Fragments: “The Fragmentation of Renaissance Occultism”

“Newton was by no means the only natural philosopher who had drawn upon magical traditions. Indeed, Newton’s own interest in various magical traditions can best be understood by locating it within a late-Renaissance movement to reform natural philosophy by paying closer attention to various magical or occult traditions.

Although it is now (at last) diminishing, there is still enormous resistance among the more positivist philosophers and historians of science to any suggestion that magic might have been instrumental in the emergence of modern science. It is remarkable, for example, that the authors of two recent books on the role of alchemy in the Scientific Revolution, one introductory and the other advanced, both felt the need to justify the claims they were making on behalf of alchemy because of its ‘associations with magic and the occult’. For the most part, the arguments against the possible influence of magic on science are presented a priori, while the historical evidence is simply ignored. So, magic is characterized as irrational and its influence upon a supremely rational pursuit like modern science is easily dismissed as inherently implausible. Similarly, magic is said to be concerned with the supernatural and therefore could only be antithetical to mankind’s heroic intellectual endeavour to explain phenomena in entirely naturalistic terms. What is particularly unfortunate about this approach is that, by dismissing magic at the outset, it fails to put any effort into understanding the nature and significance of magic in the pre-modern and early modern periods. But this ahistorical approach is intellectual chauvinism of the most arrogant kind, and the result is undoubtedly a diminishing of our understanding of the origins of modern science. To carry on in this vein is to repeat the errors of Sir David Brewster, Isaac Newton’s first biographer. Taking  the opportunity to scrutinize Newton’s manuscript remains, Brewster soon came across the huge mass of alchemical manuscripts. His appalled response is well known:

… we cannot understand how a mind of such power, and so nobly occupied with the abstractions of geometry, and the study of the material world, could stoop to be even the copyist of the most contemptible alchemical poetry, and the annotator of a work, the obvious production of a fool and a knave.

When seen in the light of Brewster’s overwhelming admiration for Newton this is highly significant. An observer might have expected that Brewster would be led by his otherwise slavish veneration for his great forebear [sic] to conclude that, if Newton was so interested in alchemy, then there must have been something in it. But no, evidently Brewster’s conviction that alchemy was worthless rubbish outweighed even his awe of Newton’s genius.

It seems perfectly clear that something recognizably like modern science first emerged as a direct result of the absorption of various aspects of the magical tradition into traditional contemplative natural philosophy.”

Henry, John. 2012. “The Fragmentation of Renaissance Occultism and the Decline of Magic“ in Religion, Magic, and the Origins of Science in Early Modern England. (Surrey: Ashgate) 4-7.

Fragment: Primitive Culture, Spiritualism and “The Philosophy of Savages”

“The Received Spiritualistic theory belongs to the philosophy of savages. As to such matters as apparitions or possessions, this is obvious; and it holds in more extreme cases. Suppose a wild North American Indian looking on at a spirit-séance in London. As to the presence of disembodied spirits, manifesting themselves by raps, noises, voices, and other physical actions, the savage would be perfectly at home in the proceedings; for such things are part and parcel of his recognized system of Nature. The part of the affair really strange to him would be the introduction of such arts as spelling and writings, which do belong to a different state of civilization from his. The issue raised by the comparison of savage, barbaric, and civilized Spiritualism, is this: — Do the Red Indian medicine-man, the Tartar necromancer, the Highland ghost-seer, and the Boston medium, share the possession of belief and knowledge of the highest truth and import, which, nevertheless, the greatest intellectual movement of the last two centuries has simply thrown aside as worthless? Is what we are habitually boasting of, and calling new enlightenment, then, in fact, a decay of knowledge? If so, this is a truly remarkable case of degeneration; and the savages whom some Ethnographers look on as degenerate from a higher civilization, may turn on their accusers, and charge them with having fallen from the high level of savage knowledge.”

Edward Burnett Tylor (1871). Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom, Vol 1. p. 141.

Fragment: Guard Your Daughters!

“It gives me great pain to tell you I believe he is a thoroughly unreliable witness. (laughter). I do not for one moment dispute his honesty of intention, but I say he is not fit to give evidence on this occasion. A question of evidence requires examination. A man should be thoroughly unprejudiced. I am afraid my friend does not come up to that standard. (laughter) Some years ago I was a witness of some of these performances. I knew one of the media, and it so happens everyone of these persons referred to have been females. (Laughter.) I say that these young girls—Professor Barrett’s young girls—my friend’s young girls—and these other young girls-I say they are not proper persons on whom to base great superstructures such as these. (Laughter and hisses.) May I mention another thing? Did anyone ever investigate hysteria- I speak to fathers and mother’s brothers and sisters. (Laughter.) I may say, as another fact, I am the parent of fourteen children—(roars of laughter)—and I say it is a most dangerous thing to bring these mesmeric experiences into a region like that, and I had to guard with great jealousy and great care my own daughters, or they would have been media.”

Rev. Dr. McIlwaine, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of science, 1876.

Banksy: Vortex of the Zeitgeist


“The thing I hate the most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists. Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little. ~Banksy.

As someone who sometimes has trouble in malls and grocery stores because of what I can only begin to describe as a kind of semiotic agoraphobia, I have found a great deal to appreciate in the artistic devices and proclamations of the British artist known only as Banksy. His talent for revealing the links between graffiti and advertizing, what they imply about the public use of space, of symbols, of human attention, of the powers at play in the way these things are shaped, will no doubt make him stand out as one of our generations’ most notable contributions to art history.

I may be wrong here, but I’ve always felt that much modern art, despite the highly erudite and supposedly subversive messages contained within it, has had an overall conservative, reactionary, and culturally stagnating effect. This, while holding itself with the same smug sense of self-satisfaction, singed in the fires of righteous indignation, reserved for the avant-garde and radical. If you have to have the money, time and other support structures required to go to art school for four or more years just to have a positive emotional response to two blue stripes separated by a red one (i.e. Voice of Fire, by Barnett Newman), it’s probably not as radical as you suspect.

