What is a Woman?

Matt Walsh is asking this question in his new book and movie and getting a variety of answers it seems. Being a data driven science type guy, I like to start answering questions like this with observations. What observations can we make about women (and men) besides the obvious physical differences? Well if I had to characterize women vs. men over the whole scope of what we call history — the past 6000 years or so — I’d probably characterize women (contrasted with men) as generally … more nurturing, more empathetic, more emotional, more discerning, less creative / more maintaining … and men (contrasted with women) as generally … less nurturing more conquering / destroying, less empathetic, less emotional, less discerning, more creative / less maintaining. To summarize … I would say that Woman = Discerner / Revealer / Nurturer … Man = Maker / Conqueror / Destroyer. Of course these are generalities and there are definitely areas of overlap. Also, there will be debate as to WHY these differences exist. Some say it’s social conditioning and some say it’s more biological. What say you?

156 thoughts on “What is a Woman?

  1. HMGuy,

    I may respond later in more detail, but for now let me address this:

    With no other information given, I would probably call myself a “hybrid”. But I’m not sure how this question is helpful for this discussion.

    I think it’s helpful because in the thought experiment, you find yourself occupying a body of the “wrong” sex. You are a man in a woman’s body, or at least that’s how I would describe myself if I were in your shoes. That parallels descriptions you’ll sometimes hear from trans people about being “a woman trapped in a man’s body” or vice-versa.

    As mentioned earlier, I think that personhood attaches more to the brain than to the body. That’s why I would still consider myself a man after undergoing a transplant operation like the one you experience in my thought experiment. I would be a man despite occupying a female body, and I would wish to be regarded and treated as a man.

    For me, it would be the transplant surgery that causes me to feel like a man trapped in the wrong kind of body — a woman’s body. For a trans person, that same predicament arises without the surgery. As a simple matter of decency, I think that in both cases the right thing to do is to honor the person’s perception of their true sex. Saddling them with the sex that might be assigned to them based on their bodily characteristics alone seems cruel and pointless to me.

    In my scenario, how would you feel about being treated as a woman, particularly after asking to be treated as a man? How would it feel to be persecuted and mocked, or worse, for refusing to simply live as a woman?

  2. keiths: As mentioned earlier, I think that personhood attaches more to the brain than to the body. That’s why I would still consider myself a man after undergoing a transplant operation like the one you experience in my thought experiment. I would be a man despite occupying a female body, and I would wish to be regarded and treated as a man.

    I think this is where we are at odds, keiths – thinking of the brain as something other than the body.

    The brain is an organ of the body. Changing any part of the body changes the brain. I would agree that the brain is necessary for any sense of self or self awareness, but necessary is not sufficient, nor does it mean it is independent. Thinking of transplanting a brain into another body may be Sci Fi but brains change all the time in response to external signals received via the senses, as well what we eat and breathe, as well as to internal signals, including sex hormones. And it’s a two-way street.

  3. Contrary to popular belief, sex hormones act throughout the entire brain of both males and females via both genomic and nongenomic receptors. Many neural and behavioral functions are affected by estrogens, including mood, cognitive function, blood pressure regulation, motor coordination, pain, and opioid sensitivity. Subtle sex differences exist for many of these functions that are developmentally programmed by hormones and by not yet precisely defined genetic factors, including the mitochondrial genome. These sex differences, and responses to sex hormones in brain regions and upon functions not previously regarded as subject to such differences, indicate that we are entering a new era in our ability to understand and appreciate the diversity of gender-related behaviors and brain functions.

    Sex in the brain: hormones and sex differences

  4. Lizzie:

    I think this is where we are at odds, keiths – thinking of the brain as something other than the body.

    The brain is an organ of the body.

    Of course, and I’m sure our readers are aware of that. That’s why I considered it unnecessary to spell out that when I oppose ‘brain’ to ‘body’ here, I’m talking about the brain versus the rest of the body. I have faith in our readers’ ability to make the obvious inference.

    Changing any part of the body changes the brain. I would agree that the brain is necessary for any sense of self or self awareness, but necessary is not sufficient, nor does it mean it is independent. Thinking of transplanting a brain into another body may be Sci Fi but brains change all the time in response to external signals received via the senses, as well what we eat and breathe, as well as to internal signals, including sex hormones. And it’s a two-way street.

    Yes, the brain and the [rest of the] body are massively intertwined, and each has an enormous and continual impact on the other. However, I would assert that when someone says “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body”, it is their brain that forms the thought, their brain’s speech center that forms the words, and their brain’s motor area that generates the nerve impulses which cause the muscles to articulate those words.

    I would further assert that were the operation to take place, and you asked the resulting person “Who are you, and what has happened to you over the past year?”, the answers given would reflect the experience and identity of the person who “donated” the brain, and not those of the person who donated the body.

    That’s why I say that personhood attaches far more strongly to the brain than to the body, and it’s why I see the transplant patient’s predicament as a strong parallel to that of a trans person who feels they are inhabiting a body of the wrong sex.

  5. keiths:
    Lizzie:

    Of course, and I’m sure our readers are aware of that. That’s why I considered it unnecessary to spell out that when I oppose ‘brain’ to ‘body’ here, I’m talking about the brain versus the rest of the body. I have faith in our readers’ ability to make the obvious inference.

    Yes, the brain and the [rest of the] body are massively intertwined, and each has an enormous and continual impact on the other. However, I would assert that when someone says “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body”, it is their brain that forms the thought, their brain’s speech center that forms the words, and their brain’s motor area that generates the nerve impulses which cause the muscles to articulate those words.

    I would further assert that were the operation to take place, and you asked the resulting person “Who are you, and what has happened to you over the past year?”, the answers given would reflect the experience and identity of the person who “donated” the brain, and not those of the person who donated the body.

    That’s why I say that personhood attaches far more strongly to the brain than to the body, and it’s why I see the transplant patient’s predicament as a strong parallel to that of a trans person who feels they are inhabiting a body of the wrong sex.

