Approach to Theistic Science
(original URL http://www.soc.hawaii.edu/leonj/leonj/leonpsy/instructor/gloss/relbehaviorism.html)
Several sub-topics are handled here:
Swedenborg's Theory of Trisubstantivism
as a Basis for the Science of Human Behavior
Swedenborg and Modern Psychology
The Writings of Swedenborg contain a consistent and highly integrated spiritual
psychology. From the perspective of modern scientific psychology, Swedenborg's
psychology may be categorized as empirical, biological, and behavioristic.
Some writers view Swedenborg's psychology as subjective, phenomenological,
spiritual-if-not-mystical. However, right from the beginning of my first
reading of Swedenborg, it has been my perception that the psychology contained
therein is very much in harmony with the mainstream of modern objective
behavioral psychology whose content and method of inquiry overlap with
behavioral medicine, health psychology, clinical psychotherapy, neuro-psychobiology,
sociobiology, psycholinguistics, developmental and genetic psychology,
social psychology, cultural and cognitive anthropology, and no doubt others
-- I'm only mentioning the fields that I have some familiarity with, given
my three decades of teaching psychology courses and publishing in the literature.
Will, Understanding and Action
Swedenborg's psychology is explicitly modeled on a triadic hierarchy of
the human being, with the will on top, holding sway upon the intellect
or understanding, which is in the middle, so that both act together through
the body, to produce consequences upon the observable reality. This is
known in systems theory as a "top-down" processing model. It can also be
represented as an "inner-outer" control system, so that the inmost is the
active controlling condition determining the fate of the middle, as well
as the ultimate or outermost. Further discussion on the will and
can be found here.
Affective, Cognitive, Sensorimotor
Modern scientific behaviorism has a similar triadic organization. At the
top of the control hierarchy (the inmost of the individual), behaviorism
places the concept of motivation or drive. Like Swedenborg's concept of
the will, the concept of motivation or drive has both structural and functional
characteristics. Structurally, drives and impulses are understood to be
neuro-physiological or psycho-biological substances issuing deep from within
the neural cells of the brain and spreading its effects through hormonal
substances carried by the blood stream. Functionally, drives and impulses
have strong influences on overt behavior.
One current theory, for example, is that alcoholism is a hereditary
imbalance of neurochemical agents. Another, is that emotions such as depression
or elation, occur when certain specific brain-produced chemicals reach
a particular concentration in the blood stream. In Swedenborg's dualist
system, the will is a structural, neuro-physiological organ made up of
spiritual substances which he calls "affections." Affections or "loves"
are hierarchically organized spiritual neurons whose patterns reflect the
individual's character. Drives and impulses in behavioral psychology correspond
to affections and loves in spiritual psychology. (A further development
of this topic may be seen in the entry on spiritual genes.
Another comparison may be offered from educational psychology and learning
theory. One well known behavioristic approach in education today involves
the identification of "behavioral objectives" in the classroom. The results
are often influential in that they are used by curriculum writers and school
achievement test makers. Behavioral objectives are stated at the level
of action required to obtain a predesignated result. There are two accounting
systems behaviorists ascribe to the desired response: the cognitive system
and the affective system. Debate is still going on in the literature as
to whether the cognitive or the affective comes first in determining the
One common model in educational psychology categorizes all instructional
behaviors into three categories of behavioral objectives or leanings: affective,
cognitive, and sensorimotor. Affective school behaviors include the students'
values towards the subject matter, their motivation and perseverance in
self-practice, and their ability to apply the leanings to real life situations.
Cognitive school behaviors include the students' reasoning and rationality,
their ability to analyze and draw conclusions from facts. Sensorimotor
school abilities include perceptual and motor activities.
It is easy to perceive that the trinity in Swedenborg's psychology is
in agreement with the triadic system of human behavior in behavioristic
and medical psychology. The will corresponds to the affective system; the
understanding corresponds to the cognitive system; and use or actions correspond
to the sensorimotor system. Having made this identification, and to the
extent that it is valid, we can extend the comparisons to see whether there
are details in Swedenborg's model which have not as yet been discovered
by modern efforts.
Psychology of Religion
One of the reasons humanistic and transpersonal psychologists have a deep
antipathy for so-called Skinnerian behavioristic psychology is that B.F.
