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January 6, 2018



Justin, don't you think you ought to give up philosophy? Idealism is incorrect, and so is Judith Butler, from the sounds of it, so why waste your time? Gender is so obviously a social construct that I don't think argumentation is necessary. The answer, I think, is materialism: you are your body.

Let's be empirical about this. I know one person who started out as a heterosexual female and was poorly adjusted socially, perhaps because of autistic tendencies. After attending Berkeley, which accommodates such ideas, this person decided that he was male. In my view, social awkwardness, along with gender politics and poor judgment led this person to make a gender change. Now we have a person who looks male, but is sexually attracted to males and seems to like sex with them as long as there is no vaginal penetration. This new male is rather timid and likes to knit, while also possessing a Ph.D. in mathematics. My sense is that he became disoriented in high school because he did not fit the extant female model there and was drawn to new gender concepts which did not exist a few years ago. It seems likely to me that this person was bound to be socially awkward under any circumstances, and that those who advocate gender as a personal alternative belong in the same category as religious believers who reject empiricism.

The problem I have with philosophy is that it often relies on archaic concepts, which, historically, are theological in origin, suggesting that man somehow


...transcends nature. We do not.


"The concrete sexed human body is, alongside volcanoes, worms, etc., a thing of nature-- unless, that is, you are an idealist and you think there is no such thing as nature at all."

One doesn't have to be an idealist to be skeptical that categories like "volcano" are completely objective--the reductionism of modern physics is sufficient to suggest the conclusion that all the natural categories we use in science at scales larger than fundamental particles are somewhat arbitrary matters of human convention. This point was first (as far as I know) made by the atomist Democritus, who said:

"By convention sweet is sweet, by convention bitter is bitter, by convention hot is hot, by convention cold is cold, by convention color is color. But in reality there are atoms and the void. That is, the objects of sense are supposed to be real and it is customary to regard them as such, but in truth they are not."

Think of the recent narrowing of the definition of "planet" which excluded Pluto--I don't think any scientist would say that "planet" is a "natural kind" (a philosophical concept discussed at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/natural-kinds/ ), so that we are forced to exclude Pluto because we have recognized the objective reality that it isn't a member of this natural kind. At the same time, scientific categories at the macro level are not chosen completely arbitrarily either, some ways of slicing up clusters of fundamental particles into macroscopic categories like "planets", "volcanos", or "males and females" are bound to be more useful to scientists than others (and that usefulness may in part reflect real statistical clustering in ways that groups of fundamental particles arrange themselves in spacetime--see Eliezer Yudkowsky's post on "the cluster structure of thingspace" at http://lesswrong.com/lw/nl/the_cluster_structure_of_thingspace/ or Harry Foundalis' paper at http://www.foundalis.com/res/Unification_of_Clustering_Concept_Formation_Categorization_and_Analogy_Making.pdf speculating about how human perceptions of object categories are related to statistical clustering).

Still, even the most natural-seeming categories of "things" in the macro world tend to have fuzzy boundaries, as with the useful definition of "species" in terms of the potential to interbreed and the problem of whether individuals on the two non-interbreeding ends of a ring species should be deemed the same species or not (see http://davehuth.com/blog/?p=694 for details on ring species). Similarly on the subject of biological sex, "male" and "female" can be thought of as useful categories because they reflect the fact that a bunch of bodily traits which we consider sex-linked tend to cluster together statistically, but there will be fuzzy cases here too, like hemaphrodites. And to the extent that there seem to be some statistical differences between male and female brains, it might be the case that trans people have brain configurations that more closely resemble the gender they identify with than the gender they were assigned at birth (for some evidence along these lines see https://www.metabunk.org/ben-shapiro-transgender-is-a-mental-disease.t9089/

The book The Big Picture by physicist Sean Carroll has a good discussion of a notion of "poetic naturalism" that takes fundamental physics to be the most objective description of reality but doesn't dismiss more macro-level descriptions, judging them by how useful they are to people, especially when it comes to making predictions. On p. 142 he talks about sex and gender:

"Poetic naturalism sees things differently. Categories such as 'male' and 'female' are human inventions—stories that we tell because it helps us make sense of our world. The basic stuff of reality is a quantum wave function, or a collection of particles and forces—whatever the fundamental stuff turns out to be. Everything else is an overlay, a vocabulary created by us for particular purposes. Therefore, if a person has two X chormosomes and identifies as male, what of it?

"That doesn't mean we should simply eliminate gender, either. A person who is biologically male but identifies as a woman isn't thinking to themselves, 'Male and female are just arbitrary categories, I can be whatever I want.' They're thinking, 'I'm a woman.' Just because a concept is invented by human beings, it doesn't imply that it's an illusion. Saying, 'I am a woman,' or just knowing it, is absolutely useful and meaningful.

"This can sound reminiscent of the old postmodern slogan that 'reality is socially constructed.' There's a sense in which that's true. What's socially constructed are the ways we talk about the world, and if a particular way of talking involves concepts that are useful and fit the world quite accurately, it's fair to refer to those concepts as 'real.' But we can't forget that there is a single world underlying it all, and there's no sense in which the underlying world is socially constructed. It simply is, and we take on the task of discovering it and inventing vocabularies with which to describe it."

Richard King

Justin, this is brilliant!

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