Studia Swedenborgiana

Vol. 4 January,  1982 Number 3 

What Is Happening to Swedenborg's Cosmological Principle?

by Steve  Koke

The Divine Being created the universe for no other purpose than to form an angelic heaven from the human race.1

This is Swedenborg's cosmological principle. It has survived precariously through severa] surprising revolutions in astronomy since Swedenborg announced it in the middle of the eighteenth century. Another revolution is going on now. As we shall see, the fate of the cosmological principle is tied to the picture of the universe with which it keeps company, and, although there is still much uncertainty, that picture may be finally becoming ready to support it.

But there was no more encouraging time than the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for someone to suggest the cosmological principle. It was all very simple. The planets looked like solid, reflective bodies like the Earth, and they even had moons, days, nights, and seasons. Shortly after Galileo discovered these immensely suggestive facts in 1610, astronomers and other thinkers came to the only predictable conclusion: the planets were so much like the Earth that they might as well have intelligent beings on them too, maybe even people like ourselves.

From Galileo to nearly the beginning of the eighteenth century, pure astronomy enjoyed its first golden age. The telescope had opened the heavens to closer inspection, and everything beyond the reach of the naked eye was potentially a new discovery. But in the beginning, lenses were bad or only marginally good, and Galileo's first observations were made with a telescope that could magnify only thirty times. Isaac Newton and Christian Huygens improved the size and quality of the telescope enormously, and by the close of the seventeenth century, the solar system had been combed for nearly all the more general sights it had to offer.

Europe in the eighteenth century was in a heady mood. New industrial developments promised better living for everyone. It seemed that European society had finally won its long struggle upward from barbarism and superstition. But the new era depended on profitable trade by sea, and astronomers were enticed by governmental pressure and offers of job security into well-equipped observatories where they could provide their countries with navigational data. Pure astronomy gave way to positional astronomy, which is the refinement of stellar positions, orbital calculations, and the sizes and distances of celestial bodies. Astronomy had become an economic resource. In fact, Swedenborg's attempt to build an observatory on Mt. Kinnekulle in 1715 was for the most part an attempt to get Sweden into modern life and make her more competitive. Pure astronomy, the exploration of the universe, may not have been very much on his mind.

When Swedenborg began in the middle of the eighteenth century to write about extraterrestrial life, he drew at least some of his arguments for it from an already well-established philosophy and picture of the universe. But it was not an eighteenth century philosophy; because of the practical spirit of eighteenth century astronomy, he went back to ideas which had been frozen since the seventeenth century. Immanuel Kant, one of his famous contemporaries, wrote:

The scientific theory of the Universal Constitution of the World has obtained no remarkable addition since the time of Huygens. At the present time nothing more is known than what was already known then, namely, that six planets with ten satellites, all performing the circle of their revolution almost in one plane, and the eternal comets which sweep out on all sides, constitute a system whose centre is the sun, towards which they all fall, around which they perform their movements, and by which they are all illuminated, heated, and vivified; finally that the fixed stars are so many suns, centres of similar systems, in which everything may be arranged just as grandly and with as much order as in our system; and that the infinite space swarms with worlds, whose number and excellency have a relation to the immensity of their Creator.2

Kant and the earlier analogical argument describe substantially what Swedenborg describes for us in the first pages of Earths in the Universe. What we find there was apparently inspired by ideas injected into European thought by various seventeenth century writers, but especially by astronomer Christian Huygens in his Cosmotheoros and probably also by Bernard de Fontenelle in a very popular work about extraterrestrial life called Entretiens sur la Pluralite des Mondes, 1686, [an attempt to popularize new astronomical theory].

We have a similar cultural influence in our thinking. It is the argument that there are so many stars capable of having planets that even if only a small percentage of them did have any planets, and only a small percentage of these planets were inhabited, there would still be thousands of inhabited planets in our galaxy alone. This argument is repeated ritually even though it is well known; it helps astronomers and other writers to establish a positive outlook in preparation for whatever they may want to add about life in the universe. Swedenborg seems to have used the same strategy in U.

