“Looks like I was wrong for 30 years”

Yesterday, thanks to @Monahan_PJ (via the incomparable @edyong209), I ran across this paper in Science:

No buts about it, the butthole is one of the finest innovations in the past 
540 million years of animal evolution. The first animals that arose seem to have literally had potty mouths: Their modern-day descendants, such as sea sponges, sea anemones, and jellyfish, all lack an anus and must eat and excrete through the same hole. Once an independent exit evolved, however, animals diversified into the majority of species alive today, ranging from earthworms
 to humans.

So go read it, because it’s interesting. In case you didn’t, the tl;dr of it is that there are animals who eat and excrete using different orifices, like we do, and there are those that use the same orifice for ingestion and excretion. These box jellyfish were thought to be in the latter category, but it turns out they’re not (with a twist).

And then, there’s a throwaway line about halfway down:

“Looks like I’ve been wrong for 30 years,” said George Matsumoto, a marine bio
logist at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California, after he saw Browne’s talk.

That’s a remarkable thing to say, and I congratulate Dr. Matsumoto on his honesty.

But it also made me realize that while I’ve heard scientists make this sort of statement (not often enough, but on a regular basis), and sometimes even politicians (see, for instance, Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s reversals on gay marriage), I don’t remember ever hearing a theologian (or cleric engaging in theology) say this.

Yes, plenty of people have changed their religious affiliation, and the “I was a wretched sinful atheist heathen gay pagan until I found Jesus” story is a genre unto itself. And I’ve heard plenty of stories of people switching denominations because their old church was too repressive, not serious enough about its faith, or whatever. But these are largely matters of opinion.

Find me people changing their mind on small matters of fact. Take a look at Wikipedia’s list of Christian heresies and show me the ones that were resolved through observation and reason, rather than bloodshed.

It just doesn’t happen. In religion, there’s no reality check, no way to see that your beliefs are completely out of line with reality.

The Bible Answer Man Dodges the Euthyphro Dilemma

A few days ago, on the Bible Answer Man show, Hank Hanegraaff tackled the Euthyphro dilemma.

Briefly, this comes from one of Socrates’ dialogs, in which he asks a man named Euthyphro whether certain things are good because the gods say so, or whether the gods say those things are good because they are good. This also applies to the Christian god, naturally.

In the first case, morality is inherently arbitrary and subjective: if God decides that rape is good, then rape automatically becomes good; but this feels wrong, aside from being abhorrent.

The second case is that certain actions are good on their own merits: that charity is good and rape are bad for reasons that have nothing to do with any gods. But in that case, the gods are irrelevant to morality.

Now, personally, I don’t see a problem with the second one. If a god showed up and told me to do or not do something, I’d want him/her/it to explain why, and to provide a better explanation than “Meh. I flipped a coin, and today, pork is tref”.

But of course Hanegraaff sees his god as the source of morality, and not merely a middleman or a teacher. So the way he gets around the dilemma is to say that yes, things are good because God says they are, but also God wouldn’t command something like rape to be moral, because such is not his nature: things are good because they reflect God’s nature.

The problem is that this doesn’t solve the problem: it merely redefines “good” to mean “like God”, with no connection to anything else, like happiness or well-being, or anything like that. Is killing someone good? It is, if it reflects God’s nature. So how can we tell whether it reflects God’s nature? Given the number of people that Yahweh kills in the Bible, it seems that killing, and even genocide, reflects his nature.

I expect Hanegraaff would dispute this, saying, for instance, that it was okay for God to kill everyone in the flood because they deserved it, or that slavery was necessary back in ancient Israel, or It’s Okay When God Does It, or whatever. But that’s just it: why is it even necessary to explain why the Bible seems to describe God as doing horrible things? Especially if the Bible is a true account of what happened, and especially if, as many apologists say, God’s law is written on all our hearts? Wouldn’t we read about the massacre of the Midianites and think, “Yeah, they had it coming”? Would anyone balk at the image of Jesus whipping people with a scourge he made himself?

It seems clear that even if “good” and “evil” aren’t clearly defined and have fuzzy edges, Hanegraaff isn’t relying solely on the Bible to figure out what falls in each category, and neither does anyone else. That is, whatever “good” means, it’s not synonymous with “like God”.

Apologetics of the Day: God Hides to Show He Exists

So I ran out of good podcast episodes, and was listening to The Mar. 18, 2014 episode of Bryan Fischer’s Focal Point (or, as George Orwell might have put it, the Two Hours’ Hate).

