Substance and Form–Philosophy and Physics Part III

Continuing the discussion of Substance and Form—contained in the posts Philosophy and Physics Part I, and Part II.—we proceed to an important body of thought on the subject contained in Emanuel Swedenborg's philosophy, which extends the ideas of Rene Descartes beyond dualism.

Swedenborg's Philosophy connects with his Theology

Swedenborg's philosophy is part of a unique theology that is both traditionally Christian, and esoteric, presenting God both as creator and and sustainer of all creation—the source of life—in fact, life itself. Swedenborg thought of creation as being organized top-down from God at the top, down to ordinary matter at the bottom, human beings (actually, humanoids throughout the universe) being composed of the full depth of that creation. This places humanoids uniquely in the scheme of creation in a position not shared by other life forms. God is the Infinite, who contains the infinity of infinities—all there is or can be. Life forms are all finite receivers of life from God, not autonomous beings that live from themselves. Creation, although finite, is so vast that it a mathematical infinity; but it is finite and basically dead in relation to the Infinite God. The human mind internally connects with the vastness of all creation, in a way which serves to tune into some of the flow of Divine animation to infill human thoughts and actions with intention, meaning and feelings.

Swedenborg's philosophy is unique in that it unites theology, philosophy and science under a consistent set of concepts, which deserve to be discussed in their own right. That is the main task of this post. The intent of Swedenborg' s philosophy is to explain how God as the infinite source creates, sustains and animates the finite forms resulting in a great chain of contingently existing structures descending from God and terminating in the visible universe.

In Swedenborg's philosophy God is an infinite source of both substance and form, who in relates to the finite forms of visible creation as an infinity of potentials. Our reality has resulted from the historical accumulation of potential forms that accommodate to each other according patterns of order that form a sort of internal Divine logic.

Concealed and Revealed God

Fig. 2. Metaphorical scheme of emanated spiritual worlds within the Ein Sof

Swedenborg's philosophical scheme at first sight appears completely unprecedented; but, it is similar to an ancient, esoteric scheme from ancient Judaic tradition called the Kabbalah, which its followers consider Divinely, inspired, oral tradition. In his university studies at Upsala, Swedenborg may have had access to some works on the Kabbalah, but his philosophy goes enough beyond the Kabbalah to be considered unique and original. A Wikipedia article, accessed by the preceding hyperlink reference, describes the Kabbalistic scheme as follow:

"The nature of the Divine prompted kabbalists to envision two aspects to God: (a) God in essence, absolutely transcendent, unknowable, limitless Divine simplicity, and (b) God in manifestation, the revealed persona of God through which He creates and sustains and relates to mankind. Kabbalists speak of the first as Ein/Ayn Sof (אין סוף "the infinite/endless", literally "that which has no limits"). Of the impersonal Ein Sof nothing can be grasped. The second aspect of Divine emanations, however, are accessible to human perception, dynamically interacting throughout spiritual and physical existence, reveal the Divine immanently, and are bound up in the life of man. Kabbalists believe that these two aspects are not contradictory but complement one another, emanations revealing the concealed mystery from within the Godhead."

The above description of the Kabbalah could be as well applied to the general form of Swedenborg's philosophy, except that his philosophy ties in with Neo Platonism and Christianity, principally in identifying the immanent or visible Divine with the person of Jesus Christ, as did the Gospel of John.

As in the Kabbalah, in Swedenborg's philosophy, Divine emanations proceed from God in a Divine order. In fact, he speaks of that order as being God himself. These emanations manifest themselves as a cascade of finite substances, from which the Divine life has been removed, but which are receptive of forms and animations by Divine influx. The whole series terminates and rests on the matter of the universe, which we see all around us.

Creation in Swedenborg's philosophy is a nested series of articulating forms that receive Divine animation to produce a coherent, animated cosmos, which resembles a living organism. God is at the center of the cosmos as the human soul is at the center of a human life.

