The relationship between science and religion has a long and variable
history. Swedenborg speaks of two sources of truth: revelation and nature.
Others saw nature and the Bible as the two "books" that revealed God's
creation. Galileo relegated religion to a lower place in the study of nature
as suggested by his famous statement that the Bible tells us how to go to
heaven and not how the heavens go.
In more recent times, relatively few scientists publicize their belief in
Divine creation and/or Divine management of the cosmos. Ian Thompson is an
exception to this generalization.
He begins his book with: "I believe in God. I am a nuclear physicist. Those
two things do not conflict in my mind, but instead they enhance each other."
New Church people are aware that, even in his pre-theological work,
Swedenborg had a great interest in the relationship of the spiritual to the
natural, and attempted to discover this connection using physical science in
his Principia and again through the biological science in later works such
as the Economy of the Animal Kingdom.
Nowadays we conclude that he failed in his earlier efforts but that later,
in the revelation given in Divine Love and Wisdom, and elsewhere, New Church
people generally conclude that he succeeded in outlining the main elements
of the connection within the confines of three boundaries: 1) 18th century
science, 2) the need to preserve future human freedom, and 3) the
unimaginable complexity of that connection. Thus the Writings provide an
outline, but not the kind of specifics that a 21st century scientist, for
example, would consider a precise description.
Nor, as indicated above, would God's guardianship of human freedom allow for
the kinds of details that scientists seek. For example, the theological
writings do not point ahead two centuries to describe quantum mechanics,
which is our fundamental and powerful theoretical tool for understanding and
harnessing the micro-world to give us such commonplace items as computer
chips and lasers. Such prediction in revealed truth would be a major blow to
human freedom and the "as of self."
Dr. Thompson's book is an important attempt to update our understanding of
the spiritual/natural connection, and bring that effort into the context of
the 21st century using modern science; particularly, physics and psychology.
Yet the language of the work seems to be more philosophical, for the
questions addressed are questions of interest to philosophers and
theologians, rather than of first importance to present-day working
physicists and psychologists.
In Part I Thompson provides a preview of his approach and gives some
historical background for the issues.
In Part II, labeled "Ontology," he discusses the tools for his schema. He
talks about "substance," and "disposition;" the latter we might think of as
tendency, probability, or even as that Swedenborgian term, "conatus."
Thompson goes on to define "multiple generative levels" in which he picks
triads of levels of existence, such as "spiritual," "mental" and "physical"
as main categories of existence. But then he correlates each of these with
"love," "thought" and "effects" (uses?) familiar to Swedenborgians.
The triads are then paired. For example, in the spiritual degree there is
"spiritual substance forming love." This, in turn, can be subdivided into
three categories as "love of love," "love of thought" and "love of effects,"
all within the spiritual substance realm. The process is carried through in
the "mental" and "physical" levels as well.
Even finer subdivisions are postulated although not specified. Later in the
book, Thompson will fill in some of the sub-categories from specific
concepts of psychology and physics. The multiple generative levels seem to
be a kind of generalization and combining of Swedenborgian ideas of discrete
degrees, substance and form.
Part III carries the interesting title of "scientific theism," a way of
defining core beliefs about the qualities of God as a set of postulates laid
out in an almost mathematical format. This is very helpful for understanding
the precise nature of Thompson's religious views. And these postulates are,
in slightly different language, quite familiar to New Church people. By
following this methodology, Thompson makes theology (theism ) look rigorous
In Part IV Thompson turns the above title around to describe several
chapters as "theistic science." Here, he comes at the science side of
reality with a view to showing the importance of the theistic perspective in
developing our science. For example, thinking of the mind as only physical
may limit us in arriving at a broader truth.
Throughout Part V, Thompson applies his theism to a variety of current
issues, some scientific and some religious. Among others, we find evolution,
consciousness, spiritual growth, pre-geometry, evil and omnipotence.
Finally, Part VI contains more applications as well as refutations of
opposing positions which a theist will encounter in any debate on these
The book lists many references from theology, philosophy, physics,
psychology and other miscellaneous areas. There is an index and a detailed
table of contents. It is helpful that the chapters are relatively short and
are subdivided into several sections.
At first, I was mystified by the lack of multiple references to Swedenborg,
especially in the first half of the book, where most of the postulates are
obviously Swedenborgian. (Three Swedenborgian books are listed in the
references at the end.) Prof. Thompson probably wanted his reader to think
about the ideas without them appearing to be an uncritical sales pitch for
Swedenborgian thought. Perhaps this is a good strategy when appealing to a
broad academic audience.
Toward the end, Swedenborg becomes a more prominent, but still very
controlled, reference. Furthermore, in order to broaden the appeal of the
book, Thompson seems to have made a concerted effort to provide a wide
variety of sources for his ideas. Finally, the reference list suggests a
very broad and deep study of the subject by Prof. Thompson.
A note of caution to the reader: While I think the book is important for
Swedenborgian thought, this is not a page turner for the casual reader. It
is an academic book. The work is filled with scholarly discussions of
philosophic issues, and almost off-hand references to terms from physics,
such as "Hamiltonian," "Schrodinger equation" and "wave function," which are
not explained. Non-physicist readers will be mystified. Nor is the bulk of
the philosophic discussion an easy read. It is a challenging and complex
subject and therefore challenging reading. I would say to the readers of New
Church Life, "You will find many nuggets here, but you will work for them."
In conclusion, let us return to our starting point. We began this piece with
the notion of an information gap between religion and science as seen by
21st century scientists. What is the contribution of Starting Science From
God to this challenge?
Prof. Thompson has, I believe, somewhat closed the gap. I consider his
discussion of the multiple generative levels to be important and insightful.
Furthermore, his effort to list the postulates of his theology is broadly
useful as a clarifying tool for New Church people, be they general readers
or specialist academics. In these and other areas Prof. Thompson has made
valuable contributions and thereby shown that "Starting science from God is
[indeed!] a reasonable way to proceed." (p. x).