What are Discrete Degrees?
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talk on on this topic.
We have read about Discrete Degrees,
and how important they are:
"Without a concept of discrete degrees, one can know nothing of the
difference between the three heavens, nor of the difference between the love and
wisdom of the angels in them, nor of the difference between the warmth and light
that they possess, nor of the difference between the atmospheres which surround
and envelop them.
Furthermore, without a concept of these degrees, one can know nothing of the
difference between the interior faculties in people which are those of the mind,
thus nothing of their state in regard to reformation and regeneration; nor of
the difference between the exterior faculties in both angels and people which
are those of the body; and nothing at all of the difference between something
spiritual and something natural." DLW 185
We have formed our own ideas about these discrete degrees, by means of which
we attempt to understand what Swedenborg is trying to tell us in this and
succeeding numbers, especially about what is spiritual. However, when I talk to
people, it turns out that they all have rather individual ideas about the nature
of discrete degrees, and that some of these are not very accurate. My purpose in
talking now is to look at some typical misconceptions, to challenge various
motives that favour some particular misconceptions, and to try to demonstrate
some more realistic (and fruitful) ways of thinking about discrete degrees. In
the process we will compare and contrast them with continuous degrees of various
Our need to think in discrete or continuous degrees touches on some broader
desires for certain kinds of explanation. We are much more satisfied, for
example, by an integrated view of all the natural and spiritual worlds,
compared, say, with a fragmented account. Similarly, scientists and philosophers
are much happier with a unified theory which sees everything as part of some
continuous whole, compared, say, with a theory with unexplained gaps. We might
favour an integrated ‘nondual’ world view compared with an account with dual
substances whose relation is more hierarchical and somehow less ‘democratic’.
But, however much we feel in favour of integrated, unified and nondual
accounts, we should not let these desires lead to a nondualism of good and evil,
of truth and falsity, or of divine and nature. Swedenborg is very clear
on this point!
Our initial desires and kinds of knowledge we can accept, Swedenborg
explains, are all based on ideas that we can obtain from our senses, and from
logical reasonings (scientifica) from sensual ideas. Contemporary science is a
rather full development starting from this approach. However, from our senses
and logic, it is rather difficult to have a proper idea of discrete degrees.
This is our problem! Most of our starting ideas are based on images obtained
from sensations of space and time, and Swedenborg explains how our these spatial
and temporal images ‘attach’ themselves to many of our attempts to think about
discrete degrees. One purpose of this talk is to help you see how spatial ideas
attach themselves to your ideas of discrete degrees, and hence of your ideas of
what is spiritual. We will see how spatial images (may) correspond to
discrete degrees, but are not identical with them.
Let us look at some ideas that have been used to describe discrete degrees,
and examine each in turn to see whether it is discrete or continuous, and
whether it is a means for understanding what is spiritual:
Natural things with discrete units, such as a ladder, as a
multi-storied house, even as earth + plants/animals + the
heavens, etc. The Bible and Swedenborg both use such images, but we are
told their correspondences. We may use the body, with head+neck+body+legs
+feet to represent different discrete degrees by correspondences, but from
looking at human bodies, as from biology alone, we do not thereby understand
what are spiritual degrees.
Similarly, the whole and its parts may be imagined as discrete
degrees. The cells, nerves, muscles, skin and whole body of a person may be
discrete degrees. However, the whole body, while controlled by the spiritual
degree, is itself an aggregation of its parts. It is therefore not itself of a
different degree to its parts.
Sometimes the spiritual is thought of as expanded consciousness,
such as ‘cosmic consciousness’, in contrast to everyday ‘contracted’ or
‘narrow’ awareness, so the basic dynamics of consciousness is expansion and
contraction. Here, especially, it is clear that size is a continuous property.
Expanding one’s consciousness to include all stars and galaxies, whether in
imagination or in reality, does not thereby give spiritual awareness.
Sometimes the spiritual is thought of as raised consciousness, such
as ‘high levels pf consciousness’, in contrast to everyday ‘myopic’ or
‘low-level’ awareness, so the basic dynamics of consciousness is elevation and
depression. However, while height is used on earth and in heaven to represent
degrees of spiritual condition, height on earth does not confer any spiritual
advantages. Neither size nor height are discrete degrees.
We may think of discrete degrees as another dimension, even the
fourth (or fifth) dimension of space and time. It is true that dimensions can
be counted, and so are discrete in some sense, but they can still be
continuously transformed into each other, for example by rotations. It is
clear that rotating or expanding does not, by that fact, take you to a new
spiritual discrete degree.