 The Divine Human

Central to Swedenborg's theology and philosophy is that God is the fundamental source of  humanity, the source of everything, especially what is truly human. We are accustomed to thinking of everything human as being limited and flawed. For example, there is the saying, "To err is human." However, God, the prototype, or very human does not err.  Mankind's humanity is received from God who is the source of all possible levels of development of humanity, which can never be exhausted because God is infinite. The present flawed state of our humanity is simply the flawed state of reception from Divine emanation of humanity. The human race could continue to develop to eternity and never exhaust its potential, because its humanity is received from an infinite source.


Swedenborg identifies God's presence in creation as the Logos of the Gospel of John, through which all things were made, who was born in this world as Jesus of the New Testament. In Swedenborg's theology, Jesus reveals as a person all aspects of God's potentially visible aspects that could be extracted from endless studies of his creation. Further, Swedenborg's theology recognizes Scriptures as metaphorically and allegorically true, containing truth at a deeper spiritual level that relates to the qualities of God.  Further, this truth can be uncovered through scriptural interpretation based on a knowledge of what Swedenborg calls correspondences.

The Grand Man

From his anatomical and biological studies, Swedenborg observed that there is a detailed, but semi-detached structure of organs within an organism. The identifiable organs are contained and separated from each others by membranes. The same is true of the individual cells that make up the smallest units of the human body. The organs exist as semi-autonomous groupings of cells.  Organs are nevertheless, interdependent for the smooth operation of the whole organism. The membranes enclosing organs do not completely isolate them from each other. They act as filters, retaining those chemical products that are important for the proper functioning of the organ, and allowing exchanges of other products across themselves, which need to be shared. This input/output function allows them to cooperate in the large scale functioning of the organism.

By analogy, Swedenborg viewed all of creation as an organism that feeds off the flow of life from God. In fact, Swedenborg visualized the whole of that organism as structured anatomically like man, which he called the Grand Man. Further, the organization of the Grand Man is in the image of the invisible, infinite God. A human being is the smallest components of the Grand Man, like the individual cell of an organ; and, they are grouped into organ-like structures according to the way they function and interact with each other in society. Of course, this imagery does not relate to physical structures in time and space, but rather, to images in a conceptual space that relate to structure and function. Nevertheless, these images are real and exist as structures within substances, these substances not being material in space and time, but rather, existing within manifolds with completely different properties.

Quantized levels and continuous gradations

As in the case of the semi-autonomous functioning of organs, Swedenborg proposed that there are semi-autonomous levels of creation that endow them with the proper isolation and interactive properties to serve as articulating parts of the whole, which cooperate to fulfill the purposes of creation. In describing the organization of these quantized levels of creation, Swedenborg followed the general classification of ancient Greek philosophy of end, cause and effect, which correspond to beginning, middle and end.


More than  a tool to use in deciphering the esoteric content of scriptures, the idea of correspondences applies philosophically to a scheme of organization of created structures on the different levels of creation, which is analogous to self-similarity.

Swedenborg did not describe the detailed mechanism of how correspondences operate, but only the results of their operation. First of all, God is present in all his creation apart from that creation. That is, his creation places no contingencies on the person of God; but, the nature of God imposes an order on creation. God is imaged in his creation, but only to the extent that human beings receive His inflowing life. In this, human beings are given a special role in creation through the exercise of free will. Between God as source and humans living in the material universe a chain of contingent structures is maintained in the intermediate levels of being, which constitute what Swedenborg called the Spiritual World. In this general structure, God as source, contains all the ends of creation; and communicates these ends to the highest levels of creation, which are beyond the reach of all other, created lifeforms. The World of Spirits contains all the intermediate supporting structures, which are the causes of creation; and the material universe contains all the forms that are the effects of creation manifested as stable structures. The material world is the terminus of all this activity, and therefore, acts as the container for all of creation.

