While mention of the occult creates associations with black magic in the popular imagination, this is a simplistic view of a complex subject. The word “occult” has its root in the Latin word occultus, meaning “secret” or “hidden.” The similarity between the words “occult” and “cult” has caused some confusion, and popular culture has also helped to link the two.
However, an occultist is a person who aims to transcend common knowledge, science, and logic to explore hidden mysteries. The purpose of this is to achieve enlightenment, and this is why the occult has contributed significantly to scientific theory. While this may seem a far-fetched concept to some, there is a large body of evidence to support this position.
A history of scientific connections
The occult became linked to chemistry through alchemy, the practice of turning base metals into gold and other “noble” metals. This concept revolves around the idea that base metals such as lead are merely “diseased” gold. Alchemy aims to purify these metals and return them to their natural, noble state. The alchemist also seeks to purify their soul through the practice of their art. The base metal in question represents the alchemist’s soul, and by attempting to banish ignorance, the alchemist returns their soul to its original, golden state.
This is the esoteric aim of alchemy, but what of the exoteric, scientific side? Alchemists believed that base metals could be treated with an unknown substance, called the “philosopher’s stone,” to cause them to transmute into gold. While there is no particular substance that fulfills this purpose, experimentation with metals and chemicals led to the development of metallurgy. This is the process by which common ores can be purified, and metals joined at a chemical level to produce alloys.
This caused scientists to question the base composition of various chemicals and metals. By a long process of trial and error, scientists began to group similar substances together and quantify their properties. This process led to a major scientific advance in 1869, when Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev produced the first definitive periodic table of elements.
Pierre Savoret made the distinction between the mystical and physical philosopher’s stone in his work Qu’est-ce que le alchemie? (“What is Alchemy?”). While the physical philosopher’s stone has yet to be discovered, the periodic table can be seen as an intellectual philosopher’s stone which has banished ignorance and advanced science toward its golden age.
Chemistry is not the only scientific discipline that has links to alchemy and the occult. Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is widely considered the father of modern physics, and his discoveries proved that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun. However, Newton had a deep fascination with subjects such as alchemy, chronology and biblical interpretation; some believe that his scientific research was of secondary importance to his occult interests.
The economist John Maynard Keynes went as far to suggest that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians.” Newton had many critics, and his work in unraveling the mysteries of gravity led to accusations that he had confused his occult studies with science. Newton espoused the theory that, far from being a localized phenomenon, gravity was capable of acting over vast distances. He was widely mocked by his detractors, yet time has proven him wise. Newton tested his theory and discovered that gravity is dependent on the mass of two objects and decreases by the inverse square of their relative distance. Albert Einstein later expounded on this theory by suggesting that the mass of a celestial body warps space and time, creating its gravitational field. This theory is close to the occult view of space and time as variable entities.
The work of psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) was also inspired by occult theory. His fascination with ancient Germanic religion had a profound influence in developing his psychoanalytical theories. Jung drew extensively on Germanic “soul lore” that saw the conscious mind as just a small part of the overall psychological complex.
Developing this theory further, Jung pioneered a revolutionary treatment for many psychological disorders by tapping into the potential of the unconscious mind. While Jung’s theories are now accepted among psychologists as the basis for treatment, their occult origins caused friction between Jung and his teacher, Sigmund Freud. Even the root of the word “psychology” derives from the Greek psyche meaning “spirit” or “breath,” and accepted treatments such as hypnotism were once viewed as arcane magic.
Seeing the occult in science
Science and the occult are far from being mutually exclusive. Today’s magic is tomorrow’s science, and those who ponder the mysteries often transcend the occult by testing their theories under laboratory conditions.
Experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider are unraveling sub-particle physics’s secrets and helping scientists understand how the universe was created. However, science began with mysteries, and this ties it inextricably to the occult.