Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci writes a post at his blog Rationally Speaking regarding the supernatural, and discusses some specifically Catholic ideas in so doing. Now, Pigliucci is also a naturalist (of the philosophical sort; i.e., one who thinks that only the natural exists, not the kind that collects rocks and beetles), and so he also rejects claims of the supernatural. However, he critiques the arguments that some of his fellow naturalists use against belief in the supernatural, citing Richard Dawkins’ arguments against the Virgin Birth of Christ and transubstantiation as specifically poor examples. Pigliucci notes of the so-called “scientific” objection to the doctrine of transubstantiation that it is an argument that would “move no fervent Catholic, nor should it.” Of course, Pigliucci rejects these doctrines as well, and he offers his own objections, which are far more substantial and repectable than the polemical, popular sort of atheistic arguments. This is the sort of intellectual atheism that is respectable in comparison to the sophomoric variety that seems to dominate on the shelves of the science section of the bookstore.
That being said, Pigliucci’s argument against transubstantiation, although he is not trying to lay it out rigorously here, goes fundamentally amiss. If you believe that every aspect of everything that exists is held in existence by God, it surely isn’t strange to accept that God could cause the appearance of a thing to be different than its substantial identity. Pigliucci says that transubstantiation “violates the basic law of identity in logic” by saying that something is not that same something, that brand and wine are flesh and blood. But transubstantiation doesn’t say that; it does not say that the Eucharist is bread and body—it says it is body, period. It does not say we have wine and blood on the altar, it says we have blood, period. No laws of identity are violated. Wine is wine, and blood is blood, and when one becomes the other, the former is gone and the latter comes into being. What is said to be miraculous is not some superposition of identities, but merely the provision of an appearance and an interaction that is miraculously different than the identity, even down to the smallest level. Of course, if the naturalist were to object that this there is no reason to conclude that this strange claim is true, the Catholic would agree, except for authority. This is a “difficult and unacceptable teaching.” Unless you already accept the authority of the Church, then of course there is no reason to think that transubstantiation actually happens. It is a claim that cannot be independently verified, and I wouldn’t expect any non-Catholic to accept it as a stand-alone idea, apart from the question of the Church’s claim to teach truth.
The critic might go on to suggest that the very idea of accepting that some things are entirely other than they seem, through the miraculous power of God, dangerously undermines any confidence in the ability to rationally investigate nature. But again, the miraculous transubstantiation of the Eucharist is not a normal thing. Catholics don’t claim that the sort of thing that happens in transubstantiation happens in the ordinary, everyday world. Indeed, it would be perverse to reason to suggest that God regularly goes about muddling up the connection between things and their appearances. It is only because of the singular, sacramental nature of the Eucharist and its role in the spiritual life that an exception is made in this case, and it is only because of acceptance of the Church’s teaching, and not because of independent investigation, that any Catholic should accept the particular doctrine of the transubstantiation of the Eucharist.
I am also, apropos, more inclined than Pigliucci to give Samuel Johnson the benefit of the doubt with respect to his famous “refutation” of Berkeley. I don’t, in fact, think that with his kick Johnson was attempting to say something much other than what Pigliucci says here—that Berkeley’s scheme may be logically unassailable, but it is also, in the world of stones that may be kicked by any man out on a stroll, unbelievable. I suspect that Johnson was not so much contradicting Boswell as agreeing with him, in his usual eccentric way.
Now it might seem that these two sentiments contradict: acceptance of the “unbelievable” teaching regarding the Eucharist while rejecting Berkeley for similar unbelievability. But the difference is that Berkeley’s doctrine was a universal doctrine about the nature of everything, which did in fact undermine altogether the ability of the mind to get to know the reality around it. On the other hand, the teaching regarding the Eucharist is not about the general nature of metaphysics, but is a particular, miraculous case. Berkeley is unbelievable because his system is divorced from the very sorts of observation from which all rational investigation must begin. The Eucharist, however, follows not from any assertion about the universal nature of things, but from a specific teaching about a specific case, derived from a particular source that is counted as an authority and ordered towards a particular goal, the obtaining of grace in the sacramental life. It does not, like Berkeley, say to the rational investigator, “Nothing is what it seems”; it says instead to the believer, “This one particular gift has been made sublimely and infinitely better.”