Friday, September 18, 2015

Accidents outliving their substances

Thomas Aquinas's take on transsubstantiation supposes that the accidents of bread and wine can continue existing even after the bread and wine have perished, something that was heavily criticized by people like Jan Hus.

But here is an argument for the possibility of an accident outliving its substance. Consider a very long rattlesnake, stretching out to maybe ten million kilometers in length. The rattlesnake is rattling for one second. The rattling of the tail is an accident of the rattlesnake, call this accident R. Then the snake is near-instantaneously destroyed, e.g., by a series of synchronized explosive charges.

Well, near-instantaneously in one reference frame! This snake is long enough that there will be another reference frame in which the front half is destroyed 15 seconds before the back half is. In this reference frame, there will be a time when the rattling of the tail occurs even though the front half of the snake doesn't exist. But a snake whose front half has been destroyed is no longer existing. So in this reference frame the accident R exists even though the snake no longer does.

Granted, in the case of the snake it is only true in some reference frames that the snake doesn't exist while R does, while in the Eucharist the persistence of the accidents past the demise of the bread and wine takes place in all reference frames. But once we have seen that the principle that accidents must be contemporaneous with their substance is not generally true, I think some wind is taken out of the objector's sails.

8 comments:

Heath White said...

Maybe the following thoughts will help, maybe not.

If the Thomist idea of transubstantiation is that the accidents of the bread persist but “its” essence changes (underneath the accidents as it were), then I wonder what are the essential properties of bread. Here are some suggestions:

1) The material composition of the bread, e.g. carbohydrate molecules. These properties certainly seem to persist, and they are, I think, what most people think of as the essence of bread. But if that is not what the Church thinks is the essence of bread, then disputes about transubstantiation may be merely verbal. Alternatively maybe these properties only seem to persist and we are systematically deceived when confronted by the Eucharist. But then the possibility of an accident outlasting its substance is not the main puzzle about the doctrine, because in this case the accident doesn’t outlast its substance. (The tradition has not wanted to say, I think, that the Eucharist only seems white.)

2) A teleological property, e.g. the purpose of the substance. It is now no longer ordered to bodily nutrition but to spiritual nutrition. The bread gets “promoted” to a higher use. But that is not a metaphysically challenging doctrine.

3) The efficient cause of the substance. I don’t see how to make sense of this option, unless maybe there is an appeal to one of the others. E.g. when it was ordered to bodily nutrition the salient efficient causes were farmer and soil, while when it is ordered to spiritual nutrition the salient efficient cause is God, or something like that. What does not make sense is that blessing the bread could change its history.

4) The pure formal property of breadiness. That is what goes away when bread becomes Eucharist. To my Protestant mind this is just obfuscatory unless what is meant is that a change in linguistic norms is in order: it’s no longer proper to call it “bread” but only “the body of Christ.” But if that is all that is meant, again, we are not dealing with a metaphysically challenging doctrine.

By the way, “not a metaphysically challenging doctrine” is not a criticism. It would be ecumenically helpful if the issues that divide Christians were not metaphysically challenging.

My basic thought is that one might get clearer on the doctrine if, in analyzing the claim that the Eucharistic wafer is not bread, we ask more precisely WHAT isn’t it.

I think it would be similarly helpful in analyzing the claim that the Eucharistic wafer is Christ’s body, we ask more precisely WHAT it is. My understanding is that the tradition does not want to say it is Christ’s physical body, but then there is the challenge of saying what is meant by a non-physical (aspect of? part of?) the body. (And is the wafer no longer physical? Here my understanding, such as it is, runs out.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Heath:

While I do think that material things have essential properties, I don't think we need the notion of essential properties to make sense of something material ceasing to exist. Something material can cease to exist by having its matter simply cease to exist without being appropriately replaced by other matter (that's sufficient, but maybe not necessary: maybe something material can also cease to exist by deformation). And I think it's pretty intuitive that the matter of something material is different from its properties (essential or accidental): there is the matter and there is what it does.

So, a simple answer, neutral between a variety of metaphysical theories, as to how the bread ceases to be would be just that its matter no longer exists, though the normal effects of the matter's activity (repulsion of other matter, diffuse reflection of light, etc.) are still there.

