Philip K. Dick and the Science Fiction of God

Does everyone else know the joke about the cat, the steak, and eating Jesus?

I came late to the Philip K. Dick party.  I suppose I had been vaguely aware of Dick’s work—maybe via Bladerunner—but I was fooled by the ‘science fiction’ label.  I like some scifi, but most of it leaves me pretty cold.

This year, I came across a reference to a posthumous publication of Dick’s unpublished theological rantings, Exegesis.  For someone like me, keenly interested in theological questions but utterly without religion, Dick’s meanderings came as a welcome bar-talk sort of theological seminar.

I picked up some of Dick’s novels.  I started with Valis, the fictionalization of Dick’s Damascus Road experience.   Apparently in real life, Dick experienced a beam of intelligent light.  The beam told him things he could not have known, such as the cause of his son’s vague health complaints.  What was this contact?  God?  LSD?  Psychosis?  Dick’s work seems like a steady stream of fictionalized meditations on all of these possibilities.  As apparently everyone knew but me, the label “science fiction” seems less apt than “theological fiction.”

The theme of divinity, insanity, and the fragility of humanity run through all the novels of the 1960s and 1970s that I’ve been reading this summer.  Here at ILYBYGTH we’ve been wondering lately about the Catholic mystery of transubstantiation.  Here is how Dick wrestled with the issue in his 1965 novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch:

“Anne said, ‘What met Eldritch and entered him, what we’re confronting, is a being superior to ourselves and as you say we can’t judge it or make sense out of what it does or wants; it’s mysterious and beyond us.  But I know you’re wrong, Barney.  Something which stands with empty, open hands is not God.  It’s a creature fashioned by something higher than itself, as we were; God wasn’t fashioned and He isn’t puzzled.’

            “ ‘I felt,’ Barney said, ‘about him a presence of the deity.  It was there.’  Especially in that one moment, he thought, when Eldritch shoved me, tried to make me try. 

            “ ‘Of course,’ Anne agreed.  ‘I thought you understood about that; He’s here inside each of us and in a higher life form such as we’re talking about He would certainly be even more manifest.  But—let me tell you my cat joke.  It’s very short and simple.  A hostess is giving a dinner party and she’s got a lovely five-pound T-bond steak sitting on the sideboard in the kitchen waiting to be cooked while she chats with the guests in the living room—has a few drinks and whatnot.  But then she excuses herself to go into the kitchen to cook the steak—and it’s gone.  And there’s the family cat, in the corner, sedately washing its face.’

            “ ‘The cat got the steak,’ Barney said.

            “ ‘Did it?  The guests are called in; they argue about it.  The steak is gone, all five pounds of it; there sits the cat, looking well-fed and cheerful.  “Weigh the cat,” someone says.  They’ve had a few drinks; it looks like a good idea.  So they go into the bathroom and weigh the cat on the scales.  It reads exactly five pounds.  They all perceive the reading and one guest says, “Okay, that’s it.  There’s the steak.” They’re satisfied that they know what happened, now; they’ve got empirical proof.  Then a qualm comes to one of them and he says, puzzled, “But where’s the cat?”

            “ ‘I heard that joke before,’ Barney said.  ‘And anyhow I don’t see its application.’

            “Anne said, ‘That joke poses the finest distillation of the problem of ontology every invented.  If you ponder it long enough—’

            “ ‘Hell,’ he said angrily, ‘it’s five pounds of cat; it’s nonsense—there’s no steak if the scale shows five pounds.’

            “ ‘Remember the wine and the wafer,’ Anne said quietly.

            “He stared at her.  The idea, for a moment, seemed to come through.”

Get it?  I’m not sure I do.  But, then, I’m not sure I really know what the entire business of transubstantiation is all about.  Maybe it only makes sense if we are settlers on Mars.



Transubstantiation: Faith, Science, and the Public Square

“Catholics are crazy.”

Why don’t we hear people saying that?  Richard Dawkins accused anyone disbelieving evolution of being “ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” Does he accuse Catholics of the same thing?  Or why don’t we hear skeptics comparing the Catholic liturgy to a Flying Spaghetti Monster?

After all, one of the central features of Catholic liturgical tradition and theology is at least as radically anti-science as any kind of young-earth creationism.  But nobody seems to mind.

