Sunday, January 30, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 6

According to Scotus, an angel or a demon must do two things if it wants to possess a physical body. First, it must occupy the same region of space as that body, and second, it must take control of that body and become the mover or puppeteer.

But what exactly does it mean for an angel or a demon to be the ‘puppeteer’ of a physical body? How far does the control of the possessing angel or demon extend? Scotus puts this in rather stark terms. The question that Scotus asks is this: supposing that an angel or a demon possesses a material body, can that angel or demon cause that body to perform its basic biological functions? In other words, does angelic or demonic possession merely amount to pulling strings and making the limbs of an organic body move? Or does it extend far enough that it involves regulating that body’s internal biological functions?

For medieval thinkers like Scotus, there are three basic biological functions that living organisms perform. The first is what they call ‘nutrition’. This is essentially the process whereby a living organism takes in and processes nutrients. As Scotus and his colleagues see it, when living organisms eat food, their bodies break down the food, and then they convert it into organic tissue. That tissue then gets added to their bodies, and that’s how organisms replenish the tissue that has been used or lost. This is the basic mechanism of sustenance. If you don’t eat, you whither and die. In order to say alive, you must eat enough food to replace the tissue that your body uses or loses.

The second biological function that living organisms perform is growth. As living organisms go about their lives, they of course grow larger, and the medievals understood this to be a function of nutrition. Provided that we eat more food than our bodies burn, our bodies grow larger.

The third biological function that all living organisms perform is reproduction. Some organisms reproduce asexually, others reproduce sexually, but all living organisms reproduce. Roses beget roses, oak trees beget oak trees, dogs beget dogs, and humans beget humans.

So those are the three basic biological functions that living organisms perform. All living organisms take in and process nutrients, all living organisms grow, and all living organisms reproduce. The question, then, is whether a possessing angel or demon can cause the body it possesses to perform any of these biological functions.

Scotus says no. According to Scotus, the only thing that a possessing angel or a demon can do to the body it possesses is cause it to move, or rather, more precisely, it can cause the various parts of that body to move. Possessing angels and demons are, for Scotus, mere puppeteers, quite literally.

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