Dualism and Gender Identity

Philosophy of mind

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Might it be true that the gender of some people’s souls doesn’t match the sex of their bodies?

In the ever-driven politics of the language of gender, the word “cisgender” has been forged. Without harping on too much about it, it’s a word that, in my view, has been created in part to destabilise the notion of “normal” as far as gender goes, so that what most of us took to be normal until now can be spoken about as simply one condition among the others. To be “cisgender” is to have physical makeup – including chromosomes but especially including sex organs – so that by examining your physical structure, a person can tell whether or not your gender is male or female. In short, your gender matches your body. This is hardly a “condition” as far as most people are concerned. You might think: Ducks look like ducks, cats look like cats, males look like males (if you look closely enough, anyway) and females look like females. Granted, there are cases where body organs are not fully formed, or where people have genetic abnormalities (for example where instead of being XX or XY, a person’s sex chromosomes are XXY). But that is not what is in consideration here.

Being anything other than “cisgender” means that a person cannot tell whether you are male or female just by examining your physical structure. You might be genetically XY and you might have a penis and look in other respects like a man, and yet you might perceive yourself (i.e. you might identify) as female. According to this type of analysis, a person’s gender – their perception of themselves, which is an objective reality about themselves – and their body’s sex are in essence independent. They usually go together (meaning that a person is cisgender) but there is no rule that they should, and sometimes they do not.

There’s a way of analysing all of this which is pretty cynical – and I may as well admit that it’s an analysis that I subscribe to. According to this analysis, there is no reason to automatically privilege a person’s perception of themselves over their bodily reality. Here’s a very simple (simplistic?) description of that cynicism: If you have the body of a human but you perceive yourself as a cat, then we do not say that there’s a mismatch between your body and your true species, we just say that no matter how seriously you take your perception of yourself and no matter how unable you might be to think of yourself any other way, your beliefs and perceptions have simply failed to align with reality. We don’t consider species reassignment surgery for you (imagine just for now that we have the ability to do this), but instead we would prefer that you live with the fact that you’re just not a cat. This comparison isn’t intended to belittle those who do identify with a gender that differs from their bodily sex. It’s an extreme example where I think we’ll all see the point more clearly. Another way of expressing this cynicism is to ask the question: “Why assume that if there is a disagreement between the way a person thinks and that structure of their body, then the way they think is the deciding factor? Why favour perceptions over biology? What if this is simply a condition that could be classified as a delusion?” In the world of mental health, the disorder is well-known. According to the standard text, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the disorder is called Gender Dysphoria, a condition describing “people whose gender at birth is contrary to the one they identify with.” These are not, however, issues that I will pursue here (nor do I intend that these issues dominate the discussion). The real issue that I want to talk about is what follows.

Never mind what I think about the true and false of any of this. This is all really just the backdrop for the question I want to pose. This cynical reply to the question of gender-body mismatching is one that, I think, comes naturally to somebody like me who thinks that human beings are physical creatures. If you’re physically male, then you are male, and if you believe otherwise about yourself then your beliefs are false, plain and simple, end of story. If you are physically male but perceive yourself to be female, then you are suffering from gender dysphoria, and you are mistaken. This applies to all physically grounded philosophies of mind: Eliminative materialism, nonreductive physicalism, emergentism, property dualism or hylemorphism – or any of the others.

But what if you’re not any sort of materialist about human beings? What if you’re a substance dualist who thinks that we are really not bodily creatures? Indeed, in the popular literature on transgender identity, it is common to read of people describing themselves as being “born in the wrong body” or having “a male body but a woman’s soul.” Assuming that gender is a mental or psychological characteristic, that is, a trait of the soul – the true self, while biological sex is a trait of the physical body, why shouldn’t this sort of mismatch, in principle, be possible? Now of course a dualist might still believe that transgender beliefs about one’s self still amount to false beliefs. But it is at least available to the dualist, in a way that it is not available to the materialist to believe that you can be a woman trapped in a man’s body.

What do you think? Do you think that the legitimacy of gender / sex mismatches presupposes substance dualism? Is it helped by substance dualism? Is it compatible with materialism, or would that amount to something like a person who thought he was a cat?

Glenn Peoples

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{ 49 comments… add one }
  • Ronnie April 29, 2014, 10:17 am

    “It’s an extreme example where I think we’ll all see the point more clearly.”

    In case you don’t know, this is actually a thing; look up “otherkin.” The movement is fringe, and mostly confined to the internet, but advocates use the exact same rhetoric as trans rights activists.

    “Do you think that the legitimacy of gender / sex mismatches presupposes substance dualism?”

    Not necessarily, but much of the language you hear from trans people—on a popular level at least—appears to presuppose gender essentialism, which I’ve always found humorous.

