Click here to see List of Abbreviations for Swedenborg's Writings
Dr. Leon James
Related Articles:: Lecture Notes on Religious
Behaviorism || What is Spiritual Psychology?
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 understanding 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 external act.
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
discussions on the affective/cognitive/sensorimotor system will be found at the bottom of
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
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 pursuits.
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 Glossary entry.
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 publications
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 84 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
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 Writings.
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. People from the other
religions may be offended because of what is said in there about them. 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 planets (see this
discussion on theistic science concepts, see here. ||
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 notion is further
expanded in a
related article on mental health, available here
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 out. See also the
concept of spiritual genes.
Swedenborg's Theory of Trisubstantivism as a Basis for the Science of Human Behavior
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
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 outcomes.
Go to a related
article: Lecture Notes on Religious Behaviorism
to Glossary of Swedenborg Related Concepts
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