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Swedenborg: A Man For Our Times

Karl posits that Kant's concept of inertia, at the heart of scientific thought, is a mistaken premise, one that is preventing truly new ideas from entering the stage. He argues that the time for Swedenborg's philosophy has come. -Editor.

There is something about Swedenborg’s high IQ, however artificial one might consider this retrogressive calculation to have been, which still remains of great interest to us. Given that he is cited as number two in the top ten list, most people will recognize most of the names in it, but all should be forgiven for exclaiming: “Swedenborg? Who is he, and what is it that puts him virtually at the top of the list, and we have never heard of him?” (See these websites for information about the top geniuses: Myth of Genius; Geniuses; Highest IQ; Estimated IQs.)

One could sound conspiratorial and assert that history has done a hatchet job on all that he represents, just as it does on many people of note over time whose views might be at odds with the prevailing zeitgeist. This is too simplistic in some ways, yet it may also capture something of the flavor of the actual truth.

Consider that period of time when Swedenborg was alive. The Enlightenment, that rational view of the world which still holds sway today, was in full swing but lacking a rallying cry, an intellectual banner to gather together all the different strands of activity springing up from what was called the experimental method. What had been holding back its development over the centuries was recognized as the dogmatism of authoritarianism, something well represented in the religion of that time.

Out of this ferment arose Immanuel Kant, who in many ways became a self-appointed spokesperson for this movement. His “Critique of Pure Reason” became the definitive statement to represent it, yet long before he wrote this work, he wrote a much smaller work entitled "Dreams of a Spirit-Seer.” The spirit-seer in question was Swedenborg, and its aim on the surface was to deride any views that Swedenborg claimed to be revelatory, and to dismiss the relevance of any kind of spiritual statement whatsoever as “unfounded in fact.”

It is by diminishing the status of the opposition that one automatically can raise the profile of the alternative position without really having to try very hard. It is a kind of political ploy we have become used to, particularly around election times. In this very short book, however, Kant does in fact lay his cards on the table and reveals quite a different intention, one that is still an intent we experience in the 21st century. Consider this statement:

The dead matter that fills the universe is according to its proper nature, in a self-same state of inertia and stability; it has solidity, extension, and shape, and its manifestations, which are based upon all these grounds, permit a physical explanation that is at the same time mathematical, and together they are called mechanical. (Immanuel Kant: Dreams of a Spirit-Seer and Other Writings, Swedenborg Foundation Publishers (2002))

This is the principle of inertia, the founding stone of the laws of motion that appeared to hold the promise of explaining everything. However, this is not Newton speaking but Kant, pinning his colors to the mast right at the beginning of his attack on Swedenborg. It is not that revelatory knowledge is being attacked but that science and the experimental method is being defended. In the whole history of science and philosophy from that time till now, Swedenborg is, as far as I know, the only thinker to have cast doubts on the truth of this principle. Prior to becoming the revelator whose subsequent ideas have been the focus of interest among scholars of his thought, he wrote a short treatise entitled “The Heiroglyphic Key.” In this short work he developed early ideas on correspondences, and with regard to inertia, he wrote this: “One of the classes may be wanting...for in things divine there is nothing corresponding to ...inertia...inaction; for properties that pertain rather to death, are not predicable of pure and veriest life.”

From our perspective, this is as much as to say that while there may be a “thing” corresponding to “energy” or “mass,” there is not anywhere at any moment in the universe a state that actually corresponds to a state of inertia. There is not anything that is not changing from moment to moment, and it is astounding that this principle remains intact at the heart of science, both unquestioned and unseen as the driving principle in every utterance that has emerged from science since then.

But returning to Kant, it was for this reason more than any other that Swedenborg needed to be silenced. What the principle of inertia represented was a potential for a view of reality that was entirely rational, with no reference at all to anything “non-rational.” Such things could have their own domains but they were not to be deemed descriptive of reality. Only science was to hold that key. Clearly, the upstart Swedenborg had to be silenced.

Given the lack of awareness of his existence, it is clear that Kant, and the movement of thought he represents has been successful. Everyone has heard of Newton, but no one has heard of Swedenborg. Despite the fact that he surpassed all the major shakers and movers of his time in both science and philosophy, he continues to be ignored. This is not difficult to explain. By excluding any ‘animate’ principles from the understanding, the Enlightenment imposed a limit and a boundary to what was to be called knowledge from then on:

...eventually science arrives at the determination of the limits set for it by the nature of human reason....the boundaries [of philosophy] draw closer together and marker stones are laid that never again allow investigation to wander beyond its proper district. (Immanuel Kant: Dreams of a Spirit-Seer and Other Writings, Swedenborg Foundation Publishers (2002))

It may have seemed to Kant in the 18th century that there was a limitlessness to those boundaries, but here in the 21st century, we are witness to the fact that they have been reached, but much is still wanting. The physicist, Lee Smolin, has recently written that nothing new has emerged from science in three decades (The Trouble with Physics, Penguin Books (2008)). We should not here be thinking about advances in medicine or technology, but in terms of fundamental ideas. In his book, The Trouble with Science, he argues this case, that the problem does not lie in the complexity of ideas but that something fundamental in the earliest formulations of science seems to have gone awry, and that it has probably got something to do with our concepts of time. It seems he is on the right track, but that he needs to go back one notch to the principle of inertia from which that idea grew, as indeed have all concepts of measurement.

