Friday, December 24, 2010

Caster Semenya and the falsity of Forms

The international athletics community was recently forced to grapple with the reality that biologist Joan Roughgarden captured in her dictum that nature abhors a category when the gender status of Caster Semenya came under question in 2009 and 2010. Far from being clear cut, gender in humans is quite complex, with some people being intersex – that is, having features typical of both sexes – and others being transgender. That is without even considering human sexual diversity.

Or getting into how conceptions of gender differ across time within cultures and (even more) between cultures. The reality is that living things are made of complex structures that recur in varied ways. If structures are what give things specific form and patterns are recurring structures, then each of us is a complex mix of structures and patterns, mixes that vary from person to person and within people over time.

Put like that, it is not surprising that nature abhors a category – that is, abstract summaries of particular patterns. The process of summarising, of abstracting from, will be too simple to fully encapsulate complex realities.

Hence cases such as Caster Semenya. Who is no less a full person for not conforming simply to particular categorisations. The problem lies not with Caster Semenya, but the human tendency to put too much weight on our categorisations. To not see how much they are simplifications of, and abstractions from, a more complex reality.

The epitome of putting too much weight on our categorisations is Plato, who gives his categories more existential weight – that is, deems them more “real” – than the complex reality they are simplifications from. As I have noted before, from the work of Etienne Gilson, this results in Plato’s noxious politics flowing directly from his metaphysics. For actual humans are discounted in favour of more “real” concepts they are to be forced to conform to.

And the problem with Aristotle is that he has too much Plato in him. His Forms are immanent in reality, but are still based on putting far too much weight on the reliability and scope of the human ability to categorise.

An excellent example of this failing is found in Edward Feser’s use of the concept of a triangle to justify the notion of the good being immanent in nature. A triangle is itself an abstraction. It is really, really, not like a person, or any living thing. People do not come in ideal Forms, there is no ideal Form of the human. To think that there is leads directly to profoundly noxious politics, for it makes a conception of the human count more than actual people.
It follows from Forms not existing in the way Aristotle suggests that neither do things in nature have defining ends flowing from defining forms. They have patterns and structures which can be used in different ways and whose uses can change over time. Indeed, due to mutation and natural selection, use can affect form (i.e. those patterns and structures). Thus, fins can become feet can become hands while bonobo females have more prominent clitorises, apparently to facilitate the female-female bonding which is part of their patterns of living.

Conversely, believing one can identify defining ends in things puts way too much faith in the human capacity to categorise. It overlooks how much our inferences can be products of a limited knowledge base. So St Paul can deem long hair natural in a woman but unnatural in a man, or St Gerard of Aurillac that a woman working in the field is unnatural due to taking particular cultural patterns as definitive. Aristotle (and his later followers such as Aquinas) can deem charging interest unnatural by inferring from coin-as-money and without the commercial experience to understand risk across time. The Athenian can claim in Plato’s The Laws that animals do not engage in same-sex activity based on inadequate observation of nature. (Turning this false biological claim into a metaphysical principle so that all contrary evidence is declared perversity – ‘natural’ thereby being given a “precise”, but misleading, philosophical meaning – may be useful for tendentious support of religious doctrine, but is not remotely acceptable reasoning.)

Misled by metaphysics
As we can by these examples from thinkers of the quality of Aristotle and Aquinas downwards, the pattern of error involved in the above examples is built into the notion of defining forms with directly accessible defining ends. In reality, knowledge of the world progresses by careful observation, by not making a burden of our preconceptions due to a false confidence in human categorisation. The experience of one biologist speaks well to this:
I still cringe at the memory of old D-ram mount S-ram repeatedly…True to form, and incapable of absorbing this realization at one, I called these actions of the rams aggrosexual behaviour, for to state that the males had evolved a homosexual society was beyond me. To conceive of these magnificent beasts as "queers"—Oh God! I argued for two years that in [wild mountain] sheep, aggressive and sexual behaviour could not be separated…I never published that drivel and I am glad of it…Eventually, I called a spade a spade and admitted that rams lived in an essentially homosexual society
This is why Aristotelian physics failed: it was way over-confident in everyday human categorisation. But this over-confidence flowed directly from Aristotelian metaphysics – the notion of defining forms and ends – and Aristotelian metaphysical epistemology – the notion that those defining forms were directly apprehended by the human mind.

So, there is good reason why Descartes rejected the Scholastic frameworks built on Aristotelian thought and sought some certain base for knowledge, leading to his famous cogito ergo sum. The failure of Aristotelian physics was a product of flaws in Aristotelian metaphysics and Descartes wanted to get “back to basics” to determine how to avoid being misled by metaphysics in such a way again. Descartes' approach was mistaken and his method failed: in large part because he was still in thrall to this notion of powerful direct human apprehension of reality. There was still too much Plato in him.

Hence, there is also a reason that Hume sought to eliminate metaphysical reasoning about reality. He went too far – ironically (as I will discuss in a later post) by not taking experience seriously enough. But he was not wrong in thinking that Aristotelian metaphysics, and metaphysical epistemology, “got in the way” of understanding.

The structures and patterns of reality, particularly of living things, take hard work to identify and unravel. Our observation and experience give us enough to get by in everyday terms, but not nearly enough to achieve the depth of understanding that modern science has achieved. The Scientific Revolution was the achievement of a specific time and place, not a “natural” product of direct human apprehension of reality. The Aristotelian notion that reality had structures that were accessible to human cognition was a vital element in those breakthroughs. But those breakthroughs also required rejection of Aristotelian over-confidence in our direct apprehension of reality, in our immediate categorisations, in our everyday understanding and inferences.

Historically, the general Aristotelian confidence that the world has knowable patterns and structures was an essential element in the development of science. Nevertheless, the specific approach of Aristotelian metaphysics and metaphysical epistemology was a too-Platonic barrier that had to be overcome. Just as it has to be in moral reasoning too: we have to take the reality of the human more seriously, and “easy” categorisation less seriously, than Aristotelian ethics (particularly the Thomist synthesis) leads us to.

The case of Caster Semenya is a rather nice warning against taking our categorisations more seriously than actual people.


  1. Lorenzo,

    while I completely agree with your (above) criticism of theories of 'ideal' form, surely the biggest mistake Plato (and Aristotle) make when it comes to gender is in their typical adhesion to the compulsory dichotomy? If 'ideality' is anything more than another mere categorisation, surely it has to be just as complex as those facets of 'human nature' to which you refer above?

    Anyway - thanks for putting this back into my head - I was being starved of sufficient philosophical food for thought in the holidays!

  2. Phil, when it comes to gender is in their typical adhesion to the compulsory dichotomy? That is just a specific version of the more general problem: to much confidence in human categorisation over a more complex reality.