Reshaping Reality #32 #cong23 #reality
This piece is an extended discussion on the nature of reality, perception, and the philosophical and biological underpinnings of how we experience and interpret the world. It also delves into the social constructs around gender and the ethical considerations surrounding the LGBTQ+ community, specifically relating to trans individuals. I look at reality as a dynamic interplay between our physical existence and our cognitive processes. And suggests that our brains, shaped by evolution and co-evolving with language, actively construct reality through sensory experiences and interactions with the environment. This construction is influenced by our biological setup. Analogising current transphobic behaviour to past attitudes to homosexuality I use biology, cognitive science, linguistics and metaphysics to underpin trans rights and conclude that an inclusive approach, recognizing the validity of trans identities and the ethical imperative to embrace the diversity of human experiences is the only moral way forward.
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- Reality is not a fixed entity but is actively constructed (enacted) by individuals based on their sensory inputs and cognitive processing.
- Social constructs and language play significant roles in shaping our perception of reality and our interactions with others.
- The concept of ‘Quality’ as described by Pirsig in his philosophical works, suggests that our understanding of reality is deeply influenced by our value judgments and the dynamic interplay between novel experiences and established norms.
- Historical and current attitudes towards LGBTQ+ individuals reflect broader societal norms and biases, which change evolve over time, with language key to change.
- Ethical and inclusive approaches to understanding gender and sexuality are crucial for the well-being and acceptance of all individuals, especially those from the LGBTQ+ community.
About Dermot Casey:
Dermot is a husband of one and father of three. He helps people and companies create shape and adapt to the future. He is CEO of the Industry Research and Development Group and on the board of NSAI National Standards Authority of Ireland and the Festival of Curiosity. At work he’s an Advisor, Innovator, Investor, Teacher, Mentor. In life a Catalyst, Synthesist and ever Curious. He likes tea, books, running but not too fast and dips in the sea.
Contacting Dermot Casey:
By Dermot Casey
I run. Dashing across the road. Running is easier now. Easier. Doable. Not easy. I’m jogging 5K three times a week. There’s a rhythm to it now. One foot in front to the other. Calm tones of a podcast or playlist in my ears as jog along the seafront and west pier. I’m not out for a run right now, not in my runners. The ground is wet, slippy, the surface broken, uneven. I trip. The reality of Newtons second law of motion takes over. Force is mass by acceleration. My acceleration was building. Down I go. It happens in a second. The brain is aware I’m falling. The body reacts, arms out in front of me. My right knee clatters on the ground. The only thing damaged is my trousers, a hole in the knee. A gash on the knee underneath which will hurt later. I pick myself up and catch a breath. Ruefully musing that the impact is less that it would have been six months ago. If force is mass by acceleration, then as my acceleration was building my mass has been declining. My physical reality has changed over the last six months.
Physical reality. Reality. What exists and what is real as opposed to what underlies phenomena. The truth. One truth is we are physical beings. Embodied and existing in the world. Our physicality is important. As biological organisms evolution has shaped our reality. Light exists along a spectrum from infrared to ultraviolet. The small piece that we can see we refer to as ‘the visible spectrum’. The rest we perceive only through mechanical means. But is it real if we can’t experience it. To paraphrase Nietzche – ‘A man has no ears (or eyes) for that which experience has given him no access’. It’s not that this light doesn’t exist it is that we have no access to it.
What we have access to, and what we have experience of is important. Our brains and our bodies evolved to enable us to sense and orient ourselves in the world. We are sense making beings. We make sense to survive and to thrive. Our brain acts as a constant prediction engine (wonderfully described by Lisa Feldman Barrett in her book ‘How Emotions are Made’). This mechanism is a function of how our brains continually construct reality from our sensory experience and our experience of the world.
One example is how your brain and mine are continually constructing our visual reality. Our eyes only enable us to see a very small portion of the world. The center of our eye has a very narrow angle of physical color visual receptors. Outside this is a wider angle of black and white visual receptors. And we have holes in our eyes where the optic nerve meets the eye. Literal black holes that we can occasionally trick our eyes into seeing but for the most part never notice. Yet we see the world in dynamic full colour not in black and white with holes. We have 100 million visual receptors in the eye but only 10 million channels of transmission into the brain. The eye itself filters out 90% of the signals we take in and the rest of the picture it’s constructed from memory. This works wonderfully most of the time to discard information that’s not important. And to enable us to see the world as a continual colourful flow.
