Saturday, October 3, 2015

All blogs are mortal; Skeptic's Play is a blog

I've decided to move to another location!  My new blog is A Trivial Knot.

If you follow me by RSS, please use my new feed!

I have fond memories of my eight years on Skeptic's Play, but let's not go overboard with the nostalgia since I'm still here blogging about more or less the same stuff.  If for some reason you do want to dwell on the past, this is the collection of my "best" posts.

Update: I moved my blog again, to FreethoughtBlogs.  The above links have all been updated, but if you're interested in the intermediate blog, it's here.

Comments on this blog are closed permanently.

Skeptic's Play is mortal.  Farewell.

8th Bloggiversary!

Today's my 8th and final bloggiversary!  As usual, I will celebrate by picking out my favorite posts from the last year.

Critical thinking
The moral horror that is ourselves
Make an ass out of you and everyone
What is an apology?
Sexual economics, a theory in need of reworking

Five awful things about God's Not Dead
A critique of secular humanism
The tone argument, in retrospect

The nightmarish collision of FTB and Tumblr (FTBCon panel)
Asexual, because reasons
How identity is like a democracy

Social justice
My thoughts on trigger warnings
Cis diversity and Cis by default and privilege
Race is allowed to be complicated

An altruistic prisoner's dilemma 
Utilitarianism to deontology
Debugging the ontological argument

In praise of the most important relationship
Nintendo as cultural import
Ignoring the dystopia


See this page for the collection of best posts from previous years.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Icosahedron with Curves

Icosahedron with Curves, by Meenakshi Mukerji

I don't have much to say about this one, except that it consists of 30 units.  Each unit takes one red piece of paper and one blue.  The red and blue are deliberately patterned in such a way so as to look chaotic.

Alas!  This is the only angle you will ever see, for this is the only photo I have of a now dead model.  When I moved apartments over a year ago, it was among those that did not survive.

I have no regrets.  Origami lives, and then dies.  As it is, I have too much "living" origami, and the amount of space it takes up is the biggest thing discouraging me from making more.  Probably the solution is to give more of it away as gifts.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Living gay (and ace)

This article was cross-posted on The Asexual Agenda.

Recently, there was a very short documentary entitled “I’m Graysexual” (NSFW), featuring a man about my age, and using the same identity as I do: gay and greysexual.  He does nothing more than briefly explain his personal experience, which is somewhat different from my own, and as I said, it’s very short.

What was particularly significant to me was not what was said, but what was unsaid.  Specifically, the documentarian chose a stream of clips that imply close interaction with urban gay culture.  He walks around what appears to be West Hollywood (the gay neighborhood in Los Angeles).  He hangs out at gay nightclubs, watching go-go boys.  He looks quizzically at packaged dildos, racks of porn videos, Grindr.  This is all incredibly familiar to me.

I often feel like I’m the only ace who interacts with that kind of gay male culture.  This is not surprising: this is only one of many gay cultures, the ace community is dominated by women, and not all ace men are homoromantic, gay, or bi.  But even among those in the right demographics, I often hear that ace men simply aren’t willing to put up with it.

That, too, is not surprising, and can be explained in one word:  S-E-X.  I don’t need to explain the stereotype, you already know it.

Gay culture… is not really what I would have created if I were dictator.  But because of my disposition, I find it tolerable.  I even find benefits to it, since a space where people openly talk about sex gives an opening to talk about asexuality.

And to be honest, I’d take it over straight culture any day.  Straight people are space aliens.  They think that the only way to proceed in life is to get married and have children.  They think men should have initiative, and women should just be receptive.  I don’t understand it, and I feel sorry for all the people who have to live in it, particularly the non-straight people.  Other people have lamented a lack of older single role models, so I should mention I’ve known plenty of older gay bachelors.  I’m in a stable relationship so I’m not going in that direction personally, but it wouldn’t feel odd to me if I did.

So here I am, choosing to deal with a very sexual culture, rather than dealing with that other heteronormative one.  I’ve been to gay nightclubs packed full of sweaty men.  I’ve had awkward encounters with rice queens, and then befriended them because what else are you going to do?  I’ve wandered the Castro many times, where inexplicably the best place to get beer is the wine bar.  And I’ve sat through a million conversations about Grindr (a popular hookup app), and seen a million more online articles about it, from the many online gay websites that are basically like teen girl magazines, except for older gay men.  People argue back and forth about Grindr the same way that they argue back and forth about looking at smartphones during social outings.  It’s the same argument, really, because what else do you use a smartphone for, amirite?