  • Glenn April 29, 2014, 10:36 am

    Thanks Ronnie – fascinating! I wasn’t aware of the “otherkin” phenomenon.

    (Just a reminder, in case people see that as a doorway to arguments about transgender issues in general: It is not. This is about the implications raised for the mind/body question.)

  • Matt S April 29, 2014, 12:23 pm

    I had this thought, too, that the language of trans advocates seemed like a kind of naive dualism. I don’t think that a rigorous dualism, Cartesian, platonist or any other variety, could support it though, since the activity of the soul just is whatever is in principle not realizable in matter. The soul would be simple and gender less. If I understand correctly, physicalist and hylomorphic approaches would also preclude talk of a x soul in a y body, since the soul just is the form of the body or else a figure of speech for the totality of the person you see.

    I think, rather, the trans type dualism is going to fall back on a kind of German idealist view of identity… Something that emerges from the conflict between the way one is built the social “thesis” that has set out how they should behave and so on based on the way they are built.

    All that to say: if trans advocates are dualists, their species of dualism is a unique one in that it applies material characteristics to their immaterial bit. It seems to me something like the vulgar notion of heaven portrayed in certain recent films, where the soul of the deceased goes off to a place that is by all accounts extended in some space, and they see dead relatives and so on.

  • Piers April 29, 2014, 12:39 pm

    Interesting post Glenn. I think that many people differentiate gender and sex. Sex is what you physically are whilst gender is your personal and social identity. So even though I may physically be a man, I might perceive myself as female, or a bit of both – that is, there exists a continuum between maleness and femaleness that is not necessarily tied to one’s actual sex.

    In relation to your questions…

    The above distinction can be framed in materialist terms by just noting that the psychological identity is grounded in physical stuff (because physical stuff is all there is). The question then could be posed (just thinking out loud here), why should one sort of stuff (the physical body) take precedence over another sort of of stuff (my thoughts about my identity)? I might then reinforce this by showing via a MZ twin study that my perceptions of my gender identity are significantly determined by my genes.

    So my thinking is that the materialist, by conceiving psychological states as physical phenomenon, can just as easily talk about being a man being trapped in a woman’s body as any dualist.

  • Glenn April 29, 2014, 12:53 pm

    Right, Piers. That’s the gender / sex distinction that I outline in this post.

    “So my thinking is that the materialist, by conceiving psychological states as physical phenomenon, can just as easily talk about being a man being trapped in a woman’s body as any dualist.”

    That doesn’t quite seem right, because “body,” for a materialist, includes the stuff that produces thoughts. So that wouldn’t be a man (something that is not bodily) trapped within a woman’s body. It would be a conflict within the body, wouldn’t it? This is why the cynical reply of “delusion” will seem so appropriate to some.

  • Piers April 29, 2014, 2:50 pm

    Glenn, maybe I am not reading you right or my response was off mark… my comment was a response to…

    “This cynical reply to the question of gender-body mismatching is one that, I think, comes naturally to somebody like me who thinks that human beings are physical creatures. If you’re physically male, then you are male, and if you believe otherwise about yourself then your beliefs are false, plain and simple, end of story.” – and your question “Do you think that the legitimacy of gender / sex mismatches… [is]compatible with materialism?”

    My answer is yes, the legitimacy of gender / sex mismatches is compatible with materialism. We have a sex (our sexual organs and chromosomes) and we have our gender (or psychological identity). Both are material. The thought of being a man (which is material) in a woman’s body (which is material) is compatible with materialism.

    (An aside: In typing that, I shouldn’t have used the word “trapped” above which does suggest a conflict within the body… for this isn’t necessarily the case. Given the distinction between sex and gender – people may feel a conflict or they may accept that is just the way they are.)

    So now, when you say, “If you’re physically male, then you are male, and if you believe otherwise about yourself then your beliefs are false…,” I would like to question why – what makes them false? Why have one physical reality (my having a penis) trump another physical reality (I identify myself as a woman)? Given that sex is distinct from gender (like my eyes are distinct from what I see), why not just say, they are what they are?

  • Glenn April 29, 2014, 4:01 pm

    Piers, yes, it was your saying that a wholly material being might indeed be a woman “trapped in a man’s body” or vice versa that prompted my reply that that’s a conflict within the body, rather than something trapped within a body.

    OK, so now we’re on the same page.

    “The thought of being a man (which is material) in a woman’s body (which is material) is compatible with materialism.”

    Yes, and quite obviously so, insofar as the former is a case of belief and feeling (which is what gender is, in the terms we’re using here). But even our cynic agrees with this. Having thoughts, feelings, instincts, beliefs etc about being male are compatible with being female (in the biological sense). Also, having sincere beliefs and feelings about being a cat are compatible with being a human being.

