Substance and Form–Philosophy and Physics Part II

©Fernando Caracena 2014

The various strands of thought about God, substance and form (see, Substance and Form–Philosophy and Physics) are woven together in the magnificent philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg, from Sweden of all places, who lived in the 17th and 18th Centuries. This blog is a long introduction to the background of Swedenborg's thinking and acceptance of his ideas. Swedenborg's philosophy is discussed in a third instalment, Substance and Form–Philosophy and Physics Part III.

Fig. 1 Portrait of Emmanuel Swedenborg by Carl Frederik von Breda (1759–1818), which is public domain--from Wiki Commons. -->

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) would probably be very well known today if a religious movement had not been founded in his name by some of the enthusiastic readers of his works, unless of course, he were canonized a saint in the Catholic Church, which has a large following. The same type of anonymity would probably have cloaked the name of Leonardo de Vinci or Galileo Galilei had their followers formed a religious movement. But, Swedenborg was a fountain of copious and capacious theological works, enough to inspire the founding of several religious organizations. Incidentally, Sir Isaac Newton wrote more about religion than he did about physics, but these works were kept secret and therefore did not tend to cloak his fame.

Swedenborg was a renaissance man of the generation after Newton's. He began his studies as a scientist and mathematician, at which he enjoyed some research and professional success. As an anatomist he made some advanced discoveries, especially on the structure and function of the human brain. He contributed many ideas about the role played by neurons in the brain and the nature of nerve signals; and, although he worked before the time when electricity and magnetism were understood, he had worked on the phenomenon of magnetism and wrote extensively about it in his major scientific work on physics, which is called the Principia.

In retrospect, we realize that Swedenborg was actually motivated by a combination of theological and philosophical interests, even in his scientific works. His Principia resulted from his efforts to find the mechanism, by which the Infinite God created finite matter. In his anatomical studies of the human brain, he was searching for the seat of the soul, perhaps motivated by questions raised by Cartesian dualism. This line of thinking for various reasons suggested that the seat of the soul might be in the pineal gland. Swedenborg published the results of his intense, scientific study of the human brain in a two heavy volume set of books on the Brain, a work that was far ahead of its time.

The famous father of modern philosophy, René Descartes (1596 – 1650) had spent the later part of his life in Sweden and died in Stockholm, just before Swedenborg's birth. Descartes ideas were very popular in Sweden during Swedenborg's time. No doubt, Cartesian ideas were part of Swedenborg's studies at Uppsala University. It is apparent that Swedenborg was quite familiar with Descartes work.

Unlike many academic scholars, Swedenborg's scientific and philosophical works were not slavish applications of the thoughts of eminent authorities and experts in their fields. He was eminent among scholars living at the apex of the Age of Enlightenment. His intelligence as estimated by IQ places him at the top of the most intelligent people in history, over geniuses such as: Pascal, Goethe, and Leibniz. Initially, he worked on his own ideas and made innovative discoveries, but later, he decided to use the work of others and apply critical thinking to draw his own conclusions, which were often different from those of his sources.

Also unlike many great philosophers and scientists,

"In 1741, at age 53, he entered into a spiritual phase in which he began to experience dreams and visions, beginning on Easter weekend of April 6, 1744. This culminated in a 'spiritual awakening', in which he received revelation that he was appointed by the Lord to write the The Heavenly Doctrine to reform Christianity." Wikipedia

But, I should mention here that although it is a rare to be able to glimpse into spirit, as Swedenborg did, history records many such inward journeys. The anthropologist, Carlos Arana Castañeda for example, is famous for his description of such journeys under the direction of the half-Yaqui shaman Matus. Near death experiences (NDE)s follow consistent patterns that suggest some kind of underlying reality to the phenomenon. Experts on the brain and neurology have argued that the underlying reality here is the function of a dying brain deprived of oxygen, i.e., hypoxia, an effect similar to becoming drunk. Modern scientists, who are dominated by materialism, say that human consciousness is an epiphenomenon, which is not real in itself but simply reflects the sum total of the patterns of firing of neurons in the brain and nervous system. There is also a large body of material about communication with spirits, such as the series of Seth books by Jane Roberts and the famous psychic feats of Edgar Cayce. These latter type of events are usually dismissed by scholars as unscientific along with miracles and other such happenings, which clash with a materialistic view of the universe.