But there is another way to think about this, in terms of faith. In its strict meaning, faith is not a religious word, although it has come to be so in terms of association. It would be more accurate to say that faith is that feeling of trust in something that instils in us a sense of confidence. Consequently, while the principle of inertia is an assumption, in another language that also means it is an act of faith.

But it is possible to put Swedenborg’s principles in more secular terms. What we find in science is a secular form of faith divorced from any form of charity. It is entirely derived from the intellect with no reference at all to the heart. Given the fact that Swedenborg always insists that everything must begin from the spiritual, and that this involves head and heart components, we should not wonder all that much at the fact that science has reached an end-point. However, perhaps the last word should remain with Swedenborg. In this passage from Arcana Coelestia Swedenborg also speaks of boundaries, but in a way that not only shows how they restrict thought, but points to how they can be expanded:

When man is in this state, [where good and truth are joined together] he then begins to know innumerable things, for he now proceeds from the good and truth which he believes and perceives as from a center to the circumferences; and in proportion as he proceeds, in the same proportion he sees the things which are round about, and successively more and more widely, for he is constantly pushing out and widening the boundaries. Thenceforth also he commences from every subject in the space within the boundaries; and from these as from new centers he throws out new circumferences, and so on. In this way the light of truth from good increases immeasurably, and becomes like a continuous lucidity, for the man is then in the light of heaven, which is from the Lord. But with those who are in doubt and in discussion as to whether a thing exists, and whether it is so, these innumerable, nay, illimitable things do not appear one whit; to them all things in both general and particular are utterly obscure, and are scarcely regarded as one really existing thing, but rather as one thing the existence of which is doubtful. In such a state is human wisdom and intelligence at this day, when he is deemed wise who can reason with ingenuity as to whether a thing exists; and he is deemed still wiser who can reason that it does not exist. (3833)

When considering that such thinking holds so great a potential, is it not a tragedy that we find ourselves hanging on like limpets to ideas that are well past their use-by date, and which offer so little in comparison to the boundlessness of a knowledge, rooted in the first place in the natural state, from which it climbs beyond the scope of any boundaries that science could ever hope to attain? It will, of course, resist such thinking with all its might and with all its powers. Nonetheless, whether it agrees or not with this sentiment, it is clear that we live in an age desperate for new thinking and new ideas, and Swedenborg has these in abundance.

Karl Birjukov

Karl discovered Swedenborg seven years ago, and took to his writings like a duck to water. As a lapsed Christian, his interest was revived, and he has become a part-time lay preacher at a New Church in his area near London. The Swedenborg Scientific Association has published a couple of articles he wrote, and he has undertaken to publish a lengthier one this year entitled "Swedenborg in the 21st Century."

Reader Comments (10)

While this post is thought provoking, I find myself wondering what science with a "heart component" would look like and whether that would in fact be a sustainable way to find out new things about the universe in an investigative (not philosophically speculative) manner. Also, it seems a little bit like you want to return to a science of correspondences? I'd love to see a followup to this article about a practical vision for how "Swedenborgian science" would function.

May 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnnika

Thank you Annika. Your response is incisive and to the point. Later this year, the Swedenborg Scientific Association are publishing an article that I believe meets the requirements that you are aiming at. Actually, it was originally prompted by what I consider to be the manifesto of the New church, written by New Church people in the 19th century and entitled "Words for the New Church which is still worth reading. They go to great pains to highlight the responsibility of the New Church to separate good science from bad science, citing the plundering of the Egyptians by the Israelites, the relevance of the first rational that is Ishmael, the significance of Egypt generally, the manchild with the rod of iron, and how all these things relate to our own attitudes and actual knowledge. It seems to me that there are a great many lines of eninquiry that are yet to be tapped.
The aim of my article, which I hope you will read if you are interested, is to show what happens to relativity theory when such a critique is applied to it, and how it actually gets altered and changes our common perceptions of reality. This hardly answers your question, but I hope it suggest some notion that it is possible, and that it leads to some compelling ideas in keeping with New Church thinking.
If you are interested, I could forward you a copy of the article, which I'm afraid is about 80 pages.

