To the editors:
I thought Cecil Adams did a fine job on the angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin issue [Straight Dope, December 23], but your readers might also be interested in knowing why the controversy was considered significant.
Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians were concerned with the relationship between Spirit and Matter, a dichotomy between two kinds of real substance established in the second chapter of Genesis which has plagued religious and scientific thought ever since. Unlike modern fundamentalists, who are content simply to declare that prayer can turn away hurricanes, the Scholastics wanted to know how it did so; in other words, how the two kinds of substance co-existed and affected each other. The question is really a very serious one, as it is the basis for understanding how God, who is not subject to the laws controlling physical matter, can have any effect upon it.
But even if you discount theology, Spirit/Matter dualism permeates all sorts of contexts supposedly purged of religious mysticism--notoriously the Mind/Brain distinction still popular in psychology. It even crops up in physics, and it is not going too far to say that when Einstein revised scientific understanding of the relationship between Energy and Mass, he was continuing the argument initiated by the Scholastics.
It remains the official position of the Catholic Church that spiritual bodies, like angels and the human soul, have extension but not weight. For anyone who believes in such things--as I do not--the questions Aquinas raised remain unresolved, in part because, as you point out, the Scholastics operated "by process of pure reason," and did not submit hypotheses to the empirical tests that modern people are supposed to find convincing. However, if you are in the habit of checking out supermarket tabloids, as I suspect you are, you will find in them numerous accounts of attempts to weigh people at the moment of death in order to establish the material existence of the soul. A more reasonable approach, of course, is to acknowledge that the dualism is an "artifact," as scientists say, due to our a priori assumptions, and not to the nature of the physical universe.
Assistant Professor, Humanities
The Corcoran School of Art