I spend a lot of space talking about Grindr, because that represents the amount of attention it gets in reality.  Eh, it’s more amusing than talking about sportsball, another aspect of space alien culture I don’t miss.

In gay culture, I blend in fairly well.  Acquaintances assume I’m gay until otherwise noted.  It eventually becomes otherwise noted, as I haphazardly come out to people as ace.  At that point I become an oddity, that one asexual guy that people know.  They’re puzzled how that works, why I’m bothering to be here, and what I do with my boyfriend, but they rarely ask such questions directly.  I wonder if this is how bisexual men feel.

If there’s one advantage of heteronormative straight culture vs hypersexual gay culture, it’s that heternormativity can be opposed.  Sexual culture cannot be opposed, because at least superficially, it has some decent justifications.  There is an ongoing discussion about the level of sexuality in gay culture, but it’s not a discussion that aces play any role in.  The discussion is about Grindr, about hookup culture, and about assimilationism vs liberationism.

I don’t give a shit about assimilating, but I would like it if there were more public concern about sexual assault, or even the social capital placed on sexual desirability and ability.  Sadly, such concerns are more typical among feminists, who are typically women.  I will be waiting for a long time for the gay male feminist revolution.

So that’s the social life I have, and it’s okay.  There are some problems, but nobody is pressuring me to follow a fixed life trajectory.  Dropping heteronormativity is great, I recommend it.

Friday, September 25, 2015

How actions are like literature

The author is magic

"Death of the Author" is a famous 1967 essay by Roland Barthes regarding the interpretation of literature.  He argues that the intentions and context of the author are irrelevant when interpreting the author's work.  At most, the author provides a single interpretation, which must compete with all other interpretations.

"Intent! It's fucking magic!" is an influential 2010 essay by Kinsey Hope regarding the moral judgment actions.  There's a common circumstance wherein a person tries to justify their mistakes by emphasizing their good intentions.  The essay snarkily observes that good intentions have the strange and magical power to erase all harms.  "Intention isn't magic" has become a common saying among activists.

Though the two essays live in completely different contexts (literary criticism vs moral discourse), I would argue that the sentiments behind each are substantially similar.  Indeed, in the modern age, when we increasingly look at popular works of fiction through moral lenses, and when "actions" often consist of tweets or other comments, it is questionable whether they even live in different contexts.

Each essay is questioning the importance of intention. The intention of the author, the intention of the actor, what is the relevance of either to our judgment of the result?  If an poet fails to articulate a compelling interpretation of their own work, does that make it a bad poem?  If a celebrity says they didn't mean to offend anyone with their comments on black people, does that protect them from charges of racism?

Intent isn't completely irrelevant; rather, people frequently overrate its relevance.  Once we abolish the common misconception of the authority of intent, we can then quibble over the relatively small ways in which intent might matter after all.

Intention as predictor

Some small insight can be gained by considering a form of fiction which maybe wasn't so popular in 1967: webcomics.  Alternatively, we can consider fanfiction, ongoing TV shows, or any medium where we consume the work at the same time that it is actively updated.  As the work is being updated, our interpretations of it must also be updated.  Insofar as we are offering a coherent interpretation of a single body of work (as opposed to string of interpretations of a series of disconnected works), our interpretations must care about what will happen in future updates.

Intention doesn't change the past, but it is a predictor of the future.  Thus it is necessary to speculate on the intention of the author(s), at least until the time of completion of the work.

When we apply moral judgment to past actions, it might seem that intention doesn't matter because past actions are already past.  But moral judgment is the most future-looking way of looking at the past.  The practical purpose of morally criticizing an action is not to lament what has already happened and can never be changed, but to discourage similar actions in the future.  Thus, moral judgments care not just about results, but about the processes by which the results are produced.  In short, moral judgments must care about intention.

Still, intent is not the end-all-be-all.  A person can have the best of intentions but still produce evil actions.  Actions are the product of intent and execution.  Declaring one's own positive intent is a poor defense against moral criticism, because a positive intent may still be executed poorly.  The purpose of moral criticism may be to suggest better methods of execution, not necessarily to impugn people's motives.

