Contemporary Alchemy: Modern Systems of Effect and Transformation

Wes Hinckes
16 min readJun 15, 2022

Note: I haven’t posted in a while. I made a start on this set of thoughts and became quite stuck. All of my other writings have come from a title written on a post-it. I’ve been able to pick these up as I’ve gone along and use them to pull together ideas and throughs that I’m trying to get across as part of the platform proposition. This post however steps into territory that I’m far less knowledgeable in and thus requires a different approach. It’s harder work and there’s a need for some space and structure to do it in. I’m placing it here as it isn’t unrelated to everything else I’m talking about and actually is related to the post I’ll try to get to next which is systems/process oriented.

For now I’d advise against reading this post and wasting your time. I’ll try to pull it into some kind of shape now that it’s in the open but it’s not a high priority.

For a long time now I’ve been of the opinion that; the highest purpose of work is to effect positive change in the world ‘and’ that when this work is undertaken in conjunction with the right thinking, processes and conditions, it can also lead to transformations of the self (or the organisation).

“In working to transform the world we in turn can transform ourselves.”

The work and how it is performed are both meaningful.

Much work in the modern age isn’t meaningful and nor does much of it propose to achieve anything of real worth. I think we all feel this deep within ourselves.

It’s so easy to become distanced from the actual real conditions of life. From the lives and experiences others and the graft and grind endured by so many throughout their lives.

When we don’t cook or clean or build or create or care. When the world we operate within and the objects and things that surround us are all constructed upon a chain of conceptual and physical separation.

It can centre our individual and social existences in something that is in many ways entirely artificial.

Through the situating of our lives in something less natural we easily mistake that ‘doing our jobs’ is ‘doing the work’.

In this we chase gold and we remain as lead.

Here we see a connection with alchemy.

On the surface, within cultural understanding and certainly within its own imagery, alchemy is associated with slightly crazy men pursuing the impossible dream of converting lead into gold.

Other interpretations suggest that alchemy is the pursuit of the mythical philosopher’s stone, the discovery of which can lead to everlasting life.

It also seems possible that alchemy, along with other esoteric knowledge and practices within ancient philosophy, religion and mystery schools, may in some ways be concerned or connected with with the operation and understanding of systems.

There is something eternal about systems and when certain principles and properties are illustrated they can help us to see our world with deeper insight and understanding. They help us to work with otherwise invisible entities (by this I infer social and power structures, not poltergeists or pixies) and their effects upon our world.

It is not the turning of lead into gold or obtaining everlasting life that the sages were interested in.

It is in the ‘outer’ world and its relationships, as well as our ‘inner’ worlds and relationships. It is in how these worlds continually operate upon each other to bring into being the dynamic world or reality that we find ourselves inescapably situated within.

It is possible to see how a simple portrayal of a system allows for multiple interpretations.

Planetary Systems

  • Microcosm/macrocosm
  • Personal Systems
  • Systems of Power and Influence

Inner/Outer Transformation

  • ID/Ego
  • Personality
  • Relationships
  • Self-Development
  • Jungian Systems

World Systems or Spheres

  • Culture
  • Politics
  • Environment
  • Social
  • Economic
We are on the edge of a cosmological shift, redefining the way we see our planet and our place on it. Our worldviews of the planetary system have always been changing and today, these worldviews are being challenged again. In his talk, philosopher Lukáš Likavčan invites you to think about cosmologies as the main drivers of change in our societies. What current technologies will inform our worldviews for the next era? What will be the political consequences of this shift?

A Gist

One of the easiest ancient systems to get a grasp of is astrology.

The idea is that the planets exert certain effects upon our world. They effect the events of the world as well as influencing our own internal world — our personality and character.

These planets had god like power which could transmit over immense distances and intermingle to subtly effect every person in different amounts and measures.

Astrology is a system whereby the outer world effects the inner worlds.

Chakras can also be associated with the planets and the inner systems.

One interpretation is that the practice of meditation allows a person to bring into balance their internal planetary system at the same time as with the outer planetary systems.

Through dedication and practice a person could attain their own centre of balance. Whereas previously both the internal and outer worlds could exert an influence over them which the person was unconscious of and thus powerless.

The person gains a mastery of themselves within a dynamic world of systems.

Journeys to not knowing

It wouldn’t be a post of mine without an arduous and convoluted attempt to get to the point.

So, let’s begin.

Firstly, I’d like to orient you.

I’d like to bring your mind to everything that’s above you; the sky, the atmosphere, the solar system, outer space and the universe.

How much do you think we know about those things in total?

Do you think, as you might get the impression of if you listen to many experts, that we know practically everything and there’s just one more great discovery that they’re working on to get us over the final hurdle.

Or do you believe that it could be hurdles as far as we can ever know?

