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as a

Physical Scientist

Address .uven by
Professor HERBERT DINGLE, D.Se., A.R.C.S.,

at Swedenborj 250th Birthday Celebration,

Queen's Hall, London, Janusry 29th, 1938


as a


Address given by
Professor HERBERT DINGLE, D.Sc., A.R.C.S.,
at Swedenborg 250th Birthday Celebration,
Queen's Hall, London, January 29th, 1938



193 8

Swedenborg as a Physical Scientist

MANUEL SWEDENBORG was born in 1688. In 1743, at the age of fifty-five years, he could look back on a life devoted to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and forward to larger oppor tunities for remaining in that service. Applying at that time for leave of absence to the Swedish Board of Mines, under which he held high office, he wrote : " 1 am influenced interiorly by the desire and longing to produce during my life-time something real, which may he of use in the general scientific world. . . . It is my own chief desire to bring this work to a close, and to return to my country, to my office, and to my property, where 1 shaH, in tranquillity and ease, continue my larger work, the Regnum Minerale, and thus be of actual use to the public at large in those matters which properly belong to the Royal Board."

This project was never realised. Certain abnormal experiences turned his attention away from, though never against, scientific work, and' led to the remarkable

exposItIons of the Scriptures, and consciousness of Divine revelation, by which he is now chiefly remem bered. There is no necessary connection between the products of the last twenty-nine and those of the first fifty-five years of his life. If none of his scientific writings had survived, his theological works would have had the same daim on our attention as they have now. That they would ever have been written, how ever, without the long, intense, earlier study of the natural world, 1 do not be1ieve. It is at least unlikely that Swedenborg the Seer could have come into being otherwise than from Swedenborg the Scientist. On this day of remembrance, then, it is fitting that we should look for a while at the seed from which sprang the flower that we honour. We see a man acquainted at first hand with the most advanced scientific knowledge of his time. In England he studied Newton's physics, and conversed with the astronomers, Halley and Flamsteed. He was by occu pation an Assessor of Mines, and knew as much as any man living about the chemistry of mineraIs and their distribution in the Earth, as weIl as more general geological science. He successfully undertook more than one large-scale engineering task. He was an

expert mathematician, was thoroughly fami]iar with both the theory and the practice of mechanics, and had a deeper insight into the mysteries of magnetism than any of his contemporaries. In anatomy and physiology he was no less eminent. There appears, in fact, to have been no department of scientific knowledge in which he was not a master. But he was not a mere receptac1e of knowledge. On every subject of study he brought his own genius to bear, and behind every effect he looked for the cause. Though he was by no means unskilled in experimental technique, and frequently employed it very effectively, it was the interpretation of the results of experiments that attracted him most, and he often accepted the work of others in order to avoid a bias which he might have feh towards his own observations had he made any. 1 shaH not try even to enumerate aH the original ideas which he contributed to his studies; time aHows us to consider only their general character. And here two things stand out prominently-first, the extraordinary depth and originality of his thinking; and secondly, the extent to which he anticipated ideas which did not become generaUy familiar until long after his day. 1 believe these qualities are shown very strikingly in his

biological work; on that 1 am not qualified to speak. 1 shall restrict myself to the evidence of his Principia, published in 1734, which deals mainly with the physical SCIences. To mention but two of the great scientific ideas which originated with Swedenborg, his conceptions of a magnet as a collection of elementary particles in regular alignment, and of the planetary system as a product of the Sun arising from the inherent potentialities of its constitution, show such close resemblance to theories which arose much later as to leave no doubt that he is to be regarded as the first source of the essential ideas of those theories. The general lack of recognition of Swedenborg's priority in expressing these and otherconceptions has often been deplored, but 1 do not think it need arouse much regret. He, 1 think, would have been indifferent to the matter. Those who have strength of mind to follow their own thoughts undisturbed by contemporary opinion have also strength to depend for approbation on their own sense of what is worthy to be praised. Moreover, scientific ideas come and go; they serve their age and prepare the way for others. That Swedenborg's ideas in sorne matters were nearer to those of 1938 than to

