Using Swedenborg to Understand the Quantum World II: Desire and Energy

Swedenborg Foundation

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

Ian Thompson is also the author of Starting Science from Godas well as Nuclear Reactions in Astrophysics (Univ. of Cambridge Press) and more than two hundred refereed professional articles in nuclear physics.
[1] B. Ellis and C. Lierse, “Dispositional Essentialism,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy (72, 1994): 27–45.

[2] See Ian J. Thompson, “Power and Substance,”

Visit our Swedenborg Studies bookstore page to explore our series of scholarly titles >

Read more posts from the Scholars on Swedenborg series >

Beliefs of ancient Egypt about death?

ancient EgyptThe ancient Egypt Book of the Dead is a collection of funerary instructions placed in coffins and sarcophagi in order to prepare the soul of the deceased for the afterlife and judgment. The scenes are dramatically presented in pictures and words.  A Swedenborgian view, of how natural things correspond to spiritual matters, suggests that the instructions of ancient Egypt are based on a clear understanding of psychological progression of the soul from the outer, or physical world, to the first experiences in the inner, spiritual world. Each individual has to give an account of his character and is assessed by independent judges seen as various gods.

One papyrus shows 42 deities and the soul has to address each one by name and make a negative confession relating to various wrong-doings.

O Far-strider … I have done no falsehood

O Fire-embracer … I have not robbed.

O Double Lion … I have not destroyed food supplies.

O You whose face is behind … I have not misconducted myself or abused a boy

O You of the darkness … I have not been quarrelsome.

The judgment is made more awesome because behind the petitioner stands a monster, called Ammit, which will swallow the guilty immediately.

Let us consider this ritual of ancient Egypt in detail. If we contemplated our own death, how many of us could truthfully answer 42 separate judges and say, “I have not been loud-mouthed.” nor committed any other contraventions of right conduct? Recent research into Near Death Experiences shows that many have experienced similar evaluation in which they saw a play-back of whole periods of their life and felt they were assessing its quality, wasted opportunities or some meanness. They were not condemned, but clearly, someone was alongside witnessing their reactions.

It is perhaps easy to smile at the monster Ammit since if a person fails the first test and is swallowed up, is that the end of judgment? The human mind is more complicated and exists on different levels and has many talents which can be used for doing good or harm. Each one has to be assessed separately. Let us take as an example a frequent social evil in our society — vandalism. If the mind is challenged by an unbroken window or a fence and needs to smash it, then something is seriously wrong. Perhaps the people of ancient Egypt  were more honest during their rituals and put the blame where it belongs as they laid bare the whole mind for assessment, noting which parts of it had been corrupted with its health taken away and harmony destroyed. The mind which can only find its delight in destroying, even in killing, is clearly in a very serious state. It has been devoured by a terrifying monster.

The Christian scripture is just as uncompromising about such assessment which is generally called ‘judgment’. In the words of Christ:

There is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have spoken in the ear in inner rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops. (Luke 12: 2-3)

The focus of the ancient Egypt ceremony was the weighing of the heart. During embalming, the internal organs were removed from the body and preserved separately in jars. The heart was judged by itself on the scales against Maat, the goddess of Righteousness or Truth. She was represented as a female body, but instead of a head often had a white feather. Her small figurine stood on the scales weighing the heart of the deceased, or she was represented by her symbol, the white feather. Feathers, especially wing feathers, enable birds to fly and to have a wider view of the world below. Similarly, truth elevates our thoughts to give us what we already call ‘a birds eye view.’ The goddess of truth represents the desire for truth which gives us the ability of discernment and separation between truth and falsity.

However, the heart itself can be said to have its own specific importance since it had always been seen as the seat of the emotions, and so it corresponds to our affections. Too often we think that our love is merely a temporary feeling. The ancients had greater respect for the ‘heart’. The idea is that in our love lies the primary seat of our personality. Swedenborg put it very forcefully:

A person’s life really is his love, and the nature of his love determines the nature of his life, and in fact the whole person. But it is the dominant or ruling love which makes the person….  It is the characteristic of a dominant love that it is loved above all else. What a person loves above all else is constantly present in his thoughts, because it is in his will, and constitutes the very essence of his life…Everyone’s sense of pleasure, bliss and happiness comes from his dominant love, and is dependent on this. (TCR 399)

This is an fairly new concept. Love is seen as the very dynamic of our life, of our vital energy and heat. When we love we grow warm in our body. There is a correspondence between the two. When we lack any desire, we grow cold and lack vitality. According to Swedenborg what we mainly love is also the key to our judgment and character. Each person needs to act honestly. ‘What is it that I love more than anything? What is it for which I am prepared to pay any price, make any sacrifice?’ Unless we have understood that much, we cannot know what is going on in our mind.

We can only marvel at the high degree of perception about the working of the mind revealed in ancient sacred texts.

Adapted from material by Christopher Hasler first published by the Swedenborg Movement