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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.

  1. Therefore (a), matter must determine their gender. By modus ponens.

  2. Therefore (b), humans cannot possibly choose against their material nature, since that is all they are and all they have.

  3. 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.

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