those of 1738 would have seemed of slight importance to one who thought so lightly of time as scarcely to mention the word even in his scientific writings; nor would his stature be diminished by the discovery of documents showing that his ideas had been formulated by earlier writers, and forgotten. The significance of Swedenborg's foresight in these things lies not in the claim it establishes to priority, but in its testimony to the greatness of the man's intellect. This is shown nowhere more forcibly than in his view of " the means leading to true philosophy." He lived at a time when the " experimental philosophy," as science was then caUed, had just established its hold on men's attention. From reasoning about the world iri the study, men turned to examining it in the observatory and the laboratory. This transition from the rational to the empirical, like aU fundamental revolutions, was not completed in a moment: indeed, our own generation has seen an important clarification of the relation between reason and experience which underlies the experimental philosophy. When, sorne twenty years ago, the theory of relativity became a part of science, it was realised with amazement that, by traditional scientific methods, what had been believed


to belong to the basis of science (the then current notions of space, time and motion) had been uprooted ; science had apparently reduced itself to absurdity. Enlightenment came when it was seen that the earlier idea of science, according to which experience and reason were alternative means of studying the world, of which experience was to be preferred, did not properly describe scientific activity. The correct description would show experience as the first step, and reason as the second, in the construction of a true philosophy; both were equaHy legitimate when pro perly related to one another. Here are Einstein's own words: "The object of aH science, whether natural science or psychology, is to co-ordinate our experiences and to bring them into a logical system."'*' Now let us tum to Swedenborg. "The principal means which lead to truly philosophical knowledge," he writes, "are three in number-experience, geo metry, and the power of reasoning,"t and he makes it clear that they are to be taken in that order. The correspondence with Einstein is complete, except for Swedenborg's inclusion of geometry, about which 1 * The Meaning of Relativity, p. 1.
t Principia,
vol. l, p.


will speak directly; but whereas Einstein's definition has needed nearly 300 years of practical scientific work to bring it to birth, Swedenborg's sprang from his own direct insight into the significance of the new movement. How closely his method of thought accords with that of the modern physical scientist is clearly shown in the foJ.1owing passage from a paper read before the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1740 : " There are two ways by which to trace out those things in nature which lie either open before us, or are hidden from our eyes--viz., the a priori which is also called the synthetical method, and the a posteriori, or the analytical method. Both are necessary in reflecting upon and tracing out one and the same thing: for in order to do so there is required both light a priori, and experience a posteriori. Now, while the learned among the ancients followed the former light as remotely and profoundly as they possibly could, those at a later period were induced not to accept anything as witness, unless it was confirmed by experience. Hence also sorne of the learned at the present clay seem to have agreed to let thought rest, and to

make experiments which would appeal to the senses; yet they did so with the hope and intent that sorne day experience would be connected with theory: for experience deprived of an insight into the nature of things is knowledge without learning, and a foundation without a building to rest upon it. The observations of the outward senses merely furnish data and give information about things which the understanding oughtto investigate, and concerning which it ought to form its judgments."
lt has been said that Swedenborg was not entire1y liberated from the mediaeval practice of framing arbi trary principles, and that much of his reasoning is vitiated by his assumption that motion must ultimate1y be spiral because a spiral is the most perfect figure.'*' 1 do not think, however, that this criticism is just. The postulation of a priori principles is not unscientific in itself; it becomes so only when such principles are maintained in defiance of experience, as in the denial by certain philosophers of the elliptical motions of the

* See, for example, Sir William Barrett's Foreword to the English translation of the Principia, pp. viii, ix.

