Friday, July 31, 2015


So apparently, this thing with Ophelia Benson pissed me off more than I thought it would.  I thought I didn't care that much, because OB is just some FTB blogger that I don't read.  But I guess I do care after all.

Part of it is that I read more about it, including OB's latest defenses of herself, and I started seeing the trans-hostile signs all over.  It's one thing to hear other more knowledgeable people like Zinnia Jones say that they can read all the signs, but it's another to see the signs myself.  It's more visceral, emotional.

It's frustrating because I have no power over it.  Ophelia isn't listening to her colleagues, why would she listen to some other random blogger?  And even if she did, what good is anything I have to say?  I am not, you know, well-practiced at blogging in support of trans people.  Like a language I don't know too well, I understand it but I don't speak it.  Maybe I need to learn that skill now.

And even if I were decent at blogging about it, would it really do any good?  OB is already feeling embattled and can't deal with all the criticism she's getting.  It's not really desirable to have OB leave and form another splinter faction of people who say they're totally not transphobic, they just think trans women are binarist.

I think it may be good to take a step back and remember, OB is just some blogger.  I don't interact with her at all.  We are in that most wonderful of relationships: we are strangers.  I won't say any more about it, at least until the other shoe drops.

If you have any better ideas, let me know.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ontology and Gender

Part of this whole kerfuffle was that someone said, in response to the question "Are trans women women?" that they supported trans women politically, but weren't sure about the ontological question.

As someone who doesn't believe in the existence of gender, I am profoundly unsympathetic.

As I've said before, I endorse a form of nominalism, which means I believe in the existence of things, but not categories.  Most of the things we talk about are really categories; for example, this shoe is a collection of particles.  The particles exist, the collection does not.  Most things we talk about don't exist.  Gender doesn't, football doesn't, money doesn't, rocks don't, atoms don't.

The thing about categories is that they're always human-dependent.  If we started to take apart my shoe, the point where we stop calling it a shoe is subjective, and decided pragmatically based on human needs.  If we remove everything but the shoelace, we'd call it a shoelace instead of a shoe, because a shoelace is a part that we can buy separately and replace.  If you remove some other combination of parts of the shoe, we might disagree on whether it's still a shoe because practically speaking we don't have to deal with border cases much and thus haven't come to a consensus about them.  You could say that the shoe is "socially constructed" in that there's a social agreement that this category is the best way to think about how stuff in the universe is arranged.

I think this is a fairly useful philosophy, as it makes me immune to all varieties of essentialism in identity politics.  But the primary disadvantage is that it's hard to translate, and sometimes I may even fool myself with poor translations.  See, I know very well that when people talk about whether gender exists, and whether it's socially constructed, they don't mean it in the same way I do.  They're not asking for my opinions on nominalism.

So while I think most things don't exist, maybe there's another meaning of "exist" under which some things exist and others don't.  Maybe there's another meaning of "social construction" under which some things are social constructions (gender, football, money) but others are not (rocks, atoms).  I don't think I quite understand what meaning is intended, and I doubt its coherence, but okay, I can get a feel for it.  "Social construction" appears to mean that other human societies could reasonably use a different category in its place.

When someone says they don't understand the ontology of gender, and are equivocal about whether trans women are "ontologically" women, I can only understand that in translation, and none of the translations are very nice.

Maybe it's a form of gender essentialism.  They think "woman" is a real category (which is a concept I find incoherent).  Although, they're not sure what this real category includes, and in particular they're not sure whether it includes trans women.

Or... maybe it comes from the belief that gender is a social construction.  They think "woman" is a category that can be reasonably changed.  If so, shouldn't the political question and ontological question be one and the same?  By calling the question ontologically uncertain, they're saying that they're not sure whether the changed category of "woman" should include trans women or not.  Or maybe they think the correct change is to abolish gender entirely despite the harm this would cause.

I find all of these translations deplorable, and you can't really excuse them with philosophical sophistication.  Furthermore, like Heather, I am very skeptical when people suddenly become curious philosophers when it's convenient to waffle about trans people.  If you really wanted to talk about philosophy and not just trying to say something politically, you could start with less contentious topics, like the existence of shoes.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Cis diversity

So, let's talk about cisgender people, and how our sparing cis intellects assume the most ingratiating posture of surrender whenever the subject of trans people is broached.

When a trans person says they feel like this gender or that gender, many cis people find that confusing.  "What does it feel like to feel like a man?  *I* don't feel like I am a man.  Rather, I'm a man because society railroaded me into this role."

If you feel sympathetic to this response, you may be interested in the theory of cis by default.  Under this theory, some cisgender people simply do not have an internal sense of gender ("feeling like a man" or "feeling like a woman"), and simply go by the gender they're told they are from birth.

This implies that not all cis people are the same.  Some cis people have an internal sense of gender, some do not.  If you're confused by the very idea of an internal sense of gender, maybe you're one of the people who doesn't have one.

