Saturday, June 13, 2020

Locke’s “transubstantiation” of the self

Locke’s agnosticism about substance led him to treat the self as essentially a bundle of attributes.  Given his empiricism, he takes it that the most we can say of a substance – whether material or immaterial – is that it is a “something, I know not what” that underlies attributes.  And that is too thin a conception to lend confidence to the thesis that the self qua substance can survive death and be rewarded or punished in the afterlife.  What to do?  Locke’s solution was to ignore substance as beside the point.  What matters for Locke is that one’s consciousness, and in particular one’s memories, can carry over after the death of the body, whether or not there is a soul for them to inhere in.

That’s the point of his famous “prince and cobbler” thought experiment.  We’re asked to imagine a prince and a lowly cobbler each falling asleep one night and then awakening the following morning to find himself in the other’s body, Freaky Friday style (or Vice Versa style, for you Judge Reinhold fans).  This is at least theoretically possible – so Locke claims – and that possibility suffices to show, he argues, that being the same person over time does not entail having the same body over time.

But neither, he thinks, does it entail having the same soul over time.  For just as your consciousness can jump from body to body, so too, he argues, could it jump from soul to soul.  He famously suggests that, for all you know, the soul that currently underlies your consciousness might once have belonged to Socrates.  If the contents of your consciousness are like pins, then substance is like the pincushion in which they inhere.  Now they are in this material pincushion (the prince’s body), now in another (the cobbler’s).  Now they are in this immaterial pincushion (the soul you had yesterday), now they are in another (the soul Socrates was using centuries ago).  But really, it is only the pins that matter.  They, as a bundle, are you, and it doesn’t matter what pincushion, or even what kind of pincushion, they happen to be stuck in at any particular moment.

Coupled with the thesis that the mind is a kind of software, we have the basis for all those familiar thought experiments from science fiction – and, more recently, from pop “science” of the “transhumanist” sort – about people’s minds being downloaded into new bodies or uploaded into virtual reality worlds, puzzles about what would happen if a teleportation accident led to it being downloaded into two new bodies, and other gee-whiz head scratchers. 

It’s all complete nonsense.  For one thing, the mind is not software, though that’s not my topic here.  For another, Locke’s thinking is completely muddled.  (Par for the course with Locke.) 

To see what’s wrong with it, consider a parallel example.  Consider two bananas, which we’ll label A and B.  On Monday night, A is dark green and B is bright yellow.  Tuesday morning, lo and behold, A has exactly the same bright yellow appearance that B had had the night before, and B has exactly the same dark green appearance that A had had the night before.  What would we say if this happened?

We might suppose that something had rapidly sped up the ripening process in A and somehow reversed it in B.  We might suppose something even weirder had happened, and that the color of each banana had changed for some reason having nothing to do with the ripening process – maybe somebody injected something into each banana in order to change its color, or maybe radiation had affected them in some way, or whatever.

Here’s what I think no one would say: “Maybe the greenness of A somehow jumped into B overnight, and the yellowness of B somehow jumped into A overnight!”  I also don’t think that the sequel would be to propose scenarios where the greenness jumps into two different bananas, leaving us with a “puzzle” of which, if either, is identical with the original greenness possessed by B.  Nor would a “problem of banana identity” industry arise in academic philosophy to supplement the thriving “problem of personal identity” industry that Locke got started.  (Though I’ll be the first to admit that you never really can know for sure these days.)

The reason is obvious.  It simply makes no sense to think of the greenness of B jumping around from substance to substance.  Attributes simply don’t do that sort of thing.  Substances do, because they have a kind of freestanding existence that attributes do not.  That’s why you can throw a banana across the room, but you can’t throw the greenness of the banana across the room.  If you could throw the greenness across the room, then it would be a kind of substance after all.  By the same token, if it could jump from banana A to banana B, it would be a kind of substance after all, and not really an attribute.

But the same thing is true of the memories and other mental phenomena Locke imagines jumping from body to body and soul to soul.  They are attributes, and so they can’t jump from body to body or soul to soul.  End of story, before it begins.  If your shoe repairman starts talking like Chris Sarandon in The Princess Bride and demands to be known as “The Cobbler Formerly Known as Prince,” you can be sure that what has not happened is that Prince Humperdinck’s mind has entered his body.  Though you can be sure that he’s nevertheless lost his own mind.  He’s suffering from some kind of mental illness, that’s all.  Maybe through some preternatural or science fiction-like means, information from the prince’s brain has even made its way into his brain and generated the illusion of a mind-transfer.  But an illusion is all it would be, just as it would merely be an illusion if you thought that the greenness of banana A (that very greenness, and not just something similar to it) had literally made its way into banana B.

