SuperSense and transubstance

Posted on July 23, 2008


Bruce Hood, whose work on magical reasoning I have mentioned from time to time, is now working on a book on superstition that is to be entitled SuperSense: why we believe in the unbelievable. As part of preparing the book he has also started a blog that I am putting on my blogroll. He starts it by owning up to the fact that blogging is “a rather self-indulgent, opinionated activity”. He might as well say the same thing about writing anything meant for the public. After all, it is based on the assumption that other people will be interested in hearing what you think about something that you find interesting!

I look forward to what he’ll have to say there. In particular, I wonder what he makes of the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation – the idea that, when communion wafers are blessed, they literally become Christ’s flesh even they do not change what they look like. The philosophical gobbledygook (and I say that as a philosopher) behind this is that the substance of the wafers is changed to the substance of Christ’s flesh (and of wine to Christ’s blood) while their accidents, i.e. properties, remain exactly the same. As with many philosophical explanations they are very much post hoc, put in place to ‘explain’ things that some people find highly plausible. The interesting point, therefore, seems to me not that philosophers can think up a justification but that people find the idea of transubstantiation plausible. Of course, to what degree they do is questionable since many Catholics probably understand transubstantiation metaphorically. While this has been historically seen as a heretical view, nearly all Catholics are actually heretics if you look at their religious beliefs because nearly all Catholics have no idea about church dogma. This complicates the issue but still leaves the central question of why some people treat substantiation as a plausible idea. The issue is particularly topical right now due to the recent hullabaloo surrounding PZ Myers’ public undertaking to desecrate a communion wafer and the numerous death threats he has received as a result, many of these claiming that attacks on him can be justified as necessary to defend Jesus Christ’s well-being.

Hood’s research seems relevant here because of his focus on the way people value objects for reasons that go beyond their properties – one example he often uses being the disgust we feel toward a jumper we’re told was worn by a mass-murderer.