You write: "The pure formal property of breadiness. That is what goes away when bread becomes Eucharist. To my Protestant mind this is just obfuscatory unless what is meant is that a change in linguistic norms is in order"

Are you thinking that Protestant = Nominalist? :-)

"I think it would be similarly helpful in analyzing the claim that the Eucharistic wafer is Christ’s body, we ask more precisely WHAT it is. My understanding is that the tradition does not want to say it is Christ’s physical body, but then there is the challenge of saying what is meant by a non-physical (aspect of? part of?) the body."

I wouldn't say that the *wafer* is Christ's body, because "wafer" is an unclear term (maybe a wafer is a kind of bread, and there is no bread). But the Catholic tradition would say that in this small wafer-shaped location there is all of Christ's physical body.

You're right that many, perhaps most, Catholic authors want to talk about something non-physical here. But it's not Christ's body that is non-physical. Rather, it is the way in which it is present that they would say is not physical--the physical body is "sacramentally" present. So it is Christ's physical body but it is not present in the way in which a physical body normally is present. In what way is it present? Well, read Aquinas and see if makes sense to you. :-) Or read my reading of Aquinas: http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199596539.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199596539-e-024

But here I am inclined to cautiously depart from most Catholic authors. I am happy to say that the physical body is physically present: it is present by standing in precisely those kinds of relations that in general constitute spatial location. What those relations are, I don't know, because I don't know what the true metaphysics of spacetime is. Maybe spacetime is made of regions, and maybe being located is a primitive relation between a thing and a region. If so, then Christ's body stands in that primitive relation to that small region (and maybe even to every subregion of it).

(I don't, of course, deny that Christ's presence is sacramental. But I am inclined to think that this sacramental presence is physical. What makes it sacramental isn't its non-physicality, but the context, the cause, and the effects.)

Heath White said...

OK, so considerably less progress than one might have hoped. :-(

The one question that occurs to me, apropos of your final three paragraphs, is: surely something is physically present in the Eucharist. If not Christ's body, what?

Alexander R Pruss said...

On many trope theories, tropes have literal spatial location and are the bearers of causal powers. The presence of bread tropes (accidents are a kind of trope) might count as something being physically present.

Anthony Palazzo said...

Hello Dr. Pruss,

I’m interested in this topic and would appreciate clarification on your example:

1) I’m having trouble seeing what work relativity is doing in the scenario. Your conclusion seems to only need a single reference frame and what is true in that reference frame seems plausible non-relativistically. Does your scenario get you something you couldn’t get from imagining a non-destroyed snake tail rattling after the rest of it has been sufficiently annihilated, or a chicken body moving while headless?

2) Would it make a difference if we change the snake to a snake-like machine? If the fact that we’re dealing with an organism is what is doing the work then it’s difficult to see the application.

3) Perhaps your answer to the previous questions would address this but in the relevant reference frame after the snake dies why would we prefer the occurring accident to be “the rattling of a rattlesnake” over something like “the rattling of a tail”? When we interpret the substance to have been annihilated don’t we need to reinterpret the accidents? If the answer were that it is because the rattlesnake is doing the rattling, wouldn’t that simply lead to a contradiction in the reference frame: the snake is simultaneously existing and not existing?

Alexander R Pruss said...

In the first frame, we see that the rattling is clearly the snake's accident. But the status of being an accident can't vary between frames. The very same rattling (at the same spatiotemporal location) exists in both frames.
A normally detached gecko tail that continues wriggling (in order to distract predators) is not an accident of the gecko, but the effect of an accident.

Alexander R Pruss said...

In the first frame, we see that the rattling is clearly the snake's accident. But the status of being an accident can't vary between frames. The very same rattling (at the same spatiotemporal location) exists in both frames.
A normally detached gecko tail that continues wriggling (in order to distract predators) is not an accident of the gecko, but the effect of an accident.

Anthony Palazzo said...

Thank you for your response. I think it made clear what I don’t understand about the argument, which is why the first frame has priority over the second in determining the status of the rattling. What would be wrong with a parody argument in which we look at the second frame, conclude that the rattling is not an accident of the snake, and then apply that conclusion to the first frame? When you say that the rattling is clearly the snake’s accident in the first frame, isn’t part of the reason to believe that that the snake is alive during the rattling? But how can we know that if there is no fact of the matter as to the ordering of events?