rises because temperature corresponds to average kinetic energy of the particles constituting the gas, and by shaking the container I impart additional kinetic energy to the particles. Boltzmann’s theory enables me to explain why the temperature goes up. Even so, I don’t need Boltzmann’s theory to specify a cause that accounts for the temperature going up. For that, it’s enough that I specify the causal antecedents (i.e., a closed container filled with gas and my shaking of it).

Alchemy eschews causal specificity. Consider the stereotypical example of alchemical transformation, the transmutation of lead into gold. There is no logical impossibility that prevents primitive potions and furnaces from acting on lead and turning it into gold. It may just be that we’ve overlooked some property of lead that allows it to be transformed into gold. But the alchemists of old never specified the precise causal antecedents that would allow lead to be transmuted into gold. Consequently, they lacked any compelling evidence that the transformation was even possible. Note, modern-day particle physicists can transform lead into gold with their particle accelerators, smashing the lead into more elementary constituents and then reconstituting them as gold. But here the causal antecedents are specified, and they differ sharply from those considered by the alchemists (particle accelerators were not part of the alchemists’ tool chest).

Causal specificity was evident in the examples considered earlier: Water cooled below zero degrees Celsius at sea level is sufficient to account for it turning to ice. A random collection of scrabble pieces left in the hands of a literate, non-handicapped English speaker is sufficient to account for the scrabble pieces spelling a coherent English sentence. A given sequence of l-amino acids joined by peptide bonds is sufficient to account for it folding into a functional protein, say cytochrome c. In each of these cases the causal antecedent is specified and accounts for the effect in question. We may not be able to explain how the cause that was specified produces its effect, yet we know that it does so nonetheless.

But how in the world do we get from causal antecedents like lead, Bunsen burners, potions, and incantations to end up with gold? The alchemists’ conviction was that if one could find just the right ingredients to combine with lead, lead would transform into gold. Thereafter the transformation could be performed at will and the alchemist who discovered the secret of transmutation would be rich (until, that is, the secret got out and gold became so common that it too became a base metal). Discovering the secret of transmutation was the alchemist’s deepest hope. The interesting question for our purposes, however, is the alchemist’s reason for that hope. Why were alchemists so confident that the transmutation from base into precious metals could even be effected? From our vantage we judge their enterprise a failure and one that had no possibility of success. But why were they unshaken in their conviction that with the few paltry means they allowed themselves (particle accelerators not being among them), they could transform base into precious metals? Put another way, lacking causal specificity, why did they think the transformation could be effected at all?

Without causal specificity, one has no empirical justification for affirming that a transformation can be effected. At the same time, without causal specificity, one has no empirical justification for denying that a transformation can be effected. There is no way to demonstrate that Dr. Jekyll can’t transform into Mr. Hyde by some *unspecified* process. Lack of causal specificity leaves one without the means to judge whether a desired transformation can or cannot be effected. Any conviction about the desired transformation being possible, much less inevitable, must therefore derive from something other than a causal analysis. But from where?

Enter metaphysics. It is no secret that the motivation behind alchemy was never scientific (as we use the term nowadays) but metaphysical. Alchemy is a corollary of Neoplatonic metaphysics. Neoplatonism held to a great chain of being in which all reality emanates from God and ultimately returns to God. The great chain of being is strictly hierarchical so that for any two distinct items in the chain one is higher than the other. Now consider lead and gold. Gold is higher on the chain than lead (lead is a base metal, gold is a precious metal). Moreover, since everything is returning to God, lead is returning to God and on its way to God will pass through gold. Consequently, there is a natural pull for lead to get to gold on its way to God. The alchemist’s task is therefore not to violate nature, but simply to help nature along. All lead needs is a fillip to achieve gold. The modest means by which alchemists hoped to achieve the transformation of lead into gold thus seemed entirely reasonable (no particle accelerators required).

Here, then, is the fallacy in alchemy’s logic. Alchemy relinquishes causal specificity, yet asserts that an unspecified causal process will yield a desired transformation. Lacking causal specificity, the alchemist has no empirical grounds for holding that the desired transformation can be effected. Even so, the alchemist remains convinced that the transformation can be effected because prior metaphysical beliefs ensure that some causal process, though for now unspecified, *must* effect the desired transformation. In short, metaphysics guarantees the transformation even if the empirical evidence is against it.


