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Can You Trust Your Five Senses in the Gender Neutral Bathrooms Debate?

First, watch this video. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

There’s a lot to unpack there. The obvious takeaway is that college students don’t know how to tell the truth, or even how to recognize the truth. The subtler implication of this is that the evidence of their senses—that the person standing in front of them is a 5-foot 9-inch white adult man—has no bearing on what they acknowledge as true. For these students, the relationship between the information they acquire through their senses and the judgments they make about reality isn’t reliable at all. Indeed, their senses are so unreliable that they are willing to acquiesce to an entirely unsubstantiated claim, that a 5-foot-9-inch white man is in fact a 7-year-old 6-foot-5-inch Asian woman, without making a peep.

These students have succumbed to a very dangerous form of idealism, which claims that the really real things are ideas, and material reality is either a mere reflection of these real ideas or is misleading and should be rejected. The version of idealism we see in the video is a natural outgrowth of a concept developed by the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, called transcendental idealism. In The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant wrote, “The things that we intuit are not in themselves what we intuit them to be,” which is a very philosophical way of saying that what we see is not at all what we get.

There’s some truth to that; the material world isn’t the only one, and the reality we perceive with our senses isn’t all of it. But Kant’s claim is bigger than merely affirming the existence of the transcendent. He does something even the first great idealist, Plato, does not do: he calls into question whether we can know if the world of sense perception is related to reality at all. Does the material world give us any clues as to the nature of truth, or is sense perception merely a mode of experience with no bearing on what is real? The students in the video, and many people in America today, believe the latter, and are subsequently separated from knowing reality.

Philosophy has long considered how we know what we know (from the eighteenth century on, the driving question has become whether we know what we know). There are two fundamental schools of thought: idealism and realism, which asserts that the world we learn about through sense perception does give us access to a knowledge of reality. One of the first great idealists was Plato, but his student Aristotle became a brilliant defender of realism (more on them later).

Idealists and realists disagree about how to answer the question “Is the world we see around us real?” As you might assume, idealists have various qualified “no” responses, while realists say “yes.” Much of the disagreement revolves around the word real. For idealists like George Berkeley (pronounced BAR-clay), the whole material world is an illusion that exists only inside our (nonmaterial) minds. For idealists like Kant, the material world is real insofar as it actually exists, but our sense perception—the very act of sensing it—distorts it, so material reality doesn’t provide us any keys to understanding actual reality: the transcendent. He wrote,

What may be [real] with objects in themselves and abstracted from all this receptivity of our sensibility remains entirely unknown to us. We are acquainted with nothing except our way of perceiving them, which is peculiar to us, and which therefore does not necessarily pertain to every being.

This means that the world of material stuff and the world of true ideas are separated by a barrier, and our minds, trapped as they are in bodies that rely on sense perception, can’t break through that barrier to learn truth.

This idea, taken far beyond Kant’s original conception, provides the assumption under which these students in the video are acting. They assume that their sense perceptions can, and do, fundamentally distort their understanding of reality. When they’re told that their sense-based belief that they are talking to a man—induced from his voice, physical build, facial hair, etc.—is wrong, they raise no objection. In their minds, sense perception can’t be trusted to tell them anything about the ideal of the person, something we now call his identity.

 “But,” you might say, “one of the students wants to engage in dialogue! Isn’t that like Socrates in the Platonic dialogues, discussing what our senses tell us and searching for truth?”

It may seem encouraging that one of the students seems willing to address the apparent conflict between the information gathered through his senses (young white man) and the asserted truth (female Asian child). But it’s actually the most discouraging part of the video, because it reveals how impoverished our concept of rigorous thought is, and how cut off we are from truth.

Even Socrates, Plato’s mouthpiece, does not simply ignore material reality and the evidence of his senses. He presses it, questions it, plays with it, and sometimes demonstrates that his senses are deceptive. The most famous example of Socratic skepticism of sense perception is when he dips a straight stick halfway into the water and points out that now his senses are telling him an absolute falsehood, that the stick is bent, while he knows it is straight. Isn’t this exactly what these students are doing: questioning what they see while remaining open to the idea that they’re being deceived by their senses?

No. Not even Socrates asserts that our sense perceptions give us no clues about the nature of reality; after all, in the above example he knows that his perception of the bent stick is wrong because he has already perceived the stick to be straight. He has already established a true sense that does not contradict his prior knowledge of the world, and in that perception he has a rational tool to judge others. For Socrates, reasoning goes from a sense perception that has already been established to be real (the stick is straight) to conclusions to be drawn about other sense perceptions (so the stick cannot be bent). In the Theaetetus, Socrates refutes the premise that “perception is knowledge,” but he doesn’t reject the possibility of using knowledge to judge perceptions and discern which ones are most likely true and which are not.

Conversely, the young man in the video believes that having a conversation about why someone feels like he’s something he’s not amounts to rigorous analysis of a truth claim. He doesn’t apply prior knowledge to the sense perception; instead, like Kant gone wild, he implicitly believes that what he sees is just that: what he sees, not reality.

Here conversation has replaced dialogue in the search for truth. Gone are the maddeningly specific questions of Socrates, the geometric axioms demonstrated in the dust, the mathematical propositions run through their paces to see if sense perceptions hold up against rigorous analysis based on reality. The dialogue conversation has become an affirmation-fest.

Why is this a problem? Because these students are getting stuck on their very first step toward knowledge: understanding or observation. This means they can’t get to the second stage of judgment, or evaluation of reality. They can’t wrestle with the questions “What are bodies? Why do we have them?” And because of this, they can’t ask such basic questions of philosophy as “What are we?” and expect the answer to have anything to do with what they sense and experience every day.

They also can’t come to the stage of contemplation, the deep appreciation of the beauty of the world and of truth that comes from long study and reflection. They can’t come to the conclusion of the idealistic realist Thomas Aquinas, who said that humans are a mysterious composite of both body and soul, unique in the cosmos, and thus draw solace and affirmation of their own dignity from that.

In fact, the only thing they can say is that they can’t say anything at all, and that is more than just a problem. It’s a tragedy. 

Jane Scharl has a BA in politics, philosophy, and economics from the King's College in New York, and has previously written for National Review Online, InEarnest Magazine, and Comment Magazine.  

Complement with Jane Scharl on the "right side of history", Rosaria Butterfield on engaging gay activists on campus, and Russell Kirk on the true purpose of the liberal arts


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