Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Foundations of Society, part 2

Jordan Peterson has explicitly argued that [in order to maintain our civilization] we have to be free to make up our minds and to tell others what we've come up with. For him, the real threat to "the very foundations of our society" is the restriction of free thought and speech. But Peterson also seems concerned about another possible "foundation", namely, the mechanisms, both social and biological, by which we keep the species going. In a word: sex. And here gender, of course, plays a crucial role.

Some progressives seem intent on undermining our intuitions about gender differences. These intuitions, however, are at the core of our mating rituals. We try to choose a mate across a pretty radical distinction, namely, sex. [In order to navigate this "ultimate gap, as between two people, that not even a penis can bridge," as Rosmarie Waldrop aptly puts it, we have (socially) constructed the category of gender.] Peterson is concerned to keep this distinction [, this construct,] sharp and the selection processes it manages precise.

Now, one thing I've noticed about the people who have been arguing (some of them explicitly with Jordan Peterson) that gender is not a natural kind but a social construct—strangely, some of them have even argued that there's no biological basis for distinguishing between the sexes—is that the "science" isn't settled. Or, more precisely, they have argued that it's been recently unsettled by, say, comparative studies of male and female brains—or, if you think that begs the question, the brains of people who were "assigned" male and female at birth.

I'll detail this criticism of gender studies in later posts. (I've seen it come up in enough discussions to be confident in asserting that the argument does exist.) My point here is that if we're going to say that our society is "science based" we get into the problem that science hasn't yet understood everything. And on the points where science doesn't yet have anything very clear to say, we seem then to be in the unhappy position of having to declare our social practices "baseless".

So, suppose it's true that a brain scan can't distinguish "male brains" from "female brains". Does this mean that we have to abandon all our intuitions about how men and women think differently? (Notice that this also supposes that the only "scientific" basis for psychology is biological, i.e., neurological.) I'm not saying those intuitions aren't due for some adjustments (just as I won't suggest that men will be men, and women, women, unchanged for as long as human beings roam the Earth), but I am very skeptical about letting "science" set the agenda for the coming changes to our perceptions of ourselves and each other.

I don't think that people who distinguish between men and women every day are doing so on the basis of "science". And I'm not going to give science the authority to undo that distinction. I'm certainly not going to let scientific ignorance (i.e., the incompleteness of biology and psychology) undermine my confidence when trying to mate. Just because science can't tell men from women (and I'm only granting for the sake of argument that it has any difficulty doing so) doesn't mean I can't. And it certainly doesn't mean that I have no legitimate basis to make that distinction.

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