Herbert Dingle-SWEDENBORG-as-a-PHYSICAL-SCIENTIST-The-Swedenborg-Society-London-1938
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Herbert Dingle-SWEDENBORG-as-a-PHYSICAL-SCIENTIST-The-Swedenborg-Society-London-1938 Herbert Dingle-SWEDENBORG-as-a-PHYSICAL-SCIENTIST-The-Swedenborg-Society-London-1938 Document Transcript

  • S DE BO G ........c~, ":C1lCTIOSOC ETY One.) Numb FourSwedenborgas aPhysical ScientistAddress .uven byProfessor HERBERT DINGLE, D.Se., A.R.C.S.,at Swedenborj 250th Birthday Celebration,Queens Hall, London, Janusry 29th, 1938
  • SWEDENBORGas aPHYSICAL SCIENTISTAddress given byProfessor HERBERT DINGLE, D.Sc., A.R.C.S.,at Swedenborg 250th Birthday Celebration,Queens Hall, London, January 29th, 1938SWEDENBORG SOCIETY (INcoRPoRATED)SWEDENBORG HOUSEHART STREET, LONDON, W.C. 11938
  • Swedenborg as a Physical ScientistEMANUEL SWEDENBORG was born in 1688.In 1743, at the age of fifty-five years, he couldlook back on a life devoted to the pursuit ofscientific knowledge, and forward to larger oppor­tunities for remaining in that service. Applying at thattime for leave of absence to the Swedish Board ofMines, under which he held high office, he wrote :" 1 am influenced interiorly by the desire andlonging to produce during my life-time somethingreal, which may he of use in the general scientificworld.... It is my own chief desire to bringthis work to a close, and to return to my country,to my office, and to my property, where 1 shaH, intranquillity and ease, continue my larger work,the Regnum Minerale, and thus be of actual use tothe public at large in those matters which properlybelong to the Royal Board."This project was never realised. Certain abnormalexperiences turned his attention away from, thoughnever against, scientific work, and led to the remarkable5
  • exposItIons of the Scriptures, and consciousness ofDivine revelation, by which he is now chiefly remem­bered. There is no necessary connection between theproducts of the last twenty-nine and those of the firstfifty-five years of his life. If none of his scientificwritings had survived, his theological works wouldhave had the same daim on our attention as they havenow. That they would ever have been written, how­ever, without the long, intense, earlier study of thenatural world, 1 do not be1ieve. It is at least unlikelythat Swedenborg the Seer could have come into beingotherwise than from Swedenborg the Scientist. Onthis day of remembrance, then, it is fitting that weshould look for a while at the seed from which sprangthe flower that we honour.We see a man acquainted at first hand with the mostadvanced scientific knowledge of his time. In Englandhe studied Newtons physics, and conversed with theastronomers, Halley and Flamsteed. He was by occu­pation an Assessor of Mines, and knew as much as anyman living about the chemistry of mineraIs and theirdistribution in the Earth, as weIl as more generalgeological science. He successfully undertook morethan one large-scale engineering task. He was an6
  • expert mathematician, was thoroughly fami]iar withboth the theory and the practice of mechanics, and hada deeper insight into the mysteries of magnetism thanany of his contemporaries. In anatomy and physiologyhe was no less eminent. There appears, in fact, to havebeen no department of scientific knowledge in which hewas not a master.But he was not a mere receptac1e of knowledge. Onevery subject of study he brought his own genius tobear, and behind every effect he looked for the cause.Though he was by no means unskilled in experimentaltechnique, and frequently employed it very effectively,it was the interpretation of the results of experimentsthat attracted him most, and he often accepted the workof others in order to avoid a bias which he might havefeh towards his own observations had he made any.1 shaH not try even to enumerate aH the original ideaswhich he contributed to his studies; time aHows us toconsider only their general character. And here twothings stand out prominently-first, the extraordinarydepth and originality of his thinking; and secondly,the extent to which he anticipated ideas which did notbecome generaUy familiar until long after his day. 1believe these qualities are shown very strikingly in his7
  • 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 physicalSCIences.To mention but two of the· great scientific ideaswhich originated with Swedenborg, his conceptions of amagnet as a collection of elementary particles in regularalignment, and of the planetary system as a productof the Sun arising from the inherent potentialities ofits constitution, show such close resemblance totheories which arose much later as to leave no doubtthat he is to be regarded as the first source of theessential ideas of those theories. The general lack ofrecognition of Swedenborgs priority in expressingthese 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 ownthoughts undisturbed by contemporary opinion havealso strength to depend for approbation on their ownsense of what is worthy to be praised. Moreover,scientific ideas come and go; they serve their age andprepare the way for others. That Swedenborgs ideasin sorne matters were nearer to those of 1938 than to8
