Is the world that we experience with our five senses (taste, touch, smell, hear, sight) real or an illusion? To some that might seem like a silly question with an obvious answer but, in fact, it is one that has troubled philosophers for centuries. I raise it today because young people (and others) are having a crisis of confidence in their sense experience. One obvious example of this crisis is the claim that one’s so-called “gender identity” is not determined by one’s biological sex. People regularly now identify as something other from their sex or different even from their species. E.g., there is a biological woman who identifies as a cat. There is a biological woman who identifies as an elf. She elf-identifies. Then there is the trans-male who identifies as a dog and a male rapist who, now in prison, self-identifies as a woman and demands to be imprisoned with biological females. Predictably, within days this man sexually assaulted a woman.
In the 19th century Danish author Hans Christian Andersen (1805–75) published the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes. If you are not familiar with the fable, please take a moment to read it. The point of the fable is that there is such a thing as objective reality that we all know to be true but sometimes, out of desire to be regarded as fashionable, great lots of people can be made to think and to say things that they know to be false.
Further, there are cases of mass delusion. Indeed, in the 20th century great numbers of people allowed themselves to think that Communism was beneficial and good. They allowed themselves to think that Fascism was good, that Jews are evil and that murdering them was right. Most of the entire Japanese nation deluded itself into regarding their emperor as a god. One could scarcely find a modern citizen of Japan, Italy, or Germany who would agree that what their nations were doing as late as 1945 was good or right. Who in the former Soviet Union thinks that murdering 20 million Kulaks was right? Which American thinks that stealing Africans and enslaving them was a righteous thing to do? About 900 Americans were so conditioned and afraid that they drank poison in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. These are all examples, however, of people acting against what they knew from sense experience to be the truth. Examples of delusion do not prove that sense experience is illusory. They prove the opposite. We can tell what a delusion is precisely because sense experience is generally reliable.
Because people do lose their minds temporarily, because they come to believe things that are contrary to universal sense perception, sometimes we need a fearless little boy to say the obvious to shame the fashionable.
The truth is that the world was made to be known and we humans were made to know it. Paul says this in Romans 1:19–20:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse (ESV).
When Paul says “what can be known about God is plain to them” he assumes that our senses are generally reliable. He explains that just a bit later when adds God’s existence and some of his attributes are “clearly perceived” (καθορᾶται) from the creation. Paul’s reasoning is that nature clearly testifies to God’s existence. That testimony is not illusory. We are without excuse because our sense perception equipment was designed to perceive that natural revelation. The world was made to be known. Indeed, it was made to testify to God’s existence. We are able to perceive the world and the evidence. We were made to know the world. Therefore we are without excuse before God. His whole line of reasoning is premised on the general reliability of our sense perception.
This is not to say that our sense perceptions are infallible or that they can never be deceived. Of course they can. Sleight-of-hand artists and a good number of late-modern painters, architects, and musicians have made a decent living by deceiving us or otherwise abusing our senses.
Yet are also some, a small but noisy number of people, who have convinced themselves that humans do not belong to a sex but to a self-assigned gender. Our sexuality, they are saying, is illusory. They are like the ancient Gnostics and others who argued that the world we perceive without senses is not real. In the current instance, they are intentionally or ignorantly conflating two distinct categories: biology and grammar. In grammar gender is an arbitrary assignment. Ships are not actually female but in some languages they are feminine nouns. The sex of human beings is not an arbitrary assignment. It is the product of nature and providence.
Some of us have come to so doubt our sense perception, to think that what we think we see that they are willing to go along when a male announces that he identifies as a female and expects to be treated as such. Others refuse to recognize that they belong to any particular sex or even to a particular arbitrary gender. Our sense experience tells us that the 6’ 3” person over there with the broad shoulders and narrow hips, with large biceps and big hands, is a man. He dresses like a female however and demands that we regard him as a female. We have to make a choice between what our senses tell us and what political correctness tells us to do. We know what is right.
The little boy in Andersen’s fable knew what was right. The Emperor had no clothes. The grown ups had convinced themselves that their senses were wrong or at least they were unwilling to say what they experienced with their senses for fear of falling out of favor. The little boy, however, did not know any better. He had no reason to distrust his sense experience and his sense experience told him that the emperor was not dressed in new royal finery but that he was naked.
He was the only one who told the truth. He was the only one who acted as though his sense perception is generally reliable and in contact with objective reality. To say, however, that one may identify as one will and if we are all obligated to accept that self-identification is to say that the crowd was right and the boy was wrong. It is to turn reality on its head. This is insanity.
There is no question whether there are transgender folk who are troubled, abused, hurting, and needy. They, like heterosexual sinners, need the grace and Spirit of God. Those who are confused about their sexuality should receive the compassion and care their condition requires but compassion also requires truth. It is not truly compassionate to tell the emperor that he is clothed when he not. It is not truly compassionate to tell those hurt and confused about their sexuality that their condition is normal. We do not tell those who are dissociative or hallucinating that their hallucinations are real. That is not compassion.
The broader and more fundamental point here is that the world is not an illusion. All humans are God’s image bearers. We are all fallen but we are all accountable. We all know basic truths: God is and he is righteous. We know that we exist and that we are not righteous. Scripture tells us the way of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. We read that truth in Scripture and we had better believe our eyes. We hear that message proclaimed daily on AGR and we had better believe our ears because it is the truth. The world was made to be known and we were made to know it.