Conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, April 9, Provo City Library

Love of God (painting The Sun by Edvard Munch)I was a radical feminist for about 48 hours in 1995. Sitting in the Marriott Center as a 20-year-old BYU student, I listened to President Hinckley read the Proclamation on the Family for the first time to the assembled masses. And oh how I seethed! It felt intolerable to be defined from outside, to be told who I am and why and what that meant. I remember walking directly to the library afterward, sitting at a carrel and furiously scribbling my objections on the back cover of the packet of readings for my feminist literary theory seminar. Gender was a social construct! A performance! I get to choose what it means for me to be a woman! The packet told me so!

Time passed, the anger ebbed. But the Proclamation has persisted, indeed grown in prominence over the years. Despite my initial recoil, the Proclamation is the future of gender for Mormonism. It makes a provocative, challenging, and internally tense set of claims about gender, claims that defy both conservative and progressive wisdom. Boiled down to its essence, the Proc makes two related but orthogonal philosophical claims (as opposed to sociological claims) about gender: 1) “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” And 2) “Fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.”

In other words: sexual difference is real, and sexual equality is real.

It’s not at all obvious how both claims can be fully true at the same time, but the Proclamation commits us to both. It’s my argument that Mormonism’s metaphysical materialism helps us make sense of these claims. What would a rigorously materialist reading of the Proclamation look like?

You’ll have to come hear my talk, “A Material Girl in a Material World: Mormonism, Materialism and Gender,” to find out. Please join us at 9 AM Saturday at the Provo City Library for a full day of exploration.

 

14 comments for “Conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, April 9, Provo City Library

  1. Did anyone ever come up with why they used the term gender instead of sex? Politeness? I ask because I typically see it used to refer to a class of behaviors and ways of interacting that have a social component. Whereas sex is purely the biology. The problem always seemed to be that despite some moves in the academy to say gender was purely social and arbitrary the biology in various ways seemed to undermine that.

    The weirdness of the Proclamation was that it wasn’t quite clear what they are saying. Is it just establishing an innate sexual difference? In what sense? Clearly it relates to roles in some way but it’s never quite clear how.

    Without giving away from your talk, I wonder how you take this idea of materialism. The biology, as problematic as it is at times (when the unit is molecules nothing is cut and dried) seems to undermine absolute difference for obvious reasons. Yet there’s clearly a general difference. However typically the Proclamation is taken as implying a type of sexual difference to pre-mortal spirits, whatever that might mean.

  2. Gender in this context is male and female. Obviously there is some difference in what our identities are because of our sex. But the proclamation is starting with male/female like the scriptures do and obviously has some concept of roles linked with our biological (eternal ) nature.

    But referring to gender as sex instead of gender is no more “accurate”. Indeed, sex is sex specifically because it’s linked to our male and female reproductive capability. So saying gender is loaded with identity and construct is no difference than saying sex is loaded with behavior involving reproductive (or non reproductive) organs.

    The whole concept of redefining gender and sex can usually trace back to people whose judgement on things moral we shouldn’t be looking to anyway.

  3. Well saying it’s male and female doesn’t address what we mean by those terms. i.e. how we are applying them. And no, male and female aren’t always tied to reproductive capacity. After all people are born without that capability and yet are still called male or female, largely on the basis of the dominant morphological features.

    The point is that in the biology (ignoring psychology for the moment) there’s a blurry area where things aren’t clear for a variety of reasons. Then if we turn to social norms there’s again a blurry area that probably doesn’t map neatly to obvious biological features.

    I think the brethren are wanting to say that whatever the messiness of this world (biologically, psychologically, or socially) in the pre-mortal spirit world things were much clearer and there we had some sort of sexual difference. Here not meaning it in reproductive terms, although that is a major tradition in LDS thought, but simply in the sense of there being an innate distinction due to physical difference. i.e. a difference of the sort that doesn’t happen in typical biological species.

    The question of materialism then raises since of course gender/sex is pretty problematic materialistically since the unit of relevant material biologically speaking is the molecule. Presumably that’s not true of spirit – although we should note that while Orson Pratt adopts property dualism (atoms that are also quasi-conscious) Brigham Young adopts a position much more akin to contemporary physicalism (spirits are made up of non-conscious parts and can be destroyed by separating the parts). Really not a lot has been revealed on this though. Nauvoo theology seems to see spirits as more single entities that can adopt any shape and which don’t appear formally tied to spirit birth. Beyond Brigham Young and Orson Pratt (and to a lesser extent B. H. Roberts) there hasn’t been a lot on the subject. Effectively the Proclamation on the family is the biggest move in more than a century.

    It’s interesting that Rosalynde is speaking at a Mormon Transhumanism conference since typically the ontological commitments of transhumanits are seen to be at odds with most strains of Mormon ontology. i.e. most transhumanists require the rejection of anything akin to mind dualism (whether property or substance dualism). Most typically they are physicalists who relish in a view of the mind that is purely functionalist and typically computationally functionalist. So I’m really curious as to how they take the issues Rosalynde raises. Once you accept computational functionalism the idea that gender is purely social and arbitrary seems natural.

