christianity ethics philosophy science theology

sex & identity

The ‘proper’ basis for the personal identity of any given human is a hard thing to derive… if you’re limited to the tools of, say, science.  Science wonderfully (and tragically in the case of murder, hate, discrimination, etc.) describes what humans ‘do’ (human doings), but not what/who humans ‘are’ (human beings).

I’d want to affirm that ‘doing’ (as well as ‘knowing’ and ‘feeling’) is a necessary component of what a human ‘being’ is, but not the whole composition.  Any identity based on only feelings, actions and intelligence alone is incomplete and leaves out something.

The most unchallenged (and to me, baffling) kind of identity I know of, is ‘sexual’ identity (hetero, homo, pan, omni, etc.).  I once moderated an inter-faith discussion about ‘tolerance’ in which a person (who acknowledged their sexual identity) stated their wish not to merely be ‘tolerated’, but to be accepted for who he was.  A few thoughts:

  • Sexual desire seems to be quite malleable/impermanent or otherwise inappropriate for identity.  Whilst some attempts at therapeutic (including – yes – electric shock ‘therapy’!) ‘adjustment’ of sexual desire are contrived at best (and abusive at worst), it remains true that (as the old adage says) “the greatest sex organ is the mind”, which (neuro-plasticity confirming what we already knew from experience) can undergo remarkable change.
  • Most (all?) have more than one sexual desire.  Both nature and nurture (genes/’memes’ if you like) combine to give us not a single sexual desire for ‘this’ sexual experience, but a range/variety of sexual desires, so identifying as ‘x’ (i.e. homo/hetero) fails to account for the other desires present (i.e. – Kinsey’s hyper-controversial research would seem to indicate that few if any people occupy only one precise ‘point’ on the ‘orientation scale’).  Perhaps this relates to some opting for the less-defined ‘bi’-sexual, or ‘pan’/’omni’-sexual identities.
  • Sexual desire (particularly desire for sexual encounter with another human) is not always met.  For a variety of reasons (including physical disability, repulsion by other, unwillingness to force the other person, cultural/traditional/ideological pressures), many people go through life and manage not to have sex with another person.  Of particular concern here is the confused/contradictory influences present in many/most cultures presenting sex as something ‘everyone’ does.  Leaving those who are not (or not yet) sexually active being/feeling less than normal.  Is a fire-fighter who never fights fires really a fire-fighter?  Who wants to be normal in principle? [updated thought at bottom of post]

Where, then, is a ‘safe’ or ‘responsible’ place in which to find our identity?  Especially in a world where everything (desires, opportunities, bodily function, etc.) seems impermanent?

The Judaeo-Christian tradition answers: in relationships.  Even a non-theistic psychotherapist or counsellor could reasonably say the same: in our relationship to ‘others’ (albeit without including the supreme ‘Other’).

It seems to me, as a Christian, there are two broad categories of relationships (Creator/creation), which break down into three (Creator, human creation, non-human creation), which admit of a fourth distinction as well: Creator, other humans, self, non-human creation (or God, others, self, world).  Some thoughts:

  • Creator.  Even the most tentative of theistic understandings realise the fundamental identity-forming dependence upon the Source of all being/existence.
  • Others.  Other humans are like mirrors.  The opinions and influence of others shape our self-understanding.  We don’t truly know who we are apart from the ‘other’.  Our identity is formed in relationship to our brothers, sons, daughters, partners, granddaughters, aunts and husbands.
  • Self.  Indeed, personal identity wouldn’t be ‘personal’ (and thus not ‘identity’) if we didn’t distinguish between ‘other’ and ‘self’.  We are unique and particular, not an identity-less component of some all-encompassing mass-consciousness.
  • World.  We have an identity-forming awareness of our affect on our environment.  We can utterly wreck the place, or we can beautify and enhance it.  We are care-takers, janitors, renovators, zookeepers and stewards of the world we inhabit.