Our mind strives to highlight important changes. If I’m sitting in a hotel lobby discussing Congregation with Eoin Kennedy and I hold a mandarin orange in my hand under fluorescent lights that orange is a very specific colour under the wavelength of the lights. If I take that orange and walk outside to daylight there’s a very different wavelength of light. And the orange doesn’t change colour. Essentially the mind as a synthesis of eye and the brain is saying – this is same object so keep the image the same.
We are continually modelling reality and models are approximations, none are perfect, but they need to be consistent and believable and useful. And we all model reality slightly differently. My reality is different from your reality, grounded not just in variations of genetic identity (whether coriander tastes nice or like soap) and the expressions of those genes in the environment I’ve lived and in the experiences of my own life. When I started my first job out of college I was sent for a medical. I discovered that I had a slight red-green colour blindness. I was never aware of this before. And I’m generally not aware of it on a day-to-day basis outside of the funny coloured shapes used to test for colour blindness.
There is a branch of metaphysics – ontology (the study of the nature of reality) that looks at considers reality. Plato in his metaphysics “developed a distinction between true reality and illusion, arguing that what is real are eternal and unchanging forms or ideas of which things experienced in sensation are at best merely copies” (Wikipedia). Views and perspectives or the nature of reality range from a pure social constructivist view (we create the world) to a purely platonic view. What is clear is that there are different types of reality that we access in different ways. Things that are not produced by us (gravity, light propagation), things that are produced by us (cars, books chairs) and things that we come to know through our interactions, our interactions with each other, our interactions with the world and our unique self-reflective interactions with ourselves. And interaction is important even with things that are independent of us.
The work of a number of other thinkers adds depth and context and a better conceptual understanding of reality. Terrance Deacon is an American neuroanthropologist, professor, and author. In his book ‘The Symbolic Species’ he explores the evolution of human language and its profound implications on human cognition and perception of reality. Deacon argues that human language and the human brain have co-evolved. This co-evolutionary process has not only shaped our brains to accommodate complex linguistic abilities but also influenced the development of language itself. A key point in Deacon’s argument is the concept of symbolic reference, which is the ability of language to refer to things and ideas not immediately present. This symbolic reference distinguishes human language from animal communication systems.
Deacon’s ideas imply that our perception and understanding of reality are deeply intertwined with our linguistic capabilities. Language allows humans to conceptualize and communicate about things that are not immediately present, effectively constructing realities beyond the immediate physical environment. The symbolic nature of language enables the creation of shared realities or cultures – systems of meaning and understanding shared by a group. At the same time, it allows for subjective experiences of reality, as each individual’s language use and understanding is slightly different. The way we use language not only reflects but also shapes our thoughts and behaviors. The structure and vocabulary of a language can influence how its speakers perceive and interact with the world.
The biological basis for this can be seen in the work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela two Chilean biologists whose work significantly impacted the fields of biology, cognitive science, and philosophy, through their joint development of the concept of autopoiesis and their contributions to the theory of cognition. The broad basis of their ideas are contained in their book ‘The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding’.
Maturana and Varela’s view of reality is heavily influenced by the systemic and self-organising nature of life. They developed the “enactive” approach to cognition, which proposes that cognition is not just about representing an external world within the brain. Instead, cognition is a process of enacting or bringing forth reality through the organism’s interactions with its environment. This means that knowledge and perception are not pre-given but are actively constructed by the organism as it interacts with its world. In this view, reality is not simply an objective, observer-independent entity. Instead, reality is seen as something that arises from the interactions and relationships between organisms and their environments. Each organism, through its sensory and operational capacities, brings forth a world that is viable for its existence. This leads to the idea of multiple realities, each dependent on the organism experiencing it. Maturana and Varela extended these ideas to human understanding and social phenomena, suggesting that our realities are also constructed through our linguistic and social interactions.
Their work has profound implications for biology, cognitive science, philosophy, and even sociology and psychology. The notion that reality is not a fixed entity but is instead something that organisms actively construct challenges traditional views of perception and knowledge and the subject-object view of the world. Maturana and Varela are very careful not to deny the “objectivity of a knowable world” so as to avoid “the chaos of arbitrariness because everything is possible”.
