St Thomas, Meet the Large Hadron Collider

Thomas Aquinas, in describing what would eventually become the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, said, “The body of Christ is here [in the Sacrament] as if it were just substance, that is, in the way that substance is under its dimensions, and not in any dimensive way” (Summa Theologica, 3:76:3 – Blackfriars Ed.). That’s an odd sentence. What he’s saying is that Christ’s body and blood are really, actually, and substantially in the host, but they have no dimensions, so no matter how hard you try, you’ll never actually find pieces of body or blood because they’re dimensionless.When I learned about this in seminary I found the idea of something being actually there, but without dimensions, to be absurd. I dismissed it as a bit of Medieval sophistry.

I am currently re-reading George Hunsinger’s book, The Eucharist and Ecumenism and ran across the Aquinas quote again (on p. 24). A couple of days ago I completed Lisa Randall’s slim volume, The Higgs Discovery. In that book I learned that the Higgs Field is material, but it is dimensionless, so it is not directly observable. The existence of the Higgs Field can only be noted when some particle interacts with it and a Higgs particle, with actual mass and dimensions, pops into existence for a few moments until it decays and the particle’s energy is absorbed back into the Higgs Field.

When Lisa Randall explained it, the possibility of dimensionless material that is spread throughout space made quite a bit of sense. Today, I see Thomas’ definition once again and realize that it’s no more absurd than Lisa Randall and all the fine scientists at CERN and the Large Hadron Collider studying the Higgs Field.

So who knows, maybe Thomas Aquinas was on to something. Or maybe Lisa Randall is a closet Thomist. Or maybe the whole lot of us are simply barking mad. (But I jest.)

Actually, now that I reread Thomas, I find his concept of dimensionless but substantial presence to not be any more wonderfully weird than modern particle physics. I just needed someone with a world view and language set that is more familiar to me than the 12th century European setting of Thomas to explain how something as strange as dimensionless matter (or dimensionless substance) actually makes sense.

And for that I’m thankful.


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