All living organisms, including humans, image that basic structure of creation, which Swedenborg calls the human form. The simplest, perhaps, is the single cell. Its core, or nucleus, contains the genetic material. as strands of DNA, on which the plans for building the cell from proteins on up, are written out in the form of molecular structures. The cell body contains the structures and proteins in actuality, which articulate to form the matabolism and function of the cell. The cell membrane holds the contents of the cell within itself, and as explained above mediates and filters its interaction with the cell environment.

In the large-scale structure of creation, the highest levels are receptive of the ends of creation; the middle levels contain the supporting structures that act as the causes of everything that happens in the visible universe; finally the material universe contains the effects, which act like membranes, which contain series of end, cause and effect relationships. Each level influences what goes on in the next level below it through correspondences, but not by a direct transfer of energy.

Correspondence works by a sort of resonance between the discrete level of creation. Although there is no outright transfer of energy from one level to the next, there is a transfer of influence. For example, this is what happens in various life forms. Life is not a single level phenomenon. It involves the influence of spiritual forms on material forms through correspondences. As a result of the way everything has been created, there is a residual tendency of activities on a given level to self organize into forms that invite directive inflows from the level above. (Something of this self organization is observed to happen in nature. See for example a previous blog, "Spontaneous Order and Dissipative Structures") Perhaps, this is the origin of the reactive and voluntary nature of life, free will and evolution of life forms.

As the primitive planet Earth cooled from being too hot to support life as we know it, organic compounds, such as amino acids, emerged spontaneously in the wet, carbon-rich environment. These subsequently organized into various organic films. Higher levels of organization emerged from these existing structures into more complex forms. At some point, a form receptive of life, emerged, and thereafter, primitive organisms multiplied over the face of the earth.

Echoes of multi celled organisms among colonies of single cells—Slime Molds

File:Haeckel Mycetozoa.jpg

Slime mold: Mycetozoa from Ernst Haeckel's 1904 Kunstformen der Natur (Artforms of Nature). From Wikipedia. Public domain in the U S A.

The tendency to organize into higher life forms is illustrated by the behavior of the cellular slime molds.  When food is plentiful, they spend their time feeding as single celled organisms; but as food becomes scarce these cells come together into a single moving body, which can sniff out food from airborne chemicals. Like single organisms, they can change their shape and move their parts as appendages. They propagate by growing stalks, which release spores into the wind.

Public domain

The slime molds illustrate how complex organisms could have emerged for single celled ones.

The foregoing discussion does not imply that the slime mold is the missing link between single celled and multi celled organisms. The slime molds may be some kind of throwback. What slime molds illustrate is that the self organizing tendency of physical  processes observed to happen in inanimate nature (See previous blog, "Spontaneous Order and Dissipative Structures") continues on the biological scale to organize single cells into complex, multi celled organisms. In other words, here is an example of the self similar structure of creation: the lowest material levels exhibit properties of organization echo similar properties that exist within ans between the internal levels.

Beyond Plato and Spinoza

Swedenborg's philosophy of forms moves beyond Plato and Spinoza. It is both in harmony with Kabbalah and Christianity. It is truly a unique body of thought that unites what at first appear as widly divergent thoughts into a coherent, rational scheme.

Plato's god was an organizer of pre existing material.

Plato's creator was an organizer who built all the structures visible in nature by organizing what already existed in a chaotic state into Forms. This creator simply provided the direction and organization.--Substance and Form–Philosophy and Physics

Spinoza's god created the universe from his own substance. his book on "Ethics" publish posthumously by his friends, which begins with a section "On God", that God is infinite substance, which is the substrate of all creation and the cause of all existing substances. Thus God did not create all things ex nihilo, but rather, brought them into being from his own substance.

In Swedenborg's philosophy and theology, God created a nested series of finite forms that constitute the totality of creation as finite emanations from his his own substance, from which he withdrew his life. However, the emanations were configured in the Divine order, which is receptive of the inflow of Divine life, and in that way become animated and articulated to produce the rich tapestry of human perception of reality.


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