The Origins of Our Binary World

Rene Descartes, the great 17th century mathematician and philosopher, expressed a problem that has beset intellectuals for the past 500 years – namely the tendency to doubt everything.  Descartes began his introspections by doubting everything and working his way back towards certainty, concluding “I think, therefore I am.”  Further, this certainty of his is-ness was backed up by the certainty of God’s pre-existent is-ness. Thus, he backed into his “certainty” by a negative process of excluding what can be doubted. The certainties of the Middle Ages were caving before the radical civilizational changes which called into question the certainty of previously existing institutions and convictions.

Rene Descartes, as painted by Frans Hals

During the late Middle Ages and the early modern period of European history, we see the rise of cities and universities which began to co-exist alongside the manorial feudal estates of the purely landed economy.  We see the rise of trade and the money economy in Europe.  The discovery of new lands which we now call North and South America blew apart the geographical understanding of planet Earth. These discoveries and conquests changed the educated understanding of the land mass configuration of planet Earth.  At the same time, mathematics and astronomy changed our understanding of Earth’s place in our galaxy.

We can see that the replacement of the geocentric theory (for a couple of thousand years to the effect that the Sun revolved around the Earth) gave way to the powerful truth of the heliocentric theory – namely that the Earth revolved around the sun.  Nicolai Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei conclusively proved this was true.  The Earth revolves around the sun and that movement is not circular, but elliptically shaped. Also, this writer thinks it is important to remember that although it was a radical shift in perspective to accept that the Earth revolved around the Sun despite our ordinary perception, at the same time people did not change and began believing that the change required us to think that the Earth gave light to the Sun. The life-giving light of the Sun continued to shine upon the Earth!!

Moreover, the Roman Catholic Church as the exclusive voice of Christian truth and access to Heaven upon one’s death, although it had over centuries been challenged by various sects, was successfully challenged by the Protestant Reformation which drew great numbers of adherents throughout Europe.  The Catholic church was not able to kill off and disperse the dissident group(s) as they had in previous centuries.  Despite wars and different waves of persecution, the Protestants continued to grow and raised many challenges to Catholic practices and theology.

The French kings saw the Reformation as a threat, particularly because the French motto was “One King, One Church, One Law.”  Thus, any fragmentation of the RC Church was perceived by the monarch and nobility as a threat to the unity of France as a socio-political entity.

We are not surprised that over time Descartes’ identity between thinking per se and existence also weakened.  The question became how can existence merely be a default position affirmed only on the basis that one can doubt?  Is “thinking” the essence of one’s humanity as Descartes implied?  Does knowledge that we exist really derive from the clear reality that we are thinking beings?   Although reason was lionized by the Greeks and then restored to a place of great honor by the Catholic philosophers, does it deserve to be seen as the cornerstone on which our relevance and humanity stands?  Instead of reinstating this pagan view, is there another basis for establishing the foundation of our humanity?    

In mathematics, statements like 2+2=4 are considered to be analytic a priori truths.  “Analytic a priori” means It is a self-evident and necessary truth.  No facts of the external world are necessary to confirm it. One may not legitimately think that it is true if one is talking about camels, but not true if one is talking about ants.  Yet, while this mathematical truth is necessary and self-evident, can anything be said to affirm human life or even life in general that has a comparable clarity and weight of being both necessary and self-evident?

Life in the world seems more contingent than analytical a priori statements in mathematics.  Variables seem to come into play.  If one says a man has a penis and testicles, but a man loses those organs in war, he is still a man but has suffered a most extreme loss.   If a man has X and Y chromosomes, but does not “feel” like a man, then the individual seems to be saying that there is a man or woman feeling that is more real and more foundational than the chromosomes.  Yet, if men or women who do not have a transgender propensity are asked how they know they are men or women, they will not answer by stating that they have a feeling that they are.  Instead, they will simply state that that is what they are or they will say that if they had a blood test it would show they have X and X chromosomes or X and Y chromosomes, or they will point to certain physical attributes they have or expect to have sometime in the future. They will not talk about their feelings or interests.  If boys like to play with cars, it is not the playing with cars that makes them boys, rather it is their being boys that leads them to play with cars.

Men have been thinking of themselves as men and women have been thinking of themselves as women for thousands of years.  They have been cohabiting, copulating, and marrying for thousands of years.  They have generally had different activities and interests for thousands of years, although there have been overlapping interests.  This identification has been the overwhelmingly acceptable norm for the human race.   Therefore, it is reasonable to state that the binary division is fundamental to the human race in pre-scientific societies as well as in the post-scientific world.  It is not based upon chromosomes nor on clothing styles nor on feelings. The male/female identities are understood by science but are not based on science. Science did not assign chromosomes.  Men and women have different hormones, but the hormones are not assigned according to the feelings of the individuals in a society, nor has the assigning of hormones ever been a political decision until quite recently.

The binary division of humanity is clearly the created order of this world.  It was put into effect by God when He created the universe and life on Earth.  It did not happen by human intent and is not a product of our thoughts or inventiveness.  It is a fundamental reality of nature and is thus to be welcomed and loved along with the Creator of that nature who has blessed us with the gift of life.

Jack Wisdom is a pen name.

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