    This is why I didn’t quite ask – or at any rate, didn’t mean to ask – whether it’s possible, given materialism, for a person with a male body to identify, psychologically, as female. Indeed, I am a materialist, and I know (or at least I think I know) that there really are people with that sort of psychology. So I didn’t need to ask this. I asked if the legitimacy of gender / sex mismatches supported dualism. By talking about the “legitimacy” of the sex / gender mismatch, I am talking about the notion that a person can have a male body and yet not just believe, but legitimately or – even better stated – correctly believe that they are nonetheless female.

    Should a person’s human body trump their cat beliefs? Well, on dualism then theoretically they might not. But on materialism, a person’s human body should trump their cat beliefs, no question about it – even though their beliefs are created by a physical organism. Do we agree about this? This question is no longer just hypothetical. As Ronnie pointed out, there are indeed people like this.

    PS – The eye analogy is defective I think. Yes, your eye is distinct from what you see. What you see is outside of yourself. But your eye is not distinct from the whole collection of your bodily systems, which is more fitting here (think of the eye as the part of a man’s thinking faculty that describes himself as female).

  • Piers April 29, 2014, 4:54 pm

    Hopefully I was stating more than it was just possible for a person with a body of a male to identify with a female and was getting at the legitimacy question. We have two physical realities – on what basis do you say one trumps the other? Same with Cat Man. To us he may look nuts, but within his noetic community nothing is awry. So once again, why does the body reality trump the mental reality when both are material realities? Why is one material thing correct and the other is wrong? Why cannot they just co-exist. Isn’t the man who says that he is a cat in a human body just describing two material facts?

    P.S. re the eye analogy I was thinking about seeing as something that occurs within the body (I was not suggesting seeing things outside the body). That is, the neural activity of they eye is quite distinct from the neural activities of the other parts of the brain. So just in the way the eye is distinct from my visual perceptions, so a persons sexual organs are distinct from the perceptions of one’s sexuality.

  • Matt S April 29, 2014, 6:12 pm

    How can psychological states be gendered, tho? The belief that I am a woman in a mans body has no more a gender than the belief that twice two makes four. Is it that my profile is of a gender? How would we know that I am psychologically female, tho, except that in the normal case my psychological profile would be common to the female body. It still seems to me that both the genes and the organs are the ontological bottom line, and the psychological profile can only be called female or male insofar as it is normally the kind of profile had by a body with the same chromosomes and genitalia.

    To be clear, I don’t mean to ask how psych states could be gendered in a rhetorical way, my wording was clumsy, rather how can they be –> because the are essential to a sex.

  • Glenn April 29, 2014, 7:14 pm

    “We have two physical realities – on what basis do you say one trumps the other? Same with Cat Man. To us he may look nuts, but within his noetic community nothing is awry.”

    Cat man was a counterexample to show that in fact we do agree that there can be cases where one does trump the other. You’ll have to unpack the identity of the relevant noetic community, but it’s hard to see why it would make a difference. Cat man, who lives among us and appears to be one of us (in terms of species) but says that he is really a cat, shows us that one trumps the other according to intuitions that all of us share – except for Cat man himself.

    “Why is one material thing correct and the other is wrong?” We can’t really talk about them both in the language of right/wrong. Beliefs can be wrong. The existence of bodily systems – in fact all of the bodily systems that make up a human body – either obtains or it does not. If it does then it is neither right nor wrong, it is just the way things are. Beliefs on the other hand can be wrong if they exist. We can be mistaken about the thing we are, but we cannot exist as anything other than what we are.

    I think Matt’s remarks start to get into the meat of what you’re saying Piers, but here’s one of my own: Take a person who is, bodily, male, but who sincerely believes that he is female. Also assume materialism (it is important to continually bear in mind that nothing here is an evaluation of the claims of transgender people about how they see themselves, only a discussion about which view of human nature makes the truth of their claims more plausible).

    You say, again, that the systems that produce the beliefs are material. And they are. But what is it that this man is claiming to be female? What is the “I” here? Indeed, when we talk about bodies with reference to sex, and when we talk about the gender that a person perceives, we use the words male and female in each case. Is this person saying “the bit of my brain that thinks about my gender identity is female, even though my other parts are male?” because if that is what they are saying, then “female” is an elusive thing indeed! If this was simply a claim about desire then things would be different: I want to be a woman. That is absolutely coherent. But “I am a woman,” coming from a materialist who – materially and in any physically testable way – is male, is a tough sell indeed. It is certainly far less parsimonious than the claim that I am a female soul who, against my will, relates to the world via a male body.

    Dualism (if true) provides a much, much more natural place for gender-sex mismatch to show up.

    PS: of course this does not mean that a dualist must believe that such mismatches occur.