An additional complication is maybe some people can't tell whether or not they have an internal sense of gender.  I bring this up as it applies to myself.  When I first encountered the concept of transgender, I didn't understand this idea of feeling like you are a gender.  Frankly it's bizarre and the universe is pulling hella shenanigans on us all.  But upon years of reflection, I realized I'd feel pretty uncomfortable if everyone started treating me, respectfully, as a woman.  So maybe these gender-feels, however bizarre, exists in me?  Or is does it just come from the fact that male gender roles involve inculcating us all with a fear of the feminine?  I don't know, and I probably never will.

As far as I know, all this diversity appears in trans people too.  Some trans people have a strong internal sense of gender.  Others may simply have to compare their experiences being seen as a man vs a woman, and find that they feel much better one way, even if they don't have an explicit "I am a woman" kind of feeling.  Some trans people may not have an internal sense of gender at all, and identify as non-binary for that reason (people ID as non-binary for other reasons too).

In my interactions with nonbinary people, they never universalize their feelings about gender.  Queer people don't have the luxury of being able to assume everyone feels the same way they do.  Cisgender people have never had that luxury either, but sometimes they think they do.

The fact that some, if not all, people have an internal sense of gender is what makes gender identity completely incomparable to racial identity, and what makes "abolishing gender" ultimately undesirable.

(This post was inspired by comments by Ophelia Benson.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Wait, what's going on at FTB?

Content note: arcane atheist blog politics

Some dark clouds are currently looming over Freethought Blogs.  Whatever it is, it's gloomier than your typical blog kerfuffle because it's friends against friends, and many people clearly have mixed feelings about it.  It's all rather low profile so far, despite apparently having been bubbling in the background for months, as if many people don't want to talk about it.

Freethought blogger Ophelia Benson is being accused of being a TERF, or maybe just transphobic, or maybe just a little too sympathetic to "gender-critical" feminism.  As Alex Gabriel describes, she's favorably linked to a lot of articles which have made people suspicious.  Recently, someone finally asked her in a blog comment whether trans women are women, and she couldn't bring herself to answer that.  Instead, she wrote several posts talking about how much she hated yes or no questions (more posts where that came from).  In a recent clarification, she says she accepts the genders of trans people but that she doesn't understand the ontology of gender.

I only read a handful of Freethought Blogs, Ophelia Benson's not among them, and hardly any comments.  So I only heard about this when some of the bloggers started talking about it, including Heather McNamara, Heina Dadhaboy, and Jason Thibeault.  I think they're all very kind, but they absolutely disagree with OB's waffly answer.  You can find less kind reactions in Pharyngula's infinite thread.  Incidentally the infinite thread was recently closed for good.

Right now, OB is doing another round of responses.  Ugh... doesn't look good.  This is probably not the end of it.


My perspective is fundamentally different from the those above, because OB is not my colleague, I don't read her blog, and do not interact with her ever.  I don't particularly care whether she's transphobic or not any more than I care about whether some Patheos blogger is transphobic or not.

But I do care about what happens to the online atheist community.  I've been around since 2007, so I know it's not the same thing over and over, stuff actually changes, it really does.  I didn't realize it at the time, but post-2011 dramas were some of the best things ever for the community.  We actually got some widespread trans-positive feminism, at least within our own sphere.  Wow!  The best!  We can never go back!

And I'm not just saying that as a purely altruistic cis guy.  In my experience, the number one indicator for the ace-friendliness of a group is, how well do they deal with trans issues?  FTB, along with the online atheist social justice community in general, has been in accordance with this trend.

What I'm worried about is not whatever OB says.  I'm worried that this will develop into a larger issue, with people taking sides.  I don't want it to be a community-wide debate whether you can make waffly deniable statements about trans people. If a few people make waffly statements, fine, but what I fear more is that many people will simultaneously start to defend it.

And I feel sure that the other issue that will pulled in is the issue of ideological purity and call-outs.

Incidentally, at the moment I'm working on a big summary of all the things social justice bloggers have written in critique of call-out culture.  But none of that nuanced discussion comes from atheist social justice.  Frankly I think the atheist community is rather naive about the issue.  I would love for atheists to start talking about it, but not this way, not when it will be associated with this particular incident.  I don't want it to be Defenders of Transphobia vs the Defenders of Call-out Culture.

Anyway, here's hoping that nothing significant will happen, and all of this will look like arcane nonsense in a month.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Asexual Agenda: Asexuality in China

For those interested, on The Asexual Agenda, I wrote a summary of a paper on asexuality in china.

Sunday, July 26, 2015


I rather like the word "mansplaining" because it successfully captures one of the ways that men are socialized in our culture.