In the 1950s and 60s, the CIA covertly funded such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. This is not to say that the artists involved knew of, or would have approved of, this support, but only that abstract expressionism, and its equally abstract descendants, can and have also served conservatism and nationalistic propaganda.

It is important to keep in mind that things are never inherently radical or conservative though, that these are not properties essential to the work of art itself; they change overtime, from place to place and person to person. Yet it does seem that we live in a context were individuals frequently find themselves confronted with heavily restricted and shepherded hermeneutic resources, be they in the form of advertizements telling us how to interpret products or scientific and political developments, the import of which are fed to us through “talking head” commentators. Within this context art that requires artists to tell us how “high” art is to be appreciated and set apart from “low brow” art, or those things merely produced by illustrators, hardly seems to stand in contrast to the reactionary and conservative interests of the current age.

In the highly stylized yet realistic climate of soviet art, Voice of Fire would have been truly a revolutionary act and a powerful political commentary. Yet it made its first public appearance in America alongside an Apollo space capsule, red-and-white striped Apollo parachutes, photographs of the moon and images of movie stars.

I’ve commented in a previous post about the culture of advertizing and what I feel are some of its effects on the human psyche, and what can be done about it. In a much more immediate sense, on the ground and in the streets, I believe Banksy has shown how graffiti is another valuable player in the conductorless orchestra of semiotic resistance.

And for this, I am grateful.






Banksy: Armoured Peace Dove

Armoured Peace Dove, West Bank.

“Joseph and Mary making their way toward Bethlehem, only to find their route blocked by the Israeli West Bank barrier.”

For More Information:


Featured bottom right, “Irony”.

The Beautiful Knowledge of Ida Craddock

What does Aleister Crowley have in common with the suffragette movement of the nineteenth century? Understandably, one could have trouble with this question. Yet one intriguing answer can be found in the works of the free thinker, free speech advocate and early agitator for women’s rights, Ida Craddock (1857-1902).

Craddock infamously crossed swords with the giant of nineteenth century American censorship, Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), who bragged that he had personally driven at least 15 people, including Craddock, to suicide in what he called his “fight for the young”, and as a self-described “weeder in God’s garden”. Now seen as more of a valiant defender of free speech and women’s rights instead of just as a  victim of Comstock’s violent crusade, Craddock was also an early western defender of belly dancing, writing a fiery defence of the performance of the group Little Egypt, which was presented at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.

She was also actively engaged in a range of occult matters, associating herself with the Theosophical Society, describing herself as a Priestess and Pastor of the Church of Yoga. Craddock taught correspondence courses to women and couples on the sacred nature of sex for its own sake. More publicly, she wrote pamphlets, articles and books on the subject in order to prevent “sexual evils and sufferings” (which is what attracted Comstock’s ire). Ostensibly single all of her life, she described her active sexual relationship with an angelic being (sometimes a spirit) named “Soph”, who she claimed taught her many things about sacred sexuality (and in whose embrace she was said to be so vocally excited as to give the neighbours some cause to complain of the noise).

Defending the existence of her spiritual lover, Craddock would explore the history of erotic relationships between humans and angels, spirits, incubi, succubi and other creatures from ancient times to her present day, presenting the result of her labours partly in her work Heavenly Bridegrooms.

In 1902, Craddock was arrested under New York’s anti-obscenity laws and was scheduled to be incarcerated. She wrote two suicide notes, one public and one for her mother (who had already attempted and failed to get her institutionalized). In her public note, she began:

I am taking my life, because a judge, at the instigation of Anthony Comstock, has decreed me guilty of a crime which I did not commit–the circulation of obscene literature–and has announced his intention of consigning me to prison for a long term.

She concluded the note with a public appeal to protect her written work, which I think it is fitting to produce verbatim here:

I earnestly hope that the American public will awaken to a sense of the danger which threatens it from Comstockism, and that it will demand that Mr. Comstock shall no longer be permitted to suppress works on sexology. The American people have a right to seek and to obtain knowledge upon right living in the marriage relation, either orally or in print, without molestation by this paid informer, Anthony Comstock, or by anybody else.

Dear fellow-citizens of America, for nine long years I have faced social ostracism, poverty, and the dangers of persecution by Anthony Comstock for your sakes. I had a beautiful gospel of right living in the marriage relation, which I wanted you to share with me. For your sakes, I have struggled along in the face of great odds; for your sakes I have come at last to the place where I must lay down my life for you, either in prison or out of prison. Will you not do something for me now?

Well, this is what I want the American public to do for me. Only one of my books, that on “The Wedding Night,” is at present under legal ban. “Right Marital Living,” which is by far the more important book of the two, and which contains the gist of my teachings, has not yet been indicted. Mr. Comstock, however, told me, when arresting me, that he expected to get both books indicted. If sufficient of a popular demand be made for this book, and especially if the demand voice itself in the public press, he will not dare to attack the book in the courts. Will you do this one thing for me, those of you who have public influence? Remember, it is for you and for your children that I have fought this nine-years’ fight. And although I am going to a brighter and a happier land, nevertheless, I shall still look down upon you all here, and long and long and long that you may know something of the radiantly happy and holy life which is possible fore every married couple who will practice these teachings. Even in Paradise I cannot be as happy as I might, unless you share with me this beautiful knowledge.

I beg of you, for your own sakes, and for the future happiness of the young people who are dear to you, to protect my little book, “Right Marital Living.”

To her mother, Craddock wrote that she would refuse to for to the asylum, but that she loved here and should not grieve her passing, for:

the world beyond the grave, believe me, is far more real and substantial than is this world in which we to-day live. This earth life which the Hindoos have for centuries termed “Maya,” that is illusion. My people assure me that theirs is the real, the objective, the material world. Ours is the lopsided, the incomplete world.

And concluded by reminding her:

Dear, dear mother, please remember that I love you, and that I shall always love you. Even if you get fantastic communications from the border land, remember that the real Ida is not going there.

