Saturday, December 15, 2007

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Don't know why I had this thought a few days ago, but I decided to see what I could find about the notion by doing a little Googling. Evidently, the roots of the question come from an effort by medieval thinkers to apply logic and rational analysis to heretofore "spiritual" questions. These efforts toward increasing specificity resulted in making a mockery of the subsequent discourse.

Here are a few notes from my research about this important question:

“Scornful description of a tedious concern with irrelevant details; an allusion to religious controversies in the middle ages. In fact, the medieval argument was over how many angels could stand on the point of a pin.”
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. 2002

The question "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" is an example of an ontological argument - one which cannot be proven, as it has no basis in scientific fact. It has also been at times used as a trite dismissal: of medieval angelology in particular, of scholasticism in general, and of particular figures such as Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas. Another variety of the question is How Many Angels Can Sit On The Head Of A Pin?
Wikipedia, December 2007

The question "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" is associated with medieval theology of the Scholastic school, the best-known representative being Saint Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Christian philosopher (and a Dominican monk). I'm not sure that Aquinas originated the question; maybe someone with a better grounding in Catholic thought can help us out. Nowadays the question often appears when someone is ridiculing theologians, but I believe the drift of the original discussion about angels and pinheads concerned infinity and different kinds of being. Something like this: Angels aren't spatial, and so an infinite number of them could occupy a point.
R. Berg, blog entry, 2002

Well, now you know where the saying comes from. And maybe you didn't really care... or maybe, like some of us, you get a thrill from knowing that there are still mysteries in life that science can't explain.

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