As I've said before, most characterizations of "toxic masculinity" feel alien to me.  But I think a few people might have misunderstood what I meant.  There are certain male gender roles, such as using violence to solve problems and being a horndog.  I am not saying that I am unable to fulfill these roles, I am saying, I don't think I've ever been expected to fulfill them.

I know, in the abstract, that men are expected to be violent horndogs, and this clearly pervades in certain forms of media.  But in the specific case of myself I find it hard to relate.  These supposed male stereotypes are a smokescreen for the real male stereotypes that have affected me.

But mansplaining, I can totally relate to that.  Men are socialized to try to explain things.  I was socialized to explain things.

And it isn't necessarily a bad thing.  I explain things all the time on my blog.  I enjoy blogging, and if you don't enjoy reading it you don't have to read it.

For that reason I find it a bit of a shame that "mansplaining" is derogatory.  It's not that I feel insulted by the word, and it's not that the word isn't useful.  I just wish there were also a word to refer to the general desire to explain things, whether good or bad.  We could talk about how some people have "explainy" personalities, and how men are encouraged to show their "explainy" sides regardless of whether it's appropriate to the situation.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Gods are unimaginably unlikely

The main reason I don't believe in gods now is different from the reason I had when I stopped believing about nine years ago.  Nine years ago, I would have merely said that the arguments for God were lacking.  I am even less charitable today, because I don't think there's any reason to consider God as a hypothesis in the first place.  We do have social reasons to talk about God, but as far as truth-seeking is concerned, the probability of God is so low that by even thinking about it we're tipping the scales.

This is not the argument I would use to try to persuade people of atheism.  My way of thinking of it is too technical.  And it advances a position that is far stronger than is socially necessary for an atheistic society.  What does it matter to me whether you believe the probability of God is unimaginably low, or just extremely low?

But then, I'm not really in the business of directly persuading people to atheism in general.  Just talking about stuff is more fun.

Generally, a good model for thinking about degrees of belief is to speak of Bayesian probabilities.  You might start with "neutral" priors, such as God having a 50% chance to exist.  Then you consider all the evidence and arguments for and against God, and modify the probability accordingly.  An atheist would likely look at the evidence, and think that the problem of evil and problem of divine silence weigh heavily against the existence of God, and that none of the usual arguments in favor of god are effective.  But under such an analysis, how low would you really rate the probability of God?  I think you would rate it very low, but not unimaginably low.

I rate the probability of God even lower than that, basically because I go beyond the basic Bayesian analysis.  I think assigning a 50% prior probability to God is already far too favorable.

As far as theories of the world go, the idea of God is extremely peculiar and narrow.  The ideas of consciousness and intentionality are ordinary to us, because that's the kind of life that matter and evolution produce for us.  But to theorize about consciousness and intentionality which exists prior to the laws of physics is very strange.  And that's before even introducing our even more peculiar ideas of morality.

It reminds me when non-physicists think that quantum mechanics is so strange, that there must be something beyond quantum mechanics.  It is true that quantum mechanics is strange, but strangeness is relative to our own experience in the world that emerges on large scales.  What makes quantum mechanics strange is that it produces a world which looks entirely different on small and large scales.

Now it could very well be that there is something underneath quantum mechanics, and that quantum mechanics simply emerges from more fundamental rules.  I think it likely, even.  But why would we ever think that what's underneath would look similar to what's above?  Whatever's under quantum mechanics will not look like classical physics, it will look even stranger than ever.

The idea of a god is basically the theory that what's at the very bottom (a god underlying the entire universe) is similar to what's at the very top (intelligence emergent from complex biological processes) even though the bulk of the middle looks entirely different.  It doesn't make sense to even propose such a thing, and it makes all too much sense that we as humans would propose it anyway.

The other thing you may have noticed is that the existence of God is not at all obvious in our world.   God is intangible, except in our minds where the same feelings could be caused by any number of things.  The only miracles performed are unverifiable, and split across mutually contradictory religions.  This would be overwhelming evidence against a god, except that theists have basically tailored their conception of god to avoid it.

Of course god is intangible.  Of course god only touches our minds.  Of course god is like us since he made us in his image.  Of course god is leery of showing himself directly.  As for the problem of evil, god is just too difficult for our minds to understand (but apparently familiar enough that we can have called god "good" in the first place).

With all these preconceptions built in, gods at least aren't completely eliminated by the evidence.  But when you tailor the god hypothesis like that, you are basically making the god hypothesis even more specific and more strange than ever.  As discussed in a previous post, this is basically an exploitation of the definition of evidence.  By tailoring your theory just right, it is possible to find a theory which is "favored" by the evidence or at least not completely eliminated by it.  But by doing so, you've ultimately chosen a theory which is more unlikely than ever.

Is there any evidence that could make me believe in a god?  Probably--I mean, a complete change in every aspect of the universe would be fairly persuasive.  But the problems with god as an idea come even before we talk about evidence.