Now, let’s bring our minds to what is around us. The earth and the natural world. How much do we know or how much don’t we know?

If you think we know everything, then what about the animals and nature that are now extinct? What about if there is life on other planets that is utterly alien? Isn’t it all really the same body of knowledge and understanding?

Now, let’s look deeply into things. Into their cellular, atomic, and quantum make up.

Are we > 99% knowing everything or <1% or somewhere in between?

We certainly don’t know time and we don’t exactly know space. We’re pretty much in the dark on dark matter and dark energy.

How about the person you know best in the world?

How much of them do you actually know? Have you lived their experiences somehow or thought their thoughts? Have you dreamt their dreams?

How much do you know yourself? You can’t remember all of your memories or experiences and most of your systems operate on automatic. Are you really so sure of ‘you’ and are ‘you’ really in full control?

How about the language that we write and speak?

If we took the word ‘cat’ what meanings does it hold? Do you think a stranger standing next to you would share the same meanings as you? Would they be thinking the same cat? The same meow?

We think that language communicates well but discount the fact is that every person will interpret words and meanings differently.

What about aspects of the world which are undetectable or verifiable by science? What about Buddhist monks who for thousands of years have meditated entire lifetimes sharing their experiences and comparing notes to develop a detailed body of knowledge of alternative realms of existence, the afterlife and universal cosmology.

Are the views of Richard Dawkins in anyway comparable to their beliefs, attempts and efforts in exploring a greater reality or is he perhaps missing something?

You see much of the world that we think of as obvious or apparent or shared, simply isn’t.

All of it has this infinite potential and depth to it. It’s just that we don’t learn about the world in a way which is imaginative, contemplative and full of wonderment.

Instead, it’s all so literal, scientific, objective and accepted.

It’s like a form of exceptionalism where the authorities that be define the realities that they determine should be taught and represent the modern scientific consensus.

I can understand experts standing up and saying “I know everything about what I need to know.”. It’s their bread and butter after all. But we shouldn’t fall into ‘their own’ trap of believing that they know everything about everything even as all experts existing in total throughout history.

It would be more humble and correct to present our knowledge as an accepted understanding, a temporary agreement for the purposes of convenience and not a fundamentally true or complete grasp of reality.

It is partial, incomplete and open to question and debate.

As are we all and as we can only ever be.

I want to bring you to a point of not knowing.

I want you to understand your knowledge and experience and perspective as only ever being partial and incomplete.

I want to bring you to a point where openness and working with others becomes the only available route for you to take towards knowledge.

Because these things together bring us towards something potentially transformative.

Let’s take another journey, this time deep into the underworld.

Parmenides was a respected philosopher in Plato’s time. He left behind a poem of which much has been lost but which guides us towards a way of knowing.

In the poem he recounts a vision or dream where he is escorted by divine beings from our world, through the underworld and to the place that lies at the centre of ‘all things’.

It is from there that day and night emerge.

It is the beginning of all existence.

It is the very centre of being itself from which all else emerges.

It is here that Parmenides is introduced to the goddess who called for him.

She has a message that he is to deliver to the mortal world.

She explains to him that our thinking is flawed and details how we go astray.

To crudely paraphrase, ours is a world built on opinion and opinion is unreliable.

After showing our error she provides our correction.

There is another way of knowing which seems to much closer to our idea of intuition or maybe even a form of communion with the beingness of which we are a part.

The goddess, the immortals and their way of thinking may occupy a deeper aspect of this being/isness and through this demonstrate to us the possibility of a practice both vulnerable and powerless which through their willingness to set aside ego and engage fully with the knowledge of the moment overpasses our own ways of doing things.

Theirs is the natural and perfect way. Ever presenting the opportunity for creativity, change, motion, development and life.

Being is a process in which they actively participate and help realise.

Being as a state of nature.

I think there’s something timeless in what we could be being told here.

To look at the world today and its problems is to see the world of opinions and its effect writ large.

Our modern world has separated us from nature and alienated from ourselves and each other.

Processes could hold the key to turning this situation around.

Why The Managerial Elite Are Doomed — Why centralization inevitably dooms our managerial elites.
To see the Universe more clearly, think in terms of processes, not objects — Instead of understanding the Universe in terms of inflexible objects, Nail proposes that we view our world in terms of processes subject to constant change. This, he argues, will lead to improvements in science, public policy and even interpersonal relationships. —

A Universal Process of Becoming

I’d like you to picture this centre of being (the continual arising of creation) as the fine line that exists between our concepts of the future and the past.

You can picture this as an ever-moving line of creative activity — before it is void / behind it is void.

In alchemy this becomes represented as the ouroboros.

It seems that the past is devoured whilst at the same time it brings about the creation of the present.