He started by railing against Bill Maher. For those who missed it, Fischer, along with the rest of right-wing America, got upset at Bill Maher for pointing out that the God of the Bible, the one who drowned every single person on earth, is a psychotic mass-murderer with anger issues. Apparently you’re not supposed to call attention to that.

On his show, Fischer pointed out the logical flaw in Maher’s reasoning by saying that he , and since God didn’t actually murder him right then and there, that proves that God is merciful and kind.

God allows Maher to continue living after saying these things, Fischer explained, is in order to give Maher an opportunity to repent and ask forgiveness.

“Bill Maher might have thought he was being hip and kind of trendy and kind of cool and all of that,” Fischer said, “but he is going to be judged for those careless words. God hopes it doesn’t come to that. God could, by all rights, take him right now and Bill Maher would have to face judgment by the end of the day. Why doesn’t He do that? Because He is patient with Bill Maher. He doesn’t want to have to do that. He wants to give Bill Maher the time to come to his senses and to come to a place of repentance

Yesterday, Fischer continued in this vein (starting around 2:31 in the podcast; dunno about the video):

[t]he reason that God doesn’t judge us the moment we commit a sin is because he is patient. He is kind, he doesn’t want to judge. He is slow to judge, but abounding — slow to anger, but abounding in loving kindness and mercy. And he is patient with all men because he wants all men to come to the knowledge of the truth. He doesn’t want any to perish. That’s his heart.

And so that’s what I explained about Bill Maher: why does God let Bill Maher get away with those kind of profane, blasphemous rants? Well, it’s because he loves him, and he’s extending patience to him and he is hoping that by giving Bill Maher enough time, he will come to the place of repentance. […] Just simply speaking Biblical truth about God’s heart toward those who are clearly his opponents, hostile to him, why he lets them get away with so much? Because he’s patient, does not want any to perish, wants all men, including Bill Maher, to come to the knowledge of the truth.

One thing I noticed is how Fischer tells us what God wants. Apparently the rule is that when God does something bad, like kill everyone in the world in a flood or fail to stop the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, you’re not allowed to say that God is a murderer, or indifferent, or like that; the “mysterious ways” rule applies. But when God does something good, like cure someone’s cancer or fail to reduce a talk show host to a pile of ashes, go ahead and talk to your heart’s content about what’s in God’s mind.

But mainly, I noticed that according to Fischer, the real reason God didn’t murder Bill Maher is because he wants Maher to “come to the knowledge of the truth”, i.e., that God exists. And so God didn’t do anything. Because what better way to show someone that you exist than by remaining hidden and not doing anything, just like a thing that doesn’t exist? That’s just logic theology.

The 95% Textbook

I’m a big fan of consensus, at least when it comes to figuring out whether something is true or not. If your doctor tells you have, say, ALS, well, that doctor might be wrong. But if you seek a second or third opinion, and those doctors independently come to the same conclusion, then the odds are that the diagnosis was correct. If you’ve ever participated in an interest-based community, be it crocheting or motorcycle racing or The Walking Dead fans or parakeet breeding or whatever, you’ll know that enthusiasts in these communities often have heated discussions on all sorts of topics, and will hash out the issues at length. So when it gets to the point where most everyone who knows the subject agrees on the answer to some question, that answer is most likely correct.

By way of counterexample: in the series Black Adder II, episode Potato, Blackadder has chartered the ship of Captain Rum, and discovered that there’s no crew:

Blackadder: I was under the impression that it was common maritime practice for a ship to have a crew.

Rum: Opinion is divided on the subject.

Blackadder: Oh, really?

Rum: Yes. All the other captains say it is; I say it isn’t.

So I wondered, what if we wanted to write an utterly uncontroversial textbook on some subject, to introduce elementary or High School students to the subject. Uncontroversial because we’re not interested in presenting the controversies at the cutting edge of research; just present what’s been learned about the subject so far.

Continue reading “The 95% Textbook”

Defining God Into Existence

One of the more slippery arguments for the existence of God is the ontological argument. It goes roughly as follows:

  • God is the most perfect being imaginable.
  • A being that exists is more perfect than one that doesn’t.
  • Therefore, God exists.

The details vary from one apologist to the next, depending just how much circumlocution he wants to employ, but that’s the gist of it.

A lot of people can see that there’s something wrong, but like a stage magic trick, it’s not obvious what the problem is.