For purposes of full disclosure, I must note: I’m a big fan of Catholicism.  As the saying goes, ‘Some of my best friends . . .”  But even close friends must acknowledge the elephant at the altar, the rigid anti-science that lurks uncomfortably at the heart of the Catholic Eucharist.

We’re talking here about the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.  In Catholic doctrine, when a priest completes a special ceremony over bread and wine, the bread and wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ.  Not symbolically, but substantially changed.  Of course, to all outward appearances, the bread and wine maintain their accidental attributes.  The senses, and even the most careful scientific detection, will see/hear/taste them only as bread or wine.  But in substance they have been transformed into the Real Presence, the living body and blood of the Christ.  I’m no theologian, and I invite correction on this subject, but as I understand the doctrine, the substance changes while the accidental outward properties do not.  Thus, for example, my body has two hands.  But the substance of my body does not change if I cut off one hand.  It is still my body, though the accidental properties change.  With the bread and wine, the substance transforms into the actual substance of blood and flesh.  But the accidental properties remain the same.  It will not taste like blood or flesh.  (If it did, I imagine this issue might be a little more controversial.)  It will continue to have all the outward appearances, down to the microscopic level, of bread and wine.  Yet it will not be.

This is a profoundly antiscientific notion at the heart of Catholic belief.  Instead of believing in the clear evidence of their senses, Catholics are supposed to believe that they are eating and drinking real flesh and real blood.  This notion is at least as antiscientific as more controversial doctrines such as young-earth creationism.  After all, creationists are not asked to disbelieve their own senses.  They are not required to contest the scientific measurements of things.  Instead, young-earth creationists are told that they have a superior science worked out, a true science that accords with the version of creation described in the Bible.  Catholics, on the other hand, officially believe that bread tastes like bread, smells like bread, looks like bread, has all the chemical properties of bread, and yet is not bread.  That must be difficult to swallow, pardon the pun.  Yet we don’t hear any complaints against it or attacks upon it from skeptics and anti-fundamentalists.  Why not?

There are two obvious reasons.  First, this doctrine doesn’t impinge on the public sphere the way creationism does.  After all, if it somehow mattered what public schools taught about the nature of bread, wine, and liturgical practice, then we could expect the notion of transubstantiation to become more controversial.  When the nature of the substance of the Eucharist was part of a public debate, as in the time of Martin Luther, then the doctrine of transubstantiation was indeed intensely controversial.  These days, in subjects such as contraception and abortion, where Catholic doctrine impacts public policy, we do hear a great deal about the nature of Catholic belief.  Since the doctrine of transubstantiation remains important only within the religion itself, skeptics may feel no need to challenge its inherent antiscientific nature.  After all, much religious belief is antiscientific.

Second, even many Catholics don’t embrace this doctrine enthusiastically or aggressively.  Catholics are not forced to defend the anti-science of transubstantiation the way creationists are forced to defend their Bible-based anti-science.  Catholics are assumed to agree with this foundational theological premise, but they are not put in a position to defend it publicly.  Allow me to give one example.  At the Catholic Church I attend, during harsh flu seasons parishioners are asked not to drink from the communal chalice if they have symptoms.  That makes great scientific sense, but little liturgical sense.  If the wine had actually been transformed into the substance of Christ’s blood, it doesn’t seem right that the H1N1 virus could attach itself.  Perhaps a Catholic apologist would reply that such things as viruses are only part of the “accidental” features of the wine.  The point here, though, is that to many Catholic parishioners, at least at my church, the transubstantiated blood is still regarded as very similar to wine.

So are Catholics crazy?  Do they cling to anti-scientific notions?  Does the core belief of Catholicism mean that ideas taken on nothing but faith must trump all evidence of the senses?  And if so, why don’t anti-fundamentalists seem to mind?


IS there a creation/evolution culture war?

IS there a creation/evolution culture war?


Is there really a culture war between evolutionists and creationists?  Have you experienced it in your lives?

Some folks have argued that culture war talk is more the figment of politicians’ and journalists’ ambition than actual fact.  Morris Fiorina and his colleagues, for instance, cite survey data that attests to large majorities of Americans identifying themselves as centrists and moderates on religious and cultural issues.  As they argued in their 2004 book Culture War, “The simple truth is that there is no culture war in the United States—no battle for the soul of America rages, at least none that most Americans are aware of.”