The real Ida, your own daughter, loves you and waits for you to come soon over to join her in the beautiful blessed world beyond the grave, where Anthony Comstocks and corrupt judges and impure-minded people are not known. We shall be very happy together some day, you and I, dear mother; there will be a blessed reality for us both at last. I love you, dear mother; never forget that. And love cannot die; it is no dream, it is a reality. We shall be the individuals over there that we are here, only with enlarged capacities. Goodbye, dear mother, if only for a little while. I love you always. I shall never forget you, that would be impossible; nor could you ever forget me. Do not think the next world an unsubstantial dream; it is material, as much so as this; more so than this. We shall meet there, dear mother. Your affectionate daughter,

Ida C. Craddock

On October 16th 1902, Ida Craddock committed suicide, apparently by slashing her wrists and inhaling natural gas.

And this is where Crowley comes into this.  After Craddock’s death he wrote a positive review of her “Heavenly Bridegrooms” in his periodical Equinox, claiming that it was:

one of the most remarkable human documents ever produced, and it should certainly find a regular publisher in book form. The authoress of the MS. claims that she was the wife of an angel. She expounds at the greatest length the philosophy connected with this thesis. Her learning is enormous. […] This book is of incalculable value to every student of occult matters. No Magick library is complete without it.

While Crowley was “The Beast”, and was certainly no feminist by nineteenth century, let alone contemporary standards, he was no Comstock either, and appears to have greatly valued Craddock’s contribution to occult literature and her beautiful knowledge.

For More Information:

Some of Craddock’s writing, including her public and private suicide notes: “Anthony Comstock and the Death of Ida Craddock”

Chappell, Vere. 2010. Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic: The Essential Ida Craddock. Newburyport: Weiser Books. (By the sounds of it, an interesting mix of Craddock’s own writings and biographical analysis)

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. 2010. Heaven’s bride: the Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman. New York: Basic Books.

Zirco Circus and Ultraviolet Detours

Often playfully macabre, theatrical, and possessing an impressive and creative dedication to all the possibilities of black light, I first met James “Zirco” Fisher at the Bazaar of the Bizarre where he was promoting a number of his diverse projects. Aside from being a part of the dark ambient group “Squid Lid”, Zirco Fisher also does an array of illustrations including his “Disfigures of Speech” series, one of which is shown below:

Whether DJing or performing their own work, Squid Lid’s shows are a sight to see, for throughout they constantly change up their fantastical, black light costumes to things ever more outre and strange.

Which brings me to the second topic of this post. Black light, or ultraviolet light was discovered by Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776-1810) in 1801 Ritter, an acquaintance of such figures as Goethe, Alexander von Humboldt, Herder and Schelling, was part of the early naturphilosophie movement in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Like several naturphilosophen, he held that a base principle of nature was that of polarities. The discovery of infrared light had been announced in 1800 by the British astronomer William Herschel, and Ritter reasoned that there must be something on the other side of the spectrum, and went about devising elaborate means of detecting it.

Ritter was also infamous for his tendency to perform often excruciating electrical experiments on almost every tissue of his own body, but that is a story for another day.

For More Information:

Lyell, Analogy and the Distancing of Geology from Cosmology

While for contemporary readers the reason may not be so readily apparent, in Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology he needed to insist that geology was something other than cosmogony as the very precondition for his attempts to persuade his readers of the three main premises of his work, namely: Actualism, the view that the same kind of causes have been at work at all times in history, Uniformitarianism, that they have also been operating at the same intensity and the existence of a closed, self-sustaining, system in which these forces act.

Having previously stated that “[g]eology is intimately related to almost all the physical science, as is history to the moral”, he then proceeds to distance it from other modes of knowing for “just as the limits of history, poetry and mythology were ill-defined in the infancy of civilization” so too were the limits of geology in his own time. This is of some note, for where Lyell sets his boundaries will greatly affect his ability to present his point.

Take, for instance, his statement that when we inquire “into the state of the earth and its inhabitance at former periods, we acquire a more perfect knowledge of its present condition” which demonstrates both his Actualism and his Uniformitarianism. If the concept of cosmogony were permitted to encroach on geology then this statement would have been made much more problematic for him, for any inquiry into the beginning of things generally either posits a definitive beginning (in which there was some fundamental change in the structure of causality) or else accept that the universe was cyclical (which he goes to great length to disprove in the second and third chapter of this work, attributing this position in part to an early misunderstanding by pagan religions of the presence of fossilized animals). True, there are many other potential conditions, and the concept of a purely infinite cosmos which is not cyclical, is not addressed, however these were the two alternatives that he wished to specifically avoid in his geological researches.

It is telling to note how closely his explanation for the primitive belief in a cyclical cosmos reflects his opposition to the Neptunist doctrine of catastrophic floods. He uses both pagan and Christian examples to point out the psychological origins of catastrophic thinking, which resonates with his previous analogy of the relationship between geology and history. He states that “[t]he connexion [sic] between the doctrine of successive catastrophes and repeated deteriorations in the moral character of the human race, is more intimate and natural than might at first be imagined”, making reference to the Chilean earthquake of 1822, and those Catholics who attributed it to God’s displeasure. Through this comparison, he argues the existence of Pagan and Catholic misunderstandings of nature as being the basis for his Neptunist opponents’ position.

Lyell’s dependency on analogies, the same analogies which allow him to distance himself from his detractors, also rests on the separation of cosmogony from the true object of his study, as can be seen in his discussion of the relationship between history and geology. Near the end of the first chapter he promises that he will “attempt in the sequel of this work to demonstrate that geology differs as widely from cosmogony, as speculations concerning the creation of man differ from history”. Both history, in the sense that Lyell means, as the history of civilization, and geology cease being recognizable disciplines when they are drawn back far enough into the past. Thus as prehistory is to the history of civilization, so too is cosmogony to geology; it is a paradigm shift whose transgression eclipses the purpose of its original study. For the purpose of Lyell’s project it does not matter how ancient the earth is, as long as we do not begin at the very beginning we can assume a certain consistency and therefore draw conclusions (which indeed, may not be possible in any other fashion). This is particularly evident in his comments on human history, in which he states that we can:

“trace the long series of events which have gradually led to the actual posture of affairs; and by connecting effects with their causes, we are enabled to classify and retain in the memory a multitude of complicated relations […], which, without historical associations, would be uninteresting or imperfectly understood.”