[updated thought: Not only is it true that our sexual (erotic, that is) desires are not unfailingly met, but it’s also true and relevant that our deepest and truest desire is for intimacy, and this is a desire that must be met.  Whatever the gender or physiology of any given two persons, they are created for inter-personal – and thus genuinely/truly ‘sexual’ – intimacy.  It seems to me that, last I checked, same-sexed persons lack the physiology to engage in coitus/intercourse/’sex’, and thus (physiologically speaking) cannot have a ‘sexual’ relationship – but they can still be genuinely intimate, as any two good friends would be.  And this is not only ‘acceptable’, but what all humans want and need.]

14 replies on “sex & identity”

‘Derive’ an identity? Doesn’t identity ’emerge’ through behaviour?

I think it’s far more plausible to directly associate who we are with what we do. I think it is highly implausible in any meaningful sense to directly associate (anywhere near as easily) who we are with a relationship to a hypothetical supernatural entity. I think you can eliminate Creator from your categories altogether without losing the importance of relationships and identity, although I’m uncertain how relationships matter more than as a sub-category of what we do. In this sense, what we do sexually is very much a central part of our emergent identity.

identity of course can be a subconscious thing that is projected upon us by others (and could well be said to ’emerge’), or it can be a conscious, volitional thing that we discern, choose, believe, etc. (and must be more than an emergent thing)
And I’m not sure if/how a ‘relationship’ is even discernable on just a materialist epistemology (identity and relationship get lost in between the ‘general’/’everything’ and the ‘specific’/’this-thing’ – both of which are not ever even observed)

Materialistic epistemology? Dale, you seem to think that methodological naturalism precludes knowledge about anything other than actual stuff. It’s a term that describes a disciplined yet practical means of determining cause and effect in the natural world to gain knowledge about the natural world. You seem to take great issue that the epistemology of methodological naturalism means that, by comparison, inserting imagined causation (under all the various terms that imply supernaturalism) into explanations of natural processes (one that has a long and glorious history that consistently fails to increase practical knowledge that is reliable and works in the real world) is somehow preferable. To back up your notion, you keep introducing words that describe non-material concepts as if this proves your point about the weakness of methodological naturalism. It doesn’t; it reveals your confusion.

Much of what we describe about the natural world is based on comparing and contrasting, which requires an understanding of what we call relationships: much of science is based on identifying exactly these stable relationships… not by material alone but by cause and effect by means of a mechanism that is measurable, testable, repeatable, and falsifiable. If methodological naturalism is to be relevant and explanatory, then it needs to provide us with a consistent and knowable mechanism of transmission between cause and effect. For those who attribute some form of oogity boogity as the mechanism is not a meaningful explanation in the sense of establishing knowledge. It’s a stab in the dark. We can do better.

You seem to think that because we can’t observe gravity directly, for example, it must mean that the description of the relationship between mass and attraction is unacceptable to those who support methodological naturalism because gravity it’s not made of material. I sincerely hope you realize how absurd this suggestion is, even though you carefully couch the suggestion with not being sure. You may be sure. Be sure that methodological naturalism will establish a reasonable mechanism between cause and effect that explains why that relationship is stable and how it works.

I’ve tried to point out many times that we need to be careful of how we understand the words we use because the word ‘gravity’ is one of those descriptive words that expresses the recognition that there is a stable relationship of cause and effect between objects and their attraction to one another. That indicates that one of the material properties of anything with mass is that it causes a natural attraction. How we understand the mechanism of attraction (what we call ‘gravity’) is knowable. No supernatural explanation is needed. But for you to continue to paint everything that is not material as therefore evidence of some other kind of superior epistemology outside of methodological naturalism is simply bogus.

When did I ever seek to say that natural/materialist descriptions were unacceptable? They are perfectly acceptable. Just not the only thing we build our personal identities on. We were talking about identity, yes?

You wrote And I’m not sure if/how a ‘relationship’ is even discernible on just a materialist epistemology so I wanted to clarify why your notion of materialist epistemology – as if that reflected anything meaningful to say about methodological naturalism – was intentionally misrepresenting my point that what we do better defines our identity in practical and meaningful terms (what I describe as an emergent identity) than a so-called relationship we supposedly have with a hypothetical supernatural critter (part of what you describe as derived identity).

tildeb, I’m not surprised that you’ve isolated the ‘god’ part of the post and have expressed your disagreement. Personal identity based on the assumption-of/reasoned-belief-in relationship to a Creator will of course be just as epistemically certain (in a strictly philosophical sense) as personal identity based on the assumption-of/reasoned-belief-in a lack of relationship to any kind of Creator.

