About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, August 29, 2005

The case of the Catholic cannibal

I'm reading Martin Cohen's "Wittgenstein's Beetle, and Other Classic Thought Experiments," a lively little book that I recommend for a rainy afternoon, or a long flight.

Anyway, one of the thought experiments concerns the consequences of considering a Catholic cannibal, and was originally advanced by Thomas Aquinas in his "Summa Contra Gentiles." The problem is this: if the cannibal eats only human flesh, every physical part of his body "belongs" to someone else; if so, what happens to the latter person, as well as the cannibal, when the end of time comes, and -- according to most Christians -- there will be a bodily resurrection of everyone (including the damned, since they need a body to enjoy the torments of Hell)?

Indeed, as Cohen points out, this is a serious problem because it isn't limited to the rather extreme case of cannibals. Since we now know (while Aquinas didn't) that human beings are part of the complex terrestrial ecosystem, all our bodies are in fact made of "recycled" materials, many of which have passed through other people's bodies before!

Aquinas "solved" the problem by stating that the resurrection of the body doesn't depend on bodily matter, but this surely opens the way to even more theological trouble (what kind of "body" would we then have at resurrection? Made of what? And why bother with a body if it isn't the original thing?). Origen suggested that perhaps we can have our resurrection and eat it too, so to speak, because what we need is a body with the exact same structure, not one made of the same particles. This is possible because Origen espouses the Socratic-Platonic view that the soul's existence is independent of the body. But the third member of the original philosophical "dream team," Aristotle (a student of Plato, who in turn was a student of Socrates), rejected this possibility -- essentially agreeing with most modern philosophers of mind who stick to the "no ectoplasm" clause: whatever consciousness (the modern term for soul?) is, no body/brain means no consciousness. After all, when was the last time you saw a disembodied soul walking around? Or do we have to wait until resurrection time for that?


  1. What about a person with a transplanted heart? Does he get his sick heart back after he is resurrected?

  2. The comment "After all, when was the last time you saw a disembodied soul walking around?" seems like a cheap shot, especially since such things are often neither expected to walk nor be visible.

  3. C'mon, J.J, a bit of sense of humor, no? :-)

  4. As a former Catholic (who was pretty devout, back in the day), I also have some questions regarding the interaction of physical and spiritual properties in transubstantiation.

    Supposedly, the whole substance of the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, without the physical characteristics changing. And each tiny crumb or drop of the transubstantiated species is allegedly the body, blood, soul & divinity of Jesus Christ. But when the physical characteristics of the sacred species cease to be those of bread or wine, then supposedly they are no longer the body...etc. of Jesus, either.

    But bread and wines are mixtures. There are no bread or wine atoms or molecules. So how small does a consecrated crumb or droplet have to be before it stops being Jesus? If you were to (god forbid) accidentally vomit up a half-digested transubstantiated wafer, does it still have the "substance" of Jesus? And if it does, what do you then do with it? And what about indigestible particles in the communion wafer? My old church uses whole-wheat flour in the communion wafers for mass, so it's not an unheard of practice.

    Sorry if this reads like really recondite and esoteric stuff. But it was questions like these that led me out of Catholicism.

  5. Ah Questions, questions! It only takes a few honest questions, informed by a critical mind, and Whoops! - all the religions in the world and their dogmas are suddenly seen for what they really are: products of primitive minds adopted by cleverer minds for control and manipulation.

  6. Yeah, the more I thought about it, the more the transubstantiation thing just didn't add up.

    Same deal with the three-equal-persons-in-one-God doctrine of the trinity. And why Jesus had to sacrifice himself to redeem humanity. God supposedly had to sacrifice himself to himself to satisfy his own infinite need for justice. To make reparation for the infinite slight he supposedly received from finite beings in the Garden of Eden. Hmmm.

    Of course, when I raised questions like these at my Catholic school, I was just told that these are all Divine mysteries beyond human understanding.

    IIRC, the trans. idea is based on aristotelian philosophical principles that the "nature" of something -- its substance, what it really is -- can differ from its "accidents" (discernible characteristics).

    As an aside, it's things like this that make me question the ultimate usefulness of philosophy. What good is there in painstakingly assembling some metaphysical theory when empirical evidence can blow it out of the water a few centuries later? (No offense, M, just my own opinion.)


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