Skinner's psychology has nothing serious to say about religion, revelation,
or spirit. The discipline known as the Psychology of Religion, which is
an official branch of the American Psychological Association, has similarly
nothing serious to say about spiritual psychology, dualism, and God. Instead,
their primary and exclusive focus is on the study of the external manifestations
of religion such as church attendance, verbal expressions of attitudes,
knowledge quizzes, and personality traits. There are no theories that try
to explain life after death, communication with angels or spiritual beings,
regeneration, prophecy, or revelation. Yet these are the items that make
up religious behavior for people who participate in a religion.
There is thus no religious or
spiritual psychology in modern psychology, only a psychology of religion
or religious behavior that is committed to a materialistic, non-dualist
psychology. Within this orientation, everything that
is spiritual is decomposed or transcribed as attitudinal. To this view,
religion is either cultural practices or delusional attitudes.
This inability to take religious behavior seriously as a psychologist
is characteristic of scientific and professional psychology today. William
James has a good reputation among contemporary psychologists , but James
was rather a mixture of elements that are difficult to incorporate into
behaviorism. It is known that his father, Henry James, Sr., was a staunch
Swedenborgian expositor, but neither William nor Henry, his two famous
sons, appear to have a similar sympathy. At any rate, the total absence
of a psychology sympathetic to religion is of deep concern to many today.
I will try to show that Swedenborg's
psychology is both religious and behavioristic, and therefore offers for
the first time the real possibility that a scientific psychology of religious
behavior can now be established
The Writings of Swedenborg are totally unique in the history of science.
Science has always had two branches: theistic and atheistic. Until the
17th century just about all the great scientists belonged to the theistic
branch. Men like Pythagoras, Euclid, Aristotle, Leibniz, Descartes, Newton,
and Darwin -- through whose work we have mathematics, physics, and biology,
-- always assumed the reality of God, of revelation through Holy Scriptures,
and of a life after death. They saw nature as a theater of physical matter
and time that corresponds and depends on an underlying, more real and 'substantive'
world of spirit and eternity in which God also ruled.
Beginning with the 18th century (the Age of "Reason"), there was a political
reversal such that the atheistic branch of science became stronger, bolder
and more erratic. It was a climate in which political Marxism and artistic
nihilism were given birth. The modern era thus began in which, for the
first time in human history, theology and revelation were stripped of official
authority; what mattered most now was individuality and self-determination,
unbound by hereditary culture and unchecked by religious trues.
Swedenborg's Theistic Science
Swedenborg was the only major scientific figure of the Age of Reason who
developed a serious and successful theistic science. He accomplished this
in the areas of physiology and neuroanatomy, psychology and psychiatry,
physics and chemistry. Swedenborg was one of the last of the old style
European great scientists whose erudition encompassed all the sciences.
Today, as we quickly approach the beginning of the new millennium, there
appears to take place once again a swing back to the theistic branch of
science. Signs are abundant when we examine the scientific concepts that
have appeared on the fringes and are moving distinctly towards the center
of acceptability by the mainstream of scientists.
For example, in physics and astronomy, the concepts of relativity, black
holes, hyperspace, and the implicate order; in psychology, the concepts
of dualism, consciousness, transpersonal experience, spirit possession,
and healing; in biology, the concepts of morphic resonance, genetic culture
and neurolinguistics. In the swing back to theistic science, the Writings
of Swedenborg provide a real, rational, and empirical basis for the new
sciences of the future millennium.
To some people the phrase "theistic
science" seems like a logical contradiction, and to others it evokes vague
feelings of religious hocus pocus. I understand this because I have felt
and thought these things myself before I had the opportunity to study the
facts reported in Swedenborg's
Writings. Since many who read this may not have studied the facts given
in Swedenborg's reports I'd like to refer to those facts as an introduction
to theistic science. This is also an invitation to scientists and students
of science to consider the available facts and perhaps see merit in its
validity and rationality, as I have.
I could not have foreseen or predicted
what I found when I seemingly per chance one day, while browsing in our
university library, came across a whole shelf of books written by one author.