This universal process is occurring everywhere at once. It undergirds every aspect of space, time and matter. Every atom and every star as well as every person.

We and the universe are forever poised, suspended, held and birthed into existence.

Ouroboros communicates something deep and complex that language otherwise has difficulty putting into words.

In Christian terms the following video communicates some similar ideas and although I’m no expert in world religions I feel that similar concepts, personifications, stories, and allegories are abound everywhere you look.

Creation isn’t what you think it is! (Aquinas 101): What is creation? This is an important question, not only for faith, but also for philosophy and for science. Fr. Dominic Legge, O.P., a Dominican friar from the Province of St. Joseph, explains St. Thomas Aquinas’s answer.

In our modern world we become alienated from this process.

We have hidden it under artificial things and created names and labels which we then mistake for reality itself.

When we objectivise nature the immanent becomes obscured by the objects.

An object is a description whereas beyond and within the self-same object the deepest aspects of nature remain indescribable and inaccessible.

Forgoing the scientific presentation of time, space and material, what we actually have available to our senses is nature — it’s the ‘goings on’ or the passage of nature (Whitehead)

“We are so trained, both by language and by formal teaching and by the resulting convenience, to express our thoughts in terms of this materialistic analysis that intellectually we tend to ignore the true unity of the factor really exhibited in sense-awareness. It is this unit factor, retaining in itself the passage of nature, which is the primary concrete element discriminated in nature. These primary factors are what I mean by events.

Wherever and whenever something is going on, there is an event. Furthermore ‘wherever and whenever’ in themselves propose an event, for space and time in themselves are abstractions from events. It is therefore a consequence of this doctrine that something is always going on everywhere, even in so called empty space.” — Whitehead, The Concept of Nature

Whitehead argued that reality consists of processes rather than material objects, and that processes are best defined by their relations with other processes, thus rejecting the theory that reality is fundamentally constructed by bits of matter that exist independently of one another.

An aether of events — quote

+ find that other quote / reality

“Perhaps foremost among what Whitehead considered faulty metaphysical assumptions was the Cartesian idea that reality is fundamentally constructed of bits of matter that exist totally independently of one another, which he rejected in favour of an event-based or “process” ontology in which events are primary and are fundamentally interrelated and dependent on one another. He also argued that the most basic elements of reality can all be regarded as experiential, indeed that everything is constituted by its experience. He used the term “experience” very broadly so that even inanimate processes such as electron collisions are said to manifest some degree of experience. In this, he went against Descartes’ separation of two different kinds of real existence, either exclusively material or else exclusively mental. Whitehead referred to his metaphysical system as “philosophy of organism,” but it would become known more widely as “process philosophy.””- Wikipedia, Alfred Whitehead

A Creative Process

What I’m trying to get across to you is the sense that everything in our reality could be a result of a creative process.

Natural Processes and Artificial Systems

The Artificial

I believe that our modern world has separated us from nature — we have become alienated through increasing and expanding forms of artificiality which remove us from a more natural way of being.

I’m not actually bemoaning artificiality. My concern is that we do not see the problem.

Let me provide some examples;

Upon the invention of writing Thanatos was concerned about writing dulling the memory and intellect.

Upon the invention of industrial processes William Morris was concerned with skilled crafts and knowledges which would be lost.

The introduction of standardised education promoted concern by Dewey and Whitehead about the dangers of ‘inert knowledge’.

I personally would go much further.

I think that we also introduce artificiality through; words, language, assumed truths and stories. In essence we are handed a simplified way of understanding the world and upon and through this ready-made understanding we construct our perceived reality and also our understanding of ourselves.

It can reduce us to basic automations rather than living up to our full human potential.

Please don’t get me wrong here. I don’t believe that any of this happens with intent.

But because so much of this is invisible to us it continues at a pace and the resulting problems continue to accrue.

It’s about a set of ‘artificial processes and conditions’ that are existing but non-apparent. They are therefore out-of-control.

It’s possible to see this in artificial systems that are as large as an economy, big as a government or as small as an organisation.

We mistake their successful operation for cleverness whilst neglecting to see their negative effects and their connection and contribution to other social, economic or environmental issues.

Natural and Unnatural Systems & Processes

Let me introduce the Strandbeest.

You wouldn’t want to put your life in the hands of a Strandbeest yet that is exactly the situation we are currently living in.

We are surrounded and embedded within them it’s just that their existence is largely obscured and we neglect to question their roles, effects and operations.

There is a Strandbeest for every occasion or need;

  • converting nature into commodities.
  • extracting wealth from colonial territories.
  • wrapping up Collateralised Debt Obligations
  • etc, etc, etc

Once you can see them and once you can understand their wayward operation it may become possible to intervene but until then — ‘they’re calling the shots’ and ‘we live’ in ‘their reality’.