Alchemy continues to flourish within science. The contemporary form of alchemy goes by the name *emergence*. Whereas classical alchemy was concerned with transforming base into precious metals, emergence is concerned with transforming simple into complex systems. Complex systems are said to emerge from the combination of simple systems. Emergence is a fundamental concept throughout complex systems theory.

Now I don’t want to give the impression that emergence is a disreputable concept. The problem is that the term is easily subject to abuse. Of course its use can be entirely innocent. Consider, for instance, Bernard cell convection. In *Patterns in the Sand* Bossomaier and Green describe this phenomenon as follows: In Bernard cell convection boiling liquid “organises [sic] into columns of hexagonal cells: in some columns liquid travels up from the bottom of the vessel, while in adjacent columns liquid travels down. Just think how extraordinary this is: there are no inherent boundaries in the liquid and these columns have formed spontaneously. Furthermore, they have a clear geometrical shape, again something in no sense obvious from the initial setup” (p. 39).

In Bernard cell convection an unexpected global behavior emerges from the joint action of simple localized effects. No central planning governs the joint action of these simple localized effects. Rather, the unexpected global behavior comes about simply by having the right pieces in place (for Bernard cell convection heating a thin sheet of water in a frying pan on a stove is enough to produce the phenomenon). Emergence in this non-problematic sense occurs in everything from the self-organization of dynamical systems to the self-regulation of ecosystems to the optimization of market economies.

In each of these cases emergence is non-problematic. Why? Because of causal specificity. Bernard cell convection, for instance, happens repeatedly and reliably so long as the appropriate fluid is sufficiently heated in the appropriate vessel. We may not understand what it is about the properties of the fluid that makes it organize itself into hexagonal cells, but the causal antecedents that produce the hexagonal cells are clearly specified. So long as we have causal specificity, emergence is a perfectly legitimate concept.

But what about emergence without causal specificity? Consider, for instance, the origin of life. Throughout complex systems theory, the presumption is that life organized itself through chemical means apart from any designing intelligence. Yet, unlike the causal specificity in Bernard cell convection, complex systems theory has yet to specify the purely chemical pathways that supposedly lead to life.

Take Paul Davies’ most recent book *The Fifth Miracle*. The title is Davies’ idiosyncratic way of referring to the origin of life. When Davies counts up the creation events in the first chapter of Genesis, the fifth of these is the creation of life. Davies claims that we are “a very long way from comprehending” how life originated. “This gulf in understanding is not merely ignorance about certain technical details, it is a major conceptual lacuna…. My personal belief, for what it is worth, is that a fully satisfactory theory of the origin of life demands some radically new ideas” (p. 17). Davies is equally clear, however, where his openness to radical ideas ends: “I am not suggesting that life’s origin was a supernatural event, only that we are missing something very fundamental about the whole business” (p. 17). In particular, Davies is not about to open the door to “religious fundamentalists and their god-of-the-gaps pseudo-explanations” (p. 18).

My own view is that Davies is not being nearly radical enough and that the origin of life can properly be understood only as the product of intelligent design (which, I take, can be formulated to avoid Davies’ charge of religious fundamentalism or god-of-the-gaps pseudo-explanations). Nonetheless, my interest here is in the logic of emergence and how it parallels the logic of alchemy. Emergence, like alchemical transformation, is a relational notion. To say that something emerges is to say what it emerges from. “X emerges” is an incomplete sentence. It needs to be completed by reading “X emerges from Y.” Moreover, the claim that X emerges from Y remains vacuous until one specifies Y.

According to complex systems theory, life emerged from purely physical antecedents unguided by any designing intelligence. Yet in each case, concrete proposals for just what those physical precursors might be are sorely ab ent. Which isn’t to say there haven’t been any proposals whatsoever. RNA worlds, clay templates, hydrothermal vents, and numerous other naturalistic scenarios have all been proposed to account for the emergence of life. Yet none of these scenarios is detailed enough to be seriously criticized or tested. In short, they all lack causal specificity.

Given this lack of causal specificity, what confidence have we that purely physical causes are even up to the task of originating life? If we take seriously the parallel with alchemy, then we should be looking for a prior metaphysical commitment which ensures that purely physical causes, though for now unspecified, *must* effect the desired transformation. In the case of alchemy, the prior metaphysical commitment was Neoplatonism. In the case of emerging complex systems, the prior metaphysical commitment is *naturalism*. Naturalism is the view that purely physical causes undirected by any guiding intelligence govern the world completely. Given naturalism as a prior metaphysical commitment, it follows that life must emerge from purely physical causes. But that commitment, like the alchemists’ commitment to Neoplatonism, is itself dubious.

The origin of life is just one example of emergence without causal specificity. The emergence of consciousness from neurophysiology is another. Still another is the emergence of increasingly complex life forms from simpler life forms (the Darwinian mutation-selection mechanism is supposed to handle this case of emergence, but as I’ve argued in my last two posts for META, it too lacks causal specificity).

The origin of life, the origin of consciousness, and the origin of more complex from simpler life forms are the big open problems facing complexity theory. To assert that these systems emerge from purely physical antecedents subject to no intelligent control is, in the absence of causal specificity, to conflate metaphysics with science (in this case a naturalistic metaphysics). The complexity theorist has no more empirical grounds than an alchemist for holding that a desired transformation can be effected until the relevant causal antecedents for the transformation are spelled out. Causal specificity cannot be redeemed in the coin of metaphysics, be it Neoplatonic or naturalistic.


I’ve devoted the bulk of this essay to drawing a parallel between alchemy and complexity theory. For the big open problems like the origin of life and the origin of consciousness, complexity theory shows the same lack of causal specificity as alchemy. Absent causal specificity, however, complexity theory has no empirical grounds for holding that a desired transformation can be effected. Consequently, if complexity theorists remain convinced that a transformation can be effected absent causal specificity, it is because a prior metaphysical commitment to naturalism ensures that some purely physical process, though for now unspecified, *must* effect the desired transformation. In short, metaphysics guarantees the transformation even if the empirical evidence is against it.

In concluding this essay I want to make clear why this parallel with alchemy poses a stumbling block for complexity theory. The dyed-in-the-wool naturalist sees no problem with the parallel. In reference to the origin of life, the naturalist is apt merely to note that life is here, life wasn’t always here, and so some transformation from non-life to life had to occur. Life has emerged even if we can’t quite spell out the precise causal antecedents for life. The origin of life is a great unsolved problem, and complexity theory is valiantly trying to resolve it. For me to compare the emergence of complex systems with alchemy will therefore strike the naturalist as baseless and mean-spirited.

To see why this charge doesn’t stand up, consider yet again the origin of life. What does it mean to say that life has, as the naturalist claims, emerged from purely physical causes? Because the origin of life is an open problem, the reference to “purely physical causes” lacks causal specificity. At the same time, this reference imposes a hidden restriction. The problem with claiming that life has emerged from purely physical causes is not that it admits ignorance about an unsolved problem, but that it places a hidden restriction on the solution of that problem. Life has emerged from purely physical causes–how do we know that? For instance, how does Richard Dawkins know that life’s origin does not result from a designing intelligence and that the solution to life’s origin is to be sought elsewhere? In general, to hypothesize that X emerges from Y is all fine and well, but until Y is causally specified, it is illegitimate to place restrictions on Y.

In this respect complexity theory is even more to blame than alchemy. Alchemy sought to transform lead into gold, but left open the means by which the transformation could be effected (though in practice alchemists hoped the transformation could be effected through the modest technical means at their disposal). Complexity theory, on the other hand, seeks to transform non-life into life, but–informed as it is by naturalism–excludes any place for intelligence or teleology in the transformation. Such a restriction is utterly gratuitous given complexity theory’s lack of causal specificity in accounting for the origin of life. Perhaps naturalism will eventually be vindicated and the great open problems of complexity theory will submit to purely naturalistic solutions. But in the absence of causal specificity, there is no reason to let naturalism place hidden restrictions on our scientific theorizing. It’s such hidden restrictions, metaphysically motivated and at odds with free scientific inquiry, that have always posed the greatest danger to science.

William A. Dembski