It’s a question famous for its sheer pointlessness. While probably no-one ever had that exact debate, “how many angels fit on a pin” has become a metaphor, first for a host of old theology debates that went nowhere, and later for any academic study that seems like a waste of time. Occasionally, physicists get accused of doing this: typically string theorists, but also people who debate interpretations of quantum mechanics.
Are those accusations fair? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. In order to tell the difference, we should think about what’s wrong, exactly, with counting angels on the head of a pin.
One obvious answer is that knowing the number of angels that fit on a needle’s point is useless. Wikipedia suggests that was the origin of the metaphor in the first place, a pun on “needle’s point” and “needless point”. But this answer is a little too simple, because this would still be a useful debate if angels were real and we could interact with them. “How many angels fit on the head of a pin” is really a question about whether angels take up space, whether two angels can be at the same place at the same time. Asking that question about particles led physicists to bosons and fermions, which among other things led us to invent the laser. If angelology worked, perhaps we would have angel lasers as well.
“If angelology worked” is key here, though. Angelology didn’t work, it didn’t lead to angel-based technology. And while Medieval people couldn’t have known that for certain, maybe they could have guessed. When people accuse academics of “counting angels on the head of a pin”, they’re saying they should be able to guess that their work is destined for uselessness.
How do you guess something like that?
Well, one problem with counting angels is that nobody doing the counting had ever seen an angel. Counting angels on the head of a pin implies debating something you can’t test or observe. That can steer you off-course pretty easily, into conclusions that are either useless or just plain wrong.
This can’t be the whole of the problem though, because of mathematics. We rarely accuse mathematicians of counting angels on the head of a pin, but the whole point of math is to proceed by pure logic, without an experiment in sight. Mathematical conclusions can sometimes be useless (though we can never be sure, some ideas are just ahead of their time), but we don’t expect them to be wrong.
The key difference is that mathematics has clear rules. When two mathematicians disagree, they can look at the details of their arguments, make sure every definition is as clear as possible, and discover which one made a mistake. Working this way, what they build is reliable. Even if it isn’t useful yet, the result is still true, and so may well be useful later.
In contrast, when you imagine Medieval monks debating angels, you probably don’t imagine them with clear rules. They might quote contradictory bible passages, argue everyday meanings of words, and win based more on who was poetic and authoritative than who really won the argument. Picturing a debate over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, it seems more like Calvinball than like mathematics.
This then, is the heart of the accusation. Saying someone is just debating how many angels can dance on a pin isn’t merely saying they’re debating the invisible. It’s saying they’re debating in a way that won’t go anywhere, a debate without solid basis or reliable conclusions. It’s saying, not just that the debate is useless now, but that it will likely always be useless.
As an outsider, you can’t just dismiss a field because it can’t do experiments. What you can and should do, is dismiss a field that can’t produce reliable knowledge. This can be hard to judge, but a key sign is to look for these kinds of Calvinball-style debates. Do people in the field seem to argue the same things with each other, over and over? Or do they make progress and open up new questions? Do the people talking seem to be just the famous ones? Or are there cases of young and unknown researchers who happen upon something important enough to make an impact? Do people just list prior work in order to state their counter-arguments? Or do they build on it, finding consequences of others’ trusted conclusions?
A few corners of string theory do have this Calvinball feel, as do a few of the debates about the fundamentals of quantum mechanics. But if you look past the headlines and blogs, most of each of these fields seems more reliable. Rather than interminable back-and-forth about angels and pinheads, these fields are quietly accumulating results that, one way or another, will give people something to build on.