  4. In ordinary English, there is not really a difference between gender and sex in the relevant sense of male and female. There is just the fact that one is also a homonym for sexual relations while the other unambiguously refers to one or another side of the dyad male/female, or perhaps also to the dyad itself. So, I think it is a mistake to try to read a lot into the choice of the word “gender” in the proclamation, rather than “sex.” Of course, if we do distinguish the two and associate “sex” with biology, it would seem strange to use that term to refer to a characteristic of a spirit or intelligence, not embodied. So, “gender” is definitely the more appropriate choice here. As for the idea that gender is intrinsically a social construct, that is a philosophical claim made by some who may choose to use “sex” and “gender” in a distinctive/peculiar manner to express their distinctive conceptions. However, it is quite clear from the Proclamation that its authors do not accept this idea.

    So, let’s stop confusing ourselves by reading in assumptions from a foreign discourse! Let’s also stop treating that foreign discourse as though it had already decided all the important questions.

    Of course, there is obviously a significant mount of cultural variation in how gender and gender roles are understood. If we want to be theologically precise, perhaps we will need another technical term to refer to the thing that is an eternal characteristic of spirits and distinguish this from cultural constructs associated with it. The Proclamation is not about analyzing culture, though, so we should not expect it to feed us a set of theological terms pre-configured for that task.

    Clark, I disagree that the molecule is the basic unit of biology. Molecules are not biology. Molecules are physics and chemistry. You are assuming that the whole is merely the combination of its parts. This is a common philosophical assumption in a scientific context, but we are nowhere near being able to empirically settle whether it is true. I am not aware of any serious attempt to test that assumption.

    As Mormons, we certainly do not have to assume that to be material is to be nothing more than a collection of atoms or molecules.

  5. “Easier, then, is to subordinate the self and go along with everyone else. ‘Where the many are, there is security; what the many believe must of course be true …. sweetest of all, however, is that gentle and painless slipping back into the kingdom of childhood, into the paradise of parental care, into happy-go-luckiness and irresponsibility. All the thinking and looking after are done from the top; to all questions there is an answer; and for all needs the necessary provision is made. The infantile dream state of the mass man is so unrealistic that he never thinks to ask who is paying for this paradise. The balancing of accounts is left to a higher political, [religious], or social authority, which welcomes the task, for its power is thereby increased; and the more power it has, the weaker and more helpless the individual becomes.”

    Jung, The Undiscovered Self

  6. Ben (6) But spirits are embodied even in the Nauvoo view.

    Regarding molecules, a huge amount of work in microbiology is at the molecular level as opposed to the cellular level. One can see molecules as the basic unit of biology without thinking all biological descriptions have to be reductive to molecules.

    Certainly I don’t assume everything is made of of atoms or molecules. (Which as a physicists is easy to demonstrate as false) Likewise I’m Peircean realist in my ontology and thus accept real generals ala the scholastics. So I’m far from a materialist nominalist.

  7. Clark, I’m not sure what you mean by “embodied” any more. I grant that spirits are material, but I don’t think we can assume from that that they are made of molecules. In the scriptures I’m not aware of any place where “body” is used to refer to anything other than the kind of body that has flesh and bones, which spirits don’t by themselves have, right?

  8. By embodied I just mean a temporal space time object. i.e. takes up space. I don’t think they are made up of molecules.

    Part of the problem is language/jargon of different disciplines where words have particular meaning. So D&C 130:22 talks of the Holy Ghost as a personage rather than a body. D&C 88:15 creates an opposition between spirit and body. However since then talking of “spirit body” is fairly common. Likewise while the Book of Mormon typically follows body = mortal body there is also Ether 3:16 where we have a spirit body.

    Of course with the Book of Mormon I have no clue what’s going on in the original text. Especially with Ether 3 where we haven’t the foggiest notion what language is involved. (Presumably some semetic language – but who knows?) With the rest I assume something akin to the Hebrew nephesh vs. neshamah or ruach is involved, but I’m not sure that necessarily tells us that much.

    Part of the trick, when we consider the OT as an influence on the D&C and BoM is making sure we don’t read in later naive ontologies (either Augustine’s, Aquinas’ or Descartes’) that tend to be focused on substances into the text. I think that often that can mislead us with regards to various passages.

    As to the nature of the spirit body, that’s so nebulous in our theology (far more than most people realize) it’s hard to say much beyond that they appear to follow roughly the folk traditions out of Europe where a spirit is roughly akin to a regular body only kind of gaseous. (You continue to see that in popular culture with how ghosts are presented) While some, like Quinn, have noted parallels of Joseph’s language to neoplatonic conceptions I think a very natural way of reading passages like D&C 131 is in light of these folk traditions. (The place of folk tales of encounters with spirits within the Mormon tradition then plays into all of this – they tend to line up in basic ontological commitments with broader cultural views of ghosts)

  9. So is the idea for your presentation that you are focusing on the philosophical claims and excluding the sociological ones for the purpose of this particular analysis (a totally legitimate choice!) or taking the position that the Proc shouldn’t be interpreted as having sociological claims or maybe that the sociological claims should be considered as secondary for some reason?

    I certainly like the philosophical claims far better than the sociological claims. They are definitely more convenient for our modern social context. :) I don’t think your initial reaction was particularly wrong though if you think sociology happens to matter. However, maybe choosing to focus on the philosophical claims as more immutable doctrine while interpreting the sociological claims as far more historically fungible is a constructive intellectual, social and spiritual way forward with the Proc. It sounds like it will be a fascinating discussion!

  10. Okay, Clark, if we are in agreement that material beings are not necessarily just made up of molecules, or reducible to their molecular components, and that materialism does not commit us to computational functionalism, then I’m content.

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