A witch placing a scorpion into a pot in order to make a potion. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The History of Alchemy Can Influence AI and Modern-Day Science

Many of us have heard that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a threat to human civilization, but have you connected it to the history of alchemy? Let’s look into this idea a bit more…

The idea that a machine can perform many tasks that humans have known to master for centuries is a phenomenal breakthrough in technology and science. I believe there is an interesting connection between AI and the human tendency to misuse technology. When there is an advancement of any sort in society, there tends to be a handful of people who either use that advancement to their benefit or misuse it.

Discoveries Throughout History

Scientific discoveries change from time to time and place to place. For example, in the Middle Ages the natural world was predominantly explained religiously. For example, the color of the rose was explained by the theory that God wanted to symbolize Jesus’s blood on the cross, therefore he created roses to be red in color. These types of theological explanations dominated the scientific realm of Europe during the Middle Ages.

When scientific discoveries began in Europe via the exchange with Moorish Spain and Al Andalus, a new movement started in Europe. The Europeans discovered the idea of the scientific method for the first time based on the Islamic practice of alchemy. Islamic alchemical knowledge was standardized in texts that Europeans cited as their reference for their early explorations into Chemistry and scientific experimentation.  For example, Ar-Razi’s book, The Secret of Secrets lays out detailed explanations of physical processes without any theological explanation. Known as Rhazes in Europe, Ar-Razi’s scientific manual is a detailed explanation of the use of salts, earth, sand, and fire to attempt to purify or change the physical substances of different chemicals, particularly metals. The word chemistry and alchemy are both derived from “chem.”

Alchemy and the Muslim World

Many Muslims regard alchemy as a spiritual or mystical practice. Notably, alchemy has been a paradigm of spiritual transformation for as long as it has existed from long before Europe learned it from Muslims. Although physical alchemy practices are deeply rooted in scientific studies, the spiritual side is more esoteric. In Europe this side, the mystical side was relegated to magic and superstition.

I wonder if Europe went through a downfall because they dismissed the core values of alchemy which are rooted in the purification of the self.

In his book, Alchemy of Happiness, Al-Ghazzali speaks about how self-transformation is the route to knowing God which is achieved through the alchemy of the spirit. He says one must be self-aware by looking within oneself and refining oneself in order to know the Divine. This type of spiritual alchemy is implied in Ar-Razi’s Secret of Secrets as well. Although the Muslim books of alchemy highlight the physical aspects, they also include religious correlations such as the processes of purification and distillation.  

I wonder if Europe went through a downfall because they dismissed the core values of alchemy which are rooted in the purification of the self. They transformed science to have no roots of spirituality and also refused to acknowledge the advances the Muslims brought to the world. Conversely, many people say that the downfall of Islamic civilization lay in their rejection of the physical part of science, in preference for the mystical and spiritual part of discovery and exploration.

Alchemy Ties in Science and Self

I believe that for us to fully understand the science of things around us, we need to include the mystical dimensions of life as well as their material component. Science and mysticism need to be reintegrated. After all, with the adaption of AI, we are only focusing on teaching machines to “think” and be more intelligent than humans but what about teaching a machine morals, ethics, and values? Can we hope for AI to engage in moral reasoning in the near future?

The Center for AI Safety states, “Mitigating the risk of extinction from A.I. should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks, such as pandemics and nuclear war.”

Being naive or not having enough knowledge is dangerous! 

Does it occur to scientists and technology experts to correct the mistakes of the past and reunify science with moral reasoning, and the inward quest of the spirit? I believe it should.

Just to make the point more vivid, not understanding things can have severe consequences.  Being naive or not having enough knowledge is dangerous!  Just look at Mickey’s example…

Sarah is a social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor in the San Francisco Bay Area, the traditional land of the Ohlone people. She likes to paint, drum, sing, and spend quality time with her family and God.