    PPS: Some of you will have noticed that I am a neat freak, and short afterthoughts added as a second comment from the same person have been merged with the preceding comment. Keep it tidy. 🙂

  • Mick April 29, 2014, 8:08 pm

    To me the topic illustrates the spiritual world that many ignore, deny or deem irrelevant.
    Picture, if you will, a malevolent being, bent on the mission to kill, rob and destroy. Have it situated where it implants a dialogue of thoughts into a person’s brain; ‘You’re not really a man/woman’ etc. ‘You’re trapped in a woman’s/man’s body. Society just can’t see this; you need to see a surgeon and society needs to change…’
    To the vulnerable this is a recipe for mutilation and madness. To the diabolic being, its bread and butter. To a loving God it’s sheer grief watching his highest earthly creation destroyed by a lie, aided and abetted by headshrinkers and dissembling academics and truthseekers whose ‘learning’ has made them intellectual eunuchs.

  • Glenn April 29, 2014, 8:15 pm

    Mick, the question here is which philosophy of mind, if any, is more parsimonious with the existence of a sex / gender mismatch.

    Do you have any thoughts on that?

    (I am not interested in trying to blame or hurt people who are in the situation described here.)

  • Mick April 29, 2014, 8:44 pm

    I doubt I would spend any money on either. Is my understanding of parsimonious wrong or is that meant to read ‘harmonious’?

  • Piers April 29, 2014, 10:53 pm

    I wouldn’t go down the line of “the bit of my brain that thinks about my gender identity is female” – rather, the part that thinks about gender in my brain thinks I’m female. Hence, this is a brain state that either obtains or does not. So we have in fact various states of reality that either obtain or do not:e.g. 1)My Sex as a male, and 2)A brain state that identifies me as female.

    2) here is not correct or incorrect, it just is or is not.

    Now, if I maintain a clear distinction between my sex and gender identity – then I think we can show that these two states can possibly exist – but I think I would have to come up with another argument as to why these states can, as you say, legitimately exist. In what way is gender identity different from other identities like race? age? etc etc… As absurd as it is to say that I am a black man in a white mans body, surely it is just as absurd to say that I am a woman in a mans body. Maybe in some communities such an argument could be made (but I’m not about to make it here)…

    Regardless, I think yes, it is more parsimonious for the dualist.

    Thanks for helping me think it through!

  • Glenn April 30, 2014, 7:30 am

    But again, Piers, that part of my brain has beliefs about what I am, and beliefs are the sorts of things that can be true or false. The existence of the bodily systems and sex chromosomes just isn’t that sort of thing.

    I’m out of town for the next day.

  • Ciaron April 30, 2014, 7:37 am

    At face value it does seem a better fit with dualism, but wouldn’t you first have to show that the difference is not physical?
    I’m thinking if there was no physical difference* between someone who identifies as male/male and one male/female, then dualism seems to provide a place for this difference to exist.

    *let’s assume we can measure everything about the brain and it’s functioning and there is no measurable difference between the subjects.

  • Matt S April 30, 2014, 8:04 am

    Glenn,

    sorry, I’ll try to keep it neat! Also, I know someone out here in California who goes to a church in South LA/Orange County that hosts some Rethinking Hell stuff… I forget the name of it, but he mentioned it and I said, “oh, Glenn Peoples is part of that” and he was all, “yea”. Good times, small world, etc. Having followed the blog for a few years now, it gives me nice feelings to see you get more notoriety here and there.

    Ciaron,

    what about dualism would provide a place for the difference to exist? 1. What makes a gender what it is, male or female? 2. What would make the soul be of one gender or another?

  • Matthew Flannagan April 30, 2014, 12:52 pm

    “1)My Sex as a male, and 2)A brain state that identifies me as female.”
    Here is the problem, 1) grants that your body is male. But 2) identifies *you* as female. Hence, 2) and 1) seem to entail that *you* are not your body.
    Note also that one cant identify your brain state as identical with you, because the relavant brain state is about you, you are the subject of this belief and so can’t be identical with it.
    So the question is when someone says that there physically and material body and its organs are all male and yet they are not male. Who is the “they” they refer to. Its hard to deny the suggestion they see themselves as some thing that is not identical with their material bodies, and that entails dualism.

  • Ciaron April 30, 2014, 1:12 pm

    Matt S,
    Although I do not hold to it, my understanding is that dualism claims that we are a composite of a material body and an immaterial soul. So, if you can exclude a physical cause then dualism gives you somewhere else to look – and that’s all I’m saying. But, to get there you first need to exclude a physical cause (not sure how you could do that), which I think would be compatible with materialism.

