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The Philosopher’s Stone by Bryan Vining in Guest Articles

Guest Blog

We all bring certain pre-conceived notions into any conversation. The story of the Philosopher’s Stone shows how this applies to one of the roots of modern scientific method, but it is a quick extension to see that it applies to all knowledge-seeking and, indeed, to all knowing.

Science can tell us many fascinating things about this plane in which we live, and it can provide amazing, awe-inspiring insights as well. It has a great deal to offer the mystic and the seeker of knowledge. However, it has gaps. There are places that science has not yet been able to look, and we can only hope that in the future it will be able to take in a broader scope. Still, the scientific method has its advantages, and it gives us information that we might not come across so quickly any other way. These gaps, though, inevitably get filled in one way or another. This “filling in” is the truly interesting part because it is where science itself is shaped by our pre-existing beliefs about and conceptions of reality.

The earliest roots of today’s modern scientific method began with the alchemists. Certainly, scientific thinking existed before that, including formal scientific thought, but the system in place today can be traced back to the practitioners of this more ancient system of inquiry. Then, as with today’s scientists, the practitioners of alchemy ran the gamut from those who were purely interested in its practical application to those who were interested in its mystical implications. Amongst the many goals of alchemy, the most famous and well-known is the search for the Philosopher’s Stone, a substance (not necessarily a stone) that would key to the transmutation of base metals (typically lead) into gold. Lacking our modern understanding of atoms and subatomic particles and nuclear physics, this goal seemed entirely appropriate and reasonable. It is well that it was so; without this goal (and others) that today seem somewhat silly, the modern practice of science might well never have come into place. The truly important part of this search was not the end goal. It was the willingness (and, indeed, eagerness) with which individuals would step into the void of the unknown and attempt to have a look, even while risking their lives in the process.

The real significance of all this for the seeker of knowledge, though, is that a belief, namely that lead could be transmuted into gold, drove scientific inquiry and the gathering of knowledge in general. This knowledge, then, fed back to influence the beliefs of future practitioners, setting up a cycle where, over time, the inquiries made (i.e., the experiments tried) were influenced by the discoveries of the past AND THE INTERPRETATIONS THEREOF. This last bit regarding interpretations is where I am especially wishing to draw attention because it exposes so nicely the interplay between beliefs and scientific inquiry in both directions. The output of any scientific inquiry is information that must be interpreted. It is in the interpretation that the fun exists. We need only observe the history of the development of quantum theory to realize that as much as possible, scientists try to shove whatever information exists into the existing picture of reality. It is only when they cannot do so that true progress is made. Relativity theory was another such case. Nineteenth century physicists wanted light to propogate through something, so it had to be there, even though it could not be detected and some experiments did not agree with this idea. Happily, Einstein was free enough in his thinking to look at things another way. So, too, with Planck. Thankfully, when the weight of evidence shows the true nature of reality, the scientist will follow; however, things could perhaps progress quicker were not so much evidence required every time. The concept of the Philosopher’s Stone survived into the early 20th century, when the evidence obtained from nuclear physics was finally enough to make it clear that while we could indeed transmute lead (or other metals, for that matter) into gold, it was hardly worth the effort.

So the Philosopher’s Stone does exist. It’s a particle accelerator. That’s not what anyone expected, but it has its own beauty. The parallels are there today. The most obvious one is dark matter. The existing physical models demand that nine times more mass exist than we have found. Thus is dark matter born. It must be there, it is said by the conventionalists. It’s just that we cannot see it. Perhaps they are correct. Or, perhaps, the model is not correct yet. As with the Philosopher’s Stone, it is not the end goal that matters. Whether we find dark matter or something else is not half as important that we keep looking. Of course, we might get an answer quicker if we were open to changing the model. True progress woulud be to change the model of model-making.

The sooner we realize that all of us believe in things and these beliefs affect the questions we ask and the answers we formulate, the sooner the whole question asking process becomes more effective. And, while I’ve spent this article talking about science, the point is valid for all questions of all natures. Whether you wish to ask if there is dark matter or if there is a God (or several gods, for that matter), the sooner you realize what prejudices and pre-conceptions you bring to the question, the sooner you will find a useful answer. You will inevitably take those answers and draw conclusions from them (else, what was the point of asking?), and, when you do, the more aware you are of how your own viewpoint affects those interpretations, the more meaninful they will be.

Bryan Vining
Guest Blogger
Dragon Intuitive


Bryan Vining blogs on The Philosophy of Science. A blog that reminds us that science is a branch of philosophy, with all that it entails. Especially interested in the “hidden” assumptions made by scientists and the connections of scientific conclusions to the larger philosophical framework, Bryan sheds light on all these issues and more.

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