Perhaps the experiences of a trained, seasoned scientist and over-genius, such as Swedenborg would be more believable in intellectual circles today. But given that he was born over 300 years ago and not of a modern age, he is perhaps dismissed a a curiosity, as some kind of mental aberration in an over-genius having antique beliefs. Perhaps, if there were more like him in modern times, would their stories be more accepted in modern academic circles? In fact, there is an NDE event that may answer the above query. Dr Eban Alexander, a neurosurgeon who would have tended to interpret NDEs as epiphenomena originating from physical process in the brain, had just such as experiences, and they were very real experiences, which in many ways were more real than those in the physical world. The jarring part of Dr Alexander's experiences for him personally, was that they happened during a period when his cerebral cortex was devoid of electrical activity: he was clinically brain dead. Being a scientist, he was forced to accept the idea that you can have vivid thoughts when your brain is not physically capable of generating them.

I have not personally had a NDE, nor significant out-of-body experience, but as a scientist I am forced to give weight to the idea that there is a realm of the mind that is as real as that of the physical world, and that it is in that realm that the higher levels of our thought function. In computer terms, I would consider the brain as the main bus to the mind, a connector between our sensory-motor, physical apparatus and the mind. Neo-Platonic ideas have acquired some objective verification, although by observations that arrive as random events to various individuals. This whole area could become an experimental science only if neuro-scientists took shamanistic studies into university laboratories.

At the end of all his efforts, Swedenborg arrived at a philosophy of awesome depth, which cannot be separated from his theological visions. I attempt to describe this philosophy here in a way that relates to the thoughts of other philosopher's, discussing Swedenborg's theology only where absolutely necessary for this purpose. I am not being anti religious in doing this, I am simply trying to deflect the flood of prejudice against religious faith from overwhelming the response to reading about Swedenborg's philosophy before some idea about its basic characteristics are conveyed to readers of this blog.

In Swedenborg's day hardly anyone questioned the existence of God, although they might disagree over who or what God was. For example, Spinoza's idea was pantheistic:

"Spinoza argued that God exists[,] is abstract and impersonal...[that] God and Nature ...[are] two names for the same reality, namely a single, fundamental substance...,  of which all lesser 'entities' are actually modes or modifications... determined by Nature to exist and cause effects, and that the complex chain of cause and effect is understood only in part."  --Wikipedia

Even in more modern times, belief in God was openly expressed by scientists. For example, Einstein wrote in a letter to Eduard Büsching,

"We followers of Spinoza see our God in the wonderful order and lawfulness of all that exists and in its soul ["Beseeltheit"] as it reveals itself in man and animal," ---Wikipedia

From the above, it is not clear that Einstein considered god and nature as the same thing, since he speaks of seeing God in the order of nature and talks about the soul of things that exist. In another letter in 1954, he clarified his ideas further,

  "I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly" .---Wikipedia

It appears that it is only in very recent times that we have a growing atheistic movement, which I think is an overreaction to fanatic religious extremes and atrocities. It is noteworthy that some atheists base their arguments on the biological theory of evolution, which is science, but elevated to an unsubstantiated philosophy that basically supports the premise of materialism. In fact, these evolutionary atheists do have a god, the god of pure chance or dumb luck in a physical world where stuff just happens. The idea is that by pure chance a little piece of matter acquires a way of recording instructions on how to construct itself on a subset of its own material, which acts as a seed for organizing the next generation of other such bits of matter. Life seen materialistically is matter, somehow endowed by chance with the ability to record and reproduce its structure several times over, generation after generation, subsequently becoming able to unleash a chain of evolutionary changes of growing complexity.

Swedenborg's philosophy of creation and forms is discussed in the third blog of this series, Part III.


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