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 it); 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??

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