It’s easy to show that something’s wrong, by the way: just replace “God” with “ideal beer”:

  • The ideal beer is better than any other beer.
  • A beer in my hand is better than a beer that isn’t.
  • Therefore, I have an ideal beer in my hand.

It’s exactly the same argument as before, so if it worked, there should be a beer in your hand. And yet, somehow, there (most likely) isn’t. (You can also do this with The Ultimate Plague, is 100% communicable and 100% fatal. But it can’t kill anyone if it doesn’t exist. Therefore, the Ultimate Plague exists, and we’ve all died of it.)

So how is the magic trick done? Basically, it plays fast and loose with language.

It starts out well: the first line defines what we mean by “God”, and the second line sees what follows from the definition. In other words, if we define “God” as meaning a perfect being, then it follows that anything that falls under that definition must also exist.

At this point, some people object that existence isn’t a property like having a brain, or being bigger than a breadbox. I’m not picky. I’ll accept anything that can be answered with Yes/No/Maybe/Dunno as a property. If you show me something and ask if it’s a quadruped, I’ll count its legs and if it has four of them, I’ll say yes. Similarly, if you show me something and ask whether it exists, I’ll say yes.

Definitions are useful, not simply for what they include, but also for what they exclude: if I define a cat as a four-legged mammal, then you can look at a pencil, see that it doesn’t have four legs, and therefore isn’t a cat. You can look at an iguana and see that although it has four legs, it isn’t a mammal, and therefore isn’t a cat (same with four-legged tables). Then you can look at a horse, see that it has four legs and is a mammal, and therefore falls under my definition of a cat. Fair enough. I shouldn’t have made the definition so broad.

And then we get to

Therefore, God exists.

Did you notice the ol’ switcheroo being pulled? Up until now, we’ve been talking about the definition of the word “God”; now we’ve switched to talking about God him/her/itself. If we wanted to be precise, we should write

  • Let us define “God” as the most perfect being imaginable.
  • A being that exists is more perfect than one that doesn’t.
  • Therefore, if an entity matches the definition of “God”, then that entity exists.

Actually, I guess this argument is a deepity: it has two readings, one which is true but trivial; and one which is false, but would be earth-shattering if true.

Or, to put it another way, the ontological argument reduces to “Show me a god, and I’ll show you an existing god.” It tells you which properties an entity has to have to be considered “God”, but doesn’t show that there actually are any entities that match that definition. Ditto the ideal beer and the Ultimate Plague.

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.

More Christians Endorse Genocide

You may remember that an editorial by Richard Dawkins in which he explains why he won’t debate William Lane Craig, has caused a bit of a tempest in the religious teapot. At issue is the fact that Craig has defended divinely-commanded genocide in the Bible, not just once but twice, and Dawkins doesn’t want anything to do with a man who can espouse such odious views. Picky, picky.

Just as a reminder, here’s some of what Craig wrote:

So the problem isn’t that God ended the Canaanites’ lives. The problem is that He commanded the Israeli soldiers to end them. Isn’t that like commanding someone to commit murder? No, it’s not. Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder. The act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their on initiative, it would have been wrong.

On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.

In other words, killing hundreds or thousands of men, women, and children is murder. Unless God commands it, in which case it’s not just okay, but mandatory.

By setting such strong, harsh dichotomies God taught Israel that any assimilation to pagan idolatry is intolerable. It was His way of preserving Israel’s spiritual health and posterity. God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel. The killing of the Canaanite children not only served to prevent assimilation to Canaanite identity but also served as a shattering, tangible illustration of Israel’s being set exclusively apart for God.

These children had to die because their parents worshiped the wrong gods and were thus impure.

So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.

This part is so disgusting that I can’t even muster the snark to make fun of Craig. It’s like saying that we should shed a tear for the poor Nazis who were ordered to gas Jews.

It seems to me that when an otherwise-respected person says something stupid or reprehensible, the right thing to do is to denounce the stupid idea, even while acknowledging the person’s other accomplishments. See for instance the firestorm that erupted over Dawkins’s comment about elevatorgate, or when PZ Myers criticized the idea of humanist chaplains.

So how have Christians responded to Craig’s abhorrent rationalization of mass murder? I haven’t seen any of them repudiate his views. Instead, I see comments like Tim Stanley’s at the Telegraph:

Dawkins writes that he is so disgusted with Craig’s thesis that he cannot possibly agree to meet him in person. “Do not plead that I have taken these revolting words out of context,” he adds. “What context could possibly justify them?”