Maturana and Varela’s view of reality is deeply intertwined with biology and cognition. This is further echoed in the work of neuroscientist Antanio Domasio. Damasio’s ideas about reality and perception complement Maturana and Varela’s theories by providing a neurobiological perspective that underscores the importance of the body and emotion in shaping the cognitive processes that give rise to the human experience of reality. Both views challenge a purely objective understanding of the world, instead of highlighting the active role that living systems play in creating their own realities. Culture and other mental frames mediate, complicate and compromise our access to that reality, in effect bounding our reationality particularly in the social sphere.
The final element of this is Robert Pirsig and his Metaphysics of Quality. In his seminal book ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ Pirsig describes “What we think of as reality is a continuous synthesis of elements from a fixed hierarchy of a priori concepts and the ever changing data of the senses” Human knowledge is the capability to make meaning from information (sensory data).
Reality in Pirsig framing is “not static. It’s not a set of ideas that you either fight or else resign yourself to. It’s made up in part of ideas that are expected to grow as you grow”. In his followup to ‘Zen and the Art..’ called ‘Lila: An Enquiry into Morals’ he elaborates this philosophy, proposing that “Quality” or “value” is the fundamental fabric of reality, surpassing both subject (mind) and object (matter) in importance. He divides Quality into two types: Dynamic and Static. Dynamic Quality is the force of change, innovation, and spontaneity; it represents the unpredictable and constantly evolving aspect of reality. Static Quality, in contrast, embodies order, stability, and structure. We define reality as a noun when in essence it standing for a process as well. This multifacted view is challenging and difficult particularly for those who prefer a fixed and unchanging world.
Pirsig describes Quality as the response of an organism to its environment. “An amoeba, placed on a plate of water with a drip of dilute sulfuric acid placed nearby, will pull away from the acid (I think). If it could speak the amoeba, without knowing anything about sulfuric acid, could say, `This environment has poor quality.’ If it had a nervous system it would act in a much more complex way to overcome the poor quality of the environment. It would seek analogues, that is, images and symbols from its previous experience, to define the unpleasant nature of its new environment and thus `understand’ it.” It might also describe slipping while running as low quality.
He goes on to describe “In our highly complex organic state we advanced organisms respond to our environment with an invention of many marvelous analogues. We invent earth and heavens, trees, stones and oceans, gods, music, arts, language, philosophy, engineering, civilization and science. We call these analogues reality. And they are reality. We mesmerize our children in the name of truth into knowing that they are reality. We throw anyone who does not accept these analogues into an insane asylum. But that which causes us to invent the analogues is Quality. Quality is the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live.”
With the mention of an insane asylum it’s worth noting that Pirsig spent time in a mental institution. Its also worth mentioning that Ireland once had one of the highest rates of institutionalisation in asylums in the world (our incarceration rate at 1% of the population higher than the US Prison incarceration rate today). We know many of these people were not mentally ill. They were more often dynamically troublesome to the stability of a static society.
Going further philosopher Justin Garson has recently raised serious questions on how we conceptualise the idea of mental illness. Garson presents an alternative view on mental illness that challenges traditional perspectives. He suggests that what we typically categorise as mental illness can sometimes be understood as a correct or natural response to one’s environment rather than a pathological disease. This perspective is grounded in the notion that certain psychological states or behaviours deemed ‘abnormal’ in contemporary society may, in fact, be adaptive responses to particular environmental conditions or stressors. By considering the context in which these mental states arise, Garson suggests that some mental illnesses may represent a rational response to adverse or challenging circumstances. This view echoes the concept of “situated normativity,” which holds that what is considered normal or healthy behaviour can only be determined in relation to the specific environmental and social context of an individual. Garson’s stance invites a re-evaluation of how we define, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions, advocating for a more nuanced approach that takes into account the complex interplay between an individual’s biology, psychology, and their environment.
Garson’s ideas echo Pirsig’s. In Pirsig’s view, the traditional dichotomy between subject and object (mind and matter) is an oversimplification. Reality is a complex interplay of both, unified through Quality. This understanding requires us to reconceive our role in the world not as separate observers or manipulators of an external world but as integral participants in a dynamic, value-laden reality. The concept of Dynamic and Static Quality also provides an explanation for the evolution of consciousness and societal development. Human consciousness and societies evolve as they negotiate the tension between the need for stability (Static Quality) and the need for change and novelty (Dynamic Quality).