Without the ability to trace these “historical associations” through a consistent, though finite, chain of cause and effect his argument is made lame by its lack of causal and historical certainty, yet this uncertainty is exactly what cosmogony would throw into Lyell’s geography if he were to accept it as part of his study. How could the ultimate origins of the earth be explained by geology without the possibility of a frightful regression into an endless chain of causality, or else without the need for a transcendent principle acting beyond the commonly understood order of cause and effect?

Thus Lyell’s need to amputate cosmogony from geology demonstrates a persistent paradox in the nature of the historical sciences. This is particularly so in the case of geology which depends on an understanding of secondary causes (or an indirect approach to causality) to demonstrate its validity: In order for the science to explain things with some universality, as Lyell insists is necessary, it must limit itself to a finite subject whose very finitude makes the historical associations mentioned in the preceding quotation possible. Thus there is an interesting and potentially paradoxical concern that if we wish to be able to say anything universal it can not take as its object that which is actually universal, such as the beginning of things.

However, is it so important to “amputate” cosmogony in Lyell’s scheme, considering that the scientific and rhetorical basis of his arguments are so strong? Yet it must necessarily be of the greatest importance. It is striking that the chapters refuting geology’s difference from cosmogony were left out of the Weber anthology on this subject. They constitute Lyell’s efforts to sweep the slate clean of “the most common and serious source of confusion” in early geology. He does this in order to firmly root his hypothesis in what he sees as more empirical soil, but which has its own implications outside of this particular project.

To play the devil’s advocate, could it not be said that Lyell’s need for a closed, self-sustaining system would necessarily benefit from admitting cosmogony into the scheme of geology? If he were only trying to demonstrate the self-sufficiency of the closed system this would have been the case; however, here we again come up against the demands of Actualism and the Uniformitarianism placed by Lyell on his geology.

Ultimately then, in order for Lyell’s project to succeed he needed to separate the definite science of geology from the indefinite results of cosmogony. Whereas the one would leave him no starting point from which to draw his other conclusions, the other allowed him a freedom to demonstrate the consistency of causes on this earth, without having to resort to explanations beyond or behind its origins. It is in its way another example of the trend in the nineteenth century towards increased specialization, in which disciplines were further subdivide in order than anything might be known with certainty about the particulars of nature. The problem after Lyell would then not be a matter of separation, but one of consolidation.

For More Information:

Lyell, Charles. Principles of Geology. London: John Murray, 1830.

(Accessed online at ESP: Electronic Scholarly Publishing:

Weber, A.S. Ed. 19th Century Science: An Anthology. Canada: Broadview Press Ltd, 2000.

Life from the Unliving

“I shall never forget the sight. The vessel of crystallization was three-quarters full of slightly muddy water — that is, dilute water-glass — and from the sandy bottom there strove upwards a grotesque little landscape of variously coloured growths: a confused vegetation of blue, green, and brown shoots which reminded one of algae, mushrooms, attached polyps, also moss, then mussels, fruit pods, little trees or twigs from trees, here and there of limbs. It was the most remarkable sight I ever saw, and remarkable not so much for its appearance, strange and amazing though that was, as on account of its profoundly melancholy nature. For when Father Leverkühn asked us what we thought of it and we timidly answered him that they might be plants: ‘No’, he replied, ‘they are not, they only act that way. But do not think the less of them. Precisely because they do, because they try to as hard as they can, they are worthy of all respect’. It turned out that these growths were entirely unorganic in their origin; they existed by virtue of chemicals from the apothecary’s shop, the ‘Blessed Messengers’. Before pouring the waterglass, Jonathan had sprinkled the sand at the bottom with various crystals; if I mistake not potassium chromate and sulphate of copper. From this sowing, as the result of a physical process called ‘Osmotic pressure’, there sprang the pathetic crop for which their producer at once and urgently claimed our sympathy. He showed us that these pathetic imitations of life were light-seeking, heliotropic, as science calls it. He exposed the aquarium to the sunlight, shading three sides against it, and behold, toward that one pane through which the light fell, thither straightway slanted the whole equivocal kith and kin: mushrooms, phallic polyp-stalks, little trees, algae, half-formed limbs. Indeed, they so yearned after warmth and joy that they clung to the pane and stuck fast there. ‘And even so they are dead’, said Jonathan, and tears came in his eyes, while Adrian, as of course I saw, was shaken with suppressed laughter. For my part, I must leave it to the reader’s judgment whether that sort of thing is matter for laughter or tears.”

This passage, in Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend, by the novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955) features the work of the French biologist Stéphane Leduc (1853–1939), who attempted to show, with his artificial life, the chemical basis of development and growth through the processes of osmosis and diffusion. In her book Making Sense of Life the philosopher of science, Evelyn Fox Keller (1936-present) dedicates a considerable portion of her first chapter to a study of Leduc’s synthetic biology in an exploration of what it means to understand organisms, as opposed to other aspects of nature.

Unlike physicists, Keller observes, biologists do not look for a “theory of everything”, strictly speaking, for:

“Just as the diversity of life, rather than its unity, has historically commanded the respect of life scientists, so too, [she proposes], the epistemological diversity of their aspirations demands our respect as historians and philosophers of science.”

This epistemic shift places a much greater emphasis on the role of description in explanation, leading Keller to conclude that:

“A description of a phenomenon counts as an explanation, I argue, if an only if it meets the needs of an individual or community. The challenge, therefore, is to understand the needs that different kinds of explanations meet.”

