Angels on a pinhead, and other philosophical games

It’s good to ask questions, to ponder, imagine, daydream, reinvent. Most human achievement comes out of thinking, while acts born of stupidity and ignorance are frequently not a good thing. But does this make all questions equally valid or useful? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Asking questions will not make you into a wise old philosopher of the future, unless the questions you throw yourself into have some capacity to foster wisdom within you. Any question about some facet of your life, will have some use. Why do I do this? Could I do differently? Better? Less? More? What makes me happy? Is this working for me? You can poke around such issues at length to good effect. And subjects like politics where you have scope to contribute to a process makes sense as well. Many other potential examples spring to mind but the commonality is that seeking answers engages us with life in a meaningful way. Even when we can’t hope to find answers – what happens after death, is there a god? In the process of asking we consider the implications and explore how we want to live.

There are some questions that do not give us this. Imagine, for example, spending hours of dedicated thought creating what you imagine to be the perfect educational system. Now imagine that you do not work in education, are childless, and are not a politician. You have no intention of sharing your vision with anyone. It was an intellectual exercise. It may indeed have given your mind a workout. However, untested as it is, never offered up for criticism, never explored in practice, it sits inside your mind as ‘proof’ of an intellectual superiority that could be sadly lacking. It’s noticeable that ivory tower academics at least tend to talk to each other, and argue with each other. The issue of the angels on the pinhead was one people debated. At the very least that gives it an interesting social component.

Then there are the questions that cannot be answered well because they are loaded. “Why is my product better than anyone else’s?” “Why are you losers worshipping hedges and fields?” A question based on misunderstanding is not one that can lead directly to good answers. Asking good questions is a skill in its own right. Are you shutting down the options, or enabling genuine feedback? Is the question reinforcing an assumption? If we ask why children who drink cola do better at school we haven’t actually established that children who drink cola do better at school. It’s a crude example. In our own heads, we may be asking “Why am I such a failure?” “Why am I always wrong?” “Why does nobody love me?” without questioning the premise of the question.

There are questions that serve to divide and irritate and which cannot give us much that is productive. The vast majority of exchanges I have ever seen between atheists and theists would fall straight into this category. When the point of asking questions is not to share knowledge but to establish superiority, you’re never going to find good answers. The only good answer in that scenario is to escape from it.

Abstract thought can be interesting, and can lead to concrete consequences. However, I think it’s important to question how much time we pour into intangibles, hypothticals and imaginaries as opposed to real life. Who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman? What on earth difference does that make? Yet people will debate such questions for hours. If we had no big questions needed brain time, then the intellectual exercise would be justification enough. While we have disease, hunger, crime and extinctions, Superman and Batman need to shuffle their overly muscled arses down to the back end of the queue.

What we think about matters. The inner worlds we create inform who we are and help shape our life choices. If you pour hours into working out how best to lead your imaginary army across the Roman Empire, again, that is part of who you are. If you poured just a little bit of that time into contemplating how to get on better with the people around you, how to reduce your consumption levels, or help a local charity, you’d be an entirely different sort of person. Making the hypotheticals important while the real is allowed to suffer, is not, I think, a very good life choice.

Some lines of questioning will bring you insight, soul and a richer life. Some will enable you to twiddle your brain cells. The latter may make you feel clever (you did conquer Rome, after all!) and important (your design for a new education system would surely have solved everything!) but they don’t make you real. Ask how much good you can get out of today, and let the angels on the pinheads take care of themselves.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

3 responses to “Angels on a pinhead, and other philosophical games

  • Alex Jones

    Unless we can use knowledge in practical concrete ways then no wisdom can come from it, like sowing seeds on tarmac.

  • Athelia Nihtscada

    Critical thinking seems to be a rare skill these days because so few people are encouraged to ask the tough questions and fewer still are encouraged to seek those answers out for themselves. I think that’s what drew me to Druidry in the first place: “Truth against the world”, which I interpret to mean seeking truth for oneself and not accepting someone else’s explanation blindly as we are often encouraged to do in school, in certain spiritual settings and even in some aspects of society.

    The first exercise I ask students to do is to sit down and ask themselves what they truly believe deep down in their being. What draws them to certain spiritual paths, what turns them off? What do they believe about the spirit itself? About Life? About the origin of our Universe? About Death? About how a spiritual path should be walked? How should it be learned or taught? I ask them to look at the controversial issues in life and what they feel about those. My teaching is based on providing the framework while the student does a lot of seeking the truth against the world for him or her self. Not many people can do self directed study and I don’t do well dictating what others should believe, which is why it’s not for everyone. :^)

    The purpose is to get people thinking about what they truly feel and believe before setting upon my course and getting too far into something they may not resonate with. Or maybe they do resonate and the experience will be a good one. So many people take up a spiritual path under a teacher at first because ‘it’s there’ or someone else recommended it.

    I was guilty of doing that when I was seeking a community after 11 years of solitary practice (taking what I could get) and found myself in some less than ideal spiritual situations. Other situations were okay, but just did not resonate at all. I don’t take too well to being told what to believe without question because that’s the way the mystery tradition works, etc.

    Fortunately for me, I had spent most of my childhood and youth exploring those very same questions and I learned soon enough in all of those situations that they were not right for me. (Going to Catholic school in my childhood constantly made me question what was being taught. Finally, I stopped asking the teachers and began asking myself.)

    I got out of those situations before things got too bad because I knew what I wanted, what I believed, what my ethical stances were and where my spirit was wanting me to go. Eventually, I went off and started my own group after an amazing experience of looking at many other paths, meeting many great and not-so-great people, and developing what I could from there.

    Surprisingly, it was the not-so-great people who actually taught me the most valuable lessons and I thank them all for helping me to shape and temper my spirituality as I grow. Anything that fosters growth can be a good thing, even if it not the right thing at the time.

  • Buzzard

    Another thought provoking post to contemplate. It is not always easy to channel negative thought patterns into positive.
    If we practice daily positive thinking then maybe it becomes easier with little targets of good intent building to life style changes.
    This is the same with spirituality paying attention to it daily.
    Anyway how many elephants can you get on a pin head?

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