Both Maturana & Varela and Pirsig move away from static views of reality. For Maturana & Varela, reality is enacted through the organism-environment interaction. For Pirsig, it’s the continuous play between Dynamic and Static Quality. Both perspectives challenge the conventional subject-object dichotomy. Maturana & Varela’s enactive approach and Pirsig’s Quality both suggest a more integrated, relational view of reality where mind and matter are intertwined. Living systems in Maturana & Varela’s framework continuously maintain and redefine themselves, much like Pirsig’s view of reality evolving through the interaction of Dynamic and Static Quality. One implication that comes from this is that human knowledge is driven by language and conversation – new knowledge (new reality) is created when ways of talking and patterns of relationships change dynamically.
Though they come at it from completely different fields Maturana & Varela (Biology) and Pirsig (Philosophy & Metaphysics) they essentially arrive at the same conclusions. Maturana and Varelas structural coupling and enactive world is in part a biological basis for Pirsigs Metaphysics of Quality. Maturana and Varlea, Feldman Barrett, Damasio, and Pirsig among many others highlight a tremendously rich body of knowledge across biology, philosophy, and information systems that converge on the dynamic nature of reality.
Pirsig’s philosophy also offers a framework for understanding and guiding both individual and collective behaviour. Decisions and actions are seen as ethical when they contribute to an enhancement of quality, leading to a more harmonious and dynamic balance between stability and change. By redefining morality in terms of Quality, Pirsig suggests a more holistic and integrated approach to ethics, transcending rigid moral codes and acknowledging the complex, evolving nature of human societies and personal experiences.
This has both some profound implications for society and is a powerful explanation of much of what happens in society. In 1973 to be gay was to be mentally ill according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association. Homosexuality’s history with the DSM is a stark example of how cultural and social biases can influence scientific understanding and classification of human behaviour and create a distorted reality for a minority. Originally listed as a sociopathic personality disturbance in the first edition of the DSM in 1952, homosexuality was reclassified as a “sexual orientation disturbance” in the DSM-II in 1968. This pathologising of homosexuality reflected prevailing societal prejudices of the time rather than an evidence (reality)-based understanding of sexual orientation. In 1973 after intense debate and activism from both inside and outside the medical community, the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from the DSM-III. This decision marked the beginning of a shift toward a scientific understanding of sexual orientation. Since then, homosexuality has been recognised as a normal variant of human sexuality, and the subsequent editions of the DSM have not included it as a mental disorder, reflecting a broader societal move towards acceptance and equality. For 20 years after this decision in the US homosexuality continued to be illegal in Ireland, changing in 1993 only after forced by court action at European level. This in Ireland was grounded in a static view of human nature promulgated by the Catholic church which even today describes being gay as “intrinsically disordered”.
In terms of morality and quality dynamic quality has helped reshape society. This underlines the point that new knowledge (new reality) is created when ways of talking, and patterns of relationships change. Homosexuality and same sex marriage are legal and normal. Dynamic reality reshaped and enhanced the world. Our language and our conversations around homosexuality changed. And the reality of for gay people changed with it. Though we still have a long way to go. Almost a third of the population voted against same sex marriage. Sex education at school level is still badly deficient, a strong legacy of church control though the new emerging SPHE curriculum will significantly address that.
And we still have people who resist these changes. The cold grasping dead hand of a conservative ideology. The Family Research Council (FRC) is a US conservative group identified by the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) as an extremist hate group due to its actions against LGBTQ+ people. The FRC is known for making false claims about the LGBTQ community, using discredited research and junk science to dehumanize LGBTQ individuals and fight against their rights. Historically, they have opposed same-sex marriage, hate-crime laws, and anti-bullying programs. At the Family Research Council’s 2017 Values Voter Summit, an explicit strategy was laid out for attacking LGBTQ+ rights by targeting transgender people, particularly focusing on health care for children. This movement of attacking the rights of transgender people to undermine LGBTQ+ rights more broadly has been embraced by conservative and reactionary groups across many countries.