Actually, the context is called “Christian apologetics”, and it’s been around for centuries.

Ergo, Craig’s purpose in writing this piece is to unravel the paradox of a moral Bible that also includes lashings of apparently random violence. Craig stresses that these passages of the Bible are difficult for us to read because we are not of the age in which they are written – they are just as alien to us as Beowulf or the Iliad. That’s because Christian society has been shaped by the rules of life outlined in the New Testament, not in the section of The Bible in which this massacre occurs. Far from using this passage to celebrate the slaughter of heathen, Craig is making the point that the revelation of God’s justice has changed over time. The horrors of the Old Testament have been rendered unnecessary by Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. That’s why the idiots who protest the funerals of gay soldiers or blow up abortion clinics aren’t just cruel, they’re bad theologians.

See? It was the Old Testament god, not the New Testament god, who’s much nicer. Which is not to say that it was wrong of the Old Testament god to have thousands of people killed. That’s just par for the course.

And jbarham at TheBestSchools.org Blog:

Now, I do not mean to defend the book of Deuteronomy, or even to defend Professor Craig’s defense of that recalcitrant book. But I do think it is a little rich that Dawkins should seize on Craig’s more or less unexceptionable exercise in Christian apologetics as a means of wriggling out of what had clearly become for him a very disagreeable situation.

(emphasis added.)

Really? Excusing mass murder is “unexceptionable […] apologetics”?

This is also cited without comment (and therefore, I assume, tacit approval) at Uncommon Descent by “News” (whom I strongly suspect of being Denyse O’Leary).

And Christians have the gall to accuse atheists of having no morals? As some guy once said, take the plank out of your own eye before complaining about the speck in your brother’s eye.

Does Symmetry Exist?

Well, duh, yes.

But is symmetry a thing? Well, no. Again, duh.

The reason I bother to bring this up in the first place is that I’ve stumbled on the festering swamp of pretentiousness that is Edward Feser’s blag

One thing that annoys me is the way he constantly reifies ideas, and acts as though that Means Something.

Take a look for instance at this bit (he begins by summarizing a physicist’s post about philosophy):

Arguments for God as cause of the universe rest on the assumption that something can’t come from nothing.  But given the laws of physics, it turns out that something can come from nothing. 

Here was my reaction:

Is this guy serious?  The laws of physics aren’t “nothing.”  Ergo, this isn’t even a prima facie counterexample to the principle that ex nihilo, nihil fit.  That’s just blindingly obvious.  Is this guy serious? 

In other words, what Feser is saying is that a law of physics is something. Is this true?

So let me back up a bit and look at symmetry (for simplicity, I’ll just consider mirror symmetry). Some objects, like cue balls and 2×2 Lego bricks, look the same in a mirror as they do by themselves (plus or minus however much we care about; if we care about the specific positions of atoms, a cue ball isn’t symmetrical; if we don’t care about the number indicating the point value, an “M” tile from a Scrabble set is symmetrical).

This fact can be expressed in multiple ways. In English, it feels natural to say that an object has symmetry. In another language, such as French, one might say “this object is symmetrical”. In yet another language, the most natural way to express this (or indeed the only way) might be to say “this object mirrors-without-changing” or “this object endures mirrorily”.

Whether the idea is expressed using a noun, an adjective, a verb phrase, an adverb, or even as a mathematical equation, it doesn’t change what the object is. People from any country can look at at the object and agree whether it has this particular property.

So what is “symmetry”, then? Presumably it’s some data structure in the mind of an English speaker that gets excited when she thinks of an object that looks like its mirror image. An artifact of the way that person processes information about the world, that happens to be implemented as a noun.

But just because there’s a noun for something, that doesn’t mean that that something actually exists out there in the world.

And a law of physics isn’t a thing. It’s a statement about how things behave. In fact, it can be expressed as an if-then statement: “if certain things existed and certain conditions held, then such-and-such would happen”. For example, the statement “if my refrigerator had a mass of 100 solar masses, it would collapse into a black hole” is true even though my fridge doesn’t mass anywhere near that much, due to the way that implication statements work. So a statement like “all masses attract through gravity” can be expressed as “if there were any masses, they would attract” and would thus be true even if there weren’t any masses in the universe.

But in the end, a law is a statement about how things behave; it isn’t a thing itself. And when people talk about the universe starting from nothing, they’re generally wondering how all this stuff came to be here in the first place.