That alone would have impressed a fledgling and ambitious middle aged author
such as I was then in 1981. My wife Diane and I were looking in the Bible
commentaries section, right next to Psychology. I think it's significant
that our information search was within the context or umbrella of the Bible.
What would have happened if we had found the Writings of Swedenborg in
the Psychology or Social Science sections, right next door a couple of
shelves over? I think the significance of the location is that theistic
science cannot exist in its own context or justification, but must exist
and survive in the context of Divine Revelation.
Readers who reject this absolute dependency
of theistic science on Divine Revelation must perforce reject the enterprise
as unfounded, and therefore they leave it behind for the sake of other
Theistic science will be of interest
to readers who are willing to entertain the possibility of God's existence,
including God's immediate management of the universe in all its details,
thus an Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnipresent God. If this one assumption
be granted, the road to theistic science becomes clear and simple and rational.
The first question that must be clarified
in one's mind is the relation or difference between theistic science and
religion. Speaking broadly, religion is the pragmatics of relating to God
while theistic science is the scientific study of God's universe, and especially,
the laws of Divine Providence by which God creates and maintains it. Religion
also involves the laws of Divine Providence but only in terms of faith
in broad strokes. Theistic science studies the detailed series of these
laws. Religion is a cultural institution and its functions and rituals
are ethnically adapted and historically identified. Theistic science is
a rational activity independent of ethnic background or cultural history
and tradition. Religion is adapted to people's understanding at whatever
level it can comprehend its tenets for living. Theistic science cumulates
in an absolute sense and requires preparation and long study, like an avocation
or a profession. Religion is created by rituals and content that identify
a people or nation, while theistic science is universal. Religion can be
filled with truths and falsities in any proportion, while theistic science
can be filled with truths only. Note that materialistic science as we've
known it thus far in its monism is more like religion falsified in that
it contains truths and falsities in any proportion. Dr. Donald Hebb, my
famous professor at McGill university in 1959 declared in class one
day that a good theory in science is one that can be disproved within a
decade. Such is the old science, ever changing, full of errors, chaotic
and racked with earthquakes called paradigm shifts and scientific revolutions.
But theistic science is absolutely not like this since it proceeds
from Divine revelation and is extracted from it in a lawful way or methodology.
I discuss this methodology in this
Religion is necessary for the survival
of the human race because rationality and freedom of choice are not possible
without the conscious acceptance of the idea of God in one's thinking.
The idea of God is innate and without it children could not acquire language
and culture, nor a social personality grounded in them. Without the idea
of God, the child would grow into a human ape, socialized but not civilized.
Human language would then be like an advanced signaling or communication
system, but it would not allow the human apes to think rationally from
above their natural selves. Their conscious awareness would be limited
to purely material things and all their evidence would be correlational.
They could only note that this goes with that, but they would not be able
to create rational theories that explain what goes on.
What makes children human is that they
have the capacity to grow a rational mind as they experience the sensory
environment around them. Human language greatly speeds up this process
because by learning the vocabulary and grammar of the language, children
learn rational concepts and how they perform together as a system. Language
learning allows the rational human mind to grow because language itself
is rationally organized and made of rational concepts and ideas.
The idea of God is a basic constituent
of natural language. This has been overlooked by all the great linguists
of the 20th century. I was trained as a psycholinguist in the
1950s and 1960s and practiced it throughout the 1970s and 1980s (see my
list here). And I did not see this obvious fact until I studied the
Writings early in the 1980s. No doubt that other writers have come to this
conclusion, and I'd like to mention Charles Peirce and Henry James Sr.
It wasn't until I studied the Writings that it became clear to me that
God is a rational concept.
As I look back on my science education
in college and graduate school (1954-1962) at a respectable university
(McGill in Montreal) I can see the enormity of the intellectual bias within
which my professional life was formed. For instance, God was an excluded
concept from any scientifically respectable theory or explanation, and
any attempt to include God was seen as a departure from the rational. And
of course, not just God, but all the ideas that depend on God such as Divine
Revelation, Omnipotence, Regeneration, Heaven and Hell. The result of cutting
off God from my science was to cut off the functioning of the rational
mind. This needs to be explained. How does such a thing happen?
