Saturday, January 3, 2015

Accidents outlasting their substance

At least as traditionally philosophically understood, the Catholic understanding of transsubstantiation insists on the persistence of (at least some) of the accidents of bread and wine after the bread and wine have ceased to exist. But how can accidents exist without their substance?

Well, imagine a very long rattlesnake—say, a billion kilometers long—all stretched out in space. Suppose that the snake rattles its rattle at noon for a second, and one second after the end of the rattling a prearranged array of blasters simultaneously annihilates the whole snake.

Let R be the accident of the snake's rattling. A simple relativistic calculation shows that there is an inertial reference frame in which the rattling occurs after the vast majority of the snake—including all of the snake's vital organs (which I assume are placed much as in a normal snake)—has been annihilated. But an animal is dead, and hence non-existent (barring afterlife for animals; let's stipulate there is none), after all its vital organs have been annihilated. Thus, there is a reference frame in which the accident R exists after the substance S of the snake has been annihilated.

So special relativity gives us good reason to think that accidents can survive the destruction of the substance, at least in some inertial reference frames. But all inertial reference frames are supposed to be on par.

I suppose an opponent of transsubstantiation could insist that while an accident can survive the destruction of a substance in some reference frames, it cannot survive the destruction of the substance in all reference frames (as it would have to in the case of the Eucharist). But that requirement sounds a little ad hoc.

So, relativity theory gives us good reason to reject one of the most famous objections to transsubstantiation.


Jakub Moravčík said...

But that requirement sounds a little ad hoc.

In what? I wouldn´t see it as ad hoc ...

Alexander R Pruss said...

Also, one could imagine some supernatural frame in which the Eucharist and the bread are simultaneous, maybe? F

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Anonymous said...

Look at it this way...

1)Does matter require a form (so as not to be merely Prime Matter)? An important question because I would repeat that accidents can and do remain in relation to the matter in certain types of change in form. This notion is not unique to the Eucharist.

2)If so does such an arrangement of matter not retain the 'accidents' if it's 'essence' is altered yet the matter's arrangement is not?

I do of course agree with a certain 'tenseless' way of speaking about transsubstantiation since in a sense it makes present Calvary as well as the change the bread and wine undergo.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I doubt that any matter survives through substantial change. If there is such a thing as prime matter, I don't know that it makes sense to talk of its identity over time.

But your line of argument is, nonetheless, a promising one, given the hypothesis of persistent matter.

Anonymous said...


I was trying to say that matter requires a form because prime matter is more a construct of the mind but does not in fact 'exist'. It just helps us think about matter in a metaphysical sense.

If we delve deeper into the theology of the Eucharist to inform what it is we are speaking of philosophically you'll notice that the bread and wine become the body and blood. It also comes up when there is a giving thanks for the work of human hands. In some sense beyond the accidents something remains to 'become' the body and blood.

I of course come at the Eucharist as a special and unique instance. Have you thought about examining the various examples of 'Eucharistic Miracles' to see if anything more empirical can be brought to this question? For example the four blood globules of Christs blood from the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano all weigh the same in any combination 1,2,3,4 or 5. All weight the same as one or all five. In usual circumstances we only see the accidents but here we have something more visual, observable.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


Why can't we just accept this as a mystery?