Similarly, in literature, we want to look at what's there, not just what's intended.  An author can intend to write the greatest literature in the world, but so what?

Monday, September 21, 2015

This blog's history in numbers

I intend to close down Skeptic's Play very soon, and move to another blog called A Trivial Knot.  Now that I'm wrapping things up, I thought it might be interesting to summarize my statistics.
We can also correlate the statistics with a few major events in my life:
Late 2009: I came out as gray-A
Mid 2010: I graduated with a BS in Physics, and started physics grad school
Mid 2012: I launched The Asexual Agenda 
Mid 2014: I moved in with my boyfriend

In terms of page views, Skeptic's Play saw initial growth in the first couple years, and then it leveled off.  Initially, it might appear that coming out as asexual greatly increased my page views, and then after The Asexual Agenda was launched, those eyeballs shifted to the other blog.

But in fact, the drop in 2013 can be traced to a different event entirely.  On exactly January 1st, 2013, I saw a precipitous drop in search engine hits, particularly on this particular page.  This coincides with a big change in Google's search algorithm.  I'm not sorry for it, since people just wanted to use an image I posted.  It just goes to show how meaningless page views can be.

When I initially started blogging, I was much more prolific, basically because I was enthusiastic about this new hobby.  This fell over time, but soon leveled off.  Recently, in 2015, there's been an uptick in the number of posts.

Finally, when we look at the word count per post, there's been a very slow and steady increase in time, except in the last year.  I was surprised by this, since I recall many times over the years when I've set out to write shorter and sweeter posts.

In total, there were about 605,000 page views, 1,188 posts, and 642,000 words (as of last month).  For comparison, The Lord of the Rings is about 450,000 words, and the entire Harry Potter series is just over a million words.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Improving on Gödel

This is the final post in my series on debugging the ontological argument.

In this series, I've already rebutted every form of the ontological argument that can be expressed logically, but of course that was never really the point of the series.  The point is to dive into technical details and learn a bit about logic and philosophy.  Keeping with that spirit, this, the final post of the series, will go off on a complete tangent.

The central question I want to discuss is, what is necessary existence?

Sameness across modalities

In modal logic, necessary existence can be tricky to define, because we don't really have a sense of "sameness" across possible worlds.  Suppose there's an alternate timeline where I become a mathematician instead of a physicist.  Is that alternate version of me the "same" as me?  Could you say that I exist across both of these possible worlds?

By Gödel's definition of necessary existence, I do not exist across both worlds.  An alternate version of me is only considered the "same" if it has all the same properties as me.  Symbollically, the definition is: $$\forall x ~NE(x) \Leftrightarrow \forall Z~[Z~ess~x \Rightarrow \square\exists y~ Z(y)]\tag{1}\label{1}$$ In English this says "x has necessary existence if given any essential property of x, there necessarily exists an object with that same property."  Next we have to define what an essential property is.  $$\forall Z \forall x ~ \{Z~ess~x \Leftrightarrow Z(x) \wedge \forall Y ~ [ Y(x) \Rightarrow (Z \rightarrow Y) ] \}\tag{2}\label{2}$$ In English, this is "Z is an essential property of x if Z is a property of x, and also entails all properties of x."

A few things immediately follow from the definition of essential properties.  First, we can prove that each object has exactly one unique essential property.  The essential property, or "essence" is simply the conjunction of all properties that the object has.  Thus if two objects have the same essence, then they have all of their properties in common.  In order for something to have necessary existence, then there must exist in every possible world an object which has all the same properties.

Pathological sameness

In my opinion, this is not a very good definition of necessary existence.  The idea of two objects sharing all properties is far too strong.

You can come up with a lot of pathological properties.  For example, in an earlier post in this series, I defined H(x) to mean "There exists a monk singing chants in tight leather pants."  H(x) does not say anything about whether x is a monk singing chants in tight leather pants, it merely says that x is in the same world as said monk.  If x has Gödel's necessary existence, then we would conclude that monks singing chants in tight leather pants exist in all possible worlds, or none of them.