Since needs vary by time and place, so too do the explanatory terms that are seen to address them. “Theory”, “knowledge”, “understanding” are such fluid, historically contradictory terms, and their fluidity emerges, in part because:

“As evolutionary beings, there is some extent to which it can not make sense in its entirety.”

These observations place a much greater emphasis on analogical, metaphorical thinking, even while undermining traditional claims to the kinds of understanding they can potentially lead us to. In my previous post on the role of analogical reasoning in Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s study of microorganisms, I pointed out some of the ways in which it helped Leeuwenhoek come to terms with, and develop a working knowledge of, his microscopic observations, while at the same time, by contemporary standards, led him to draw erroneous, though understandable conclusions about the life processes of the creatures he was studying. Synthetic life, based, as it is, on an emphasis on the continuity between the organic and inorganic worlds, is another area that lends itself well to these kinds of considerations.

Whether seen in reductionistic or vitalistic terms, crystallization in particular, and the formation of minerals in the earth in general has a very ancient connection with living matter in western thought. Ancient and medieval alchemy was premised, in part, on the thought that metals gestated in the earth, and had a kind life, could be killed, and reborn in the alchemical furnace.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and other early modern alchemists were particularly taken by “the vegetation of metals”, chemical phenomena such as the “Tree of Diana”, Arbor Diana, a dendritic amalgam of crystallized silver, created from mercury in a solution of silver nitrate.

Johann Christian Reil (1759–1813), who coined the term psychiatry in 1808, used crystallization as a powerful metaphor in his attempts to show how knowable forces could be responsible for the existence of life, while later naturphilosophen would use it to demonstrate the vitality of all of existence, the symmetries between the human and the natural worlds, and thereby the efficacy of using analogy, metaphor and introspection in their attempts to understand it.

In 1836, Andrew Cross (1784-1855) a British electrical experimentalist claimed to have produced insects through a process of electrocrystalization and presented his findings in Bristol at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. While not the inspiration for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as is commonly believed, (Frankenstein was written in 1818) it did serve as evidence for the self-organization of life in Robert Chambers’ best selling and controversial work, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published in 1844. The self-organization of nature, whether found in evolutionary or nebular theories, was considered a particularly dangerous concept in England during the 1830s and 40s because of its political connotations for the self-organization of society, instead of a top down model in which a supreme ruler, i.e. God, governed absolutely. Because of the potentially damning political consequences, Chambers chose to remain anonymous for his entire life, but his work is now credited with making evolutionary theories acceptable to the British middle class, creating an environment in which Darwin, having agonized over whether or not to publish his view for almost twenty years, could present them with far less chance of legal action being taken against him.

In an interesting way appeals to analogical or metaphorical reasoning, with all of it’s promises and pitfalls, does seem to consistently undermine established political and epistemic structures, and in some ways is to explanation what the Protestant Reformation was to Christianity, a leveling of authority as each observer is given a new sense of confidence in the validity of their own observations, no matter how seemingly aberrant.

And as for the consequences this has for the creation of living or, semi-living things? Strange, one can only hope.

For More Information:

Keller, Evelyn Fox. 2002. Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors and Machines. Cambridge: Harvard University.

Mann, Thomas. 1948. Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend. New York: A.A. Knopf.

strand beast:

Kick Starter, Brit Cruise and Connections, Old and New

In 1978 the British series Connections presented a non-linear, non-teleological view of technological change and development. The series starred the historian of science James Burke. A dynamic speaker, and witty in that particularly British short of way, Burke led audiences from touch stones to atomic bombs, from stirrups to telecommunications, and from monasteries to modern assembly lines. As he did so, he showed the extreme contingency, and indirect paths taken by innovation and discovery in which more often than not greed, religion, accident or warfare led to the development of ideas and devices capable of being used in radically different ways than could have been expected from their originally intended use. The series was so popular that it spawned another run in 1994 and 1998. It was also an early and popular venue for Burke to explore the ideas of Thomas Kuhn and other theorists of technoscientific change, something that I’ve not seen a great deal of in the past decade.

I was thus greatly enthused to learn that Brit Cruise, a filmmaker from British Columbia, was attempting to find backing and support for a new series of shows dedicated to applying “the template behind the TV show Connections to concepts instead of inventions”, exploring:

the roots of great conceptual ideas by following the history of problems from which they arose. Each episode will follow one ancient problem and explore how it reoccurs again and again in more modern forms. This allows us to follow conceptual ideas along the context of their inception – making it easier to digest challenging theoretical ideas.

The great thing about Kick Starter as a form of microfinance is that it allows almost anyone to help fund and support ideas that they believe in, and connects the widest possible array of dreamers and schemers with people who could help them get their projects off the ground. While documenting each stage of the production for his supporters, Brit also provides valuable insights into his working methods and helps to show how others could see their own ideas reach full fruition through the various new sources of funding and development opening up to independent creative talent around the world. I look forward to being able to continue watching his progress as he continues to develop the series.

For More Information:

Brit Cruise’s Kick Starter page:


And “The Making of” Blog:

God of Hutton, God of Kelvin: Religion, Eternity and the Age of the Earth

The debate between William Thomson, who would later be ennobled as Lord Kelvin (1824 –1907) and the followers of James Hutton (1726–1797) demonstrates a difficult period in the history of nineteenth century science in which the figures who are traditionally regarded as the fathers of modern geology (Hutton) and biology (Darwin) where pitted against Lord Kelvin, who is still considered one of the founding fathers of thermodynamics, and thus of modern physics. The point which brought these figures into conflict was the argument surrounding the age of the earth. Hutton’s and Kelvin’s methodologies were in some ways very similar, particularly in their views on the uniformity of nature and the demand for evidence of a beneficent being who created the natural world. Furthermore, both were forced to appeal to secondary causes when trying to defend their positions. Where they differed substantially was in their understanding of eternity in the larger framework of how the creator expressed himself in the world and how this related to the human ability to understand it.