It's easy to understand how it happens,
when the facts are given to us from revelation. Swedenborg was the first
person in the history of the human race to be allowed full dual consciousness
as a permanent way of life. For the last 27 years of his long life (passed
on at age 83 in 1771), Swedenborg traveled through the spiritual world
while he was leading the busy life of a Swedish nobleman and scientist.
He kept a daily diary where he recorded his observations and thousands
of conversations with the people whom he found in the spiritual world.
By themselves these diary records would
not have created theistic science. Swedenborg had been a dedicated and
fairly well known scientist prior to his entrance into full dual consciousness
at age 57. When this new experience started happening to him he was astounded,
as one can expect. And yet he describes how God appeared to him and explained
the Divine mission for which he was prepared as a child. And unlike all
other Divine contacts claimed by so many others over the centuries, this
one was to be unique in an absolute sense with no predecessors or future
imitators. The uniqueness was a total and supreme achievement for science.
It was Swedenborg's unparalleled mission to create theistic science.
What would it take to accomplish this?
Prophecy could not do it. Visions could not do it. Psychic powers could
not do it. Revelations could not do it. all these things were already done
in the past within the great religions. But now religion was not the issue.
It was not Swedenborg's mission to found a religion. Swedenborg was not
a religious leader but a scientist and engineer and law maker. His visions
would be unimpressive to scientists and practical people who saw themselves
as running society. I dare say his own visions would have left Swedenborg
unimpressed had they been outside the realm of science. And so what's impressive
about Swedenborg is not his visions or his religion, but his science. He
remains an impeccable scientist equal with Newton and Darwin in the rigor
of his observations within science. Only we need to remember that no other
scientist in the history of the world had direct unlimited and fully conscious
access to the spiritual world. There is no possible comparison therefore
between Swedenborg and any other person in the history of the world. This
is said as a simple fact, not an evaluation.
It is necessary to further clarify
the difference between religion and theistic science. Some readers may
be aware of the existence of the New
Church which is a Christian religion whose adherents take their origins
in the Writings of Swedenborg and treating them globally as the Word of
God in their Church services, elevating them to the level of the Old Testament
and the New Testament. I consider this to be an appropriate development
and I will be discussing it in various places (see the entry for New
Church in the Glossary). Nevertheless my focus on theistic science
is entirely independent of any religion that may be properly based on the
Writings. This point of view has not been recognized by members of the
New Church who see the Writings as theology not as science (see
my article here). So I stand alone on this, the only one of his generation,
except for my wife Diane. A scientist in her own right (see her
publications here), she has recognized what I have (see the story
of our joint discovery here). Why I'm the first I cannot say. Perhaps
I'm not. Either way, my work on theistic science is noteworthy because
I'm a behaviorist and a professional in good standing, a practitioner of
what Kuhn has called "normal science."
There are many scientists among the
New Church people who operate as professionals in the world of science
like I do, but they have not recognized that Swedenborg's Writings are
scientific textbooks, and the science they teach in their own religious
schools are the old science, and the science they practice at work is the
old science. It is not for me to say why they do not recognize the Writings
as theistic science. Clearly they draw a distinction between religion and
science, but not the same one that I see in the Writings. I should remind
the reader that they are expert scholars in Swedenborg's Writings, which
I recognize. And yet they have not been willing to recognize the Writings
as science. Some have seen a threat to religion in this idea. And yet there
is no threat.
Religion is from God and is necessary
to grow up into human beings. This is clear from theistic science. The
Writings of Swedenborg appear to people as religious books rather than
science books. In the New Church, which was created by early readers of
the Writings around 1980, a traditional view has arisen, namely, that the
works written by Swedenborg fall into two distinct categories: those he
wrote as a scientist prior to the year in which he was achieved full dual
consciousness (in 1742) and those he wrote after that. The first phase
of books are called his Scientific Works and the second phase his Theological
This may be perfectly justified. Nevertheless,
my reckoning is also justified I believe, namely, treating all of Swedenborg's
works as theistic science. Swedenborg himself recognized that the works
he wrote in the first phase were inductive-analytic, while in the second
phase they were deductive-synthetic. The first phase could have been wrong
since it was speculative or theoretical (external), in comparison to the
second phase which was empirical and observational (internal). But due
to Divine Providence his speculative phase was entirely accurate in relation
to the second phase which was empirical and confirmatory. Of course his
first phase theoretical insights were general in comparison to his findings
in the second phase which were particular. And so theistic science covers
his entire corpus of writings.