    I still find this a problematic distinction – a category error even. Or, at least a model that is not useful and potentially misleading.

    Rather than the “brain” being the agent that “forms the thought” and inferring that therefore “personhood attaches far more strongly to the brain than to the body” is really muddling hierarchical levels, to my mind.

    The person is the agent that “forms the thought” and the agent is a necessary, but not sufficient, organ involved in that process. Moreoever, the process by which the organism forms a sense of his/her/its own personhood, again, requires a brain, but again, a brain is not a sufficient requirement. Because the brain doesn’t think. The person does.

  6. Lizzie,

    First let me emphasize that my claim is not that the brain IS the person, but rather that “personhood attaches far more strongly to the brain than to the body.” (Not saying that you imputed the wrong view to me; I just want to make sure my meaning is clear.) I phrased it this way because I consider the [rest of the] body to be part of the person, just as the brain is.

    Next, let me note that a living person is constantly changing in both brain and [rest of] body, but we nevertheless consider their identity to persist through these changes. When I say “She’s the person I met at Brian’s party,” I am equating her identity now with her identity then, despite the fact that she has necessarily changed in the interim. (This might seem problematic to a Buddhist, but let’s leave that aside.)

    We consider identity to persist even through large changes such as major amputations and significant brain injuries, though there does seem to be a limit beyond which mental changes are so large that we’ll say “he isn’t the same person anymore.” It’s not always clear that we really believe that, though, since if someone asks “Who’s that?” we’ll still answer “Dave” or “my father”, not “I have no idea.”

    Now, to enliven the thought experiment, let’s suppose that the transplant operation is actually a swap. MIguel’s brain is “installed” in Wanda’s body, and Wanda’s brain is installed in Miguel’s. We had two persons before, and we have two now. Agreed? Are they still Wanda and Miguel, or do we have two new persons? What do you think? We decide to see what they think, so we ask each of them “Who are you and what has happened to you over the past year?”

    My claim is that the person with Miguel’s brain will answer “I’m Miguel,” and that the experiences they describe will be the experiences that Miguel had during the year leading up to the operation. The person with Wanda’s brain will answer symmetrically. Do you agree?

    If not, why? Miguel’s memories are stored in the brain that came from Miguel. There is no reason to think that the operation wiped the synapses clean.The person with Miguel’s brain would therefore remember himself as Miguel. (I’m using the male pronoun here to avoid awkward phrasing, but I understand that my choice might seem questionable to someone who thinks that the person in question is no longer Miguel and is therefore not necessarily a man.)

    If the person regards himself as Miguel, is he the same person as the pre-operation Miguel? My inclination is to say yes. We’ve already observed that identity is preserved through large bodily changes, and the operation certainly counts as a large bodily change. While the replacement of one’s entire body (apart from the brain) is obviously a much bigger deal than, say, the amputation of a leg, the principle is the same. I therefore see no reason to assert that this person is not Miguel.

    This is all very interesting philosophically, but in the end, I don’t think it has that much of an impact on the relevance of my thought experiment. Even if we established that the person in question is not Miguel, we would still have an instance of a man’s brain in a woman’s body, so I think the parallel to a trans person’s experience holds either way.

  7. A few comments to further emphasize my point about personhood and the brain:

    If the person with Miguel’s brain says that he is Miguel, believes that he is Miguel, sees Miguel’s experiences as his own, knows things about Miguel’s life that only Miguel would know, what reasonable basis is there for denying that he is Miguel? Would you say to him “No, you’re not Miguel. Miguel doesn’t exist anymore. You just think that you’re him, but that can’t possibly be true since you don’t have Miguel’s body”? Worse still, would you say “No, you’re not Miguel. You’re Wanda. You have her body, so who else could you be?” Either of those stances would not only be perverse and cruel — it would be perverse and cruel in the same way that it’s perverse and cruel for a transphobe to say to a trans person “No, you’re not a woman. You only think you are. You can’t be a woman because you don’t have a woman’s body.”

    The body does not trump the brain in considerations of personhood — it’s the other way around. The person with Miguel’s brain and Wanda’s body is Miguel, not Wanda. The person with Wanda’s brain and Miguel’s body is Wanda, not Miguel. And even if it you could somehow establish that the person with Miguel’s brain wasn’t Miguel, I think it’s clear that he would be much more like Miguel than like Wanda. (We assign a much higher weight to mental and emotional characteristics than to physical characteristics in questions of identity. Agreeableness is a marker of personality, but bicep size is not. And note the obvious etymological link between ‘person’ and ‘personality’.)

    All of the above is why I say “personhood attaches far more strongly to the brain than to the body.”

  8. keiths:
    CharlieM:

    What is a woman? In most cases easy to recognize but not so easy to define.

    keiths: Yes, and the insistence on definitions, particularly as a ‘gotcha’ move, is often counterproductive. Many things are hard to pin down with a simple definition, art being a classic example. The lack of an easy definition doesn’t indicate that a concept is problematic.

    I couldn’t agree more. 🙂

  9. keiths,

    Actually the ‘person’ does not attach to either the brain or the body.

    The I (soul) “watches” what the brain and body produce in the form of sensory inputs. Then the I makes a series of yes/no decisions.

    The I resided in the body and is in control, not the brain and not the body.

    IMHO human personality deficiencies arise when the I is conflated with the brain/body and or the I / body interface is interfered with as in cases of possession.

    Its precisely the rejection of the I as being a separate entity that is the cause of so much tragedy in human behavior.

  10. Steve:

    The I (soul) “watches” what the brain and body produce in the form of sensory inputs. Then the I makes a series of yes/no decisions.

    That doesn’t fit the evidence. If an immaterial soul were calling the shots, then our decision-making wouldn’t be affected by physical factors such as intoxicants or brain damage.Yet we know that human decisions can be profoundly affected by those things.This makes perfect sense if decision-making is a physical process, but it clashes with the notion that an immaterial soul is in charge. Your position isn’t tenable.