It would be too easy to phrase the debate between Kelvin and the geologists as a conflict between empirical evidence and religious prejudices in nineteenth century science. Indeed, Kelvin himself gave ample evidence that he worried about the theological implications of the geological and evolutionary theories of his time. In an 1872 speech to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Kelvin concluded his discussion with a reaffirmation of these worries in the “zoological speculations” of contemporary biologists, stating that: “Overpoweringly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie around us […] showing to us through nature the influence of a free will, and teaching us that all living things depend on one everlasting Creator and Ruler”. Presumably, Kelvin felt that the vast time scales proposed by Hutton, Lyell and Darwin would remove the need for a creator in the universe and infringe on the free will of humans.

Yet in this assumption we are all too quick to ignore the unorthodox religious views which led Hutton to formulate his self perpetuating “world machine”. As laid down by one of his more eloquent proponents, John Playfair (1748–1819), this perpetuity is ultimately maintained by God, for the author of nature: “has not given laws to the universe, which, like the institutions of men, carry in themselves the elements of their own destruction. He has not permitted in His works any symptoms of infancy, or of old age, or any sign by which we may estimate either their future or their past duration”. The world had obviously been created for the benefit of the things living upon it and for human beings in particular, and it would not have been fitting for a wise and omnipotent being to create it as anything other than eternal. As is clear from Playfair’s statement, it was this very indefiniteness which was the sign of divinity. While the system itself was indefinite, as a product of God’s wisdom, once started the world machine would perpetuate the specific cycles of uplift and erosion unendingly, maintaining the various balances which were necessary for life.

In the case of Kelvin, the situation is aptly summarized by Burchfield in his work Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth, for “it was the belief in design that justified the formulation of universal scientific laws, that assured the relationship of cause and effect, that, in short, made science possible”. Considering Hutton’s religious views, it seems very unlikely that he would disagree with this statement. The science of both men was deeply integrated with their theological conceptions of how a wise and omnipotent God would construct an orderly world.

Likewise, Kelvin and Hutton’s intellectual defender, Charles Lyell (1797-1875) largely agreed on the actualism of causation, in which the same kind of causes have been at work at all times, and held similar views of uniformitarianism, in which the same causes have been acting with the same intensity over time. As Lyell formulated it, through: “researches into the state of the earth and its inhabitants at former periods, we acquire a more perfect knowledge of its present condition, and more comprehensive views concerning the laws now governing its animate and inanimate production”. This was also the case for Kelvin, for whom logical consistency “required that since the discovery of the primitive state of matter is beyond man’s power, if one is to find a probable beginning, he must start with the present condition of nature and reason back by analogy and strict dynamics”.

The situation is somewhat less definite in regards to the two men’s approaches to uniformitarianism. As it was generally argued, Kelvin was clearly antagonistic to the idea as he understood it. However, in his work On Geological Dynamics, Kelvin specifies that he is opposed to what he called “ultra-uniformitarianism”, and otherwise speaks approvingly of other similar movements in geology: “The geology which I learned thirty years ago [embodied the fundamental theory of] Evolutionism. This I have always considered to be the substantial and irrefragable part of geological speculation; and I have looked on the ultra-uniformitarianism of the last twenty years as a temporary aberration worthy of being energetically protested against”. When seen in this light, Kelvin’s affinity for certain forms of uniformitarianism becomes more evident and shows the difficulties in strictly drawing a line between the methods employed by  proponents of the young earth and those of the old.

This subtlety is clearly shown when one considers Kelvin’s argument presented by On the Secular Cooling of the Earth, in which he states “that essential principles of Thermo-dynamics have been overlooked by those geologists who uncompromisingly oppose all paroxysmal hypostheses”. Immediately following this Kelvin makes it clear that he is not a catastrophist in the traditional sense of the word. For him: “It is quite certain the solar system cannot have gone on even as at present […], without the irrevocable loss (by dissipation, not by annihilation) of a very considerable proportion of the entire energy initially in store for sun heat”. The distinction between annihilation and dissipation is a crucial one. Not only is it a reaffirmation of the first law of thermodynamics, but it also opens the door to a different kind of unimformitarianism than that typically attributed to Lyell or Hutton. It is one in which there can be a uniformity of causes without a corresponding uniformity of effects. The causes themselves have been acting at the same intensity; however, their effects have varied over time because of the limitation placed on them by the second law of thermodynamics. The laws are the same, the causes are the same, yet as Kelvin says: “the secular rate of dissipation has been in some direct proportion to the total amount of energy in store, at any time after the commencement of the present order of things, and has been therefore very slowly diminishing from age to age”. The rate of the dissipation would vary in proportion to the total amount of energy in store, producing effects of varying intensities despite the uniformity of the causes governing them.

This crucial distinction is what allowed Kelvin to criticize Playfair’s statement that only a direct act of God could bring about a catastrophe like the one implied by Kelvin’s thermodynamic approach to the age of the earth. Playfair concludes the passage by stating: “we may safely conclude that this great catastrophe will not be brought about by any of the laws now existing, and that it is not indicated by anything which we perceive”. Kelvin, however, found a grave error in this view of uniformity. Indeed, he saw it as being: “pervaded by a confusion between ‘present order,’ or ‘present system,’ and ‘laws now existing’—between destruction of the earth as a place habitable to beings such as now live on it, and a decline or failure of law and order in the universe”. Thus it is evident that he did not contest the validity of uniformity itself. Kelvin contested what he saw as a narrow view of uniformity that could not derive universal laws from the present order of things within the finite framework of the solar system, but instead was forced to posit an indefinite standpoint in order to make its system scientifically valid.