I should also point out the obvious,
namely that his first phase works were written as science books in relation
to other scientists, while his second phase books were written as theology
books grounded absolutely in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Perhaps
one can wonder why Swedenborg didn't write all of theistic science as science
books? Why did he switch to writing theology books in his second phase?
One might see this as evidence that his earlier books were science books
while his later books were not science books. This is of course the appearance.
I believe that we will discover why this appearance occurs. At this point
it seems to me that the appearance was for the sake of religion and the
establishment of the New Church. In order to facilitate the establishment
of the New Church this appearance had to be maintained (with or without
Swedenborg's realization--I won't speculate on that).
But the continued existence and growth
of the New Church is independent of theistic science and its developmental
and historical timetable.
Back to the issue of the theological
Writings of Swedenborg: why were they not written like the earlier works
in the style of science? I believe the answer is that these Writings properly
serve a dual role--one for the establishment and maintenance of the New
Church and the second for the establishment and development of theistic
science. The history of the New Church since it has been established around
1780 has undergone various phases already--I discuss this in
detail in another
Glossary entry here. The last of the phases is what established the
theorem "Third Testament" (or "Last Testament") and gives birth to the
idea that the Writings of Swedenborg are like the Old and New Testaments,
written in a Divine style called the Word, and so have a literal meaning
which is different from their underlying or spiritual meaning. This idea
is fully established in the publication called De
Hemelsche Leer and which I discuss elsewhere. For now, I will simply
say that the literal meaning or surface and visible meaning, of the theological
Writings of Swedenborg are for the use of the New Church while the underlying
spiritual meaning is for theistic science. And now I would propose something
no one has yet thought of, namely that the scientific works or pre-theological
writings, also have a dual meaning and are also written in the language
of revelation. However the details of these relations have not yet been
discovered and thus I know little about it.
It's common for New Church people to
express the expectation or hope that the New Church should spread across
the globe from its current membership of under 100,000 members to millions
and hundreds of millions, and thus replacing the old Christianity with
the new. There is a focus on evangelization and sometimes disappointment
and consternation as to why the New Church is not spreading. I wish the
New Church well and I believe that the New Church is a protector of the
Writings playing an essential role of preservation and supplying the world
of theology with innumerable sermons and essays that spring from the enlightened
mind of one who studies the Writings for the sake of truth. This will continue
and expand. But I do not believe it will take over the world's religions
for they too will expand. Religions are here to stay. They are permanent.
And the idea that the New Church will dislodge the existing Christian Churches
may be the romantic dream of well wishers. Instead it will be theistic
science that will bring the Writings to the rest of the world. Religion
is ethnic and it divides as well as reflects these divisions. The heavens
are diverse and the universe is expanding in diversity. But theistic science
is not ethnic or cultural, but universal. It's significant that the Writings
were originally written by Swedenborg in scientific Latin or Neo-Latin,
a language employed in common by European scientists as a way of communicating
with each other cross-nationally and supra-nationally as it were.
The work is cut out for those who wish
to pursue theistic science. Scientists of any religion or culture can jointly
pursue theistic science because when you go under the surface of Divine
revelation, ethnicity disappears. The underlying meaning is spiritual and
celestial, not natural. At this point when the Writings are read on the
surface by anyone from any religion, they are instantly offended in a very
deep way. Christians are deeply offended because the Writings assert they
have not a single spiritual truth left in their corrupted religion. Jews
are extremely offended because they are said to be of the same backsliding
ilk as their ancestors in the Old Testament, incapable of changing
themselves due to their religion. Muslims are sure to be offended because
of what is said in there about them. So are Buddhists and Hindus. And of
course atheists. The literal of the Writings convict every religion, every
faith, every science. Can you expect such a document to spread into those
religions and dead set against them? No. And so it will be up to theistic
science to go below the surface and to show that by Christians, Jews, Muslims,
Buddhists, and Hindus the Writings do not mean Christians, Jews, Muslims,
Buddhists, and Hindus but the correspondences of these in every human mind.