  11. keiths,

    I love your posts on brain transplants and Wanda and Miguel, keith. They are very thought provoking, plenty food for thought.

    I feel a new thread coming on. 🙂

  12. keiths to Steve:
    Steve:
    The I (soul) “watches” what the brain and body produce in the form of sensory inputs. Then the I makes a series of yes/no decisions.

    keiths: That doesn’t fit the evidence. If an immaterial soul were calling the shots, then our decision-making wouldn’t be affected by physical factors such as intoxicants or brain damage. Yet we know that human decisions can be profoundly affected by those things. This makes perfect sense if decision-making is a physical process, but it clashes with the notion that an immaterial soul is in charge. Your position isn’t tenable.

    It doesn’t fit the evidence only if you regard the immaterial soul and body as separate entities working on each other in an external way and not as two aspects of a unified whole.

    What about someone who has been bullied to the extent that they take their own life? Bullied verbally without there being any physical contact. Or in a less extreme case, someone who has had their feelings hurt by what they perceive to be nasty comments? How sure can you be that these things are caused by purely physical processes.

    We understand the physical nature of intoxicants because we have researched their nature using our senses and our thinking inspired by what we perceive. But is our gross sense perception sufficient to pick up everything? Why should human awareness exhaust the totality of reality? Perhaps there is more to a stomach full of whiskey than meets the eye. 😉

  13. CharlieM:

    I love your posts on brain transplants and Wanda and Miguel, keith. They are very thought provoking, plenty food for thought.

    Thanks, Charlie.

    A big part of empathy is being able to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes, but it’s hard for some folks, especially those who are transphobic, to imagine themselves as trans. My goal with the thought experiment was to offer a way for them to imagine themselves in a predicament similar to that of a trans person, but without actually having to imagine themselves as trans; thus making it easier to empathize. The experiment also drives home the point that identity is not dictated by bodily characteristics.

    I’m very interested in hearing how HMGuy (and any lurkers who are willing to weigh in) would answer the questions I’ve posed throughout the discussion of the thought experiment.

  14. CharlieM:

    It doesn’t fit the evidence only if you regard the immaterial soul and body as separate entities working on each other in an external way and not as two aspects of a unified whole.

    If body and soul are not separate entities, then how does it make sense to regard the soul as immaterial? The body is material, and if the soul is not a separate entity, then it too must be material. That means that the immaterial soul doesn’t exist, and ‘soul’ is really just another name for ‘body’.

    To insist on an immaterial soul means accepting it as a separate entity from the body. Your model then has the same problem as Steve’s, assuming you assign the same role to the soul as Steve does. If you don’t assign the same role, then the question becomes “What does the soul do, exactly, if it isn’t responsible for monitoring the brain and body and issuing commands to them?”

    What about someone who has been bullied to the extent that they take their own life? Bullied verbally without there being any physical contact.

    Verbal bullying is still a physical process. The bullying is expressed via sound waves, which are a physical phenomenon. Those physical sound waves travel to the ears of the victim, where they are transduced into nerve impulses, another physical phenomenon. The nerve impulses travel to the auditory cortex of the brain, where they are physically processed, producing further physical neural impulses, and so on.

    This chain of physical events/processes is no different in principle from the chain of events that is initiated when a bully physically strikes a victim. Both chains are physical from start to finish.

    We understand the physical nature of intoxicants because we have researched their nature using our senses and our thinking inspired by what we perceive. But is our gross sense perception sufficient to pick up everything?

    We already know of phenomena that evade our senses. We can’t perceive radio waves, for instance, but we regard them as real because they have downstream effects that we can perceive. The only phenomena that could be truly undetectable would be those with no physical effects at all, but phenomena with no physical effects, direct or indirect, might as well not exist in the first place. To postulate their existence explains nothing that we can’t already explain, at least in principle, in physical terms.

  15. keiths: Suppose that in the near future it becomes possible to transplant brains — or perhaps more appropriately, let’s say it becomes possible to transplant bodies, since personhood attaches more to the brain than to the body. Either way, imagine that you are in a terrible accident and that your body is so badly damaged that doctors can save your brain only by transferring it into a different body. Problem is, the only available body comes from a woman donor.

    Thought experiments like this have a long history and they have been thoroughly explored. In psychology, man versus woman is a body thing, not a thing of pure consciousness. The mind is genderless, containing both male and female archetypes. If the mind is severely inclined towards one of the archetype to the denial of the other, there’s a psychological problem.

    Gender belongs to the body and the particular mind better respect the particular body it has been given. We all agree we should be respectful, don’t we?

    Suppose the man suffering the accident in your thought experiment is rather a small boy that gets transplanted into a girl’s or woman’s body, maybe even into an elderly body. In the process of further maturing, the boy would be able to adjust to and come to terms with the fact that he now inhabits a different body. He’d learn to work with what he has.

    If he’s reasonable, that is. But not everyone is. There are those who think that from the feeling or sense that one is/has a different gender, some dire practical consequences should follow to the body (gender surgery), to other people addressing them (pronouns) and to the society at large (the ever-increasing number and shapes of genders construed as something that the legal and social norms must comply with henceforth).

    When, as an adult, someone loses a limb (God forbid someone here lost it, but go ahead and make a special article that I suggested this, Lizzie), the feeling that it’s still there is commonly said to linger on indefinitely because, sure enough, it used to be there. What practical consequences should follow from this feeling to the body itself? Definitely put an artificial substitute there? And declare substitute limbs a human right? And once this declaration has been made, extend the right to a third arm/leg also?

    Whereas those who are born without one or some limbs, it may seem “natural” at first to be limbless, because this is how they grew up and they learned only later that other people have limbs in those places. In conclusion, limbs and genders are facts of the body, not of consciousness. The mind may entertain all sorts of thought experiments – this is what it’s for – and it can figure out which theories are trash.

