The Categories Were Made for Man to Make Predictions

I said, "The truth is whatever you can get away with."

"No, that's journalism. The truth is whatever you can't escape."

Distress by Greg Egan

In "The Categories Were Made for Man, Not Man for the Categories", the immortal Scott Alexander argues that proposed definitions of concepts aren't true or false in themselves, but rather can only be evaluated by their usefulness. Our finite minds being unable to cope with the unimaginable complexity of the raw physical universe, we group sufficiently similar things into the same category so that we can make similar predictions about them—but this requires not only a metric of "similarity", but also a notion of which predictions one cares about enough to notice, both of which are relative to some agent's perspective, rather than being inherent in the world itself.

And so, Alexander explains, the ancient Hebrews weren't wrong to classify whales as a type of dag (typically translated as fish), even though modern biologists classify whales as mammals and not fish, because the ancient Hebrews were more interested in distinguishing which animals live in the water rather than which animals are phylogenetically related. Similarly, borders between countries are agreed upon for a variety of pragmatic reasons, and can be quite convoluted. While there may often be some "obvious" geographic or cultural Schelling points anchoring these decisions, there's not going to be any intrinsic, eternal fact of the matter as to where one country starts and another begins.

All of this is entirely correct—and thus, an excellent motte for the less honest sort of Slate Star Codex reader to appeal to when they want to obfuscate and disrupt discussions about empirical reality by insisting on gerrymandered redefinitions of everyday concepts.

Alexander goes on to attempt to use the categories-are-relative-to-goals insight to rebut skeptics of transgenderedness:

I've seen one anti-transgender argument around that I take very seriously. The argument goes: we are rationalists. Our entire shtick is trying to believe what's actually true, not on what we wish were true, or what our culture tells us is true, or what it's popular to say is true. If a man thinks he's a woman, then we might (empathetically) wish he were a woman, other people might demand we call him a woman, and we might be much more popular if we say he's a woman. But if we're going to be rationalists who focus on believing what's actually true, then we've got to call him a man and take the consequences.

Thus Abraham Lincoln's famous riddle: "If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?" And the answer: "Four—because a tail isn't a leg regardless of what you call it."


I take this argument very seriously, because sticking to the truth really is important. But having taken it seriously, I think it's seriously wrong.

An alternative categorization system is not an error, and borders are not objectively true or false.

But this is just giving up way too easily. The map is not the territory, and many very different kinds of maps can correspond to the territory in different ways—we have geographical maps, political maps, road maps, globes, &c.—but that doesn't mean no map is in error. Rationalists can't insist on using the one true categorization system, because it turns out that—in all philosophical strictness—no such thing exists. But that doesn't release us from our sacred duty to describe what's actually true. It just leaves us faced with the slightly more complicated task of describing the costs and benefits of different categorization systems with respect to different criteria.

There's no objective answer to the question as to whether we should pay more attention to an animal's evolutionary history or its habitat—but given one criterion or the other, we can say definitively that whales are mammals but they're also dagim/water-dwellers. And this isn't just a matter of mere labels that contain no more information than we used to define them. The categories do cognitive work: given that we observe that whales are endotherms that nurse their live-born young, we can assign them to the category mammal and predict—correctly—that they have hair and have a more recent last common ancestor with monkeys than with herring, even if we haven't yet seen the hairs or found the last common ancestor. Alternatively, given that we've been told that "whales" live in the ocean, we can assign them to the category water-dwellers, and predict—correctly—that they're likely to have fins or flippers, even if we've never actually seen a whale ourselves.

This works because, empirically, mammals have lots of things in common with each other and water-dwellers have lots of things in common with each other. If we imagine entities as existing in a high-dimensional configuration space, there would be a mammals cluster (in the subspace of the dimensions that mammals are similar on), and a water-dwellers cluster (in the subspace of the dimensions that water-dwellers are similar on), and whales would happen to belong to both of them, in the way that the vector x⃗ = [3.1, 4.2, −10.3, −9.1] ∈ ℝ⁴ is close to [3, 4, 2, 3] in the x₁-x₂ plane, but also close to [−8, −9, −10, −9] in the x₃-x₄ plane.

