Have your kids ever peppered your phone’s intelligent personal assistant with random questions? Mine do all the time. It’s a lot a fun when we do it together—the kids get a kick out of it, especially when they start asking potty questions.
Just last night we were having fun asking Siri a variety of questions, and I told my children to ask, “Are you male or female?” to which Siri responded, “I don’t think that really matters.”
I acknowledge that Siri is correct, since artificial intelligences don’t have sexed bodies. But her answer does give us something to consider, since it’s the mantra of the modern transgender movement. Let’s think this argument through.
Advocates of transgenderism argue that our sexed bodies have nothing to do with our personal identity, which is why they think it’s possible that a person’s identity as male or female doesn’t have to be in conformity with his or her biological sex. If a person thinks such disharmony exists, they argue, then he or she should be able to harmonize it by conforming to his or her desired identity.
It’s a form of dualism, and the idea is not unprecedented. It dates back as early as the writings of Plato and became predominant in modern philosophy with the writings of the seventeenth-century philosopher Renes Descartes. Descartes made this view so popular that it is now known by his name: Cartesian dualism.
Descartes taught that the human person is divided into two separate substances: a mental substance (the soul—res cogitans) and a corporeal substance (the body—res extensa). For Descartes, the substance that constitutes who you are as a person is the res cogitans—“the thinking self.” And rather than the body being essential to a person’s identity, as understood in the views of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, it is merely accidental (not belonging to the essence). For Descartes, the body is merely a machine in which the soul exists as a ghost—hence the phrase “ghost in the machine.”
Constructing your argument
Cartesian anthropology has seeped into the well of our culture, so to speak. Since transgenderism—which holds that a person’s sexed body is separate from the person—entails Cartesian dualism (the body is separate from the person), we have to ask, “Is Cartesian dualism true?” If Cartesian dualism is not true, then transgenderism is also not true.
Following the lead of philosopher Scott Sullivan, in his recent book Why Transgenderism is Wrong: A Critique of the Philosophical Assumptions Behind Modern Transgender Theory, we can construct the following syllogism:
P1: If transgenderism is true, then Cartesian dualism is true.
P2: Cartesian dualism is false.
Therefore, transgenderism is false.
I will focus on premise two, and to do that I’ll give two arguments that favor the view that the body is not separate from a person’s identity.
From the inside
The first is from the inside. Notice that as you read this article you sense the words on the screen and at the same time you understand their meaning (unless, of course, I haven’t expressed myself clearly enough). It’s not as if you understand the words but only your body sees the words. In the technical jargon, there is one subject of action, you, who both sees and thinks.
It is this fact of human experience that led St. Thomas Aquinas to conclude that the body is not separate from a person but is essential:
It is one and the same man who is conscious both that he understands and that he senses. But one cannot sense without a body: therefore, the body must be some part of man (Summa Theologiae, I:76:1).
If you are reading the words on the screen and sensing the words involves the body, then it necessarily follows that your body is not separate from you—like a car is separate from a driver—but your body with its biological design is you. In other words, the body that allows you to sense the words is essential to your identity as a human person, along with your rational soul that enables you to understand the meaning of the words. You are not your soul alone, nor are you your body alone, but you are both body and soul. Philosophers call this view hylemorphism (Greek, hyle, “matter”; morphe, “form”).
From the outside
The second argument is metaphysical—it takes a third-person point of view by looking at the relation between the body and soul. On a basic level, the soul is that which makes a thing living (ST I-II:75:1). This is the distinguishing factor between animate and inanimate beings.
But as we inquire further, we discover that the soul also makes a living thing the kind of living thing it is with its unique powers. If the soul of a living thing is its vital principle, which it is, then it necessarily follows that the soul is also the principle of that thing’s vital activities. And since it is obvious that there are different living things with different types of activities, then there must be different types of souls.
For example, plants take in nutrients, grow, and reproduce but do not have the powers of sensation and locomotion like animals. Therefore, plants must have a different kind of soul than animals. This is a vegetative or nutritive soul. Non-rational animals have the powers of sensation and locomotion, along with all the vegetative powers, but do not have rational powers—namely, intellect and will.
So not only do non-rational animals have a different soul than plants, they have a different kind of soul than humans. This is a sensory soul. Human beings stand at the pinnacle of living organisms, embodying all the powers of the vegetative and sensory souls plus their distinct powers of intellect and will. Philosophers call this kind of soul a rational soul.
Now, just like the vegetative soul is the principle of all the powers of plants, and the sensory soul is the principle of all the powers of animals, the rational soul is the principle of all human powers: vegetative, sensitive, and rational (ST I:76:1). As Aquinas concludes, since the vegetative and sensitive powers belong to the human body, and the rational soul is the principle of those bodily powers, the soul is the “form” of the body (ST I:76:1).
What this means is that the soul is so united to the body that the two make one substance: a human being. Converse to the idea of Cartesian dualism, humans are not a “ghost in a machine.” Both your soul and your body make up who you are as a human being.
Our sexed bodies do matter
If my body and soul together make up the one substance that I am, then it necessarily follows that my male body together with my soul makes me who I am. My male body is not an accident to my personal identity that I can change like my hair color (that is, if I had hair). My male body is essential to who I am as an individual human person.
Although we can excuse Siri for dodging the male-female question, we cannot do so for embodied real intelligences—namely, human beings. Genesis 1:27 was right all along: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
This article was originally published on August 7, 2017 at www.catholic.com.