Thursday, March 02, 2006

Angels and Light - updated

I've been listening to some recorded lectures on philosophy, specifically on Aristotelian physics and angelology. Angels, of course are spiritual creatures, without matter.

Aristotle can help us understand this, and Saint Thomas Aquinas famously used Aristotle to write about everything, including the angels.

A core concept from Aristotle as used and developed by St. Thomas are the "four causes", or reasons for a thing. The Formal Cause is the design of a thing, which may exist in the mind of an artist and also exists in the thing itself. A house is only a house if it is in the Form of a house; the wood or brick that makes it up is not the house, but is the Material Cause of the house; so if a house loses its form, it is just a pile of material.

So according to St. Thomas, angels have a Formal but not a Material cause. They are pure design or Form, without matter. This is a difficult concept for those who think in materialist terms (which includes most of us Moderns).

But then it hit me: I've seen this before.

I studied physics back in college. It was modern physics and not Aristotelian physics, so I was unaware of the Four Causes, and indeed we just studied a subset of them (mainly just Efficient Cause—or how something happens). One very strange concept in modern physics, one which is unexplainable from within that system, is on the nature of light.

Light propogates in the form of a wave. Light is similar to ocean waves, or sound waves, but with a distinct difference: there is NOTHING that 'waves' in light. Sound waves 'wave' air; ocean waves 'wave' water, but there is no 'ether' that 'waves' with light. "How could this be?" I used to wonder. There just has to be an ether that waves: but there is none, it doesn't exist. Waves in matter are similar, but imperfect versions of light waves.

It hit me: light is pure Formal Cause without Material Cause. Had they taught me Classical philosophy back in college I wouldn't have spent decades puzzling over this.

Another concept of Medieval physics is the concept of the hierarchy of Creation: each level in the hierarchy touches those above and below it, with the perfection of one level being reflected in a less perfect way with the level beneath it. So, for example, animals are like quite like humans, but without intellect, and even all the great number of animals are arranged hierarchically, with lesser animals sharing some, but not all characteristics with those above them. Humans are less than angels, but share intellect, although in a lesser manner.

Now, consider the great symbol that is "Light". All throughout Scripture, light is used as a symbol of the Divine: an imperfect symbol, perhaps, but still powerful.

So would it surprise us that the greatest symbol of divinity would share some characteristics (in an imperfect manner) with divinity itself? Light, like the angels, and unlike anything else in the world, is form without matter. That the greatest symbol of divinity should share this characteristic with the Divine is quite fitting.

And according to Scripture, what was the first thing created in the world? "Let there be light."

Light waves, which include all forms of electromagnetic radiation, such as radio, ultraviolet, and so forth, are formed by fluctuations of electric and magnetic fields: but these are not matter. More specifically, these are called 'potential' fields. Gravity also creates a 'potential' field: these are not something that you can directly measure at a point, but it influences motion due to its rate of change over space. We can speak of an object's gravitational or electrical potential, which acts on that object, potentially leading to motion.

The use of this modern term 'potential' ultimately comes from Medieval Aristotelian physics.

And this concept of 'potentialities' in Medieval Aristotelian physics was discovered by Saint Thomas Aquinas.

And he discovered the concept of 'potential' in order to understand angels.

Saint Thomas, pray for our scientists, that they may grow in wisdom and humility, and that they may honor and serve the Lord.


  1. MARK


  2. I think that light waves are more seen as pure form in and of themselves. They do transfer energy: higher frequency light has higher energy than lower frequencies. And energy is the cause of motion.