Thus, when looking at Lyell’s three main tenants of actualism, uniformitarianism and cyclicality, it is only the underlying principle of cyclicality which differs substantially from Kelvin’s own thought. What, then, can be said about the fundamental differences that divided Kelvin’s thought from that of the geological community of his time? These differences can not appeal to the specious distinction between science and religion in either camp, since their religiosity was almost identical in its demands for an ordered, benevolent deity which made science possible. Rather, the question was what that beneficent order would look like. Likewise, one can not make appeals to the demand both groups placed upon their thinking in regards to the stability of causality which made scientific inquiry into the past possible. Where they did differ was in the objects of study which each group took up to defend its claims, and how these objects could in some ways only be viewed indirectly. It was the indirectness of secondary causes which left both groups open to criticism from the opposing camp and perpetuated the debate for almost forty years in Kelvin’s lifetime alone. At the heart of the matter, however, were the conflicting views of eternity which formed the basis of both Hutton’s, as mediated through Lyell, and Kelvin’s visceral opposition to the other’s work, about the circularity or progressiveness of nature.

It would be helpful here to provide some explanation of what is meant by secondary causes. Secondary causes in this case would be any cause which must be appealed to in order to get to a more primary cause which can not be directly observed. Since it is not possible for people to actually see the effects of time in geology over thousands or millions of years, it is then necessary when explaining its effects to point instead to the effects of things such as the dissipation of heat, uplift, layering, and erosion. Once these explanations are found it is then possible to work backwards from the causes of these effects to the prime cause, whether that be the formation and age of the earth itself or the formation and age of a specific mountain range.

Hutton, in exploring the age of the earth, took as his object of study the layers of the earth itself. As first this consideration seems to go without saying, yet it is important to note that this was not the case with Kelvin, who instead dealt almost exclusively with the nature of heat, and the ability of the earth to support living things. Both of them were looking at secondary causes to demonstrate their positions, one in the effects of unimaginable time on the earth itself and the other at the age of the suns heat. The nature of their particular observations made both arguments vulnerable to their own particular criticisms.

The discovery of unconformity in geological strata demonstrated to Hutton a key mechanism in the circularity of geological processes. Unconformities are the remains of geological strata which have been displaced from their horizontal alignment and instead now occupy a vertical position relative to the above strata (see appendix 1). The conclusions which were drawn from this phenomenon were most artfully stated, once again, by Playfair: “We often said to ourselves, What [sic] clearer evidence could we have had of the different formation of these rocks, and of the long interval which separated their formation, […] Revolutions still more remote appeared in the distance of this extraordinary perspective”. Unconformities had the effect of breaking down older geological strata, in some ways erasing the records of past time. Their existence was a vital part of Hutton’s argument for a cyclical earth, and represented his most direct evidence that the age of the earth was not something limited by either past or future ages.

This kind of “direct” indirect evidence demonstrates the problem facing any purely geological inquiry into the age of the earth. Hutton and his followers, when considering the single system of the earth, could only consider what incidental evidence was left over for them after years of intervening phenomenon had had a chance to bury and destroy the very evidence they were looking for. This naturally left them with an indeterminate number of cycles continuing without apparent end. True, they were shown an example of the vast time scale on which geology operated, opening up the door to a more complete depiction of the age of the earth; however, they were unable to derive any further evidence for these same cycles except to point, rock hammer in hand, at the immense times required to lay the cycles down in the geological strata. Outside of this they could only appeal to base principles of what was required for life and a beneficent deity. The instability of these secondary causes would continually leave the early Uniformitarians open to accusations that they had not sufficiently grasped the physical and mathematical laws governing their field of study, while their very same field of study seemed to deny any attempt at strict quantification because of the same order that made it observable in the first place.

The problem Kelvin faced was somewhat different, though directly related to the difficulties of secondary causes in quantifying geological time. Taking as his object of study the dissipation of heat, and armed with the mathematical tools of thermodynamics, Kelvin would at first glance appear to have a better standing when it came to quantifying the age of the earth. Yet here too Kelvin was confronted by the same bugbear of secondary causes as were his intellectual opponents. Kelvin hoped to use the second law of thermodynamics to help guide his calculations into the age of the earth. The second law of thermodynamics lays down that energy is always moving from a more ordered to a less ordered state, the most disordered form of energy being heat. For example, a cup of tea in a cold room will never become warmer while the room cools, but will continue to loose heat to its environment in a predictable manner until both the room and the tea reach a state of thermal equilibrium. It was this predictable rate of dissipation which Kelvin hoped to use as his indicator in much the same way as radioactive decay is used today to determine the age of objects.

Kelvin used mathematical principles guided by the second law of thermodynamics in part because he could not look to the earth itself when in need of placing a definitive limit on its age. Here the quantitative factors were still too murky, and in some cases were directly hostile to his position. Rather, in using the definitive measure of heat, and taking as his object the age of the sun, he could hope to be able to fix the age of the earth by binding it with that of the sun which could not be studied qualitatively, but only quantitatively. This appears to have been his intent. In a thirty-one year span Kelvin worked out his calculations drawing the age of the earth ever closer to the common estimate of the age of the sun, so that the age of the earth went from being twenty and four hundred million years, compared to the sun’s twenty million years, to a number set at twenty-four million years.

Fundamentally, however, the precision of his calculations in placing limits on the age of the earth was secondary to his main goal of firmly establishing that such limits actually existed. As Burchfield says “The inexactness of his calculations was […] unimportant so long as they established the necessity for a limit upon geological time and the impossibility of uniformitarianism’s demand for limitless ages”. Still, since Kelvin took as his object the sun, which could only be known quantitatively through astronomical means, he was nevertheless open to chargers of miscalculation, and to criticisms of the roundabout way in which he sought to fix the age of the earth.

Given the difficulty inherent in any definitive resolution to the problem of the age of the earth, then, we must look even further into the primary goals Kelvin and Hutton hoped to achieve in their world systems. In doing so we see that the matter was largely a reflection of the different ways in which the two men viewed the nature and dangers of the concept of eternity for human kind, and for the very possibility of reason in natural philosophy.