Now, it’s certainly fair to ask why stuff in the universe behaves the way it does, and whether the laws of physics could have been different, whether there are other worlds where they are different, and so on. But when Feser says “The laws of physics aren’t `nothing'”, he’s projecting the way his mind works onto the universe and trying to make that someone else’s problem. It’s as if he had asked the name of the man in the moon, or asked why two holes don’t repel each other, since they have negative mass.

This strikes me as sloppy thinking (and related to the use-mention error). And I see it all too often when I read Sophisticated Theologians™. Which is one reason why I have as little respect for that occupation as I do.

The Essence of Crackers

For some reason, I’ve been thinking recently about the eucharist. Specifically, how a piece of flavorless bread can be transformed into a piece of Jesus while still looking and tasting like a flavorless piece of bread. I’d like to think that this is because I try to be fair to theists, but it might also be that I have too much free time.

The best analogy I could come up with was when I bought my house: you could have watched it the whole time I was at the signing ceremony, with electron microscopes and whatnot, and you wouldn’t have seen the moment when “some guy’s house” became “my house”.

What happened, of course, is that by virtue of me signing the paperwork, the rules for interacting with that house changed. The seller and I — and the rest of society — have agreed that once the paperwork is signed, I am allowed to come and go as I please, knock down walls, and take furnishings out to the dump, things that would have been considered breaking and entering, vandalism, and theft before the signature.

It seemed reasonable to conclude that something similar goes on at mass: once the bread has been blessed by the priest, the rules for interacting with it change. By mutual agreement, the congregation treats the wafers like Jesus Pieces.

Then I realized that that’s just a long-winded way of saying that it’s symbolic, and all the Catholics who raised a fuss over Crackergate were quite adamant that that wasn’t the case.

Here’s what the Catholic Encyclopedia has to say (or at least part of it, since the Catholic Encyclopedia can never give a plain and simple answer to anything):

The study of the first problem, viz. whether or not the accidents of bread and wine continue their existence without their proper substance, must be based upon the clearly established truth of Transubstantiation, in consequence of which the entire substance of the bread and the entire substance of the wine are converted respectively into the Body and Blood of Christ in such a way that “only the appearances of bread and wine remain” (Council of Trent, Sess. XIII, can. ii: manentibus dumtaxat speciebus panis et vini).

As I understand it, this means that everything has an essence that makes it what it is. A dog remains a dog even if it loses a leg; an albino ape is still an ape; if you break the arm off of a statue, it remains a statue. What happens at mass is the reverse: instead of the thing changing and the essence remaining the same, the thing remains the same, but its essence, its what-it-is-ness, changes.

Which is all well and good, except that it’s also bullshit.

If you keep breaking pieces off of a marble statue, at some point it stops being a statue and becomes gravel. If you keep changing pieces in a Lego house, it can become a Lego spaceship. If you eat a hunk of cow muscle, its atoms get rearranged and become human liver and bone, as well as a pile of feces. Which brings us neatly back to theology.

The notion that a communion wafer has an essential what-it-is-ness separate from the atoms that constitute it and the way they’re arranged is of a piece with belief in souls that survive the death of the body, and the “it’s still just a fruit fly” argument against evolution. It may look on the surface as though things have a magical essence, but that’s an illusion. Just because we see it, doesn’t mean it’s there. In fact, our economy is based in large part on the notion that things can change from one thing to another — that pile of rocks can become a pile of iron which can become a Ford Taurus; that a fistful of acorns can become a dining table.

The closest thing I can think of to essentialism that isn’t bullshit is intellectual property law. If I draw a cartoon mouse with a round head and round ears, the Disney Corporation will be able to successfully argue in court that I’ve infringed on their copyrighted image of Mickey Mouse®. In effect, they’ll argue that the essence of my picture is something that belongs to them. But even there, if I make enough changes, my picture will stop being Mickey Mouse.

I haven’t looked into it, but I imagine that while essentialism is an illusion, it’s a practical one. It’s useful to put men with beards in the same mental category as men in general, and to think that if a person loses a leg they don’t automatically stop being a person. So it’s a useful heuristic (a heuristic being defined as a rule that gives you something close to the right answer most of the time, but much more quickly that solving the problem properly).

Wafer-to-Jesus transformation clearly falls outside of the realm where the illusion of essence is useful or true. It’s time for theologians to stop twisting themselves into pretzels to pretend that it has any correspondence to reality.

Update, May 5, 2010: Inserted a missing “instead”. Oops.