In Ireland the Iona Institute, a conservative Catholic organisation, has connections to the wider anti-gender rights movement, primarily through its links to the Novae Terrae Foundation. Novae Terrae received funds from a Russian money laundering scheme and redistributed them among several anti-LGBTQ+ rights and conservative religious groups in Europe, including the Iona Institute. Additionally, representatives from the Iona Institute have appeared at Agenda Europe summits alongside various anti- LGBTQ + and anti-abortion rights campaigners and groups, including the Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADF International), which is a designated hate group in the U.S. and has spent significant funds in Europe over several years (via The Beacon)
The attacks against trans people and LGBTQ+ people can be divided into what what I call, the the acts of the bad, the acts of mad and the doubts of the uncertain. The bad are following the playbook of the anti-gay hysteria of the 1980s which resulted in section 28 in the UK where schools were not allowed talk about homosexuality. A situation similar to that in many schools in Ireland where under school ethos legislation religion teachers frequently teach Relationships and Sexuality Education. The bad were responsible for the description of gay people as groomers, and the idea of social contagion of homosexuality. These baseless, hysterical claims are the same as those being made against trans people today. The current manufactured state is similar to previous moral panics over homosexuality.
This artificial ‘debate’ As Shon Faye points out in her book ‘The Transgender Issue’ where “the ‘topic’ of trans has now been limited to a handful of repetitive talking points: whether non-binary people exist and whether gender neutral pronouns are reasonable; whether trans children with dysphoria should be allowed to start their transition; whether trans women will dominate women’s events in the Olympics; and the endless debate over toilets and changing rooms.”
A key point here, and a thread that runs through conservative religious groups in this and other areas is the suppression of dynamic individual human agency. The suppression of dynamic quality. An old religious saying that Pirsig quotes in Lila is that “nothing disturbs a Bishop so much as the presence of a saint in the parish.” There is a reactionary strain in some parts of the human soul that seeks to suppress individual agency and creativity. That which leads to growth and social change and progress. In Pirsigs terms elements of static quality seeks to suppress Dynamic Quality and suffocate human agency. There has been a general fear of individuality, personal choice and questioning the status quo. It’s been reflected across Irish society over decades in attitudes to gay people, to neurodiverse people, to unmarried mothers, to those who step outside the strictures of society. There are now attempts to apply this approach to trans people. Less successfully in Ireland so far but quite successfully in the UK.
Shon Faye has noted “Greater acknowledgement of gender variance in the twenty first century has led to the wider recognition of that fact that the spectrum of human sexuality is much more complex and much less rigid than previously thought, which can and does unsettle some people.” This is exploited by hate groups to attack trans people. The damage being done to trans people is immense. 45% of trans people will attempt suicide. 64% of trans pupils are bullied at school. 46% say they hear transphobic language frequently at school. 84% of British trans young people have self-harmed. Trans people have higher percentages of homelessness, are more victims of violence than other groups.
These are not inherent properties of being trans. These are cruelties imposed on trans people. The mental damage done to trans people is to note Garsons point a sane reaction to an insane environment. And it’s reflective of similar damage that was done to gay people over many decades. As the environment has improved for gay people so has bullying and violence decreased, and their mental health improved. And there is still a long way to go.
As noted by Maturana & Varela’s living systems continuously maintain and redefine themselves. We need to recognise that trans people like all living people know themselves. In an experiment done with food 100 years by Clara Davis, a Chicago paediatrician, infants, aged six to 11 months, were offered a variety of foods and allowed to eat whatever they wanted. These infants had no prior experience with ordinary foods. During meal times, the infants were presented with a selection of 34 different foods, with no direct offering or suggestion from the caregivers. The children created 15 distinct eating patterns, each different from the others, and often chose unusual combinations, like orange juice and liver for breakfast. Despite these unorthodox choices, they all managed to form a nutritious diet.
One notable case involved an infant with severe rickets (vitamin D deficiency), who was offered cod liver oil. The child took the oil irregularly and in varying amounts until his condition improved, and then never consumed it again. Humans when given agency have a remarkable ability to determine what is best for them.
In the past, societal norms and cultural values made it difficult for gay people to express their identity. Gay people frequently faced pressure to conform to heterosexual norms, leading to concealment of their true identities and significant personal distress. This pressure also gave rise to attempts at conversion therapy, a practice based on the erroneous belief that sexual orientation can be changed through psychological or spiritual interventions. Conversion therapy stemmed from historical misconceptions that viewed homosexuality as a mental disorder or moral failing, which led to the development of various harmful and ineffective methods aimed at “curing” individuals. These practices have been widely discredited and condemned by major medical and psychological organizations due to their lack of scientific basis and potential to cause severe psychological harm. They’ve thankfully been banned in many countries.
Despite this, conversion therapy persisted for decades, reflecting the broader challenges gay individuals faced in being accepted for who they are. The same challenges are being faced by trans people today. The medical evidence in support of affirmative care for transgender people, particularly transgender youth, is so substantial as to be overwhelming. Its voluminous that I’ll reference some of these as an appendix. And medical organisations are consistent on the need for gender affirming care. Despite this people continue to resist and deny the reality of trans children. Much as in the past there was a societal attempt to deny and marginalise gay people. The problems for LGBTQ+ kids (gay or trans) isn’t their reality it’s as Shon Faye comments the social construction of “a toxic kind of shame that is directed at children for being who they fundamentally are.”
There’s something profoundly disturbing around the damage caused by toxic shame. Irish people will be familiar with the notion of Catholic guilt, the idea of having committed an offense or wrong, whether real or imagined. Catholic guilt is often toxic shame and the inadequacy that stems from how people perceive their actions or identity. People often internalise feelings of shame, especially in a setting where certain aspects of their identity (such as sexual orientation) are stigmatised with it leading to profound psychological distress.
And trans people are stigmatised. By the bad, by the mad and too often by the uncertain. The bad we’ve noted. They’re frequently people who are ideologically opposed to trans people and see an advantage in attacking them. They’re also the ones attacking libraries and causing chaos outside the Dáil. Alt-right as well as all wrong. The mad are people who appear to have been driven over the edge in a bizarre way by the issue. Just as Don Quixote mistook windmills for giants, battling them in a misguided attempt to uphold his chivalric ideals, the mad can be seen as fighting against a misunderstood or misperceived “threat.” Trans individuals and transgender rights are about as harmful and adversarial as the windmills Don Quixote tilted at. The harm the mad do (whether based on illusions and false beliefs, misconceptions and misinformation) is all too real and all too damaging to trans people. From writing billionaires to a formerly celebrated comedy writer to a former tennis champion it’s difficult to fathom these people.
The most important group to impact reality are the uncertain. Their doubts are understandable. To most people gender seems obvious and binary. Only 0.4% of the population suffer from gender dysphoria. That gender is neither simple nor binary can be confusing and sometimes disturbing to people. For some it disturbs the order of their world. For others it’s just strange or weird. We spend the early part of our life adapting to the world and developing our views and large parts of adulthood defending our views and trying to make the world conform to our notion of reality. We start open and dynamic, and we become static. As we transition into adulthood, our views become more ingrained, and we often spend a significant portion of our adult life defending these established beliefs and attempting to shape the world to fit them.
I know that change is possible and that the doubts of people that are uncertain can be changed. Without the dynamic nature and ability to change we’d be permanently locked into cultural norms of the past. This change won’t happen through debate. It will happen through conversation. Human knowledge is driven by language and conversation – new knowledge (new reality) is created when ways of talking and patterns of relationships change dynamically. We’ve seen this in relation to our recent referenda on equal marriage and abortion.
It’s possible in part because the range and reality and multitudinous wonder of human variety is already present across language across culture and society. We can enact and bring this forth. A recent piece in Nature by Andrew Perfors, Steven Piantadosi and Celeste Kidd illustrates that trans-inclusive gender categories are cognitively natural and already widespread. Their comment is brief. They note some of the challenges of objective categorisation stating “few, if any, human categories correspond cleanly to ‘objective’ or ‘unambiguous’ partitions of the world. As one example of many, colour and pitch are determined by unidimensional physical quantities — frequencies of light and sound — but our conceptual system does not code them that way.” This ties to Maturana and Varelas work on cognition.
