One aspect of the current debate around the transgender issue, is a new dispute about the definition of words that we all agreed upon until relatively recently. Few people can have failed to notice that it has become commonplace to ask public figures the question, “What is a woman?”. Deciding which people can be included in such categories and which cannot, is now extremely contentious. For example, a large number of civil society groups in Ireland (such as Amnesty Ireland and the National Women’s Council Of Ireland) have argued that those who “seek to defend biology” in how they interpret such terms, should be denied “legitimate representation” by “media and politicians”. In fairness to Amnesty Ireland, they have sought to provide some definitions for the terms that they use:
“Trans people are individuals whose gender identity or gender expression is different from typical expectations of the gender they were assigned at birth. Some trans people decide to transition, which is the process of living your life as your true gender. Being transgender has nothing to do with a person’s sexual orientation. You can be a trans man and be gay – or be a trans woman and be lesbian.”Extract from the definition of “transgender” on the Amnesty Ireland web site
Many people will find fault with aspects of this definition, for example with the idea that male-bodied trans women could be included within the lesbian category. However, the word “your” in this definition also grabs my attention. To “live your life as your true gender” implies that the “you” referred to here is distinct and separate from your body. Who or what is the “you” that Amnesty Ireland is describing, which might have a different gender to that of your body? The idea that you can have an ethereal or immaterial mind or spirit, which is separate and distinct from your physical body, is synonymous with Cartesian Dualism.
René Descartes believed that while the mind and body are separate entities, they can nevertheless interact. He proposed that physical events can cause mental processes, and that mental processes can cause physical events. Within such a dualist framework, it is easy to conceive how a mind of one gender could be trapped in a body that has a different gender. However, one problem with the idea that a mind has been “born in the wrong body”, is that dualism is just plain flat wrong. It is demonstrably not the case that an immaterial mind can cause physical effects in the brain, or in any other part of the body.
The mind is what the brain does. Changes to the physical brain reliably cause commensurate changes to the mind. I have tried adding a little ethanol to the electrochemical weather patterns that exist in my own brain, and noticed that my subjective mind is always altered. Causation does not flow in the other direction. Someone who drives a car immediately after drinking a half bottle of whiskey, cannot mitigate their crime by insisting that their mind can cause their brain not to get drunk. Neither can they argue that their immaterial mind makes the driving decisions, and this is distinct and separate from the very material effects of the alcohol in their brain. Moreover, the fact that the mind is a function of the physical brain can be observed in relation to complex emotions as well as mere motor functions. Patients who have suffered a brain injury can acquire Capgras Syndrome, whereby they can recognise the faces of their loved ones while ceasing to recognise them as the people that they love. Many such patients suffer from a delusion that their loved ones have been replaced by identical imposters. That is, even the most intimate emotions that we experience within our subjective minds, are entirely a function of our physical brains.
Anyone who imagines that they have an ethereal mind which is capable of influencing their physical brain, is invited to stop recognising the English alphabet. If you have read this far, I posit that outside of your conscious mind your physical brain has been subconsciously recognising individual letters and words, then parsing them into the sentences that your conscious mind recognises. Why can’t you tell your brain to stop recognising individual letters, and to forget which shapes should be interpreted as which characters? The answer is because “your mind” and “your brain” are not the separate entities that Cartesian Dualism suggests. Descartes was just plain flat wrong when he described an immaterial mind that is distinct from the physical brain. None of us has an ethereal mind or spirit that is separate and distinct from our physical body. We are all our physical bodies and nothing else. So what could it possibly mean to suggest that to be transgender is to “live your life as your true gender”? You are your body. There is no separate immaterial “you” that is anything other than a function of your brain and the rest of your physical body.
Of course, none of this is to suggest that a person who reports that they feel as though they are a different gender to their body must necessarily be lying. Gender dysphoria is a very real phenomenon and anyone who is struggling with such a disposition deserves our compassion and respect. Whereas the slogan “trans women are women” is a contentious one, the slogan “trans rights are human rights” is not. Of course trans people have all of the same rights as everyone else, and any suggestion to the contrary must be vigorously opposed.
Against that, the trans debate is essentially a matter of adjudicating situations where there are competing rights. If a man decides that they will be more comfortable wearing makeup and a dress and adopting a name typically used for women, then that is their absolute right so long as they are not infringing on anyone else’s rights. If the same person then decides that they wish to use women’s spaces and enter women’s sports categories, then this situation needs to be adjudicated in a different way to the extent that they are infringing on the rights of women. Within such adjudications, it is not convincing to argue that trans women are merely living their life as their true gender. That implies Cartesian Dualism, which is false.