Nevertheless, Swedenborg embraced these old ideas and placed them under his cosmological principle. It may look at first like a purely theological idea. But some theological statements overlap both worlds.3 In fact, this one can be read as a touchstone for scientific research. If it is true, we should find that the universe everywhere prepares for the appearance of human life. If we find that universal processes are not working out this way, the principle will be disproved.

It was not destined for an easy existence.

Pure astronomy remained in its suspended state, with only minor spurts of activity, until nine years after Swedenborg's death when William Herschel discovered Uranus. Herschel built his own telescopes, the best around, and avoided getting into government service.

Soon after Herschel, astronomy took a dangerous turn. New observations began to come in which would gradually upset the old, congenial picture and make the planets look strange and antagonistic to man. A long era of bad news began with an unsettling observation of the Moon. Popular fantasies had placed seas, continents, and a complete set of living creatures on its surface. But astronomers soon noticed that when the Moon moved in front of a star, the image of the star showed no sign that it was being refracted through a lunar atmosphere. Its steady blaze simply winked out at the horizon.4 As observations improved during the nineteenth century, the evidence only became more insistent: the Moon was without an atmosphere and therefore could not support life; in fact its surface was completely barren. The major planets as well began to look less friendly to any kind of life we could comfortably imagine.

Now, deep into the space age, the skeptical theme has become merciless. The more deeply we probe the other planets, even to the point of landing sophisticated instruments on Mars and Venus, the more lifeless and alien they look. Even in deep space the news has not been good. A star is more likely to drift alone than to be accompanied by planets. The old arguments have broken down, and many Swedenborgians may now wonder if Swedenborg's cosmological principle has a future.

It has been tempting to resolve at least some of the problem by suggesting that one or more of the planets in our solar system were inhabited only long ago. After all, Swedenborg spoke only with spirits from the planets; the spirits from one or more of them may have been in the spiritual world a very long time.

But this suggestion runs into several problems.

First, Swedenborg's descriptions are all in the present tense. He apparently believed the planets and the moons were inhabited at least in 1758.5

Secondly, spirits live "near" their own planets and "know what takes place there" (U 1). No catastrophes or empty planets were reported.

Thirdly, the planets would have to be either very old or show us devastated surfaces, the aftermath of premature and massive ecological death. But instead, they show us primitive surfaces or unevolved conditions. Mercury and the Moon, for example, are heavily cratered. Both stopped evolving shortly after the "accretion phase" in the formation of the solar system in which they were bombarded by other, smaller bodies which had condensed with them out of the solar nebula. A new planet accumulates most of its mass this way. What we see, oddly enough, is their rough baby skin.

Mars also shows much of its oldest landscape, and the great gas giants beyond Mars have never condensed into solid planets at all, unless a small rocky core lies beneath thousands of miles of molecular and metallic hydrogen. Venus, however, is still a mystery. Its crushing carbon dioxide atmosphere presses down with a force of 1500 pounds per square inch onto a surface hot enough to melt lead. We do not yet know how Venus got this way.

Finally, any planetwide ecological catastrophe introduces a discordant note in the universe. Too many of them make the universe seem indifferent to life; and just one per solar system would still be too many. If our solar system is more or less typical of solar systems everywhere, the early death of a single planet would suggest that on average one out of nine planets will die for unnatural reasons. One out of nine is 11% of all of the planets in the universe, enough to justify placing some limits on the cosmological principle. Ironically, a solar system inhabited mainly in the distant past reacts against the principle it tries to save, unless the solar system is much older than it looks and is dying naturally.

One must understand that scientists would love to discover life on another planet. Few people want to believe that we are alone. Recent findings have baffled everyone. The failure of Viking I and II to find microbes (or something like them) in the soil of Mars was a general disappointment. Microbial life is one of the most widespread and hardy forms of life and a basis for the emergence of more complicated living things. Its presence would have raised hopes that Mars has a more advanced ecology. The results were ambiguous, but scientists did not think they would be. Everywhere, planetary science finds itself contending with unexpected chemistry and unexpected conditions.

