It was the custom among 17th and 18th century English philosophers to take as many potshots at the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation as possible. Sometimes it almost seems that a desideratum for a theory of metaphysics is that it should be inconsistent with that doctrine. This desideratum is, of course, easily satisfied: most theories of metaphysics are inconsistent with transubstantiation. All versions of the doctrine require that it be metaphysically possible for flesh to exist under the 'species' of bread, and a conservative interpretation of the doctrine popular in the early modern period further required that numerically the same (rather than merely qualitatively identical) accidents be able to be transferred from one substance to another. A lot of modern metaphysical theories can't even make sense of the relevant notion of 'species' in the first place, and even if they can, they typically won't allow this sort of thing. But I digress. My point is that the English philosophers of the period can seem positively gleeful when they find that their theory is inconsistent with transubstantiation. This contrasts with the conciliatory attitude adopted, for instance, by Leibniz (of course, Leibniz is characteristically conciliatory about everything). Several examples of this general trend can be found in Locke's Essay.
I noticed a passage in Berkeley today that I thought was interesting in this context. During Berkeley's time as bishop, he was much friendlier to the Catholics in his diocese than was the custom among the Anglican clergy of Ireland, and extended a lot of social programs to impoverished Catholics, rather than just taking care of his own flock. Some of his contemporaries saw him as taking a somewhat condescending attitude toward the Irish Catholics who were mostly uneducated and lower-class, but it was widely recognized that Berkeley genuinely cared for their well-being, which was more than could be said for a lot of Anglican clergy in the period. (All of this is discussed in moderate detail in Berman's George Berkeley: Idealism and the Man.) Anyway, I found it interesting that in a work dating to a much earlier period in Berkeley's life, he writes this:
But, it will be urged, that miracles do, at least, lose much of their stress and import by our principles ... [C]an it be supposed that our Saviour did no more at the marriage-feast in Cana, than impose on the sight and smell, and taste of the guests, so as to create in them the appearance or idea only of wine? ... To this I reply, that ... the water [changed] into real wine ... [I]f, at table, all who were present should see, and smell, and taste, and drink wine, and find the effects of it, with me there could be no doubt of its reality. (PHK 84)
I think the third hypothesis is the least likely. The second seems at least somewhat plausible, especially given that the intellectual scene, even in Ireland, was dominated by Anglicans. However, the first hypothesis is quite consistent with Berkeley's usual methods. Berkeley's official targets in the Principles and Dialogues are 'skepticism, atheism, and irreligion,' but even these views he spends very little space attacking head-on; instead his strategy is to undermine the metaphysical and epistemological foundations of these views, and let the superstructure topple on its own. If Berkeley wanted to undermine Roman Catholicism as well, we could expect him to use the same tactic.
Another point to note: in Alciphron, Berkeley shows a keen sense of the relative fundamentality of different parts of his theology. For instance, Euphranor declines to engage Alciphron in a dispute about the status of the deuterocanon (aka 'Apocrypha'), on grounds that this is an internal debate among Christians, and the fundamental points of Christianity can be settled from without settling this debate. Likewise, he takes it to be silly to argue about Biblical interpretation before establishing the existence of God, and at one point he even characterizes Locke and Newton as allies of religion, despite their heterodox views, because they agree with orthodox Christianity on many matters disputed by the freethinkers, including the existence of God and the authority of Scripture.
The relevance of this observation is that even if Berkeley did wish to undermine Catholicism, he might not draw out the anti-Catholic implications of his theories explicitly, since he would recognize that, on the issues of most fundamental importance to him, the Catholics were his allies. In short, although the water to wine was of course already a stock example of a miracle, I think there are grounds for the conjecture that Berkeley may have chosen this example on purpose, intending it as a subtle and gentle challenge to Catholic readers.Posted by Kenny at October 14, 2011 12:36 PM
Return to blog.kennypearce.net