By Ian Thompson, PhD, Nuclear Physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
In the previous post of this series, we saw how Swedenborg’s theory of correspondences could help us to better understand the physical world from a quantum perspective. If our mental processes consist of desire acting by means of thoughts and intentions to produce physical effects, then these physical actions should manifest themselves according to a corresponding pattern. More specifically, if the components of our mental processes occur at variable finite intervals, so too should the expected physical events.
According to many thinkers throughout history, mental and physical are not identical but instead are two different kinds of substances that relate with each other. Swedenborg describes the mental (spiritual) and physical (natural) as distinct but says that they interact by discrete degrees:
A knowledge of degrees is like a key to lay open the causes of things, and to give entrance into them. . . . For things exterior advance to things interior and through these to things inmost, by means of degrees; not by continuous degrees but by discrete degrees. “Continuous degrees” is a term applied to the gradual lessenings or decreasings from grosser to finer . . . or . . . to growths and increasings from finer to grosser . . . precisely like the gradations of light to shade, or of heat to cold. But discrete degrees are entirely different: they are like things prior, subsequent and final; or like end, cause, and effect. These degrees are called discrete, because the prior is by itself; the subsequent by itself; and the final by itself; and yet taken together they make one. (Divine Love and Wisdom §184)
The mental can never be continuously transformed into something physical, nor can the physical be continuously transformed into something mental. They are connected, however, by virtue of their causal relationship: all physical processes are produced, or generated, by something mental. As described in my previous post, this relationship is what gives rise to our correspondences in the first place.
Most of us can realize that the mental and the physical are distinct, even though this may be denied by materialists (for whom the mental is merely an emerging product of the physical) and also by monistic idealists (for whom the physical universe is merely a representation in the mind). The latter view is common in many New Age circles today, and it is even thought to be implied by quantum physics. In this series of posts, by contrast, I want to show how Swedenborg’s ideas give us a new understanding of how mental and physical things can both exist in fully-fledged ways and with serious connections between them that are not deflating or reductionist.
Mental and physical things can both be substances but, they have very different characteristics:
- Mental things are conscious, whereas physical things are unconscious.
- Mental beings can think and make deductions using reason, whereas physical beings can only make logical deductions if they are designed that way.
- Mental beings can use symbols and language to refer to objects and ideas outside themselves, whereas physical beings have no intrinsic ability to refer to anything.
- Mental processes are motivated by purposes and intentions, whereas physical processes are determined by physical causes that supposedly exclude purposes and intentions.
- Mental processes tend to produce results according to some conception of what is good, whereas physical processes have no need for any such concept.
As already discussed in the previous post, desire is a component of all mental processes, and we recognize “something physical like desire” as energy or propensity. Swedenborg sees desire, or affection, as a specific kind of love:
That love and wisdom from the Lord is life can be seen also from this, that man grows torpid as love recedes from him, and stupid as wisdom recedes from him, and that were they to recede altogether he would become extinct. There are many things pertaining to love which have received other names because they are derivatives, such as affections, desires, appetites, and their pleasures and enjoyments. (Divine Love and Wisdom §363)
For desire and energy to correspond to each other in the sense that Swedenborg describes, the function of desire as a cause must be similar to the function of energy as a cause. That is, the way in which desire causes mental processes must be similar to the way in which energy causes physical processes. This is not to say that desire is the same as energy but only that desire’s pattern of operation is similar to that of energy. The common pattern is that desire (energy) persists between events, then explores multiple possibilities for those events by means of thoughts (fields of energy), and finally becomes manifest in the physical events produced.
Up until now, the idea of substance has been rather obscure in both physics and philosophy, and it has not been developed significantly. From an ontological perspective, substance is that which endures between events. It is what individuates and bears the intrinsic properties of those events. We are not necessarily talking about a substance that endures forever or about a substance that exists independently of everything else. Based on the common pattern described above, we can arrive at the idea of a created substance that persists, or endures, as a thing at least for some finite time between events. And such a substance would be the capability, or disposition, for action or interaction in that time interval.
This relates to the idea of “dispositional essentialism” that has been put forth by philosophers in recent years. Dispositional essentialism is the notion that some kind of power or disposition (such as a cause or energy) must be an essential part of something. Some philosophers take this idea even further, saying that disposition must be the individual essence of something. In much the same way, I am saying that disposition is what constitutes the substance of something. So if the main similarity between desire and energy is that they both persist between events, then both desire and energy are substances.
By using ideas from Swedenborg to understand the world, we have a new way of grasping the mental and physical and perhaps of understanding quantum physics. Either one of these results would be very useful; to have both is to be extremely fortunate.
In the next post of this series, I will discuss how and in what form both desire and energy persist between events.
Continue with Part III: Thoughts and Forms >
Ian Thompson is also the author of Starting Science from God, as well as Nuclear Reactions in Astrophysics (Univ. of Cambridge Press) and more than two hundred refereed professional articles in nuclear physics.
 B. Ellis and C. Lierse, “Dispositional Essentialism,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy (72, 1994): 27–45.
 See Ian J. Thompson, “Power and Substance,” https://www.generativescience.org/ph-papers/pas.htm.
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