Rational Scientific Theories from Theism
Although Emanuel Swedenborg (1688 - 1772) worked in the eighteenth century, his investigations into the nature of physical, physiological and spiritual processes are still relevant today, although they are not as widely known as they deserve. I briefly describe the stages in Swedenborg's life, and describe the range and accessibility of his writings.
LifeBrief sketches of Emanuel Swedenborg's life are available at swedenborg.net, the Swedenborg Society, the HeavenlyDoctrines site, and details in a biography by Jane K. Williams-Hogan.
Entries from the Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Catholic Encyclopedia may be read.
Swedenborg went to University in Sweden just when the new Newtonian ideas of mechanical explanation were beginning to supplant the older Cartesian views. For the first part of his life, Swedenborg was as enamoured with the idea of a mechanical basis for all natural phenomena as any classical physicist. He followed up lines of investigation in fossils, sailing, salt and mineral production, longitude determination, magnetism, and various chemical processes (to name only a few). He developed crude ideas for submarines, and flying machines and designed more practical things such as dry docks, pumps, and a way to transport small ships fourteen miles overland to help the king win a battle. From the age of 28 he was an Assessor for the Royal College of Mines, having a full position from 36.
All through this time, however, he was interested in the foundations of physics. After three years he published his great work, Opera Philosophica and Mineralia, of which the first volume was called The Principia, or the First Principles of Natural Things. In this, Swedenborg posited atoms within atoms, or discrete orders of particles, such that the smaller or more fundamental particles had discretely higher energies and moved internally in rapid vortical patterns. The appearance of solidity was provided by the speed at which the internal parts moved, and because this motion was in a directed spiral, there was a polarity to the motion which Swedenborg used to explain the magnetisation of solids. The ultimate constituent was the 'natural point' which was infinitely small and had infinite tendencies to motion. He then proceeded on the astronomical scale to explain the origin of the solar system as the progressive condensation of solar matter.
There are considerable similarities of these early ideas with what science has subsequently discovered. The modern atom with its rapidly circulating electrons appears to be solid in the same way he suggested, and rather differently from what Boyle and Newton imagined. Modern physics too has realised that the constituents of atoms have higher and higher energies, with the proposed quarks having energies much larger than appear in normal molecular, atomic, or nuclear processes. His ideas of intrinsic polarity in the constitution of particles is a remarkable anticipation of the notion of spin in modern particle physics, while the same ideas applied to magnetic materials produced pictures of magnetisation which are still valid today.
By means of his theories of physics, he was trying to answer the question, 'how can an Infinite Being create a finite world?'. The intermediate nature of the 'natural point', being in some respects finite and in some respects infinite, was in part his solution to this problem.
The Search for the SoulHe had a second question in mind too: 'what is the place of the human soul in nature' (what we call today 'the mind-body problem'), and this led him on from considerations of physics to investigations in anatomy and physiology. He read all the anatomical studies available, and travelled extensively talking to those working in these fields. He performed some dissections himself, but soon decided that this biassed his theoretical speculations, and that he should confine himself to using the results of others.
He was particularly interested in the structure and function of the nervous system, and was impressed by the hierarchical substructures of organs, bundles, and then single nerve fibres. As with the physical world, he understood that the human body was constructed of smaller units, and these of still smaller entities. He postulated what he called 'cerebellula' ('little brains') as the smallest functionally autonomous units in the brain, and, against Descartes, became convinced that psychological functions were mediated by the cerebellula themselves. Various observations convinced Swedenborg of the primacy of the cerebral cortex, and also that different regions of the cortex were specialised for particular functions. This is the beginning of the theory of cerebral localisation. He also speculated that various subcortical grey matters (in particular the cerebellum, the oblongata, and parts of the spinal medulla) had the capacity to act as motor centres in their own right, and allow highly developed motor habits in humans. These views demonstrate Swedenborg's remarkable intuitive grasp of a subject which others have had to elaborate over a long period.
He didn't find the soul in the brain, however, and he was led to investigations in psychology. Here he again applied his scheme of 'discrete degrees' of organisation. He saw the capacities of the mind to have sense data, to organise these into thoughts and ideas, and to judge those thought and ideas as three levels of sensation, thought, and reason or judgment, with each level being discretely higher than the previous. This idea of stages of psychological development reappears today in the theories of Piaget and Erikson.
New InsightsAt the age of 55, however, his life began to change in unexpected ways. Where previous he had always had an intellectual approach to life, now he was having a disturbing series of dreams which were forcing him to reconsider his intellectual pride and his repression of affectional processes. From this time on, he systematically recorded his dreams and inner experiences in what became his Journal of Dreams  and his five-volume Spiritual Diary . He gradually began to have psychical experiences and visions which even persisted in his waking state. In a sense he was developing the capacities to investigate the deepest realms of the mind itself, and finally to answer his search for the soul. He began forming his 'post-illumination' philosophy and spiritual insights, in a kind of 'rational mysticism' which he then consistently expounded in his writings and conversations for the remaining 25 years of his life.
The Importance of SwedenborgSwedenborg is important because, although his is in general agreement with the esoteric teachings of ages before and since, he worked from within a distinctly Western and Judeo-Christian tradition. This may not seem a strong recommendation given the widespread uncertainties in that tradition today, but he is important precisely because he tackles and provides answers for what is today most uncertain. Very few people today would believe, for example, that the Christian idea of the Divine Trinity (of three persons but not three Gods) is a coherent rational doctrine, that faith alone (without life or works) is what is important, or that Jesus of Nazareth died to appease the wrath of an angry and vengeful Divine Father. Swedenborg saw one of his tasks as replacing these ideas with what he regarded they should have been all along, and this he did an with attention to logical and psychological detail which has rarely been equalled.
WritingsThere are many sources in the literature and the today's world which deal with the Divine, the Spiritual and the Psychological separately, but not many which show how these are connected: how they are causally related among themselves and with Nature. As I have mentioned many times, the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg have for me pride of place in terms of scope, accuracy and authority.
Author: I.J. Thompson. Based in part on an article published in: Network Newsletter of The Scientific and Medical Network, 36 (1988) 3-8
All of Swedenborg's writings are available online at