  • those of 1738 would have seemed of slight importanceto one who thought so lightly of time as scarcely tomention the word even in his scientific writings; norwould his stature be diminished by the discovery ofdocuments showing that his ideas had been formulatedby earlier writers, and forgotten.The significance of Swedenborgs foresight in thesethings lies not in the claim it establishes to priority,but in its testimony to the greatness of the mansintellect. This is shown nowhere more forcibly thanin his view of " the means leading to true philosophy."He lived at a time when the " experimental philo-sophy," as science was then caUed, had just establishedits hold on mens attention. From reasoning aboutthe world iri the study, men turned to examining it inthe observatory and the laboratory. This transitionfrom the rational to the empirical, like aU fundamentalrevolutions, was not completed in a moment: indeed,our own generation has seen an important clarificationof the relation between reason and experience whichunderlies the experimental philosophy. When, sornetwenty years ago, the theory of relativity became a partof science, it was realised with amazement that, bytraditional scientific methods, what had been believed9
  • - ------to belong to the basis of science (the then currentnotions of space, time and motion) had been uprooted ;science had apparently reduced itself to absurdity.Enlightenment came when it was seen that the earlieridea of science, according to which experience andreason were alternative means of studying the world,of which experience was to be preferred, did notproperly describe scientific activity. The correctdescription would show experience as the first step,and reason as the second, in the construction of a truephilosophy; both were equaHy legitimate when pro­perly related to one another. Here are Einsteinsown words: "The object of aH science, whethernatural science or psychology, is to co-ordinate ourexperiences and to bring them into a logical system."*Now let us tum to Swedenborg. "The principalmeans which lead to truly philosophical knowledge,"he writes, "are three in number-experience, geo­metry, and the power of reasoning,"t and he makes itclear that they are to be taken in that order. Thecorrespondence with Einstein is complete, except forSwedenborgs inclusion of geometry, about which 1* The Meaning ofRelativity, p. 1.t Principia, vol. l, p. 2.10
  • will speak directly; but whereas Einsteins definitionhas needed nearly 300 years of practical scientific workto bring it to birth, Swedenborgs sprang from his owndirect insight into the significance of the new move-ment. How closely his method of thought accordswith that of the modern physical scientist is clearlyshown in the foJ.1owing passage from a paper readbefore the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in1740 :" There are two ways by which to trace outthose things in nature which lie either open beforeus, or are hidden from our eyes--viz., the a prioriwhich is also called the synthetical method, andthe a posteriori, or the analytical method. Bothare necessary in reflecting upon and tracing out oneand the same thing: for in order to do so there isrequired both light a priori, and experiencea posteriori. Now, while the learned among theancients followed the former light as remotely andprofoundly as they possibly could, those at alater period were induced not to accept anythingas witness, unless it was confirmed by experience.Hence also sorne of the learned at the present clayseem to have agreed to let thought rest, and toII
  • make experiments which would appeal to thesenses; yet they did so with the hope and intentthat sorne day experience would be connectedwith theory: for experience deprived of an insightinto the nature of things is knowledge withoutlearning, and a foundation without a building torest upon it. The observations of the outwardsenses merely furnish data and give informationabout things which the understanding oughttoinvestigate, and concerning which it ought toform its judgments."lt has been said that Swedenborg was not entire1yliberated from the mediaeval practice of framing arbi­trary principles, and that much of his reasoning isvitiated by his assumption that motion must ultimate1ybe 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 unscientificin itself; it becomes so only when such principles aremaintained in defiance of experience, as in the denialby certain philosophers of the elliptical motions of the* See, for example, Sir William Barretts Foreword to the Englishtranslation of the Principia, pp. viii, ix.12