If different political factions are engaged in conflict over how to define the extension of some common word—common words being a scarce and valuable resource both culturally and information-theoretically—rationalists may not be able to say that one side is simply right and the other is simply wrong, but we can at least strive for objectivity in describing the conflict. Before shrugging and saying, "Well, this is a difference in values; nothing more to be said about it," we can talk about the detailed consequences of what is gained or lost by paying attention to some differences and ignoring others. That there exists an element of subjectivity in what you choose to pay attention to, doesn't negate the fact that there is a structured empirical reality to be described—and not all descriptions of it are equally compact.

In terms of the Lincoln riddle: you can call a tail a leg, but you can't stop people from noticing that out of a dog's five legs, one of them is different from the others. You can't stop people from inferring decision-relevant implications from what they notice. (Most of a dog's legs touch the ground, such that you'd have to carry the dog to the vet if one of them got injured, but the dog can still walk without the other, different leg.) And if people who live and work with dogs every day find themselves habitually distinguishing between the bottom-walking-legs and the back-wagging-leg, they just might want different words in order to concisely talk about what everyone is thinking anyway.

So far, I probably haven't actually said anything that Alexander didn't already say in the original post. ("A category 'fish' containing herring, dragonflies, and asteroids is going to be stupid [...] it fails to fulfill any conceivable goals of the person designing it.") But it seems worth it for me to restate and emphasize that categories derive their usefulness from the way in which they efficiently represent regularities in the real world, because on the topic of exactly how to apply these philosophical insights to transgender identity claims, Alexander strangely—uncharacteristically—doesn't seem to find it necessary to make any arguments about representing the real world, preferring instead to focus on the mere fact that some people strongly prefer self-identity-based gender categories:

If I'm willing to accept an unexpected chunk of Turkey deep inside Syrian territory to honor some random dead guy—and I better, or else a platoon of Turkish special forces will want to have a word with me—then I ought to accept an unexpected man or two deep inside the conceptual boundaries of what would normally be considered female if it'll save someone's life. There's no rule of rationality saying that I shouldn't, and there are plenty of rules of human decency saying that I should.

This is true in a tautological sense: if you deliberately gerrymander your category boundaries in order to get the answer you want, you can get the answer you want, which is great for people who want that answer, and people who don't want to hurt their feelings (and who don't mind letting themselves get emotionally blackmailed1).

But it's not very interesting to people like rationalists—although apparently not all people who self-identify as rationalists—who want to use concepts to describe reality.

Alexander gives an account of a woman whose ability to function at her job was being disrupted by obsessive-compulsive fears of leaving her hair dryer on at home, whose problems were solved by the simple expediency of taking the hair dryer with her when leaving the house. Given that it worked to resolve her distress, we shouldn't care that this isn't how problems that are categorized as obsessive-compulsive disorder are "supposed" to be treated, and Alexander argues that the same should go for accepting transgender identity claims: if it works for resolving people's gender dysphoria, why not?

The problem is that there are significant disanalogies between individually leaving a hair dryer in the front seat of one's car, and collectively agreeing that gender should be defined on the basis of self-identity. Most significantly: the former has no appreciable effects on anyone but the person themselves; the latter affects everyone who wants to use language to categorize humans by sex. The words man and woman are top-20 nouns! People need those nouns to describe their experiences!

Even if it's only a small cost to be socially required to say woman and she to refer to someone whom one would otherwise be inclined to call a man—and to let them in to any corresponding sex-segregated spaces, &c.—that cost needs to be aggregated across everyone subject to it, like so many dust specks in their eyes. Imagine if the patient in the hair dryer story were obsessed with the fear not just that she might accidentally leave her hair dryer plugged in unattended, but that that someone might do so, and that it would burn down the whole city. In this slightly modified scenario, insisting that everyone in the city put their hair dryers in the front seat of their cars doesn't look like an appealing solution.

It's important to stress that this should not be taken to mean that transgender identities should be rejected! (Bad arguments can be made for true propositions just as easily as false ones.) As Alexander briefly alludes to late in the post ("I could relate this [...] to the various heavily researched apparent biological correlates of transgender"), a non-question-begging argument for accepting trans people as their target gender would appeal to the ways in which this is really is a natural categorization.