  • Matt S April 30, 2014, 2:20 pm

    For a reference as to how someone so interested might argue, from a materialist perspective, for the trans identity look here:

    http://transascity.org/the-transgender-brain/

    I think it will be of interest to Matt F and Ciaron. The language is not of brain states, pointing to the self as different from the body, but of alleged similarities between trans and cis brains as a whole of the same sex/gender. I’m not meaning to endorse it, just throwing it in so we are not speculating about how the argument might go.

    That said, it is not hard to deny, as you say, Matt, that the person is talking about something that is neither their material body or their immaterial soul (it remains to be seen how the res cogitans could have a gender).

    Ciaron,

    I don’t think you need to exclude a physical cause, if the trans advocate can say that the soul is gendered, how? What makes it have a gender? While I’m no Cartesian, this line of thinking strikes me as tendentious, slanted against dualism rather than operating with a clear understanding of what a soul is on dualism. It seems to me that it is being supposed that just anything can be predicated of the soul (if the soul can be gendered, can it have a weight, too… Can I be a skinny guy in a fat body?) and that is patently false.

  • Ciaron April 30, 2014, 3:57 pm

    Matt S,

    I am trying to answer Glenn’s question honestly which was :
    What do you think? Do you think that the legitimacy of gender / sex mismatches presupposes substance dualism? Is it helped by substance dualism? Is it compatible with materialism, or would that amount to something like a person who thought he was a cat?

    I think that,
    1) If there is a physical explanation for gender / sex mismatches, that would be compatible with both materialism and dualism.
    2) If there is no physical explanation for gender / sex mismatches, that would be compatible with dualism.
    I am assuming that gender / sex mismatches are not caused by environmental factors or individual experience.

  • Matt S April 30, 2014, 4:48 pm

    Ciaron,

    I’m trying to answer that question, too… but I’m not convinced that the question is not on the wrong track to begin with.

    what do you understand “gender” to mean?

  • Mick April 30, 2014, 11:23 pm

    Who cares what we think we are. What counts is what God says.

    ‘Have you not read that he who made them at the beginning, male and female made he them’?

    Should you subscribe to having a soul opposite in gender to your body then you also subscribe to one of you being redundant and the creator getting it all wrong.

    There’s a word for this. Confusion.

  • Ciaron May 1, 2014, 7:35 am

    Matt S
    Until yesterday, I thought gender and sex were interchangeable. Like with a lot of terms nowadays, I find myself labouring under a misconception 🙂

  • Matt S May 1, 2014, 8:40 am

    I’m not exactly sure what you mean. I haven’t been assuming that sex and gender are interchangeable, simply that something is gendered insofar as it is normally associated with a particular sex. So, in film criticism, for instance, one will often hear the term “the gaze” used to describe the way in which the camera typically “looks” at the subject. It is argued that this “gaze” is gendered, specifically male. The paradigm kinda evidence for this would be the way that the female body is typically framed in shots (in popular films, say) – that it is for the benefit of the male eye (and attendant organs). But we both know that cameras and photographs per se don’t have a gender, and so it goes with souls. How would it be that there was a kind of soul that was usually in a male body or usually in a female body. But there is only one of you. How can it be said that your ‘self’, ‘ego’, res cogitans, etc is normally of the kind that is in a body of a sex that your body is not?

    Suppose God takes your soul out of your body and puts it in another of the opposite sex… what happens? Do you say, “oh goodness, I’m not supposed to be in this kind of body!” or “Hmmm… this is interesting”?

  • Ciaron May 2, 2014, 11:20 am

    Matt S.
    When I say the terms are interchangeable, I actually had documents in mind. Sometimes a form will say “sex”, others, it will say “gender”. When considering the appropriate response, I came to the conclusion that they were after the contents of one’s trousers…. so to speak.

    Do I understand your example correctly if I was to say; like inanimate objects are female? for example in my experience, boats are usually referred to as “she”.

  • Matt S May 2, 2014, 3:33 pm

    Not exactly. The gendered pronoun applied to ships is done so metaphorically, whereas the “male gaze” has to do with generalizing about the way males look at things. The use of “she” with respect to ships involves abstracting away certain features of women and using them to describe ships, the ship is like a women in this way. The gaze, on the other hand, is not merely like a man’s gaze, it is supposed to be gendered, rather, like lingerie is gendered.

  • Andrew May 7, 2014, 9:12 am

    Hi Glenn,

    I’m not convinced that gender dualism *NECESSARILY* pre-supposes substance dualism. To be sure, one might hang a case for gender dualism on some kind of substance dualism, but it seems to me that insofar as it’s possible to identify the ‘self’ or the ‘person’ with some physical or supervenient feature that we acquire as we mature rather than in virtue of being a human, you might be a full blown materialist and a gender dualist.

