Further Discussion of Spirit/Matter Dualism | Letters | Chicago Reader

Further Discussion of Spirit/Matter Dualism 

To the editors:

I have long thought it self-evident that an infinite number of angels could dance on the head of a pin, because angels are by definition incorporeal beings. Professor Bernard Welt's commentary [Letters, July 14] on Cecil Adams's earlier discourse [December 23] sheds additional light upon this important matter; but I must take exception to Professor Welt's premature closure ("So there.") on the subject. At least two points require further clarification.

First, it is simply too facile to proclaim that the spirit/matter dualism--including its modern variations--to which this controversy refers is "an 'artifact,' as scientists say, due to our a priori assumptions, and not to the nature of the physical universe." This won't do, for several reasons. To begin with, the conclusion simply begs the question, by assigning sole authority and singular reality to the "physical universe." Furthermore, whatever habits of thought about this dualism may have developed over time, I doubt that speculation about it originated in "a priori assumptions." It seems more likely that such speculation was prompted by individuals observant of and curious about, say, the difference between rocks and plants, or between fish and human beings, or between a human being and a corpse. None of these phenomena in themselves constitute a proof of that transcendent spiritual realm in which reside incorporeal beings called angels. On the other hand, neither do they lend themselves to a material explanation; science cannot explain, on the basis of its own a priori assumptions, why there is something rather than nothing, how inorganic matter becomes organic matter, or how brain becomes mind. The world, in short, does not explain itself; it may or may not be evidence for something or Someone other than itself. One may illatively attribute its existence to a transcendent Creator, or to a cosmic accident, but there is no ground for assuming that the former theory more than the latter originates in "a priori assumptions." Nor is it particularly helpful to dismiss theories by referring to them as "artifacts." Of course they are artifacts; the important question is: Are they true?, i.e. Do these theories correspond to the way the world is? This raises another perennial controversy--realism vs. nominalism--that engaged scholastic philosophers; but to deny (as modern deconstructionists and other philosophical skeptics are disposed to do) any possible correspondence between thought and reality undermines the scientific enterprise no less than the theological.

Second, one must be cautious in suggesting that the thought of Thomas Aquinas is representative of scholasticism, save insofar as scholastic philosophers were all addressing similar kinds of intellectual problems. I don't know whether most of his peers "operated 'by process of pure reason,' and did not submit hypotheses to empirical tests;" but Aquinas held, with Aristotle, that sense experience provides the data without which the rational mind is incapable of possessing knowledge of the world. There is no knowledge of the natural realm, therefore, contrary to either reason or experience. But from whence would come knowledge of a spiritual realm? Although Aquinas believed that a limited knowledge of God can be obtained by careful observation of the natural order, he believed that we possess a more complete knowledge of God (and his messengers, angels) only by virtue of divine revelation and our assent to it, which is faith. Direct revelation is not available to everyone, but the fact that it is experienced by only a few neither disproves its truth, nor requires that faith be unreasonable, nor suggests that the plausibility of faith bears no relationship to experience. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Aquinas's religious beliefs, however, one should understand that if he is correct no conceivable empirical test could ever demonstrate the existence of angels.

Prof. Welt's certitude that the spirit/matter dualism is a "mere" artifact is as easy an assumption today as scholastic certitude about the existence of angels in the thirteenth century. Persons who continue (at least on occasion) to find these issues both existentially engaging and somewhat mysterious will do well to seek or construct theoretical "artifacts" which not only do justice to both reason and experience, but that also do not terminate the investigation before it begins. Thomas Aquinas would suggest no less.

Philip Bess
N. Artesian

Cecil Adams replies:

So, what do you guys think about those Cubbies, huh?

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