The pre-verbal, subconscious, System 1 process by which we notice someone's features (breasts, facial hair, voice, facial structure, gendered clothing or grooming cues, any number of subtle differences in motor behaviors that your perceptual system can pick up on without you being consciously aware of them, &c.), mentally categorize them as a woman or a man, and use that category to guide our interactions with them, isn't subject to conscious control—but, for most purposes in day-to-day public life, it's also not directly focused on genitalia or chromosomes.

So a natal female who presents to the world as a man, and whom other people model as a man on a System 1 level with no apparent incongruities, might be said to be a man in the sense of social gender (but not in the sense of "biologically male adult human"), because that's the mental category that people are actually using for him, and therefore, the social class that he actually functions as a member of. Essentially, this is the argument that offers a photograph of a passing trans person, and says, "C'mon, do you really want to call this person a woman?"

Well, no. But the point is that this is an empirical argument for why successfully socially-transitioned trans people fit into existing concepts of gender, not a redefinition of top-20 nouns by fiat in order to avoid hurting someone's feelings. It works because and to the extent that transitioning actually works. To the extent that this fails to be true of self-identified trans people or some subset thereof—for example, insofar as physical transition isn't always effective, or insofar as people do have legitimate use-cases for biological-sex classifications that aren't "fooled" by hormones and surgery2—then the conclusion is correspondingly weakened.

Another factor affecting the degree to which trans people form a more natural category with their identified gender than their natal sex is the nature of transgenderedness itself. If gender dysphoria is caused by a brain-restricted intersex condition, such that trans people's psychology is much more typical of the other physiological sex—if the "woman trapped in a man's body" trope is basically accurate—that would tend to weigh in favor of accepting transgender identity claims: trans women would be "coming from the same place" as cis3 women in a very literal psychological sense, despite their natal physiology.

On the other hand, if gender dysphoria is caused by something else, that would tend to weigh against accepting transgender identity claims: however strongly felt trans people's subjective sense of gender identity might be, if the mechanism underlying that feeling actually has nothing in particular in common with anything people of the identified-with sex feel, it becomes relatively more tempting to classify the subjective sense of gender identity as an illusion, rather than the joint in reality around which everyone needs to carve their gender categories.4

Of course, the phrasing If gender dysphoria is caused by ... implies that we're considering gender dysphoria as one category to reason about homogeneously. But different people might want to transition for very different underlying psychological reasons. What categories we use may not be a question of simple fact that we can get wrong, but if, empirically, there happens to be a sufficiently robust statistical structure to the simple facts of the cases—if some people want to transition for reason A and tend to have traits W and X, but others want to transition for reason B and have traits Y and Z—then aspiring epistemic rationalists may find it useful to distinguish multiple, distinct psychological conditions that all happen to cause gender dysphoria as a symptom.

Analogously, in medicine, many different pathogens can cause the same symptoms (e.g., sneezing, or fever), but doctors care about distinguishing different illnesses by etiology, not just symptoms, because distinct physical mechanisms can give rise to distinct treatment decisions, if not immediately, then at least in principle. For example, a bacterial illness will respond to antibiotics, but a viral one won't—or today's treatments might be equally effective against two different species of bacteria, but future drugs might work better on one or the other.

As it happens, (I claim that) the evidence that gender dysphoria comprises more than one etiologically distinct condition is quite strong. For the rest of this post, I'm going to focus on the male-to-female case for reasons of personal interest,5 quality of available research,6 and because no one cares about trans men.7 An analysis of the female-to-male situation would be similar in many respects but different in others, and is left to the interested reader.

A minority of male-to-female transsexuals exhibit lifelong sex-atypical behavior and interests, are attracted to men8, and transition early in life (typically no later than their early twenties). Essentially, these are physiological males whose psychology is so far outside of the male normal range along so many dimensions that they find themselves more comfortable and socially successful living as women rather than as extremely effeminate gay men. This likely is a brain-intersex condition: along with non-gender-dysphoric gay men, they have a statistical preponderance of older brothers which is theorized to be due to the mother's immune system response to male fetuses affecting the development of later pregnancies.

However, the majority of male-to-female trans people in Western countries do not fit this profile. They are attracted to women or are bisexual and, while reporting a desire to be female dating back to puberty or earlier in childhood, they don't exhibit an unusual number of female-typical traits compared to other males. In contrast to the "early-onset", androphilic type, who couldn't fit in to the world as men if they tried, this second group of "late-onset", non-exclusively-androphilic gender-dysphoric males can function socially as men; we9 just—aspire to a higher form of existence. The covertness of late-onset gender dysphoria explains why someone like Caitlyn Jenner can have a long, successful public existence as a man—winning men's decathalons, racing sports cars, marrying women and fathering children—before eventually deciding to transition at age 65.

