Wednesday, 24 June 2009

more on philosophy (Christina's response)


Christina Alley wrote a response to the previous post about my chat with Julian Baggini, but it was too long to go in the comments section. So here it is, as a post in its own right!

When I saw the link to your blog this morning, Dru, I became quite animated. I know Julian Baggini, vaguely, mostly through phone conversations when I was employed by an examination board to organise the setting and marking of examinations. We did not discuss any philosophy – our conversations usually related to Julian asking if I would be so kind as to send out a flier for his new magazine or book to the schools that taught A Level Philosophy. What I always found frustrating, as someone who had not studied Philosophy at university, was that the absolutely fascinating topics discussed at meetings of Philosophy examiners were mostly out of bounds for me. Oh, I would participate in the discussions about the questions on draft examination papers – but only in regard to the grammar, never the substance, of the questions. So, since the examination board no longer employs me, now is my chance to have a go at philosophy! Forgive me if I indulge myself :o)

Dru, I found this paragraph in your blog most stimulating… “Julian asked what I thought of Descartes' notion of the spirit as being entirely nonmaterial. I realised that I hadn't given the matter much thought. So I am doing now. My sense of self is strongly bound up with my physical body, as well as the mind that I was born with and which seems to have been delivered with a bunch of pre-installed software, such as (of course) gender identity, and a ragbag of qualities- innate abilities and weaknesses, the stuff we loosely describe as character or personality. My present self is the sum of all this and the experiences I've been through during my life, experiences that were mediated through the senses of my physical body.”

This set me thinking. Descartes doubted the reality of the material world and identified with his mind or soul rather than his body. Like a transsexual person, Descartes clearly felt a sense of alienation from his own body in that he saw it as a vehicle or machine which the mind, or soul, rides or inhabits. Perhaps the alienation which transsexual people feel towards their own bodies is just the natural alienation experienced by a thinking being…which we then interpret as alienation from the sex of our bodies [or perhaps Descartes was transsexual LOL]?

While Descartes (as far as I understand him), identified with his mind rather than his body, I (a transsexual person) identify with my mind more than my body – and I want to talk more about this. First, though, what does the existence of transsexual people say about human nature?

Thinking about the role of God, as Descartes would have done, one might conclude that the very existence of transsexual people says something about the perfection of ‘creation’ (presupposing the existence of God), or something about our ideas about the nature of God (e.g. God would only ever create perfect things), or something about society’s notions of ‘perfection’ (e.g. do we think that transsexual people are malfunctioning machines?), or something about the ‘sanctity’ of ‘male’ and ‘female’ as sexes and/or gender roles. Certainly, the existence of transsexual people poses problems to most people of a religious persuasion (including religious transsexual people) and the most common conundrum considered is who is in the wrong here – God, for creating an imperfect body, or the transsexual person for ‘going against nature’ or changing a perfect body – but this is premised on the assumptions that there is a God, that God would create everything to function perfectly and consistently, or that transsexual people are less perfect than the rest of creation. All of these assumptions are open to doubt.

I want to return to saying something about my thoughts about ‘mind’ and ‘soul’. Descartes appeared to use the words almost interchangeably and this has been a problem for later philosophers, I believe. The discipline of psychology looks at the functions and dysfunctions of the human brain. Insofar as the functions or dysfunctions of the brain can affect the ability of a person to think clearly and consistently, we can suppose that the brain and the mind are linked (the mind being the receptacle of our thoughts). Descartes suggested that the pineal gland is the structure in the brain that links the mind and the body (a claim he later dropped). If the soul is the mind and the mind is, in part, the brain, does this cause us another problem? In what form does the mind exist after the body and brain dies? Also, we know that our thoughts (and feelings) can become altered when illness or toxins affect our brain chemistry. Are all of our thoughts part of our mind/soul or only the ones that are labelled ‘sane’ or consistent with our usual patterns of thought or feelings? Which thoughts do we carry with us to the ‘after-life’ if there is one?

Turning to my own experiences, as a transsexual person who was brought up to be religious, I found it extremely difficult to reconcile my thoughts and feelings with the teachings of religion and with the prevalent attitudes of society at large. The ideas of a God and a soul is so ingrained in me that, despite a brief flirtation with atheism and humanism, I have sought to achieve a perspective on my existence which integrates the existence of a soul and a creator. Some religious groups say that one’s soul is gendered. If that is the case, then perhaps transsexual people’s souls are differently gendered to their bodies? One might say that this is making the mistake of taking an attribute of bodies (sex and/or gender) and mistakenly applying it to something that is non-material. However, insofar as the mind comprises one’s thoughts and the brain appears to make those thoughts possible, the mind would appear to be (at least in part) as material as the body. So, if the soul is non-material, it stands to reason that the soul is not the mind. So what on not-Earth is the soul then? Now I have a headache.

I still cling to the idea of a soul. For me, and I have no evidence for this, the soul is not gendered. Male and female are far to narrow and contingent categories to encompass fully something like a soul. I like to think that my soul, my ‘true’ nature, found ‘male’ ways of thinking and acting to be mismatched and too restrictive. ‘Female’ ways are far more in keeping with my ‘true nature’. But this says nothing about my sense of alienation from the physical form of my body, which is far more difficult to explain, and yet this is a common feeling amongst transsexual people – our bodies just feel wrong until we change them.

This brings me back to the ‘perfection of creation’. If God exists and God is perfect, does that not imply that God’s creation (the material world) is also perfect? Transsexual people, like those who have inherited diseases, mismatching eye colours, dyslexia, or any other condition that is a statistical outlier, would appear to be ‘imperfect’ if you take the view that what is most common (statistically) is most ‘perfect’. However, perhaps ‘God’s creation’ is perfect in a different way. Perhaps we are misunderstanding the purpose of this material existence (assuming there is a purpose). Perhaps God has created the world, body and life we each inhabit to teach us something. Perhaps this is all a process of ‘soul making’ and our soul is what we become after a lifetime, or lifetimes, of experience? In this view, the existence of transsexual people would be entirely consistent with the idea of God and a perfect creation. The question is, what is the ‘correct’ thing to do if you find yourself in a transsexual body?

Personally, I chose after many years of ‘soul-searching’ to change my body because that was the only way I could see to live my life fully and to the best of my ability. I would like to think that I have become a more ethical person since my transition. Certainly, I have been able to help more people through the voluntary work I now do. Why did I not do voluntary work before I transitioned? Well, I did, occasionally, but I was so hampered and exhausted by the continual internal struggle of being in the wrong body and wrong gender that it took something as dramatic as a ‘sex change’ to liberate me enough to start looking outwards at society and to see how I could contribute to making other people’s lives a little easier.