In his arguments, Swedenborg presents a long formula: stars imply suns which imply planets which imply earths (habitable planets) which imply men. Thus, wherever there is a star there are men. Modern astronomy attacks this formula at two points: (1) where stars imply suns with planets and (2) where planets imply earths. It generally agrees that a habitable planet (an earth) will undoubtedly develop inhabitants.

But the cosmological principle does not care how human life is provided for in the universe as long as it is provided for somehow. It says only that a Plan exists. What that Plan is remains the bone of contention. Swedenborg's view of the Plan m his formula -- was based on the ideas of his time and was therefore subject to change if astronomy changed. Because of its apparent origins, it was probably not revelatory. It was also an argument, which is to say that it was formed from common knowledge and had to share the fate of that knowledge. In order to make a point argumentatively, one shows his listener that what they both already know implies a new idea. If there is no body of common knowledge, the argument falls flat, since they cannot agree on the premises. Consequently, all logical arguments presuppose some involvement by both parties with the current culture and may become dated. Even if their conclusions are eternally valid, the arguments in which the conclusions are embedded may have an expiration date.

Because the cosmological principle does not commit itself to one specific universe, it may survive even if the

picture of the universe that Swedenborg associated with it does not. What we have to look for is an alternative Plan in our own science.

The first point of conflict with Swedenborg's formula consists of the observation that many stars do not have planets. In Swedenborg's point of view, that would leave them without a purpose. Fortunately, we have a purposeful alternative in modern astrophysics.

We have learned that stars are immense thermonuclear furnaces which fuse lighter elements together to make heavier ones. The universe starts from scratch: elementary hydrogen, whose atom is just a single proton with a single electron in orbit around it. From this almost evanescent stuff, stars must build elements from which hard, rocky planets can be made carbon, iron, various silicates, and so on. But it takes several generations of stars to do it. Each one builds a little and blows its contents into surrounding space; other stars form out of interstellar gas enriched by the debris and build some more, moving up the hierarchy of elements. The final result is a star like our sun which condensed with planets out of a cloud rich in heavy materials. Thus, stars without planets can satisfy the cosmological principle. They help man appear in the universe, but further down the road than Swedenborg anticipated.

In this long, evolutionary process, modem astrophysics seems to be giving us a broad hint that life's supporting structures are much more complex than the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries suspected. The universe does not spring into full bloom in one or two stages. Swedenborg's universe (and the universe of writers before him) was in full bloom with no provision for old, burned out stars and planets or new, embryonic stars and planets. Man was already everywhere. Unless stars and planets are eternal, such a universe would have to be very young as such things go, and it would have to die as soon as its current stars and planets exhausted themselves. It was a "single-generation" universe.

Swedenborg's universe may have been only a sketch. But it stands in instructive contrast to what astronomers are now sketching for us. They now tell us that the universe must start with the very simplest of states in order to get to the most complex forms of life and that the distance between the two is rather large. Stars are the bui!ders of the universe, not merely the shepherds of planets. What we see in the night sky are largely the bright forges of long cycles of creation with man appearing only when and where everything is ready for him. Even after he appears, new cycles of stars continually reappear, building perhaps to new cycles of man.

This picture parallels the dramatic distinction between preparatory stages and final results we find in nature right here on Earth. Nature always seems to need enormous supporting structures for a comparatively tiny end result. Nature can be compared to a pyramid in which the mineral kingdom -- the planet itself -- is the broad base. The vegetable kingdom is a significantly smaller middle section, and the animal kingdom, in which intelligent species finally emerge, is the tiny upper section. In this section, man, the apex, is a mere point compared to what brought him into being.

Thus, the major differences between Swedenborg's cosmology and modern views are that universal processes are cyclical and that these cycles serve unexpectedly heavy demands for adequate preparation.

But we still lack a coherent scientific picture of how uninhabited planets may support life. Ironically, scientists have learned more quickly about the stars than

about our nearest neighbors in space. Here, right around us, is where the cosmological principle still faces difficulty.