Well, I can think of my identity as that of a frog but unless I think and behave like a frog, have I actually derived any identity at all from my belief? Is another person who does NOT believe he or she is a frog just as epistemologically certain of that frog identity?

(Here you go playing with language again.)

I raise this point because belief itself is an extremely blunt tool in our intellectual repertoire and a useless one as a tool of inquiry. Belief is an inquiry stopper.

If you’re going to beat the ‘religion (‘belief’) is bad for science (‘inquiry’)’ drum, I’ll ask you to do it on another more relevant post.
But on the question of basing identity on what we ‘do’: if we cast all non-scientific tools out of our toolbox, leaving only empirical/metrical tools at our disposal, then how are we to know which level of phenomenology to make our identity-forming observations at? Indeed, how the hell would we (empirically/metrically speaking) know what this ‘identity’ thing was (let alone ‘personal’ identity) which we were looking for ‘evidence’ for? I think you’ll find that pure, unadulterated ‘science’ is indifferent to such a metaphysical concept such as a personal identity.
There’s describing what something does, and then there’s constructing or discerning what that thing ‘is’. And when it comes to things having a ‘persona’ or ‘being’ a person or having a personal ‘identity’, I think you’ll find that science is quite a blunt tool. Consider the ‘personhood’ debates in abortion/euthanasia issues as a test-case. If you can point to the piece or pieces of scientific ‘raw data’ which can decisively adjudicate regarding human personhood, than I’ll shut up.

Again, Dale, identity is not a thing in itself. You make this mistake over and over again. It is a term use to describe what makes this different from that and the list is huge. This concept is very much part of the human lexicon. It is not metaphysical but conceptual. The concept of identity varies depending on the circumstances in which we are asked: one can be a father, a son, a brother, a cousin, an enemy, a liberal, a christian, a homosexual, and so on… None of these are a self-defined thing we call “Identity” but merely each is part of a much greater whole that is always in flux.

Our belief about which part of a person’s identity we care to emphasize is hardly meaningful unless we grant it power to be meaningful to us. For example, if I believe that gender determines capability, then we have to ask ourselves if a woman’s identity rightly belongs to the likes of me and my beliefs? Don’t you think each woman’s identity belongs to each woman, that her capability (what she can actually do) – if that the part of identity I am currently interested in – be the determining factor rather than my belief? If I believe that homosexuality, for example, is a key element in a person’s identity, then don’t you think each homosexual’s identity belongs to each homosexual and what he does rather than me and my beliefs? If I begin to empower discriminatory laws based on my identity beliefs – whether it be about race or gender or sexual preference – then can you not clearly see why empowering beliefs over and above what people actually do is morally reprehensible?

Tildeb, my post says nothing about legislation. As a Christian who holds that homosexual acts are immoral, I personally would not vote for legislation that would tax gay couples differently than straight ones. All legislation is ‘legislating morality’ in a very real sense, and I don’t think it would be moral to tax them differently.

As for the identity issue, in what I take to be your naturalist (and thus ontologically monist) framework, then of course identity would not be a thing. I can see why u would think that. But as long as we agree that science doesn’t form our identities then that’s my main point. (and to be clear, again, I do think that our scientific knowledge of ourselves will be part of how we form our identities. I’m not anti science.)

Tildeb, if you are feeling concerned about the calls for conciseness, let me reassure you that you are coming across clearly and concisely to me.

Dale, this is your blog and you can set whatever rules you like on the length of comments. But let me point out that this might be a case of throwing stones in glass houses and I’m beginning to wonder whether this might actually be an attempt (conscious or unconscious) to intimidate Tildeb who appears to be remaining reasonable, amicable and to-the-point.

I won’t bother defending my conciseness calls too much, I just would rather have more balanced engagement that gets behind the naturalist and theistic presuppositions that divide us, rather than longer-than-necessary naturalistic ‘corrections’ of my theism – even if they are internally consistent (or you say ‘reasonable’).

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