    Overall, your thought experiment is less insightful than the Loretta sketch in the Life of Brian movie. When you empathise with someone’s less-than-reasonable declaration construing oneself of a different gender and orientation and you elevate it to a human right, think ahead a bit: Does it really make the world a better place? For all of us or to a fraction of us? To only adults or to children also? What example are we setting to our children with this, other than whatever candy we feel like having we should get quick?

  16. Erik:

    The mind is genderless, containing both male and female archetypes.

    Human minds have both male- and female-associated characteristics, but that hardly makes them “genderless”. If you were correct, it would be impossible to classify people as male or female based on their mental traits. In reality, the personality differences between men and women are so pronounced that 85 times out of 100, a person’s personality profile correctly indicates their sex. See my earlier comments for more on this finding.

    If the mind is severely inclined towards one of the archetype to the denial of the other, there’s a psychological problem.

    I’m not sure what qualifies as “severe” in your view, but psychologically healthy men and women differ markedly in their personality profiles, as stated above.

    Gender belongs to the body and the particular mind better respect the particular body it has been given. We all agree we should be respectful, don’t we?

    It isn’t disrespectful when trans people say that their bodies don’t match their gender. A trans man isn’t saying that women’s bodies are bad; he’s just saying that he doesn’t belong in a woman’s body. I don’t belong in a woman’s body, either. Am I thereby being disrespectful, in your view?

  17. Erik:

    Suppose the man suffering the accident in your thought experiment is rather a small boy that gets transplanted into a girl’s or woman’s body, maybe even into an elderly body. In the process of further maturing, the boy would be able to adjust to and come to terms with the fact that he now inhabits a different body. He’d learn to work with what he has.

    The fact that someone can make the best of a bad situation is hardly an argument for perpetuating that situation. The proper response to a starving person is NOT to say “Stop complaining. Just accept your situation and make the best of it. It is what it is.” Likewise, the proper response to a person suffering under an oppressive political regime is NOT to say “Why are you protesting? You’ll get used to it. Just respect the government you’ve been given. We all agree we should be respectful, don’t we?” You’ve stated that your stance on LGBTQ issues is morally motivated. Doesn’t compassion fit into your moral system?

    There are those who think that from the feeling or sense that one is/has a different gender, some dire practical consequences should follow to the body (gender surgery), to other people addressing them (pronouns) and to the society at large (the ever-increasing number and shapes of genders construed as something that the legal and social norms must comply with henceforth).

    Social norms are evolving in a way that shows respect for trans people. So why are you complaining, Mister “We Should Be Respectful”?

  18. Erik:

    When, as an adult, someone loses a limb (God forbid someone here lost it, but go ahead and make a special article that I suggested this, Lizzie), the feeling that it’s still there is commonly said to linger on indefinitely because, sure enough, it used to be there. What practical consequences should follow from this feeling to the body itself? Definitely put an artificial substitute there? And declare substitute limbs a human right? And once this declaration has been made, extend the right to a third arm/leg also?

    Do you really think that wanting a body that matches your perceived gender is tantamount to wanting a third arm? Also, are you actually saying it’s inappropriate to provide a prosthetic to someone who loses a leg? I hope not, but that’s what your comment suggests.

    Whereas those who are born without one or some limbs, it may seem “natural” at first to be limbless, because this is how they grew up and they learned only later that other people have limbs in those places.

    You wrote earlier that “the particular mind better respect the particular body it has been given”. Does that apply to a little girl who is born missing a leg and desires an artificial one? Would you find it morally problematic to grant that girl a prosthetic? If your answer is yes, then see my note about compassion above. If your answer is no, then why the double standard? If a trans person must “respect the body [they have] been given”, and forgo gender reassignment surgery on that basis, then why do you think it’s OK to give that girl a prosthetic? Shouldn’t she accept and respect her body as it is, the way you would expect a trans person to do?

    In the same vein, is it appropriate, by your standards, for a woman who is missing a nose — not by birth, but by accident — to undergo plastic surgery? After all, she’s been given, by sheer circumstance, a body without a nose, a body she is dissatisfied with. A trans woman also, by sheer circumstance — by accident of birth — has been given a body with which she is dissatisfied. If you insist that the trans woman should just suck it up and accept the body she’s been given, then why not demand the same of the accident victim? Your position is inconsistent.

  19. Erik:

    When you empathise with someone’s less-than-reasonable declaration construing oneself of a different gender and orientation and you elevate it to a human right, think ahead a bit: Does it really make the world a better place? For all of us or to a fraction of us?

    A world in which rights are universally recognized and honored would be a better place. In the US, for instance, we benefit from living in a society in which all of us are free to practice the religion of our choice (or no religion at all), without government interference, and in which the government is forbidden from favoring one religion over another. Does that make everyone happy? No. Despite the fact that everyone benefits from religious rights, there are those who would deny those rights to others while retaining them for themselves. An example of this is the execrable Lauren Boebert, US congressional representative from Colorado, who is “tired of this separation of church and state junk” and believes that “the church should direct the government.” Is Lauren Boebert happy about religious freedom and the separation of church and state? No. Is the United States a better place by virtue of refusing the demands of people like Lauren Boebert? Absolutely. It’s the same with LGBTQ rights. A society that refuses the demands of people like you, who wish to deny rights to LGBTQ folks, is indeed a better place.

    What example are we setting to our children with this, other than whatever candy we feel like having we should get quick?

    Oh, wow, there are so many important lessons in this for our children: That we should respect everyone’s rights, even if they’re not like us. That people deserve to have their rights recognized and protected, even if they belong to groups that you, Erik, consider too small to matter (as you’ve stated elsewhere about the LGBTQ community). That LGBTQ people are not inferior to the rest of us and do not deserve to be discriminated against. That bodily characteristics do not dictate our identity. That compassion should be our guiding instinct when dealing with people who are suffering. That “suck it up” is not an appropriate response to someone wanting to escape a bad situation.

    Erik, your position is kind of a mess. It appears that you’re not really offering reasons for your anti-LGBTQ stance. Instead, you’re just trying to rationalize a preexisting prejudice, and not doing a very good job of it.