Their point is valid.  Lots of Americans feel themselves to be in the middle on divisive issues.  Nevertheless, I think Fiorina
and other culture-war-deniers miss the boat on the big picture.  I think we do suffer from a culture war on the creation/evolution issue, for two main reasons.  First, I see a stark divide between believers of the two camps.  Creationists have a hard time believing that evolutionists truly believe their scheme.  Evolutionists return the favor.  Also, the feelings on both sides of this divide seem ferocious and bitter.  These are the ingredients for a durable and damaging culture war.

I’ve seen these effects in my own work.  As I’ve mentioned in these posts, I am personally an evolutionist.  I believe human life came to its present form through a process of natural selection over millions of years.  As a historian of American conservatism and conservative religion, I’ve given talks to largely evolutionist audiences in which I’ve described the ideology and theology of generations of American anti-evolutionists.  The responses I’ve received from those audiences have convinced me that many evolutionists suffer from a real blind spot in their understanding of creationism and creationists.

For example, after one brief talk about 1920s anti-evolution activism, one evolutionist audience member asked me in all sincerity, “What’s wrong with these people?”  She was earnest and sincere; she could not believe that “these people”—creationists—could really oppose the findings of mainstream science for so long.  (See a related discussion over at the US Intellectual History blog.)  There is no way this woman—a distinguished American academic and specialist in multicultural education—would ever allow herself to refer to any other subcultural group as “these people.”  But in the case of creationists, she did not mind lumping them all together in this condescending and demeaning way.  In her opinion, creationists deserved to be demeaned.

Similarly, evolutionists have often asked me if I think creationists REALLY believe in creation, and if so, how they can be so
dense.  The evidence of evolution, to evolutionists, is so self-evident that any disagreement seems either ignorant or mysterious.

Evolutionists often find themselves stumped by the vast difference between their own understandings of life and those of
creationists.  As a result, many evolutionists assume creationists must be scheming and dishonest.  Even in the pages of this blog, I have been accused of being a “lying creationist” for framing arguments in favor of divine creation.  There is a great deal of bitterness with which some people on each side of this cultural divide regard the others.  So much so that any attempt
to understand the other side is seen as stark treason, a punishable offense.

Perhaps my sense of uncertainty developed from my long exposure to other intelligent people who were serious about their religious beliefs.  For a long time I worked in Catholic schools, with a faculty that included lay Catholic and Jesuit
teachers.  Many of the serious Catholics seriously believed in transubstantiation.  They believed that a wafer and a jug of wine could really transform into the body and blood of Christ.  They believed that such things happened commonly, every time there was a Mass, all over the world.

I cannot get my head around that kind of miraculous belief.  I firmly believe that a scientific diagnosis of the wine after it had been supposedly transformed would still show the same chemical makeup that it showed before.  Yet such conclusive proof would not convince my former colleagues.  They might even agree with me that chemical tests had proven that wafers were still chemically wafers and wine was still chemically wine.  And yet they would also believe that they were not.  The wafer and wine had actually become flesh and blood, no matter what the chemical tests may show.  How could my Catholic colleagues believe that?  They were well read and intelligent.  They were good people.  Many had dedicated their careers and lives to
helping others instead of getting themselves ahead.  Yet they believed in this unlikely miracle of transubstantiation.

How?  I don’t know.
But I do respect them as intelligent people and I guess that my inability to believe might be a weakness on my part rather than on theirs.  I can’t help but see their belief as an authentic understanding of the world that differs starkly from my own.  Perhaps the same could be true for those who believe in other ideas that seem outlandish to me?

Have my experiences been unusual?  Have other people interested in the creation/evolution debate had similar experiences?  Those of you who are creationists, have you experienced a wide divide from evolutionists?  Have you seen or felt bitterness and anger toward the other side?  How about evolutionists?  Have you had a difficult experience with a creationist?  One in which he or she would simply not listen to reason?  Or, even worse, one in which he or she lied or acted dishonestly in order to promote creationism?


FURTHER READING: Morris P. Fiorina, with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope, Culture War?  The Myth of a Polarized America (New York: Pearson Longman, 2004).