This proposed two-type taxonomy of trans women is very controversial, probably in large part because it's part of a theory that claims that the late-onset type is rooted in an unusual sexual interest termed autogynephilia ("love of oneself as a woman"). Anne Lawrence, herself a self-identified autogynephilic transsexual, iconically describes autogynephiles as "men who love women and want to become what they love."

A review of the empirical evidence for the two-type taxonomy is beyond the scope of this post. To interested or skeptical readers who only have time to read one paper, I recommend Lawrence's "Autogynephilia and the Typology of Male-to-Female Transsexualism: Concepts and Controversies"; for a more exhaustive treatment, see the first two chapters of Lawrence's monograph Men Trapped in Men's Bodies or follow the links and citations in Kay Brown's FAQ.

To avoid the main ideas of this post getting mired in unnecessary controversy, I'd like to emphasize that it's possible to reject the hypothesis that autogynephilia is the cause of the second type, while still agreeing that there observationally seem to be at least two types of trans women, with the late-onset/non-exclusively-androphilic type or types being much less overtly feminine and not sharing the etiology of the early-onset/androphilic type.10 Between the statistical signal in the psychology literature (I again defer to Brown's review) and study of the public biographies of trans women (the life-arcs of people like Jenner or the Wachowski sisters look different from those of people like Janet Mock or Laverne Cox), I think this is hard to dispute.11

I am, however, supposing that the late-onset type or types is either not an intersex condition, or at most, a very mild one: we could perhaps imagine a gender identity "switch" in the brain that can get flipped around (explaining the eventual need to transition) without much affecting other sexually-dimorphic parts of the brain (explaining how transition could be delayed so long, and come as such a surprise to others). This hypothesis is weaker than the autogynephilia theory, but still has implications for the ways in which transgender identity claims might or might not be validated by natural, prediction-motivated categorization schemes. If most trans women's traits are noticeably not drawn from from the female distribution, that's a factor making it less practical to insist that others categorize them as women.

To this it might be objected that there are many different types of women. Clusters can internally have many subclusters: Pureto Rican women (or married women, or young women, or lesbians, &c.) don't have the same distribution of traits as women as a whole, and yet are still women. Why should "trans" be different from any other adjective one might use to specify a subcategory of women?

What makes this difficult is that—conditional on the two-types hypothesis and specifically gender dysphoria in non-exclusively-androphilic biological males being mostly not an intersex condition—most trans women aren't just not part of the female cluster in configuration space; they're specifically part of male cluster along most dimensions, which people already have a concept for. This doesn't mean that we can't get away with classifying them as women—there's nothing stopping us from drawing the category boundary however we want. But it isn't an arbitrary choice—the concepts of women-as-defined-by-biological-sex, women-as-defined-by-self-identity, and women-as-defined-by-passing are picking out different (though of course mostly overlapping) regions of the configuration space, which has inescapable logical consequences on the kinds of inferences that can be made using each concept.

genderspace cluster choice

In less tolerant places and decades, where MtF transsexuals were very rare and had to try very hard to pass as (cis) women out of dire necessity, their impact on the social order and how people think about gender was minimal—there were just too few trans people to make much of a difference. This is why experienced crossdressers often report it being easier to pass in rural or suburban areas rather than cities with a larger LGBT presence—not as a matter of tolerant social attitudes, but as a matter of base rates: it's harder to get clocked by people who aren't aware that being trans is even a thing.12

Nowadays, in progressive enclaves of Western countries, transness is definitely known to be a thing—and in particular subcultures that form around non-sex-balanced interests, the numbers can be quite dramatic. For example, on the 2018 Slate Star Codex reader survey, 9.4% of respondents selected F (cisgender) for the gender question, compared to 1.4% of respondents selecting F (transgender m → f). So, if trans women are women, 13.4% (!!) of women who read Slate Star Codex are trans.