Hutton’s cyclical conception of the world took as its model Newton’s cosmos, infinite in space, whose motions where perfectly balanced in the orbits of the planets. Yet where Newton’s cosmos was infinite in space, Hutton’s world would focus on the infinity of time. The balancing of forces which maintained the planetary orbits was analogous to the balancing forces of erosion and uplift which maintained the succession of worlds. Yet the movement from an infinite cosmos to an eternal world is not without its difficulties. Hutton’s world machine made a radical statement about the nature of history, and implied a more enclosed system than the Newtonian cosmos. Still, Hutton often drew the comparison between the cycles of the planets and the cycles of the earth.

This is exactly how he prefaces his famous concluding lines to the Theory of the Earth. After having just recounted the three periods of the earth and reaffirming the indefiniteness of their duration, he then goes on to draw the connection between the cyclical age of the earth and that of the planets, stating:

[W]e have the satisfaction to find, that in nature there is wisdom, system, and consistency. For having, in the natural history of this earth, seen a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that there is a system in nature; in like manner as, from seeing revolutions of the planets, it is concluded, that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. […] The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,–no prospect of an end.

For Hutton, as is evident from this excerpt, it is the eternally cyclic essence of natural phenomenon which makes it possible to logically observe systems in the world, which to a large extent makes them knowable. Without these cycles the most we could observe would be incidental phenomenon, insufficient for the development of universal principles. This demand upon knowledge has a surprising consequence. Natural phenomena are understandable insofar as they are cyclic in nature. This can be seen in the progression of animals, plants, climate and geology. However, human history, insofar as it focuses on particulars is unimportant, and potentially can not really be seen to exist at all.

Kelvin himself, however, was not entirely opposed to some forms of eternity. As is evident from his On the Age of the Sun’s Heat:

The result would inevitably be a state of universal rest and death, if the universe were finite and left to obey existing laws. But it is impossible to conceive a limit to the extent of matter in the universe; and therefore science points rather to an endless progress, through an endless space, of action involving the transformation of potential energy into palpable motion and thence into heat, than to a single finite mechanism, running down like a clock, and stopping for ever.

While this passage is almost universally held to mark the introduction of the idea of heat death, it also serves as a refutation of the very same possibility. Rather than asserting that the dissipation of heat will lead to an eventual extinguishing of all life, Kelvin instead posits a universe in which the second law of thermodynamics insures a continued activity of matter, directed and given order by the transformation of potential energy into motion and heat. Thus Kelvin was driven to establish a firm limit on the beginning of the earth in order to make his view of progression make sense in light of the fact that time in the universe had a direction, but no observable ending. While the earth itself may be limited and thus doomed to dissipation, the universe itself faced no such restriction.

This meant that the very thermodynamics which made the universe run was threatened by the Huttonian world machine, for if the earth was composed of eternal cycles, thermodynamics was in error, and, perhaps more unforgivably, the whole notion of progression in time. Furthermore, as has already been seen in Kelvin’s critique of “zoological speculations” in his 1872 speech, he was deeply worried about the effect geological and biological studies would have on the free will of humans. It was the indefiniteness of time which gave Hutton’s position the capacity to deny human history, which would rob individuals of their efficacy in the face of a world in which everything was repetition. Kelvin’s view of endless progression, however, would avoid this misevaluation of the will through its directionality. This directionality insured a firm ground for knowledge, insofar as universal laws could be derived from constant causes, but one whose effects could vary over time, a fact which, for Kelvin, also insured the purposefulness of human experience.

Ultimately, the similarities between Kelvin’s and Hutton’s approaches were striking considering the radically different conclusions which they drew from them. Both used almost identical assumptions about the uniformity of nature, with the exception of Hutton’s demand for circularity and Kelvin’s distinction that a uniform cause can produce a different effect given a different substrate. Likewise, both were led by strong religious convictions about the kind of order a beneficent god would establish in the world. What caused the contention in determining the age of the earth was the presuppositions they made about what that divine order would be like, whether it would be an eternal cycle or an eternal progression and what this would mean for both natural philosophy and the individual. In the age in which the problem was raised the conflict could not be satisfactorily resolved, and it was perpetuated by the ambiguous nature of secondary causes which both theories were forced to rely upon to prove their separate claims.

In the end what can really be learned from this debate is the vital capacity for similar methods and guiding principles to lead to dramatically different results given but a handful of separate core convictions. This tendency is only magnified in any system of knowledge which requires an indirect view of its subject matter. In such cases all positions must then suffer the capricious whims of the secondary causes upon which they, nevertheless, must rely.

For More Information:

Burchfield, Joe D.  Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth. London: The Macmillan Press LTD, 1975.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Hutton, James. Theory of the Earth with Proofs and Illustrations. Vol 1 and 2. Weinheim: H.R. Engelmann (J. Cramer) and Wheldon & Wesley, LTD., 1960.

Knell, Simon J. and Cherry L.E. Lewis. “Celebrating the Age of the Earth”. In The Age of the Earth: from 4004 BC to AD 2002. Eds C.L.E. Lewis and S. J. Knell. London: The Geological Society, 2001.

Lyell, Charles. “Principles of Geology” in 19th Century Science: An Anthology. Ed. A.S. Weber. Canada: Broadview Press Ltd, 2000.

Playfair, John. Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth. London: Cadell and Davies, 1802.  In On Geological Time. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

Thomson, W. (Lord Kelvin). “Popular Lectures and Addresses”, vol. 2. As in The Age of the Earth: from 4004 BC to AD 2002. Eds. C.L.E. Lewis and S. J. Knell. London: The Geological Society, 2001.

–––.  “On Geological Dynamics” in Transactions of the Geological Society of Glasgow, 1869. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

–––.  “On the Age of the Sun’s Heat” in Popular Lectures and Addresses, vol. 1, 2nd edition. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

–––. “On the Secular Cooling of the Earth”. in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Vol. XXIII, pp. 167-169, 1864. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

–––. “On Geological Time”. in Popular Lectures and Addresses, Vol. ii, p. 10. 1868. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>