Rational Scientific Theories from Theism

What are Discrete Degrees?

Go to slides for a 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 kinds.

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:


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.


  7. 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 discrete degree.
  8. 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.
  9. 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!
  10. 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.

    Natural States

  11. 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.
  12. A related suggestion is to use the classic quartet of earth, water, air and fire, especially to identify a spiritual degree as fire.
  13. 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.
  14. 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’.
  15. 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 spiritual.

    Inside and Outside

  16. 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.
  17. 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?
  18. 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

  1. build on and extrapolate whatever discrete degrees physics and philosophy have discovered, or
  2. rely on our own intuitive understandings of causes and effects in ourselves, or
  3. 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 physics:

Degrees in Philosophy and Simple Physics

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 since Swedenborg:

    Degrees in Modern Physics

  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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

  8. 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.
  9. Affection, understanding and action are discrete degrees. These are analogous to the previous set, but generalised to all levels of the mind and soul.
  10. Soul, mind and nature, are the three discrete degrees describing the production of creation through the heavens, then thought & affection in minds, to nature.
  11. 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.


www.TheisticScience.org Author: Ian J. Thompson, Email: IanT at TheisticScience.org