The Natural

We become overtaken and consumed by other forces and effects.

But it is possible to move closer to it.

To become part of this process requires us to take part in a process.

Creative / social / empathy

It’s journey away from human-centric supremacy and a re-orienting back into a nature-centred universe with human-humbleness at its heart.

In my crude understanding this is also the purpose of alchemy. It may actually have nothing to do with turning lead into gold but in putting men to work in

Whitehead and Network/Systems

In my thinking; with, within and without.

In our networked world / in our mediating world there isn’t actually any strict and continuous separation — instead it is a world of events / relations / process.

“Events are the field of a two-termed relation, namely the relation of extension which was considered in the last lecture. Events are the things related by the relation of extension. If an event A extends over an event B, then B is ‘part of’ A, and A is a ‘whole’ of which B is a part. Whole and part are invariably used in these lectures in this definite sense. It follows that in reference to this relation any two events A and B may have any one of four relations to each other, namely (i) A may extend over B, or (ii) B may extend over A, or (iii) A and B may both extend over some third event C, but neither over the other, or (iv) A and B may be entirely separate. These alternatives can (76) obviously be illustrated by Euler’s diagrams as they appear in logical textbooks.” — Whitehead, The Concept of Nature

We see the world as something dead or inert. But it isn’t, is alive and full of wonder and mystery.

Realising the Potential of Networks and Ecosystems — Building Bridges Between Everything

Can an Extended Science Bridge the Worlds of Matter, Mind, and Spirit? | Bernard Carr, Ph.D.

“A full understanding of the universe must encompass the three worlds of matter, mind and spirit, as well as building bridges between them. While physics has been remarkably successful in describing the material world, from the smallest scales of particle physics to the largest scales of cosmology, it currently makes no reference to consciousness and associated mental or spiritual experiences. “

David Bohm speaks about Wholeness and Fragmentation

“We are internally related to everything, not [just] externally related. Consciousness is an internal relationship to the whole, we take in the whole, and we act toward the whole. Whatever we have taken in determines basically what we are.

I think the difficulty is this fragmentation, first of all. Everybody, all thought is broken up into bits. Like this nation, this country, this industry, this profession and so on… And they can’t meet. It’s extremely hard to break into that.

But that comes about primarily because thought has developed traditionally in a way such that it claims not to be effecting anything but just telling you “the way things are.” Therefore, people cannot see that they are creating a problem and then apparently trying to solve it.

Let’s take a problem like pollution, or the ecology. See, the ecology in itself is not a problem. It works perfectly well by itself. Its due to us, right? It’s a problem because we are thinking in certain ways by breaking it up and each person is doing his own thing.

Therefore the ecological problem is due to thought, right? But thought thinks it’s a problem out there and I must solve it. That doesn’t make sense because simultaneously thought is doing all the things which make the problem and then tries to do another set of activities to try and overcome it. See, it doesn’t stop doing the things which are making the ecological problem, or the national problem, or whatever the problem is.

The earth is one household really, but we are not treating it that way, so that’s the first step in economics is to say the earth is one household and all that depends on, its all one you see…”

The Joy of Being Wrong — John Templeton Foundation

Arguments on social media are notorious. Can practicing intellectual humility make us smarter and happier? Science says yes. Subscribe for more videos of people thinking differently and making a difference:

How Can We Upend “knowing”?

How can we upend “knowing”? How has the pursuit of knowledge in modern science paradoxically gotten us further away from the truth and reality? How is “knowing” actually a process of co-creation, rather than a linear path towards an imagined enlightenment (that defines our anthropocene, a self-centred, misguided age)?

Moving from a rather leaden past into a golden age.

The totalising network

Exaplin how all this fits in with understandings about networks.

Intellectual Humility

Related Images

Japanese artist who I need to track down the name of.

I’d like to use these paintings as a way to illuminate some of the points made in the text above.

This connects with networks, ecosystems and knowledge.

‘The Bounds of the Intellect’ (1927) by Swiss-German artist Paul Klee (1879–1940)

This quite nicely presents the idea of a something inexpressible and above. The nature, cause or beingness from which all artificiality results. This is the social and economic condition we find ourselves placed within.

But there are ways of orienting ourselves and how we do things so that we move more closely to a natural state and more natural outcomes.

The image or symbol allows to grasp not just the present situation but also how different situatings and orienting could be more natural.

The most natural state is the orb as nature. It’s possible regenerative systems could occupy this space.

In the artificial world we may have representive democracy or management. As we move towards the natural state we climb through more participatory and open practices.


“Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base; and if we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being.” — Karl Popper



Wes Hinckes

Founder of Socially Enterprising / Commoner / Mostly Unemployed.