  • planets because, in the perfect heavens, only perfectcircular motion was possible. But to assert a principleas a means of co-ordinating experiences, and to judge itentirely by its fitness for that purpose, is an establishedscientific practice; it is the ordinary process of form­ing hypotheses. And careful reading will show, lthink, that it is this process which Swedenborg ispractising in the First Part of the Principia."These principles," he writes, "cannot beproved by experiment until we have arrived atelementaries. The principles which are formeda priori by rational philosophy and a certain degreeof geometrical connection, receive confirmationalso from visible nature; were there no con­firmation from experience, we should here be onlybuilding casties in the air. Still, however, at thisstage, we cannot appeal to the testimony ofexperience; because we are as yet only at thefirst outset of our principles, where nothing canpresent itself to the senses in the way of pheno­mena. . . . Our line of argument, however, willbe legitimate, if, with geometry as our guide, wearrive at the station where elementary nature isrendered visible and sensible by experiments and13
  • phenomena; and if the connection of our positionsso accords with reason and geometry that fromthe same experiments and phenomena their variousintermediates receive confirmation." (Principia,Vol. L, pp. 102-3.)And again, towards the end of these imaginings :" 1 entreat the indulgent reader to pardon mefor venturing to speak so positively of the elementsand entities of the natura Prima, which are sounknown and occult, as if they were objects weIlknown and familiar to the senses. It wouldindeed be rash in me so confidently to lead himthrough such an unexplored region, a region ofso 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 tamake experiments, and which, by help of theseand geometry, may be subjected to the mostrigorous examination. When we have arrived atthis stage, if it appears that there is a geometricalharmony between the experiments and our prin­ciples, if a connection is pointed out between thefirst entity or simple and the forementionedq.
  • e1ement, 1 then flatter myse1f that 1 shaH have wonthe assent of my reader; more particularly as, inthe present age, there is no other way left for us toopen the secrets of nature." (Vol. L, pp. 188-<).)1 see nothing in this attitude at variance withscientific principles.We must bear in mind the danger of isolatingpassages from a writers work and considering themwithout reference to the structure of thought in whichthey are set. It would be no difficult matter to selectfrom Swedenborgs Principia paragraphs which, bythemselves, would appear to contradict those justquoted, and to justify the charge that his attitude tophilosophy was unscientific. Having emphasized atthe beginning, and at frequent intervals throughout thework, that his principles must ultimate1y be tested byexperience, he was at no pains to make every sentenceunmistakable by itse1f, but evidently trusted thereader to consider each statement in the light of thegeneral idea. The fact that products of the imaginationmust eventuaHy stand or faH by experience does notlessen the importance of creating them rationaHy. Ifweimagine blindly, it is almost certain that our inventions15
  • will not be justified by experience, and we shaH haveour work to do again. It s~emed to Swedenborgthat a spiral was a more perfect figure than any other,and in constructing a scheme which could be tested byexperience, he therefore took spiral motion as a founda­tion, and gave his reasons for so doing. It is a seriousmisunderstanding of his thought to suppose that thosereasons were intended as a substitute for the test ofexperience. They were simply reasons for his parti­cular choice of a starting-point from which to deducewhat could be tested by experience.We have an almost complete parallel in the work ofNewton, and a still more widespread misinterpretation,though one of a different kind. Reasoning in exactlythe same way, Newton gave, as his equivalent ofSwedenborgs spiral motion, uniform motion in astraight line, and his First Law is that an undisturbedbody will move in that way. Like Swedenborg, hedid not intend this as a statement to be tested byexperience, because, according to his own principles,there was no undisturbed body in the universe thatcould possibly exhibit uniform motion in a straightline. The statement had to be supplemented by adefinition of force and the postulation of particular16
  • forces, such as gravitation, hefore the realm of ex­perience was reached. The ohserved motion of aplanet was elliptical. Newton described the ellipseas the resultant of a straight line and whatever wasnecessary to turn a straight line into the observedfigure; and he did so because this last somethingcould he described in convenient physical terms, andso ultimately experience could he represented. Toprotect himself from the false criticism that his postula­tion of natural uniform motion was " metaphysical,"he repeated, in season and out of season, that he didnot make hypotheses. The result has been that he hasescaped the charge of. inventing arbitrary principles,which has fallen to Swedenborgs lot, but has insteadheen supposed, in his First Law of Motion, to bestating a fact of experience. He was doing nothing ofthe kind. He was inventing an ultimately arbitrary,hut practica1ly convenient, ideal form of motion, interms of which he intended later to express actualmotions which could be compared with experience.And Swedenborgs procedure is precisely the same,except that he enters more fully into the details of hisideal motion, and his reasons for adopting it, thanNewton thought it necessary to do.17
