0

According to modern physics, all physical things are reducible to atoms, and that's all they are.

In the doctrine of transubstantiation, the piece of bread's substance is transformed into Jesus, while its accidents remain the bread. If the accidents are the atoms, then this implies there is more to the bread, i.e. its 'substance', than just the atoms, and this substance is changed. If this is true, then is modern physics wrong, and there is something more to what bread is than just the atoms it is made of? Additionally, what is this 'more' thing if we were to remove all the atoms from the bread, what would be left that provides the substance of the bread? Alternatively, if the atoms constitute the entirety of the bread, then what changes about the bread during the Eucharist?

UPDATE: I've asked a related question in the philosophy stackexchange. I'm not sure if I should close this question in the Christianity SE, since it has a couple answers.

17

4 Answers 4

1

Does modern physics contradict transubstantiation?

No. Why? Well, because...

According to modern physics, all physical things are reducible to atoms, and that's all they are.

...this is a philosophical assumption (commonly known as Philosophical Materialism) that cannot be proven scientifically. And, according to many Christians and even a number of scientists, it's wrong. Note that this assumption also a priori excludes God. Therefore, if God exists (and there is every reason to believe He does), then this assertion is false. Indeed, if consciousness cannot be reduced to material causes (as we have thus far failed to do), it is false.

So your question is based entirely on a specious assumption.

Noow, if your definition of "modern physics" is "materialism" (which, sadly, is the case for a great many "scientists"), then yes, it contradicts transubstantiation. But it does so by definition and by philosophy, not by evidence.

4
  • I think it is a bit more complicated. Modern physics says that all physical objects are just a collection of some smallest physical unit: atoms, quantum wavefunctions, etc. If correct, then if we remove all those smallest units, there would be nothing left of the physical object. On the other hand, if the theory of substances is correct, then even with all those smallest units removed, something would remain of the physical object which we call the substance. So, this is more than just a philosophical assumption, since it has physical ramifications.
    – yters
    Sep 25 at 1:59
  • 1
    @yters, correct in the sense that either hypothesis has non-physical consequences if correct. But that wasn't what I said; the assertion that there is nothing non-material is philosophical. It is justified on philosophical grounds, not on evidentiary grounds. Many would say the evidence is against that hypothesis.
    – Matthew
    Sep 25 at 2:22
  • I still think there are potentially evidentiary grounds one way or another. Say the substance view was correct. The substance can still do something. Take the Eucharist. The substance is supposed to be an efficient cause, and remove venial sins from the consumer who is in a state of grace. Additionally, only transubstantiated hosts are capable of miraculously transforming into the accidents of Jesus flesh and blood, supposedly complete with Jesus' DNA. Not to say any of that is true, but just to make the point that the theory of substances could have testable ramifications.
    – yters
    Sep 25 at 2:57
  • @yters, "DNA"? — Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says "the outward characteristics of bread and wine, that is the “eucharistic species”, remain unaltered". I.e. there is no detectable physical change in the bread or wine. Sep 25 at 3:59
0

A big cause for confusion is the traditional use of the words "substance" and "accident", whose common English meanings are opposite to how they are used when describing transubstantiation.

The official terms are:

  • "substance": what is the essential quality of the object.
  • "accident": what just happens to be an irrelevant attribute of the object.

Here, the word "substance" does not mean what the object is made out of. A better word would be "essence" (i.e. what is essential).

Consider that, after being transformed, what is essential is that the object is now a leg, a part of a table, and what is accident is that it happens to be made of wood. It would still be a leg even if it were made of plastic or metal.

Similarly in transubstantiation, after being transformed, what is essential is that the object is now part of Christ's body, and what is accident is that it happens to be made of bread.

Just as physics has nothing to say about the transformation of a tree into part of a table, it also has nothing to say about the transformation of a piece of bread into part of Christ.

Transubstantiation is entirely spiritual, not physical, so no laws of physics are involved.

