Pieter van Laer, Self-Portrait with Magic Scene, 1635–37.

Rules of alchemy

Alchemy can generally be described as letting intuitive thinking utilize technical expertise to achieve extraordinary impact. Intuition is inevitably subjective, which means applying intuitive thinking successfully — without doubt or self-delusion — is a psychological skill. Furthermore, the type of intuition that is impactful will by definition be controversial, which causes its pursuit to appear irrational, and even antisocial. These factors are not obvious to the observer, which causes alchemy to be falsely equated to what is left — technical expertise.

Since as early as the discovery of fire, alchemy drives the capabilities of society, and society regulates it with its carrot and stick for sustainable progress. However, a lot of the time, impostors eat the carrot, and alchemists get beaten to the point of not being able to work.

…Among those who devote themselves to the transmutation of metals, however, there can be no such thing as mediocrity of attainment. A man who studies this Art, must have either everything or nothing. An Alchemist who knows only half his craft, reaps nothing but disappointment and waste of time and money; moreover, he lays himself open to the mockery of those who despise our Art. Those, indeed, who succeed in reaching the goal of the Magistery, have not only infinite riches, but the means of continued life and health. Hence it is the most popular of all human pursuits. Anyone who has read a few “Receipts” claims the title of a Sage, and conceives the most extravagant hopes; and, in order to give themselves the appearance of very wise men indeed, such persons immediately set themselves to construct furnaces, fill their laboratories with stills and alembics, and approach the work with a wonderful appearance of profundity. They adopt an obscure jargon, speak of the first matter of the metals, and discuss with a learned air the rotation of the elements, and the marriage of Gabritius with Bega. In the meantime, however, they do not succeed in bringing about any metamorphosis of the metals, except that of their gold and silver into copper and bronze.

— The Metamorphosis Of Metals, Eirenaeus Philalethes, 1668.

Eirenaeus Philalethes is the pen name of George Starkey. He practiced a sort of a Hermeticist proto-chemistry, embodying both the technical state-of-the-art of its time and a well-structured way to speculate on the unknown. Like most research from its era, his work is mostly pseudoscience. However, his contemplation on the nature of his work is still relevant. Let us discuss his points individually.

Among those who devote themselves to the transmutation of metals, however, there can be no such thing as mediocrity of attainment.

This kind of work is extremely demanding, and there is a very natural reason for this: Things that are easy have already been done, and things are left obscure if they are not easily exploitable. One definition of alchemy is ignoring the low-hanging fruits, and going for the juiciest one at the top.

Then, how come “Let’s go after the low-hanging fruits first” became one of the most common sentences in corporate-speak? Again, the reason is natural: Statistically, the majority of things are mediocre. Mediocre organizations that go after low-hanging fruits survive, and the ones that act otherwise self-select themselves out of business. In this regard, opting out of alchemy is the wise decision.

A man who studies this Art, must have either everything or nothing.

There are mainly two types of strategies, greedy and non-greedy. A greedy strategy makes small and iterative improvements repeatedly until no such improvement is available. On the other hand, a non-greedy strategy attempts to consider all available information at once — see the big picture — to decide on the best course of action (ironically, the non-greedy strategy is greedier, semantically). Greedy algorithms constitute the basis of systems of undeniable impact, such as capitalism, current state-of-the-art AI and Bitcoin.

In this framework, alchemy can be seen as a maximally non-greedy strategy. The aim is to reach the globally optimal outcome, yet there is no partial credit for the problem. Then, why would anyone want to not use the tried-and-true, greedy approach? The common properties of a capitalistic society, a deep learning model or Bitcoin is that they get their power from the scale of their network effects. Scaling brings about mediocrity, which will fail at alchemy. This means that when you’re against the Goliath, being able to resort to alchemy will be your only advantage.

An Alchemist who knows only half his craft, reaps nothing but disappointment and waste of time and money; moreover, he lays himself open to the mockery of those who despise our Art.

A society needs to discourage its members from pursuing alchemy, as it’s a risky strategy that threatens collapse when adopted by the majority. Individuals are compelled to act as instruments of this mechanism, and in civilized societies, they do this by mocking attempts at alchemy (the uncivilized alternative is to “burn the witch”). This is especially interesting because individuals are typically not affected by attempts at alchemy in any meaningful way.

The lesson for the alchemist is that they should be ready to forgo their social standing if they will practice alchemy. In the same vein, if what you’re doing is seeing general acceptance and support, this is a clear sign that your work is not transformative. A respectable alchemist is a paradoxical concept, and a true alchemist at work is indistinguishable from a fool in appearance.

Those, indeed, who succeed in reaching the goal of the Magistery, have not only infinite riches, but the means of continued life and health.

Alchemy is not about material gain, but self-realization. Since value is a social concept, the outcome being financially valuable is the society reconciling with the alchemist. After all, the society only mocked the attempt at alchemy because of the concern that it was wasting valuable resources on a pointless endeavor.

Hence it is the most popular of all human pursuits.

Just as society hates alchemy, individuals — some more so than others — desire to pursue it. Any kind of informed speculation can be seen as a form of alchemy. The guy that buys the dog coin of the month does this to satisfy his alchemical urges, and receives a good amount of deserved mockery for it. Society will tell him “Nobody gets rich buying dog coins,” but what is actually meant is “Everything will go to ruin if we all buy dog coins.” We know for a fact that some people have to have become rich that way, and are currently being treated as the vindicated alchemist.

I do not mean to say that alchemy is always a zero-sum, luck-of-the-draw game. In fact, all leaps in human achievement are owed to alchemy. The example above is just to show that alchemy is not something rare. We all dabble in it to some extent, which is why it’s important to understand it.

Anyone who has read a few “Receipts” claims the title of a Sage, and conceives the most extravagant hopes; and, in order to give themselves the appearance of very wise men indeed, such persons immediately set themselves to construct furnaces, fill their laboratories with stills and alembics, and approach the work with a wonderful appearance of profundity. They adopt an obscure jargon, speak of the first matter of the metals, and discuss with a learned air the rotation of the elements, and the marriage of Gabritius with Bega. In the meantime, however, they do not succeed in bringing about any metamorphosis of the metals, except that of their gold and silver into copper and bronze.

Alchemy is the pursuit of the unknown truth. Unlike most other things, its results can’t be constructed by society. We can’t pass a law that turns lead into gold, someone has to discover the (supposed) exact formula to achieve that. Then, the appearance of the work is irrelevant. There are two lessons to draw here: (1) Alchemy is difficult enough. If you are certain, do not care about what society thinks. (2) If an alchemist is putting on a show, leaning on reputation and social credit, their intentions are likely not pure.

An important final note: I’m not glorifying alchemy. It’s far too easy to delude oneself into thinking that they are on a meaningful and fruitful path, while what they are doing is actually nonsense. Even when on the right path, giving up too early, or more tragically, not being qualified, will result in being left empty-handed. The most important intuition for success is what to do and when to stop, and this can only be obtained by calibrating based on past failure. Then, do not pursue alchemy expecting success or recognition. Coming to terms with this is the first step of real work.

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