Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mr. E. and Miss Tree

A couple of mysteries, concerning our selves. The first mystery relates to how we come in two sexes (as a rule), male and female. Considering how profound this sexual division is biologically (even plants have two sexes), the difference between men and women is surprisingly shallow. (The sexism of most religions is therefore ironic, for the asexuality of people qua people argues rather strongly for our being essentially souls.) So my first mystery is, how should we handle a third person of unknown or no sex? I've been using s/he and he/r, for want of anything better, for I've been regarding a perfect person as asexual.
......We naturally think of people-as-people as (potentially) sapient beings, so that anyone who could (e.g. when awake, and well) access such higher mental faculties as language-use (e.g. silicon-based aliens, or intelligent robots) might count as a person. Maybe whales, or birds are sapient; but what if fish have souls that might reincarnate as birds? Or, what if a human has a damaged brain and so can't use language? To look at it another way, plants are alive, but a machine that did pretty much what some plant did would not normally be thought of as alive. Machines do not seem to be any one (in the apposite way, as above), whence a computer could not, after all, be sapient. Our sapience is intimately connected with our being sentient, aware, subjects, something we associate with apes, rats, fish, maybe worms, but hardly plants, bacteria, viruses (are they even alive?). Computers, however powerful, are not alive, do not even have a sex (though we could give them a gender) let alone sentience, so how could they be sapient?
......I even wonder if sentience can exist without the capacity (perhaps in some other life) for sapience; would an animal without its own will not be (as Descartes thought) a mere machine? Anyway, my second mystery is, what should we call ourselves? How about "males" and "girls"? They are syntactically similar, and whilst "girl" has connotations of youth, "male" applies to animals and plants too (and one problem with "man" is that it can mean any human, while a problem with "woman" or "female" is that they are derivative). Any better suggestions, for either mystery? (Anyone reading this far who missed Newborn babies have a preference for the way living things move, about two weeks ago, is rewarded with that link :)

1 comment:

Jeff said...

I believe we can tell a lot about our belief structures based on the areas where there is no clear counterpart for the other gender. You are on to something, I think, when you ask what we should call ourselves.
It seems to me that we make default assumptions toward maleness and only specify the female of many cases:
note that words like actor or hero in a general sense are unisex but more narrowly apply to males; actress and heroine are gender-specific.
Other words closest femine paralell carry negative contexts where as the masculine form is quite complementary.
A wizard is wise and powerful while a witch is old, diseased and unnatual.
Being a stud is something to be desired to be while being a slut is to be avoided.

Finally, I've been reflecting on something you touch on that I'm not exactly sure how to say. (But I'll try here.)
It seems like we use gender as our primary sorting mechanism. When someone is described, if somehow, the language is all gender neutral, it's the very first thing that we want to know and envision.
This is a pretty odd fact given how rarely these differences actually mean anything. If somebody is telling me about an interaction with a clerk at a bank, there are not many stories where it impacts anything whether said clerk is male or female. Nonetheless, this is going to be one of the first things I want to know.
Is this only because men and women look so different? I'm not sure: old men look very different from young men, but I'd be quite o.k. with picturing the age wrong. Black men look different from asian men, but it would border on the rude (for some good reasons) to even ask the nationality of the figure in the story.