Mind Matters News and Analysis on Natural and Artificial Intelligence

Could Your Computer Be Transgender?

A shift in basic philosophy can account for the new dogma that biological sex is a matter of culture and choice
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A 27-year-old man recently competed in the Miss Universe pageant. ‘Competing as Miss (sic) Spain, Angela Ponce lost, but garnered more press than the biological woman who won. In a decade, transgenderism has gone from a psychiatric disorder to a state that we must celebrate in order to be accepted in polite company. That’s despite many serious implications, including one that prompted Alexandra DeSanctis’s question at National Review, Could Ponce actually “represent all women” without being a woman at all?

According to our current culture, a man can be a woman — really be a woman — merely if he wants to. No biology required. The very nature of sex as a biological reality is denied, yet the biology of sex is a fact so obvious that it staggers the mind to see it questioned.

The rebranding of sex (male/female) as “gender” is Orwellian. In George Orwell‘s Oceania (the future state in which 1984 is set), we learn in one scene that the chocolate ration is reported as having been raised to 20 grams a week. It had in fact been lowered to 20 grams a week from a previous 30. Yet people accept the new language and treat “lowered” as if it were “raised.” They greet the news with joyful street demos praising Big Brother.

Orwell (1903–1950) was prescient. People can begin to think that language does not represent an underlying reality. “Gender,” for example, is a term in linguistics, the study of language. It refers to nouns and pronouns. In many languages, all nouns have gender, simply as a form of classification. In French, for example, we have “la France” (female) vs. “le Canada” (male) but neither nation, of course, belongs to a sex.  It simply makes no sense to treat human biological sex as merely gender, except as an abuse of language to advance an ideology.

Nonetheless, this ideology of “fluidity” pops up everywhere these days. It leads us to accept without blinking that cows became whales by the magical power of the “survival of the survivors” (natural selection). The same impulse of belief leads us to accept without blinking that computers can think, merely by virtue of the complexity of circuits of silicon and copper.

What is this ideology? How did we get here — where men compete in women’s beauty pageants and the mere public affirmation of the reality of men and women can get a person into trouble with a social justice mob? How did we come to believe that animals become other animals merely by different levels of success in reproduction, or that machines can think, intend, and even love in just the same way that humans can?

Every cultural trend springs from a worldview, an ideology. We often don’t understand the ideology underlying a particular fad, and sometimes it is quite difficult to sort out its ancestry. Not in this case. The bizarre beliefs all stem from a single philosophical error. Understanding that error goes a long way to understanding the madness of our time.

Our traditional understanding of the link between thought and reality derives from the philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Plato was an extreme Realist: He believed that the things that exist in the world are reflections of supremely real things in the world of Forms. Aristotle was a semi-realist: He believed that things that exist in the world are instantiations of forms — “universals” is a better term for them — but that there is no independent world of Forms per se. Theologians, notably Augustine, have tended to see reality in a way that bridges Plato and Aristotle: the forms of real things in nature are instantiations of the thoughts in the mind of God.

The nature of universals was debated among philosophers for many centuries. By the High Middle Ages, the controversy took a new turn. William of Occam (c. 1280 – c. 1349) denied the real existence of universals and insisted that the names we give to things refer only to “mental predicates.” Joe, for example, is only a “man” is a linguistic sense rather than being an instantiation of the form of “man” in a Platonic, Aristotelian, or Augustinian sense. For the nominalist, only particular things are real. Universals, like categories, have no reality outside the mind.

From this abstruse philosophical quibble rose a profound error that shakes our civilization to this day. We are mostly nominalists now, but more as a habit of thinking than a thought-out point of view. Perhaps Miss Spain could not define nominalism if asked. But there are innumerable problems with nominalism as a metaphysical stance, a way of viewing reality. Philosopher Ed Feser notes at least four of them:

  1. Universals exist, independent of particular examples. A universal like “triangularity” exists independent of actual triangles because no actual triangle “completely fulfills the nature of triangularity.” That is, no existing triangle has three perfectly straight sides or interior angles that add up to exactly 180 degrees. We must accept the reality of triangularity in order to label any object in nature a “triangle.” Thus, the universal has a reality that is independent of any particular thing.
  2. Mathematical truths are plainly real, yet they have no particular existence in the material world. For example, the imaginary unit i (the square root of -1) does not exist as a thing in nature yet it clearly exists and in fact, forms the underpinning of entire branches of modern mathematics.
  3. Propositions such as “Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo” are true regardless of whether any physical representation of the proposition exists. If the earth were destroyed, and along with it all historians and history books, Napoleon would still have lost the battle of Waterloo in 1815. Propositions are not merely mental constructs; their reality transcends the particular things that embody them.
  4. Science is in the business of discovering universals. It does not merely collate specimens or facts but rather seeks to uncover the relations and consistencies that transcend particulars. Newton’s law of gravitation, for example, is not an object but it is not merely a thought either. It is a conceptual expression of a reality in nature. (These four problems are summarized from Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God )

Nominalism, as you can see, is a philosophical dead end that does not reflect underlying reality. But it has permeated our culture. We are told that there are no categories; everything is infinitely plastic. Species have no real essence but are merely stages in an eternal biological shape-shift. We are told that men and women are not biological realities as such, but merely mental and cultural constructs of our culture. We are told that confections of copper and plastic can think, believe, and feel. What we believe is as good as true. The philosophical error that underlies this madness is roughly a thousand years old, and we need to examine it and understand how we have been led astray.

I’ll have more to say on this topic in future posts, but for now, I’ve got other things to do. I’ve decided not to participate in the next Miss America pageant, as much as I feel feminine this morning. For one thing, it’s cold out today, and I have also decided that I’m a squirrel so I need to find some of the nuts I buried last fall.

Michael Egnor is a neurosurgeon, professor of Neurological Surgery and Pediatrics and Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, Neurological Surgery, Stonybrook School of Medicine

Also by Michael Egnor: Hamlet: Did his perplexing neurotransmitters cause the tragedy?

Does brain stimulation research challenge free will?

Yes, your brain is a machine— if you choose to see it that way


The brain is not a meat computer. Dramatic recoveries from brain injury highlight the difference