In effect, Locke really makes of mental attributes something like a bundle of little substances, so that they can jump from the prince to the cobbler and vice versa.  Which makes the whole thought experiment pointless as well as muddled, since the aim was to avoid having to talk about substance.

But what about transubstantiation?  Isn’t that like what Locke is talking about?  Don’t we have, for example, the prince essentially being transubstantiated, his accidents persisting while the substance of his body is replaced by the substance of the cobbler’s body?

No, we don’t.  In transubstantiation, the accidents of bread and wine persist, but they do not inhere in the body and blood of Christ or in any other substance.  They float free of substance.  This is not possible in the natural order of things, of course, but that’s precisely why transubstantiation is supernatural, possible only by way of a miraculous suspension of the natural order.

Now, Locke evidently thinks of the memories and other mental characteristics of the prince as indeed actually coming to inhere in the body of the cobbler (or perhaps in the cobbler’s soul – part of the point of Locke’s theory is to avoid having to say which).  So, this is not the same as transubstantiation, in the theological sense of that term.

But couldn’t Locke just say that maybe the memories and other mental characteristics don’t after all inhere in any substance, so that transubstantiation might serve as a model for what he has in mind?  No.  Locke is trying to tell us what the nature of a person is.  The proposal in question would make persons entirely supernatural, without any underlying nature for the “super” to build on.  And that makes no sense.  We can make sense of the accidents of bread and wine only as accidents of bread and wine, of some underlying substance, at least in the natural course of things.  There’s already a natural order there that God can go on to suspend when transubstantiation occurs.  He sustains the accidents apart from the natural underlying basis that gives them their identity conditions and makes them otherwise intelligible.

To say that memories and other mental characteristics are accidents that never naturally inhere in any substance would make them unintelligible.  If their natural home is not any kind of substance, then in what sense are they accidents?  Once again, they would end up being little substances in their own right.


  1. Nor would a “problem of banana identity” industry arise in academic philosophy to supplement the thriving “problem of personal identity” industry that Locke got started. (Though I’ll be the first to admit that you never really can know for sure these days.)

    What do these two sentences mean?

    1. He is making a sardonic comment about how the "problem of personal identity" is essentially a manufactured problem, and refers to the fact that nobody would be foolish enough to think that the greenness of Banana A had swapped into Banana B, then make up a "problem of banana identity" to be very impressed by, as they do with Locke. He's comparing Locke's problem to the ridiculous "banana identity" problem because he regards both as equally ridiculous.

  2. Brilliant as usual, Professor.

    I haven't read your book on Locke, but I'm glad to see you mentioning the muddled-ness in his thought.

    As an undergrad, I was subjected to the Leo Straussian "great thinkers" hermeneutic; since Locke was a "great thinker", those moments of apparent contradiction or lack of clarity were REALLY just ways of disguising a deeper, hidden or "esoteric" teaching that only a careful reader with a sufficiently sophisticated mind could grasp.

    Perhaps this was an abuse of what Strauss really meant, but it certainly struck me as a kind of "academic industry" in itself.

    1. I did a search of Ed's blog for "Strauss" and only found some links to other's and a passing reference.

      I'd really be interested in an extended entry on Strauss by Ed because many of us ran in conservative(ish) circles when Strauss and his most famous student Allan Bloom were all the rage and still are to some degree.

      Lots of good came from it it seems. Namely, that it reignited interest in the ancients who are not as obsolete as moderns think they are. And it got me to learn Attic Greek, which I don't use much these days, but is still useful when some anti-Catholic tries to make hay out of "petra" and I can see exactly where he's blowing smoke up everyone's rear.

      But there's also the whole gnostic reading cult thing. I finally ditched when I listened to a lecturer apply a Straussian reading to the Gospel of Matthew and it was like listening to an art critic's comments on a Jackson Pollock painting.

    2. I would be interested too, especially because of one of Strauss's discoveries, esotericism. I tried to publish a comment here a few weeks ago about Arthur Melzer's book Philosophy Between the Lines but for some reason I couldn't do it. I have closed my blog but my email account is valdorta at outlook dot com and I am willing to send my post about the book to anybody here who is interested.