Infinite space, or Space Itself. Spinoza, for example, saw
matter and space as the twin aspects of an infinite divinity, from which
matter and space are themselves infinite in their details and in their
extents. However, space is the product of creation, and is in a discrete
degree distinct from all divine and spiritual degrees.
We may think of discrete degrees as new frequencies of vibration.
Entering the spiritual world has been called ‘entering a new vibrational
level’. However, frequencies can also be continuously transformed into each
other, since time in nature is on a continuous numerical scale. It is clear
that vibrating faster does not, by that fact, take you to a new spiritual
Some natural objects have discrete harmonic modes of operation. A
guitar or cello string, for example, has fundamental and harmonic vibrational
modes, and these resonate among themselves. Electrons in atoms have
discrete levels of different energies. However, if we look in detail, we see
that all intermediate vibrations and energies are still possible, but just do
not last very long. I have already discussed the possible roles of different
frequencies, and in physics, vibrational energy is proportional to frequency.
Series of successive processes, such as waterfalls or other
emanations, are often used to represent ‘successive discrete degrees’.
Swedenborg often uses describes discrete degrees as ‘successive degrees’. This
is true, but we should be aware that this is another representation using
‘time’. Discrete degrees (such as spiritual and natural) are still
‘simultaneous’ in many important senses!
Infinite time, or the denial of time, as being eternity.
Encompassing all time is sometimes seen as a degree above all us ‘time bound’
individuals. However, the Eternity of the Lord and his Heavens is the source
of all life and activity, and certainly not the freezing of time. The Lord’s
Wisdom does see all time together (past, present and future) in an
eternity, but the accomplishment of his Love still requires enacting
that time successively.
Solids, liquids and gases are discrete phases of
many substances in nature. Ice, water and steam are discrete manifestations of
the one chemical H2O. However, these multiple phases of water can
be continuously transformed one into another, and back again.
A related suggestion is to use the classic quartet of earth, water, air
and fire, especially to identify a spiritual degree as fire.
Sometimes, heavens are taken as extremely intense light, of an
intensity and detail unimaginable to us on earth. However, intensity is a
continuous degree, so, unless some discrete changes were also essential,
intense light by itself is not a discrete degree. Only by comparison with the
impossibility of light (‘thick darkness’?) is it discretely different.
Sometimes we imagine the spiritual as a fine or subtle substance
that pervades and influences ‘coarse matter’. This is true, but unless we have
an independent idea of the spiritual degree, we cannot properly describe it
merely from the idea of ‘fineness’ or ‘subtility’.
Various polarities in nature, such as positive and negative
electric charge, or male and female in biology. Opposite electric charges,
such as of electrons and its antiparticle the positron, however, are exact
mirror images at exactly the same natural level. Male and female organisms, by
contrast, have internal complexities that are very similar, differing in
particular in the way some of these are ordered. Furthermore, we cannot say
that only positive charges, or only females, are connected to what is
Inside and Outside
We may think of discrete degrees as the internal and the external
of bodies, or of persons. The inmost, inner, and outer may be the
discrete degrees we are trying to describe. Certainly Swedenborg uses these
adjectives extensively to contrast spiritual with celestial and natural
things. However, if we examine the specific meanings of these words, we see
that they are essentially spatial images that must be interpreted
metaphorically if they are to indicated celestial, spiritual and natural as
distinct discrete degrees.
Connected with the previous suggestion, sometimes the spiritual degree is
seen as the ‘first person’ inside view of nature, so physical matter is
the ‘outside’ or ‘third person’ view. This is a popular belief among those
trying to reconcile science and spirituality, but it does not help, for
example, in trying to understand life after the death of the physical body.
How can there be a life from a coherent inside view if the outside view is of
matter broken into pieces?
A recent suggestion is based on chaos theory, where we see
self-similarity: a similarity of behaviour patterns when we compare the
whole and the parts. Again this is an image of Divine operation, but does not
by itself require that operation.
I hope not too many of your favourite images have been singled out here!
Many of the above distinctions have been adopted in popular culture as
sufficient for defining the distinctness of degrees that lead to the spiritual,
and there is some satisfaction, for example, with understanding the spiritual in
terms of higher resonant states in higher dimensions of reality as yet
undiscovered by physics. However, all the above classifications are continuous,
not discrete. The desires for continuous spiritual degrees, though widespread in
many contemporary and Eastern philosophies today, are what Swedenborg would call
‘natural’ or even ‘sensual’.