May 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkarl Birjukov

Thanks for the interesting article Karl. So to generalize your message, you feel that the idea of inertia is unsupported by Swedenborgian thought, which argues that everything receives life from the Lord, and is therefore in flux. A bunch of science that rests on the idea of measurable, rational, inert pieces is obviously at odds with a philosophy of influx and connection. Are you saying that all the science that proceeds from this mistaken premise is wrong? or limited in some form? Am I reading you correctly? If so, like what Annika asked, what would this good science look like? What concepts would be replaced? What would the practical consequences of this shift in thinking be? Thanks-

May 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlanna

Thank you, Alanna. I think it comes down to this: when considering science generally, it is important to be aware of its scope of application, and that scope is measured by the intentions in the premises. Since inertia is that premise, what we find in the scope is a lack of reference to anything 'animistic' for want of a better word, and that all reality must then be explained in terms of forces. Hence, there is no influx but only force.
Yet in playing the film backwards, so to speak, the principles of gravity, for instance, which Newton's equations purported to describe, did not nor could 'explain' that attraction. When Kant attacked Swedenborg, he made a virtue of this description and effectively made ignorance itself a cause for celebration. To this day, gravity is not on any kind of rational ground and it is proving to be a real problem as the fourth force which is yet to be substantiated. Notice here that we are not talking about anything supernatural but entirely natural, and we do not know what it is. The thinking behind it is entirely speculative and without evidence. The same applies to the spacetime manifold, to string theory, to black holes, gravity waves, gravitons and dark matter, the multiverse and much else that is euphemistically called science at the cutting edge, and not a shred of proof for any of it.
The problem gets worse. Much that is intermediate in science nonetheless rests upon the apparent 'truth' of gravity, and so it is very much a pack of cards waiting to collapse.
So notice that we are educated to believe the opposite, that these ideas are sold to us as investigative, as Annika put it, when they are actually hugely speculative.
So the question still remains, what would knowledge with heart look like? The answer is that currently there is little interest in pursuing this question because the old system that is inertia-based is still in place. As Swedenborg points out about the establishment of a new church, I think the same applies even in these apparently secular areas - only once a system has reached its limit and can go no further, a kind of despair sets in, which Swedenborg related to vastation, and I see no reason why this does not carry over into the secular realm. Lee Smolin's book to which I referred points science in that direction, that it is an exhausted system and can go no further to some new big thing to rescue it. The same applies by proxy to consciousness studies and much more that have all been influenced by inertia-based science to which these other forms of thought have pinned their colours in the hope of imitating some of its successes.
I cannot venture into what the new science would actually look like here, but I hope it is clear enough that we first need to shake off the false confidence that ordinary science has managed to instil into us over the last three hundred years.

May 22, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkarl Birjukov

Thanks Karl. That illuminates it a bit more for me.

May 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlanna

Hi Karl - great post, thank you. I'm directing the new ISAS Forum - Integrating Science and Spirituality (, and your topic is near and dear to my heart. I studied philosophy in college and remember my frustration with Immanuel Kant - in part because of his utter lack of humility. Emanuel Swedenborg, whom I discovered at age 40, is a breath of fresh air - the epitome of humility, and, indeed, his ideas were 300 years ahead of his time. I'll leave you with two quotes from my post on God of the Gaps (

From Francis Bacon, a thinker often credited as the founder of the scientific method: “To conclude, therefore, let no man upon a weak conceit of sobriety or an ill-applied moderation think or maintain that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or the book of God’s works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both; only let men beware that they apply both to charity, and not to swelling; to use, and not to ostentation; and again, that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together.” (emphasis added) Francis Bacon, from The Advancement of Learning; Colours of Good and Evil, originally published in 1597.

From Swedenborg, one hundred fifty years later, in an entry in his Spiritual Experiences (#5709), elaborated on Bacon’s recommendation by noting the two foundations of truth – natural and spiritual – and affirming that there is no conflict: “Afterwards, I spoke about the foundations of truth, that they are two, one from the Word, the other from nature or from the truths of nature; …… But, still, they agree the one with the other; which is proved by a contemplation of certain things in the Word…… (continued) Since sciences have shut up the understanding, therefore, sciences may also open it; and it is opened so far as men are in good.” (emphasis added)

May 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Gantz

Thanks for the quotes Gearge. Swedenborg points out that even the church begins with the best of intentions, (talking about the first Christian church) but that it harbours within itself a love of domineering which eventually comes to the fore. If you take that as a principle, then clearly it is one that is equally as present in secular as well as spiritual domains. We might ask, given the quote from Bacon, how did it all go so wrong. This is a serious question, one that gets virtually no air time, since in the secular domain the danger is that it will reveal its numerous flaws.
The passage you quote from Spiritual experiences is also one that is cited in 'Words for the New Church' which I mentioned earlier. I think that in some ways, that New Church has disappeared and these things no longer have any real emphasis. I think that we should not be looking at the similarities between what science is saying and what we find in Swedenborg, but should adopt a far more critical stance, get our hands dirty so to speak, and clearly begin the job of distinguishing between what is good science and what is bad.
On a more serious note, I think, this task is paramount because if the connection between spirituality and the physical is maintained through correspondences, what we find in science is a determined effort to close down this portal, is if its own representations were somehow complete. But that's another story, I suppose.
I shall look up the webnsite you mention and thank you for the info.