  3. This type of silly thinking takes place today in discussions of AI. Otherwise intelligent people make the most obtuse claims about AI “becoming conscious”. Or they talk about human immortality via “uploading your consciousness”. As if “consciousness” is merely a predictive problem for big data. Then they’ll even argue about it. Oy Vey!

  4. "It simply makes no sense to think of the greenness of B jumping around from substance to substance. Attributes simply don’t do that sort of thing."

    The self still exists when the body dies. Greenness does not exist when the banana is gone.

    You could also think of the Freaky Friday experiment, where there's a Star Trek transporter accident. The daughter's body has its molecular structure reconfigured to that of her mother, and vice versa.

    Freaky Friday situations don't so much involve waking up in each other's bodies as they involve having one's own body deformed to look like another. Face/Off is a better heuristic.

  5. I think Locke position would probably help these that believe in reincarnation, that was the first thing to pop into my mind when i read the Socrates part.

    Now, i agree that acidents can't exist if the substance they are part is not, but would that not mean that God Simplicity do not need to be as absolute as Aquinas defends, at least if we use the neoplatonic proof?

    I believe Vicent made that argument before here, but the reason that The One could not have any parts in the neoplatonic proof is because if He did something besides Him would have to explain what unites these parts(which is impossible, because The One is necessary). If the acidents can't exist on their own, i can't see why they need something to unite they with the substance they are part.

    Of course, there are other arguments about why He can't have acidents, but this one seems not that strong to me, i can be wrong, of course.

  6. "If you could throw the greenness across the room, then it would be a kind of substance after all."

    But then it would follow that if you could throw the whiteness of the consecrated host across the room (and you could, sacrilegious though it would be), then it would be a kind of substance after all too.

    1. How are you going to "throw the whiteness of the consecrated host"?

    2. It would at least have THIS difference from a substance: the whiteness didn't begin as "a being", it began as an attribute OF a being.

      It would be interesting to take a philosophical analysis of the miracle of the fishes and loaves (which miracle was a precursor to the miracle of transubstantiation). For instance, did Christ actually multiply the loaves into more (individual) substances, or did he rather extend the loaves, i.e. add to the quantity of each one so that in effect he kept breaking off a newly added "piece", increased supernaturally to extend the loaf?

    3. @TN:
      Along with the rest of the "bundle of accidents," is what I had in mind (i.e., throw the whole host).

    4. Keep Calm and Carry OnJune 17, 2020 at 4:46 AM

      The whiteness here and the greenness of the banana differ in one important respect though. Namely, in the case of the banana we are assuming no supernatural intervention, hence the impossibility of it being separated from the substance it inheres in.
      On the other hand in STh IIIª q. 77 a. 1 St. Thomas explains how the substanceless persistence of the accidents can be thought without contradiction or violating reason.

      (I apologize for not linking to a translation; one reason is that Freddoso's excellent translation is simply not at that point yet, and in any case I think everyone using a translation will have a preference for one in any case.)

  7. Ed writes:
    "Now, Locke evidently thinks of the memories and other mental characteristics of the prince as indeed actually coming to inhere in the body of the cobbler (or perhaps in the cobbler’s soul – part of the point of Locke’s theory is to avoid having to say which). So, this is not the same as transubstantiation, in the theological sense of that term."

    But perhaps it is more similar than you suggest, since the other accidents of the bread come to inhere in the accident of "dimensive" (spatio-temporal) quantity after transubstantiation. So couldn't Locke say something similar, that all accidents are bundled, in accordance with the divine will (whether naturally or supernaturally -- both orders are rooted in the absolute power of God), simply in terms of/on the basis of the spatio-temporal quantities which serve as the subjects in which they inhere. Transubstantiation does open the door to emphasizing (and also over-emphasizing) the contingency and possible illusoriness of the natural order.

  8. In the transubstantiation of bread and wine in to the body and blood of Jesus Christ, it is their substances that are transformed without any change to their smell, shape, taste etc. Substance is grasped by understanding as against the accidents of their qualities. Therefore, the qualities of a Substance don't have to float around it in transubstantiation. Instead, the understanding of the believer is also transformed in faith that is meant to transform the very nature of the believer as well.