In the last twenty or so years, we have been bombarded with dramatic discoveries. But they are mostly in unrelated pieces. For example, Venus is hot and corrosive and has no magnetic field; Saturn's rings are numbered in the thousands; both Uranus and Jupiter have rings; Io, a satellite of Jupiter, generates a current of 5 million amperes between itself and Jupiter as its swings around the planet. All of these things are interesting, but they and many others come to us like pieces of a great jigsaw puzzle dropped onto a table at random. Putting together an understanding of the solar system that the cosmological principle can illuminate is like putting the pieces together without the picture on the box. You don't even know what to look for.

Consequently, we can deal only with hints of a divine order in the planets and, for the moment, fill in details with a little speculation. This way we may be able to acquire a kind of advance impression of what we will eventually discover.

But first let us look for a moment at one of Swedenborg's arguments. An important preliminary point is buried in it.

. . . such great masses as the planets are, some of them exceeding this earth in magnitude, are not vacant masses, created only to be borne along and revolve around the sun, and to shine with their scanty light for one earth, but.., their use must needs be a much more important one than that. (U 3)

It is not obvious, but Swedenborg make an assumption here which powerfully determines the course of his thinking. He assumes that the space between the planets is at best a medium capable only of carrying heat, light, and gravity. The planets are isolated from each other in this comparative void like islands in an ocean and only reflect a little light to each other across it. The isolation of the planets from each other then forces him to conclude that each planet must be inhabited if it is going to support human life at all. For if the planets cannot interact with each other across space, they can support life only if each planet becomes self-sufficient and develops its own complete ecology. The formula planets imply earths is born at this point.

If, on the other hand, we assume that space is not an isolating void but a dynamic and conductive medium of some sort that is capable of doing more than transmit heat, light, and basic Newtonian forces, it would not be logically necessary for each planet to have its own inhabitants. The planets could then be part of an interactive system, cogs in a celestial machine, which supports life in only part of the system.

Another way to put this is that Swedenborg's argument at bottom requires only that life-supporting systems exist. The question is: what would qualify as a life-supporting system? Logically, a planet could be a life-supporting system, or a system of planets could be a life-supporting system. Which alternative we settle on for the solar system will depend largely on what we find out about space. Swedenborg followed the conceptions of his time and reasoned very logically about them. But nowadays space looks like quite a bit more than a void, and the planets do look as if they are not complete life-supporting systems. Swedenborg followed the science of his time down one of two possible paths friendly to the cosmological principle. Fortunately, the science of our time has been changing in both of the categories necessary to adopt the other path. We have planets which could not support their own life, but we are also gaining what we need to go with them, evidence that space is an active interplanetary medium capable of uniting the planets in a single system.

Since Einstein, we have become aware that space is not space but spacetime, a four-dimensional structure which even has curvature. It interacts intimately with matter; as astrophysicists often put it, matter tells spacetime how to curve, and curved spacetime tells matter how to behave. Space (or spacetime) is also filled with energy fields, magnetic forces, radiation, the solar wind (a massive shower of particles from the sun which interacts with magnetic fields and radiation belts around planets), and even organic (carbon based) molecules. Organic molecules are the stuff from which primitive life is made. Some scientists think that these molecules are formed in space and that Earth may have been seeded by them.

But how do the planets help each other? Here are two possibilities.

Our oceans are the mother of all life on the planet. Consequently, anything responsible for their origin would have been of vital importance to us. We have thought that the oceans came from erupting underground streams and from clouds of steam pouring from volcanoes. But recent studies of craters on Saturn's icy moons suggest that most of our ocean water came to us as large chunks of ice diverted from the cold, outer regions of the solar system by the gravitational fields of Uranus and Neptune.

A more intriguing possibility has to be filled out with a little speculation. Astronomer Carl Sagan has suggested that the brownish material in the atmosphere of Jupiter is organic. We have discovered that if gases present in Jupiter's atmosphere m hydrogen, water, ammonia, methane, and hydrogen sulfide -- are sparked, they combine to form a brownish tar of proteins and other organic molecules. Life begins in this material, using it as its basic building blocks. When Voyager I circled around to the dark side of Jupiter, it showed scientists that Jupiter's dense atmosphere is torn by lightning. Great flashes illuminated the clouds here and there. We also know that warm convection currents carry material in Jupiter's atmosphere up to the higher regions near space; then they cool and fall back down again.

