Recently I’ve been musing metaphysically, and today’s article by Stephen J. Heaney on Public Discourse (“Just the Facts, M’am“) struck a chord.
Heaney picks up a story about a female college basketball player who has announced that she wants to be thought of as a man, not a woman. The reason is the usual one: because she feels like a man.
The university officials comply, as does the writer who reported the story to the local paper, all referring dutifully to her as him.
Here’s how Heaney puts the view that seems to underlie this episode: “If one’s feelings and desires do not conform to what is going on in the physical world, including one’s own body, then it is time for the world to change to conform to one’s feelings and desires.”
Heaney thinks this is silly, and undoubtedly it is, for reality stands in the way. This lead him to articulate what he takes (rightly) to be the classical view: “Human beings are primarily creatures of reason; we are fulfilled in seeking and finding the truth. It is a fundamental drive that we see manifested in the child who first learns to use language, and never stops as long as we live. Truth is the conformity of the mind to the reality of the world.”
But as I said, I’ve been musing metaphysically. Modern cultural theory presumes a naturalistic worldview, which means that all cultural phenomena must have naturalistic explanations. Insofar as language, morality, and even our conception of reality itself is cultural, it also must have a naturalistic explanation, which, when you start reading people like Durkheim, means boiling things down to some sort of human instinct, need, or desire. Sociobiologists take a similar tack, reducing our cultural categories to various instincts that have evolved to keep our DNA in play.
So let’s complete the thought. Reason is a cultural phenomenon (or at least that’s what modern cultural theory says, since all human phenomena are “cultural”). As such, reason is best explained as something arising from a more primary instinct, need, or desire. Nietzsche: truth is an army of metaphors at the command of will to power. Freud: it is sublimated erotic desire. Durkheim: truth is created by our need to escape from a fear of anomie.
If we return to Heaney’s formulation, truth is the conformity of the mind to the reality of the world, which when it comes to the human world, is instinct, need, or desire. Put simply: reality is instinct and desire.
The postmodern gurus like to dress up this metaphysical claim in arresting formulations. Thus Jacques Lacan, the influential mid-century French Freudian: “In truth, we make reality out of pleasure.” But I dare say it’s the basic assumption of all modern theories of culture. Get rid of final causes in nature, and all you have left for reason to discover is the network of efficient causes, which in the case of the human person is some species of desire.
Of course, the student, the university officials, and the news reporter in the episode Heaney recounts all commit the fallacy of composition. It’s not the case that my particular desires make reality, but rather human desires more broadly. Yet, it is important to see that the mistake is not metaphysical—at least not if one allows one’s views of reality to be shaped by modern natural and social sciences. And—given this view—is her/his outlook so unexpected? Our knowledge of efficient causes allows us to manipulate electrons in order to satisfy our desires, so why not human bodies? Why not human cultures? Why not words such as “male” and “female”?
There’s the rub, I think. Heaney stipulates that we’re primarily creatures of reason. I agree, but Heaney wrongly, I think, falls back on DNA and science to show how silly the episode is. But it’s not clear to me that “rational creature” means the same thing for us as it did for Aristotle and Aquinas and countless others when our tacit metaphysical assumptions permit no final causes.
OK, enough metaphysical musing. I’m surely out of my depth on this topic.