planets because, in the perfect heavens, only perfect circular motion was possible. But to assert a principle as a means of co-ordinating experiences, and to judge it entirely by its fitness for that purpose, is an established scientific practice; it is the ordinary process of form ing hypotheses. And careful reading will show, l think, that it is this process which Swedenborg is practising in the First Part of the Principia. "These principles," he writes, "cannot be proved by experiment until we have arrived at elementaries. The principles which are formed a priori by rational philosophy and a certain degree of geometrical connection, receive confirmation also from visible nature; were there no con firmation from experience, we should here be only building casties in the air. Still, however, at this stage, we cannot appeal to the testimony of experience; because we are as yet only at the first outset of our principles, where nothing can present itself to the senses in the way of pheno mena. . . . Our line of argument, however, will be legitimate, if, with geometry as our guide, we arrive at the station where elementary nature is rendered visible and sensible by experiments and

phenomena; and if the connection of our positions so accords with reason and geometry that from the same experiments and phenomena their various intermediates receive confirmation." (Principia, Vol. L, pp. 102-3.) And again, towards the end of these imaginings : " 1 entreat the indulgent reader to pardon me for venturing to speak so positively of the elements and entities of the natura Prima, which are so unknown and occult, as if they were objects weIl known and familiar to the senses. It would indeed be rash in me so confidently to lead him through such an unexplored region, a region of so many clouds and shadows, were 1 not aiming, through the medium of the principles explained, to arrive at an element in which we are able ta make experiments, and which, by help of these and geometry, may be subjected to the most rigorous examination. When we have arrived at this stage, if it appears that there is a geometrical harmony between the experiments and our prin ciples, if a connection is pointed out between the first entity or simple and the forementioned

e1ement, 1 then flatter myse1f that 1 shaH have won the assent of my reader; more particularly as, in the present age, there is no other way left for us to open the secrets of nature." (Vol. L, pp. 188-<).) 1 see nothing in this attitude at variance with scientific principles. We must bear in mind the danger of isolating passages from a writer's work and considering them without reference to the structure of thought in which they are set. It would be no difficult matter to select from Swedenborg's Principia paragraphs which, by themselves, would appear to contradict those just quoted, and to justify the charge that his attitude to philosophy was unscientific. Having emphasized at the beginning, and at frequent intervals throughout the work, that his principles must ultimate1y be tested by experience, he was at no pains to make every sentence unmistakable by itse1f, but evidently trusted the reader to consider each statement in the light of the general idea. The fact that products of the imagination must eventuaHy stand or faH by experience does not lessen the importance of creating them rationaHy. If we imagine blindly, it is almost certain that our inventions

will not be justified by experience, and we shaH have our work to do again. It s~emed to Swedenborg that a spiral was a more perfect figure than any other, and in constructing a scheme which could be tested by experience, he therefore took spiral motion as a founda tion, and gave his reasons for so doing. It is a serious misunderstanding of his thought to suppose that those reasons were intended as a substitute for the test of experience. They were simply reasons for his parti cular choice of a starting-point from which to deduce what could be tested by experience. We have an almost complete parallel in the work of Newton, and a still more widespread misinterpretation, though one of a different kind. Reasoning in exactly the same way, Newton gave, as his equivalent of Swedenborg's spiral motion, uniform motion in a straight line, and his First Law is that an undisturbed body will move in that way. Like Swedenborg, he did not intend this as a statement to be tested by experience, because, according to his own principles, there was no undisturbed body in the universe that could possibly exhibit uniform motion in a straight line. The statement had to be supplemented by a definition of force and the postulation of particular

forces, such as gravitation, hefore the realm of ex perience was reached. The ohserved motion of a planet was elliptical. Newton described the ellipse as the resultant of a straight line and whatever was necessary to turn a straight line into the observed figure; and he did so because this last something could he described in convenient physical terms, and so ultimately experience could he represented. To protect himself from the false criticism that his postula tion of natural uniform motion was " metaphysical," he repeated, in season and out of season, that he did not make hypotheses. The result has been that he has escaped the charge of. inventing arbitrary principles, which has fallen to Swedenborg's lot, but has instead heen supposed, in his First Law of Motion, to be stating a fact of experience. He was doing nothing of the kind. He was inventing an ultimately arbitrary, hut practica1ly convenient, ideal form of motion, in terms of which he intended later to express actual motions which could be compared with experience. And Swedenborg's procedure is precisely the same, except that he enters more fully into the details of his ideal motion, and his reasons for adopting it, than Newton thought it necessary to do.

