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.