  • Swedenborgs insertion of geometry as an inter­mediary between experience and reason needs sornecomment. We do not now separate geometry fromreason; we regard it as one of the forms in terms ofwhich reason can interpret experience, but not as anecessary form. Yet it is to be noted that, as an actualfact, the interpretation which relativity gives us isgeometrical, and it is believed by many of our leadingphysicists that geometry, or "field theory" as it issometimes caUed, is capable of covering the whole ofphysics. The physical world of Einstein is even nowbeyond the grasp of many able minds, yet the essentialideas embodied in it were apprehended by Swedenborgin 1734. Let us look at sorne of them.In the world of re1ativity, matter is no longersubstantial in the old sense, but is a local characteristicof a geometrical field of motion. There may even be auniverse-the "de Sitter universe," it is caUed-inwhich there is motion everywhere, but no matter. Thisidea baffles many of us to-day, but in 1734 Swedenborgwrote: "Although pure motion does not necessarilyrequire anything substantial as the basis of its existence,there still pertain to it both form and space, which areattributes of motion." (p. 58.) Again, motion, in18
  • relativity, is something "static," a quality of anunchanging geometrical field in which time and spaceare equivalent dimensions. This seems to transcendordinary thought, but listen to Swedenborg: "Puremotion . . . must, therefore, be of such a quality,thatneither degrees, nor momenta, nor anything ofvelocity can be assigned to it; aIl we can say of it isthat such motion actually exists in the whole Infinite."(p. 63,) Once more, in relativity, unlike Newtonianmechanics, each movement is taken as a simple,natural movement, and described without reference toextraneous forces. "The cause of motion," saysSwedenborg, " must be solely in the simple or pointitself, that is to say, in the internaI motion and state ofthe point. We must not, therefore, seek for this causeanywhere but in the point, and its active force asacquired by its own internai motion or state." (p. 80.)1 am not, of course, suggesting that Swedenborg in anyway anticipated the theory of relativity. That theorywas forced on us by facts of which he knew nothing andto which he would not have attached great importancehad he known of them. But what these passages doshow is the tremendous intellectual power of the manwho, without the guidance needed by many of the best19
  • minds to-day, could attain to conceptions essentiallyidentical with those of our most advanced scientifictheories.The question naturaHy suggests itse1f: How is itthat Swedenborg, who had such c1ear understanding ofscientific principles and practice, and who generatedso many ideas which later became necessary forscientific progress, yet does not appear in the historyof Science? One after another, his conceptions hadto be re-conceived and his discoveries re-made byothers ignorant of what he had already done. To findan answer to this question we must glance briefiy atthe circumstances in which the modern scientificmovement originated.Before the discovery of the telescope it was possibleto take the whole of nature as the field of philosophicalinvestigation. Astronomy was cosmogony. Thesphere of the fixed stars, the boundary of visiblenature, inc1uded a universe which was treated as awhole, and the study of individual parts-of particularstars or of the Sun or Moon-·was neglected for thestudy of the motions of the system. With the samecomprehensiveness, philosophy took the whole field ofthought for its province, and astronomy and theology20
  • were as much parts of the same subject as the crystallineheavens and the abode of the blessed were parts of thesame spatial world.The telescope destroyed this comfortable conditionof things. 1t annihilated the crystalline sphere, andrevealed a universe in which stars appeared to reachout to infinity. But infinity was beyond the grasp offinite intelligence, so that cosmogony became im-possible. On the other hand, the telescope madepossible more detailed observation of the nearer objectsthan had previously been hoped for. The inevitablehappened. Men turned from the attempt to apprehendthe whole by reason, and began to study the part byexperience. Thus modern science was born.The history of science thereafter is a history ofincreasing specialisation. He who could most rigorouslylimit his field of study and substitute intensity forextension of observation, stood the best chance ofadding to knowledge. One of the first divisions to bemade was that between measurable and non-measurableexperiences, which immediately separated the physicalsciences from the biological. The motion of a planetcould be measured; that of a bird could not: and thegreat scientific achievement which culminated in21
