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← Afterword from Lawrence Krauss' New Book - A Universe From Nothing

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 25 by Cartomancer

Not bad at all. But I do have one minor quibble.

The angels dancing on pinheads thing. That never actually happened. No medieval theologian, so far as we know, ever addressed that particular question in that particular form.

Yes, there was a complex and convoluted interest in angelology throughout the central and later Middle Ages. Yes, the spatial and temporal extension of angelic beings (and god) was something that all the great names of scholasticism and most of the obscure ones wrote copiously on. Yes, it all seems very trite and banal now, but it was a serious and genuine attempt to explain the world in physical and logical rather than purely occasionalistic or narrativistic terms. It was how a society that had just rediscovered the science of Aristotle, Ptolemy, Euclid and the Arabs made a start on demystifying the heavens and examining the universe as they understood it with the tools of rational inquiry. Those tools needed sharpening and those efforts revising many times in the succeeding centuries, but one can hardly blame the thirteenth century for being the thirteenth century. Compare what was going on in the ninth and tenth centuries and the difference is profound. Sure, one can blame people in the twenty-first century for acting as though it were still the thirteenth, but that is not well achieved by focusing on a trope derived entirely from post-medieval mockery of the scholastics.

Because while angels and their properties were a hot topic in the Middle Ages, the pinhead came later. That seems to date from no earlier than the seventeenth century, invoked by protestant apologists as a deliberate parody to mock medieval naievete in science and religion and by extension the high regard for it held by counter-reformation catholics. The dancing, added on to make the whole enterprise sound even more ridiculous, seems no earlier than the nineteenth century, possibly coming from the pen of Benjamin Disraeli. The mockery relies for its effect on the inherent ridiculousness of the dancing and the pin. Yes, angels are ridiculous, but the earnest attempt to explain and ask questions about the universe, however naive and however distorted one's perception of that universe, is not. To mock that is to be guilty of anachronistic chauvinism.

But, of course, this was not a dig at medieval theologians, it was a dig at modern theologians who persist with this nonsense long after its sell-by date. As a comparison between the work of the modern theologian and the modern cosmologist, it is a catchy and entertaining trope. But it does rely on a very hackneyed cliche of dubious origin, the substance of which is early modern scorn for the medieval mind and not the medieval mind itself. Are modern theologians sophisticated, relevant and useful? No, clearly not. But surely to point this out we need not resort to laughing along with lazy and ungenerous parodies of their predecessors that were themselves cooked up centuries ago. There is plenty that is genuinely and unabashedly footling about modern theology - just about all of it in fact - we do not need to attack a very tatty straw man, we can go for the jugular.

Sat, 31 Dec 2011 17:07:03 UTC | #904079