Defending the Barking Mad

Recently, at The Catholic Thing, one William E. Carroll posted a piece entitled The Dawkins Challenge (via PZ), in which he takes offense that Richard Dawkins called the doctrine of transubstantiation “barking mad”.

I’ll let him describe it:

When he speaks of the irrationality of religious belief, Dawkins often invokes Catholic faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Church teaches that with the priest’s words of consecration the bread and wine really become the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ.

The rationale behind the doctrine, which is known as transubstantiation, employs categories of substance and accident, which have their origin in the philosophy of Aristotle. According to the Church, the underlying substances of bread and wine are replaced by the body and blood of Christ while the external appearances of bread and wine remain. A scientific analysis of the consecrated host and wine would only detect these external appearances.

(emphasis added.)

In other words, as I understand it, and as charitably as I can put it, a regular communion wafer is just a piece of bread. But a wafer that’s been blessed by a priest continues to look, smell, taste the same as before; it has the same mass as before; it dissolves in acid the same way as before; it continues to fail to block neutrinos the same way as before. It is in every measurable way the same wafer as before. But it’s not a wafer: it’s Jesus’ flesh.

PS: it’s not “barking mad” to believe this.

Believe it or not, I am not entirely unsympathetic to this argument: at a recent social event, we got to discussing the difference between boats and ships (all of us being landlubbers). According to the various GooglePedia pages on people’s phones, a boat is a smaller vessel for river or coastal travel, while a ship is typically a larger vessel, built for voyages across open sea.

So then someone brought up Kon-Tiki. It’s a small vessel, indeed a raft, so appearances place it well within the “boat” class (assuming, for the sake of this discussion, that rafts are a type of boat). But of course Thor Heyerdahl built it specifically to cross the Pacific, so that would mean it’s a ship.

It seems to me that there are two ways to resolve this: 1) Kon-Tiki is a boat; you wouldn’t expect a boat to cross an ocean, but Heyerdahl managed to do so. 2) Because of its famous voyage, we’re going to consider Kon-Tiki an honorary ship, even though it looks just like a boat.

Of course, neither of these change what Kon-Tiki actually is. It’s just a matter of how we divide the world into categories (boats vs. ships; should there be a third category for rafts? Or should they all be grouped under “vessels”?) and which pigeonhole to put Kon-Tiki in. This tells us more about the way human brains work than about the nature of the vessel in question.

It seems to me that Carroll is doing something a lot like option (2): “Yeah, it looks just like a piece of bread, but we’re going to treat it as if it were a slice of Christ.” Except presumably he thinks this reflects some reality outside of his head, because he feels the compulsion to defend his belief:

Belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist comes from an acceptance, in faith, of God’s revelation. Appeals to divine authority as a source of truth do not fall within the realm of the credible for Dawkins.

And with good reason: people believe all sorts of wacky and mutually-contradictory things on faith. Faith is not a reliable way of figuring out what’s true and what isn’t. Faith is what people resort to when they really really want to believe something, but don’t have any good evidence or arguments.

So as far as I’m concerned, what Carroll has demonstrated is that the doctrine of transubstantiation is “barking mad” and as unworthy of serious consideration as the idea that Xenu brought aliens to Earth in spacefaring DC-10s, or that the CIA has mind-control rays that can be blocked with tinfoil helmets (shiny side out). If he manages to come up with any convincing arguments, I’m all ears, but until then, I’ll continue to point and laugh.

4 thoughts on “Defending the Barking Mad”

  1. Transub only makes sense in terms of Aristotelian (? some old Greek thing, anyway) metaphysics that distinguishes between Substance and Form. Since we’ve since concluded that that is a completely useless way of describing the world (I think the modern view would be something like: the properties of a thing are a result of the arrangement of its substance, meaning ultimately the sub-atomic particles in it), the Catholics are about the only ones still making serious use of this idea. The doctrine is not so much false as nonsensical, ie. expressed in terms that have no meaning.


    1. I think you’re basically right. Though of course the fact that an idea is false, nonsensical, or “expressed in terms that have no meaning” doesn’t mean that religions won’t continue to promulgate it.

      Having said that, it’s certainly true that we can look at a wide variety of, say, tables, and see that they all have some cmmon “table-ness” or “essence of table”. But that seems to be a factor of how our minds categorize the world: our eyes receive photons from the world, a whole bunch of processing happens, and the light marked “table” lights up on our mental dashboard.

      Of course, people can disagree about what is and isn’t a table (is a flat rock a table if you eat your lunch off of it?), but this tells us more about how our minds work than about the outer world.

      The only other eucharist-like example that springs to mind is when I bought my house: nothing about it changed when the ownership papers were being signed, but the rules of behavior did: at 11:00 a.m. on that day, if I had walked in, it would have been trespassing; but at 1:00 p.m., after the papers had been signed, the same action would have been legal. The house didn’t change, but in people’s minds, it moved from the “previous owners’ property” pigeonhole to the “arensb’s property” bin.

      I think Catholics who believe in transubstantiation are doing something similar, which of course they’re welcome to do. Where they fall off the rails is when 1) they claim that the change from bread into Jesus reflects some real phenomenon, and 2) they expect the rest of us to play by their club’s rules.


  2. But that seems to be a factor of how our minds categorize the world:

    This, absolutely. Lots of stuff that philosophers puzzle over (or used to), and that religious apologists like to wave around as Meaning Something, are artefacts of the way our evolved neurology breaks up the world to make it easier to deal with. (I even think that mathematics goes back to this sort of thing).


  3. Eamon Knight is not quite right on the details: roughly, Aristotelean metaphysics (and thus RC theology) has everything made out of prime matter, given its form by substantial form. Physical properties are called “accidents” and so the theory is that wafers and wine retain their accidents but their substance becomes–well, you know. EK’s mention of mathematics is perceptive. Surviving the study of this stuff (as I did in a pre-Vatican II RC college many years ago) while being extremely skeptical of its relation to reality involves (aside from partitioning your head) doing something very much like the kind of elementary logical arguing that you do in a first-time abstract algebra course in which, say, you start with the Peano axioms–except that you also have to figure out what they’re using as axioms. And what you get is a conceptual system in a box; given their axioms, you have their conclusions, but it’s not clear that they describe anything real. The theory of transubstantiation lives inside that box, and so IMHO there’s not much point in asserting that the belief is “barking mad;” the RCs and the As will simply talk past each other on that subject. Better to argue with them about their barking mad political ideas, where their box impinges on everyone’s rights.


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