Tuesday, August 25, 2009

In What Sense Are the Angels Like Us?

A friend recently gave me a transcript of an old Firing Line program in which William Buckley interviewed Mortimer Adler on the topic "In What Sense Are Human Beings Angelic?" (The transcript -- and a DVD of the program -- are available by special order from this site.)

I have to say: I was stunned by the quality and character of the discourse -- this was television, mind you, albeit in March 1982. Mr. Buckley, apparently in line with his format, had invited also an "examiner" in the person of a former mentor: Ernest van den Haag, the John M. Olin Professor of Jurisprudence and Public Philosophy at Fordham University.

Mr. Adler had recently published his study, The Angels and Us, and this program was the counterpart (in 1982) of a celebrity interview to promote his recent book. What a difference 27 years can make!

Take, for instance, this exchange:

DR. ADLER: . . . [T]he dominant mood in Western thought has been more and more materialistic. It began with [Thomas] Hobbes, of course, in the 17th century, and the materialists . . . make two errors, not just one. The first error they make is to suppose they have a sound argument for denying the existence of incorporeal beings. Their first proposition is: Everything that exists is corporeal. . . .

MR. BUCKLEY: That's a self-sustaining definition, isn't it?

DR. ADLER: It's an assumption, totally unproved and unprovable.

MR. BUCKLEY: Yes. You say it can't exist unless it's corporeal; therefore, by definition, it doesn't. . . .

DR. ADLER: Nothing exists except corporeal things. And their second proposition is that angels are by definition incorporeal things. They're minds without bodies. Therefore, they say -- and this is the fallacy of their reasoning -- therefore angels cannot exist. Their conclusion, to be sound, should be: Angels do not exist. They could deny the reality of angels on the assumption of their major premise, but it doesn't follow at all that because nothing exists except corporeal things, that angels cannot exist. . . . There is nothing inconceivable or impossible about an incorporeal substance; otherwise, God would be inconceivable too.
Forget about angels for a moment -- can you conceive of such a philosophical discussion taking place on any program on any channel on television programming as we have it today? Or that, if it could take place, it would be followed by this?
MR. BUCKLEY: All right now, my next proposition . . .: Why a belief in angels?

DR. ADLER: . . . First of all, the reason for the belief is scriptural evidence. Insofar as --

MR. BUCKLEY: Scriptural evidence or revelation?

DR. ADLER: Revelation. I mean the passages in scripture, the numerous passages, in the Old Testament, in the New Testament and in the Koran . . . in which angels manifest their appearance to human beings. . . .

MR. BUCKLEY: That's as corporeal manifestations?

DR. ADLER: Purely corporeal manifestations, and the most important thing the theologian tells us about those bodies with two pairs of wings or four pairs of wings in shining raiment and effulgent light [is that they] are purely disguises. The angel is a purely spiritual being, a mind without a body . . . As St. Thomas says, "That's an assumed body," . . . but that's because they must make a sensible appearance to the human beings that they are carrying God's message to . . . . The more interesting question I think, Bill, is: Why did God create angels? And the answer to that has a danger to it. It is that the universe would be less perfect without them.

MR. BUCKLEY: On the assumption that you have to have anything that's conceivable?

DR. ADLER: That all possibilities should be realized. But if you say that the universe in which all possibilities are realized is therefore the best of all possible worlds and God, being infinitely good in His intentions, must create the best of all possible worlds -- if you argue that way -- you end with a theologically obnoxious conclusion, namely that God was necessitated to create this world, denying free choice or freedom on God's part. So that St. Thomas . . . asks two more questions. Could God have created some other world than this, some other universe? The answer to that is flatly yes. Secondly, could God have created a better world than this? And the answer to that is flatly yes. So that what we have here is though another and better world than this could have been created, what perfection this world has comes from the fact that there isn't a tremendous gap in the hierarchy of beings, from inanimate, inorganic things to plants to animals to human beings, which are bodies with minds, to minds without bodies, in an ascending scale, to spirits up to God. . . .
Here Mortimer Adler is referring to Arthur O. Lovejoy's scheme in The Great Chain of Being, "a magnificent book", as he acknowledges later in the interview. But what I find fascinating is the sheer level of philosophic discourse, in which the concepts of St. Thomas Aquinas are thrown about as readily as are those of Gottfried Leibniz, without either participant experiencing any difficulties of reference whatsoever.

Of course, I cannot help but notice that the dispute between Leibniz and Aquinas to which Dr. Adler refers -- that as an all-benevolent being, God would have created the best of all possible worlds, and yet as an omnipotent being, He could not be forced to create such a world -- has been made irrelevant by advances in quantum physics, which were not as widely understood in 1982. Hugh Everett, then a graduate student in physics, proposed his "many-worlds hypothesis" in 1957 as his doctoral thesis at Princeton. It has since been taken up by many other physicists, including Prof. Frank Tipler, as I discussed in this earlier post.

The many-worlds hypothesis makes the Leibniz-Aquinas debate beside the point by stating that all possible worlds that could be created are indeed created. We may find ourselves at this given instant in a world that is not (by some agreed criteria) the best of all possible worlds, but the hypothesis entails that there is a world (universe) which does reflect our agreed criteria, and which is the best of all possible worlds, according to our understanding of what that would be. (And by the same criteria, there would be a worst of all possible worlds. However, since no set of criteria could be omni-universal, or applicable to all possible worlds in the same degree, it would not be possible to specify one single universe which was the best or the worst of all the possible universes which are created under the many-worlds hypothesis.)

Now, add the concept which Hugh Everett and other physicists could not allow themselves, but which Frank Tipler freely does: that there is a Creator of all these possible universes, and you have bypassed the dispute between St. Thomas Aquinas and Leibnitz. God does not create just the best of all possible worlds, but he creates all possible worlds -- without exception.