Here comes the speculation: because Jupiter radiates almost twice as much energy as it receives from the sun, its radiation pressure may push organic molecules from the top of these convection currents out into space. If so, Earth may have been seeded by Jupiter. Earth may have received a rain of material, perhaps of a kind it could not produce so readily itself, and added it to its own supply.

If Earth is the mother of life, Jupiter may have been its father. We may be distant sons and daughters of Jupiter by Earth. In fact, the great gas giants, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, resemble nothing so much as great electrochemical laboratories. They may all be producing a cloud of organic substances around the solar system which, like organic materials on the surface of a planet, increase the passage of spiritual influx into material conditions in some way.

In any case, there is at the heart of this idea the old rule that everything is an expression of either the masculine principle or the feminine principle. How the

masculine and feminine principles are to be assigned is a risky question. But we may find that some planets are seminal while others are receptive.

Although our knowledge of the solar system is still in some disarray, there is much better news in the field of cosmology. A new principle has emerged called the anthropic principle after the Greek word anthropos, man. It comes startlingly close to Swedenborg's cosmological principle. The Universe, it says, can be explained by man's presence in it.

It looks strange, because it uses man's existence to explain a universe that is usually used to explain man's existence. Science explains why something exists by referring back to a preceding condition which caused it. Man exists in the universe because the environment and biology of Earth were just right for him; evolution was free to do the rest. How could we turn the logic around so that our existence explains these preceding conditions? And in what sense are we the explanation of an entire universe which existed before we did?

The true anthropic principle would answer that it was the intent of Life to produce a universe in which it could be reborn in man. Man is not just the last stage of a long creative process. He is the living expression of an original Intention which planned to emerge at this point inside its own creation. The logic of this is similar to what happens in art or music. An artist reproduces himself on canvas or through an orchestra; a sliver of himself emerges, reborn through a medium which was created only to bring it forth in some sensible form.

But modern scientists, on the whole, wouldn't be caught dead with such a theological conception. The anthropic principle in cosmology stops just short of this. Instead, cosmologists notice that man is the most delicate, complex, and improbable part of the universe. The most unlikely events and conditions, which reach back to the beginning of time and govern the entire universe, are responsible for our presence.

Scientists used to think that life was merely a chance product of local conditions. The universe is very prolific; sooner or later some atoms in isolated corners of the universe just happen to come together in the right way and life begins. We have marveled at the odds against our existence. But, still, the very improbable happens in a universe large enough and active enough to try anything. This point of view requires, however, that, for every improbable living molecule that appears in the universe, there be many more molecules that are not put together in the right way so that the concept of chance will remain intact. You may toss a coin a hundred times, and it may come to rest on its edge once -- which would be unusual enough -- but to make the story of that one toss believable, you have to report the ninety-nine failures that went with it.

What cosmologists are now discovering is that the universe as a whole is extremely improbable. That considerably changes the old picture. The universe is not a vast arena in which endless possibilities are played out blindly; it is itself more like a coin that came to rest on its edge.6 For example, a little random variation, this way or that, in the overall distribution of matter in the universe (what some scientists call its "clumpiness"), in the background temperature of the universe (three degrees Kelvin above absolute zero), in the strength of gravity, and in other general conditions which have seemed to just happen to be, could have permanently wiped out our tiny chance of appearing. The entire universe, not just small and random parts of it, went through the narrow and improbable gates that lead to man every time. Consequently, our existence now places enormously powerful constraints on theories about the laws and conditions which governed the early universe. We can be alive only in a universe of a rather special kind which has the interesting property that it gives rise to beings who wonder about its origin. That portentous fact will tell cosmologists much about how the universe was formed. In this way, man's existence "explains" the universe to cosmologists.

