Identity, Please

“What am I?” This question came to me once long ago after awaking from a nap in a strange place. The usual question in such cases is, “Where am I?” But my befuddlement went deeper. I was awake, but not awake to much of anything about myself. This question of identity was answered soon after when I came to my senses. Never since have I questioned my basic identity as a Christian male. Today, however, many are not coming to their senses. Instead, they are going out of their minds.

My point is philosophical and simple. Let us start with two propositions to see if they get along with each other. These claims are held by not a few people today.

  1. Humans are constituted by matter and nothing more. This, of course, includes their biological gender. That is, chemistry, biology, and physics determine who they are and what they do. Thus, from this viewpoint, this statement, “I am my body and nothing more,” is true. This is a broadly materialist or physicalist account of human beings. Everything human can be reduced to matter.
  2. Humans are not defined by their biological gender, whether they are male or female. Bodies do not determine their gender identity. On the contrary, humans may identify with any gender preference available, such as homosexual, heterosexual, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, or queer. (Queer Studies is now an academic discipline.) However, these are not fixed categories, since people may change their identities at will. One identifying as homosexual may re-identify as bi-sexual at another time. The categories may be blended as well: John identifies as mostly homosexual, but partially with heterosexual. The possibilities proliferate wildly once the traditional binary topography of gender is trashed. Philosophically conjoining (1) and (2), however, is a headache, and no pain reliever is in the cabinet—or anywhere else. Let me explain.

No one can choose against reality. If humans are only material, then their very materiality must determine who they are—their gender and all their other features. Thus, for the materialist to say that one’s body does not determine gender is a contradiction. To what else can one appeal as the basis for identity? Volition, on this account, cannot float free from one’s body, which is physical and nothing but physical. Consider these examples:

  1. One is anatomically male, but identifies as female.
  2. One is anatomically female, but identifies as male.
  3. One is anatomically male, but identifies as a lesbian.

One could, sadly, go on, but philosophy must speak its piece. According to materialism:

  1. If a human is only matter, then matter must determine their gender.
  2. Humans are only matter.

  3. Therefore (a), matter must determine their gender. By modus ponens.
  4. Therefore (b), humans cannot possibly choose against their material nature, since that is all they are and all they have.
  5. Therefore (c), the claim that gender is not determined by one’s physical body is false.

Put more simply, the materialist who claims that one can identify as what one is not has to affirm two contradictory statements:

  1. I am only my body.
  2. I am not only my body.

If materialism is true, then there are no volitional resources available to choose against one’s body, one’s biological nature. One cannot invent what cannot exist. It is like climbing a ladder of water or jumping out of a bottomless pit. Whatever else we say about gender, let us at least defer to logic and reality. There are laws and facts that cannot be broken. But we may break ourselves upon them.

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

8 thoughts

  1. So your argument cuts off the legs of the one who claims to FEEL like the opposite gender? Does the idea of feeling belong to an immaterial world only? Just trying to anticipate some one who might say genes or chemicals cause feelings of disintegration. I liked your modus pones syllogism!

  2. Real materialists are more skeptical of the plasticity of gender than you portray here. It’s important to keep in mind that the kind of folks who teach in the “studies” departments, like Queer Studies, tend to reject scientific reductionism as well, now that neuroscience has discovered so much evidence about how innate many gender traits are. A good example of this would be the controversy that surrounded Steven Pinker’s 2002 book The Blank Slate which, coming from a materialist, was probably the most influential take down of Feminist Theory ever put to print.

    Feminist Theory is the body of thought taught in Women Studies departments that claims gender identity is entirely socially constructed; so biology plays no role in causing things like girls wanting to play with dolls and boys wanting to play with toy guns. The Department of Women’s Studies will teach that it’s only because society gives one set of toys to girls and another set of toys to boys, and reinforces this socialization for the rest of their life. The Departments of Brain Science teaches that the different choice in toys primarily comes from the fact that their brains are demonstrably wired differently.

    The “studies” departments are basically the repository of continental philosophy in the American academy since real philosophy departments’ hiring and tenure decisions are dominated by the analytic tradition. In a certain sense then, like pre-modernists, these post-modernists have issues with modernity and its reductionist world-view too.

    Traditionalists and post-modernists are merely arguing over a normative question of what people’s gender identity should be. The modernist, reductionist, materialist, or what ever you want to call him is actually more comfortable with letting the individual freely make a choice in identity, because he sees that the physical structure of a person’s brain has a stronger causal role in that identity than either the prevailing culture or the pipe work of the person’s private parts.

  3. I am not a materialist, nor do I suppose that gender fluidity is a condition that should be encouraged as healthy and normative. However, if my positions were reversed on both points, I would likely argue that the brain, as a material object, sends material chemical signals within the mind (the collective of all material chemical signals within a single brain) that contradict the body’s gender attributes. Does this perspective lack coherence or cohesion within the materialist, pro gender fluidity, worldview? Either way, I don’t know how one could conclude that such a brain function is anything but dysfunctional, without reverting to some logical fallacy such as argument from nature or potentially some ad populum argument. Thoughts? Also, big fan of your Christian apologetics books and work on the Pascalian anthropological argument. Thanks for the great effort and resources.

    1. Chris – so as you make a distinction between brain and mind, do you mean that both parts are material? I thought the mind was the immaterial realm of thoughts and memories and dreams and feelings. Yes, there is probably a correlation between some chemicals and the immaterial, but can one prove that? Just thinking.

  4. Classic Groothius Strawman bullshit. I’d be curious if Dr. G-Spot even knows someone that matches his caricature. Do some of you actually pay money to sit under this irrelevant turd?

    1. If Groothuis were truly irrelevant, one would think you would have never heard of him or that it would not be worth your time to respond to his article. Given the minority position that Evangelicals have pretty much always been in from the days of William Jennings Bryan to the present, I suppose it’s a bit of a truism to say he lacks influence over the commanding heights of high culture, but it’s not clear to me that would warrant calling him a “turd.”

      I wonder how influential he is to contemporary Christian culture. I’d never heard of him until a Facebook friend of mine posted his gay marriage challenge into my newsfeed. I responded and perhaps inadvertently subscribed to this blog, now getting everything Groothuis posts emailed to me.

      My interest in philosophy has primarily been centered on political theory, but my curiosity has been piqued by Groothuis’ apparent focus on going to the mat for dualism. It’s not clear to me that Christian faith must necessarily be so Platinist. So when I post comments here, it’s not to insult but rather to actually try to learn from him. If it’s worth your time leaving a comment, then I predict that it might be worth your time to engage a little more deeply or at least more civilly.

  5. After being initially convinced that this was a great argument, I read through some of the comments and lost my conviction. The materialist does not say that I am only my body; the materialist says that I am only matter. That leaves room for my material body to fit one list of category (gender A) criteria and my material mind to fit another list of category (gender B) criteria. Biological nature is behind both, but human biology is more than just the body.

  6. Pingback: Sin Alma | Oracion

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