I can't say this causes any problems, because that would depend on how you choose to draw the category boundaries around what constitutes a "problem." But objectively, injecting a substantial fraction of otherwise-mostly-ordinary-but-for-their-gender-dysphoria natal males into spaces and roles that developed around the distribution of psychologies of natal females is going to have consequences—consequences that some of the incumbent women might not be happy about.

A (cis) female friend of the blog, a member of a very "Blue Tribe" city's rationalist community13 reports on recent changes in local social norms—

There have been "all women" things, like clothing swaps or groups, that then pre-transitioned trans women show up to. And it's hard, because it's weird and uncomfortable once three or four participants of twelve are trans women. I think the reality that's happening is women are having those spaces less—instead doing private things "for friends," with specific invite lists that are implicitly understood not to include men or trans women. This sucks because then we can't include women who aren't already in our social circle, and we all know it but no one wants to say it.

But this is a terrible outcome with respect to everyone's values. One can't even say, "Well, the cost to those bigoted cis women of not being able to have trans-exclusionary spaces is more than outweighed by trans women's identities being respected," because the non-passing trans women's identities aren't being respected anyway; it's just that (cis) women are collectively too nice14 to make it common knowledge.

Another female friend of the blog writes:

I think of women's restrooms as safe havens. If a suspicious looking man is following me on the street, or I am concerned about someone male being a danger to me because they are loud and shouty and sexist or catcalling, I will sometimes make a beeline for the nearest women's restroom because I know that is a safe haven. Other people might not intervene if someone is just suspiciously following me, but there is a strong taboo against men in women's restrooms and I feel confident that the men will either not follow me in there due to that taboo or other women will intervene if they do. It's also got useful plausible deniability: I, and potential bystanders, may not be willing to say "you are a possible instigator of violence and we feel unsafe" because that's rude, but we can say "you're not allowed in here, this is a woman's bathroom" because coming into the wrong bathroom is ruder. If that safe haven did not exist because there was no taboo against people who look male in female restrooms, I would be extremely distressed about the non-possibility of retreating somewhere safe, and be much less comfortable entering clubs or pubs or other public party/drink-themed spaces. It would likely cause me to not go to some of them.

Of course, the existence of these complaints from women don't necessarily imply any particular policy position. One could say, "Cis women who don't want trans women in women's spaces need to unlearn their bigotry." (Consider that this is exactly what we say to white people who don't feel comfortable sharing water fountains with black people.) But it's important to at least recognize that this is an issue with real stakes on the "anti-trans" side as well as the "pro-trans" side. Critics of gender-as-self-identification aren't just being arbitrarily mean to trans people for no reason. A lot of women believe that they have an interest in having hospital wards and domestic violence shelters and sports leagues and some social events without any obviously biologically-male people in them. Telling them that "the categories were made for man, not man for the categories" is not addressing their concerns—concerns that are about the actual distribution of bodies and minds in the real world that can't be changed by calling things different names.

People should get what they want. We should have social norms that help people get what they want. I don't know what the optimal social norms about transitioning would be. As a transhumanist and as an individualist, I want to protect people's freedom to modify their body and social presentation, which implies the right to transition. For the same reasons, I want to protect freedom of association, which implies the right to be able to have sex-segregated spaces that are actually segregated by biological sex should there exist demand for that kind of space.

People should get what they want. Social science is hard and I want to try to avoid politics as much as I can.15 When different people's wants come into conflict, it's not for me to say what the optimal compromise is; it's too much for me to compute.

What I can say is that whatever the right thing to do is, we stand a better chance of getting there if we can be honest with each other about the world we see, using the most precise categories we can, to construct maps that reflect the territory. My model of the universe doesn't stop at the boundary of your body, and yours shouldn't stop at mine.

This is definitely compatible with transitioning. It is not, I claim, compatible with the ideology of gender-as-self-identification that is rapidly establishing a foothold in Society. Consider this display at a recent conference of the American Philosophical Association (note, the people whose job it is to use careful conceptual distinctions to understand reality)—

APA pronoun stickers

(photograph by Lucia A. Schwarz)

But this isn't how anyone actually thinks about gender! The subconscious perceptual systems by which we notice people's sex aren't going to turn off because a sign said so. If you need a sticker to get people to gender you correctly, your transition has failed.

In a free Society, everyone should have the right to express themselves, to modify their body and social presentation however they see fit. But having done your best to present your true self, you can't—not even shouldn't, but can't—exert detailed control how other people perceive you.

