In this post I will explain two catholic theological concepts using terminology from modern science. This is not an argument for the validity of these concepts, so much as an attempt to bridge a gap between two groups of people in my life who believe in the Truth with a capital T.
Mass: a Celebration of Binding Energy
The Catholic church service is called a “mass”. The reasoning behind this term is historic, and I won’t go into that, but there is actually something in common with the physical notion of mass: binding energy.
If you take an electron and a proton just by themselves, and you add up their mass, you will get a value that is less than the mass of a hydrogen atom, which consists of a single proton and a single electron, bound together. The difference in mass is called the ‘Binding Energy Mass’ – and it’s equal to the energy it takes to break that bond, divided by the speed of light, squared. You know, E = mc2 ? That’s what that means. Nuclear fission, which splits atoms apart, leads to atomic nuclei which have total mass less than the original nucleus – that ‘lost mass’ is a result of the binding energy being converted to heat.
And so, in a nutshell, what this means is that atomic nuclei are “more than the sum of their parts” – just as, in the celebration of mass, the community of the church is reminding itself that when we work together, we are more than the sum of the individual people in our group.
I am married to a wonderful woman, and the capabilities of our partnership are greater than if you added up what we are capable of, individually. It as if the energy that binds us aids our ability to sustain momentum. If we were to break apart, that extra energy would cause damage to the relationships of people around us, and it would put additional stress on them, possibly breaking their relationships as well.
In this sense, then a nuclear reaction – which consist of nuclei splitting apart, and the resulting release of energy breaking other nuclei – could be seen as roughly analogous to a social breakdown where different groups that had high levels of internal trust fractured apart, with the resulting conflict breaking down other groups.
Transubstantiation: a Polynomial Time Transformation
Transubstantiation is the process by which the unconsecrated bread and wine transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Transubstantiation is a core part of catholic theology. The belief that these formerly mundane objects have become in reality and not just symbolically the body of a man who lived long ago is subjected to a lot of ridicule and often dismissed.
I think a great metaphor here comes from computer science – the notion of the Polynomial Time Transformation. The theology behind transubstantiation is that “what our senses see stays the same, but the underlying reality changes.” This theology here suggests that there is a mapping that occurs, from reality, through the senses, to our perception – and that the layer of the mapping between reality and the senses is subject to change. It suggests that you could be holding something that feels hard, but the actual reality of the hard thing could change, while your sensory input would stay the same, as if your senses only showed you a shadow of reality.
The metaphor i wish to draw here comes from theoretical computer science, which is really the study of “problems” and how hard they are to solve. A polynomial time transformation is a way of turning one problem into another. For example, consider the following two problems: picking even teams, and packing objects into boxes. In the first problem, there is a set of 100 people who want to play a game. Each player has a ‘skill number’, and our goal is to divide these two sets of players into two teams, so that the ‘total skill’ of each team is the same. In the second problem, there is a set of 100 objects, and we have a number of fixed-size boxes to pack these objects into – we want pack those objets into as few boxes as possible.
I won’t go into the details here, but it’s a well used technique in Computer Science theory to show that ‘two problems are equally difficult’ if a solution to one problem could be used to solve a different problem. In the example I’ve given above, it’s possible to take a program which packs objects into boxes efficiently, and use that same program to assign people to equally-skilled teams. We’d describe the teams themselves as boxes, and instead of “people with different skill sizes”, we’d describe them as “packages of different size”. There’d be some other bookkeeping and mathematical tricks we’d need, but we could set it up so that, to the system packing boxes, there’s no way it can tell that it’s actually assigning people to teams.
I believe that mapping process – which takes one set of inputs, and transforms it to something different – is at work in our consciousnesses; we take raw reality, which is far too complex for our minds to understand, and map it into symbols and objects; things we call people, houses, trees, cars, places, times, situations – and choices.
So then, the claim that transubstantiation is “a change in reality that looks the same to our senses”, is, to me, a claim that our subconscious mapping process changes, and shows us a different portion of underlying reality, one that appears the same to our external senses, but one in which we are in communion with each other, one in which we are imbued with grace and love.
Imagine that software system above, packing objects into boxes, while it’s working on one team. If someone constructs a different way of mapping teams to boxes, and back, and this different perspective applied to a different set of players leads to the same set of boxes, the box-mapping algorithm can keep doing its thing, not realizing it is now working on a different problem.
Sin: Error in Perception
This last portion here is a bit harder to express. Some buddhist terminology will help. The catholic notion of sin comes from the same term in archery, and it literally means ‘missing the mark’ – shooting somewhere other than the bullseye. So, consider an archer who aims for the bullseye, and misses. Let’s say the bullseye was ‘an attacker who aimed to harm the archer’s family’ – that miss has real consequences. What accounts for this sin? What is the cause?
A Catholic might say that the archer failed to practice enough. By practicing sufficiently, the archer would have hit the mark. The archer’s lack of practice was a sin, because he must have prioritized other things above protecting his family.
A buddhist might use a word like karma– but that just means ’cause’. The cause, a buddhist would say, was illusion. The archer did hit a target – but it was not the target that he aimed for; it was the ‘correct target’ in a parallel universe, perhaps, where the priorities the archer put ahead of practicing his shooting were more important than the shooting itself. In other words; the archer was under the illusion that other things were more important than practicing archery, and that this illusion is the cause of the archer’s suffering.
When we perceive the present moment, unmediated through conceptual thought, we are closer to reality than when we map it through the past, and filter it through the social constructs we used to communicate to each other. The transformation scheme is less complex, and less faulty.
I’d like to extend this essay further with the notion of the multiverse, but it’s gotten long already. What do you think?