October 14, 2011

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The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Berkeley on Miracles and Transubstantiation

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)

What is interesting to me is that Berkeley's defense of miracles functions at the same time as an attack on transubstantiation: the miracle at Cana was a real miracle, because, if everyone perceived all the 'accidents' of wine, then it was real wine. Conversely, if there is no change in the accidents (as there is clearly not in the Eucharist), then no miraculous change has occurred. If Locke did something like this, I would have no hesitation in saying it was intentional, but then Locke would surely point out the inconsistency with transubstantiation explicitly. Berkeley says not a word. Given that Berkeley is in Ireland, it's quite odd that Catholic-Protestant disputes should not be on his radar in something like this. So what is going on? Three hypotheses suggest themselves: either Berkeley is intentionally trying to subtly undermine transubstantiation, rather than attempting a direct assault, or he is intentionally writing to an exclusively Protestant audience, or the issue just didn't occur to him.

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
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If it has the accidents of a duck...

Posted by: pferree at October 14, 2011 2:28 PM

I think I go back on this. Other immaterialists in the period certainly took immaterialism as such to be in opposition to transubstantiation; Collier is a good example. So it is indeed remarkable that Berkeley never stresses the fact when dealing directly with the question of immaterialism. On the other hand, he's not shy of insisting that it's irrational; in the Seventh Dialogue, Alciphron claims that Euphranor's Doctrine of Signs could just as easily be used to defend Transubstantiation, and Crito sharply objects that this is false because it doesn't require believing in a contradiction, and in several places he uses it polemically by insisting that believers in infinite divisibility are just like believers in transubstantiation.

Posted by: Brandon at October 15, 2011 2:24 PM

Sorry, that should be 'go back and forth on this'.

Posted by: Brandon at October 15, 2011 2:25 PM

Well, on my account, the dialectical context would be relevant. Berkeley of course has no interest in persuading anyone to accept transubstantiation, since he doesn't accept it himself. If the free-thinkers are going to claim that once you accept basic Christian ideas you might as well end up believing just anything - even an outright contradiction like transubstantiation - then Berkeley can only be expected to respond that this is not so, that if it really does contain a contradiction (and he has no interest in defending the doctrine from that charge), then his principles don't support belief in it.

Is it in The Analyst that he makes the comparison between transubstantiation and infinite divisibility?

Posted by: Kenny at October 15, 2011 2:41 PM

I think I was conflating Section 11 of A Defence of Freethinking in Mathematics, where he talks about it in the context of a particular defense of fluxions, and PHK 124, where he does it (somewhat more indirectly) with infinite divisibility.

Posted by: Brandon at October 15, 2011 10:41 PM

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