They further note that “Gender concepts, too, reflect social organization, resulting in languages and cultures that recognize more than just ‘woman’ and ‘man.’ Examples of these include kathoey in Thai, māhū in Hawai- ian, fa’afafine in Samoan, femminielli in Neapolitan, all of which refer to a gender category that does not fit into a binary classification and has a long history of use in each language,”
“Across languages and cultures, all lexical concepts are conventions that are heavily shaped by communicative need, and people clearly need to communicate social roles and identities. Second, if lexical concepts are primarily conventions, this means that we should choose conventions that are useful. The usefulness of sex-based categories in domains such as medicine or issues such as participation in sports is often raised as an argument for their value. However, although biological factors certainly matter for some situations, use of these sex-based categories in broad public policy frequently runs into trouble.”
“Arguments that sex-based categories are more correct rely on the deeply unscientific presumption that our categories are precise and objectively aligned to the world, even though decades of empirical work shows that this is false. Human lexical concepts are conventions that we choose, and they change as society changes. Changes towards trans-inclusive categories yield linguistic systems that are both natural and useful.”
Trans-inclusivity and trans positive language is metaphysically, ontologically, biologically, cognitively and linguistically natural, as well as useful inherently coherent (in an enactive sense) and morally just and right. Its the only ethical and moral choice. Pirsigs idea that decisions and actions are seen as ethical when they contribute to an enhancement of quality shines through when we consider trans people as people.
Trans people are not new. They have existed across societies for thousands of years. I remember being asked why I was so passionate during the equal rights amendment. And saying that it was a small apology in an attempt to make up for lost time. Two of my best friends in secondary school were gay. I had no idea at the time, no education around it, no understanding of it. They, like many other gay Irish people, headed to London pretty much immediately after we finished secondary school. The irony was that Thatcher was just introducing Section 28, despite which the London was still a more welcoming place for gay people.
It is clear that the arguments and harm being done to trans people as people echoes the damage being done to gay people. Damage that even now is far from fully repaired. It is a social and linguistic drip of concentrated sulfuric acid. Trans people, gay people, non-binary people and gender non-conforming people are real and exist. As people we all attempt to brings forth a world that is viable for our existence. For a trans person that is different and much more difficult than for a cisgender person.
For a cisgender person the world is conforming and reinforces their identity. For trans and gender non-conforming people the world is restricting, challenging and frequently at odds with who they are. Their reality is denied. It’s difficult if not impossible for cisgender people to understand trans-reality. I would say it’s probably as difficult as trying to understand what it’s like to see ultraviolet light something for which we have no experience. No three year old identified male at birth identifies as female though mistake and misunderstanding. They are clearly trying to enact the world that is viable for their existence. That’s their reality whether they understand it at three or a 90. In the case of a former Second World War veteran. She knew she was a girl in 1930 age three but took until 2017 to begin transition at age 90 with many years suppressing who she was.
The world has too much unnecessary pain and suffering. Some of it minor accidental trips and falls. Too much of it deliberate and cruelly inflicted with devastating consequences. We’ve proven in the past that we can build better and more inclusive societies and we need to continue to do. One part of this is to include trans people fully into society. By embracing the dynamics of reality we’ll create a richer more diverse more tolerant and healthier society. And that’s a reality worth striving for.
Lisa Feldman Barrett ‘How Emotions are Made’
Robert Pirsig ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth”
Robert Pirsig ‘Lila an Inquiry into Morals’
Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela ‘The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding’
Shon Faye ‘The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice’
Terrance Deacon ‘The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain’
Antonio Damasio ‘Feeling and Knowing: Making Minds Conscious’
Justin Garson “The Helpful Delusion’ Aeon https://aeon.co/essays/evidence-grows-that-mental-illness-is-more-than-dysfunction
Justin Garson “Is a Person’s Sex a Social Construct?” Psychology Today
Garson, J. forthcoming. Madness and idiocy: Rethinking a basic problem of philosophy of psychiatry. Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Psychology
Andrew Perfors, Steven T. Piantadosi & Celeste Kidd “Trans-inclusive gender categories are cognitively natural” cited as Perfors, A., Piantadosi, S.T. & Kidd, C. Trans-inclusive gender categories are cognitively natural. Nat Hum Behav 7, 1609–1611 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-023-01657-y
The Beacon “The accounts of the Iona Institute are opaque but its links to the wider anti-gender rights movement are as clear as day”