  20. keiths:
    CharlieM: It doesn’t fit the evidence only if you regard the immaterial soul and body as separate entities working on each other in an external way and not as two aspects of a unified whole.

    keiths: If body and soul are not separate entities, then how does it make sense to regard the soul as immaterial? The body is material, and if the soul is not a separate entity, then it too must be material. That means that the immaterial soul doesn’t exist, and ‘soul’ is really just another name for ‘body’.

    Or perhaps you could say that it makes no sense to regard the physical body as material. Some people like to be classed as physicalists and not materialists because they understand that the term ‘physical’ means much more than just ‘material’. The material within the physical body is the same as the water contained in a river. There is a persistence to the river although the water within it is constantly changing.

    Matter is a constituent of our physical body, but so is energy and movement. It is the life within which imparts movement to the body. Take this life away and the body, which contains the same matter as before, can only move through action from without.

    keiths: To insist on an immaterial soul means accepting it as a separate entity from the body. Your model then has the same problem as Steve’s, assuming you assign the same role to the soul as Steve does. If you don’t assign the same role, then the question becomes “What does the soul do, exactly, if it isn’t responsible for monitoring the brain and body and issuing commands to them?”

    My opinion on the soul probably varies a bit from Steve’s understanding of it. I made a start of giving my views here

    We can think of body, soul, and spirit as a unity without having to regard them as being equally constituted. As Shakespeare pointed out, flesh and blood are intimately bound together, they form a unity, but they are not the same as each other.

    I understand the soul to be the seat of feelings and emotions, of consciousness.

    CharlieM: What about someone who has been bullied to the extent that they take their own life? Bullied verbally without there being any physical contact.

    keiths: Verbal bullying is still a physical process. The bullying is expressed via sound waves, which are a physical phenomenon. Those physical sound waves travel to the ears of the victim, where they are transduced into nerve impulses, another physical phenomenon. The nerve impulses travel to the auditory cortex of the brain, where they are physically processed, producing further physical neural impulses, and so on.

    This chain of physical events/processes is no different in principle from the chain of events that is initiated when a bully physically strikes a victim. Both chains are physical from start to finish.

    So you believe that when you make a decision to act, this thought has its source in physical activity within your body? There is no ego with any decision-making capability, there is only bodily processes making things happen?

    CharlieM>We understand the physical nature of intoxicants because we have researched their nature using our senses and our thinking inspired by what we perceive. But is our gross sense perception sufficient to pick up everything?

    keiths: We already know of phenomena that evade our senses.

    What we know directly is thinking. To believe that thinking is the product of brain processes is an opinion that can only be derived at through thinking. You cannot escape the primacy of thinking.

    keiths: We can’t perceive radio waves, for instance, but we regard them as real because they have downstream effects that we can perceive. The only phenomena that could be truly undetectable would be those with no physical effects at all, but phenomena with no physical effects, direct or indirect, might as well not exist in the first place. To postulate their existence explains nothing that we can’t already explain, at least in principle, in physical terms.

    That we can combine separate observations into a unified, coherent whole, is because we have the ability to engage in rational, intuitive thinking. Transmitters, radio waves, receivers, sound waves, tympanic membranes, nerve impulses, and our experiences of sound, are separately obtained through our senses, either directly or indirectly, but it is only through thinking that we grasp the higher unity of these individual aspects.

    We observe, albeit indirectly through their effects, the sub-atomic forces and particle movements. But in so doing we are not actually explaining why they move. We are just noting that they do move. To say that the nuclear forces are properties of matter does not go any way to explaining these forces. We are just asked to take it for granted that this is how it is.

  21. CharlieM:

    Or perhaps you could say that it makes no sense to regard the physical body as material. Some people like to be classed as physicalists and not materialists because they understand that the term ‘physical’ means much more than just ‘material’.

    ‘Immaterial soul’ is the standard term, and I chose it for that reason, but people (including me) really mean ‘nonphysical soul’ when they use it. I selected the word ‘material’ in describing the body simply to make it clear that I’m contrasting it with the immaterial soul and that there is no overlap. Like you, I believe that the body encompasses energy as well as matter, though ‘energy’ might mean something different to you than to me.

    The material within the physical body is the same as the water contained in a river. There is a persistence to the river although the water within it is constantly changing.

    Agreed. I retain my identity as Keith S. even if every molecule in my body is eventually replaced.

    Matter is a constituent of our physical body, but so is energy and movement. It is the life within which imparts movement to the body. Take this life away and the body, which contains the same matter as before, can only move through action from without.

    Dead bodies sometimes move on their own, showing that life isn’t strictly necessary for self-generated movement, but I take your point. Where we differ is that you seem to regard life as a component of the body that acts on the matter, whereas I consider life to be just a name for the physical processes that unfold in the body when matter and energy are organized in particular ways. There is no separate élan vital, and the only difference between a dead body and a live one is in how their matter and energy are organized. Both evolve strictly according to the laws of physics, without a nonphysical soul to steer the process.

  22. CharlieM:

    We can think of body, soul, and spirit as a unity without having to regard them as being equally constituted. As Shakespeare pointed out, flesh and blood are intimately bound together, they form a unity, but they are not the same as each other.

    Flesh and blood form a unity, but each of them is itself an entity. Likewise, in your model, body, soul and spirit form a unity, but each is itself an entity distinct from the others. Given that, the soul must be nonphysical, and your model therefore has the same weaknesses as Steve’s, assuming you assign a similar role to the soul.

    I understand the soul to be the seat of feelings and emotions, of consciousness.

