Alchemy: Phlogiston – A Retrospective! (10.4.2023) 

Marx pointed out that theological thinking moves in the direct opposite to the direction of the logic that defines natural processes. In other words, the mistaking a thought in the head for a physical object in the environment is ‘inverted’ (or ‘back-to-front’) in its functioning! This being the case, as Christian theology dominated the Western mind for around a thousand years, it follows that the Western thought processes were conditioned by this body of theological work to operate in an ‘inverted’ manner. When the Western mind attempted to break with theological thinking, it is only natural that its initial attempts are ‘secular’ thinking mirrored the ‘inversion’ that had dominated it for over a millennium. 

Of course, material science is not built upon sentimentality but rather a ruthless and ongoing clarification of the human understanding of the natural processes that define the physical world. This dialectically derived knowledge is used to improve the experience of existence for everyone who happens to be alive. At least that is the noble intention despite the injustices inherent within socio-economic systems often hindering the spread of the benefits of scientific and medical knowledge. All of this first began with the courage of those who had been conditioned to believe in the message of inverted religion – without question – and to face their superstitious fears whilst breaking with the Authority of the Church and its priests!  

It is highly likely that many of today’s scientific explanations – although expediently useful – are wrong or at least inadequate – but as a species we ‘do not know this yet’. In the future human populations will know far more than is known now. It is the abstract concept of the ‘future’ that holds all the promises for human development through a process that requires ‘time’ plus the correct functioning of the ‘human mind’ for dramatic (or even ‘slight’) advances to be made! This brings me to an extraordinary 17th century departure from theological thinking which saw the development of the theory known as ‘Phlogiston’. 

The etymology of this word ‘Phlogiston’ is as follows: 

Ancient Greek: ‘Phlogiston’ (φλογιστόν) – ‘burning up’ – derived from ‘Phlox’ (φλόξ) – or a ‘burning flame’. Hypothetical inflammatory principle – formerly believed to exist (inherently) – within all combustible matter. Essentially, this theory suggests that a tree (or ‘wood’) is a combination of ‘ash’ plus ‘Phlogiston’. The act of ‘burning’ (the generation of heat through friction or the application of an already burning flame) was thought to be the mechanism (or ‘agency’) through which ‘Phlogiston’ was released as ‘heat’. If a substance did not easily ‘burn’ – then the logic of this theory suggested that this was because the substance concerned contained ‘less’ Phlogiston – and therefore could not ‘release’ any inherent ‘heat’. This theory was first developed in its basic form (using the notion of ‘Terra Pinguis’ as the universal combusting element) around 1667 CE by – Johann Joachim Becher – a German Alchemist who believed he could make himself ‘invisible’ if only he had access to the right materials. This theory received its designation of ‘Phlogiston’ around 1703 CE through the academic work of German Chemist – Georg Ernst Stahl. This theory seems to suggest that ‘heat’ is held within a substance as a distinct entity – like air in a balloon – which is released through ‘burning’ (De-Phlogistonisticated) – similar in process to the ‘piercing’ of the outer surface of an air-filled balloon.  

I think the theory of ‘Phlogiston’ was a good first effort and is certainly more realistic than suggesting that a disembodied theistic entity is controlling everything ‘from afar’ just as an act of arbitrary will! This theory even covered the human-breath – which was ‘hot’ because ‘Phlogiston’ was being ‘breathed-out’! If not enough ‘Phlogiston’ was breathed-out – then the human body would literally ‘burn-up’ and a fever would develop! Of course, modern Chemistry has replaced Alchemy and has long since washed away virtually all of the original foundation that once formed the bulwark of human logic in the face of theological domination. It is now understood that when substances ‘burn’ – nothing is ‘given-up’ – but rather a chemical reaction is experienced. Combustion is a chemical reaction that rapidly combines various substances with oxygen – generating heat and light in the form of a flame as a useful by-product. Whereas the ‘inverted’ thinking of religiosity was inadvertently retained through the theory of ‘Phlogiston’ (i.e., ‘something is lost’) – the non-inverted reality regarding the correct scientific interpretation of combustion – is that ‘something is gained’! This demonstrates just how powerful outdated or outmoded systems of thought are – even if it is believed that certain approaches to understanding reality have been firmly rejected and left in the past.