    To illustrate this a little further, let’s suppose we all agree that physicalism is true. We might still debate about the property/properties in virtue of which we are ‘persons’. Some of us might think that it comes simply in virtue of being a human, in which case gender dualism would be ruled out from the start. But some of us might think that ‘personhood’ is acquired in virtue of some property not property essential to humans qua humans (foetus’ in certain early stages of development for instance might lack these features). I don’t actually believe this, but I might argue for instance that ‘personhood’ is conferred in virtue of conscious, self reflective thought. It’s then open to me to suggest that whether or not I am one gender or another is really just a matter of believing that I am a particular gender.

    It seems to me, that gender dualism pre-supposes the same sort of ‘human-person’ dualism that lies at the heart of most ‘pro-choice’ arguments. My impression is that many of pro-choicers (i’m thinking of David Boonin for instance) would want to distance themselves from substance dualism, and yet argue that personhood is conferred in virtue of some acquired property.

  • Andrew May 7, 2014, 9:31 am

    Hi Matt Flannagan,

    I hear the force of your first argument to the effect that gender dualism entails that the ‘self’ is not identical to the ‘body’. But i’m not convinced that this requires that the mind be a non-physical substance.

    I believe that Glenn has successfully argued in the past that emergentist theories of the mind are really just physicalist theories. In such theories, the mind emerges from but is not identical to the brain/body. So this grants you that the ‘self’ is not identical to the body, but I don’t think that it would take you all the way to substance dualism. After all, if the mind is the seat of personhood and the body plays no role in constituting ones personhood, then surely it’s at least possible to suggest that ones gender identity is really just the gender with which one identifies.

    Notice, I’m not trying to defend gender dualism here (i’m actually a fairly harsh critic of the notion). Rather, I’m simply trying to suggest that the kind of dualism that’s pre-supposed here here is the substance dualist type.

  • Glenn May 7, 2014, 3:28 pm

    “It’s then open to me to suggest that whether or not I am one gender or another is really just a matter of believing that I am a particular gender. ”

    This is uninformative though (because it appears to be self-referential), and in fact it looks like an infinite regress. If having a gender is believing that you have a particular gender, then having a gender is believing that you believe that you have a particular gender, which is believing that you believe that you believe that you have a particular gender, and so on unto eternity, so we never get to the gender. The idea that gender is a set of beliefs and attitudes that we have towards our sex, on the other hand, is coherent. But that would just mean the those with a “transgender mind” are suffering from a delusion. The issue raised here is whether or not somebody who truly is transgender (i.e. they really are a man and they really have a female body, i.e. their sex is female) is a concept more at home in substance dualism or materialism (including emergentism and hylemorphism).

    You’re right that a particular type of pro-abortion argument about personhood is dualistic in nature, where personhood is a special quality bound up with properties – actually it seems most of the time as though it’s bound up with abilities in those arguments. But I don’t see that “gender,” the property of being a person who is male or female, can be similarly derived. Not easily anyway.

    Perhaps Matt can comment more on the latter, given his background on the abortion issue and the arguments of Boonin.

  • Andrew May 7, 2014, 9:28 pm

    Hi Glenn,

    So notice that I’m not defending the coherence of gender dualism. I would quite like the conclusion that it’s incoherent.

    But let’s suppose that we’re excessively charitable to gender dualism and grant him that his view is coherent (which, sans your argument, it evidently it isn’t). In that case, it still seems possible to me for him to suggest that the seat of personhood is some set of acquired properties. In which case you have gender dualism without substance dualism.

  • Glenn May 7, 2014, 10:20 pm

    Andrew, yeah I made a vague gesture in that direction: Even if our personhood exists in virtue of something that we do (i.e. have certain types of mental thingies going on), it’s not obvious that gender can be grounded in just the same way without running into problems. I mean yeah, someone might suggest that gender is grounded that way, like “gender exists in virtue of what I think about myself,” but it’s the “what” that will be very tricky (perhaps because of the “regress,” or maybe in some other way). Dualism is a much cleaner option, I’d think.

  • Matt S May 8, 2014, 4:20 am

    “Dualism is a much cleaner option, I’d think.”

    This sort of depends on it being coherent to say that whatever the substance dualist means by the self or soul can be coherently described as gendered. This seems to me like asking whether or not the notion of a real James Bond is more at home in Platonism, say, because so many actors have played the character and we couldn’t possibly say that any one of them really was James Bond. People that believe that James Bond really exists must really be presupposing Platonism, since there is no”where” for him to exist except in the realm of ideas (but this is clearly problematic, since James Bond began to exist, is the product of imagination and other things that just don’t map onto platonic abstracta). I think this line of thought concerning gender and dualism only works so long as “gender” and “dualism” remain fuzzy.

