Is Mind-Body Dualism Necessarily Supernatural?

I am far from the first person to notice that much of the language used to describe transgender experiences, seems to assume Cartesian Dualism. For example, it has become common for trans people to say things like “I was born in the wrong body”. This appears to imply that there is a separate ethereal mind or spirit that is independent from the physical body, and which can have a different gender from the physical body. I believe that such Cartesian Dualism is false, but I have recently been admonished to accept this idea. The phenomenon of hallucination was offered as evidence to support the concept.

The image below illustrates an example of a comment from a prominent trans person, which seems to rely on Cartesian Dualism as one possible interpretation of Mind-Body Dualism.

Cartesian Dualism with an independent body and soul
Cartesian Dualism with an independent body and soul

A broad term like Mind-Body Dualism can mean some quite different things. For example, some people can accept an entirely naturalist view of the world that contains no spirits or souls, but still use this term to differentiate a non-physical idea from the physical collection of neurons that produced it. That is, the mind is what the brain does. Consequently, the feelings that a person has are a function of events in their physical brain, but mental phenomena like feelings or ideas may be considered separately from the corporeal processes that produce them.

There is nothing at all supernatural about this kind of Mind-Body Dualism. However, there is also nothing that this interpretation of the term can explain about the purported transgender experience of being “born in the wrong body”. In the naturalistic interpretation of Mind-Body Dualism, a trans person’s feeling about their gender is just an idea produced by the brain like any other idea or feeling. Conversely, it seems like trans people are intending to communicate something much more profound when they say that they were “born in the wrong body”.

In the tweet illustrated above, the transgender person is not merely claiming that their ideas or feelings abut their gender can be considered separately from the physical brain cells that produced them. That would be a trivial and banal observation. Rather, they are claiming that they have an ethereal spirit or soul, which is independent from their body and retains a different gender from their body. This claim insists that a person’s feelings about their gender are more than just ideas created by their brain, but are instead a function of a mind or spirit that is dissociated from their physical body. Such ideas about gendered spirits or souls are very much supernatural.

It is this kind of supernatural Mind-Body Dualism that was proposed by René Descartes. In fact, Cartesian Dualism proposes that the pineal gland within the brain functions as the interface between the physical body and the ethereal spirt or soul. This idea is demonstrably false supernatural woo-woo, but if it were true it would certainly make it easier to understand how an independent spirit or soul might be interfacing with the pineal gland of a body that has the opposite gender. The short video clip below contains objections to my criticisms of Cartesian Dualism, and then seems to misunderstand what this concept actually implies.

Objections to criticism of Cartesian Dualism, with support for mind-over-matter and out-of-body experiences

In addition to defending the supernatural woo-woo of Cartesian Dualism, this clip also contains the following quotation:

“Mind-Over-Matter is literally a thing that exists. You force your body to do something that it does not want to do, by overpowering it with your mind.”

Quotation from the video clip above

This misguided quotation serves to effectively highlight the difference between naturalistic Mind-Body Dualism, as compared to the supernatural woo-woo of Cartesian Dualism. Within a naturalistic view of the world, a single brain can generate two competing ideas. A person might think that they should not eat a particular item because it will taste bad, while at the same time thinking that they should indeed eat the item because it will benefit their health. Two competing circuits of neurons are correlated with two competing ideas, and one of those physical correlates will win out. No aspect of this perspective involves Mind-Over-Matter, since each competing idea is just as correlated with physical events as the other. Neither idea involves more ‘Mind’ or less ‘Matter’ than the other.

Conversely, the video clip above proposes an alternative view of the same situation, this time through the supernatural framework of Cartesian Dualism. From this supernatural perspective, a physical brain does not want to eat an item that will taste bad, while a dissociated ethereal mind “overpowers” the grey matter in the brain. Rather than two competing ideas that each have direct physical correlates, in this view one idea is a function of the body while another idea is a function of the mind. We are told that the mind-idea “overpowers” the matter-idea. However, there is no spooky Mind-Over-Matter process whereby an ethereal spirit moves atoms around in the physical brain, so as to “overpower” whatever the neurons would otherwise do. Mind-Over-Matter is not at all a thing that exists, no matter what Uri Geller or the video clip above might suggest.

For these reasons I disagreed with the Cartesian Dualist perspective, and with the associated idea that transgender people might be “born in the wrong body”. In response to my disagreement, the short video below pushes back on my position, suggesting that being “born in the wrong body” does not imply anything supernatural. The phenomenon of hallucination is offered as evidence for this alternative view. I recommend watching the entire video here to verify that the short clip below is a fair representation of the overall argument offered.

Transgender experiences are like hallucinations

It is true that hallucinations can be caused by adrenaline. However, such phenomena are similar in many ways to those described in the first video clip, such as the experience of coming around after being anaesthetised. That is, the hallucination argument in the second video clip is merely a repeat of the same argument already made in the first video clip. The suggestion is that the mind must be a separate and dissociated entity from the body, because with pharmacological help your mind can perceive things about your body that are not consistent with its physical reality. With the correct psychoactive drugs, your mind can contain ideas about your body that are not commensurate with the actual physical state of your body. However, such hallucinations in no way demonstrate that your mind is independent from your physical body. In fact, these examples demonstrate the precise opposite of that, since the hallucinations are caused by the action of physical chemical compounds on a very corporeal brain. Hallucinations are not caused by some kind of woo-woo spirit. The drugs that influence the physical brain are real. The gendered soul is not.

If a trans person reports that they were “born in the wrong body” (consistent with the tweet at the top of this page where a trans person refers to their “body and soul being finally connected”) then the clear implication suggests a supernatural Cartesian Dualism. How else could there be a body and soul that were at some previous time not connected, unless there is an ethereal mind or spirit that is totally independent and dissociated from the physical brain? I disagree with the suggestion in the second video clip that being “born in the wrong body” does not imply a supernatural experience, but instead describes something naturalistic that is more like a hallucination.

Contrary to what is alleged in the second video clip, there is nothing at all bigoted about pointing out that some descriptions of transgender experiences imply Cartesian Dualism. Neither is there anything bigoted about arguing that Cartesian Dualism is false. In fact, I don’t think it is my position here that most trans people would find to be offensive. When I was told that it is bigoted to suggest being “born in the wrong body” implies Cartesian Dualism, I was not expecting to be told that the non-bigoted position is to suggest that trans people are having something like a hallucination about their gender.

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