  • Newtons laws of mechanical motion created a riftbetween physical and biological movements whicheven to-day we have no prospect of c10sing up.Of the two aspects of this great revolution-thedependence on experience and the division of ex­periences into groups-Swedenborg recognised onlythe first. He saw more c1early than most of his con­temporaries that philosophy must have an empiricalbasis, but he was not prepared to confine his attentionwithin any partial field of inquiry. For this he had hisreward, and paid his penalty. Everyone knows howNewton, with the whole conception and detailedapplication of his gravitational theory complete, re­frained from publication for sixteen years because awrong figure for the radius of the Earth led him tothink that the theory was not exactly verified bymeasurement. iVhen the error was detected, themathematical theory was given to the world, and withit the great conception of the universal force of gravita­tion hinding the whole created world together into asingle system. On such a theory men could build,and in due time came such developments as Laplacesnebular hypothesis and Einsteins theory of relativity,so that to-day we have a vision of a single system of22
  • geometry comprising the history, structure and destinyof the whole mechanical universe. Newtons theorymade this possible and, having seen it come into being,passed out of use as a fundamental statement ofnatural law.Swedenborgs Principia is of another type thanNewtons. It is concerned with the planets and theSun, but not with measurements of their positions.It deals instead with the nature of motion, into whichNewton did not inquire, and it takes account ofanimal movements, magnetism, and the creation ofman. The radius of the Earth is not relevant to itsconsiderations; it is the quality of the causes, not thequantity of the effects, in which it takes interest. Forsuch a world-view the experimental philosophy was notready; empirical science could only approach it slowly,by way of exact measurement and an imperfect pictureof a universal force. But the geometrical picture towhich that imperfect one has at last led us is in essenceidentical with the vision of Swedenborg. His mind,much more truly than that of Newton, could bedescribed as " voyaging through strange seas of thought,alone." To myself," said Newton, " 1 seem to haveHbeen only like a boy playing on the seashore, and23
  • diverting myself in now and then finding a smootherpebble or a prettier shen than ordinaryt whilst thegreat ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.H*"The time is at handtHwrites Swedenborg (TheEconomy of the Animal Kingdom)t " when we may quitthe harbour and sail for the open sea. . . . But tolaunch out into this subject is like embarking on ashore1ess ocean that environs the world.HIt was the magnitude of the task that Swedenborgundertook that prevented his ideas from guiding futuregenerations. Newton said that if he saw farther thanotherst it was because he stood on the shoulders ofgiants. None could reach the shoulders of Swedenborgand see beyond his horizon. In the journey towardsWisdom there are those who bear aloft the torch ofknowledge which is as a lamp to our feett and whocalI us to walk in the path which it illumines. Andthere are others who bear no torcht but point to astar ahead. They enter thickets we cannot penetratetand cross bridges too frail to bear our weight. We turnfrom them and follow the torch-bearerst and in thetoils of the way they are forgotten; but when atlength we reach sorne vantage pointt we find their* Memoirs ofSir Isaac Newton, by D. Brewster, vol. ii, p. 407.24
  • flag aIready planted. Of such as these was Swedenborg.He stands a lone figure, inaccessible, a beacon ratherthan a guide. It was not his fate ta " be of actual useta the public at large in those matters which properlybelong ta the Royal Board." Another destiny wasreserved for him, and for his loss there was abundantrecompense. His mind reached beyond the immediatemeans ta the uItimate end, and thereby made itself fitfor experiences which few are worthy to receive.
  • THE TRANSACTIONS OFTHE SWEDENBORG SOCIETYNo. 1. Swedenborg and Modern Ideas of the Universeby HAROLD GARDINER, M.S., F.R.C.S.No. 2. Swedenborgs Search for the Soulby HAROLD GARDINER, M.S., F.R.C.S.No. 3. Ultimate Realityby the REV. L. F. HITE, A.M. (Harvard)No. 4. Swedenborg as a Physical Scientistby PROF. HERBERT DINGLE, D.Sc.) A.R.C.S.Priee 1 s. eaeh, post freeFull catalogue of 8wedenborgs works unt fret on reqtust tf)SWEDENBORG SOCIETY20 HART STREETLONDON, W.C. 1lrmud in GuaI Brirain by Th. Campjield Press, St. Albans