All you can do is incentivize them to lie.

This is the other problem with gender-as-self-identification: passing is hard and not-passing hurts, so kind-hearted people try to protect their trans friends from the pain of not being read the way that they would prefer—with the inevitable result that the laudable instinct to be kind gets corrupted into universal socially-mandatory lies. Even if you don't need predictively-natural categories for any particular practical decision—even if we were to collectively agree to integrate previously sex-segregated bathrooms and sports leagues and prisons so that no actual policy decision depended on what "gender" somebody is—as an aspiring epistemic rationalist, there's something spiritually deadening about a world in which the mental representations you need to make sense of the world can't be spoken about without layers of obfuscating euphemisms.

Friend of the blog Ozymandias writes that the Less Wrong community doesn't have a gender gap—we just have an assigned sex at birth gap. (Gee, that makes me feel so much better.)

I don't want to be "anti-trans." I can easily imagine myself transitioning (I've already experimented with the relevant drugs), in a nearby possible past in which my analogue was braver and read different books in a different order, or a nearby possible future in which the technology gets better.

But when a man can do nothing but wear a sticker that says "SHE" and say, "Who are you going to believe, my sticker, or your lying eyes? There's no rule of rationality saying that you shouldn't believe the sticker, and there are plenty of rules of human decency saying that you should" and the finest minds of my generation can permit themselves no other response than, "She's absolutely correct; the categories were made for man, not man for the categories," I can only plead—

This is not rationality. This isn't even kindness. We're smarter than this.

Alexander ends his post by citing, as "one of the most heartwarming episodes in the history of one of my favorite places in the world," the case of 19th century San Francisco resident Joshua Norton, who proclaimed himself Emperor Norton I of the United States and Protector of Mexico and whose claims to power were widely humored by local citizens. Restaurants accepted currency issued in his name; the city's Board of Supervisors bought him a uniform.

Norton's story is certainly entertaining to read about a hundred and forty years after the fact. But before endorsing it as a model of humane behavior, I think it's worth dwelling on what it would be like to live through, not just read about as a historical curiosity.

What if one of your friends had a mental break and decided that they were Emperor of the United States? Would it be kind, fair, respectful to them for you to play along, and keep playing along for the rest of your lives? To solemnly defer to their imperial majesty to their face, and then gush about how heartwarmingly episodic it is when they're not around?

What if it were you?

It was me, once. I had a couple psychotic episodes last year, including some delusions of grandeur. At various points, I thought that I had been appointed Gender Czar of this equivalence class of instances of Earth across the multiverse, that I was objectively one of the seven most important people in the world, with a key role to play in the intelligence explosion. I thought that powerful transgender activists might be plotting to murder me (in retaliation for this blog) at a fandom convention that I had broadcast that I would be at, but that maybe they could be bargained with, or that I might escape if they were to mistakenly kill someone else who erroneously believed that they were me. I thought that you could reward or punish people by writing simple computer programs praising or condemning them, thereby leveraging the acausal economy to affect the distribution of superintelligences simulating them—and so on.

I got better after a few nights of good sleep—but also with the help of friends who cared not just about my immediate happiness, but also my sanity, who didn't automatically dismiss everything I said as wrong, but who also told me when I wasn't making sense.

If the delusions had persisted—if I had gone on thinking in terms of simulation hijinks and the literal transgender mafia, we could imagine my having friends who eventually decided to play along. Maybe it would be fun for them or for me. Maybe it would be fascinating to read about.16 But I don't think it would be helping me, because ultimately, I live in the real world. Anything else isn't there to be lived.

I want you to imagine yourself as a resident of 1870s San Francisco, someone who Norton trusts as one of his chief imperial advisors. One day, you encounter him at his favorite café looking very distressed.

"What's wrong, Your Highness?" you inquire, pulling up a chair to his table.

"Ah, my trusted—advisor. I've been noticing—things that don't seem to add up. Most of my subjects here in the city seem to treat me with proper respect. But the newspapers still talk about Congress and the President, even though I abolished those years ago. That seems like something I would expect not to see if my reign were as secure if everyone tells me it is. What if, what if—" his voice drops to a terrified whisper, "what if I've been mad? What if I'm not actually Emperor?"