It is difficult not to feel a tingling sensation; something may be sneaking up on the cosmologists. The most riveting fact is that it is man, rather than something else, which has such explanatory power. Man, and therefore spirit and consciousness, looks like a central issue for the universe itself. In his article on the anthropic principle in a recent issue of Scientific American, George Gale quotes John Wheeler of the University of Texas:

. . . no reason has ever offered itself why certain of the constants and initial conditions [in the universe] have the values they do, except that otherwise anything like observership as we know it would be impossible.7

The anthropic principle also may become a partner of quantum mechanics, a branch of physics which makes the observer an influence on anything he observes. Wheeler suggests that quantum mechanics "has led us to take seriously the.., view that the observer is as essential to the creation of the universe as the universe is to the creation of the observer."8 That places man and the universe in a very powerful relationship as two sides of the same reality. In particular, one cannot try to understand the universe unless he also tries to understand himself.

Most cosmologists would not go as far as Wheeler does, and some question the validity of the anthropic principle. Quantum mechanics is still an issue for many physicists. It obviously explains a lot of strange phenomena in elementary particle physics, but its deeper philosophical implications have always run against the expectations of classical physics. The observer has always been portrayed in classical physics as a separate, aloof entity who is not to enter into his equations. We have become used to leaving ourselves out of the picture. But the anthropic principle and quantum mechanics represent what may be a new state of mind in science: man is very much a part of the universal picture and may be the only way to explain it.

1 This is a slighty reworded version of statements that can be found in various places in Swedenborg's theological writings, such as Arcana Coelestia n. 6697, Earths in tbe Universe n. 3, and Divine Love and Wisdom n. 329. Further statements on life elsewhere in the universe were first published as interchapter readings in Arcana Coelestia. In 1758 he published almost all of this material as a separate book, Earths in the Universe. Hereafter I will refer to the book as "U" with the section number following (as, U 3).

Still more material on extraterrestrial life exists in Swedenborg's Spiritual Diary. But the Spiritual Diary was not published until after his death.

2 From Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, by Immanuel Kant, 1775. New Introduction by Milton K. Munitz, Ann Arbor Paperback, the University of Michigan Press, 1969, p. 53. This translation by W. Hastie originally appeared in a.volume entitled Kant's Cosmogony (Glasgow, 1900).

3 An excellent example of this kind of double-aspected theological statement is the doctrinal principle that God became incarnate in Jesus. Its theological part is that God took on a human aspect. His incarnation in Jesus, a historical figure, makes the rest of the statement an assertion within the realm of the sciences where it could theoretically be confirmed or denied by historical research.

4 Students of Swedenborg were not necessarily dismayed by this. Swedenborg's lunar inhabitants did not speak normally. They spoke from the abdomen m a manner that suggests that the air was thin. But later observations eliminated even this possibility. (In U 111 Swedenborg wrote that "the inhabitants of the Moon do not speak from the lungs, like the inhabitants of other earths, but from the abdomen, thus from some air collected there; for the reason that the Moon is not encompassed with an atmosphere like that of other earths.")

5 It has seemed strange that Swedenborg would believe that moons are inhabited as well as planets. But in his time only ten moons were known--the four Galilean satellites of Jupiter, the five largest moons of Saturn, and our moon. All look bright in the telescope, and therefore, although the disk of only our moon could be seen, they seemed to be large enough to be compared to planets. They differed from planets only in the identity of their primaries. Consequently, they could not be excluded from the logic which gave the planets their inhabitants. Only more recently have moons seemed to be in a class by themselves.

6 Because an improbable result requires a large number of ordinary results to go with it in order to be explainable by chance, an improbable universe like ours may be driving some theorists to postulate many other universes different from ours where conditions do not favor life. Such a theory has been developed by Hugh Everett III of Princeton and Bryce DeWitt of the University of Texas. It is described by George Gale in the article cited below and by physicist Paul Davies in his recent book Other Worlds (Simon and Schuster, 1980).

7 "The Anthropic Principle," by George Gale, Scientific American magazine, December, 1981; pg.171.

8 Ibid.