  • Andrew May 8, 2014, 1:16 pm

    Actually Glenn, it just occurred to me that even if the Gender Dualist hangs his case on some form of substance dualism he’s still going to run into the kinds of regress problems that you were suggesting would be problematic of physicalist models of Gender Dualism. After all, substance dualists assert that this non-physical soul is constituted by mental events. In which case, if the soul is also the seat of gender, gender just is a mental event. In which case, I can see them running into precisely the same sorts of regress problems that you were hinting at before!

    The long and short of it seems to be that whatever way you go (whether physicalist or substance dualist), gender dualism is incoherent!

  • Glenn May 8, 2014, 7:05 pm

    “After all, substance dualists assert that this non-physical soul is constituted by mental events.”

    Andrew, do they? (Genuine question. If any do, I haven’t seen them do it.)

    PS: I should clarify: I don’t say that people who believe in “gender dualism” (good term, by the way!) do think of gender as what they believe about their gender, which is an infinite regress. I was just saying that if they did construe it in the way you indicated, then the infinite regress would follow.

  • Glenn May 8, 2014, 7:07 pm

    “This sort of depends on it being coherent to say that whatever the substance dualist means by the self or soul can be coherently described as gendered.”

    Yes. They would have to talk about something like “having a soul with characteristics that typically exist in souls that are in male bodies,” in a case where one believes that s/he is a male is a female body.

  • Matt S May 9, 2014, 5:29 am

    “having a soul with characteristics that typically exist in souls that are in male bodies,”

    how do souls have these characteristics? What are these characteristics? How can we say that they are and that the soul has them without reasoning in a circle?

  • Glenn May 9, 2014, 8:50 am

    Hi Glenn,

    I’m not sure that they’ve said it in those terms, but I’v always taken it to be implied by the notion that the immaterial soul is the seat of consciousness.

  • Glenn May 9, 2014, 10:45 am

    “how do souls have these characteristics?”

    The same way that souls have other characteristics.

    “What are these characteristics?”

    I would assume that there are quite a few of them. I’m not sure why there is difficulty in thinking of a woman’s mind as being different from a man’s mind.

    Or are you saying that if a man were disembodied then he would no longer have anything male about him?

    DISCLAIMER: I’m not a dualist, and I may be willing to grant that some things about human beings become incoherent on dualism. So if a person really cannot be gendered if it is a soul, then oh well, strike against dualism.

  • Matt S May 9, 2014, 11:59 am

    I am not a dualist, either, and would be satisfied if this conversation arrived at the reductio suggested by your disclaimer. (1. I am an immaterial soul, 2. I am male, 3. Hell is a frozen wasteland)

    and yes, you cut to the chase there, when you say, “if a man were disembodied then he would no longer have anything male about him”

    I have no trouble at all either in thinking that a woman’s mind, in the normal case, is different from a man’s. Surely that’s a difference in the body, no? Were the woman’s “soul” or “mind” to be transferred, Jonny Depp style, into a super-computer (per impossible, I’d think), her mind would be different from a man’s mind in a different way than it was before simply as a woman (and a man’s mind transferred into the computer would, presumably, be different from the woman’s mind transferred). It would presumably have memories of being a woman… but that doesn’t seem to suffice to make it gendered in the way that we are talking about (additionally, its consciousness would no longer be “structured” woman-wise, but computer-wise). What we are talking about regarding gender would involve remembering being a woman and having the strong feeling or desire to have its new computer-like physical expression made woman-like. But, in this sense, it would be gendered in the same manner as (as I was saying earlier) lingerie or “the gaze” is gendered – its memories would simply be associated with a woman in a conventional way, they’d be womanly memories, things typically had by a woman. Worse still, the feminized computer body would be female in the same sense that a sailing vessel is!

    I think more trans/queer folk would actually be fine with this than you’d think. The sophisticated position, as I’m familiar with it, is more of a radical Constructivism. A woman really is a “she” in the same way a sailing vessel is. What is different from the woman and the boat is that the (cis or trans-)woman experiences herself as a “she”. Unless you’re one of these Object-oriented Ontology people, who thinks that the boat really does experience the world in a boat-ish way. At any rate, the kind of discussion that’s happening in queer circles is miles away from the one we’re having here, and trades in a completely different jargon, and is often explicitly subversive and deconstructionist. What you’d call cynical, they’d call revolutionary. Us anglo philosophical types are really in the grip of ideology and blah blah blah and so on and so on.

  • Jamie May 10, 2014, 2:17 pm

    I do not believe the soul is gender specific. The body in its union with the soul results in human sexes. The soul, however, in and of itself is sexless.

  • Glenn May 10, 2014, 3:57 pm

    Jamie, so you’re treating gender and sex interchangeably?