"The categories were made for man, not man for the categories, Your Highness," you say. "An alternative categorization system is not an error. Category boundaries are drawn in specific ways to to capture trade-offs that we care about; they're not something that can be objectively true or false. So if we value your identification as the Emperor—"

"What?" he exclaims. He looks at you like you're crazy—and with a hint of desperation, as if to communicate that he's trusting you to be sane, and doesn't know where he could turn should that trust be betrayed.

And in that moment, caught in the old man's earnest, pleading gaze, you realize that you don't believe your own bullshit.

"No, you're right," you say. "You're not actually Emperor. People around here have just been humoring you for the last decade because we thought it was cute and it seemed to make you happy."

A beat.

"Um, sorry," you say.

He buries his head in his arms and begins to cry—long, shuddering sobs for his lost empire. Worse than lost—an empire that never existed, except in the charitable facade of people who valued him as a local in-joke, but not as a man.

You wait many minutes for him to calm down.

"It's not wrong, is it?" he eventually says. "To want to rule, to want to be Emperor?"

"No," you say, "it's not wrong to want it."

"And there are men who have actually ruled empires. If that's not true of me now—it could become true, right? We could make it true."

"In principle, yes—although given the practical difficulties presented by the task of conquering a country, it's also worth exploring other, less-expensive interventions that might partially satisfy the underlying psychological drives that make you want to be Emperor."

He frowns, not understanding. "Will you help me?" he says. "Help me figure out what to do now—now that I know? If not as my subject—at least not yet—then as my friend?"

"Well," you say, sighing, "let's see what we can do." You pull out your notebook, ready to jot down ideas, strategies—battle plans?

"But," you caution, "I'd be lying if I told you it was going to be easy."


  1. It is tempting to interpret Alexander's Turkish special forces reference as particularly telling in this light.
  2. E.g., discussions of reproduction
  3. A note on terminology: I'm using the conventional term cis as a briefer way of saying "not trans," despite some misgivings about how some authors define cis to mean something like "having a gender identity in concordance with one's assigned sex at birth", which, in conjunction with cis being used as a negation of trans, erases people who do have gender problems, but don't formulate them in terms of "gender identity" and aren't transitioning. See also cis by default.
  4. It shouldn't be surprising that people can be mistaken about the nature of their subjective experiences. A trans man who reports knowing himself to be a man is expressing the hypothesis that his subjective experience is the same as that of typical natal males in the relevant aspects, but this is an empirical claim that could be falsified by sufficiently advanced neuroscience.
  5. See many other posts on this blog.
  6. The etiology of trans men is less well-researched than that of trans women: while there is a gynephilic group whose blurry etiological boundary with butch lesbians looks like a fairly straightforward analogue of the relationship between androphilic trans women and feminine gay men, it's less clear whether autoandrophilia ("love of oneself as a man") might play a similar role for non-gynephilic trans men as autogynephilia does in the male-to-female case—and the distribution of trans men may be changing in recent years.
  7. Less glibly: discussions of the social implications of transgenderedness tend to focus on trans women, likely because trans men tend to pass better, and because insofar as the intended purpose of many sex-segregated social contexts is to protect females from males, biologically-female trans men aren't perceived as a threat: cis men are assumed to be able to take care of their own interests.
  8. N.b., the typical female sexual orientation
  9. I think I'm justified in counting myself in this taxon even though I'm choosing not to transition.
  10. To be clear, I do think autogynephilia has a causal role in late-onset gender dysphoria in males, but justifying that can be left to other posts; arguments can only be strengthened by leaving out burdensome details.
  11. But for reference, some of the most popular critiques of the typology (often—I claim erroneously—cited as debunkings) are Serano 2010 and Moser 2010.
  12. In predictive processing terms: the prediction errors caused by observations of a trans woman failing to match the observer's generative model of women get silenced for lack of alternative hypotheses if "She's trans" isn't in the observer's hypothesis space.
  13. N.b., basically the same group of people generating the Slate Star Codex survey results just mentioned. Obviously, social circles not so heavily selected for the same undefinable habits of thought will have much less bizarre trans-to-cis-women ratios.
  14. The sex difference in Big Five Agreeableness is around d≈0.5.
  15. Unfortunately, a very challenging goal in the gender blogging business.
  16. Psychotic-me's worldview makes great science fiction.

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