    Since feelings and emotions can give rise to physical action — like when I’m feeling bored and grab a book to read — it follows that if your model is correct, the nonphysical soul must be able to affect the physical body. And since the physical body can give rise to feelings and emotions — for example, when the sight of a loved one stirs a feeling of affection in me — it follows that if your model is correct, the physical body must be able to affect the nonphysical soul. There is no known mechanism to support these interactions, no evidence that such a mechanism exists, and no need to postulate such a mechanism, since the laws of physics by themselves are sufficient to explain, in principle, a person’s behavior. Furthermore, your model runs into the same problem as Steve’s, in that there’s no reason that an intoxicant or brain damage should affect the nonphysical soul’s ability to make sensible decisions. Yet we know that alcohol and blunt force injuries to the head can affect decision-making in profound ways. Your model doesn’t comport with the evidence.

  23. CharlieM:

    So you believe that when you make a decision to act, this thought has its source in physical activity within your body?

    Yes.

    There is no ego with any decision-making capability, there is only bodily processes making things happen?

    Those aren’t mutually exclusive. We are physical creatures, and the decision-making process is a physical process, but the decisions are still being made by us. Physicalism doesn’t banish agency from the world.

    Since the decision-making process is physical, there is no need to posit a nonphysical entity to perform that role. The physicalist model therefore lacks the flaws that your and Steve’s models suffer from.

    To believe that thinking is the product of brain processes is an opinion that can only be derived at through thinking.

    True. Do you see a problem with that?

    That we can combine separate observations into a unified, coherent whole, is because we have the ability to engage in rational, intuitive thinking. Transmitters, radio waves, receivers, sound waves, tympanic membranes, nerve impulses, and our experiences of sound, are separately obtained through our senses, either directly or indirectly, but it is only through thinking that we grasp the higher unity of these individual aspects.

    Since thinking is ultimately a physical process, I don’t see a problem here.

    We observe, albeit indirectly through their effects, the sub-atomic forces and particle movements. But in so doing we are not actually explaining why they move. We are just noting that they do move. To say that the nuclear forces are properties of matter does not go any way to explaining these forces. We are just asked to take it for granted that this is how it is.

    To be fair, scientists actually are trying to explain why the forces are what they are. The fact that they haven’t succeeded yet is no reason to seize on some unevidenced Rudolf Steineresque “theory” as an explanation. We should accept that we don’t have the answers yet while continuing to search. What we shouldn’t do is to prematurely embrace “explanations” that are really just made-up stories.

  24. keiths:
    Steve:

    That doesn’t fit the evidence. If an immaterial soul were calling the shots, then our decision-making wouldn’t be affected by physical factors such as intoxicants or brain damage.Yet we know that human decisions can be profoundly affected by those things.This makes perfect sense if decision-making is a physical process, but it clashes with the notion that an immaterial soul is in charge. Your position isn’t tenable.

    First off, only the trinity is immaterial; the uncreated creator. I am not sure who advised you that soul is immaterial.

    Day-dreaming, talking to yourself, executing queries and out of body experiences are all evidence of the presence of a separate self.

    So there is a good case to be made for a separate you co-existing with the brain/body.

  25. I realize that many here will find the following difficult to go along with, but I don’t ask for wholehearted agreement. All I ask is people do not dismiss it out of hand without any considered thinking.

    My anthroposophical understanding of evolution is open to the suggestion that the division of the sexes came about from a condition in which individuals each possessed both masculine and feminine qualities in relatively equal measure. As a result, an individual could self-fertilize by means of an internal process. The division into individuals with one-sided sexual characteristics being a later evolutionary development.

    Genesis 1:7 has been translated as:

    So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

    This is usually taken to mean that men and women were created as single sex individuals. It can be understood in a different way. ‘Male and female’ should be thought of as inner characteristics of each single individual. God created each individual as male/female and not as either male or female.

    Personally, I think it is more realistic that anyone who is a believer would imagine God to be above any one-sided nature that comes with being either male or female. In my opinion a being the retained both aspects would be a closer image of any higher being.

    A further proposal is that, although my masculinity is a one-sided attribute, we who are predominantly male possess a formative force (etheric) ‘body’ which is characteristically, predominantly female, and women possess a formative force (etheric) ‘body’ which is characteristically, predominantly male. This adds a bit of clarity to why I possess nipples. 🙂

    Individuals exist within a range of characteristics from the extremely masculine to the extremely feminine. It is far from surprising that there is a mid-position in which there are individuals with ambiguous sexual characteristics. Individuality is something to be celebrated, no matter where we lie on the spectrum.

  26. Steve:

    First off, only the trinity is immaterial; the uncreated creator. I am not sure who advised you that soul is immaterial.

    Most of those who believe in a soul regard it as immaterial, by which they really mean nonphysical [nods to CharlieM]. If you disagree, you are in the minority (which is fine).

    Since you believe in the Trinity, but not in an immaterial soul, it makes me wonder: are you a Jehovah’s Witness? I know that Witnesses deny the existence of an immaterial, immortal soul, though they do think that believers are resurrected. Also, if you don’t regard the soul as immaterial, does that mean you believe it is physical, composed of matter and energy? Or is it composed of something else while still being physical?

    Day-dreaming, talking to yourself, executing queries and out of body experiences are all evidence of the presence of a separate self.

    Not sure why you see the first three as evidence for a soul. What do they involve that is out of reach for a purely physical being?

    The fourth item on your list is out-of-body experiences. Those can be vivid, to be sure, but that does not mean they are true. Indeed, the evidence suggests that they are simply brain phenomena. They can be induced via transcranial magnetic stimulation. Psychedelic drug users report them. I’ve even read that the Air Force was able to induce them by spinning pilots in centrifuges. If you think the soul leaves the body during OBEs, then all of the things I just mentioned must somehow be causing the soul to leave the body. That is implausible, to say the least.

    Another thing that strikes me about OBEs is that the people who experience them report being able to see — not through their eyes, but independently. If our souls are able to see while outside the body, then why do we need eyes in the first place? Why don’t we just use our souls? Similar questions apply to any of the other senses that are claimed to operate during OBEs.

    OBEs just don’t work as a justification for believing that we possess souls.

    So there is a good case to be made for a separate you co-existing with the brain/body.

    Quite the opposite.