Swedenborg's insertion of geometry as an inter mediary between experience and reason needs sorne comment. We do not now separate geometry from reason; we regard it as one of the forms in terms of which reason can interpret experience, but not as a necessary form. Yet it is to be noted that, as an actual fact, the interpretation which relativity gives us is geometrical, and it is believed by many of our leading physicists that geometry, or "field theory" as it is sometimes caUed, is capable of covering the whole of physics. The physical world of Einstein is even now beyond the grasp of many able minds, yet the essential ideas embodied in it were apprehended by Swedenborg in 1734. Let us look at sorne of them. In the world of re1ativity, matter is no longer substantial in the old sense, but is a local characteristic of a geometrical field of motion. There may even be a universe-the "de Sitter universe," it is caUed-in which there is motion everywhere, but no matter. This idea baffles many of us to-day, but in 1734 Swedenborg wrote: "Although pure motion does not necessarily require anything substantial as the basis of its existence, there still pertain to it both form and space, which are attributes of motion." (p. 58.) Again, motion, in

relativity, is something "static," a quality of an unchanging geometrical field in which time and space are equivalent dimensions. This seems to transcend ordinary thought, but listen to Swedenborg: "Pure motion . . . must, therefore, be of such a quality, thatneither degrees, nor momenta, nor anything of velocity can be assigned to it; aIl we can say of it is that such motion actually exists in the whole Infinite." (p. 63,) Once more, in relativity, unlike Newtonian mechanics, each movement is taken as a simple, natural movement, and described without reference to extraneous forces. "The cause of motion," says Swedenborg, " must be solely in the simple or point itself, that is to say, in the internaI motion and state of the point. We must not, therefore, seek for this cause anywhere but in the point, and its active force as acquired by its own internai motion or state." (p. 80.) 1 am not, of course, suggesting that Swedenborg in any way anticipated the theory of relativity. That theory was forced on us by facts of which he knew nothing and to which he would not have attached great importance had he known of them. But what these passages do show is the tremendous intellectual power of the man who, without the guidance needed by many of the best

minds to-day, could attain to conceptions essentially identical with those of our most advanced scientific theories. The question naturaHy suggests itse1f: How is it that Swedenborg, who had such c1ear understanding of scientific principles and practice, and who generated so many ideas which later became necessary for scientific progress, yet does not appear in the history of Science? One after another, his conceptions had to be re-conceived and his discoveries re-made by others ignorant of what he had already done. To find an answer to this question we must glance briefiy at the circumstances in which the modern scientific movement originated. Before the discovery of the telescope it was possible to take the whole of nature as the field of philosophical investigation. Astronomy was cosmogony. The sphere of the fixed stars, the boundary of visible nature, inc1uded a universe which was treated as a whole, and the study of individual parts-of particular stars or of the Sun or Moon-was neglected for the study of the motions of the system. With the same comprehensiveness, philosophy took the whole field of thought for its province, and astronomy and theology

were as much parts of the same subject as the crystalline heavens and the abode of the blessed were parts of the same spatial world. The telescope destroyed this comfortable condition of things. 1t annihilated the crystalline sphere, and revealed a universe in which stars appeared to reach out to infinity. But infinity was beyond the grasp of finite intelligence, so that cosmogony became impossible. On the other hand, the telescope made possible more detailed observation of the nearer objects than had previously been hoped for. The inevitable happened. Men turned from the attempt to apprehend the whole by reason, and began to study the part by experience. Thus modern science was born. The history of science thereafter is a history of increasing specialisation. He who could most rigorously limit his field of study and substitute intensity for extension of observation, stood the best chance of adding to knowledge. One of the first divisions to be made was that between measurable and non-measurable experiences, which immediately separated the physical sciences from the biological. The motion of a planet could be measured; that of a bird could not: and the great scientific achievement which culminated in