As the interview with Mortimer Adler went forward, he and William Buckley got into some fascinating discussions, to which I shall return in subsequent posts. For now, I just want to set the stage a bit: since, under Dr. Adler's view, angels are minds without bodies, and as pure minds obedient to God's will they cannot sin, how, then, did Lucifer first sin?

This is akin to, but not the same as, the question of how the perfectly created Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden came to sin. Unlike angels, Adam and Eve had bodies as well as minds, and bodies are subject to feelings, desires and passions, while intellect -- the pure intellect of the mind -- is not, since it is not (at least in the case of angels) tied to a body.

This discussion, as you can imagine, is fraught with traps for the unwary, so we shall proceed carefully, with Mr. Buckley and Dr. Adler as our capable guides (joined later by Dr. Van den Haag). For now, then, I would like just to pose the question: If angels are pure minds without bodies, and as pure minds can do nothing but God's will (i.e., the concept of "free will" as we understand it for humans can have no reference to angels), how did Lucifer come to sin? And in precisely what did that sin consist?

(To be continued.)


  1. Why is it "theologically obnoxious" to believe that God was "necessitated to create this world?"

    I've always taken great comfort from the idea that this universe is the global solution of a massively multi-dimensional optimization problem. Some of the dimensions of the universal error function are obvious from scripture: for example, maximizing the number of people who freely choose to be reconciled with Him and worship Him. Some of the dimensions I believe have to do with God's aesthetic sense: clearly God thinks the universe is "prettier" if we pray to Him. Take the example of God "changing His mind" when Moses pleads with Him not to destroy the Hebrews in the desert and start over again: in the absence of Moses' prayer the optimal action is clearly to reboot and start over, in the presence of Moses' prayer, the optimal action is for events to unfold as they did. What are all the dimensions and their relative weightings and combination? In my opinion, only God can fully know the answer to that.

    So, does this strip God of free will? In our universe, yes. He is perfect, i.e., He has to choose an optimal solution to the problem He has posed. After all He is the "I am," completely constrained and defined by His own character. But, I believe God did have the most important choice of all: to create or not to create. Perhaps He also had "choices" about the exact nature of the optimization problem, I don't know. I plan to ask Him when I see Him.

    Anyway, to get back to your question, in this framework the answer to the question, "why angels" is easy: because they make this Universe prettier (i.e., more optimal). Now, how do they make it more optimal? I would conjecture that in most cases God requires an interface to directly manipulate this world, else he reduce its optimality along other dimensions. Angels were created to be that interface. As I've seen with many machine learning/automatic optimization systems, single elements often perform multiple purposes in combination with other elements, so angels were created with parameters that allowed Lucifer to "choose" to be his own God in order to provide us with something to choose other than God in order to suit His ultimate purposes for the universe, i.e., maximize its optimality.

    So, is this a theologically obnoxious philosophical stance because too many answers boil down to "because that's the way God wants it?" I'm genuinely curious to know the kinds of problems more theologically and philosophically oriented thinkers have with this approach.

  2. I agree, Robodoc - the debates over God's free will are outmoded by advances in cosmology and physics. If the many-worlds hypothesis is true, then the question of whether God could "choose" to make any particular universe makes no sense. Why should He "choose"? He simply makes them all -- all possible worlds, that is.

    I would not necessarily agree that angels, as such, are created "in" any of the multi-verses, for that would mean that there would be some (actually, an infinite number) without any. I think that, like God himself, angels are not "of" any particular world, but are free to move through any of them. So whether or not there are angels does not make any particular multiverse "prettier" than any other; all are prettier because of their existence.

    The mystery of Lucifer's having free will to "choose" to rebel, while being the topmost angel, is indeed worth examining, and that is what Buckley and Adler do later on, as I shall cover in a subsequent post.

    Thank you for sharing your insights -- they are very thought-provoking, and I hope others will be moved to do so, too.

  3. I received an email about this post from a friend (Glenn) who refuses to open a Google account. So I thought I would share it here -- his remarks are in quotation marks, and my responses follow directly in each case.

    " If insubstantial angels are in superposition, then an infinite number can dance on the head of a pin."

    Actually, the number would be limited by their respective spins, even in superposition. There are only so many spins one can have in any dance, and no two angels may have the same spin.

    "There can be no particle-wave theory of angels? "

    Who says not? (See Hamlet and Jacob responses below.)

    "Satan's sin was violating which law of physics?"

    The Law of Conservation of Energy. He devoted all his energy to being top dog, when there was room in the universe for only one such. He ran out of energy before he could jump to the higher state required, and when he asked for more, God read the Law to him.

    "Shakespeare meant that waves of angels would escort Hamlet to heaven?"

    Once Hamlet's earthly wave function collapsed (so that both his position and momentum could be precisely determined -- i.e., he stopped moving and was dead), the angels then took charge of his soul's wave function and helped it propagate in the appropriate dimensions and directions. (God has seen to it that the observation of any wave function by an angel does not cause that function to collapse.)

    "I wonder how an incorporeal being beat up poor Jacob."

    We all know that in the Bohr duality model, waves sometimes appear as particles. That was one such occasion.

  4. You're making 1982 sound like a world of high culture, which is not what I recall.On the other hand, compared to today, there were shows like Firing Line that did offer a level of discussion that we don't find today.

    What amazes me, however, is the fact that Mortimer Adler had a prime time show on the "Great Ideas" back in the 1950s, where he would discuss ideas like "knowledge" or "freedom" or "love" and apparently people would actually tune in and watch. I can't imagine that happening today on any of the 900 channels available for such a thing.

    Sad, really.