  27. CharlieM:

    My anthroposophical understanding of evolution is open to the suggestion that the division of the sexes came about from a condition in which individuals each possessed both masculine and feminine qualities in relatively equal measure. As a result, an individual could self-fertilize by means of an internal process. The division into individuals with one-sided sexual characteristics being a later evolutionary development.

    That’s an interesting idea, but it also sounds like just another creation myth: a just-so story masquerading as an explanation. To indulge in such stories is an understandable temptation, and even more so for people who lived in pre-scientific times, when they had nothing else to go on. But why believe it now? Where is the evidence?

    Personally, I think it is more realistic that anyone who is a believer would imagine God to be above any one-sided nature that comes with being either male or female. In my opinion a being the retained both aspects would be a closer image of any higher being.

    I agree. Since Christians see both men and women as being made in God’s image, it would make more sense for them to regard God as genderless or as possessing male and female characteristics in equal measure. The authors of Genesis came from a highly patriarchal society, though, so I guess they couldn’t stomach the idea of God being anything other than an alpha male. Perhaps theological gender reassignment is available for deities now that we live in more enlightened times.

    A further proposal is that, although my masculinity is a one-sided attribute, we who are predominantly male possess a formative force (etheric) ‘body’ which is characteristically, predominantly female, and women possess a formative force (etheric) ‘body’ which is characteristically, predominantly male. This adds a bit of clarity to why I possess nipples. 🙂

    I know (or at least think) that you’re kidding about the nipples, but more generally, why would a female formative force give rise to male characteristics and vice versa? “This is a made-up story, and it sounded good to have opposites begetting opposites” is an acceptable answer.🙂

    The real reason for men’s nipples is pretty simple. NIpples are formed early in development, before male and female embryos start to differentiate, and thus both sexes have them. I guess there’s no significant disadvantage to retaining them, since otherwise males would presumably have evolved a mechanism to resorb them. I’ve seen speculation that they’re retained in men because they’re sensitive and contribute to sexual pleasure, thus making their possessors more likely to reproduce, but I’m skeptical — would men really desire sex less if they didn’t have nipples?

    It is far from surprising that there is a mid-position in which there are individuals with ambiguous sexual characteristics. Individuality is something to be celebrated, no matter where we lie on the spectrum.

    Amen.

  28. keiths:
    CharlieM: Or perhaps you could say that it makes no sense to regard the physical body as material. Some people like to be classed as physicalists and not materialists because they understand that the term ‘physical’ means much more than just ‘material’.

    keiths: ‘Immaterial soul’ is the standard term, and I chose it for that reason, but people (including me) really mean ‘nonphysical soul’ when they use it. I selected the word ‘material’ in describing the body simply to make it clear that I’m contrasting it with the immaterial soul and that there is no overlap. Like you, I believe that the body encompasses energy as well as matter, though ‘energy’ might mean something different to you than to me.

    As physical matter can exist in various states, solid, liquid, etc., so the physical, the etheric, and the astral can be thought of the same ‘substance’ at differing states of densification.

    What is regarded as physical is simply the lowest, most gross manifestation of what constitutes reality. (earth, water, air – matter; fire – energy; ether – the fifth element)

    CharlieM: The material within the physical body is the same as the water contained in a river. There is a persistence to the river although the water within it is constantly changing.

    keiths: Agreed. I retain my identity as Keith S. even if every molecule in my body is eventually replaced.

    CharlieM: Matter is a constituent of our physical body, but so is energy and movement. It is the life within which imparts movement to the body. Take this life away and the body, which contains the same matter as before, can only move through action from without.

    keiths: Dead bodies sometimes move on their own, showing that life isn’t strictly necessary for self-generated movement, but I take your point. Where we differ is that you seem to regard life as a component of the body that acts on the matter, whereas I consider life to be just a name for the physical processes that unfold in the body when matter and energy are organized in particular ways. There is no separate élan vital, and the only difference between a dead body and a live one is in how their matter and energy are organized. Both evolve strictly according to the laws of physics, without a nonphysical soul to steer the process.

    I do not believe that life ‘acts on the matter’. I understand my body to be composed of solids, liquids, gasses, energy and life. The separation is not between any proposed élan vital and matter. The separation is evident when dead matter exists without its living aspect. Coal and limestone are obvious examples of matter that has been separated from its life principle. When I die, if my body is left to decay naturally it will lose life, gasses, liquids and solids. The solids will be the last to dissipate. Bodily death is the process of losing the higher elements. As you say, we might witness movement in a dead body, but this is just the last remnants of the dissipation from the body of life, energy or gasses. Like birth, beath is more of a process than an event.

    For Christian or Buddhists transfiguration is an example of how the dense physical matter of the body can be converted into a higher state.

    I apologize for wandering off topic, but I did try to steer this conversation to a new thread to avoid straying too far here.

  29. CharlieM:

    I apologize for wandering off topic, but I did try to steer this conversation to a new thread to avoid straying too far here.

    No need to apologize. It happens all the time. Internet discussions are like in-person conversations in that regard.

    Our conversation does fit better in your new thread, though, so I have responded to you there.

  30. Earlier in the thread I noted the large behavioral differences between males and females of other species, including our primate cousins, and argued that we shouldn’t be surprised that there are correspondingly large behavioral and personality differences between the males and females of our own species.

    Another reason to expect those differences is that the brains of men and women differ significantly. Since behavior and personality are largely shaped by the brain, it’s unsurprising that anatomical differences between brains are associated with differences in behavior and personality.

    I found an NIH article that discusses the intersex differences in human brain anatomy. It states:

    On average, males and females showed greater volume in different areas of the cortex, the outer brain layer that controls thinking and voluntary movements. Females had greater volume in the prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, superior temporal cortex, lateral parietal cortex, and insula. Males, on average, had greater volume in the ventral temporal and occipital regions. Each of these regions is responsible for processing different types of information.