Newton's laws of mechanical motion created a rift between physical and biological movements which even to-day we have no prospect of c10sing up. Of the two aspects of this great revolution-the dependence on experience and the division of ex periences into groups-Swedenborg recognised only the first. He saw more c1early than most of his con temporaries that philosophy must have an empirical basis, but he was not prepared to confine his attention within any partial field of inquiry. For this he had his reward, and paid his penalty. Everyone knows how Newton, with the whole conception and detailed application of his gravitational theory complete, re frained from publication for sixteen years because a wrong figure for the radius of the Earth led him to think that the theory was not exactly verified by measurement. 'iVhen the error was detected, the mathematical theory was given to the world, and with it the great conception of the universal force of gravita tion hinding the whole created world together into a single system. On such a theory men could build, and in due time came such developments as Laplace's nebular hypothesis and Einstein's theory of relativity, so that to-day we have a vision of a single system of

geometry comprising the history, structure and destiny of the whole mechanical universe. Newton's theory made this possible and, having seen it come into being, passed out of use as a fundamental statement of natural law. Swedenborg's Principia is of another type than N ewton's. It is concerned with the planets and the Sun, but not with measurements of their positions. It deals instead with the nature of motion, into which Newton did not inquire, and it takes account of animal movements, magnetism, and the creation of man. The radius of the Earth is not relevant to its considerations; it is the quality of the causes, not the quantity of the effects, in which it takes interest. For such a world-view the experimental philosophy was not ready; empirical science could only approach it slowly, by way of exact measurement and an imperfect picture of a universal force. But the geometrical picture to which that imperfect one has at last led us is in essence identical with the vision of Swedenborg. His mind, much more truly than that of Newton, could be described as " voyaging through strange seas of thought, To myself," said Newton, " 1 seem to have alone." been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and


diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shen than ordinary t whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. * "The time is at hand t writes Swedenborg (The Economy of the Animal Kingdom)t " when we may quit the harbour and sail for the open sea. . . . But to launch out into this subject is like embarking on a shore1ess ocean that environs the world. It was the magnitude of the task that Swedenborg undertook that prevented his ideas from guiding future generations. Newton said that if he saw farther than others t it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. None could reach the shoulders of Swedenborg and see beyond his horizon. In the journey towards Wisdom there are those who bear aloft the torch of knowledge which is as a lamp to our feet t and who calI us to walk in the path which it illumines. And there are others who bear no torch t but point to a star ahead. They enter thickets we cannot penetrate t and cross bridges too frail to bear our weight. We turn from them and follow the torch-bearers t and in the toils of the way they are forgotten; but when at length we reach sorne vantage point t we find their * Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton, by D. Brewster, vol. ii, p. 407.


flag aIready planted. Of such as these was Swedenborg. He stands a lone figure, inaccessible, a beacon rather than a guide. It was not his fate ta " be of actual use ta the public at large in those matters which properly belong ta the Royal Board." Another destiny was reserved for him, and for his loss there was abundant recompense. His mind reached beyond the immediate means ta the uItimate end, and thereby made itself fit for experiences which few are worthy to receive.




Swedenborg and Modern Ideas of the Universe




Swedenborg's Search for the Soul


No. 3.

Ultimate Reality
by the REV. L. F. HITE, A.M. (Harvard)

No. 4.

Swedenborg as a Physical Scientist



1 s.

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Full catalogue of 8wedenborg's works unt fret on reqtust tf)


l'rmud in GuaI Brirain by Th. Campjield Press, St. Albans