  • CL May 14, 2014, 10:50 pm

    Thanks for writing this Glenn. I remember you telling me by email that you were thinking about writing something along these lines. 🙂 God bless!

  • Finlay Stafford June 9, 2014, 4:06 am

    The way I like to think of these issues is in terms of whether there is an actual problem, and how to keep people happy. If we allow people to identify as a range of genders other than that matching their biological sex, society doesn’t fall down. No institutions crumble. No barbarian hordes attack our families. Letting people do what they want with their gender, including sex reassignment surgery, solves the problem. People are now in bodies they are happy with. Whereas if we say the person is delusional, that they need to be “convinced” of “reality”, all that happens is that people’s lives are ruined by unnecessary psychiactric intervention and restrictive gender roles stop people from expressing themselves uniquely and complexly, instead being forced to fit in their chosen box, “male” or “female”. Why not just “people”, and let them do what they want as long as they aren’t hurting anyone?

  • M July 17, 2014, 2:13 pm

    other kin is a parody full of jerks who disagree with trans rights. Not real. Furthermore, the rhetoric that people will want to be treated like cats and dogs is like the rhetoric that homosexual marriage will allow dog marriage to happen. And there are in fact people in the world that are in love with animals but that doesn’t mean people can’t believe being gay is okay while being attracted to animals is not. The fact of the matter is, it hurts these people’s souls to be like this. Many become homeless because of it, and they make up a small amount of the population. they face discrimination and violence. It hurts no one but themselves. If it were a choice then when they became homeless or got threatened to be kicked out they could just stop. Remove the what is a man what is a woman thing behind and bring it Down to basic respect for another person’s situation.

    To comments about thinking v being. The brain is strange. There have been studies linking homosexuality to the formation of our brains in the womb and it tends to run in families. It also has been hypothesized that homosexuality has to do with the amount of testosterone exposure a fetus gets. There has even been a study showing that among several participants the gay man’s area of the brain tht controls attraction is similar to that of the heterosexual woman’s part that controls attraction. If the brain physically has areas that are formed to make same sex attraction possible a gay person does not THINK they are attracted to the same sex. They ARE attracted to the same sex. The logic follows here. It is likely that their brains are formed differently than cispeople’s brains and therefore their mind is female/male/other.

  • M July 17, 2014, 3:10 pm

    *the their in the last sentence refers to trans* folk

  • Glenn August 23, 2014, 5:33 pm

    The former John Hopkins Hospital psychiatrist in chief has just ruffled some feathers: http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/michael-w-chapman/johns-hopkins-psychiatrist-transgender-mental-disorder-sex-change, calling transgender a mental disorder and saying that a sex change is literally impossible.

    Dr. McHugh, the author of six books and at least 125 peer-reviewed medical articles, made his remarks in a recent commentary in the Wall Street Journal, where he explained that transgender surgery is not the solution for people who suffer a “disorder of ‘assumption’” – the notion that their maleness or femaleness is different than what nature assigned to them biologically.

    He identifies just what he means by disorder as follows:

    “This intensely felt sense of being transgendered constitutes a mental disorder in two respects. The first is that the idea of sex misalignment is simply mistaken – it does not correspond with physical reality. The second is that it can lead to grim psychological outcomes.”

  • riley October 8, 2017, 4:18 pm

    Okay, if you’re going to open your argument with the definition of ‘cisgender’, then you should at least get it right. It’s not about other people determining if you’re male or female based on your chromosomes and genitalia (like people know whats in your pants). Cisgender means you identify as the gender that was assigned to you at birth (keyword: identify as). Someone who is ‘trans’ or ‘non-binary’ means they do not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth (keword: identity). Gender is a social construct. Saying women have vaginas and men have penises are social constructs. Women, in fact, can have penises, vaginas, and even mix of genitals or ambiguous gentailaia (ie, intersex people). These people literally exist, you can’t deny their existence.

    Also chromosomes don’t simply determine if you’re ‘male or female’. For one, the existence of intersex people show this isn’t true. Also, they found that ‘women’ can be chromosomally male, and men can be chromosomally female. There’s also the case of the SRY gene, where you can chromosomally and be developing as a woman, but if the gene is present in the chromosomes- you develop as a male and have a penis. Like this supposed connection between sex and gender as ‘scientific’ and ‘biological’ is silly. These things are social constructs and how we define what different genitalia means.

  • Glenn October 21, 2017, 3:54 pm

    Hi riley, so as I said: “In short, your gender matches your body.” What that means is that the maleness or femaleness perceives by others (as you said – assigned at birth, and this is done based on physical features) matches a person’s gender, the way they see themselves. I did “get it right.”

    Not sure who you think you’re fighting against here, but it’s probably best to take the combative attitude elsewhere. If you have anything of substance to say about this blog post though, feel free!

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