Karl Birjukov

May 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkarl birjukov

Hi Karl,

I'd love to look at your article, even it it is 80 pages. My e-mail is

Grand-scale physics isn't really my field, I'm a cell biologist/biophysicist and my worry is that "heart" biology will end up looking like alternative medicine (which, in many cases, is essentially faith based) and will not have any basis for determining right science from invalid science. I am interested to read your article and see what practical theories you have in mind.


June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnnika


An excellent exploration of the philosophical friction that has arisen between topics of spirituality and empiricism, it was a pleasure to read, thank you.

If it's not too late to chime in, I would like to point out the similar aim of each discipline, the teasing out of what is true about reality. And while I put my faith in science, with a bit of a mental stretch, I can understand and agree that Swedenborg's purpose seems not to be a.challenge to science or an attack on rational thinking. By my reading, he was attempting to add an additional wrinkle to a previous theory. Rather than questioning empiricism, he is presenting a theory for assessment and testing. Just as with Newton's articulation of physics or Darwin's of evolution, this theory, if proven reliable, has the potential to fundamentally alter our understanding of the reality we experience.

As so often is the case, however, where there is dogma, where people submit to the comfort of a Truth, there is orthodoxy and violent rejection of "heresy." Kant seems not to be responding to Swedenborg with empiricism, but a denial of legitimacy. Recoiling from a perceived threat to the foundations of the scientific method, Kant reads, to me, at least, like a zealot choosing the comfort of stability over the adventure of expanding the limits of the possible. It seems to me that this refusal by devotees of Science (that is, the big S, master narrative of science, rather than the method of science Bacon describes in George's contribution) is, like the fundamentalists arising in various religious groups, a resistance to being reminded, yet again, that we still don't have a complete answer to the questions that have vexed us since the dawn of our history.

I do believe in science, and I do believe in empiricism. However, I cannot put faith any explanation of reality that refuses to continually reassess and challenge its orthodoxies. As we are often reminded, gravity is still, and forever more, just a theory. We are always one unexpected observation away from having to go back and revise the theory. Empiricism is, at it's root, a philosophy of utter skepticism that cannot accept an absolute. Kant, if I'm reading him correctly, is anchored to such an absolute. It is clinging to such rigidity in science and, I think, in spiritual pursuits as well, that produces the fundamentalism that seems to be developing across the world. And I would argue that addressing either demands that both be recognized.

Though they may function differently, I will not concede that science is wrong, or insist that spiritual exploration is invalid. In both cases, symptoms of decay have appeared, but these are symptoms, not of invalidity, but of atrophy. Both pursuits seem, sadly, to have hit a lull in creativity, have come up against the self-imposed boundaries Swedenborg points to. I would argue that what you point to, Karl, in your response to Alanna's comment, is symptomatic of scientists trying desperately to fill a void in meaning that is, presently at least, well beyond the reach of empiricism. They are, to my mind at least, teleological speculations, theories awaiting observation, and thus aren't even rooted in materialism.

I hope, though, that you can see, within religious communities as well, similar symptoms of trouble afoot. Given the general content of the New Testament, it is hard to reconcile the institution of Christianity with the teachings of Jesus. The development of an understanding of spirituality in which a relationship with the divine is moderated by a third party is questionable in my mind. Compounded by the fact that the third party is an institution that, in many, many cases, been a materially corrupt organization inspires what, I hope, is an understandable mistrust among those of us outside the flock. Seeing religion being wielded as a blunt instrument by people in the halls of power replaces the quiet, compassionate, boundlessly loving Christ with a hateful, petty, xenophobic deity that demands conformity and subservience.

Both disciplines are ailing, as as they waste, the distance between them widens. It is a gulf, certainly, and requires a bit of intellectual flexibility to reach across. I think, however, it's work that needs to be done, if only because neither can expect to recover without the other. Science falters without spiritual guidance, spirituality ossifies without scientific curiosity.

For my part, at least, I submit that science tells us what we can do, but cannot tell us what we should do. Science is the tool that can help us reach toward a transcendent future, but it relies upon the inspiration, the ideals provided by the process of seeking heaven, Enlightenment, God, however such concepts are individually defined. Lacking this inspiration science is in danger of becoming the self-fulfilled prophecy of human insignificance.

Wow, sorry, that got away from me, but again thanks for the article.

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