Thirteen Years

Yes, thirteen years since Secondsightblog came into action. I have tried to count the number of items over the period. And it’s over 600. You can check if you wish! At that time I was the science editor of the Catholic Herald.

The purpose of the Blog was to present to Catholics — liturgical or secular — ideas and thoughts for discussion. Without doubt, the qualities of discussion have always been excellent. I am still tempted simply to pop in and have a look. Some of the names still with us today have contributed to the early items. Several others are now in Heaven.

Just for fun, I copy below the first item published.

April 21, 2008 by Quentin

Charterhouse, always at the cutting edge, has succeeding in finally solving a theological problem which has taxed great minds for 700 years. You might think that the number of angels that can stand on the point of a pin is a trivial question; indeed it is taken as a proxy for the absurdity of scholastic discussion. But it was by no means always so: and it is still the subject of discussion today.

Bring on the usual suspect: Thomas Aquinas of course. He started it by arguing that any angel could occupy a point in space and that no other angel could occupy the same point. He added that an angel did not have a dimensional quantity but a virtual quantity: it is not contained by the space in which it is present, rather it contains that space. However “there is nothing to hinder us from assigning a divisible place to an angel according to virtual contact; just as a divisible place is assigned to a body by contact of magnitude.” Plenty of room for argument, once you have worked out what he means. Check it at ST1. 52, 53 if you’ve a mind to.

Nowadays there appear to be two approaches to this vital question. Dr. Phil Schewe, of the American Institute of Physics, assumed, in his 1995 paper, the point of the pin to be one atom across and, by dividing this by the theoretical limit of the divisibility of space, calculated the number of angels to be 1 followed by 25 zeros. Another approach, sidestepping the Aquinas prohibition on overlapping angels, made use of quantum gravity. I cannot say I entirely followed the mathematics, but the answer turned out to be roughly the same. Apparently a larger number can be accommodated if they are dancing, but this causes insuperable problems with friction.

My own solution is, I claim, more elegant than either. We must assume the sharpest pin possible since any degree of bluntness is arbitrary. Therefore its tip must be equal to the limit of the divisibility of space or, if you wish, the smallest point possible. Since, St Thomas assures us, no other angel can occupy the same point, the answer to the question must be one. QED.

About Quentin

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5 Responses to Thirteen Years

  1. John Thomas says:

    But I would hasten to respectfully inform Aquinas (there is no end to my arrogance) that there is another problem which he does not seem to be addressing: time. Do angels exist within time as we know it (if so, they can not surround God, who is “in” eternity, and not in time’s realm), or are they outside temporality, but then would have difficulty occupying any space (small or otherwise)? Unless you consider that they inhabit, or can inhabit, BOTH realms; perhaps so, because the Bible does have them in both realms … Satan seem to be within time – but be able to be in several places at once (and anywhere). The Holy Spirit …? This interests/concerns me more than angels and pins.

  2. John Candido says:

    I can’t answer this problem because it’s too tricky, remotely abstruce or hopelessly complicated.

    Having sighted John Thomas’s contribution, I agree with him that assigning space and time to ethereal personages isn’t a workable possibility.

    I find my imagination stretched by John referring to angels simultaneously inhabiting a spiritual and a temporal sphere.

    Assuming angels have a simultaneity between both worlds, we are approaching quantum mechanics where subatomic particles can simultaneously occupy two points in space and time.

    Assuming quantum theory is valid, it may be an adequate metaphor describing this problem and possibly assist others to solve this riddle.

    Mind-bending matters like Einsteinian theories or quantum physics, are fascinating and intriguing but better left to those trained in these disciplines.

  3. David Smith says:

    Wikipedia ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_many_angels_can_dance_on_the_head_of_a_pin%3F ) says:

    // In modern usage, the term has lost its theological context and is used as a metaphor for wasting time debating topics of no practical value, or questions whose answers hold no intellectual consequence, while more urgent concerns accumulate. //

    Yup.

    Also see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_angelology

  4. David Smith says:

    Angels expand or contract to accommodate the virtual space allotted to them. They appear and disappear as required. And there are as many or as few of them as you like.

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