Every individual has states of mind called Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist,
and Hindu. In fact these religions exist because they are genuine representations
of parts of the universal human mind. Swedenborg has shown this is the
case with the peoples mentioned in the Old Testament. Such is also the
nature of the Grand Human and the mental development of all humans on all
more discussion on theistic science concepts, see here. || e-mail
The New Science or Science Reborn
In Swedenborg the modern scientist can find the new physics, the new psychology,
and the new biology. Spiritual Psychobiology and Spiritual Geography
may be two names that express aptly the content of Swedenborg's 13-volume
magnum opus titled Arcana Coelestia (Heavenly Secrets). This amazing
work is quite unique in all of known literature and has affected the philosophy
and thinking of some influential writers in American literature -- Carlyle,
Coleridge, Blake, Jung, Goethe, Henry James, Sr., Emerson, and Helen Keller
-- to mention only a few names from a long list kept over the years by
the Swedenborg Foundation and other scholars.
The future history of science will no doubt explain why and how the
name of Swedenborg was kept out of the History of Science textbooks (and
curricula), so that he is entirely unknown to contemporary scientists and
educators. Swedenborg predicted this negative reception of his scientific
writings by "the learned" and discussed the reasons in terms of the opposition
between atheistic and theistic science; but he also predicted the eventual
but full and total victory of theistic science. I concur with Swedenborg's
estimate. His approach and rationale for spiritual psychology are fully
acceptable to modern trained psychologists like myself who are willing
to assume the dualist perspective in science.
Swedenborg's empiricism may easily be shown in his concepts. Take for
instance his detailed, objective, eye-witness descriptions of the Spiritual
World. This is the world of life after death, the so called "beyond."
In other authors and systems of thought, the "spiritual" is something ill
definable, ethereal, abstract, fluid, obscure, and futuristic -- always
beyond our grasp and always known by hearsay from others, more 'advanced'
than us. I nicknamed this illusory tradition as the Conspiracy of the
Gurus. Whether in the form of Theosophy, Yoga, Zen, Cabala, or Scientology,
etc., spiritual practitioners or seekers of truth, are always out of reach
of the spiritual, but always well within the reach of a powerful and persuasive
teacher, guru, master, holy person, or inner circle member, who rules over
them within an instructional context of strict obedience, subjugation,
and abject servitude.
The illusion of a nirvana or awakening just beyond the grasp, is kept
alive by a well engineered program of discipline, study, and apprenticeship.
At the end, the aspirants who refused to quit no matter what, become the
new masters and gurus who then repeat the cycle of illusion and perpetuate
the conspiracy of ignorance. The spiritual remains aloof, undefinable,
ineffable, abstract, the mother of the unreal real. How deeply disappointing!
But in Swedenborg's writings, the spiritual is as concrete as earth
and water. It is not some distant unreachable state or achievement. The
spiritual is here and now for every person, perceivable, reliable, simple,
clear. It is an adult seeing as a child. In very simple and graspable terms,
Swedenborg shows that the spiritual world is the concrete
world of thoughts and feelings. If you
know what "mental" is, you know what spiritual is. Swedenborg empirically
discovered, by repeated observation and experience, that life after death,
or life "in eternity," occurs within the conscious presence of a
psychokinetic world made of mental substances. In other words, thoughts
and feelings are not made of nothing, and neither are they made of physico-chemical
neurons. They are instead made of spiritual substances that have
psychobiological structures and functions.
This is the essential starting point for incorporating Swedenborg's
religious behaviorism into scientific psychology. I call it dualism. There
are signs that more and more scientists are willing to consider the possibility
of guiding modern science towards a dualist perspective -- natural and
spiritual. Swedenborg's science offers such an entry point within biology,
medicine, and psychology. In contemporary terms, his approach can be characterized
as bio-medical or psycho-biological behaviorism. This is especially
clear in Swedenborg's concept of the shape and function of the universe
(natural and spiritual) as the Grand Human.