8
  • 1
    "transformation of a piece of bread into part of Christ" No. Transubstantiation replaces the substance of bread with that of Christ Himself, whole and entire.
    – Geremia
    Sep 25 at 0:39
  • 1
    "Transubstantiation is entirely spiritual, not physical, so no laws of physics are involved." No. Christ is truly, really, physically present, in his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.
    – Geremia
    Sep 25 at 0:40
  • @Geremia says "replaces the substance of bread … whole and entire". Are you using "substance" in the modern sense of what something is physically made of? If so, are you saying that after the transformation the host is safe to consume by people with celiac disease? Sep 25 at 0:56
  • @RayButterworth would Aristotle say 'table' is the substance of the thing that has the wooden legs? I think he instead says 'table' is an artificial thing, not a substance. It gets back to my original question, since the issue is modern physics says a physical thing is just a composite of a bunch of units. If true, then the essence of the physical thing is just the collection of those units. However, bread is not just water and flour, since it transforms into first dough, and when heated it hardens into bread. Maybe baking contradicts modern physics.
    – yters
    Sep 25 at 1:20
  • 1
    @RayButterworth "what something is made of" is its matter (material cause). A substance is something that exists in itself (like an apple). An accident is something that exists in another (like redness in a red apple).
    – Geremia
    Sep 25 at 1:52
0

There is quite a bit of literature on this subject. One approach is to admit that the Aristotelian categories adopted by the Church to describe transubstantiation do seem to contradict Newtonian physics, but Quantum physics has rendered the debate moot. Father Michael Kelly, the Jesuit CEO of the Asian Catholic news agency UCA News writes:

Regrettably, all too frequently, the only Presence focused on is Christ’s presence in the elements of bread and wine. Inadequately described as the change of the ‘substance’ (not the ‘accidents’) of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, the mystery of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist carries the intellectual baggage of a physics no one accepts. Aristotelian physics makes such nice, however implausible and now unintelligible, distinctions. They are meaningless in the post-Newtonian world of quantum physics, which is the scientific context we live in today.

Deacon Steven D. Greydanus goes a step further:

A tesseract or wormhole warps space-time to bridge the distance between two locations that are far apart within four-dimensional space. The Eucharist does something similar, except that instead of two spatial locations, it bridges the infinite distance between Earth and Heaven; what it makes present is not the other side of the galaxy, but Christ in Heaven

However, Deacon Greydanus also warns:

Science reveals a world that exceeds the bounds of human experience, comprehension, and imagination. We cannot form an accurate imaginative picture of the world of quantum mechanics, any more than we can form an accurate imaginative picture of the body and blood of Christ being present under the appearances of bread and wine. Yet quantum theory allows us to make true statements about the unimaginable world of quantum physics and to avoid certain false ideas — and theology does something similar in regard to mysteries of faith.

In the end, for those who believe in the Real Presence, it is not a question of one contradicting each other. It has always been been a Mystery of Faith. On the other hand, who knows if the day is coming when Quantum physics well enable the faithful to "know," as well as to "believe."

4
  • Note, my question is more general than just transubstantiation. The doctrine presumes the prior concept of 'substance', which seems to be entirely absent from modern physics. Modern physics says a physical object is entirely reducible to the lowest level physical thing, whether that be atoms or quantum waveforms. Substituting the quantum waveforms for the atoms, I would still have the same question. Is the wafer just the waveforms, and do those waveforms somehow change during transubstantiation? Or is there still an extra thing besides the waveforms called 'substance' that the wafer has?
    – yters
    Sep 25 at 0:11
  • 1
    Yes... the concept of substance is central in this. Sep 25 at 0:22
  • In that case, I think you are basically saying our understanding of quantum physics is so little at this point that there is room for Aristotelian substances to play a role? I don't think that quite makes sense, because while it's hard to conceptualize quantum physics, it still seems to be clear that all physical things reduce to 'wavefunctions', which are a bunch of individual things and not a composite 'substance'. So, quantum physics still contradicts Aristotelianism and transubstantiation.
    – yters
    Sep 25 at 0:53
  • 1
    My answer is based on a working knowledge of theology, not physics. Sorry. but I have to plead ignorance here. Sep 25 at 2:06
0

NO, modern Physics restricts itself to the physical because it must. To say that that is all there is is to go beyond Physics. Transubstantiation is in no way a basis for Catholic teaching, but rather the opposite. It is showing that the Faith is not irrational by showing that it does not violate mainstream metaphysics.

The brilliant convert Catholic philosopher G E M Anscombe might put you at ease by this piece was written about her little child and the Eucharist https://archive.secondspring.co.uk/articles/anscombe.htm

1
  • If I could understand it, maybe it'd put me at ease! Too brilliant for my mind. At any rate, I'm not uneasy. It does seem transubstantiation contradicts modern physics, which means modern physics is wrong.
    – yters
    Oct 3 at 17:25

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .