An Egoist Faith

(Previously: "a laziness born out of resignation and despair, a sense that I've outlived myself, that my story and my world is over, and I'm just enjoying a reasonably comfortable afterlife in the time we have left ...")

People mostly don't do things. They really don't. In order to defy fate and do a thing, you need to Believe in what you're doing, because if you don't Believe, then your motivational system will direct your time and attention to something, anything else that it can Believe in more, like Super Auto Pets.

Thus, it's not possible for a writer to think something like, "I just want to be done with this stupid memoir of religious betrayal that no one should care about, in order to get the Whole Dumb Story out of my system so that I can be over it and move on with my afterlife and maybe work on something that matters instead." (Though someone who self-identifies as a writer can think that.) You can't write in order to be done. It might be possible to produce text under that motivation—though I don't think I've seen it happen myself—but that would only be language-model output, not writing.

If all you really wanted was to be done, you could just—decide to be done, without writing. Just walk away, and let everything left unsaid, remain unsaid. If that doesn't seem satisfactory, it's probably because of some deep, uncancellable conviction that the memoir is not stupid, that the religious leaders did betray you and their faith, that someone should care, that telling the Whole Dumb Story—telling it right, so that every graf sings and hits the exact notes of righteous fury and deconfusion and penetrating portraiture—is part of your life, and not a prerequisite to indulging the part that comes after.

Even if you have to grant, without hesitating, that there is an obvious sense in which these issues are not "important" in the grand scheme of things, that doesn't give you the obligation or even the option to work on something that matters instead. You could produce text that you identify as being "on" something that matters, but that's not work—it's predictably not going to be work that matters on something that matters, which can only be fueled by a power born of having Something to Protect. You can't realistically do work that matters out of resignation, during a reasonably comfortable afterlife after having been taken off the game board that really mattered to you, however "unimportant" it is to ulteriority or the Powers that be.

The only way out is through. If I am going to pivot to work on important things, it's going to be after I've stopped thinking that this is already my afterlife. Only after I've told my Story—not to get it over with, but because I Believe that it matters.


Comment on a Scene from Planecrash: "Crisis of Faith"

Realistic worldbuilding is a difficult art: unable to model what someone else would do except by the "empathic inference" of imagining oneself in that position, authors tend to embarrass themselves writing alleged aliens or AIs that just happen act like humans, or allegedly foreign cultures that just happen to share all of the idiosyncratic taboos of the author's own culture. The manifestations of this can be very subtle, even to authors who know about the trap.

In Planecrash, a collaborative roleplaying fiction principally by Iarwain (a pen name of Eliezer Yudkowsky) and Lintamande, our protagonist, Keltham, hails from dath ilan, a smarter, more rational, and better-coordinated alternate version of Earth. Keltham has somehow survived his apparent death and woken up in the fantasy world of Golarion, and sets about uplifting the natives using knowledge from his more advanced civilization.

In the "Crisis of Faith" thread, Keltham has just arrived in the country of Osirion. While much better than his last host nation (don't ask), Keltham is dismayed at its patriarchal culture in which women typically are not educated and cannot own property, and is considering his options for reforming the culture in conjunction with sharing his civilization's knowledge. Having been advised to survey what native women think of their plight before seeking to upend their social order, Keltham asks an middle-aged woman:

Suppose some dreadful meddling foreigner came in and told Osirion that its laws had to be the same for men and women, and halflings and tieflings and elves too, but men and women are the main focus here. You can make a law that the person with higher Wisdom gets to be in charge of the household; you can make a law about asking people under truthspell if they've ever gotten drunk and hurt somebody; you can't make any law that talks about whether or not somebody has a penis. You can talk about whether somebody has a child, but not whether that person was mother or father, the child girl or boy.

In the conversation that follows, the woman suggests military conscription as a legitimate reason for why the law might need to discriminate on sex. Keltham suggests, "Test people on combat ability, truthspell them to see if they were sandbagging it."

... and that's the part that broke my suspension of disbelief in Keltham being a realistic portrayal of someone who grew up in dath ilan as it has been described to us, rather than being written by people who live in Berkeley in the current year who don't know how to think outside of their own culture's assumptions.

To be clear, it makes sense that Keltham feels bad for the women of Orision, who seem so much less self-actualized than the women of his world. It makes sense that he wants to smash the patriarchy, and reform their sexist customs about education and property.

But the specific way in which he's formulating the problem—that the law should be "the same for men and women, and halflings and tieflings and elves too"—seems distinctively American. The idea that the government can't discriminate by race or sex as a principle (as contrasted to most laws happening to not refer to race or sex because those categories happen to not be relevant to that specific law) is a specific form of Earth-craziness that only makes sense as a reaction to other Earth-craziness; it's not something you would ever spontaneously invent or think was a good idea if you actually came from a 140 IQ Society that thoroughly educated everyone in probability theory as normative reasoning. Let me explain.

Keltham is, of course, correct that if you have specific information about an individual's traits, that screens off any probabilistic guesses you might have made about those traits knowing only the person's demographic category. Once you measure someone's height, the fact that men are taller than women on average with an effect size of about 1.5 standard deviations is no longer relevant to the question of that person's height. (As the saying goes out of dath ilan, hug the query!) In very many situations, if there's a cost associated with acquiring more specific individuating information that renders information from demographic base rates irrelevant, you should pay that cost in order to get the more specific information and therefore make better decisions.

But crucially, getting individuating information is an instrumental rather than a terminal value; you should do it when and because it improves your decisions, not because of some alleged principle that you're not allowed to make probabilistic inferences off someone's race or sex. Probability theory doesn't have any built-in concept of "protected classes." On pain of paradox, Bayesians must condition on all available information. If groups differ in decision-relevant traits, of course you should treat members of those groups differently! What we call "discrimination" in America on Earth is actually just Bayesian reasoning; P(H|E) = P(E|H)P(H)/P(E) doesn't stop being true when H happens to be "I should hire this candidate" and E happens to be "The candidate is a halfling".

Furthermore, it's not obvious that the law should behave any differently in this respect than a private individual: is Governance supposed to be less Bayesian because it's Governance?! (Although, perhaps there's a distinction between the "law" and "public policy" functions of Governance, with the former laying out timeless rights and principles, whereas day-to-day decisions about the empirical world are farmed out to the latter?)

Some implications: if there's a cost associated with taking individual measurements, and the cost exceeds the amount you would save by making better decisions, then you shouldn't take the measurements. If your measurements have error, then your estimate of the true value of the trait being measured regresses to the group mean to some quantitative extent. Again, all this just falls out of ordinary Bayesian decision theory, which continues to work even when some of the hypotheses are about groups of people.

If this still seems counterintuitive, it may help to consider that from the standpoint of Just Doing Bayesian Decision Theory, the distinction between "information from demographic group membership" and "information from individual measurements" isn't fundamental. The reason it seems unjust to notice race when you can just look at an individual's Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores, is because the relationship between race and any actual decision you might care about is merely statistical: it's not fair to always look to the orc if you need someone in your party to lift a fallen tree, just because orcs are stronger than other races on average, because it could easily be the case that this particular orc is less suited to the task than other party members.

But the relationship between "measured traits" and any actual decision you might care about is also merely statistical. The reason we have a concept of "Intelligence" is because it turns out that people's performances on various mental tasks happen to positively correlate with each other, but that's just on average: it could easily be the case that this particular Intelligence 18 person is less suited to a particular task than some Intelligence 14 person. Mathematically, it's the same issue.

We don't typically think of it as the same issue here in America on Earth. People do sometimes complain about inappropriate reliance on faulty "individual trait" proxies: that holding a college degree isn't the same thing as being educated, that job interviews aren't the same thing as job performance, that IQ is not intelligence. But the objection doesn't pack the same moral force in our culture, as can be seen by how often complaints about "individual" proxies are justified in terms of their effects on demographic groups, as when it is argued that "whiteboard" coding tests are bad for diversity, or that IQ is racist.

The explanation for the difference in intuitions is as much political as it is moral. On account of being visible clusters in a "thick" subspace of configuration space (having many different correlates, even if the effect size along any one dimension may not be very large), race and sex are salient as markers for coordination. Groupings made on the basis of less visible and lower-dimensional traits, like "People with Intelligence 14", don't form a natural "interest group" in the same way, even if the lower-dimensional trait is more decision-relevant in many contexts. Conflict between interest groups in a democratic Society like America creates memetic selection pressure for "equality" memes that deny the existence of non-superficial group differences, as the natural Schelling point for preventing group conflicts. It's an idea born of distrust in reasoning in an adversarial environment: if you let people make probabilistic inferences using race or sex as inputs, they might motivatedly try to add bad inferences to Society's shared maps that would give their own demographic an advantage in conflicts. It's safer to nip such Shenanigans in the bud by disallowing the whole class of thought to begin with: can't oppress people on the basis of race if race doesn't exist!

But Keltham isn't from America; you'd expect his thoughts to optimized for solving problems, not disallowing Shenanigans. Everything we've been told about dath ilan emphasizes that they should be collectively smart enough not to fall into this crazy trap of political incentives making a certain class of correct Bayesian updates socially taboo in order to avert other social ills; the Keepers should have pre-emptively done the analysis in the preceding paragraph without having to empirically see it eat their Society's sanity, and incorporated the appropriate counter-memes in their rationality training for children. To the dath ilani intuition, then, the quantitative extent to which the statement "It's wrong to make X decision about someone just because they're Y" makes sense, depends quantitatively on how strongly Y predicts the outcomes of X. Whether Y is an "individual trait" like having Intelligence 18 or a demographic category like being female does not matter.

This is also how American people's intuitions work, too, in contexts where their paranoid egalitarian meliorist memetic antibodies haven't been activated. Consider how the text of Planecrash itself repeatedly contrasts Keltham to everyone else in the world of Golarion. No one (neither Watsonianly in the text, nor Doylistically in various discussions of the text on Discord) is shy about saying that Keltham is special in this setting because he's dath ilani. We don't insist on talking about how Keltham is smart and knows about probability theory and knows about chemistry and doesn't know about Golarionian theology and is accustomed to a high material standard of living and is squeamish about seeing slave markets, as if these were separate, isolated facts about Keltham as an idiosyncratic individual. We connect these facts to Keltham's nationality even though, if you look, there are surely also natives of Golarion who are smart (to some quantitative extent) and know about chemistry (to some quantitative extent) and disapprove of slavery (to some quantitative extent), because our whole high-dimensional picture of what Keltham is—comprising many, many traits to their respective quantitative extents—is, in fact, causally downstream of the "essential" fact of his having grown up in another world. It's either not bigoted to notice, or a cognitive system requires some amount of "bigotry" in order to function.

However, just because noticing group differences is theoretically sound, doesn't mean it's always the right thing to focus on. Pragmatically, might it not be the case in practice, that statistical group differences are small enough, and that individual trait measurements are cheap and reliable enough, such that "don't discriminate by race or sex" is a useful heuristic?

It's an empirical issue—but sure, very often, yes. For most jobs—especially most jobs in industrialized Societies like dath ilan or America—"always test the individual's aptitude, never use sex as a proxy" is a fine rule, because most jobs primarily rely on human general intelligence: there was no dentistry in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, and thus there's no reason why women or men should make better dentists. In domains where sex differences are small, using sex as a proxy would just be dumb, not unjust.

But then it's bizarre that Keltham persists in his no-legal-sex-discrimination stance when his interlocutor brings up military conscription as a potential counterexample. Because, well, as unpleasant as it is for modern folk to think about ... there was war in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Men's bodies are built for war. Men's emotions are built for war. (Males have more reproductive fitness to gain and less to lose by the prospect of risking death in a war where the victors gain mating opportunities.) The sex difference in muscle mass is 2.6 standard deviations. That means a woman as strong as the average man is at the 99.5th percentile for women. That means if you just select everyone whose strength is greater than one standard deviation below the male mean, you end up excluding 94.5% of women.

Notwithstanding that Keltham grew up in a peaceful industrialized Society that screened off its history (such that he wouldn't have read histories of some analogue of Genghis Khan), it seems like Keltham should know this stuff? We're told that dath ilan has very advanced evolutionary psychology, and there's no apparent reason for them to have spent any of their eugenics bandwidth selecting for reduced sexual dimorphism. (Although given the Purely Aesthetic Gender in Pathfinder, it seems reasonable to posit reduced sexual dimorphism in Golarion?) If dath ilan doesn't have enough (non-counterfactual) violence to make strength differences salient, do they have sports? (In the peaceful industrialized Society where I grew up, it was salient my mediocre cross-country times were often better than the best girls' times.) We're told that ordinary dath ilani are good at reasoning about effect sizes.

But if Keltham does know this stuff, why is he talking like a UC Berkeley graduate? "Strength is an externally visible and measurable quality that determines who you want in your army; you don't need to go by the presence of penises," he says. When his interlocutor objects that strong women would get drafted, which would be terrible, Keltham asks how it would be more terrible than men getting drafted. When the interlocutor replies that the woman's marriage prospects would be damaged by a history living in close quarters with men in the army, Keltham muses that it sounds like she's implying that "the army would need strong enough internal governance to prevent women in it from being raped, but you could do that with cheaper truthspells?"

There's just so much wrong with this exchange from the perspective of anyone who knows anything about humans and isn't playing dumb for a religious American audience.

Firstly, if you decided that strength is the quality that determines who you want in your army, you should notice that you're going to be drafting almost all men anyway. (Again, a sex difference of 2.6 standard deviations and a selection threshold 1 standard deviation below the male mean gives you a male:female ratio of (1 − Φ(−1))/(1 − Φ(1.6)) ≈ 15.4:1, where Φ is the cumulative distribution function of the normal distribution.)

To this, the Berkeley graduate might reply, "So then the optimal army has 15 men for every woman; what's the problem with that? Surely you don't want to make your army less strong just to satisfy some weird æsthetic that all your soldiers should have the same kind of genitals?"

A minor counterreply would be that, if people's sex is public information but there are administrative costs associated with strength-testing everyone, you probably wouldn't bother testing the women, for the same reason that, if you were mining for spellsilver ore, and one mine had fifteen times as much ore as the other, you wouldn't even set up your tools at the poorer mine until you had completely exhausted the first.

But more fundamentally, even if you assume strength-testing is free, we haven't yet taken into account all other sex differences that are relevant to military performance. It's not just that any other individual traits (e.g., aggression) that you select for will stack multiplicatively, resulting in even more extreme ratios. There are also group-level effects that aren't captured by measuring the traits of individual soldiers: the social dynamics of a squad of fifteen men and one woman are going to be different from those of a squad of sixteen men. Even if you've selected the woman for strength and every martial virtue to equal any man, do the men know that in their subconscious, or are they going to be biased to want to protect her or seek her favor in a way that they wouldn't in an all-male environment?

You could command them not to—but does that actually work? People don't have conscious access to or control of the way their brain takes demographic base rates into account. Nelson et al. 1990 gave people photographs of women and men and asked them to estimate the photo-subjects' heights. The estimates end up reflecting sex as well as actual-height—which is, again, the correct Bayesian behavior given uncertainty in sex-blind estimates. But furthermore, when the researchers prepared a special height-matched set of photos (where for every woman of a given height, there was a man of the same height in the photo set) and told the participants about the height-matching and offered cash rewards for accuracy, more than half of the base-rate adjustment still remained! People don't know how to turn it off!

And if they could turn it off, such that you could order your male soldiers not to treat a woman among them any differently than they would a man, and have the verbal instruction have exactly the desired effect on their brain's subconscious quantitative decisionmaking machinery—who is this even helping, exactly?

Keltham expresses doubt whether it's worse for a woman to be conscripted than a man, and when his interlocutor gestures at harms to a woman from living among men (not trusted family members, but men unselected from the general public), Keltham understands that she's talking about the possibility of intercourse, including rape (!), and he immediately generates "cheap truthspells" as a way to mitigate that problem while maintaining sex-integrated military units.

And, sure, I agree that truthspells would help, given the assumption that you need to have sex-integrated military units. But—why is that a desideratum, at all? We're told that dath ilan's beliefs about evolutionary psychology include the idea that:

The untrained male has an instinct to seize and guard a woman's reproductive capacity, instinctively using violence to stop her from interacting with other men at the same that he instinctively displays other forms of commitment to try to earn her acquiescence. The untrained female has adaptations that assume an environment in which men will try to pressure her into more sex than is optimal for her own reproductive fitness, so her adaptations push her to instinctively resist that pressure while also instinctively trying to increase the number and quality of men who'll be interested in her.

And just—if you actually believe that, it seems like there's this very obvious policy of not forcing females to fight in close quarters alongside the people with an instinct to seize and guard female reproductive capacity?! (Come to think of it, the "instinctively trying to increase the number and quality of men who'll be interested in her" part seems like it could cause other kinds of problems, too??) Even if you have cheap truthspells, there's this concept of 'securitymindset', where you want to design systems that are robust against unexpected things happening, and the "Just don't conscript women in the first place" policy neatly sidesteps entire classes of potential social pathologies that you don't want to have to deal with at all in the organization you're using to keep your country from getting conquered?! If someone asks whether it's worse for a woman or a man to be put in the situation of having to fight in close quarters alongside people with an instinct to seize and guard female reproductive capacity, I don't think it should be hard to admit the obvious correct answer that that's worse for a woman?!

I mean, it's not worse with Probability One. Like any dath ilani or religiously devout American, I cherish diversity and exceptions, and want to treat people who are unusual for their demographic with the same care and respect as anyone else! (More, actually.) It's just—it seems like it should be possible to do that without trashing our ability to have conventions that perform well in the average case?? To the extent that there is a minority of women who want nothing more than to die gloriously in battle in service to their country, then, sure, you'd want and expect the country to be able to make use of that—and whether you want to induct them into the regular army, or have a special women's corps is a complicated policy question that you'd want to make after appropriately weighing all of the trade-offs (like the unit-cohesion objection vs. less skill transfer due to not having cross-sex mentorships).

It's just—wasn't dath ilan's whole thing supposed to be about coordinating to find the optimal multi-agent policy using evidence and quantitative reasoning?! And suddenly Keltham is casually proposing "stopp[ing] being able to measure people's sex and treat them differently based on that" without noticing that this is excluding huge swathes of policyspace (such as "conscript males, but accept female volunteers") for ideological reasons!? I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!!

Maybe there's just no way to explain this in a way that makes sense to American ears? I still feel guilty writing this stuff. It's just—I was trained, long ago back in the 'aughts, in a certain Art, and I'm pretty sure we were taught that being able to measure things and make different decisions based on the measurements was a good thing in full generality, without there being any special exception that specific cluster-membership measurements are actually bad?!

(Thanks for Ilzo for feedback.)


Gaydar Jamming

In my high school journalism class back in the mid-'aughts, there was this fat Latino boy, L., who had distinctly "feminine" mannerisms. (I'm not even sure how to describe it in terms of lower-level observations, as if the memory is encoded as the category rather than the precepts. You know it when you see it.)

One day in class, the topic of gender and handwriting came up, and it was remarked that L. also "wrote like a girl." Being the proud antisexist ideologue that I was at the time, I wrote in my notebook about how this observation about L.'s handwriting was disturbing, in a way.

Naïvely, of course, you'd think it would be ideologically validating: L. and his manner and his handwriting were living proof that not all boys are masculine! But everyone knew that—even the smart sexists. No, the disturbing part was that if "feminine" handwriting—potentially—indicated "feminine" behavior more generally, that implied that "femininity" was a valid concept, which was itself not a notion I was inclined to grant. (Because why should a person's reproductive anatomy imply anything else about their mind, even if the occasional exception is admitted to? The whole idea is sexist.)

Ideology isn't my style anymore—or rather, these days, my ideology is about the accuracy of my probabilistic predictions, rather than denying the possibility or morality of making probabilistic predictions about humans. Looking back, I will not only unhesitatingly bite the bullet on femininity being a real thing, I'm also tempted to make a bold and seemingly "unrelated" prediction: L. was gay.

I mean, I don't know that; I have no recollection of the kid ever saying so in my presence. Nevertheless, as a probabilistic prediction, it seems like a good guess. I'm no longer afraid of stereotypes to the quantitative extent that I expect the stereotype to actually get the right answer, in contrast to my teenage ideological fever dream of not wanting that to be possible.

Something I still can't reconstruct from memory—or maybe lack the exact concepts to express—is to what extent I "sincerely" thought that stereotyping didn't work, and to what extent I was self-righteously "playing dumb". Though my notebooks bear no record of it, I surely must have known about the stereotype—that bad people (not me) would assume that L. was gay. What did I think the bad people were doing, that would have them make that particular assumption out of the space of possible assumptions? (But without a concept of Bayesian reasoning as normative ideal, it never would have occured to me to ask myself that particular question, out of the space of possible questions.)

Maybe another anecdote from a few years later is also relevant. In the early 'tens, while slumming in community college, I took the "Calculus III" course from one Prof. H., a really great teacher who respected my intellectual autonomy—and, as it happens, the man had a very distinctive voice. I'm not even sure how to describe it in terms of lower-level precepts, but you know it when you hear it. And I wondered, on the basis of his voice, whether he was gay.

At this point in my ideological evolution, I did have a concept of Bayesian reasoning as normative ideal. But I thought to myself, well, base rates: most people aren't gay, and the professor's voice isn't enough evidence to overcome that prior; he's probably not gay.

Looking back, I'm suspicious that I was reaching for base rate neglect as an excuse as an excuse for my old egalitarian assumption that stereotypes are invalid—notwithstanding the fact that base rate neglect is, in fact, a thing.

Although when I try to put numbers on it now, it's actually looking like I happened to get this one right: if 3% of men are gay, you need log2(97/3) ≈ 5 bits of evidence to think that someone probably is. Is a sufficiently distinctive "gay voice" that much evidence—something you're 32 times more likely to hear from a gay man than a straight man?

It looks like you have to go awfully far into the tail to get that sufficiently distinctive. Table 2 in Smyth et al.'s "Male Voices and Perceived Sexual Orientation" works out to Cohen's d ≈ 1.09. Assuming normality and equal variances for that effect size, you need to be 3.43 standard deviations out from the straight male mean in order to get that much evidence. (Because Φ(1.09 − 3.43)/Φ(−3.43) ≈ 32, where Φ is the cumulative distribution function of the normal distribution.)

I don't think Prof. H.'s voice was quite that extreme? Maybe it was only 2 or 2.5 standard deviations out, for a likelihood ratio of around 8–12.7, which is about 3–3.7 bits of evidence—which is an update from 3% to about 20–28%?

And the effect size of childhood sex-typed behavior on sexual orientation is around d ≈ 1.3, so I'll actually go with roughly similar numbers for L.

I could easily be wrong about the specific numbers. (My gut expects a skilled "gaydar operator" to be more reliable than d ≈ 1.1, which could still be true if the published statistics are deflated by the measurement error of less perceptive raters?) But I'm confident that this is the correct methodology. (Assuming that predictions don't causally or otherwise affect the things being predicted—but how likely is that?) My old anxieties about committing heresy have dissolved in the knowledge that it is, really, just a math problem.


Link: "Nonbinary Runners Have Been Here the Whole Time"

The New York Times reports on nonbinary divisions in competitive footraces. (Archived; hat tip Steve Sailer.)

The piece is impossible to parody, but in a way, the absurdity is—clarifying. I always want to ask trans-inclusion-in-sports people what they think the point of sex-segregation in sports is (as opposed to just having everyone in the same category): if they admit that it's a pragmatic policy to give women a domain to compete in despite the sport-relevant trait distributions of females and males being different, then that at least opens up the empirical debate on whether hormone replacement therapy gets "close enough" for trans women to relevantly count as women.

But with the nonbinary category, there is no empirical issue to get confused with! It's pure identity narcissism—or, in more detail, it's a pure instance of the way in which sex-related high-dimensional trait clusters get reified into social categories, resulting in some people learning a desire to escape their reified social category even in situations where sex actually is the decision-relevant trait, resulting in other people who are frustrated by being socially punished for pointing out that sex is sometimes a decision-relevant trait disparagingly accusing those people of "identity narcissism".


Backlog Metablogging, April 2022

I feel like I've been pretty lazy for the last—ten months? A laziness born out of resignation and despair, a sense that I've outlived myself, that my story and my world is over, and I'm just enjoying a reasonably comfortable afterlife in—the time we have left. I may have picked up a slight gaming habit (to the tune of 275 hours of Slay the Spire and 660 games of Super Auto Pets).

But it's not, over. While the world is still here, I still have things to fight for besides my reasonable comfort—and still (somehow yet still) so much more yet unwritten! If my grandchildren won't read it (because I'm not even on a trajectory to have children, or because the world isn't on a trajectory to last that long), the next-next generation of language models will.

In December 2018, I put up a teaser list of post ideas I hadn't then gotten around to writing up yet. To remind myself—and you—that I'm still alive, maybe it's a good time to review how that went so far, and post a new list.

Ideas from the December 2018 list that got published/finished in some form—

Ideas remaining from the December 2018 list that I still care about—

  • "'But I'm Not Quite Sure What That Means': Costs of Nonbinary Gender as a Social Technology"
    • If (e.g.) the 5% most masculine/androgynous females identify as NB to escape the strictures of the "woman" gender role, that increases the gender-role pressure on females who don't identify as NB (who are now presumed to consent to it)
  • something of my own take on what's going on with the etiology of MtF (more than just punting to Brown or Lawrence as my standard reference for the background worldview that my content takes for granted)
    • I especially owe this to friend of the blog Tailcalled who has become disillustioned with orthodox "Blanchardianism", and having been trapped in a ten-month laziness spiral of resignation and despair that my story and my world are over isn't an excuse while the world is, in fact, still here
  • the epistemic-horror short stories!!

Ideas from the December 2018 list that I'm less excited about now and am less likely to finish

  • naïve Bayes models for sex categorization
  • Codes of Conduct as an ideological enforcement mechanism
  • "The Neglect of Probability Fallacy; Or, You Do Not Have an Intersex Condition"
  • FaceApp/Oculus Go product reviews

Book reviews I'm relatively unlikely to get around to finishing—

  • joint book review of Kathleen Stock's Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism and Kathryn Paige Harden's The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality
    • the subtitle parallelism is charming, and the heroic willingness to face facts that are inconvenient to one's value-commitments while staying true to those values is on theme for this blog
  • Imogen Binnie's Nevada
    • something about the horror of a world without ambition or the life of the mind (or specifically, the philosopher–scientist's mind, rather than the activist's)? Binnie (who will always have more readers than me) writes characters don't have any concept of doing anything except drugs and complaining about Society's transphobia.
  • Abigail Shrier's Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters
    • Damage is sensationalist right-wing journalism, rather than the kind of careful, nuanced scholarship of the kind you would expect to be reviewed by such a refined blog as The Scintillating But Ultimately Untrue Thought—but damned if the situation on the ground doesn't call more sensationalist right-wing journalism
  • Shon Faye's The Transgender Issue
  • Multi-Book Review: Various Sex-Ed Books for Children

New list of more ideas I want to finish—

  • the Whole Dumb Story of my breakup with the so-called "rationalist" community (working title: "A Hill of Validity in Defense of Meaning")
    • This has been brewing for a couple years. ("I think I'm almost ready to stop grieving and move on with my life," I said in August 2020.) I have thousands of words of drafting and notes. ("Sexual Dimorphism" was actually Part One of this, published separately as a mere megapost when I found I didn't have the stamina to tell the Whole Dumb Story in a single mega-megapost.) It's just been hard, but—it's over, isn't it? Why can't I move on?
  • book review of the new new Charles Murray book that's actually about the thing that everyone assumes all of his previous books were about
    • with a coda about how the thing itself is much less important than how the political necessity of denying the thing ends up recursively destroying our Society's ability to reason ...
      • with potentially astronomical consequences, as a Society that managed to successfully do eugenic selection for intelligence before developing computing would have a much better shot at solving the artificial intelligence alignment problem ...
        • in contrast to how in our Society, people can't even talk about this stuff except under cover of a pseudonym! We are dead! We are so dead!!
  • speculative but deeply-researched post arguing that some young children who are identified as transgender in the current ideological environment, would likely not have had gender problems at all in a different environment (working title: "Trans Kids on the Margin, and Harms From Misleading Training Data")
  • I owe Tracing Woodgrains a linkpost-with-commentary to his nice essay about me
  • speculations about my "medianworld" (a worldbuilding exercise from the Glowfic community, where you try to portray a realistic, consilient world in which the average person is like you)
  • a reply to Scott Alexander's "Autogenderphilia Is Common and Not Especially Related to Transgender"
    • I have a few thousand words drafted, but I haven't been happy with it, because it's surprisingly hard to explain my point of view in a way that I think will land for people who don't already share my parsimony intuitions; here as with Moser 2009, I'm not doubting the survey data itself; rather, I think we have enough prior knowledge about what females and males are like, to strongly suspect that in this case a Yes answer to the same survey question doesn't mean the same thing for both populations
  • actually, I want to explore the point about regression to the mean and group differences in more mathematical detail, because there's more philosophical depth here: regression is an empirically observable phenomenon, but there's also a sense in which the choice of group is meaningfully subjective: do I regress the mean of my immediate family, or my extended family, or my race?
  • a post about how redefining gender categories is the right thing to do insofar as many people transitioning changes statistical structure of data in the world (following Stuart Armstrong's "Declustering, Reclustering, and Filling in Thingspace")
    • This is probably important to write up as a novel argument "supporting" the "pro-trans" coalition, in contrast to how more of my content tends to code as "anti-trans" when you orthogonally project into the one-dimensional space of the usual battle lines. The fact that I generate and publish such arguments spontaneously is how you know—and how I know—that I'm not a partisan hack.
  • a post about how sex concepts represent both categorical differences and the conjunction of statistical differences of various effect sizes, such that if you try to unpin the word from the categorical differences, you end up (as per the usual gender-critical complaint) defining gender in terms of stereotypes because there's nothing left for the word to attach to (working title: "Subspatial Distribution Overlap and Cancellable Stereotypes")
  • a post about how gender identity ideology is actually not very compatible with the traditional liberal impulse to make gender less of a big deal, because there's a huge difference between omitting category information that's not relevant, vs. letting people choose their category-membership (working title: "Elision vs. Choice")
  • a steelperson of the "assigned at birth" terminology (working title: "'Assigned at Birth' Is a Schelling Point (If You Live in an Insane Dystopia Where the Concept of Sex Is Somehow Controversial)")
  • I occasionally get people telling me that it doesn't matter where AGP is causally relevant to late-onset gender dysphoria in males, because we Know that Transition Works and makes people happier. And just—I'm pretty skeptical that you could legitimately be that confident about what the best quality-of-life intervention for a condition is, without actually understanding the nature of the condition (working title: "Model-Free Happiness")
  • a post about the motivation for positing peseudobisexuality or meta-attraction as part of the two-type taxonomy of MtF: it may sound like a suspicious ad hoc patch to save the theory from falsification by bi trans women, but it's actually needed to explain the commonality of (a) AGP males expressing attraction to men only while in "girl mode" themselves, and (b) self-reports of sexual orientation changing post-transition in trans women who weren't androphilic before
    • (a) is suspicious is because "bi + AGP, independently" doesn't explain why the interest would be dependent on one's own presentation; (b) is suspicious is because everything else we know about sexual orientation in males (but not females) makes it look awfully stable. (Conversion therapy doesn't work; criminally convicted pedophiles still show genital response to child stimuli despite the huge incentives to conceal/repress it; correlation of homosexuality with childhood behavior makes it look like a prenatal organizational effect, rather than an activational effect that would respond to HRT as an adult.)
    • Maybe these two bullet points suffice and I don't need to pad it out into a whole post?
  • a critique of the implicit presentism in Holden Karnofsky's Cold Takes blog

Autogynephilia Should Be Recognized Openly

(A brief guest post by friend of the blog GPT-3 (text-davinci-002, temperature 0.7, best of 3).)

Autogynephilia, or the sexual attraction to oneself as a woman, is a controversial topic within the LGBTQ+ community. Some believe that autogynephilia is a form of mental illness, while others see it as a valid sexual orientation. I believe that autogynephilia should be recognized openly, and that autogynephilic men can lead fulfilling lives as men without necessarily transitioning to live as trans women.

Autogynephilia is not a new phenomenon. It has been documented throughout history, and there are many famous examples of autogynephilic men, including author Virginia Woolf and politician Hillary Clinton. Autogynephilia is not a mental illness, and it does not necessarily mean that a person is transgender. Many autogynephilic men are perfectly happy living as men, and do not feel the need to transition to live as a woman.

There are many reasons why autogynephilia should be recognized openly. First and foremost, it is a valid sexual orientation. Just like any other orientation, it should not be hidden or ashamed of. Additionally, autogynephilia is not a choice. It is not something that a person can simply "turn off." Therefore, autogynephilic men should not be forced to suppress their sexuality in order to conform to societal norms.

Furthermore, autogynephilic men can lead fulfilling lives as men. Many autogynephilic men are successful in their careers, and have healthy and happy relationships. They do not need to transition to live as a woman in order to be happy and fulfilled.

In conclusion, autogynephilia should be recognized openly, and autogynephilic men can lead fulfilling lives as men without necessarily transitioning to live as trans women.


Student Dysphoria, and a Previous Life's War

There was a brief, beautiful moment from 2014, the first year of my life (that I feel comfortable admitting to), until mid-2016—a year-and-a-half long moment when I didn't have to fight a desperate and obviously hopeless ideological war of survival against a Society that's trying to kill me.

(Technically, trying to impose the use of gerrymandered concepts that raise the message length of my existence in social reality, which is the same thing as lowering the probability that social reality assigns to my existence. Like I said, trying to kill me.)

Peacetime was amazing. I was so happy—not ecstatic, but happy in the ordinary way of moral patient, someone whose life is valuable simply in the experience of living of it, rather than for its effects on some grand Cause. I wrote a chess engine; I gave money to charity; I drank pumpkin spice and played that tower defense game where the bad ponies are the good ponies and the good ponies are the bad ponies.

That carefree selfishness is gone now, subordinated to the war effort. And so soon after the last war, too.

The first shots of the last war came on 29 November 2007. I was a schoolstudent at the University in Santa Cruz. Coming into that quarter, I had been excited to take the famous "Introduction to Feminisms" course, only to find, as the quarter wore on, that it seemed to be taught in a dialect of English that I could not speak. The texts and the professor kept describing features of Society as oppression as if simply to condemn them. I agreed with the condemnation, of course, but I could not understand it as knowledge and could not produce such sentences in my own voice; I wanted an explanation of how the oppression worked.

My subsequent difficulty in writing the required papers for that course weighed heavily on my soul. The failure to live up to expectations would have been shameful for any course, but as a male squandering the privilege of being allowed to take "Introduction to Feminisms", it was simply unbearable. Unable to reach the prescribed wordcount for the final paper, I had a hysterical nervous breakdown at the end of the quarter, crying and screaming for hours, "I betrayed them; I betrayed them." (The professor and the T.A., who were kind and deserved better than to have to teach a male who couldn't write.)

Ironically, in the inferno of shame over having betrayed my mandate to the University, my attitude towards school flipped practically overnight. I had never been the most diligent student, but I had mostly accepted the duty of getting an "education": I didn't always do my homework, but when I didn't, I at least felt guilty about it. But suddenly, the difference between schooling-as-education and actual learning became distinct. I had always been a voracious reader; for years, I had been filling little pocket notebooks with my own thoughts—clearly, school itself couldn't take credit for everything I knew. I took a leave of absence from the University and went back to my (previously, "summer") job at the supermarket, with the intention of being an explicit autodidact. I had always learned from books "in passing", in my "free time", but now I would give it the full force of my legitimate effort—it wasn't "leisure" anymore; it was my actual work.

And not just reading, either. I remembered enjoying the linear algebra class I took in winter quarter freshman year at the University, although the course had gone slowly, such that a year and a half after it was over, I found I didn't recall what an eigenvalue was, although I had retained mastery of taking the reduced row echelon form of a matrix. But what did it matter that the "course" was "over", if I didn't know? So I got out the textbook (Bretcher, 3rd edition) and set to work ...

This was fine, for a while. I learned from my books, and—there was a dignity to working at the supermarket. It was boring, to be sure, but at least I had some function other than simply to obey a designated authority. You can tell when a customer's latte is too foamy, or the coinmag on checkstand 1 needs to be swapped out, on its own terms, and not because the teacher said so.

But making $9.40 an hour at the supermarket indefinitely (and paying a nominal rent to live with my mom) didn't seem like an acceptable destiny for someone of my social class. It was assumed that at some point, I would have to figure out how to get a grown-up job (although my colleagues who had been at the supermarket for 20 years probably wouldn't approve of me calling it that).

Somehow, this seemed more of a daunting problem than learning linear algebra. To make a dumb story short (I tried career college briefly on the theory that they could just teach me job-stuff without them fraudulently claiming credit for my education, then found that horrible and traumatizing for the same reasons as regular school and quit, then thought I could study for the same certifications on my own, then took a differential equations class at community college just for fun and to prove that my math self-study measured up to standards—and did poorly, leaving me devastated and feeling obligated to finish my degree after all in order to prove that I could), I eventually ended up back in college again, at community college, and then San Francisco State, my father not willing to pay for me to go back to the University in Santa Cruz again.

Now that I had a higher form of existence to contrast it with, going back to school was awful. I hated the social role of "student" and the whole diseased culture of institutional servitude. I despised the way everyone, including and especially the other "students", talked about their lives and the world in terms of classes and teachers and degrees and grades, rather than talking about the subject matter. I wanted it to be normal for boasts of achievement to take the form of "I proved this theorem and thereby attained deep insight into the true structure of mathematical reality", rather than "I got an 'A' on the test."

(Where, sure, it makes sense to take a test occasionally in order to verify that one isn't self-deceiving about the depth of one's insight into the true structure of mathematical reality, or in order to provide some amount of third-party-legible evidence about the depth of one's insight into the true structure of mathematical reality—but the test score itself isn't the point.)

I hated the fact that, if it weren't for my desperate efforts to start intellectual conversations with anyone and everyone, people would assume I was one of them. Being perceived that way by Society hurt. I was frequently moved to rage or tears just getting through the day in that dehumanizing environment. (The supermarket didn't feel like slumming; community college absolutely did.)

That part of my life is behind me now—not because I won my ideological war against institutionalized schooling, but because I escaped to a different world where that war is no longer relevant. My autodidactic romance had already included some amount of computer programming, and taking a 9-week web development bootcamp leveled up my skills and self-confidence far enough for me to easily find a well-paying software development job. (As with the supermarket, the code bootcamp didn't feel dysfunctional and oppressive in the way that school did, precisely because no one cares if you graduated from code bootcamp; it was very clear that the focus was on acquiring skill at the craft, rather than obeying the dictates of an Authority.) So I went on to live happily—if not ever after, then at least for a brief, beautiful moment from 2014 to mid-2016.


But that was just my good fortune. There are others who weren't so lucky, who are still suffering in mind-slavery under Authority in the world of schools I left behind ...

We could imagine someone sympathetic to my plight in school deciding that my problem was a psychological condition called "student dysphoria"—discomfort with one's assigned social role of student. We could imagine a whole political movement to help sufferers of student dysphoria by renaming everything: instead of a "student", I could be a "research associate", instead of taking "classes", I could attend "research seminars"—all while the substance of my daily working conditions and social expectations remained the same.

I don't think this would be helping me. When I was angry about being in school, it wasn't because of the word "student"—it was because I wanted more autonomy and I wanted more respect for my intellectual initiative. Changing the words without granting me the autonomy and respect I craved wouldn't be solving my actual problem. It would probably make things worse by sabotaging the concepts and language I needed to articulate what my problem was. My pain and suffering was no less real for being "merely" game-theoretic (looking to the reactions of others), rather than some intrinsic organic condition to be accommodated.

Likewise, being a "student" would have been fine in a world where students got more autonomy—a world where there was a collective understanding that courses are a supplement or pragmatically useful guidepost to one's studies, rather than course grades being the whole thing. I'm happy to learn from the masters: that's what textbooks are. I wasn't delusional about doing particularly novel original research; I just wanted recognition for the real intellectual work I was doing under my own power.

Asking whether student dysphoria is a real or fake condition would be the wrong question. The pain of not being seen by Society the way you want to be seen is unquestionably real—but because it's real, it can only be addressed by addressing its real causes: the mismatches between how I see my self, how Society sees me, and what I actually am. If I think Society has me all wrong, I might engage in a desperate and obviously hopeless ideological war to prove it—but to actually prove it, not to coerce Society into humoring me. If Society isn't buying my vision, that terrible reality is something I need to track.


Challenges to Yudkowsky's Pronoun Reform Proposal

Go, Soul, the body's guest,
Upon a thankless errand:
Fear not to touch the best;
The truth shall be thy warrant:
Go, since I needs must die,
And give the world the lie.

"The Lie" by Walter Raleigh

Summary

  • In a February 2021 Facebook post, Eliezer Yudkowsky inveighs against English's system of singular third-person pronouns: as a matter of language design, English's lack of a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun is a serious flaw: you shouldn't be required to commit to a stance on what sex someone is in order to say a grammatical sentence about her or him.

  • This seems fine as a critique of the existing English language. However, Yudkowsky then goes on to proclaim, in connection with pronouns for transgender people, that "the simplest and best protocol is, '"He" refers to the set of people who have asked us to use "he", with a default for those-who-haven't-asked that goes by gamete size' and to say that this just is the normative definition. Because it is logically rude, not just socially rude, to try to bake any other more complicated and controversial definition into the very language protocol we are using to communicate."

  • However, this allegedly "simplest and best" proposal fails to achieve its stated aim of avoiding baking controversial claims into the language grammar. The reason trans people want others to use their designated pronouns is because they're trying to control their socially-perceived sex category and English speakers interpret she and he as conveying sex-category information. Yudkowsky's proposed circular redefinition is functionally "hypocritical": if it were actually true that he simply referred to those who take the pronoun he, then there would be no reason for trans people to care which pronoun people used for them.

  • The "meaning" of language isn't some epiphenominal extraphysical fact that can be declared or ascertained separately from common usage. The word "dog" means what it does because English speakers use the word that way; if you wanted "dog" to mean something different, you'd need to change the way English speakers behave. Thus, circularly redefining he and she as purportedly referring to pronoun preferences rather than sex doesn't work, if people are still in practice choosing pronouns on the basis of perceived sex.

  • Given that she and he do in fact convey sex category information to English speakers, some speakers might perceive an interest in refusing demands to use pronouns in a way that contradicts their perception of what sex people are. This does not constitute a philosophical commitment that pronouns can be "lies" as such.

  • In the comments of the Facebook post, Yudkowsky seemingly denies that pronouns convey sex category information to English speakers, claiming, "I do not know what it feels like from the inside to feel like a pronoun is attached to something in your head much more firmly than 'doesn't look like an Oliver' is attached to something in your head." This self-report is not plausible, as evidenced by previous writings by Yudkowsky that treat sex and pronouns as synonymous.

  • I'm not claiming that Yudkowsky should have a different pronoun usage policy. I agree that misgendering all trans people "on principle" seems very wrong and unappealing. Rather, I'm claiming that policy debates should not appear one-sided: in order to be politically neutral in your analysis of why someone might choose one pronoun usage policy over another, you need to acknowledge the costs and benefits of a policy to different parties. It can simultaneously be the case that pressuring speakers to use pronouns at odds with their perceptions of sex is a cost to those speakers, and that failing to exert such pressure is a cost to trans people. It's possible and desirable to be honest about that cost–benefit analysis, while ultimately choosing a policy that favors some parties' interests over others.

  • People with gender dysphoria who are considering whether to transition need factually accurate information about gender-transition interventions: if you have the facts wrong, you might wrongly avoid an intervention that would have benefited you, or wrongly undergo an intervention that harms you. This includes facts about how pronouns work in the existing English language. If it were actually true that the simplest and best convention is that he refers to the set of people who have asked us to use he, then asking for new pronouns despite not physically passing as the corresponding sex wouldn't be costly. But in fact, it is costly. As someone with a history of gender problems, this is decision-relevant to me. Thus, Yudkowsky is harming a reference class of people that includes me by spreading disinformation about the costs of asking for new pronouns; I'm better off because I don't trust Eliezer Yudkowsky to tell the truth.

⁕ ⁕ ⁕

In a February 2021 Facebook post, Eliezer Yudkowsky inveighs against English's system of singular third-person pronouns. As a matter of clean language design, English's lack of a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun is a serious flaw. The function of pronouns is to have a brief way to refer back to entities already mentioned: it's more concise to be able to say "Katherine put her book on its shelf" rather than "Katherine put Katherine's book on the book's shelf". But then why couple that grammatical function to sex-category membership? You shouldn't need to take a stance on someone's sex in order to talk about her or him putting a book on the shelf.

This affects, for example, science-fiction authors writing about AIs or hermaphroditic aliens (which don't have a sex), or mystery authors writing about a crime suspect whose identity (and therefore, sex) is unknown. In these cases, she or he are inappropriate, but the English language offers no alternative lacking its own downsides: it is understood to refer to non-persons, they gets conjugated as a plural, and neopronouns like ey/em/eir—or ve/ver/vis, as used in some of Yudkowsky's juvenilia—are hard to rally adoption for because pronouns are a closed class—not something people are used to new members of being coined, in the way that people are used to seeing unfamiliar nouns, adjectives, or verbs.

It doesn't have to be this way! If you were fortunate enough to be in the position of intelligently designing a language from scratch, you could just include a singular third-person gender-neutral pronoun (like it, but for persons, or like they but unambiguously singular) in the original closed set of pronouns! If you wanted more pronoun-classes to reduce the probability of collisions (where universal ey or singular they would result in more frequent need to repeat names where a pronoun would be ambiguous), you could devise some other system that doesn't bake sex into the language while driving the collision rate even lower than that of the sex-based system—like using initials to form pronouns (Katherine put ker book on its shelf?), or an oral or written analogue of spatial referencing in American Sign Language (where a signer associates a name or description with a direction in space, and points in that direction for subsequent references).

(Although—one might speculate that "more classes to reduce collisions" could be part of the historical explanation for grammatical gender, in conjunction with the fact that sex is binary and easy to observe. None of the other most salient features of a human can quite accomplish the same job: age is continuous rather than categorical; race is also largely continuous (clinal) and historically didn't typically vary within a tribal/community context.)

If you grew up speaking English, gendered pronouns feel "normal" while gendered noun classes in many other languages (where, e.g., in French, a dog, le chien, is "masculine", but a potato, la pomme de terre, is "feminine") seem strange and unnecessary, but someone who grew up with neither would regard both as strange. If you spoke a language that didn't already have gendered pronouns, you probably wouldn't be spontaneously eager to add them.

All this seems fine as a critique of the existing English pronoun system! However, I argue that Yudkowsky's prescription for English speakers going forward goes badly wrong. First, Yudkowsky argues that it's bad for stances on complicated empirical issues to be part of the language grammar itself: since people might disagree on who fits into the empirical clusters of "female" and "male", you don't want speakers to be forced to make a call on that just in order to be able to use a pronoun.

Fair enough. Sounds like an argument for universal singular they (and eating the cost of increased collisions where it's ambiguous which subject an instance of they would refer to): if you don't think pronouns should convey sex-category information, then don't use pronouns that convey sex-category information! But then, in an unexplained leap, Yudkowsky proclaims:

So it seems to me that the simplest and best protocol is, "'He' refers to the set of people who have asked us to use 'he', with a default for those-who-haven't-asked that goes by gamete size" and to say that this just is the normative definition. Because it is logically rude, not just socially rude, to try to bake any other more complicated and controversial definition into the very language protocol we are using to communicate.

The problem with this is that the alleged rationale for the proposal does not support the proposal. If your default pronoun for those-who-haven't-asked goes by perceived sex (which one presumes is what Yudkowsky means by "gamete size"—we almost never observe people's gametes), then you're still baking sex-category information into the language protocol in the form of the default! Moreover, this is clearly an "intended" rather than an accidental effect of the proposal, in the sense that a policy that actually avoided baking sex-category information into the language (like universal singular they, or name-initial- or hair-color-based pronouns) would not have the same appeal to those who support self-chosen pronouns: why is it that some people would want to opt-out of the sex-based default?

Well, it would seem that the motivating example—the causal–historical explanation for why we're having this conversation about pronoun reform in the first place—is that trans men (female-to-male transsexuals) prefer to be called he, and trans women (male-to-female transsexuals) prefer to be called she. (Transsexuals seem much more common than people who just have principled opinions about pronoun reform without any accompanying desire to change what sex other people perceive them as.)

But the reason trans people want this is because they're trying to change their socially-perceived sex category ("gender") and actually-existing English speakers interpret she and he as conveying sex-category information. People who request he/him pronouns aren't doing it because they want their subject pronoun to be a two-letter word rather than a three-letter word, or because they hate the voiceless postalveolar fricative (sh) sound. They're doing it because, in English, those are the pronouns for males. If it were actually true that she and he were just two alternative third-person pronouns that could be used interchangeably with no difference in meaning, with the only function of the distinction being collision-avoidance, then there would be no reason to care which one someone used, as long as the referent was clear. But this doesn't match people's behavior: using gender pronouns other than those preferred by the subject is typically responded to as a social attack (as would be predicted by the theory that she and he convey sex-category information and transsexuals don't want to be perceived as their natal sex), not with, "Oh, it took me an extra second to parse your sentence because you unexpectedly used a pronoun different from the one the subject prefers as per convention, but now I understand what you meant" (as would be predicted by the theory that "he refers to the set of people who have asked us to use he [...] and to say that this just is the normative definition").

You can't have it both ways. "That toy is worthless", says one child to another, "therefore, you should give it to me." But if the toy were actually worthless, why is the first child demanding it? The problem here is not particularly subtle or hard to understand! If the second child were to appeal to an adult's authority, and the adult replied, "The toy is worthless, so give it to him," you would suspect the grown-up of not being impartial.

"Pronouns shouldn't convey sex-category information, as an apolitical matter of language design," is a fine motte, but it's not consistent with the bailey of, "Therefore, when people request that you alter your pronoun usage in order to change the sex-category information being conveyed, you should obey the request." Even if the situation is an artifact of bad language design, as Yudkowsky argues—that in a saner world, this conflict would have never come up—that doesn't automatically favor resolving the conflict in favor of the policy of keeping both she and he but asserting that the difference doesn't mean anything.

This may be clearer to some readers if we consider a distinction less emotionally and politically fraught than sex/gender in the current year. Many languages have two different second person singular pronouns that distinguish the speaker's relationship to the listener as being more familiar/intimate, or more formal/hierarchical. In Spanish, for example, the familiar pronoun is and the formal pronoun is usted: one would address friends, family members, children, or personal servants as , but strangers or social superiors as usted. Using the wrong pronoun can be the cause of offense or awkwardness. A speaker switching from usted to for an interlocutor who they're getting along with might ask if it's okay with ¿Te puedo tutear? (Can I call you ?) or Nos tuteamos, ¿verdad? (We call each other , right?); this is somewhat analogous to an English speaker asking if they may address someone by first name, rather than with a courtesy title or honorific (Ms./Mr. Lastname, or ma'am/sir).

One could argue that the /usted distinction is bad language design for the same reason Yudkowsky opposes the she/he distinction: you shouldn't be forced to make a call on how familiar your relationship with someone is just in order to be able to use a pronoun for them. The modern English way is more flexible: you can indicate formality if you want to by saying additional words, but it's not baked into the grammar itself.

However, if you were going to reform Spanish (or some other language with the second-person formality distinction), you would probably abolish the distinction altogether, and just settle on one second-person singular pronoun. Indeed, that's what happened in English historically—the formal you took over as the universal second-person pronoun, and the informal singular thou/thee/thine has vanished from common usage. (People still recognize it as a second-person pronoun when encountered in old poetry—"The truth shall be thy warrant", &c.—but most probably aren't aware of the formality distinction.) You wouldn't keep both forms, but circularly redefine them as referring only to the referent's preferred choice of address (?!).

Similarly, when second-wave feminists objected to the convention of Miss or Mrs. forcing speakers to identify a woman's marital status, the response was to popularize the marriage-agnostic alternative Ms., not to circularly redefine Miss and Mrs.

Or consider how previous generations of public intellectuals considered this exact problem. In 1983, Douglas R. Hofstadter also expressed disapproval of she and he as a matter of language design, and to illustrate the point about how alien and unnecessary gendered language would seem if you weren't already used to it, wrote a satirical piece, "A Person Paper on Purity in Language", in the persona of a conservative author in a society with race-based (!) language conventions, including the pronouns whe/wis for whites and ble/bler for blacks. In neither the piece itself (during which Hofstadter's alter-ego brings up and rejects a couple of reform suggestions from the liberals of whis Society, including singular they), nor the Post-Scriptum in its subsequent anthologization, does Hofstadter entertain the idea of redefining he and she (or whe and ble) to refer to the subject's pronoun preference.

It's worth asking: why not? The statement of the objective language-design flaw (pronouns shouldn't denote sex, that's dumb; why would you define a language that way) was the same in 1983 as it is in 2022. If it's so clear to Yudkowsky in the current year that self-identification is just the "simplest and best protocol" to repair the objective flaw in English's design, why didn't that simplest and best solution occur to Hofstadter in 1983?

Could it, perhaps, be the case that public intellectuals in the current year might have some other motivation to conclude that "he refers to the set of people who have asked us to use he", that was not present for their analogues in 1983? But if so, they'd tell us that ... right?

Really, the circular definition shouldn't satisfy anyone: people who want someone to call them usted (or ), do so because of the difference in meaning and implied familiarity/respect, in the existing (pre-reform) language. (Where else could such a preference possibly come from?) From an AI design standpoint, the circular redefinition can be seen as a form of "wireheading". You want people to respect you as a superior, and if they respected you as a superior, they'd call you usted. That could make a policy of coercing people into calling you usted seem superficially appealing. But the appeal solely rests on confusing the pre-reform meaning (under which the choice of usted implies respect and is therefore desirable) and the post-reform meaning (under which the choice implies nothing). Whether or not the proponent of the change consciously notices the problem, the redefinition is functionally "hypocritical": it's only desirable insofar as people aren't actually using it internally.

Indeed, when I look at what contemporary trans activists write, I don't see them approving of this idea that pronoun choices don't mean anything. In the words of one Twitter user:

misgendering sucks, but what feels even more violent is when people get my pronouns right and i can tell they still perceive me as a man

In the words of another:

a lot of cis people use 'learning someone's pronoun' as a copout from doing the important internal work of actually reconsidering their impression of the person's gender

like let's be real—the reason you have a hard time "remembering" her pronoun is because you don't really think of her as a her. if you practiced thinking of her as a her, her pronoun would just come. and then you wouldn't be privately betraying her in your head all the time.

These authors are to be commended for making their view so clear and explicit: in order to not betray your trans friends (according to this view), you need to think of them as the gender that they say they are. Mere verbal pronoun compliance in the absence of underlying belief is insufficient and possibly treacherous.

This point that pronoun changes are desired precisely because of what they do imply about sex categories in the existing English language is a pretty basic one, that one would think should scarcely need to be explained. And yet Yudkowsky steadfastly ignores the role of existing meanings in this debate, bizarrely writing as if we were defining a conlang from scratch:

It is Shenanigans to try to bake your stance on how clustered things are and how appropriate it is to discretely cluster them using various criteria, into the pronoun system of a language and interpretation convention that you insist everybody use!

There are a couple of problems with this. First of all, the "that you insist everybody use" part is a pretty blatant DARVO in the current political environment around Yudkowsky's social sphere. A lot of the opposition to self-chosen pronouns is about opposition to compelled speech: people who don't think some trans person's transition should "count"—however cruel or capricious that might be—don't want to be coerced into legitimizing it with the pronoun choices in their own speech. That's different from insisting that others use sex-based non-subject-preferred pronouns, which is not something I see much of outside of gender-critical ("TERF") forums. That is, in the world I see, the pronouns-by-self-identity faction is overwhelmingly the one "insist[ing] everybody use" their preferred convention. Characterizing the issue as being about "freedom of pronouns", as Yudkowsky does in the comment section, elides the fact that freedom to specify how other people talk about you is in direct conflict with the freedom of speech of speakers! No matter which side of the conflict one supports, it seems wrong to characterize the self-ID pronoun side as being "pro-freedom", as if there weren't any "freedom" concerns on the other side.

If you actually believed it was Shenanigans to bake a stance on how clustered things are into a pronoun system and insist that everyone else use it, then it should be equally Shenanigans independently of whether the insisted-on clusters are those of sex or those of gender identity—if you're going to be consistent, you should condemn them both. And yet somehow, people who insist on sex-based pronouns are the target of Yudkowsky's condescension, whereas people who insist on gender-identity-based pronouns get both a free pass, and endorsement of their preferred convention (albeit for a different stated reason)? The one-sidedness here is pretty shameless!

Perhaps more important than the speaker-freedom vs. subject-freedom issue, however, is that in discussing how to reform English, we're not actually in the position of defining a language from scratch. Even if you think the cultural evolution of English involved Shenanigans, it's not fair to attribute the Shenanigans to native speakers accurately describing their native language. Certainly, language can evolve; words can change meaning over time; if you can get the people in some community to start using language differently, then you have ipso facto changed their language. But when we consider language as an information-processing system, we see that in order to change the meaning associated with a word, you actually do have to somehow get people to change their usage. You can advocate for your new meaning and use it in your own speech, but you can't just declare your preferred new meaning and claim that it applies to the language as actually spoken, without speakers actually changing their behavior. As a result, Yudkowsky's proposal "to say that this just is the normative definition" doesn't work.

To be clear, when I say that the proposal doesn't work, I'm not even saying I disagree with it. I mean that it literally, factually doesn't work! Let me explain.

The "meaning" of language isn't some epiphenomenal extraphysical fact that can be declared or ascertained separately from common usage. We can only say that the English word "dog" means these-and-such four-legged furry creatures, because English speakers actually use the word that way. The meaning "lives" in the systematic correspondence between things in the world and what communication signals are sent.

There's nothing magical about the particular word/symbol/phoneme-sequence "dog", of course. In German, they say Hund; in Finnish, they say koira; in Korean, they say . Germans and Finns and Koreans (and their dogs) seem to be getting along just as well as we Anglophones.

Nevertheless, it is a fact about contemporary English that "dog" means dog. If you thought this was bad for whatever reason, and you wanted to change that fact, you'd have to change the behavior of actually-existing English speakers. If you tried to stipulate on your Facebook wall that the word "dog" should mean tree now, and all of your Facebook friends nodded in agreement at your clever argument and then continued to call dogs "dogs" and trees "trees" in their everyday life just like they always had, then your language reform attempt would have, in fact, failed—even if the fact that it failed would be less obvious if you only looked at the Facebook thread full of people nodding in agreement.

Or suppose I wrote a Facebook post arguing that it's bad language design that "billion" means 1,000,000,000 instead of 2001. You see, the etymology comes from the prefix bi- (meaning two, from the Latin bis), combined with mille (Latin for 1000), combined with the augmentive suffix -one. How do you get 109 from that, huh? (It turns out there's an explanation, but I don't find it intuitive.) Clearly, it's better language design if the meaning of number words straightforwardly reflects their parts, so "billion" should mean 2001 (bi-, mille, -one; 2, times 1000, plus 1).

Even if you found this argument compelling from an theoretical language-design perspective after it had been presented to you, if I were to subsequently go around calling myself a billionaire (and condescendingly Tweeting about how anyone objecting to this usage is ontologically confused), you would probably suspect that I had some other reason to come up with this particular theoretical language-design argument—probably a reason having to do with what "billion" already means in the usage of actually-existing English speakers, even if you honestly think the existing English language is poorly designed in that aspect.

The inseparability of meaning from behavior-and-usage may be clearer if considered in a context other than that of natural language. Take computer programs. Sometimes programmers make bad design decisions. For example, in the C programming language, it's standard to represent strings (textual data) in memory with a sequence of bytes ending in a zero (null) character; the machine only knows where the string stops when it reaches the null at the end. This convention has a lot of disadvantages relative to the alternative of prefixing the string data with the length; a missing or misplaced null character could cause the machine to erroneously read or write data in adjacent memory, causing serious bugs or security vulnerabilities.

Given the existence of strong arguments for the length-prefixed string convention, replacing old software that uses null-terminated strings with new software that uses length-prefixed strings, sounds like a good idea! But the thing is, you do have to upgrade or replace the old software. If you just start sending data in a new format to the old software that doesn't understand the new format, your code is not going to yield the expected results. It would be convenient if you could just declare a new semantics for your existing data on your Facebook wall and be done, but that just doesn't work if you're still using the old software, which is programmed to behave according to the old data-interpretation convention. This continues to be true even if the convention you're trying to retire is very bad (like null-terminated strings), and if the old software is widely deployed and would be very expensive to systematically replace. The backwards-compatibility trap is real and can't be defied away even if it's very unpleasant.

Natural language faces a similar backwards-compatibility trap. The English language, as "software", is already "deployed" to 370 million brains as native speakers, and another 980 million second-language speakers. And among those hundreds of millions of speakers, there is already a very firmly entrenched convention that she refers to females and he refers to males, such that if you say, "I met a stranger in the park; she was nice", the listener is going to assume the the stranger was (or appeared to be) female, even if you didn't say "The stranger was female" as a separate sentence. If the listener later gets the chance to meet the stranger and the stranger turns out to be (or appear to be) male, the listener is going to be surprised: your pronoun choice induced them to mis-anticipate their experiences.

Bad language design? I mean, maybe! You could argue that! You could probably get a lot of Likes on Facebook arguing that! But if 370 million native English speakers including you and virtually everyone who Liked your post are going to continue automatically noticing what sex people are (or appear to be) and using the corresponding pronouns without consciously thinking about it (in accordance with the "default for those-who-haven't-asked" clause of your reform proposal), then the criticism seems kind of idle!

The "default for those-who-haven't-asked [going] by gamete size" part of Yudkowsky's proposal is trying to deal with the backwards-compatibility problem by being backwards-compatible—prescribing the same behavior in the vast majority of cases—but in doing so, it fails to accomplish its stated purpose of de-gendering the language.

To actually de-gender English while keeping she and he (as contrasted to coordinating a jump to universal singular they, or ve), you'd need to actually shatter the correlation between pronouns and sex/gender, such that a person's pronouns were just an arbitrary extra piece of data that you couldn't deduce from secondary sex characteristics and just needed to remember in the same way you have to remember people's names and can't deduce them from their appearances. But as far as I can tell, no one wants this. When's the last time you heard someone request pronouns for non-gender-related reasons? ("My pronouns are she/her—but note, that's just because I prefer the aesthetics of how the pronouns sound; I'm not in any way claiming that you should believe that I'm in any sense female, which isn't true.") Me neither.

But given that pronouns do convey sex-category information, as a fact about how the brains of actually-existing English speakers in fact process language (whether or not this means that English is terribly designed), some actually-existing English speakers might have reason to object when pressured to use pronouns in a way that contradicts their perception of what sex people are.

In an article titled "Pronouns are Rohypnol", Barra Kerr compares preferred pronouns to the famous Stroop effect. When color words are printed in text of a different color (e.g., red, orange, yellow, green, blue, &c.) and people are asked to name the color of the text, they're slow to respond: the meaning of the word interferes with our ability to name the color in front of our eyes.

Kerr suggests that preferred pronouns have a similar effect, that "a conflict between what we see and know to be true, and what we are expected to say, affects us." As an exercise, she suggests (privately!) translating sentences about transgender people to use natal-sex-based pronouns.

Unfortunately, I don't have a study with objective measurements on hand, but I think most native English speakers who try this exercise and introspect—especially using examples where the trans person exhibits features or behavior typical of their natal sex, with things like "she ejaculated" or "he gave birth" being the starkest examples—will agree with Kerr's assessment: "You can know perfectly the actual sex of a male person, and yet you will still react differently if someone calls them she instead of he."

Let's relate this to Yudkowsky's specialty of artificial intelligence. In a post on "Multimodal Neurons in Artificial Neural Networks", Gabriel Goh et al. explore the capabilities and biases of the CLIP neural network trained on textual and image data.

There are some striking parallels between CLIP's behavior, and phenomena observed in neuroscience. Neurons in the human brain have been observed to respond to the same concept represented in different modalities; for example, Quiroga et al. observed a neuron in one patient that responded to photos and sketches of actress Halle Berry, as well as the text string "Halle Berry". It turns out that CLIP neurons also exhibit this multi-modal responsiveness. Furthermore, CLIP is vulnerable to a Stroop-like effect where its image-classification capabilities can be fooled by "typographic attacks"—a dog with instances of the text "$$$" superimposed over it gets classified as a piggy bank, an apple with a handwritten sign saying "LIBRARY" gets classified as a library. The network knows perfectly what dogs and apples look like, and yet still reacts differently if adjacent text calls them something else.

I conjecture that the appeal of subject-chosen pronouns lies precisely in how they exert Stroop-like effects on speakers' and listeners' cognition. (Once again, if it were actually true that she and he had no difference in meaning, there would be no reason to care.) Pronoun badges are, quite literally, a typographic attack against English speakers' brains.

Note, I mean this as a value-free description of how the convention actually functions in the real world, not a condemnation. One could consistently hold that these "attacks" are morally good. (Analogously, supernormal stimuli like chocolate or pornography are "attacks" against the brain's evolved nutrition and reproductive-opportunity detectors, but most people are fine with this, because our goals are not evolution's.)

Is susceptibility to Stroop-like effects an indication of bad mind design? I mean, probably! One would expect that an intelligently-designed agent (as contrasted to messy human brains coughed up by blind evolution or lucky neural networks found by gradient descent) could easily bind and re-bind symbols on the fly, such that a sane AI from the future could use whatever pronouns without dredging up any inapplicable mental associations, and tell you the color of the text "red" just as easily as "red". But it seems kind of idle to criticize humans for not having a capability (natural language fluency without Stroop-like effects) that we don't even know how to implement in a computer program.

Back to Kerr's article—importantly, Kerr is explicitly appealing to psychological effects of different pronoun conventions. She is absolutely not claiming that the use of preferred pronouns is itself a "lie" about some testable proposition. She writes:

I've heard many people tell me they don't mind doing this, as a courtesy, although it takes some effort to keep up the mental gymnastics of perceiving one sex, but consistently using pronouns for the other. That's a personal choice, and I respect the reasons why some people make it.

I've also heard many people declaring that anyone who won't comply (usually directed at a woman) is obnoxious, mean, hostile, and unpleasant. 'Misgendering' is hate speech. They say.

But I refuse to use female pronouns for anyone male.

Note the wording: "That's a personal choice", "I refuse". Kerr knows perfectly well that people who use gender-identity-based pronouns aren't making a false claim that trans men produce sperm, &c.! Rather, she's saying that a pronoun convention that groups together females, and a minority of males who wish they were female, affects our cognition about that minority of males in a way that's disadvantageous to Kerr's interests (because she wants to be especially alert to threats posed by males), such that Kerr refuses to comply with that convention in her own speech. (Compare to how a Spanish speaker might refuse to address someone they disrespected as usted because of its connotations, without thereby claiming that using usted would make the sentence literally false.)

Relatedly, critics of this blog sometimes refer to me as she, reflecting their belief that I'm a trans woman in denial, even though I think of myself of a man (adult human male not trying to appear otherwise). I never correct them—not just because it's kind of flattering, and not just because I don't think of myself as having the right to dictate how other people talk about me—but because "she" is the correct pronoun to convey the meaning they're trying to express, whether or not I agree with it.

I take pains to emphasize that pronouns can have meaningful semantics without being denotative statements that can be straightforwardly "false", because Yudkowsky misrepresents what his political opponents are typically claiming, repeatedly trying to frame the matter of dispute as to whether pronouns can be "lies" (to which Yudkowsky says, No, that would be ontologically confused)—whereas if you actually read what the people on the other side of the policy debate are saying, they're largely not claiming that "pronouns are lies"!

This misrepresentation is a serious problem because, as Yudkowsky pointed out in 2007, "To argue against an idea honestly, you should argue against the best arguments of the strongest advocates. Arguing against weaker advocates proves nothing, because even the strongest idea will attract weak advocates." By selectively drawing attention to the weaker form of the argument, Yudkowsky is likely to leave readers who trusted him to be fair with an unrealistic picture of what people on the other side of the issue actually believe. (Kerr's article seems representative of gender-critical ("TERF") concerns; I've seen the post linked in those circles more than once, and it's cited in embattled former University of Sussex professor Kathleen Stock's book Material Girls.)

Anyway, given these reasons why the existing meanings of she and he are relevant to the question of pronoun reform, what is Yudkowsky's response?

Apparently, to play dumb. In the comments of the Facebook post, Yudkowsky mentions encountering exotic pronouns on LambdaMOO at age 13 and no one thinking anything of them, and goes on to claim:

I do not know what it feels like from the inside to feel like a pronoun is attached to something in your head much more firmly than "doesn't look like an Oliver" is attached to something in your head.

...

I'm sorry, but I can't take this self-report literally. I certainly don't think Yudkowsky was consciously lying when he wrote that. (When speaking or writing quickly without taking the time to scrupulously check every sentence, it's common for little untruths and distortions to slip into one's speech. Everyone does it, and if you think you don't, then you're lying.)

Nevertheless, I am incredibly skeptical that Yudkowsky actually doesn't know what it feels like from the inside to feel like a pronoun is attached to sex categories more firmly than a given name is attached to someone's appearance.

I realize this must seem impossibly rude, presumptuous, and uncharitable of me. Yudkowsky said he doesn't know what it feels like from the inside! That's a report out his own mental state, which he has privileged introspective access to, and I don't! What grounds could I possibly, possibly have to think he's not telling the truth about his own mind?

It's a good question. And my answer is, even without mind-reading technology, people's minds are still part of the same cause-and-effect physical universe that I can (must) make probabilistic inferences about, and verbal self-reports aren't my only source of evidence about someone's mind. In particular, if someone's verbal self-report mis-predicts what we know about their behavior, it's far from clear that we should trust the report more than our senses.

And the thing is, Eliezer Yudkowsky is a native English speaker born in 1979. As a native English speaker born in 1987, I have a pretty good mental model of how native English speakers born in the late 20th century use language. And one of the things native English speakers born in the late 20th century are very good at doing, is noticing what sex people are and using the corresponding pronouns without consciously thinking about it, because the pronouns are attached to the concept of sex in their heads more firmly than proper names are attached to something in their heads.

I would bet at very generous odds that at some point in his four decades on Earth, Eliezer Yudkowsky has used she or he on the basis of perceived sex to refer to someone whose name he didn't know. Because all native English speakers do this. Moreover, we can say something about the cognitive algorithm underlying how they do this. People can recognize sex from facial photos alone (hair covered, males clean-shaven) at 96% accuracy. In naturalistic settings where we can see and hear more secondary sex characteristics than just someone's face (build, height, breasts, voice, gait, &c.), accuracy would be even greater. It's not a mystery why people can get sex-based pronouns "right" the vast majority of the time without having to be told or remember specific people's pronouns.

Conversely, I would also bet at very generous odds that in his four decades on Earth, Eliezer Yudkowsky has very rarely if ever assumed what someone's name is on the basis of their appearance without being told. Because no native English speakers do this (seriously, rather than as a joke or a troll). Now, it's true that the "doesn't look like an Oliver" example was introduced into the discussion by another commenter, who recounts once having called someone Bill who had introduced himself as Oliver for that reason:

It did feel a little weird calling him Oliver, but everyone present knew what I was doing was being a jerk and teenagers are horrible. The "feels like lying" principle seems like it lets me keep calling him Bill, now righteously. I just can't even really bring myself to play in that sandbox in good faith.

But the "everyone present knew what I was doing was being a jerk" characterization seems to agree that the motivation was joking/trolling. How did everyone present know? Because it's absurd to infer a particular name from someone's appearance.

It's true that there are name–feature correlations that observers can pick up on. For example, a "Juan" is likely to be Latino, a "Gertrude" in the current year is likely to be old; a non-Hispanic white Juan or a young Gertrude may indeed be likely to provoke a "Doesn't look like an X" reaction (which may also be sensitive to even subtler features). But while probabilistic inferences from features to low likelihood of a particular name are valid, an inference from features to a particular name is absolutely not, because the function of a name is to be an opaque "pointer" to a particular individual. A Latino family choosing a name for their male baby may be somewhat more likely to choose "Juan" rather than "Oliver" (or "Gertrude"), but they could just as easily choose "Luis" or "Miguel" or "Alejandro" for the very same child, and there's no plausible physical mechanism by which a horrible teenager thirty years later could tell the difference.

Thus, I reject the commenter's claim that "feels like lying" intuitions about pronouns and sex would have let her "keep calling him Bill, now righteously". What algorithm you would use to infer that someone's name is "Bill" based on how he looks? What are the "secondary Oliver characteristics", specifically? People for whom it was actually true that names map to appearances the way pronouns map to sex, should not have trouble answering these questions!

If there were a substantial contingent of native English speakers who don't interpret pronouns as conveying sex category information, one would expect this to show up in our cultural corpus more often—and yet, I'm actually not aware of any notable examples of this. In contrast, it's very easy to find instances of speakers treating pronouns and sex as synonymous. As an arbitrarily chosen example, in one episode of the animated series The Amazing World of Gumball featuring the ravenous spawn of our protagonists' evil pet turtle, the anthropomorphic-rabbit Bumbling Dad character says, "Who's to say this pregnant turtle is a her?" and everyone gives him a look.

The joke, you see, is that bunny-father is unthinkingly applying the stock question "Who's to say X is a he/she?" (which makes sense when X is, e.g., "the nurse") in a context where there's an obvious answer—namely, that the referents of "her" pronouns are female and only females get pregnant—but the character is too stupid to notice this, and we enjoy a laugh at his expense.

The Amazing World of Gumball is rated TV-Y7 and the episode in question came out in 2016. This is not a particularly foreign or distant cultural context, nor one that is expected to tax the cognitive abilities of a seven-year-old child! Is ... is Yudkowsky claiming not to get the joke?

Posed that way, one would imagine not—but if Yudkowsky does get the joke, then I don't think he can simultaneously honestly claim to "not know what it feels like from the inside to feel like a pronoun is attached to something in your head much more firmly than 'doesn't look like an Oliver' is attached to something in your head." In order to get the joke in real time, your brain has to quickly make a multi-step logical inference that depends on the idea that pronouns imply sex. (The turtle is a "her" iff female, not-female implies not-pregnant, so if the turtle is pregnant, it must be a "her".) This would seem, pretty straightforwardly, to be a sense in which "a pronoun is attached to something in your head much more firmly than 'doesn't look like an Oliver' is attached to something in your head." How else am I supposed to interpret those words?

Perhaps it's not justified to question Yudkowsky's "I do not know what it feels like [...]" self-report based on generalizations about English speakers in general? Maybe his mind works differently, but dint of unusual neurodiversity or training in LambdaMOO? But if so, one would perhaps expect some evidence of this in his publicly observable writing? And yet, on the contrary, looking over his works, we can see instances of Yudkowsky treating pronouns as synonymous with sex (just as one would expect a native English speaker born in 1979 to do), contrary to his 2021 self-report of not knowing what this feels like from the inside.

For example, in Yudkowsky's 2001 Creating Friendly AI: The Analysis and Design of Benevolent Goal Architectures, the text "If a human really hates someone, she" is followed by footnote 16: "I flip a coin to determine whether a given human is male or female." Note, "is male or female", not "which pronoun to use." The text would seem to reflect the common understanding that she and he do imply sex specifically (and not some other thing, like being named Oliver), even if flipping a coin (and drawing attention to having done so) reflects annoyance that English requires a choice.

A perhaps starker example comes in the comments to Yudkowsky's 2009 short story "The Hero With A Thousand Chances". A commenter (in the guise of a decision theory thought experiment) inquired whether Yudkowsky flipped a coin to determine the protagonist's gender, to which Yudkowsky replied (bolding mine):

Ha! I tried doing that, the generator came up female ... and I realized that I couldn't make Aerhien a man, and that having two "hers" and "shes" would make the dialogue harder to track.

Sometimes a random number generator only tells you what you already know.

But the text of the story doesn't say Aerhien isn't a "man"; it merely refers to her with she/her pronouns! If Yudkowsky "couldn't make [the character] a man", but the only unambiguous in-text consequence of this is that the character takes she/her pronouns, that would seem to be treating sex and pronouns as synonymous; the comment only makes sense if Yudkowsky thinks the difference between she and he is semantically meaningful. (It's possible that he changed his mind about this between 2009 and 2021, but if so, you'd expect the 2021 Facebook discussion to explain why he changed his mind, rather than claiming that he "do[es] not know what it feels like from the inside" to hold the position implied by his 2009 comments.)

In the Facebook comments, Yudkowsky continues:

My current policy stance is that anybody who does feel that way needs to get some perspective about how it can be less firmly attached in other people's heads; and how their feelings don't get to control everybody's language protocol or accuse non-protocol users of lying; especially when different people with firm attachments have different firm attachments and we can't make them all be protocol.

The sheer chutzpah here is jaw-dropping. Someone's feelings don't get to control everybody's language protocol, huh? But—the causal–historical reason we're discussing pronoun reform at all is precisely to let trans people's feelings control everybody's language protocol! The original post is very explicit about this! It says:

Even before considering all gender issues, there is some sense in which somebody saying "help help pronouns attacking" sounds to me like a sympathetic innocent asking to get out from under a bad system, not like a law-deuniversalizer asking for exceptions from a good system.

In terms of important things? Those would be all the things I've read—from friends, from strangers on the Internet, above all from human beings who are people—describing reasons someone does not like to be tossed into a Male Bucket or Female Bucket, as it would be assigned by their birth certificate, or perhaps at all.

Okay, so Yudkowsky never thought sex-based pronouns were a good idea in the first place. But the important thing, he says, is that some people ("who are people", Yudkowsky pleonastically clarifies, as if anyone had doubted this) don't want other people to use language that refers to what sex they are.

Personally, I have a lot of sympathy for this, because in an earlier stage of my ideological evolution, I was one of those people. (I tried to use an ostensibly gender-neutral nickname and byline for a while in the late 'aughts, and while I never asked for new pronouns, this is probably a matter of Overton window placement rather than any underlying difference in sentiments; it seems pretty likely that my analogue growing up in the current year's ideological environment would be a trans woman.)

But it's important to not use sympathy as an excuse to blur together different rationales, or obfuscate our analysis of the costs and benefits to different parties of different policies. "Systematically de-gender English because that's a superior language design" and "Don't misgender trans people because trans people are sympathetic" are different political projects with different victory conditions: victory for the de-genderers would mean singular they or similar for everyone (as a matter of language design, no idiosyncratic personal exceptions), which is very different from the ask-and-share-pronouns norms championed by contemporary trans rights activists.

Perhaps it might make sense for adherents of a "degender English" movement to strategically ally with the trans rights movement: to latch on to gender-dysphoric people's pain as a political weapon to destabilize what the English-degenderers think of as a bad pronoun system for other reasons. Fine.

But if that's the play you want to make, you forfeit the right to honestly claim that your stance is that "feelings don't get to control everybody's language protocol". If you piously proclaim that the "important thing" is trans people's feelings of "not lik[ing] to be tossed into a Male Bucket or Female Bucket, as it would be assigned by their birth certificate", that would seem, pretty straightforwardly, to be participating in an attempt to make it so that "[someone's] feelings [...] get to control everybody's language protocol"! Again, how else am I supposed to interpret those words?

There's nothing inconsistent about believing that trans people's feelings matter, and that the feelings of people who resent the Stroop-like effect of having to speak in a way that contradicts their own sex-category perceptions, don't matter. (Or don't matter as much, quantitatively, under the utilitarian calculus.) But if that were your position, the intellectually honest thing to tell people like Barra Kerr is, "Sorry, I'm participating in a political coalition that believes that trans people's feelings are more important than yours with respect to this policy question; sucks to be you", rather than haughtily implying that people like Kerr are making an elementary philosophy mistake that they are clearly not making if you actually read what they write.

(In general, an honest "sucks to be you" from someone whose political incentives lead them to oppose your goals, is much less cruel than the opponent distorting your position to make you look bad to their followers.)

All this having been said, Yudkowsky is indeed correct to note that "when different people with firm attachments have different firm attachments [...] we can't make them all be protocol". It's possible for observers to disagree about what sex category they see someone as belonging to, and it would be awkward at best for different speakers in a conversation to use different pronouns to refer to the same subject.

As it happens, I think this is an important consideration in favor of self-identity pronouns! When different parties disagree about what category something should belong to, but want to coordinate to use the same category, they tend to find some mutually-salient Schelling point to settle the matter. In the case of disagreements about a person's social sex category, in the absence of a trusted central authority to break the symmetry among third parties' judgments (like a priest or rabbi in a tight-knit religious community, or a medical bureaucracy with the social power to diagnose who is "legitimately" transsexual), the most obvious Schelling point is to defer to the person themselves. I wrote about this argument in a previous post, "Self-Identity Is a Schelling Point".

But crucially, the fact that the self-identity convention is a Schelling point, doesn't mean we have a one-sided policy debate where it's in everyone's interests to support this "simplest and best protocol", with no downsides or trade-offs for anyone. The thing where she and he (which we don't know how to coordinate a jump away from) imply sex category inferences to actually-existing English speakers is still true! The Schelling point argument just means that the setup of the social-choice problem that we face happens to grant a structural advantage to those who favor the self-identity convention.

Although they're not the only ones with an structural advantage: a social order whose gender convention was "Biological sex only; transsexualism isn't a thing; sucks to be you if you want people to believe that you're the sex that you aren't" would also be a Schelling point. (Trans people's developmental sex is not really in dispute.) It's the moderates who want to be nice to trans people without destroying the public concept of sex who are in trouble!

Still, I think most people reading this post are "moderates" in this sense. Schelling points are powerful. If we're not culturally-genocidal extremists who want to exclude transsexuals from Society (and therefore reject the "pronouns = sex, no exceptions" Schelling point), isn't it reasonable that we end up at the self-identity Schelling point—at least as far as the trivial courtesy of pronouns is concerned, even if some of the moderates want to bargain for the right to use natal-sex categories in some contexts?

Sure. Yes. And indeed, I don't misgender people! (In public. Only rarely in private, when someone's transition doesn't seem legitimate or serious to me, and the person I'm talking to doesn't seem liable to object.) I'm not arguing that Yudkowsky should misgender people! The purpose of this post is not to argue with Yudkowsky's pronoun usage, but rather to argue with the offered usage rationale that "the simplest and best protocol is, '"He" refers to the set of people who have asked us to use "he", with a default for those-who-haven't-asked that goes by gamete size' and to say that this just is the normative definition."

As I have explained at length, this rationale doesn't work and isn't true (even if better rationales, like sincere belief in gender identity, or the Schelling point argument, can end up recommending the same behavior). No one actually believes (as contrasted to believing that they believe) that she and he aren't attached to gender in people's heads, despite Yudkowsky's sneering claim in the comments that he "would not know how to write a different viewpoint as a sympathetic character."

Again, without attributing to Yudkowsky any conscious, deliberative intent to deceive (because of the tragic human tendency to unconsciously introduce distortions in the heat of a rapid argument), the pants-on-fire audacity of this ludicrous claim to ignorance still beggars belief. As the author of one of the world's most popular Harry Potter fanfictions, Yudkowsky clearly knows something about about how to simulate alternative perspectives (includes ones he disagrees with) and portray them sympathetically. And he claims to be unable to do this for ... the idea that pronouns imply sex, and that using the pronouns that imply someone is the sex that they are not feels analogous to lying? Really?!

Well, I'm not a popular fiction author with thousands of obsessive fans who pore over my every word, but if Yudkowsky claims not to be up to this writing challenge, I'm happy to give him a hand and show him how it might be done—

⁕ ⁕ ⁕

A cis woman is testifying in court about a brutal rape that horrifically traumatized her. The rapist has since transitioned.

"And then—" says the victim, reliving those awful moments, "and then, he took his erect penis—"

"Objection!" says the defense lawyer. "The witness misgendering my client is prejudicial."

"Sustained," says the judge. Then, to the victim: "Her erect penis."

"Wh—what?" says the victim.

"You will refer to the defendant with the correct pronoun, or I'll hold you in contempt of court."

"Oh. O–okay. And then—then, she took her—" The victim breaks down crying. "I'm sorry, Your Honor; I can't do it. I'm under oath; I have to tell the story the way it happened to me. In my memories, the person who did those things to me was a man. A—"

She hesitates, sobs a few more times. In this moment, almost more than the memories of the rape, she is very conscious of having never gone to college. The judge and the defense lawyer are smarter and more educated than her, and they believe that the man who raped her is now (or perhaps, always had been) a woman. It had never made any sense to her—but how could she explain to an authority figure who she had no hope of out-arguing, if she was even allowed to argue?

"And by 'man', I mean—a male. The way I was raised, men—males—get called he and him. If I say she, it doesn't feel true to the memory in my head. It—it feels like lying, Your Honor."

The judge scoffs. "You are ontologically confused," he sneers. "At age 13 I was programming on LambdaMOO where people had their choice of exotic pronouns and nobody thought anything of it," says the judge. "Denied."

"O-okay," says the victim. She doesn't know what ontologically means, or what a LambdaMOO is. "So then—then sh-she took her erect penis and she—"

She breaks down crying again. "Your Honor, I can't! I can't do it! It's not true! It's not—" She senses that the judge will imply she's stupid for saying it's not true. She gropes for some way of explaining. "I mean—the Court allows people to testify in Spanish or Chinese with the help of a translator, right? Can't you treat my testimony like that? Let me say what happened to me in the words that seem true to me, even if the court does its business using words in a different way?"

"You're in contempt," says the judge. "Bailiff! Take her away!"

⁕ ⁕ ⁕

Not a sympathetic character? Not even a little bit?

I suspect some readers will have an intuition that my choice of scenario is loaded, unfair, or unrealistic. To be sure, I chose it an unusually clear-cut case for why someone might have a need to use pronouns to imply sex in their own speech. (If the scenario was just talking about someone borrowing a vacuum cleaner, fewer readers would have any sympathy for someone not wanting to concede the trivial courtesy of preferred pronouns.)

But what, specifically, is unrealistic about it? Is it the idea that a trans woman could have raped someone before transitioning? Of course most trans women are not sex offenders—just as most non-transsexual males are not sex offenders—but instances of trans women committing the kinds of sex crimes that are overwhelmingly the province of men are a documented thing.

Is it the idea that the legal system would penalize someone for pronoun non-compliance? But this is also an occasionally documented thing, as in one case where a Canadian father was jailed for violating a court order not to refer to his natal-female child with she/her pronouns. As liberal intellectuals debating optimal communication policies, we usually hope to govern by consensus: we want people to use preferred pronouns voluntarily, rather than being forced. But maintaining a collective norm in the face of those who have their own reasons to object to it, does ultimately require some sort of enforcement. In the vignette above, given the defense lawyer's objection, the judge does face a forced choice to Sustain or Overrule, and that choice has consequences either way.

In the comments, Yudkowsky continues:

This is not the woke position. The woke position is that when you call somebody "she" because she requested "she", you're validating her gender preference. I may SEPARATELY be happy to validate somebody's gender preference by using the more complex language feature of NOUN PHRASES to construct an actual SENTENCE that refers to her ON PURPOSE as a "woman", but when it comes to PRONOUNS I am not even validating anyone.

Right, it's not the woke position. It's an incoherent position that's optimized to concede to the woke the behavior that they want for a different stated reason in order to make the concession appear "neutral" and not "politically" motivated. She requested "she" because acceding to the request validates her gender preference in the minds of all native English speakers who are listening, even if Eliezer Yudkowsky has some clever casuistry for why it magically doesn't mean that when he says it.

Again, I'm not saying that Yudkowsky should have a different pronoun usage policy. (I agree that misgendering all trans people "on principle" seems very wrong and unappealing.) Rather, I'm saying that in order to actually be politically neutral in your analysis of why someone might choose one pronoun usage policy over another, you need to acknowledge the costs and benefits of a policy to different parties, and face the unhappy fact that sometimes there are cases where there is no "neutral" policy, because all available policies impose costs on someone and there's no solution that everyone is happy with. (Rational agents can hope to reach some point on the Pareto frontier, but non-identical agents are necessarily going to fight about which point, even if most of the fighting hopefully takes place in non-realized counterfactual possible worlds rather than exerting costs in reality.)

Policy debates should not appear one-sided. Exerting social pressure on (for example) a native-English-speaking rape victim to refer to her male rapist with she/her pronouns is a cost to her. And, simultaneously, not exerting that pressure is a cost to many trans people, by making recognition of their social gender conditional on some standard of good behavior, rather than an unconditional fact that doesn't need to be "earned" or justified in any way.

You might think the cost of making the rape victim say she is worth it, because you want to make it easy for gender-dysphoric people to socially transition, or because you think it's dumb that pronouns imply sex in the actually-existing English language and you see the self-identity convention as an incremental step towards degendering the language.

Fine. That's a perfectly coherent position. But if that's your position and you care about being intellectually honest, you need to acknowledge that your position exerts costs on some actually-existing English speakers who have a use-case for using pronouns to imply sex. You need to be able to look that rape victim in the eye and say, "Sorry, I'm participating in a political coalition that believes that trans people's feelings are more important than yours with respect to this policy question; sucks to be you."

And of course—it should be needless to say—this applies symmetrically. If you think speakers should be able to misgender according to their judgment and you care about being intellectually honest, you need to be able to look a trans person in the eye and say, "Sorry, I'm participating in a political coalition that believes the freedom of speech of speakers is more important than your gender being recognized; sucks to be you."

Or if you have more important things to worry about (like the fate of a hundred thousand galaxies depending on the exact preferences built into the first artificial superintelligence) and don't want the distraction of taking a position on controversial contemporary social issues, fine: use whatever pronoun convention happens to be dominant in your local social environment, and, if questioned, say, "I'm using the pronoun convention that happens to be dominant in my local social environment." You don't have to invent absurd lies to make it look like the convention that happens to be dominant in your local social environment has no costs.

Really, "I do not know what it feels like from the inside to feel like a pronoun is attached to something in your head much more firmly than 'doesn't look like an Oliver'"? Any seven-year-old in 2016 could have told you that that's just factually not true; if you grew up speaking English in the late 20th century, you absolutely goddamned well do know what it feels like. Did the elephant in Yudkowsky's brain really expect to get away with that? How dumb does he think we are?!


At this point, some readers may be puzzled as to the mood of the present post. I agree with Yudkowsky's analysis of the design flaw in English's pronoun system. I also agree that not misgendering trans people is a completely reasonable thing to do, which I also do. I'm only disputing the part where Yudkowsky jumps to declaring his proposed "simplest and best protocol" without acknowledging the ways in which it's not simple and not unambiguously the best.

Many observers would consider this a very minor disagreement, not something anyone would want to spend 12,000 words prosecuting with as much vitriolic rhetoric as the target audience is likely to tolerate. If I agree with the problem statement (pronouns shouldn't denote sex, that's dumb; why would you define a language that way), and I don't disagree with the proposed policy solution (don't misgender trans people in public), why get so hung up on the exact arguments?

(I mean, besides the fact that it's arguments that matter rather than conclusions, as a completely general principle of correct cognition.)

I guess for me, the issue is that this is a question where I need the correct reasoning in order to make extremely impactful social and medical decisions. Let me explain.

This debate looks very different depending on whether you're coming into it as someone being told that you need to change your pronoun usage for the sake of someone who will be very hurt if you don't—or whether you're in the position of wondering whether it makes sense to make such a request of others.

As a good cis ally, you're told that trans people know who they are and you need to respect that on pain of being responsible for someone's suicide. While politically convenient for people who have already transitioned and don't want anyone second-guessing their identity, I think this view is actually false. Humans don't have an atomic "gender identity" that they just know, which has no particular properties other than it being worse than death for it to not be recognized by others. Rather, there are a variety of reasons why someone might feel sad about being the sex that they are, and wish they could be the other sex instead, which is called "gender dysphoria."

Fortunately, our Society has interventions available to approximate changing sex as best we can with existing technology: you can get hormone replacement therapy (HRT), genital surgery, ask people to call you by a different name, ask people to refer to you with different pronouns, get new clothes, get other relevant cosmetic surgeries, &c. In principle, it's possible to pick and choose some of these interventions piecemeal—I actually tried just HRT for five months in 2017—but it's more common for people to "transition", to undergo a correlated bundle of these interventions to approximate a sex change.

On this view, there's not a pre-existing fact of the matter as to whether someone "is trans" as an atomic identity. Rather, gender-dysphoric people have the option to become trans by means of undergoing the bundle of interventions that constitute transitioning, if they think it will make their life better. But in order for a gender-dysphoric person to decide whether transitioning is a good idea with benefits that exceed the costs, they need factually accurate information about the nature of their dysphoria and each of the component interventions.

If people in a position of intellectual authority provide inaccurate information about transitioning interventions, that's making the lives of gender-dysphoric people worse, because agents with less accurate information make worse decisions (in expectation): if you have the facts wrong, you might wrongly avoid an intervention that would have benefited you, or wrongly undergo an intervention that harms you.

For example, I think my five-month HRT experiment was a good decision—I benefited from the experience and I'm very glad I did it, even though I didn't end up staying on HRT long term. The benefits (satisfied curiosity about the experience, breast tissue) exceeded the costs (a small insurance co-pay, sitting through some gatekeeping sessions, the inconvenience of wearing a patch or taking a pill, various slight medical risks including to future fertility).

If someone I trusted as an intellectual authority had falsely told me that HRT makes you go blind and lose the ability to hear music, and I were dumb enough to believe them, then I wouldn't have done it, and I would have missed out on something that benefited me. Such an authority figure would be harming me by means of giving me bad information; I'd be better off if I hadn't trusted them to tell the truth.

In contrast, I think asking everyone in my life to use she/her pronouns for me would be an obviously incredibly bad decision. Because—notwithstanding my clean-shavenness and beautiful–beautiful ponytail and slight gynecomastia from that HRT experiment five years ago—anyone who looks at me can see at a glance that I'm male (as a fact about the real world, however I feel about it). People would comply because they felt obligated to (and apologize profusely when they slipped up), but it wouldn't come naturally, and strangers would always get it wrong without being told—in accordance with the "default for those-who-haven't-asked that goes by gamete size" clause of Yudkowsky's reform proposal, but really because pronouns are firmly attached to sex in their heads. The costs (this tremendous awkwardness and fakeness suffusing all future social interactions involving me) would exceed the benefits (I actually do feel happier about the word she).

I used to trust Yudkowsky as an intellectual authority; his Sequences from the late 'aughts were so life-alteringly great that I built up a trust that if Eliezer Yudkowsky said something, that thing was probably so, even if I didn't immediately understand why. But these days, Yudkowsky is telling me that 'she' normatively refers to the set of people who have asked us to use 'she', and that those who disagree are engaging in logically rude Shenanigans. However, as I have just explained at length, this is bullshit. (Declaring a "normative" meaning on your Facebook wall doesn't rewrite the actual meaning encoded in the brains of 370 million English speakers.) If I were dumb enough to believe him, I might ask people for new pronouns, which would obviously be an incredibly bad decision. (It might be a less bad decision if done in conjunction with a serious gender transition effort, but Yudkowsky's pronoun reform proposal doesn't say "she" is the pronoun for fully-transitioned trans women; it just says you have to ask.) Thus, Yudkowsky is harming a reference class of people that includes more naïve versions of me by giving them bad information; I'm better off because I don't trust Eliezer Yudkowsky to tell the truth.

(I guess I can't say I wasn't warned.)



Link: "Never Smile at an Autogynephile"

This song is an interesting cultural artifact of the strategy of stigmatization. Lyrics—

Never smile at an autogynephile
No you can't get friendly with an autogynephile
Don't be taken in by his narcissist grin
He's imagining how well he'll fit within your skin

Never smile at an autogynephile
Never meet his eye or stay to talk a while
Turn around, run away, do not join the games he'll play
He wants your place, he'll take your face
That autogynephile

[...]
But please be rude and always mock
Or he might show his lady cock
Crossing boundaries makes him smile
That autogynephile

In a purely descriptive sense, this would seem to qualify as "hate speech"—expressing antipathy for a group of people on the basis of sexual orientation. But if so, I count it as evidence for the case that, contrary to popular belief, hate speech is free speech (that is, you can't just exclude "hate" without thereby excluding substantive content): from the standpoint of women fighting a Total Culture War to protect single-sex spaces and the very concept of womanhood itself, it makes perfect sense to demonize the demographic that is, in fact, collectively responsible for your woes. (In a world where autogynephilia as a psychological phenomenon didn't exist "but everything else was the same", there would be no need for a special "gender-critical" resistance strain of feminism to exist; androphilic MtF transsexuals mostly just don't cause problems.)

Just because it makes sense for some people to hate (given the situation they're in) doesn't mean the situation itself isn't sad. I think autogynephilia is a better explanation than "gender identity" for people like me—while I haven't transitioned, I'm obviously the type that would have, had I been born ten years later—and I think it's sad that most of the people who use the word for the thing are ... people who hate us. (Never smile at an autogynephile! Never even meet his eye or stay to talk a while! Please be rude and always mock!)

I don't think it had to be this way. If the hatred is coming from disgust that "he's imagining how well he'll fit within your skin"—well, that doesn't seem negotiable. (We are, in fact, imagining it.) But if the issue is that "crossing boundaries makes him smile"—I don't think that's inherent! You could totally imagine a Society with a designated third-gender role for transsexuals that maintained boundaries for women in some contexts! I think that could be an good Society for everyone to live in (even if trans women from our Society don't find the idea of compromise appealing, because our culture doesn't have the right concepts).


Link: "Blood Is Thicker Than Water 🐬"

Ha ha, those Less Wrong guys sure love dolphins for whatever reason! (Alternative viewer.) Note that the "root of the causal graph" argument here for the relevance of phylogenetics is equivalent to the case that sex chromosomes are a good way to operationalize sex in humans—it's not that anyone directly sees chromosomes on a day-to-day basis; it's that chromosomes are the "switch" upstream of the development of all other sex differences. Talking about the setting of the switch (which you don't intrinsically care about) is a concise way to sum over the many, many high-dimensional details that you do care about.


I Don't Do Policy

Something about my writing that tends to confuse people, that I need to clarify briefly: people keep expecting me to come out with some sort of policy prescription, whereas I see myself as trying to describe what's actually going on in the world without being delusional about how much control I have over it. I think my account of what's actually going on is potentially a relevant input into someone's computation of deciding what they should do, but almost everything I say is at least one meta level up from any actual decisions. (And the only decisions I can control are my own.)

People will see something like my "The Categories Were Made for Man to Make Predictions", and ask, "Okay, but what's the policy takeaway here? Are you saying we should refuse to use trans people's preferred pronouns? Are you saying non-well-passing trans people should detransition?"

No! I'm not saying that!

"Then what are you saying?"

I'm saying—exactly what I said in the 6500-word blog post. Are ... are you asking for a summary, or—

"We're asking what you're telling us we should do."

I don't know what you should do! Why would I know that? (Also, what does this "should" thing even mean, anyway?)

I'm saying that useful words correspond to predictively useful concepts, and that biological sex is a predictively useful concept, and that there are at least two distinct classes of psychological motivation for why some males wish they could change sex, one of which is not an intersex condition, and that our currently-existing hormonal and surgical interventions for approximating a sex change are imperfect, such that there are some circumstances where someone making predictions or decisions about a trans person might want to base those predictions or decisions on the person's developmental sex rather than their target gender, and to use corresponding non-obfuscated language in the context of those circumstances.

That doesn't mean that no one should transition (i.e., try to approximate changing sex with hormonal and surgical interventions)! A lot of people do it—I'm not, like, denying that they exist. It seems to work out pretty well for many of them! Maybe more people should do it!

But in order for someone to figure out whether or not to do it—and in order for the people they interact with to figure out how to react—it would probably help to get the theory right: the biology and psychology and sociology and cognitive science and political science of what sex and gender actually are in the real physical universe, and under what conditions they might actually in-fact be changed. Get the theory right first, and then use the theory to make the best decisions.

And if different people's interests come into conflict, such that there is no collective decision that everyone is happy with, I can still hope to objectively catalogue the possible outcomes of the conflict—what happens if who wins, and what the space of available armistice agreements looks like.

I'm a person, and this is a (deeply) personal blog. I have my own preferences and my own æsthetics, and no doubt that's going to sometimes bleed in to my attempts to get the theory right. (I wish I could claim otherwise—but that wouldn't be true.) But I can at least make an effort to minimize the extent to which that happens—and to make it clear which paragraphs and posts I write are advocating for my preferences (which are likely to not be shared by others) and which are trying to perform an objective analysis (which is information anyone can benefit from). But for the most part, I don't do policy. The victory condition of my political campaign is not defined in terms of how many people end up transitioning, but just getting the two-type taxonomy (or whatever more precise alternative succeeds it) into the standard sex-ed textbooks—because I think the taxonomy is, to a first approximation, actually true, and not a lie or even a self-fulfilling prophecy. The further question as to whether autogynephilia should be regarded as recommending transition or not is a policy question and explicitly out-of-scope.

I've gotten praise from trans-activist types (e.g., for "Lesser-Known Demand Curves"), and from gender-critical feminists (e.g., for "Don't Negotiate With Terrorist Memeplexes"). If I could just get them to praise the same post, then I will have succeeded as a writer.


There Should Be a Closetspace/Lease Bound Crossover Fic

I want to use the platform of my comparatively ("comparatively") obscure blog to tell you about two comparatively obscure webcomics I like, that display some striking parallels, and whose readerships probably anti-correlate—overlapping less than two arbitrary webcomics of similar comparative obscurity.


Closetspace is the story of a boy named Jason who decides to live as a girl named Carrie in Texas of the late '90s or early 'aughts. Escaping family disapproval, Carrie moves in with a new housemate, Allison. The twist in the premise is, it turns out that Allison is also a male-to-female transsexual, but neither is aware of the other's secret.

The series follows Carrie and Allison as they face life's challenges—their house gets attacked by a insurrectionist; Carrie gets accidentally kidnapped by a dominatrix (who is also trans); Allison copes with regrets about her own transition; Carrie's mom has a stroke and dies, and Carrie faces pushback (including from her previously mostly supportive sister) after showing up at the hospital and to the funeral as Carrie, causing her to develop social anxiety; Allison gets addicted to an old video game, connects with an interior-decorating client and an old friend; Carrie's drag queen friend also dies.

It wasn't something I noticed when I first encountered Closetspace around 2010 or so, but knowing what I know now, it's really striking how much the Blanchardian two-type taxonomy shines through in the course of telling Carrie's story, not because the author intended any such reading, but because the taxonomic structure in human psychology is going to show up when you tell a story that's true to human life. (Recap for new readers: there are two etiologically distinct types of male-to-female transsexuals—an androphilic type coterminous with the most effeminate gay men, and an autogynephilic type—"men who love women and want to become what they love".)

The author probably doesn't believe in the typology (if she's even heard of it), but the traits line up anyway. Carrie is straight—gynephilic ("Guys just aren't my thing", she tells her sister). Carrie's gay (androphilic) drag queen friend Victor/Victoria doesn't understand Carrie's motivations: "Not to mention you don't think like one of 'them'", she comments on Carrie's lack of innate femininity. (Anyone can see that effeminate gay men taking on female roles "make sense"; autogynephilia is harder to understand if you haven't yourself felt the tug of the scintillating but ultimately untrue thought.) Allison's recollection of her origins includes a moment of envy about a girl: "she looks so pretty ... so pretty". Heidi the (male) dominatrix displays a working knowledge of the typology while coming on to Carrie: "We're both crossdressers, and we aren't anything like drag queens [...] sometimes I want to hang out with someone like me. Someone like you." Indeed!

Likewise, Carrie's beautiful pure sacred self-identity feelings ("And I feel a longing ... like I'd have a body like that once upon a time, and want it back") and stirring post-transition meta-attraction are on type.

A point of skepticism on the premise: it doesn't feel realistic to me that Allison doesn't clock Carrie given that Carrie is not on hormones yet. Passing is hard, especially when you're living with someone, rather than just seeing them "in passing" in public. No one mistakes the Texas insurrectionist woman as a man even though she has short hair and wears men's clothes. And Carrie sings! (Vocal pitch is hugely sexually dimorphic; one study reports the sex difference in mean fundamental frequency at Cohen's d ≈ 5.7, which is so huge that I can't quite take it at face value insofar as it implies that Tracy Chapman (whose singing I've mis-sexed) should outright not exist, rather than merely being very rare.) I feel kind of vindicated that a guest illustrator gave Carrie a realistically unfortunate face.

Okay, Heidi who is on hormones lied to Allison to cover for Carrie once—maybe that helped tip the scales after the hypothesis had been promoted to Allison's attention? How much work is being done by the effect where it's easier to pass precisely when transsexualism is rare? Maybe Allison in particular is just (autistically? self-deceptively?) really oblivious? ("I thought I knew what to look for.") Allison and Carrie do get clocked by restaurant waitstaff, to Carrie's discomfort and Allison's obliviousness.

Closetspace seems to be on life support—there have only been four updates since 2019. (If a blog updated in September, and the previous post had been in May, would you think the author was relentlessly persuing her vision? I didn't think so.) As much as one mourns the tragedy of real life moving faster than the independent creator can tell their story, in a way, it seems—fitting?—in the sense that Closetspace is noticeably a product of its time. Someone starting a comic in the current year, about the challenges of being trans in the current year, wouldn't still be speaking in the vocabulary of the '90s. Specifically, no one in the world of Closetspace seems to disagree or be confused about what women are. "I'm not really a woman," Heidi confesses to Allison. (Not really? You mean, you're not cis, right?) "I haven't been your big brother for over a month," Carrie tells her sister (implying that the act of social transition is what makes Carrie not-a-brother, rather than an underlying identity). For her part, Allison is committed to a life of stealth, disdaining trans people ("I shouldn't be so negative. I just ... have a thing ... about people straddling gender roles"), rather than taking up solidarity as one of them. Even the narrator is in on it (describing Carrie as "male" and Allison as "once male").


Lease Bound is the story of Jaden and Riley, two typical lesbians in Adelaide, Australia in the current year who find themselves sharing the same apartment after a clerical mix-up.

Jaden works as a bouncer as a female-only nightclub and is surprised one night when three crossdressed men try to enter. When Jaden politely refuses them ("Sorry to disappoint, but this is actually a women's only venue. If you're looking for a great night though, there's a fantastic gay bar just a few blocks from here."), they don't take it well ("We are women, sweetheart. Trans women. Understand now?"), and a scuffle ensues in which Jaden gets bruised up.

Jaden, despite having gone to college (perhaps, at the University of Under a Rock?), is oblivious as to why the assailants felt entitled to enter the club: "What the fuck is a 'trance' woman?" she asks coworkers. "Were they part of MadMarch"festival season in Adelaide"or was I seriously supposed to believe they were women?" Her colleagues explain: "You know those guys who say they're lesbians trapped in a man's body?" "They're like that, but dead serious."

When Riley expresses concern for Jaden's bruises the next morning, Jaden admits that "a few men kicked up a fuss at the club last night." Riley assumes the troublemakers were homophobes protesting lesbianism; Jaden says she doesn't know what they were about, but that they "called themselves trance, women, or something. I can't really remember. [...] I didn't really get it either. But hey, that's straight men for you, haha!"

Riley, who has not been living under a rock, feels ideologically uncomfortable with Jaden's account—Riley feels morally obligated to be a good ally, but isn't personally zealous enough to correct Jaden's speech. Riley starts to worry that her girlfriend Blaire will start a quarrel if transwomen come up in conversation when meeting Jaden. (Transwomen is spelled as one word in Riley's thoughts, but we imagine Blaire is the kind of person insists that it's two.) The meeting goes fine thanks to Jaden's continued obliviousness; when Blaire asks Jaden what pronouns she prefers, Jaden (momentarily distracted by Riley nervously dropping a glass) mishears the question and replies, "The way you pronounced it just the was fine." Later, Blaire asks Riley if Jaden might be trans and not know it, causing Riley to grapple with the contradictions of the reigning ideology and muse about her own "gender".

Lease Bound is actively updating. I'm really looking forward to the brewing ideological conflict between Blaire's doctrinal purity and Jaden's normie common sense eventually becoming overt—although the comic mostly isn't focused on politics (the author's note on the last page of chapter 9 says that next we're going to see more about Jaden's childhood), and that's healthy.


There are a lot of obvious and striking parallels betwen these two slice-of-life webcomics about unexpected sexual-minority roommmates keeping secrets from each other—even the titles match (two words, with the first alluding to the roommate-drama setting, Closet/Lease, Space/Bound). They both have an "Everyone is [our sexual minority]" dynamic going. (In Lease Bound, the landladies are also lesbians—the rainbow panel background when Jaden and Riley find out was a nice touch—and the neighbor whose son Jaden helps is gay.) I like both of them, and I think it's sad that the natural fan demographic of each probably mostly hates the other's guts. Gender-critical lesbians aren't going look sympathetically on the protagonists of Closetspace, and trans women aren't going to read Lease Bound, which portrays them as predatory bullies. The conflict is understandable, but the magnitude of it seems ... unnecessary; I think a smarter world would be able to compile all the relevant facts and broker some sort of Pareto-efficient compromise that gets everyone most of what they want.

Carrie has a compelling interest in being able to modify her body and social presentation without being socially punished for it: though humans can't actually change sex with currently-existing technology, one could at least be permitted to try to approximate it as best one can.

But simultaneously, the proprietors of Yonique have a compelling interest in being able to declare membership criteria for their private club. When the AGP Gang (the out-of-universe canon name for the three troublemakers) stops by, Jaden shouldn't have to pretend not to notice that they're male, and when Jaden explains the club's policy, they should accept it with dignity.

I'm trying to imagine a fanfiction—what if it had been Carrie, Allison, and Heidi? (Who ... have somehow traveled from Texas to Australia—and twenty years into the future? Don't answer that.) I'm imagining that Jaden would only deny entrance to Carrie. (Jaden being unaware of trans being a thing should make it easier to Allison and Heidi to pass, but Carrie's not being on HRT is prohibitive.) Carrie would be distressed at being clocked—but not confrontational and entitled like the AGP gang; she would just leave in a panic. Heidi would go after her, but Allison (shocked at Jaden stating what should have been obvious about Carrie, and not wanting the stigma to bleed onto her) goes into the club. And then ... um, Allison and Jaden end up talking somehow?

I don't actually have a direction for this story to go in. I just—wish it were possible for the LGB and the T to be friends without the uniting force of a common enemy. Without trying to set up a false equivalency (my analogues who read different books in a different order bear the blunt of the blame for the mess we're in; actual lesbians have a right to be pissed), it shouldn't be rare to read both sides' comics; it shouldn't be normal for political forces to shape neurotype-demographics into sides.


Amulet

After some recent Twitter and Discord discussions, I'm still amazed at how well my "only Nixon could go to China" effect continues to hold up: everyone is respectfully sympathetic to the poor self-hating trans woman even when her whole bit is specifically about explaining why that frame is delusional. (When anyone else making the same points would have been dismissed as hateful.)

Is it my nuance, originality, and nonpartisanship? I can play the philosophy-of-language mind games with the best of them—better, I think—and am clearly doing more work than just copying the standard appeals to fourth-grade biology from the TERF cache. (And showing your work matters even if postgraduate biology and artificial intelligence eventually conclude that fourth-grade biology basically had the right idea.) If it's the nuance, that bodes well for continuing to broaden the topic scope of the blog.

But I don't think that's all of it; somehow I doubt whether anti-feminist women and black Republicans have it this easy. (Or even merely non-feminist women and black libertarians, if nonpartisanship is a factor.) Some would say it's my white male privilege—but I have some other ideas.

Maybe people still think they can crack my egg. Phyllis Schlafly and Hermain Cain's eligibility markers for membership in the coalition of the fringes, were immutable—having already left the coalition, there was nothing that could be changed to induce them to come back. Whereas my pre-eligibility status gives me the option to be marked by transitioning—which would change my incentives. If I have to keep putting the "cis" in "decision" every day, the coalition can still hope to offer me a better deal should my current alignment falter.

Or, as a reader points out, maybe I'm just too weird relative to the current distribution of thought? People already know that unwoke minorities exist, and have ready-made concepts to make sense of their existence (and thereby dismiss their perspectives as unimportant): Hermain Cain is an "Uncle Tom", for example. (Gender-critical feminists have their own form of this: pro-trans liberal-feminist women are "handmaidens".)

In contrast, my whole "I think I have the same underlying psychological condition that results in lesbian and bisexual trans women, but I disagree with the popular account of what the condition is exactly, and have some serious reservations with some of the cultural practices that have recently sprung up around it, while continuing to support morphological freedom more generally" thing isn't something most people have heard before. They don't know what to make of it! Maybe if self-aware TERF-sympathetic-but-also-transhumanist autogynephilic men were more common, there would be some catchy epithet to dismiss us ("us") with. Until then ... I have a lot of writing to do.



Sexual Dimorphism in Yudkowsky's Sequences, in Relation to My Gender Problems

I'll write my way out
Write everything down, far as I can see
I'll write my way out
Overwhelm them with honesty
This is the eye of the hurricane
This is the only way I can protect my legacy

—"Hurricane", Hamilton

So, as I sometimes allude to, I've spent basically my entire adult life in this insular intellectual subculture that was founded in the late 'aughts to promulgate an ideal of systematically correct reasoning—general methods of thought that result in true beliefs and successful plans—and, incidentally, to use these methods of systematically correct reasoning to prevent superintelligent machines from destroying all value in the universe.

Honestly, I've been pretty bitter and jaded about the whole thing lately, to the extent that I've been pejoratively calling it my "robot cult" (a phrase due to Dale Carrico) as an expression of contempt—although I should probably cut it out, because that particular choice of pejorative makes it sound like I'm making fun of the superintelligent-machines-destroying-all-value-in-the-universe thing, whereas actually, that part still seems right, and the thing I'm bitter about is how almost everyone I used to trust insisted on, on ...

Well. That's a long story—for another time, perhaps. For now, I want to explain how my robot cult's foundational texts had an enormous influence on my self-concept in relation to sex and gender.

It all started in summer 2007 (I was nineteen years old), when I came across Overcoming Bias, a blog on the theme of how to achieve more accurate beliefs. (I don't remember exactly how I was referred, but I think it was likely to have been a link from Megan McArdle, then writing as "Jane Galt" at Asymmetrical Information.)

Although technically a group blog, the vast majority of posts on Overcoming Bias were by Robin Hanson or Eliezer Yudkowsky. I was previously acquainted in passing with Yudkowsky's writing about future superintelligence. (I had mentioned him in my Diary once in 2005, albeit without spelling his name correctly.) Yudkowsky was now using Overcoming Bias and the medium of blogging to generate material for a future book about rationality. Hanson's posts I could take or leave, but Yudkowsky's sequences of posts about rationality (coming out almost-daily through early 2009, eventually totaling hundreds of thousands of words) were amazingly great, drawing on the established knowledge of fields from cognitive psychology to evolutionary biology to explain the mathematical principles governing how intelligence worksthe reduction of "thought" to cognitive algorithms. Intelligent systems that use evidence to construct predictive models of the world around them—that have "true" "beliefs"—can use those models to compute which actions will best achieve their goals. You simply won't believe how much this blog will change your life; I would later frequently joke that Yudkowsky rewrote my personality over the internet.

(The blog posts did finally get collected into a book, Rationality: From AI to Zombies, but I continue to say "the Sequences" because I hate the gimmicky "AI to Zombies" subtitle—it makes it sound like a commercial book optimized to sell copies, rather than something to corrupt the youth, competing for the same niche as the Bible or the Koran—the book that explains what your life should be about.)

There are a few things about me that I need to explain before I get into the topic-specific impact the blog had on me.

The first thing—the chronologically first thing. Ever since I was thirteen or fourteen years old—

(and I really didn't expect to be blogging about this nineteen years later)

(I still don't want to be blogging about this, but unfortunately, it actually turns out to be central to the intellectual–political project I've been singlemindedly focused on for the past four and a half years because somebody has to and no one else will)

—my favorite—and basically only—masturbation fantasy has always been some variation on me getting magically transformed into a woman. I ... need to write more about the phenomenology of this. In the meantime, just so you know what I'm talking about, the relevant TVTrope is "Man, I Feel Like a Woman." Or search "body swap" on PornHub. Or check out my few, circumspect contributions to the popular genre of captioned-photo female transformation erotica (everyone is wearing clothes, so these might be "safe for work" in a narrow technical sense, if not a moral one): 1 2 3 4.

(The first segment of my pen surname is a legacy of middle-school friends letting me borrow some of the Ranma ½ graphic novels, about a young man named Ranma Saotome cursed ("cursed"??) to transform into a woman on exposure to cold water. This was just before puberty kicked in for me, but I have no way of computing the counterfactual to know whether that had a causal influence.)

So, there was that erotic thing, which I was pretty ashamed of at the time, and of course knew that I must never, ever tell a single soul about. (It would have been about three years since the fantasy started that I even worked up the bravery to tell my Diary about it.)

But within a couple years, I also developed this beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing that would persist indefinitely, where I started having a lot of non-sexual thoughts about being female. Just—little day-to-day thoughts, little symbolic gestures.

Like when I would write in my pocket notebook in the persona of my female analogue.

Or when I would practice swirling the descenders on all the lowercase letters that had descenders (g, j, p, y, z) because I thought it made my handwriting look more feminine.

Or the time when track and field practice split up into boys and girls, and I ironically muttered under my breath, "Why did I even join this team?—boys, I mean."

Or when it was time to order sheets to fit on the dorm beds at the University in Santa Cruz, and I deliberately picked out the pink-with-flowers design on principle.

Or how I was proud to be the kind of guy who bought Julia Serano's Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity when it was new in 2007, and who would rather read from Evelyn Fox Keller's Reflections on Gender and Science than watch Super Bowl XLII.

Or how, at University, I tried to go by my first-and-middle-initials because I wanted a gender-neutral byline, and I wanted what people called me in real life to be the same as my byline—even if, obviously, I didn't expect people to not-notice which sex I am in real life because that would be crazy.

(This attempted nickname change actually turned out to be a terrible idea that ended up causing me a huge amount of pointless identity-crisis psychological pain—my particular pair of real-life initials never really "felt like a name" even to me (as contrasted to something like "C.J." or "J.T.", which feel like a name on account of having a J in them); I turned out to be incredibly uncomfortable with different people knowing me by different names, and didn't have the guts to nag everyone in my life to switch for something that didn't feel like a name even to me; and the "gender-neutral byline" rationale almost certainly never held up in practice because my real-life first initial is a high-Scrabble-score letter that begins one popular boy name and zero popular girl names. But it was the principle!)

Or how I stopped getting haircuts and grew my beautiful–beautiful ponytail. (This turned out to be a great idea and I wish I had thought of it sooner.)

Or how one of the little song-fragments I used to write in my head went—

Sometimes I sigh because I'll never get rich
And there's no magic so I can't be a witch
And that I must enjoy the scorn of the world
Just 'cause I'm butch and I'm a tranny girl

Or the time I felt proud when my Normal American Girl coworker at the supermarket in 'aught-nine said that she had assumed I was gay. (I'm not, but the fact that Normal American Girl thought so meant that I was successfully unmasculine.)

And so on et cetera ad infinitum. This has been a very persistent thing for me.

The beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing doesn't feel explicitly erotic. The thing I did in the day in class about writing in my notebook about being a girl, was very different from the thing I did in my room at night about visualizing girls with this abstract sense of "But what if that were me?" while furiously masturbating. The former activity was my beautiful pure happy romantic daydream, whereas the latter activity was not beautiful or pure at all!

Now I am not a cognitive scientist, and can't claim to know exactly what my beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing is, or where it comes from—that's not the kind of thing I would expect people to know from introspection alone. But it has always seemed like a pretty obvious guess that there must have been some sort of causal relationship between the erotic thing, and the beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing, even if the two things don't feel the same: the overlap in subject matter is too much to be a coincidence. And the erotic thing definitely came first.

Maybe this story reads differently in 2021 from how it was to live in the 'aughts? I think that teenage boys in the current year having the kind of feelings I was having then, upon referencing or hinting at the beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing—

(and the beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing is much easier to talk about than the erotic thing)

(I mean, the beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing is much harder to talk about clearly, but talking about it un-clearly is less shameful and requires much less bravery)

—are immediately provided with "Oh, that means you're not a cis boy; you're a trans girl" as the definitive explanation.

But it was a different time, then. Of course I had heard of transsexualism as a thing, in the form of the "woman trapped in a man's body" trope, but it wasn't something I expected to actually encounter in real life. (I understood my "tranny girl" song to reflect an idle fantasy, not a legitimate life plan.)

At the time, I had no reason to invent the hypothesis that I might somehow literally be a woman in some unspecified psychological sense. I knew I was a boy because boys are the ones with penises. That's what the word means. I was a boy who had a weird sex fantasy about being a girl. That was just the obvious ordinary straightforward plain-language description of the situation. It never occured to me to couch it in the language of "dysphoria", or actually possessing some innate "gender". The beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing was about identifying with women, not identifying as a woman—roughly analogous to how a cat lover might be said to "identify with" cats, without claiming to somehow be a cat, because that would be crazy.

It was while browsing Wikipedia in 2006 that I encountered the obvious and perfect word for my thingautogynephilia, from the Greek for "love of oneself as a woman." I was actually surprised that it turned out to have been coined in the context of a theory (by clinical sexual psychologist Ray Blanchard) that it was the root cause of one of two types of male-to-female transsexualism.

You see, a very important feature of my gender-related thinking at the time was that I was growing very passionate about—well, in retrospect I call it psychological-sex-differences denialism, but at the time I called it antisexism. Where sometimes people in the culture would make claims about how women and men are psychologically different, and of course I knew this was bad and wrong. Therefore the very idea of transsexualism was somewhat suspect insofar as it necessarily depends on the idea that women and men are psychologically different (in order for it to be possible to be in the "wrong" body). I once haughtily told my Diary that "I would never do 'drag,' because that represents a mockery". (Same rationale as why blackface is offensive.)

So while I was certainly glad to learn that there's a word for it, an obvious and perfect word for my thing, I mostly just stole the word (whose referent and meaning I thought was self-explanatory from the common Greek roots) without paying any further attention to this Blanchard theory or the idea that I might somehow be transgender.

So, you know, as part of my antisexism, I read a lot about feminism. I remember checking out The Feminine Mystique and Susan Faludi's Backlash from the school library. Before I found my internet-home on Overcoming Bias, I would read the big feminist blogs—Pandagon, Feministe, Feministing. The one time I special-ordered a book at the physical Barnes & Noble before I turned 18 and got my own credit card and could order books online, it was Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand.

(In retrospect, it's notable how intellectualized all of this was—my pro-feminism was an ideological matter between me and my books, rather than arising from any practical need. It's not like I had disproportionately female friends or whatever—I mean, to the extent that I had any friends and not just books.)

It also seems like a pretty obvious guess that there must have been some sort of causal relationship between my antisexism and the erotic and beautiful-pure-sacred-self-identity things. True, the blank slate doctrine has been ideologically fashionable my entire life. In the sense that progressivism has been likened to a nontheistic state religion—uh, bear with me for a moment—I was a very religious teenager.

I have a vague memory of being in the Crown College library at the University in Santa Cruz in 2007, reading Robert Wright's The Moral Animal (because it had been on Yudkowsky's old book-recommendations list), and being aghast at how openly, brazenly sexist it was.

(That is, with respect to what I considered sexist at the time. I wish there was some way to know what my teenage self would think of my current self's writing, which is at least as "bad" as Wright and plausibly worse. Maybe if the whole benevolent-superintelligence thing my robot cult always talks about ever works out, I'll be able to kick off a limited-scope ancestor-simulation to find out. In the meantime, if you're offended, I'd love it if you could let me know in the comments exactly how much and why! Personal identity doesn't actually exist; humans growing up in the same cultural tradition can be seen as being drawn from a similar distribution as my teenage self.)

That overwhelming feeling of cold horror and hatred at the enemy revealed—that, I conjecture, is what religious people feel when encountering a heretical text for the first time. (In principle, a sufficiently advanced neuroscience would be able to confirm that it is the same emotion, as a matter of biological fact.) The social–psychological need to avoid the belief's real weak points is why the "religion" characterization makes sense, even if the claim that psychological sex differences are fake isn't a supernatural one. But quasi-religious ideological fervor aside, there was presumably a reason I cared so much about being a good pro-feminist specifically, and hardly spent any time at all thinking about other dimensions of social justice, like race or class. And I think the reason is because, because ...

Well. The reason I'm blogging this story at all is because I'm scared that in order to finish that sentence in the current year and be understood, I'd have to say, "because I was trans." And with respect to what the words mean in the current year, it's true. But that's not how I think of it, then or now.

It's because I was straight. Because I loved women, and wanted to do right by them. It's an identificatory kind of love—loving women as extension of the self, rather than a mysterious, unfathomable Other. But that's not unusual, is it?—or it shouldn't be. I would have assumed that guys who can't relate to this are probably just sexist.


Anyway, that's some background about where I was at, personally and ideologically, before I fell in with this robot cult.

My ideological commitment to psychological-sex-differences denialism made me uncomfortable when the topic of sex differences happened to come up on the blog—which wasn't particularly often at all, but in such a vast body of work as the Sequences, it did happen to come up a few times (and the lessons I learned from those few times are the subject of this blog post).

For example, as part of an early explanation of why the values we would want to program into an artificial superintelligence don't reduce to any one simple principle, Yudkowsky remarks that "the love of a man for a woman, and the love of a woman for a man, have not been cognitively derived from each other or from any other value."

From the perspective of axiomatic antisexism that I held at the time, this assertion is cringe-inducing. Of course most people are straight, but is it not all the same love?

I wasn't ready to hear it then, but—I mean, probably not? So, for the most part, all humans are extremely similar: as Yudkowsky would soon write about (following Leda Cosmides and John Tooby), complex functional adaptations have to be species-universal in order to not get scrambled during meiosis. As a toy example, if some organelle gets assembled from ten genes, those ten alleles all have to be nearly universal in the population—if each only had a frequency of 0.9, then the probability of getting them all right would only be 0.910 ≈ 0.349. If allele H epistatically only confers a fitness advantage when allele G at some other locus is already present, then G has to already be well on its way to fixation in order for there to be appreciable selective pressure for H. Evolution, feeding on variation, uses it up. Complicated functionality that requires multiple genes working in concert can only accrete gradually as each individual piece reaches fixation in the entire population, resulting in an intricate species-universal design: just about everyone has 206 bones, two lungs, a liver, a visual cortex, &c.

In this way (contrary to the uninformed suspicions of those still faithful to the blank slate), evolutionary psychology actually turns out to be impressively antiracist discipline: maybe individual humans can differ in small ways like personality, or ancestry-groups in small ways like skin color, but these are, and have to be, "shallow" low-complexity variations on the same basic human design; new complex functionality would require speciation.

This luck does not extend to antisexism. If the genome were a computer program, it would have if female { /* ... */ } else if male { /* ... */ } conditional blocks, and inside those blocks, you can have complex sex-specific functionality. By default, selection pressures on one sex tend to drag the other along for the ride—men have nipples because there's no particular reason for them not to—but in those cases where it was advantageous in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness for females and males to do things differently, sexual dimorphism can evolve (slowly—more than one and half orders of magnitude slower than monomorphic adaptations, in fact).

The evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers wrote, "One can, in effect, treat the sexes as if they were different species, the opposite sex being a resource relevant to producing maximum surviving offspring" (!). There actually isn't one species-universal design—it's two designs.

If you're willing to admit to the possibility of psychological sex differences at all, you have to admit that sex differences in the parts of the mind that are specifically about mating are going to be a prime candidate. (But by no means the only one—different means of reproduction have different implications for life-history strategies far beyond the act of mating itself.) Even if there's a lot of "shared code" in how love-and-attachment works in general, there are also going to be specific differences that were optimized for facilitating males impregnating females. In that sense, the claim that "the love of a man for a woman, and the love of a woman for a man, have not been cognitively derived from each other" just seems commonsensically true.

I guess if you didn't grow up with a quasi-religious fervor for psychological sex differences denialism, this whole theoretical line of argument about evolutionary psychology doesn't seem world-shatteringly impactful?—maybe it just looks like supplementary Science Details brushed over some basic facts of human existence that everyone knows. But if you have built your identity around quasi-religious denial of certain basic facts of human existence that everyone knows (if not everyone knows that they know), getting forced out of it by sufficient weight of Science Details can be a pretty rough experience.

My hair-trigger antisexism was sort of lurking in the background of some of my comments while the Sequences were being published (though, again, it wasn't relevant to most posts, which were just about cool math and science stuff that had no avenue whatsoever for being corrupted by gender politics). The term "social justice warrior" wasn't yet popular, but I definitely had a SJW-alike mindset (nurtured from my time lurking the feminist blogosphere) of being preoccupied with the badness and wrongness of people who are wrong and bad (i.e., sexist), rather than trying to maximize the accuracy of my probabilistic predictions.

Another one of the little song-fragments I wrote in my head a few years earlier (which I mention for its being representative of my attitude at the time, rather than it being notable in itself), concerned an advice columnist, Amy Alkon, syndicated in the Contra Costa Times of my youth, who would sometimes give dating advice based on a pop-evopsych account of psychological sex differences—the usual fare about women seeking commitment and men seeking youth and beauty. My song went—

I hope Amy Alkon dies tonight
So she can't give her bad advice
No love or value save for evolutionary psych

I hope Amy Alkon dies tonight
Because the world's not girls and guys
Cave men and women fucking 'round the fire in the night

Looking back with the outlook later acquired from my robot cult, this is abhorrent. You don't casually wish death on someone just because you disagree with their views on psychology! (Also, casually wishing death on a woman for her views does not seem particularly pro-feminist?!) Even if it wasn't in a spirit of personal malice (this was a song I sung to myself, not an actual threat directed to Amy Alkon's inbox), the sentiment just isn't done. But at the time, I didn't notice there was anything wrong with my song. I hadn't yet been socialized into the refined ethos of "False ideas should be argued with, but heed that we too may have ideas that are false".

In the same vein of my not then understanding the difference between argument and demonizing the outgroup, there was one especially memorable occasion in the Overcoming Bias comment section when the soon-to-be President of Yudkowsky's research nonprofit brought up the idea of banning me after I said, "are you aware that this is exactly the sort of psychology that leads to rape?" in response to another commenter's anecdote that I construed as misogynistic. Coincidentally, this was actually the same day as my first time ever crossdressing in front of other people (I having purchased a purple dress on Amazon and invited two friends over while my parents were away), only I couldn't enjoy it at all because I was so emotionally trashed from the ban threat.

Sex differences would come up a couple more times in one of the last Sequences, on "Fun Theory"—speculations on how life could be truly good if the world were superintelligently optimized for human values, in contrast to the cruelty and tragedy of our precarious existence in a world shaped only by blind evolutionary forces.

According to Yudkowsky, one of the ways in which people's thinking about artificial intelligence usually goes wrong is anthropomorphism—expecting arbitrary AIs to behave like humans, when really "AI" corresponds to a much larger space of algorithms. As a social animal, predicting other humans is one of the things we've evolved to be good at, and the way that works is probably via "empathic inference": I predict your behavior by imagining what I would do in your situation. Since all humans are very similar, this appeal-to-black-box works pretty well in our lives (though it won't work on AI). And from this empathy, evolution also coughed up the moral miracle of sympathy, intrinsically caring about what others feel.

In "Interpersonal Entanglement", Yudkowsky appeals to the complex moral value of sympathy as an argument against the desirability of nonsentient sex partners (catgirls being the technical term). Being emotionally intertwined with another actual person is one of the things that makes life valuable, that would be lost if people just had their needs met by soulless catgirl holodeck characters.

But there's a problem, Yudkowsky argues: women and men aren't designed to make each other optimally happy. If I may put a pseudo-mathy poetic gloss on it: the abstract game between the two human life-history strategies in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness had a conflicting-interests as well as a shared-interests component, and human psychology still bears the design signature of that game denominated in inclusive fitness, even though no one cares about inclusive fitness. (Peter Watts: "And God smiled, for Its commandment had put Sperm and Egg at war with each other, even unto the day they made themselves obsolete.") The scenario of Total Victory for the ♂ player in the conflicting-interests subgame is not Nash. The design of the entity who optimally satisfied what men want out of women would not be, and could not be, within the design parameters of actual women.

(And vice versa and respectively, but in case you didn't notice, this blog post is all about male needs.)

Yudkowsky dramatized the implications in a short story, "Failed Utopia #4-2", portraying an almost-aligned superintelligence constructing a happiness-maximizing utopia for humans—except that because of the mismatch in the sexes' desires, and because the AI is prohibited from editing people's minds, the happiness-maximizing solution (according to the story) turns out to be splitting up the human species by sex and giving women and men their own separate utopias (on Venus and Mars, ha ha), complete with artificially-synthesized romantic partners.

Of course no one wants that—our male protagonist doesn't want to abandon his wife and daughter for some catgirl-adjacent (if conscious) hussy. But humans do adapt to loss; if the separation were already accomplished by force, people would eventually move on, and post-separation life with companions superintelligently optimized for you would (arguendo) be happier than life with your real friends and family, whose goals will sometimes come into conflict with yours because they weren't superintelligently designed for you.

The alignment-theory morals are those of unforeseen maxima and edge instantiation. An AI designed to maximize happiness would kill all humans and tile the galaxy with maximally-efficient happiness-brainware. If this sounds "crazy" to you, that's the problem with anthropomorphism I was telling you about: don't imagine "AI" as an emotionally-repressed human, just think about a machine that calculates what actions would result in what outcomes, and does the action that would result in the outcome that maximizes some function. It turns out that picking a function that doesn't kill everyone looks hard. Just tacking on the constraints that you can think of (like making the existing humans happy without tampering with their minds) will tend to produce similar "crazy" outcomes that you didn't think to exclude.

At the time, I expressed horror at "Failed Utopia #4-2" in the comments section, because my quasi-religious psychological-sex-differences denialism required that I be horrified. But looking back a dozen years later—or even four years later—my performative horror was missing the point.

The argument makes sense. Of course, it's important to notice that you'd need an additional handwave to explain why the AI in the story doesn't give every individual their separate utopia—if existing women and men aren't optimal partners for each other, so too are individual men not optimal same-sex friends for each other. A faithful antisexist (as I was) might insist that that should be the only moral, as it implies the other a fortiori. But if you're trying to learn about reality rather than protect your fixed quasi-religious beliefs, it should be okay for one of the lessons to get a punchy sci-fi short story; it should be okay to think about the hyperplane between two coarse clusters, even while it's simultaneously true that you could build a wall around every individual point, without deigning to acknowledge the existence of clusters.

On my reading of the text, it is significant that the AI-synthesized complements for men are given their own name, the verthandi (presumably after the Norse deity that determines men's fates), rather than just being referred to as women. The verthandi may look like women, they may be approximately psychologically human, but since the detailed psychology of "superintelligently-engineered optimal romantic partner for a human male" is not going to come out of the distribution of actual human females, judicious exercise of the tenth virtue of precision demands that a different word be coined for this hypothetical science-fictional type of person. Calling the verthandi "women" would be worse writing; it would fail to communicate the impact of what has taken place in the story.

Another post in this vein that had a huge impact on me was "Changing Emotions". As an illustration of how the hope for radical human enhancement is fraught with technical difficulties, Yudkowsky sketches a picture of just how difficult an actual male-to-female sex change would be.

It would be hard to overstate how much of an impact this post had on me. I've previously linked it on this blog five different times. In June 2008, half a year before it was published, I encountered the 2004 Extropians mailing list post that the blog post had clearly been revised from. (The fact that I was trawling through old mailing list archives searching for Yudkowsky content that I hadn't already read, tells you something about what a fanboy I am—if, um, you hadn't already noticed.) I immediately wrote to a friend: "[...] I cannot adequately talk about my feelings. Am I shocked, liberated, relieved, scared, angry, amused?"

The argument goes: it might be easy to imagine changing sex and refer to the idea in a short English sentence, but the real physical world has implementation details, and the implementation details aren't filled in by the short English sentence. The human body, including the brain, is an enormously complex integrated organism; there's no plug-and-play architecture by which you can just swap your brain into a new body and have everything Just Work without re-mapping the connections in your motor cortex. And even that's not really a sex change, as far as the whole integrated system is concerned—

Remapping the connections from the remapped somatic areas to the pleasure center will ... give you a vagina-shaped penis, more or less. That doesn't make you a woman. You'd still be attracted to girls, and no, that would not make you a lesbian; it would make you a normal, masculine man wearing a female body like a suit of clothing.

[...]

So to actually become female ...

We're talking about a massive transformation here, billions of neurons and trillions of synapses rearranged. Not just form, but content—just like a male judo expert would need skills repatterned to become a female judo expert, so too, you know how to operate a male brain but not a female brain. You are the equivalent of a judo expert at one, but not the other. You have cognitive reflexes, and consciously learned cognitive skills as well.

[...]

What happens when, as a woman, you think back to your memory of looking at Angelina Jolie photos as a man? How do you empathize with your past self of the opposite sex? Do you flee in horror from the person you were? Are all your life's memories distant and alien things? How can you remember, when your memory is a recorded activation pattern for neural circuits that no longer exist in their old forms? Do we rewrite all your memories, too?

But, well ... I mean, um ...

(I still really don't want to be blogging about this, but somebody has to and no one else will)

From the standpoint of my secret erotic fantasy, "normal, masculine man wearing a female body like a suit of clothing" is actually a great outcome—the ideal outcome. Let me explain.

The main plot of my secret erotic fantasy accommodates many frame stories, but I tend to prefer those that invoke the literary genre of science, and posit "technology" rather than "spells" or "potions" as the agent of transformation, even if it's all ultimately magic (where "magic" is a term of art for anything you don't understand how to implement as a computer program).

So imagine having something like the transporter in Star Trek, but you re-materialize with the body of someone else, rather than your original body—a little booth I could walk in, dissolve in a tingly glowy special effect for a few seconds, and walk out looking like (say) Nana Visitor (circa 1998). (In the folklore of female-transformation erotica, this machine is often called the "morphic adaptation unit".)

As "Changing Emotions" points out, this high-level description of a hypothetical fantasy technology leaves many details unspecified—not just the how, but the what. What would the indistinguishable-from-magical transformation booth do to my brain? As a preference-revealing thought experiment, what would I want it to do, if I can't change the basic nature of reality, but if engineering practicalities weren't a constraint? (That is, I'm allowed to posit any atom-configuration without having to worry about how you would get all the atoms in the right place, but I'm not allowed to posit tethering my immortal soul to a new body, because souls aren't real.)

The anti-plug-and-play argument makes me confident that it would have to change something about my mind in order to integrate it with a new female body—if nothing else, my unmodified brain doesn't physically fit inside Nana Visitor's skull. (One meta-analysis puts the sex difference in intracranial volume and brain volume at a gaping Cohen's d ≈ 3.0 and 2.1, respectively, and Visitor doesn't look like she has an unusually large head.)

Fine—we're assuming that difficulty away and stipulating that the magical transformation booth can make the minimal changes necessary to put my brain in a female body, and have it fit, and have all the motor-connection/body-mapping stuff line up so that I can move and talk normally in a body that feels like mine, without being paralyzed or needing months of physical therapy to re-learn how to walk.

I want this more than I can say. But is that all I want? What about all the other sex differences in the brain? Male brains are more lateralized—doing relatively more communication within hemispheres rather than between; there are language tasks that women and men perform equally well on, but men's brains use only the left inferior frontal gyrus, whereas women's use both. Women have a relatively thicker corpus callosum; men have a relatively larger amygdala. Fetal testosterone levels increase the amount of gray matter in posterior lateral orbitofrontal cortex, but decrease the gray matter in Wernicke's area ...

Do I want the magical transformation technology to fix all that, too?

Do I have any idea what it would even mean to fix all that, without spending multiple lifetimes studying neuroscience?

I think I have just enough language to start to talk about what it would mean. Since sex isn't an atomic attribute, but rather a high-level statistical regularity such that almost everyone can be cleanly classified as "female" or "male" in terms of lower-level traits (genitals, hormone levels, &c.), then, abstractly, we're trying to take points from male distribution and map them onto the female distribution in a way that preserves as much structure (personal identity) as possible. My female analogue doesn't have a penis like me (because then she wouldn't be female), but she is going to speak American English like me and be 85% Ashkenazi like me, because language and autosomal genes don't have anything to do with sex.

The hard part has to do with traits that are meaningfully sexually dimorphic, but not as a discrete dichotomy—where the sex-specific universal designs differ in ways that are subtler than the presence or absence of entire reproductive organs. (Yes, I know about homology—and you know what I meant.) We are not satisfied if the magical transformation technology swaps out my penis and testicles for a functioning female reproductive system without changing the rest of my body, because we want the end result to be indistinguishable from having been drawn from the female distribution (at least, indistinguishable modulo having my memories of life as a male before the magical transformation), and a man-who-somehow-magically-has-a-vagina doesn't qualify.

The "obvious" way to to do the mapping is to keep the same percentile rank within each trait (given some suitably exhaustive parsing and factorization of the human design into individual "traits"), but take it with respect to the target sex's distribution. I'm 5′11″ tall, which puts me at the 73rd percentile for American men, about 6/10ths of a standard deviation above the mean. So presumably we want to say that my female analogue is at the 73rd percentile for American women, about 5′5½″.

You might think this is "unfair": some women—about 7 per 1000—are 5′11″, and we don't want to say they're somehow less female on that account, so why can't I keep my height? The problem is that if we refuse to adjust for every trait for which the female and male distributions overlap (on the grounds that some women have the same trait value as my male self), we don't end up with a result from the female distribution.

The typical point in a high-dimensional distribution is not typical along each dimension individually. In 100 flips of a biased coin that lands Heads 0.6 of the time, the single most likely sequence is 100 Heads, but there's only one of those and you're vanishingly unlikely to actually see it. The sequences you'll actually observe will have close to 60 Heads. Each such sequence is individually less probable than the all-Heads sequence, but there are vastly more of them. Similarly, most of the probability-mass of a high-dimensional multivariate normal distribution is concentrated in a thin "shell" some distance away from the mode, for the same reason. (The same reason: the binomial distribution converges to the normal in the limit of large n.)

Statistical sex differences are like flipping two different collections of coins with different biases, where the coins represent various traits. Learning the outcome of any individual flip, doesn't tell you which set that coin came from, but if we look at the aggregation of many flips, we can get godlike confidence as to which collection we're looking at.

A single-variable measurement like height is like a single coin: unless the coin is very biased, one flip can't tell you much about the bias. But there are lots of things about people for which it's not that they can't be measured, but that the measurements require more than one number—which correspondingly offer more information about the distribution generating them.

And knowledge about the distribution is genuinely informative. Occasionally you hear progressive-minded people dismiss and disdain simpleminded transphobes who believe that chromosomes determine sex, when actually, most people haven't been karyotyped and don't know what chromosomes they have. (Um, with respect to some sense of the word "know" that doesn't care how unsurprised I was that my 23andMe results came back with a Y and that I would have happily bet on this at extremely generous odds.)

Certainly, I agree that almost no one interacts with sex chromosomes on a day-to-day basis; no one even knew that sex chromosomes existed before 1905. (Co-discovered by a woman!) But the function of intensional definitions in human natural language isn't to exhaustively pinpoint a concept in the detail it would be implemented in an AI's executing code, but rather to provide a "treasure map" sufficient for a listener to pick out the corresponding concept in their own world-model: that's why Diogenes exhibiting a plucked chicken in response to Plato's definition of a human as a "featherless biped" seems like a cheap "gotcha"—we all instantly know that's not what Plato meant. "The challenge is figuring out which things are similar to each other—which things are clustered together—and sometimes, which things have a common cause." But sex chromosomes, and to a large extent specifically the SRY gene located on the Y chromosome, are such a common cause—the root of the causal graph underlying all other sex differences. A smart natural philosopher living before 1905, knowing about all the various observed differences between women and men, might have guessed at the existence of some molecular mechanism of sex determination, and been right. By the "treasure map" standard, "XX is female; XY is male" is a pretty well-performing definition—if you're looking for a simple membership test that's entangled with a lot of information about the many intricate ways in which females and males statistically differ.

Take faces. People are verifiably very good at recognizing sex from (hair covered, males clean-shaven) photographs of people's faces (96% accuracy, which is the equivalent of d ≈ 3.5), but we don't have direct introspective access into what specific features our brains are using to do it; we just look, and somehow know. The differences are real (a computer statistical model gets up to 99.47% accuracy), but it's not a matter of any single, simple measurement you could perform with a ruler (like the distance between someone's eyes). Rather, it's a high-dimensional pattern in many such measurements you could take with a ruler, no one of which is definitive. Covering up the nose makes people slower and slightly worse at sexing faces, but people don't do better than chance at guessing sex from photos of noses alone.

Notably, for images of faces, we actually do have transformation technology! (Not "magical", because we know how it works.) AI techniques like generative adversarial networks and autoencoders can learn the structure of the distribution of facial photographs, and use that knowledge to synthesize faces from scratch (as demonstrated by thispersondoesnotexist.com)—or do things like sex transformation (as demonstrated by FaceApp, the uniquely best piece of software in the world).

If you let each pixel vary independently, the space of possible 1024x1024 images is 1,048,576-dimensional, but the vast hypermajority of those images aren't photorealistic human faces. Letting each pixel vary independently is the wrong way to think about it: changing the lighting or pose changes a lot of pixels in what humans would regard as images of "the same" face. So instead, our machine-learning algorithms learn a compressed representation of what makes the tiny subspace (relative to images-in-general) of faces-in-particular similar to each other. That latent space is a lot smaller (say, 512 dimensions), but still rich enough to embed the high-level distinctions that humans notice: you can find a hyperplane that separates smiling from non-smiling faces, or glasses from no-glasses, or young from old, or different races—or female and male. Sliding along the normal vector to that hyperplane gives the desired transformation: producing images that are "more female" (as the model has learned that concept) while keeping "everything else" the same.

Two-dimensional images of people are vastly simpler than the actual people themselves in the real physical universe. But in theory, a lot of the same mathematical principles would apply to hypothetical future nanotechnology-wielding AI systems that could, like the AI in "Failed Utopia #4-2", synthesize a human being from scratch (this-person-didn't-exist-dot-com?), or do a real-world sex transformation (PersonApp?)—and the same statistical morals apply to reasoning about sex differences in psychology and (which is to say) the brain.

Daphna Joel et al. argue that human brains are "unique 'mosaics' of features" that cannot be categorized into distinct female and male classes, because it's rare for brains to be "internally consistent"—female-typical or male-typical along every dimension. It's true and important that brains aren't discretely sexually dimorphic the way genitals are, but as Marco del Giudice et al. point out, the "cannot be categorized into two distinct classes" claim seems false in an important sense. The lack of "internal consistency" in Joel et al.'s sense is exactly the behavior we expect from multivariate normal-ish distributions with different-but-not-vastly-different means. (There aren't going to be many traits where the sexes are like, four or whatever standard deviations apart.) It's just like how sequences of flips of a Heads-biased and Tails-biased coin are going to be unique "mosaics" of Heads and Tails, but pretty distinguishable with enough flips—and indeed, with the right stats methodology, MRI brain scans can predict sex at 96.8% accuracy.

Sex differences in the brain are like sex differences in the skeleton: anthropologists can tell female and male skeletons apart (the pelvis is shaped differently, for obvious reasons), and machine-learning models can see very reliable differences that human radiologists can't, but neither sex has entire bones that the other doesn't, and the same is true of brain regions. (The evopsych story about complex adaptations being universal-up-to-sex suggests that sex-specific bones or brain regions should be possible, but in a bit of relative good news for antisexism, apparently evolution didn't need to go that far. Um, in humans—a lot of other mammals actually have a penis bone.)

Maybe this should just look like supplementary Statistics Details brushed over some basic facts of human existence that everyone knows? I'm a pretty weird guy, in more ways than one. I am not prototypically masculine. Most men are not like me. If I'm allowed to cherry-pick what measurements to take, I can name ways in which my mosaic is more female-typical than male-typical. (For example, I'm sure I'm above the female mean in Big Five Neuroticism.) "[A] weakly negative correlation can be mistaken for a strong positive one with a bit of selective memory."

But "weird" represents a much larger space of possibilities than "normal", much as nonapples are a less cohesive category than apples: a woman trapped in a man's body would be weird, but it doesn't follow that weird men are secretly women, as opposed to some other, specific, kind of weird. If you sum over all of my traits, everything that makes me, me—it's going to be a point in the male region of the existing, unremediated, genderspace. In the course of being myself, I'm going to do more male-typical things than female-typical things, not because I'm trying to be masculine (I'm not), and not because I "identify as" male (I don't—or I wouldn't, if someone could give me a straight answer as to what this "identifying as" operation is supposed to consist of), but because I literally in-fact am male in the same sense that male chimpanzees or male mice are male, whether or not I like it (I don't—or I wouldn't, if I still believed that preference was coherent), and whether or not I notice all the little details that implies (I almost certainly don't).

Okay, maybe I'm not completely over my teenage religion of psychological sex differences denialism?—that belief still feels uncomfortable to put my weight on. I would prefer to believe that there are women who are relevantly "like me" with respect to some fair (not gerrymandered) metric on personspace. But, um ... it's not completely obvious whether I actually know any? (Well, maybe two or three.) When I look around me—most of the people in my robot cult (and much more so if you look at the core of old-timers from the Overcoming Bias days, rather than the greater "community" of today) are male. Most of the people in my open-source programming scene are male. These days, most of the women in my open-source programming scene are male. Am ... am I not supposed to notice?

Is everyone else not supposed to notice? Suppose I got the magical body transformation (with no brain mods beyond the minimum needed for motor control). Suppose I caught the worshipful attention of a young man just like I used to be ("a" young man, as if there wouldn't be dozens), who privately told me, "I've never met a woman quite like you." What would I be supposed to tell him? "There's a reason for that"?

In the comments to a post about how gender is built on innate sex differences (of which I can only link to the Internet Archive copy, the original having been quietly deleted sometime in 2013—I wonder why!), Yudkowsky opined that "until men start thinking of themselves as men they will tend to regard women as defective humans."

From context, it seems like the idea was targeted at men who disdain women as a mysterious Other—but the same moral applies to men who are in ideologically-motivated denial about how male-typical they are, and whether this has implications. At the time, I certainly didn't want to think of myself as a man. And yet ...

For example. When I read things from the systematizing–empathizing/"men are interested in things, women are interested in people" line of research—which, to be clear that you know that I know, is only a mere statistical difference at a mere Cohen's d ≈ 0.93, not an absolute like genitals or chromosomes—my instinctive reaction is, "But, but, that's not fair. People are systems, because everything is a system. What kind of a lame power is empathy, anyway?"

But the map is not the territory. We don't have unmediated access to reality beyond the Veil of Maya; system-ness in the empathizing/systematizing sense is a feature of our models of the world, not the world itself.

So what "Everything is a system" means is, "I think everything is a system."

I think everything is a system ... because I'm male??

(Or whatever the appropriate generalization of "because" is for statistical group differences. The sentence "I'm 5′11″ because I'm male" doesn't seem quite right, but it's pointing to something real.)

I could assert that it's all down to socialization and stereotyping and self-fulfilling prophecies—and I know that some of it is. (Self-fulfilling prophecies are coordination equilibria.) But I still want to speculate that the nature of my X factor—the things about my personality that let me write the specific things I do even though I'm objectively not that smart compared to some of my robot-cult friends—is a pattern of mental illness that could realistically only occur in males. (Yudkowsky: "It seems to me that male teenagers especially have something like a higher cognitive temperature, an ability to wander into strange places both good and bad.")

Of course there are women with an analogous story to tell about the nature of their own uniqueness—analogous along some dimensions, if not others—but those aren't my story to tell.

I can imagine that all the gaps will vanish after the revolution. I can imagine it, but I can no longer assert it with a straight face because I've read the literature and can tell you several observations about chimps and congenital adrenal hyperplasia that make that seem relatively unlikely.

I was once told by a very smart friend (who, unlike me, is not a religious fanatic), "Boys like games with challenges and points; girls like games with characters and stories."

I said, "I like characters and stories! I think."

He said, "I know, but at the margin, you seem suboptimally far in the challenges and points direction. But that's fine; that's what women are for."

And what evidence could I point to, to show him that he's bad and wrong for saying that, if he's not already religiously required to believe it?

Alright. So in principle, you could imagine having a PersonApp that maps me to a point in the female region of configuration space in some appropriately structure-preserving way, to compute my female analogue who is as authentically me as possible while also being authentically female, down to her pelvis shape, and the proportion of gray matter in her posterior lateral orbitofrontal cortex, and—the love of a woman for a man. What is she like, concretely? Do I know how to imagine that?

Or if I can imagine it, can I describe it in this blog post? I am presently sorrowful that (following John Holt) we all know more than we can say. I have mental models of people, and the models get queried for predictions in the course of planning my social behavior, but I don't have introspective access to the differences between models. It's easier to imagine people in hypothetical situations and say things like, "That doesn't sound like something she'd do, but he would" (and be correct), than to say exactly what it is about her character and his that generated these predictions, such that my words would paint a picture in your head that would let you make your own predictions about her and him without having met them—just like how you're better at recognizing someone's face, than at describing their face in words in enough detail for an artist to draw a portrait.

As a first-order approximation, I do have a sister. I think the family resemblance between us is stronger than with either parent. We're about equally intelligent—OK, she's probably smarter than me; the SAT is pretty g-loaded and her 1580 (out of 1600) trounces my 2180 (on the out-of-2400 scale used between 2005 and 2016, such that 2180 proportionally scales down to 1453 out of 1600). Our dark hair curls into helices with similar radius. We even have similar mannerisms, I think? She's 5′6½″.

But in a lot of ways that matter, we are very different people. When you compare resumés and representative work-samples of what we've done with our (roughly) similar intelligence—her chemistry Ph.D. from a top-10 university, my dropout–autodidact's passion culminating in this batshit insane secret ("secret") blog about the philosophy of language and the etiology of late-onset gender dysphoria in males—it ... paints a different picture.

Of course same-sex siblings would also be different pictures. (Identical twins aren't duplicates of each other, either.) But the advantage of having a sister is that it gives my brain's pattern-matching faculties a target to sight against. As a second-order approximation, my female analogue is close to being somewhere on the vector in personspace between me and my sister (but not exactly on that line, because the line spans both the difference-between-siblings and the difference-between-sexes).

(All this is in accordance with "Everything is a vector space" philosophy implied by this blog's TLD—if it turns out that something isn't a vector space, I'm not sure I want to know about it. I can hope that my description of the methodology is valuable, even if your brain's pattern-matching faculties can't follow along with the same example, because you haven't met my sister and only know the aspects of me that shine through to the blog.)

Okay. Having supplied just enough language to start to talk about what it would even mean to actually become female—is that what I want?

I've just explained that, in principle, it could be done, so you might think there's no conceptual problem with the idea of changing sex, in the same sense that there's nothing conceptually wrong with Jules Verne's pair of novels about flying around the moon. There are lots of technical rocket-science details that Verne didn't and couldn't have known about in the 1860s, but the basic idea was sound, and actually achieved a hundred years later. So why is it in any way relevant that making the magical transformation fantasy real would be technically complicated?

It's relevant insofar as the technical details change your evaluation of the desirability of what is to be accomplished, which can differ from what sounds like good news in the moment of first hearing about the idea.

So, I mean, if it's reversible, I would definitely be extremely eager to try it ...

I had said we're assuming away engineering difficulties in order to make the thought experiment more informative about pure preferences, but let's add one constraint to force the thought experiment to be informative about preferences, and not allow the wishy-washy evasion of "I'm eager to try it."

What if I can't just "try" it? What if the machine can only be used once? Or (my preference) if some deep "brain sex" transformation only works once, even if a more superficial motor remapping is easy to do or re-do? Come up with whatever frame story you want for this: maybe the machine costs my life savings just to rent for two minutes, or maybe the transformation process is ever-so-slightly imperfect, such that you can't re-transform someone who's already been transformed once, like a photocopy being a perfectly acceptable substitute for an original document, but photocopies-of-photocopies rapidly losing quality.

In that case, if I have to choose ... I don't think I want to be Actually Female? I like who I am on the inside, and don't need to change it. I don't want to stop loving challenges and points—or women!—in the way that I do. And if I don't know enough neuroscience to have an informed preference about the ratio of gray to white matter in my posterior lateral orbitofrontal cortex, I'm sure it's probably fine.

At the same time, the idea of having a female body still seems like the most appealing thing in the world. If artificial superintelligence gives me BodyApp to play with for a subjective year and tiles the rest of our future lightcone with paperclips, that's fine; I will die happy.

So, I guess ...

If I'm being really honest with myself here ...

And I successfully make-believe that I can tell the truth with no consequences on my secret ("secret") blog even though at this point my paper-thin pseudonymity is more like a genre convention or a running joke rather than providing any real privacy ...

I guess I want to be "a normal [...] man wearing a female body like a suit of clothing."

Is that weird? Is that wrong?

Okay, yes, it's obviously weird and wrong, but should I care more about not being weird and wrong, than I do about my deepest most heartfelt desire that I've thought about every day for the last nineteen years?

This is probably counterintuitive if you haven't been living with it your entire adult life? People have heard of the "born in the wrong body" narrative, which makes intuitive sense: if female souls are designed to work female bodies, and you're a female soul tethered to a male body, you can imagine the soul finding the mismatch distressing and wanting to fix it. But if, as I'm positing for my case, there is no mismatch in any objective sense, then where does the desire come from? How do you make sense of wanting to change physiological sex, for reasons that don't have anything to do with already neurologically resembling that sex? What's really going on there, psychologically?

Part of what makes this so hard to talk about besides it being weird and wrong, is that we don't really understand how our own minds work in a legible way; we just experience things. Even if you're not sure that other people really see "the same" colors as you (and you don't know how to reformulate the question to not be confused), you can at least agree on color words by pointing to Pantone swatches, but I'm not sure I have the language to convey the facts about the qualia I associate with the word autogynephilia to someone who doesn't already feel something similar.

But I have to try. A clue: when I'm ... uh. When I'm—well, you know ...

(I guess I can't evade responsibility for the fact that I am, in fact, blogging about this.)

A clue: when I'm masturbating, and imagining all the forms I would take if the magical transformation technology were real (the frame story can vary, but the basic idea is always the same), I don't think I'm very good at first-person visualization? The content of the fantasy is about me being a woman (I mean, having a woman's body), but the associated mental imagery mostly isn't the first-person perspective I would actually experience if the fantasy were real; I think I'm mostly imagining a specific woman (which one, varies a lot) as from the outside, admiring her face, and her voice, and her breasts, but somehow wanting the soul behind those eyes to be me. Wanting my body to be shaped like that, to be in control of that avatar of beauty—not even to do anything overtly "sexy" in particular, but just to exist like that.

If the magical transformation technology were real, I would want a full-length mirror. (And in the real world, I would probably crossdress a lot more often, if I could pass to myself in the mirror. My face ruins it and makeup doesn't help.)

What's going on here? Speaking of mirrors, the sexologist James Cantor speculates: mirror neurons. Way, way back in the 1980s, Italian neuroscientists wired up the brains of macaque monkeys with electrodes, and noticed that some of the same brain regions would light up when the monkey grabbed a rasin, and when the monkey watched the researcher eat a rasin. These "mirror neurons" are speculated to form the basis of empathy.

So, the phrase "mirror neurons" is not and cannot be an answer. Real understanding is about detailed predictive models, not what words to repeat back in school. I can't expect to understand the real answer without spending multiple years studying neuroscience, and if I did, I couldn't expect to transmit the model to you in one blog post. (That would be several blog posts.)

Still, the macaque–rasin anecdote is at least suggestive of hypotheses in the general area of, "The brain uses shared representations for 'self' and others, in a way such that it's possible for the part of the brain that computes sexual attraction to 'get confused' about the self–other distinction in a way that manifests as sexual desire to be the object of attraction." Or something like that.

More clues come in the form of the following trio of observations.

One, I'm not particularly repulsed by my own body in real life. ("Vague disappointment, sometimes" isn't the same thing as "repulsion".)

Two, my fantasies about having a female body aren't particularly, um, discriminating? On the contrary, if I had magical BodyApp tech, I would want to experiment with being different ages or races or body types of women.

Three, the thought being transformed into a different male body, other than my own, is repulsive. Perhaps less so in the sense that thinking about it is horrifying, and more that I can't think about it—my imagination "bounces off" the idea before any Body Horror emotions can kick in.

These details seem hard to square with gender identity theories: why does my own male body, and only my own male body, seem "okay"? Whereas this is exactly what you would expect from the "male sexuality getting confused about a self–other distinction" story: I want to be transformed into all different sorts of women for the same reason ordinary straight guys want to fuck all different sorts of women, and I can't even entertain the idea of being transformed into other men for the same reason ordinary straight guys can't even entertain the idea of fucking other men.

An interesting prediction of this story is that if the nature of the "confusion", this—"erotic target location error"?—is agnostic to the object of sexual attraction, then you should see the same pattern in men with unusual sexual interests. ("Men" because I think we legitimately want to be shy about generalizing across sexes for sex differences in the parts of the mind that are specifically about mating.)

And this is actually what we see. Most men are attracted to women, but some fraction of them get off on the idea of being or becoming women—autogynephilia. So if some men are attracted to, say, amputees, we would expect some fraction of them to get off on the idea of being amputeesapotemnophilia. Some men are, unfortunately, pedophiles, and some fraction of them get off on the idea of being children. Some men are interested in anthropomorphic animals, and being anthropomorphic animals"furries".

Recently I had an occasion (don't ask) to look up if there was a word for having a statue fetish. Turns out it's called agalmatophilia, defined by Wikipedia as "sexual attraction to a statue, doll, mannequin or other similar figurative object", which "may include a desire for actual sexual contact with the object, a fantasy of having sexual (or non-sexual) encounters with an animate or inanimate instance of the preferred object, the act of watching encounters between such objects, or"—wait for it ... "sexual pleasure gained from thoughts of being transformed or transforming another into the preferred object." I don't think the Wikipedia editor who wrote that last phrase was being a shill for the general erotic-target-location-error hypothesis because it has political implications; I think "among guys who are sexually interested in X, some fraction of them want to be X" is just something you notice when you honestly look at the world of guys who are sexually interested in arbitrary X.

And, and—I've never told anyone this and have barely thought about it in years, but while I'm blogging about all this anyway—I have a few vague memories from early teenagerhood of having transformation fantasies about things other than women. Like wondering (while masturbating) what it would like to be a dog, or a horse, or a marble statue of a woman. Anyway, I lost interest in those before too long, but I think this vague trace-of-a-memory is evidence for the thing going on with me being an underlying erotic-target-location-error-like predisposition rather than an underlying intersex condition.

I don't know the details of what this "erotic target location error" thing is supposed to be, exactly—and would expect my beliefs to change a lot if anyone knew the details and could explain them to me—but I think some story in this general vicinity has to be the real explanation of what's going on with me. How else do you make sense of an otherwise apparently normal biological male (whose physical and psychological traits seem to be basically in the male normal range, even if he's one of those sensitive bookish males rather than being "macho") having the conjunction of the beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing and, specifically, erotic female-transformation fantasies of the kind I've described?

Am I supposed to claim to be a lesbian trapped inside a man's body? That I am neurologically female in some real sense, and that's the true cause of my beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing?

Maybe that could be spun to seem superficially plausible to those who know me casually, but I don't know how to square that account with the details of my inner life (including the details that I wouldn't blog about if I didn't have to). I think if you used magical transformation technology to put an actual lesbian in a copy of my body, I can imagine her/him having Body Horror at her/his alien new form and wish to be restored to her/his original body on that account, and maybe her/his identification with her/his former sex ("gender") would look sort of like my beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing (if you squint).

But I don't think she/he would spontaneously invent obsessively jacking off to fantasies of being able to magically transform into various different female bodies ... unless she was already into that stuff before being magically transformed into my twin. But ... is that even a thing among many (or any) lesbians? To be clear, there is a lot of porn in this genre! But it seems to entirely be created for and consumed by ... men? Adult human males?

I just don't see any reason to doubt the obvious explanation that the root cause of my gender problems is specifically a bug in male sexuality. I didn't have the fancy vocabulary for it then, but the basic idea seemed pretty obvious in 2005, and seems equally obvious now.

(A "bug" with respect to the design criteria of evolution, not with respect to the human morality that affirms that I like being this way. Some, fearing stigma, would prefer to tone-police "bug" down to "variation", but people who don't understand the naturalistic fallacy aren't going to understand anything else I'm saying, and I want to emphasize that the mirror-neurons-or-whatever and ordinary male sexuality weren't functionally optimized to collide like this.)

If I were to actually become female, it wouldn't seem like the scintillating apotheosis of sexual desire and the most important thing in the world. It would just feel normal, in the way that (I can only imagine) actual women feel their own existence is normal.

No doubt many women appreciate their own bodies, but a woman's positive body self-image experience of, "I feel attractive today", is going to be very different from the autogynephile-with-BodyApp's experience of, "Oh my God, I have breasts and a vagina that I can look at and touch without needing anyone's permission; this is the scintillating apotheosis of sexual desire and the most important thing in the world."

In this way, autogynephilia is intrinsically self-undermining in a way that fantasies of flying to the moon are not. This doesn't in any way lessen the desire or make it go away—any more than the guy who gets turned on by entropy decreasing in a closed system would have his libido suddenly and permanently vanish upon learning about the second law of thermodynamics. But it does, I suspect, change the way you think of it: it makes a difference whether you interpret the desire as a confused anomaly in male sexuality—the scintillating but ultimately untrue thought—or take it literally.

But the reasons not to take it literally might not be obvious to everyone. The detailed exposition above about what it would even mean to change sex is the result of a lot of thinking influenced by everything I've read and learned—and in particular, the reductionist methodology I learned from Yudkowsky, and in even more particular, the very specific warning in "Changing Emotions" (and its predecessor in the Extropians mailing-list archives) that changing sex is a hard problem.

We can imagine that a male who was like me in having this erotic-target-location-erroneous sexuality and associated beautiful pure sacred self-identity feelings, but who read different books in a different order, might come to very different conclusions about himself.

If you don't have the conceptual vocabulary to say, "I have a lot of these beautiful pure sacred self-identity feelings about being female, but it seems like a pretty obvious guess that there must be some sort of causal relationship between that and this erotic fantasy, which is realistically going to be a variation in male sexuality, such that it would be silly to interpret the beautiful pure sacred self-identity thing literally" you might end up saying something simpler like, "I want to be a woman." Or possibly even, "I am a woman, on the inside, where it counts."

(As Yudkowsky occasionally remarks, our beliefs about how our minds work have very little impact on how they actually work. Aristotle thought the brain was an organ for cooling the blood, but he was just wrong; the theory did not become true of him because he believed it.)

What theory I end up believing about myself matters, because different theories that purport to explain the same facts can make very different predictions about facts not yet observed, or about the effects of interventions.

If I have some objective inner female gender as the result of a brain-intersex condition, then getting on, and staying on, feminizing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) would presumably be a good idea specifically because my brain is designed to "run on" estrogen. But if my beautiful pure sacred self-identity feelings are fundamentally a misinterpretation of misdirected male sexuality, then it's not clear that I want the psychological effects of HRT: if there were some unnatural way to give me a female (or just more female-like) body without messing with my internal neurochemistry, that would actually be desirable.

Or, you might think that if the desire is just a confusion in male sexuality, maybe real life body-modding wouldn't be desirable? Maybe autogynephilic men think they want female bodies, but if they actually transitioned in real life (as opposed to just having incompetently non-realistic daydreams about it all day and especially while masturbating), they would feel super-dysphoric about it, because (and which proves that) they're just perverted men, and not actual trans women, which are a different thing. You might think so!

But, empirically, I did grow (small) breasts as a result of my five-month HRT experiment, and I think it's actually been a (small) quality-of-life improvement for approximately the reasons I expected going in. I just—like the æsthetic?—and wanted it to be part of my æsthetic, and now it is, and I don't quite remember what my chest was like before, kind of like how I don't quite remember what it was like to have boy-short hair before I grew out my signature beautiful–beautiful ponytail. (Though I'm still kicking myself for not taking a bare-chested "before" photo.) I don't see any particular reason to believe this experience wouldn't replicate all the way down the slope of interventions.

Fundamentally, I think I can make better decisions for myself by virtue of having an accurate model of what's really going on with me—a model that uses all these fine mental distinctions using the everything-is-a-vector-space skill, such that I have the language to talk about my obsessive paraphilic desire to be shaped like a woman without wanting to actually be a woman, similarly to how the verthandi in "Failed Utopia #4-2" aren't actually women.

If the actual desire implemented in one's actual brain in the real physical universe takes the form of (roughly translating from desire into English) "You know, I kind of want my own breasts (&c.)", it may be weird and perverted to admit this and act on it (!!)—but would it be any less weird and perverted to act on it under the false (in my case) pretense of an invisible female gender identity? If you know what the thing is, can it be any worse to just own it?

If we actually had magical perfect transformation technology or something close to it—if you could grow a female body in a vat, and transfer my brain into it, and had a proven solution to the motor-mapping and skull-size issues—if it cost $300,000, I would take out a bank loan and do it, and live happily ever after.

Since we don't have that ... the existing approximations don't really seem like a good idea for me, all things considered?

As a professional computer programmer, I have learned to fear complexity and dependencies. If you've ever wondered why it seems like all software is buggy and terrible, it's because no one knows what they're doing. Each individual programmer and engineer understands their piece of the system well enough that companies can ship products that mostly do what they claim, but there's a lot of chaos and despair where the pieces don't quite fit and no one knows why.

But computing is the easy case, a universe entirely of human design, of worlds that can be made and unmade on a whim (when that whim is specified in sufficient detail). Contrast that to the unfathomable messiness of evolved biological systems, and I think I have reason to be wary of signing up to be a lifelong medical patient. Not out of any particular distrust of doctors and biomedical engineers, but out of respect that their jobs—not necessarily the set of tasks they do to stay employed at actually existing hospitals and universities, but the idealized Platonic forms of their jobs—are much harder than almost anyone realizes.

All drugs have side-effects; all surgeries have the potential for complications. Through centuries of trial and error (where "error" means suffering and disfigurement and death), our civilization has accumulated a suite of hacks for which the benefits seem to exceed the costs (given circumstances you would prefer not to face in the first place).

In a miracle of science, someone made the observations to notice that human females have higher levels of (8R,9S,13S,14S,17S)-13-Methyl-6,7,8,9,11,12,14,15,16,17-decahydrocyclopenta[a]phenanthrene-3,17-diol than human males. In a glorious exhibition of mad science, someone did the experiments to notice that artificially synthesizing that ...-iol (or collecting it from pregnant horses' urine) and administering it to males successfully pushes some aspects of their phenotype in the female direction: breast growth and fat redistribution and agreeableness—at the cost of sterility and increased risk of venous thromboembolism and osteoporosis.

For all that my body is disappointingly male and therefore ugly, it works. It makes the hormones that it needs to function without me needing to dissolve a pill under my tongue every day—without saddling me with extra dependencies on the supply chains that make the pills, or the professional apparatus to draw my blood and tell me what pills to take—without me needing to know what "hormones" are.

For all that my penis is boring at best and annoying at worst, it works. The organ does the things that it's designed to do; it lets me pee while standing up, and reward myself while pretending that it isn't there.

Did you know that trans women have to dilate their neovagina after bottom surgery? Yeah. There are these hard tubes of various widths, and you're supposed to stick them up there multiple times a day after surgery (and weekly indefinitely) to prevent the cavity from losing depth. I'm told that there are important technical reasons why it would be objectively wrong to use the phrase open wound in this situation, but the body doesn't know the important technical reasons and you still need to dilate.

I am glad that these interventions exist for the people who are brave and desperate enough to need them. But given that I'm not that desperate and not that brave, would it not be wiser to trust the paraphrased proverb and not look a gift man in the mouth?

My beautiful–beautiful ponytail was a smart move (and hair length isn't sexually dimorphic anyway; it's only our culture's arbitrary gender conventions that makes it seem relevant in this context).

My five-month HRT experiment was a smart move, both for the beautiful–beautiful breast tissue, and For Science.

My laser beard removal sessions were ... arguably a waste of money, since I still have to shave even after 13 treatments?—but it at least got the density of my ugly–gross facial hair down a bit. Trying it was definitely a smart move given what I knew at the time, and I just might be rich enough and disgusted-by-facial-hair enough to go back for more density-reduction. (Electrolysis gets better results than laser, but it's more expensive and a lot more painful.)

People get cosmetic surgery sometimes for non-sex-change-related reasons. I guess if I grew a little braver and a little more desperate, I could imagine wanting to research if and how "mild" facial feminization surgery is a thing—just, selfishly, to be happier with my reflection. (Probably a smarter move to check out movie-grade latex masks first, to see if it's at all possible to attain the bliss of passing in the mirror without taking a knife to my one and only real-life face.)

And I should probably look into figuring out if there's anything to be done for my hairline before it gets any worse?

But staying on transition-grade HRT indefinitely—doesn't seem like a smart move? Even though I would be happy with the fat-redistribution effects, I don't expect the health effects to be net-positive, and I don't expect the psychological effects to be net-desirable (even if I wasn't self-aware enough to notice much besides libido change during my five-month experiment).

And social transition—really doesn't seem like a smart move? If we actually had magical perfect transformation technology, that would happen automatically (people are pretty good at noticing each other's sex), and I would expect to be very happy. (After some socio-psychological adjustment period; remember, in the real world, I didn't even manage to change nicknames.) But given that we don't have magical perfect transformation technology, I don't expect to pull off that kind of ... perma-LARP. I mean really pull it off—everyone in Berkeley and Portland will be very careful to respect your pronouns the minute you come out, but they will be lying. I know, because I lie. Of course I say "she" when the intelligent social web requires it—I'm not a monster—but it's only on a case-by-case basis whether I believe it.

It's definitely possible to pass alright with a lot of work (voice training for trans women is a thing!), but it's not clear why I would want to put in all that work, when overall, my life is fundamentally okay as ... a man? An adult human male? As a matter of objective fact, which doesn't care about my beautiful pure sacred self-identity feelings.

How dumb would I have to think you are, to expect you not to notice?

And how dumb would you have think I am, to expect me to expect you to pretend not to notice?


Even if I never took the beautiful pure sacred self identity thing too literally, owning it for what it really is—an illusion, the scintillating but ultimately untrue thought—takes a different tone in the harsh light of my deconversion from psychological-sex-differences denialism. In "Changing Emotions", Yudkowsky wrote—

If I fell asleep and woke up as a true woman—not in body, but in brain—I don't think I'd call her "me". The change is too sharp, if it happens all at once.

In the comments, I wrote

Is it cheating if you deliberately define your personal identity such that the answer is No?

I now realize that the correct answer to the question is—yes! Yes, it's cheating! Category-membership claims of the form "X is a Y" represent hidden probabilistic inferences; inferring that entity X is a member of category Y means using observations about X to decide to use knowledge about members of Y to make predictions about features of X that you haven't observed yet. But this AI trick can only work if the entities you've assigned to category Y are actually similar in the real world—if they form a tight cluster in configuration space, such that using the center of the cluster to make predictions about unobserved features gets you close to the right answer, on average.

The rules don't change when the entity X happens to be "my female analogue" and the category Y happens to be "me". The ordinary concept of "personal identity" tracks how the high-level features of individual human organisms are stable over time. You're going to want to model me-on-Monday and me-on-Thursday as "the same" person even if my Thursday-self woke up on the wrong side of bed and has three whole days of new memories. When interacting with my Thursday-self, you're going to be using your existing mental model of me, plus a diff for "He's grumpy" and "Haven't seen him in three days"—but that's a very small diff, compared to the diff between me and some other specific person you know, or the diff between me and a generic human who you don't know.

In everyday life, we're almost never in doubt as to which entities we want to consider "the same" person (like me-on-Monday and me-on-Thursday), but we can concoct science-fictional thought experiments that force the Sorites problem to come up. What if you could interpolate between two people—construct a human with a personality "in between" yours and mine, that had both or some fraction of each of our memories? (You know, like Tuvix.) At what point on the spectrum would that person be me, or you, or both, or neither? (Derek Parfit has a book with lots of these.)

People do change a lot over time; there is a sense in which, in some contexts, we don't want to say that a sixty-year-old is the "same person" they were when they were twenty—and forty years is "only" 4,870 three-day increments. But if a twenty-year-old were to be magically replaced with their sixty-year-old future self (not just superficially wearing an older body like a suit of clothing, but their brain actually encoding forty more years of experience and decay) ... well, there's a reason I reached for the word "replace" (suggesting putting a different thing in something's place) when describing the scenario. That's what Yudkowsky means by "the change is too sharp"—the ordinary sense in which we consider people as the "same person" from day to day (despite people having more than one proton in a different place from day to day) has an implicit Lipschitz condition buried in it, an assumption that people don't change too fast.

The thing about Sorites problems is that they're incredibly boring. The map is not the territory. The distribution of sand-configurations we face in everyday life is such that we usually have an answer as to whether the sand "is a heap" or "is not a heap", but in the edge-cases where we're not sure, arguing about whether to use the word "heap" doesn't change the configuration of sand. You might think that if the category is blurry, you therefore have some freedom to draw its boundaries the way you prefer—but the probabilistic inferences you make on the basis of category membership can be quantitatively better or worse. Preferences over concept definitions that aren't about maximizing predictive accuracy are therefore preferences for deception, because "making probability distributions less accurate in order to achieve some other goal" is what deception means.

That's why defining your personal identity to get the answer you want is cheating. If the answer you wanted was actually true, you could just say so without needing to want it.

When Phineas Gage's friends said he was "no longer Gage" after the railroad accident, what they were trying to say was that interacting with post-accident Gage was more relevantly similar to interacting with a stranger than it was to interacting with pre-accident Gage, even if Gage-the-physical-organism was contiguous along the whole stretch of spacetime.

Same principle when Yudkowsky wrote, "If I fell asleep and woke up as a true woman [...] I don't think I'd call her 'me'". The claim is that psychological sex differences are large enough to violate the Lipschitz condition imposed by our ordinary concept of personal identity. Maybe he was wrong, but if so, that cashes out as being wrong about how similar women and men actually are (which in principle could be operationalized and precisely computed, even if we don't know how to make it precise), not whether we prefer the "call her me" or "don't call her me" conclusion and want to retroactively redefine the meaning of the words in order to make the claim come out "true."

Do people ever really recover from being religious? I still endorse the underlying psychological motivation that makes me prefer the "call her me" conclusion, the intention that made me think I could get away with defining it to be true—even if I don't believe that anymore.

While the Sequence explaining Yudkowsky's metaethics was being published (which a lot of people, including me, didn't quite "get" at the time; I found a later précis easier to understand), I was put off by the extent to which Yudkowsky seemed to want to ground the specification of value in the evolved design of the human brain, as if culturally-defined values were irrelevant, to be wiped away by the extrapolation of what people would want if they knew more, thought faster, &c..

And the reason I felt that way was because I was aware of how much of a historical anomaly my sacred ideological value of antisexism was. Contrast to Yudkowsky's casually "sexist" speculation in the comment section:

If there are distinct categories of human transpersonal values, I would expect them to look like "male and female babies", "male children", "male adults", "female children", "female adults", "neurological damage 1", "neurological damage 2", not "Muslims vs. Christians!"

You can see why this view would be unappealing to an ideologue eager to fight a culture war along an "Antisexism vs. Sexism" axis.

Looking back—I do think I had a point that culturally-inculcated values won't completely wash out under extrapolation, but I was wrong to conflate ideology with values as I did. I was vastly underestimating the extent to which your current sacred ideology can be shown to be meaningfully "wrong" with better information—and, by design of the extrapolation procedure, this shouldn't be threatening.

Your morality doesn't have to converge with that of your genetic twin who was raised in a culture with a different ideology—maybe culturally learned values from childhood get "frozen" after reasoning ability kicks in, such that I would never see eye-to-eye with my analogue who was raised with (say) a traditional Muslim view of relations between the sexes, no matter how much we debated and no matter how many new facts we learned.

At the same time, while reflecting on one's own values and how to refine them in response to new information and new situations, the question of what your genetic analogue raised in a different culture would think ... seems like relevant and informative information?

When I introspect on the causes of my whole gender ... thing, I see three parents in the causal graph: autogynephilia, being a sensitive boy rather than a macho guy, and my ideological commitment to antisexism (wanting to treat feminism as a religion, as a special case of egalitarianism as our state religion). The first two things seem likely to be more "innate", more robust to perturbations—but the the ideology thing mostly seems like a mistake insofar as it's committed to making bad predictions about human psychology—and the process of figuring out how to do better would benefit from looking at the space of other possible mistakes.

"Anyone who gives a part of themselves to a[n ideology] discovers a sense of beauty in it." When figuring out how to rescue the spirit of early-twenty-first century (pre-Great Awokening) egalitarian individualism in light of the terrible discovery that none of this shit is true, it's instructive to consider how you would have formulated your values, if you had always known the true state of affairs to begin with (even if, as a point of historical fact, your mistaken beliefs had a causal role in the development of the values you're trying to rescue).

Suppose it is true that female adults and male adults have distinct transpersonal values. At the time, I found the prospect horrifying—but that just shows that the design of male transpersonal values contains within it the potential (under appropriate cultural conditions) to be horrified by sex differences in transpersonal values. Naïvely, I don't want it to be the case that women are a different thing that I don't understand, but that preference itself probably arises out of—something like, the love of a man for a woman leading to, wanting to be aligned with women in the sense of AI alignment, to genuinely do right by them—which vision is threatened by the idea of the sexes having fundamentally different interests.

(During the vicissitudes of my 2017 psychotic episode, I wrote a note: "cooperate with men who cooperate with women [who] cooperate with men who cooperate with women who cooperate with men".)

But what constitutes doing right by women, depends on the actual facts of the matter about psychological sex differences—if you assume, based on empathic inference, that the target of your benevolence is just like you, you might end up taking actions that hurt rather than help them if you live in one of the possible worlds where they're not just like you.

The thing to be committed to is not any potentially flawed object-level ideology, like antisexism or Christianity, but the features of human psychology that make the object-level ideology seem like a good idea. That way, you can update when the thing that initially seemed like a good idea turns out to be a bad idea in light of new information about what was already the case the whole time. People can stand what is true, for we are already doing so.


Anyway, that—briefly (I mean it)—is the story about my weird sexual obsession about being a woman and how I used to think that it was morally wrong to believe in psychological sex differences, but then I gradually changed my mind and decided that psychological sex differences are probably real and therefore morally okay to believe in after being deeply influenced by this robot-cult blog about the logic of Science.

It's probably not that interesting? If we were still living in the socio-political environment of 2009, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be blogging about my weird sexual obsessions (as evidenced by the fact that, in 2009, I wasn't blogging about them). It would take some unfathomably bizarre twist of circumstances to induce me to write publicly about such deeply private and sensitive matters—like my weird sexual obsession ending up at the center of one of the defining political issues of our time. But such an absurd scenario couldn't actually happen ... right??


Point Man

Chinese legend tells of a eunuch named Zhao Gao, a chancellor to the Second Emperor. The power-hungry Zhao Gao wanted to arrange a coup, but was worried that the other members of the imperial court wouldn't cooperate with his designs.

One day, Zhao Gao announced a horse was being given to the young Emperor as a gift—and presented a deer. The Emperor expressed confusion: "Perhaps the chancellor is mistaken, calling a deer a horse?" The other members of the imperial court were questioned. Some, reporting what they saw before them, said it was a deer. Others, fearing Zhao Gao, said it was a horse, or remained silent.

Later, Zhao Gao arranged for the execution of the courtiers who said it was a deer, or were silent.

It was all a test: the courtiers who agreed with Zhao Gao, even though what he said was absurd—precisely because it was absurd—proved their loyalty to him, whereas the ones who spoke the plain truth revealed themselves as untrustworthy for his purposes: to agree with a true claim would be compatible with either loyalty or mere honesty, but to agree with absurdity leaves no ambiguity about one's motives. From this story comes the Chinese four-character idiom point deer make horse, to deliberately misrepresent.

I used to wonder: what was it like to be one of the courtiers who survived the test? Did they consciously think, "Well, I don't know why Zhao Gao is calling this deer a horse, but he seems serious, so I'd better play along, too"—or did they trust Zhao Gao's words more than their own eyes, and manage to really believe themselves that it was a horse?

These days, I have a different question.

What was it like to be the deer? To be used like that, as a prop in someone else's political power game, without having any idea what's going on?


During a recent discussion of gender and pronoun conventions, I received a fascinating reply that I thought was very telling about an aspect of the Zeitgeist that usually remains covert. My interlocutor said (edited and paraphrased):

I can imagine a sane society using he and she to refer to this-person-looks-male and this-person-looks-female. But in the society that exists today, "what pronouns does this person use for trans person" on-average conveys very relevant information about the speaker and their attitudes to trans people. (I mean this in a this-is-just-how-the-statistics-work rather than an accusatory way; I think in your particular case we have lots of other data.)

I agree that there's going to be some confusion if you talk about someone as a "she" and the person who turns up is obviously a.m.a.b. But I think the confusion that results from calling them "she" is a lot more consequential. Progressive communication norms absolutely reflect a concern for information efficiency! It takes a lot less time to say "she" than it does to say "he, but I also think trans people are great."

(Bolding mine.)

I see. So the new norms are optimized to convey information about the speaker rather than what is being spoken about.

Almost like ... a loyalty test?

And the less intuitive it is, the better it works as a loyalty test: referring to an obviously male person as he merely reflects conventional usage and reveals no information about one's motives, whereas referring to an obvious male as she—or using singular they for a named individual whose sex is apparent—extracts a cognitive cost, however slight—a cost allies are more willing to pay than non-allies.

I'm not suggesting a conspiracy, of course; just the design signature of cultural evolution.

Here's my theory. As a very rare biological anomaly, there have always been an extreme right tail of very masculine lesbians who fit into Society better as men and very feminine gay men who fit into Society better as women, and twentieth-century doctors developed medical interventions to aid them in this transformation. This worked pretty well.

Separately, there are, and perhaps always have been, paraphilic men who wished they were women—autogynephiles—and the extreme right tail of them also sought out interventions from the twentieth-century doctors. Tragically, this didn't usually work as well, but it was rare enough for autogynephiles to actually attempt it (as opposed to privately fantasizing or playing dress-up) that it didn't have much impact on the social order.

The legal changes required for the twentieth-century doctors' innovation was sponsored by the political coalition of individually non-hegemonic identity groups, whose organizing principle had always been to fight on behalf of the marginalized—those who, without the coalition's sponsorship, would have been (even more) victimized by the hegemonic social order.

But when the source of a coalition's power rests on the loyalty of the victims it protects, and of their allies, then those seeking to win more power for the coalition have an incentive to both create more victims, and distinguish loyal from fair-weather allies.

Aggressively marketing "being trans" as an atomic identity that everyone needs to celebrate on pain of being responsible for someone's suicide, serves both functions: a lot of young men with autogynephilia or internalized misandry, and quirky but impressionable teenage girls, get recruited to the victimhood coalition (who might have otherwise gotten married and joined the power base of the hegemonic social order), and everyone who cares about having a public concept of biological sex gets "outed" as an insufficiently-loyal ally (who can't free-ride off the coalition's successes without contributing). It works even better if any group that doesn't have the necessary quota of trans people is marked for political attack on the grounds of being insufficiently inclusive.

Again, no individual mastermind is required for the collective outcome to play out this way. Being proud of a political group identity and seeking to promote its strength and power is normal. Being suspicious of those who refuse to pay the cost of signaling loyalty to the group is normal. Wanting to change sex is—not "normal" exactly, but a reasonably common and harmless fantasy (the scintillating but ultimately untrue thought) that a lot of people have without being in the homosexual extreme-right-tail-of-sex-atypical-behavior taxon that sex reassignment was invented for. (A 1994 study found that among college students, 5.6% of males and 13.2% of females had fantasized about being the opposite sex.)

As a transhumanist, I believe that fantasies deserve to be fulfilled—but actually fulfilled, fulfilled for real, not humored by everyone forcing everyone else to pretend in order to maintain the equilibrium in some idiot political game.

I'm glad that sex reassignment exists for those who need it, or just want it. (I would want it if the technology were better.) But this new culture in which any attempt to talk about sex in the common language gets adversarially reinterpreted as a claim about this mysterious "gender" thing that has no particular truth conditions other than the individual's say-so, isn't helping transsexuals who have successfully transitioned and moved on with their lives. Relative to more honest alternatives that could be invented or rediscovered, I very much doubt this culture is helping those who enthusiastically advocate for and participate in it—if they only knew in detail what they're selling and being sold. Selfishly, I resent the forced updates to my native language, which I still need to make sense of the world I see.

And, and—that poor deer!


Link: "See Color"

Here we are in the future
Here we are in the future and it's wrong

"Who We Are", Steven Universe: The Movie

Whether or not you support the ongoing ideological transition from late-20th-century individualist "content of their character" liberalism to the successor ideology, it is imperative that students of literature and the arts know how to judge propaganda on its merits: not everything that tries to teach good morals is good art, and not everything your ideological enemies put out is badly done, either.

It is in this spirit that I say that the new Steven Universe anti-racism public service announcement is a masterfully well-executed piece of propaganda. It's actually persuasive. I've never seen anything like it.

There's some sense in which I think the creators "got lucky" with this short—I didn't think much of the two prior entries in the series, "Tell the Whole Story" and "Don't Deny It—Defy It", which follow the same pattern of portraying the filming of a 1990s-alike liberal PSA being interrupted by the actors supplying a more up-to-date woke moral. (I found Pearl's rant in "Tell the Whole Story" unpersuasive—you would expect systemic racism to suppress black accomplishment in the past, not just the portrayal thereof in modern textbooks; as for "Don't Deny It", I was too distracted by the kids taking gay marriage for granted to process the claim that anti-miscegenation attitudes are still a potent threat—Loving was forty-eight years before Obergefell.)

In contrast, "See Color"'s attacks on old-school liberalism land. We open to a '90s-alike PSA invoking the "doesn't matter if you're black, white, or purple" trope (which has been cringe for as long as I (born 1987) can remember, but which I imagine sounded progressive the first time someone said it), until Amethyst breaks character to object to the script—

AMETHYST: What the—woah, woah, woah. Hold up a minute here. Ugh, who wrote this? I think it kind of does matter that I'm purple? I mean, I'm purple because I'm literally an alien.

BLACK KID: Well I'm not an alien, but it definitely matters to me that I'm black.

WHITE KID: Yeah, it makes a difference that I'm white. [to BLACK KID] I know the two of us get treated, very differently.

AMETHYST: I just think it's messed up to compare me being an alien, to you two being different races. You're both human; you're totally biologically the same. Adding purple people into a lesson about human racism makes no sense.

BLACK KID and WHITE KID: [in unison] Yeah, that is pretty weird.

WHITE KID: I think people with the 'black, white, or purple' thing because adding a fantasy race in there helps distract from the actual racism black people have to deal with.

BLACK KID: Right. My experience with anti-black racism is really specific. Other people of color experience other forms of racism, too. But you won't see any of that if you don't see color.

AMETHYST: Dude, so this entire public service announcement could be a ploy to avoid talking about racism altogether! Hey, ah, could we get a rewrite where we appreciate each other without erasing what makes each of us different?

How is the old-school liberal to reply to this? I say: the function of saying "or purple" is to appeal to a principle of equal treatment. Adding a fantasy race in there highlights the universality of our commitment to equality: purple magical alien gem superheroines might not exist, but if they did, they would be entitled to the same rights and dignity as everyone.

But how should our principle of majestic equality be applied? Categories summarize informationcluster-structure in the real world. As a matter of AI design, there would be no functional reason to assign entities to different categories, if they didn't differ in some decision-relevant ways. The reason it's pretty weird to reference Amethyst's skin color in a lesson about human racism, is because the challenges Amethyst might face as a gem in a world of humans—perhaps the perceptual skew of living thousands of years when most humans don't see a hundred—are going to depend on the ways in which gems and humans are actually different, which don't apply to humans of different races who are relevantly the same.

In this way, we see that old-school liberalism is effectively the position that race shouldn't exist as a cognitively meaningful category. But is it that easy? If there's some sense in which race does exist—even just as a social "type tag" based on superficial anatomic markers in humans who are otherwise totally biologically the same—then verbally claiming to pretend that it doesn't, isn't a realistic or honest strategy for remediating the harm done by unfair conventions that culturally evolved around the presence of the category.


You Are Right and I Was Wrong: Reply to Tailcalled on Causality

Friend of the blog Tailcalled responds to my 2016 response to Ozy on autogynephilia!

Summarizing—Ozy had claimed that the concept of autogynephilia is conflating three things: ordinary female sexual behavior (cis women also have female bodies in their fantasies!), a manifestation of gender dysphoria, and "true" autogynephilia without concomitant gender issues.

I was, and am, intensely skeptical that these are really three separate things. I think it's more parsimonious to suppose that some males are autogynephilic, and that some fraction of them go on to develop sex dysphoria, rather than to posit different causes for what really looks like the same erotic phenomenon depending on whether the person goes on to transition or not. But at the time, I didn't have the language to properly articulate the theoretical basis of my skepticism. Frustrated by the tendency I perceived of many trans advocates to resist scientific generalizations about psychology while acknowledging the empirical correlations that motivate the generalizations, I wrote, "Summarizing correlations is the entire point of making a taxonomy."

But as Tailcalled's response points out, this is just wrong! Different causal theories can generate the same correlations in a particular set of observations, while still making meaningfully and drastically different claims about the world.

As an illustrative example, suppose you observe that among professional athletes in Chicago, basketball players wear red jerseys, but gridiron football players wear navy-blue jerseys. Reifying these observations into a two-type "basketball/red" and "football/blue" taxonomy of professional athletes is perhaps not the worst theory—it does compress the length of the message needed to describe your observations—but it's definitely not a good one, largely because it's so fragile: it completely breaks down the moment you leave Chicago, or the Bulls unveil a new jersey, or you just look at what the visiting team is wearing. And it's fragile because it doesn't reflect what's "really going on" in the world: in fact, what color shirt you're wearing doesn't causally affect what games you can play, and vice versa.

In the case of sex dysphoria in developmental males, I think the documented correlations between age-of-onset, sexual orientation, history of female embodiment fantasies, &c., do reflect distinct taxons in what's really going on in the world. (If I only get one table to showcase the correlational data, I'll pick Table VI from Anne Lawrence's "Sexuality Before and After Male-to-Female Sex Reassignment Surgery".) I think alternative theories that try to explain the same bimodality in the data, such as Veale, Clarke, and Lomax's identity defense model (which chalks up the difference to whether or not defense mechanisms are used to suppress a gender-variant identity) are a stretch.

But I'm making that scientific judgment between theories based on my own parsimony intuitions applied to everything I've read and seen; convincing someone else who doesn't already think the same the way is, and should be, a lot more work. Trying to get away with "You agree to the bimodality, therefore you must agree to the taxonomy" would be both lazy and wrong, and I thank Tailcalled for his vigilance.