The ability to handle thoughts and feelings in contemporary scientific
psychology and medicine is dismal. The most respectable and widely held
view is that thoughts and feelings are by products of brain activity. Supposedly
these by products are not really real. They are pseudo-phenomena. It is
claimed that they have no existence apart from the chemistry and neuro-anatomy
of the brain tissues and fluids. This materialistic perspective is hopelessly
inadequate and denigrating to scientists like myself, who assume a dualist
universe: externally natural, internally spiritual. It is important to realize
that at this time we cannot independently prove the superiority of one or the
other of these two scientific perspectives. This means that the materialists in
science have a right to remain, and it also means that the dualists in science
have a right to come in. Who was there first may not be there last! Since
science is a rational and cumulative discipline, the better perspective will win
Swedenborg's Theory of Trisubstantivism as a Basis for the Science of Human
The word trisubstantivism is suggested as a name for Swedenborg's theory
that personality growth is not a metaphor but a real reference to the gradual
formation of the self as an accumulation of three types of cells: physical
molecules, rational molecules, and celestial molecules.
We ordinarily use "plant growth" in this sense of accumulation of physical
cells, but when we speak of "personality growth" we tend to think of this
as a metaphor for plant growth. In other words, the modern educated person
can readily see that plants grow by adding cells or biochemical molecules
to each other in a certain shape determined by a genetic structure within
the cells. At the same time the modern person has a physicalistic tendency
to view the mind or the personality of the self as an epiphenomenon that
emerges out of the brain's biochemical activity. Therefore when the idea
is presented that the mind is also a substance, many educated persons balk
and see the idea of mental substance as metaphoric, not real.
Emanuel Swedenborg (1668-1771) was the first among the modern psychologists
(i.e., since Descartes), to propose a thoroughly behavioristic theory of
mental growth as substantive, like plant growth. He identified two mental
substances, one rational, the other celestial. He thus proposed that the
universe is tri-substantive, that is, constructed of three types of matter
-- physical, rational, and celestial. Physical matter exists as the natural
world-- in time and space, while rational and celestial matter exist as
the spiritual world-- outside time and space. When we are born into the
universe, we are thus born as dual citizens, the brain and body
made of physical molecules, and the thoughts and feelings made of rational
and celestial molecules.
The idea that mental activity (thoughts and feelings) is actually a
movement and organization of substantive molecules is thoroughly
modern and behavioristic. The pre-modern mind did not understand that flowers
and organs grow by means of an organized accumulation of cells and molecules.
Other, less mechanical explanations seemed more comprehensible, such as
the idea that living organisms have some sort of mysterious life-force
which makes them grow.
Similarly, the modern mind has difficulty accepting the idea that imagining
something involves shaping molecules into a permanent rational object that
exists independently in a spiritual dimension or world. Yet explaining
mental activity in terms of phenomena that are independent of the person
would be a major step forward in the science of human behavior.
Human life or existence creates the condition for mental activity to
occur. Thoughts and feelings have long been recognized as the two basic
domains of mental activity. Swedenborg compares cognitive activity (thoughts,
imagination, reasoning) to the body's pulmonary system and affective activity
(feelings, impulses, motives) to the body's circulatory system. He points
to these correspondences in ordinary language use whereby the rational
mind and truth are metaphorically related to the breath or breathing function,
while the affective mind and good are related to the heart or blood. Thus,
all mental activity occurs at the level of the rational (cognitions and
truths) and the level of the celestial (affections and goods).
An action or outcome is good or bad depending on the quality of its
celestial molecules (e.g., are its parts in a regular arrangement -- called
orderly or good, or are they in a reverse arrangement called distorted
or evil). Similarly, an idea or explanation is true or unreal depending
on the quality of its rational molecules (e.g., are its parts in
a regular arrangement called orderly or true, or are they in a reverse
arrangements called distorted or unreal).
The phenomena of the rational molecules are distinctly deferent from
the phenomena of the celestial molecules. Therefore cognitive laws are
different from affective laws, meaning that one needs a separate theory
for understanding cognitive behavior and affective behavior, though the
explanation must include how the two are integrated or interact to produce
functional activities such as thinking rationally and feeling altruistically.
Swedenborg discussed in great detail how the laws of the celestial molecules
interacted with the laws of the rational molecules to produce motivating
feeling states that can direct goals, intentions and plans towards desired
to Glossary of Swedenborg Related Concepts
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