  9. Can Catholics believe that the accidents of bread inhere in Christ after transubstantiation?

    1. No, they inhere in no substance whatsoever, as far as I can tell. This is of course not possible in the ordinary nature of things, but that's the miraculous part.

    2. In addition, I believe that position is technically the heresy of impanation.

    3. The position that JoeD talked about, I meant.

    4. @Cantus,

      But it's not impanation. Impanation says there's no change in the substance of the bread, but that Christ becomes the bread.

      This is different from the substance being Christ alone, but with accidents of bread.

  10. As for the bananas - isn't it possible to peel off each of the skins and replace them with the other, or strip off the color pigments and replace them with the other?

    Thereby achieving the possibility of the greenness of one thing entering into another substance?

    Maybe even say bananas as substances are such that their color pigments have the natural power of moving around and exchanging with that of another banana? If something similar can happen in chemicla reactions, couldn't it happen with color?

    And therefore attributes of consciousness?

    1. Suppose i somehow take off the paint of a wall and put it on a chair. When i take it off from the wall, is the color of the paint the color of the wall? When i put it on the chair does it make sense to say the color actually is of the wall?

  11. In a related way, too, is the fact that Locke is treating consciousness (and memories, more so) on an indirect realist model as copies of sense qualities inhering in either bodies or souls inside the theater of the mind. When perception is understood to be the immanent activities of powers of soul, the absurdity of numerically identical activities moving between subjects is even more apparent. It is as though we are invited to take seriously the possibility that the numerically singular ringing of bell X were to be transferred to bell Y without bell y ringing with its own numerically singular ring. Activities are individuated (par excellence) according to the substance whose activities they are.

  12. Doesn't the possibility of transubstantiation make philosophical zombies of a sort conceivable after all? We could have what appears to be a human being in every relevant way, functioning identical to a normal human being right down to intellect and will, but having no underlying substance. Can a person even know if they have a substance and are not just a supernatural free-floating bundle of accidents?

  13. Speaking of mind blather, ever hear of Joscha Bach? It's like listening to a computer program that generates word salad in the postmodern tradition.

  14. If Locke et al were such muddled thinkers, how did they become such luminaries of modern philosophy?

    1. He actually addresses this in The Last Superstition, and presumably in more detail in his book on Locke (though I haven't read that one). From what I can remember, it is basically that Locke's positions are useful to the Enlightenment project, and so are adopted despite their flaws.

  15. It seems somewhat implausible that merely large scale bad faith could elevate Locke and company as the fathers of modern philosophy.
    Thank you for the references. I'll check out my copy of Last Superstition.

    1. That would indeed be surprising. But you don't need bad faith, human weakness suffices. It is much easier to miss a fault in an argument when one likes the conclusion.

  16. Hi Ed,

    You wrote:

    "In transubstantiation, the accidents of bread and wine persist, but they do not inhere in the body and blood of Christ or in any other substance. They float free of substance. This is not possible in the natural order of things, of course, but that’s precisely why transubstantiation is supernatural, possible only by way of a miraculous suspension of the natural order."

    I respectfully disagree.

    1. Actions, according to Aristotle, are accidents.

    2. Bread and wine are substances which act on (and react to) the substances they come in contact with.

    3. Hence bread and wine perform actions. (Red wine, for instance, reflects red light and the alcohol in it evaporates over time. And the starch molecules in bread crystallize when they react with the water molecules in gluten, which is why bread grows stale.)

    4. It is logically impossible for an action to occur without an agent that performs the action in question. (If quacking occurs, then something quacks. And if reflection occurs, then something reflects.)

    5. It is logically impossible for anything but a substance to perform an action. Accidents don't act; things do. Moreover, anything which could act would have to be an agent of some sort, and an agent is by definition a substance.

    6. Since (according to Trent) all of the accidents of bread and wine persist after the Consecration, the actions must persist as well.

    7. Ergo, some substance must be performing those actions, even if it's not the bread or wine.

    8. That substance may be (a) Christ Himself, supernaturally performing the actions formerly performed by the bread and wine or (b) some material substances (e.g. molecules) existing at a lower level of reality than the bread and wine, which [unlike the bread and wine] are still present after the Consecration.

    Theory (a) makes Christ very busy, and entails that He has to create new substances to support the properties of the ethanol molecules which are continually evaporating from the wine; while theory (b) is difficult to square with Trent.

    And that's as far as I can go. Suggestions are welcome.