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Schrödinger’s Cathouse Redux

This is a post from my old blog(s) (What? Leftovers againnnn?). It got just about zero attention when I originally posted it two years ago, and  got even less when I reposted on my wordpress blog, but it remains one of my favorites even if I was content to let it fade into the electronic aether. Then Lori asked me to repost it here, and who am I to argue. Enjoy:

Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.

‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’

–Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


Schrödinger’s Cat is the most notorious animal in physics. The experiment runs something like this:


A cat is placed in a box, together with a radioactive atom. If the atom decays, and the geiger-counter detects an alpha particle, the hammer hits a flask of prussic acid (HCN), killing the cat. The paradox lies in the clever coupling of quantum and classical domains. Before the observer opens the box, the cat’s fate is tied to the wave function of the atom, which is itself in a superposition of decayed and undecayed states. Thus, said Schrödinger, the cat must itself be in a superposition of dead and alive states before the observer opens the box, “observes” the cat, and “collapses” it’s wave function.*

All of which leads to the curious tendency of quantum mechanics to limit not only what human beings know, but what we CAN know. This may explain why Schrödinger later said of his involvement with quantum physics: “I don’t like it. I’m sorry I ever had anything to do with it.” The irony of Schrödinger’s Cat and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle–which states that we can know either a particle’s position or its velocity, but not both–is that they were formulated by Germans. For a German scientist to throw up his hands and say “We can’t know!” rather confirms the validity of these principles to me.

Two centuries earlier, another German put a different spin on this. Immanuel Kant describes an object that is “not an object of sensible intuition.” A transcendent object, he calls it, and one that is out of the realm of observation. This is a noumenon, a thing in and of itself. And like Schrödinger’s Cat, we can’t know what it is.

I describe myself as transgendered because, from as long ago as I can remember, I always wanted to be a girl. The thing is, I don’t know what it actually IS to be a girl, nor do I know for certain that being a “girl” is, in fact, what I want. This is because of the limits of my knowledge. I certainly didn’t know what the biological differences between boys and girls were when I first expressed the desire. What “femininity” is is still a noumenon to me. I can only observe the empirical phenomena that surround “femininity” and adopt those for myself or try to generate them myself. Perhaps, by a means of psychological calculus, I can close the gap between my own gender expression and the asymptote of “femininity”. But unless that happens–and how would I know?–the cultural signifiers of “femininity” don’t mean that I am a “feminine” person. Nor do I even know that “feminine” gender identity is a monolithic, singular experience felt by everyone born female– it could be a broad spectra of experiences that are as individual as one’s own fingerprints. Ah…there’s the rub. Is there even such a thing as gender identity? Or is there only individual identity, shaped by experience and its interraction with biology? We can’t know, can we? This puts a new spin, I think, on Kate Bornstein’s realization: “I know that I’m not a man…and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m probably not a woman either…” I would suggest that her gender identity, like my own, is a kind of superposition. Neither male, nor female, but both at once and neither at once. If that makes any sense. To an extent, this kind of superposition creates an identity where the behavioral manifestations are largely a matter of the will of the individual, and are largely abstractions in the first place.

In any event, I’ve ceased thinking about gender identity in psychological terms. I prefer to think of it in philosophical terms. Here’s why:

The standards of care for gender reassignment assign a gatekeeper role to psychiatric professionals. Because I believe that gender identity is a noumenon, I believe that a psychiatric observer will not be able to determine the state of that identity from observable phenomena. This is doubly true given that the “wants” of the subject bid fair to skew the observable phenomena. I don’t know about you, but I’m smart enough to have read the standards of care AND the biographies of transgendered people–I know enough to “fake it” if I had to. From a philosophical point of view, any diagnosis provided from such observations are bound to include fallacies. Of course, this is a problem with all psychiatric diagnoses that don’t have their basis in actual physiology (i.e. observable phenomena). You might get similar results from tea leaves or chicken bones.

So, lacking a demonstrable psychological imperative, what legs do I have left, should I take this behavior farther? From a strictly aesthetic standpoint, I think the female body is more beautiful than the male body. (This flies in the face of my stated sexual preferences, by the way, but when it comes to sex, all cats are gray in the dark, so to speak). I would prefer to have a female body and appearance because I think it is more beautiful than a male body and appearance. It’s also a matter of free will. My body is my own–I reject the notion that what I can and can’t do with my body is governed by The State or religion or what have you. If my body is my own, what legitimate moral imperative is there to create a gatekeeper? The stock answer is the Hippocratic oath, and its directive to “first do no harm.” The hypocrisy of this stance where the elective alteration of the human body is concerned is evident in the office of every plastic surgeon in the world.



*Description shamelessly plagiarized from this page.


One Response

  1. Ahhh, the topic of psychiatric gatekeeping. Seems to be gaining a wee bit of relevance these days, no?

    And I know that’s not the central point you’re trying to make here. Moreover, I tend to agree with the notion that I am my body’s ulitmate ruler, deciding on what I do with it in whatever shape or form it eventually becomes.

    What I do fear is the potential for the psychiatric community to marginalize the treatment of transsexuals by measuring physiological responses that would indicate if someone is an autogynephilic transsexual.

    You’re right, you’re body IS your own.

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