    The team cross-referenced their anatomical findings with publicly available maps of gene expression in the brain. These maps are based on more than 1,300 postmortem tissue samples from six human donors. The spatial pattern of sex differences in cortical volume was similar to the spatial pattern of sex-chromosome gene expression in the cortex. Regions with relatively high expression of sex-chromosome genes tended to have greater cortical volume in males than females.

    The researchers also compared the anatomical findings with data from more than 11,000 functional neuroimaging studies. Such studies examine brain activation during specific activities or conditions. Of 50 cognitive categories, five were associated with anatomical differences: visual object recognition, face processing, cognitive control, inhibition, and conflict. Facial processing showed the strongest association.

    Variation in cortical volumes is a fairly crude way of measuring anatomical differences, so even though the variation is significant, I’d expect it to underestimate the true magnitude of the differences.

  31. Alan,

    Because I would expect the different patterns of gene expression to affect not only cortical volumes but the connectome as well. The study looked only at cortical volumes. By leaving out the connectome, they were failing to account for some of the anatomical differences.

    I’m not faulting them for this. It would be difficult to factor in the connectome, plus I’m not even sure the necessary data is available. The study establishes a lower bound for the magnitude of the differences, and that’s sufficient for their purposes.

  32. keiths:

    …I’m not even sure the necessary [connectome] data is available.

    Alan:

    Well, sure.

    It’s not a given. Connectome surveys have made a lot of progress, and it’s quite plausible that the data collected can tell us something about sex differences beyond what is already revealed by variations in cortical volume or other gross anatomical indicators. I don’t know enough about the results to say either way; thus my statement of uncertainty.

  33. Alan, after linking to an article on neuroplasticity:

    …I suggest overemphasis on mapping the static structure of the (human) brain will not lead to much in the way of insight.

    Mapping has been going on literally for centuries and has yielded tremendous insights. I see no reason to think that this won’t continue.

    The existence of neuroplasticity doesn’t negate the value of mapping efforts, either. Neuroplasticity is important, but it isn’t unlimited. You obviously won’t find people whose visual processing has been relocated from the cortex to the cerebellum, for example. Neuroplasticity allows for tweaks in brain wiring, but there is much that remains stable, and that stability makes mapping efforts worthwhile.

  34. Alan:

    There is also a fundamental barrier to understanding the workings of the human brain.

    http://theskepticalzone.com/wp/thinking-about-thinking/

    I suspect that there are limits to what we, at least in our present form, can understand about the workings of the human brain, but there is no indication that we are anywhere near those limits. It’s also clear that the possibility of such limits is no reason to dial back on our research efforts, especially when we are making such excellent progress.

    I see several problems with your OP, but instead of describing them here I will reserve my comments for that thread.

  35. keiths: Mapping has been going on literally for centuries and has yielded tremendous insights. I see no reason to think that this won’t continue.

    Static mapping was the phrase I used. Lizzie has already talked about recent progress in neuroscience, using two non-invasive techniques (fMRI and EEG) simultaneously to better follow flows and patterns of activity while conducting cognitive experiments with the subject.

  36. keiths: The existence of neuroplasticity doesn’t negate the value of mapping efforts, either.

    Static mapping is of limited value in understanding how brain activity becomes thinking.

  37. Alan,

    I didn’t overlook your phrasing; my response was to your comment as written.

    To recap, you wrote:

    …I suggest overemphasis on mapping the static structure of the (human) brain will not lead to much in the way of insight.

    When you’re reverse engineering complex systems, there is enormous value in understanding their “static structure”. To illustrate this, imagine you are an engineering manager in the Russian defense industry. The cruise missile you’re working on relies on a complex chip produced in the West that you can no longer obtain due to sanctions. Your team is given the unenviable task of reverse engineering the chip so that a substitute can be produced domestically. The good news, your boss tells you, is that government hackers have found a way into the computer systems of the company that produces the chip. They can obtain the schematics for you, but it will take considerable effort and will divert resources from other high-priority tasks. “Should I give them the go-ahead?” your boss asks. Do you reply “It’s not a high priority. Knowing the static structure of the chip will not lead to much in the way of insight”? It’s laughable. If I were the boss, I would fire you on the spot.

    The brain is analogous to that chip, though far more complicated. Neuroscientists are trying to reverse engineer it. A major goal of connectome research, as implied by the name, is to produce a “wiring diagram” of the brain — a schematic, in other words. It’s hard to overstate the value of this, which is one of the reasons this research keeps attracting major funding. To suggest that knowledge of the static structure of the brain “will not lead to much in the way of insight” is ludicrous.

  38. Alan:

    Static mapping was the phrase I used.

    No,the phrase you used was “static structure”. You claimed that efforts to map the static structure of the brain “will not lead to much in the way of insight”, and you linked to the Wikipedia article on neuroplasticity in support of that assertion.

    If neuroplasticity were a much larger factor than it actually is, you’d have a point, because in that case mapping efforts would amount to shooting at a rapidly moving target. There would be large differences in brain wiring between individuals and within individuals at different points during their lifetimes. In reality, however, changes due to neuroplasticity aren’t nearly that large. This should be obvious upon a moment’s reflection. The fact that I have an identifiable Broca’s area, that it maintains its location and function throughout my life, and that it has the same location and function in your brain as in mine, all indicate that there is more than enough stability to make mapping efforts worthwhile.

    Lizzie has already talked about recent progress in neuroscience, using two non-invasive techniques (fMRI and EEG) simultaneously to better follow flows and patterns of activity while conducting cognitive experiments with the subject.

    EEG and fMRI are of great value, but I don’t see why you’d think that this undercuts the importance of mapping the static structure of the brain. In fact, fMRI is one of the tools used as part of the mapping efforts!

  39. I admit I kind of admire my nephew Ed Lein, who is one of the world’s foremost authorities on brain structure. He works for the Allen Institute in Seattle, and was just named head of a $173 million grant for further brain studies. Beyond this, I admit I can’t really understand much of what he tries to explain to me.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.