We need to separate our understanding, in some way, from natural and sensual
images. This separation may never be complete on earth, but let us at least be
aware of the way we presently think.
But let us try to form some more positive accounts. My immediate
problem here is that you may be most happy if I produce a new picture which I
claim shows discrete degrees most accurately. However, we have just seen that
all pictures are based on spatial and temporal images, and by that
fact should be called into question! What can we do?
This is a problem that modern quantum physics has faced for much of the last
century. Modern physicists have realised that pictures based on ‘particles’, or
on ‘waves’, are no longer satisfactory, but have nothing satisfactory to replace
them with. Some among them have (wisely) said that ‘we can no longer rely on
naive pictorial thinking’. Thus, for spiritual degrees as well as physics, we
have to rely on some different kind of thinking. Quantum physics can use its
mathematical equations, but what can we use?
To understand discrete degrees in a specific way, we can either
- build on and extrapolate whatever discrete degrees physics and philosophy
have discovered, or
- rely on our own intuitive understandings of causes and effects in
- rely on revelation from God to guide us over a difficult phase.
Preferably, some combination of the above!
To describe those discrete degrees that physics has discovered would be
another talk, so I will merely mention some of the more obvious discoveries now,
and refer you to a talk I gave to the Swedenborg Scientific Association last
April, the written version of which should be appearing in the next issue of
New Philosophy. Let me first describe some of the discrete degrees that
Swedenborg also talked about, two from general philosophy, and one from simple
Degrees in Philosophy and Simple Physics
Form and substance are a pair of discrete
degrees. For a given thing, such as this chair, the form is its
position, orientation and shape. And not just the overall shape, but also the
shapes and arrangements of all its constituent parts. The substance of
the chair is that of which the constituent parts are forms of, are made of.
This physics can give us some idea of, namely some kind of energy or
propensity to interact. Form and substance cannot be continuously transformed
into each other.
End, cause and effect are a triplet of discrete degrees. The end
is the original principle according to which a process starts, the cause
is the formulation of means that is poised to act, and the effect is
the resulting action. End, cause and effect produce each other in sequence,
but cannot be reversibly transformed.
Heat and Light, strictly, are radiation in the same electromagnetic
spectrum: making them a pair of continuous rather discrete degrees. However,
‘heat’ has a more general meaning: that of energy in general, and light
has a more specific meaning: as a form of radiation that can be encoded
with very much information. Energy and information do form a discrete pair of
degrees. Note that ‘light’ is a particular form of energy, so light is like
form and heat is like substance.
Other discrete degrees, even within nature, have been discovered by science
Degrees in Modern Physics
Force and motion are discrete degrees. This was
in fact realised at about Swedenborg’s time by Boscovich and by Kant, Forces
may be present even if no movement of matter occurs.
Potential energy and force are discrete degrees. This was made clear
with the discovery of electromagnetic fields by Faraday and Maxwell. Electric
energy fields, for example, only produce forces if a charged particle is
present within the field. Similarly, the gravitational fields of the earth and
sun are not themselves forces, but only produce forces on planets and
satellites should these be present.
Waves and particles, or (better) waves and events are discrete
degrees. This is the best way of understanding quantum physics: waves are a
description of causes, and specific particle positions (or events) are the
actual effects of those causes.
Virtual and actual processes are discrete degrees. Electric fields,
for example, are generated by a prior degree of virtual photons. I discuss
this a little more in my New Philosophy article.
Other discrete degrees are seen by our intuitive understanding of causes
and effects, for example within ourselves, within our own minds.
Degrees from Swedenborg
End, cause and effect are a triplet of discrete
degrees. The end is the original impetus which motivates us, the
cause is that motivation when it has formulated the means and is poised to
act, and the effect is the resulting action. End, cause and effect
produce each other in sequence, but cannot be reversibly transformed.
Affection, understanding and action are discrete degrees. These are
analogous to the previous set, but generalised to all levels of the mind and
Soul, mind and nature, are the three discrete degrees describing the
production of creation through the heavens, then thought & affection in minds,
Love, Wisdom and Use are again analogous discrete degrees, applicable
even to the Divine.
The classifications 21-25 do describe discrete degrees, but only in nature.
By themselves they do not indicate any spirituality, but nevertheless they
reflect the true spiritual discrete degrees (26-29) more accurately than the
continuous degrees (1-18) since they are themselves discrete and not continuous.
Trying to understand any kind of discrete degree is a useful
education toward understanding what is spiritual.
Go to slides for a talk on on this topic.