One Way to Debunk Transgender Philosophy

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.

Two “-isms” 

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.

4 comments

  1. It’s been years (OK, decades) since philosophy class, so please pardon any roughness. In your article on rethinking transgenderism, you refer to car and driver as completely separate, unlike body and soul. Yet is not the driver merely a person without something to drive? Is not the car by its very nature meant to be driven, and otherwise a very expensive planter box that never is used for its designed purpose?

    I have no expectation of that fitting neatly if at all into the arguments as presented. Just a random musing while trying to, as my professor used to say, accept the philosopher’s invitation to think with him.

    Enjoyable article, by the way! Be blessed, and keep up the good work.

    1. Hey Bill, I think I can see what you’re getting at. It seems that you trying to say that as a driver is to a car the soul is to the body in the sense that the car is meant to be driven just as the body is meant to be animated by a soul. While I agree that the body is meant to be animated by a soul, I don’t think the analogy with the car and its driver works, precisely because the car and the driver are two separate substances. The car can exists on its own without the driver and still be a car. Whereas the human body cannot exist on its own without the soul and still be a human body. Without the soul, the human body becomes a corpse, something substantially different. I hope that helps.

  2. I have learnt a lot from you and I follow you with great interest and inspiration. However, this is the first time I don’t agree with the way you try to debunk an idea. Transgenders don’t base their beliefs of gender on dualism and the evidence for that is the simple fact that they want to reconcile their “body’s” gender with their “mental” gender. If it was a dualistic belief, they would go on happy by having one body and a mind with different genders. Also, although I know that dualism is a specific sense has been the cause of heresies, I don’t that Christian theology is absolutely contrasting with some level of dualism. For instance, Jesus teaches us that our body is our temple. I understand by that, the capsule, the shelter of our soul. We can’t run the risk of thinking we “are” the temple, but we should know that the temple is a material creation of God to host our souls. Also, the idea that we are dust and to dust we will return also speaks to the fact that the body is transient and, in that sense, contrasting (or dual) to the everlasting, eternal life that our souls in Heaven will hopefully encounter. These are just some quick thoughts. In sum, the departing point of dualism as a means to deconstruct transgender beliefs doesn’t seem the fittest one, and the idea of dualism seems a little simplified in your argument. Christ’s peace be with you

    1. Hey Luis, thanks for your comments. I agree that transgenders don’t explicitly base their beliefs on Cartesian dualism, but I do think Cartesian dualism underlies their view of themselves as human beings. Their action to conform their external appearance, whether it be simply with clothing or their physiological makeup, to their desired identity testifies to this fact. I would say that this behavior implicitly affirms the Catholic view of the human person, namely that we are a body-soul composite. Deep down they desire for harmony to exists between the external and the internal. With regard to your comments concerning Christian theology and dualism, I do affirm a sort of dualism, namely hylomorphic dualism. This is why in my article I emphasized Cartesian dualism as underlying the modern views of the human person. On the classical and Catholic view, the soul and the body are distinct principles of the one substance that a human being is, but yet the soul and the body are not distinct substances in themselves. The human being is one substance with a body and soul.The soul does live when a human person dies, but it is an incomplete substance precisely because by its nature it is ordered toward animating the body that came into existence with. This is why Christianity teaches that absolute human perfection is not had until the reunification of the body and the soul in the glorious resurrection at the end of time.

Have any thoughts? Let me know!