Or consider another kind of pathological property, PS which is the property that object x belongs to set S.  The set S can be chosen arbitrarily.  In fact, why not just choose S to include exactly one object x in one possible world?  No other objects in any other possible world will share property PS, so we can conclude that x does not necessarily exist.1

Now suppose we have an object which is a candidate for God.  As above, we prove that this object does not necessarily exist, and is therefore not God.  How's that for a reverse ontological argument?

I am convinced, however, that this is a purely technical problem in Gödel's argument, and that it could be fixed, although not in any elegant way.  Rather than considering two objects to be equal if they share all properties, we can consider them equal if they share all "relevant" properties.  "Relevance" can be a second-order predicate, just like "positivity", only it obeys different axioms: $$\forall Z \forall Y~ (R(Z) \wedge (Z \rightarrow Y) ) \Rightarrow R(Y)\tag{R1}\label{R1}$$ $$R(\lnot Z) \Leftrightarrow R(Z)\tag{R2}\label{R2}$$ $$\forall Z~R (Z) \Rightarrow \square R(Z)\tag{R3}\label{R3}$$ $$\lnot R(H)\tag{R4}\label{R4}$$ $$R(B)\tag{R5}\label{R5}$$ H is the property of existing in a world that has a singing monk, and B is the property of being a singing monk.2

I'm sure you could use the axiom of choice to construct an acceptable second-order predicate somehow.  Etc. etc., therefore God exists.  Now you're convinced, right?


1. I'm assuming that there is more than one possible world.  If there is only one possible world, then every object in it necessarily exists.

2. Fun exercise: prove that the axioms I chose are inconsistent.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

GLBT backwards

On The Asexual Agenda, I wrote a satirical piece which imagines an alternate world where instead of gay men being the central example of queerness, asexuals are.  Rather than starting with the acronym GLBT and arguing that asexuals should be included too, I start with the acronym AABT (asexual, aromantic, bisexual, transgender) and feebly argue that gay people should be included too.

Silliness aside, I've long thought that the acronym GLBT is completely backwards, and reflective of backwards priorities in queer activism.  Let's not even talk about asexuals and aromantics because I am biased on that point. Compared to bisexuals and trans people, gays and lesbians are more privileged, and should not be the center of the movement.  We really should be talking about TBLG or BTLG.

A few quick citations.  Basically no one denies that trans people have it the worst off, attempting suicide ten times more frequently than the general population, and twice as frequently as the LGB population.  That's just the tip of the iceberg though, and you can read about many more problems in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.  From my understanding, trans people are less common than gay or lesbian people, but if you care about raw numbers you'd have to prioritize bisexuals.  Bisexuals are more numerous than gays and lesbians, and fare worse on most measures of quality of life.

It seems to me that the reason so much money and attention is given to gay and lesbian issues is precisely because they are relatively privileged.  It's not that there aren't real concerns worth addressing for gay and lesbian people.  But rather, bisexual and trans people have problems that run so deep that they even infect the focus of activism.

And when I started thinking about it this way, I started seeing its effects everywhere.  For example, in my satirical essay, I mock the way that "queer" is seen in opposition to "straight".  If trans people ruled queerdom, then the opposite of "queer" would be "cis", and then we'd spend a lot of time arguing that gay people were still queer despite many of them technically being cisgender.

Or consider a recent drama where a well-known blogger said a bunch of transphobic things (and is continuing to say them from what I hear, but from a position of more obscurity).  Her defenders complained that critics are taking ideological purity too far.  But would we take this defense so seriously if she was instead expressing homophobia?  No, because we simply have higher expectations with respect to homophobia.

Put another way, we're more likely to let transphobia slide precisely because transphobia is more widespread than homophobia and has done more harm.  There's a logic to it, but it's also fucked up.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Make an ass out of you and everyone

Pop quiz

Imagine that I give you a quiz where you're supposed to determine whether a bunch of statements are true or false.  Upon reading the statements, you find that they are too obscure, and you have no idea what to make of any of them.  However, I give you the hint that 80% of the statements are true, and the other 20% are false.  How should you proceed?

If you say that 80% of the statements are true and the other 20% are false, then your expected score will only be 68%.  Clearly, you should guess that every single statement is true.  You will only get an 80% on the quiz, but that's the best you can do.

Now imagine instead that we're talking about people.  You're at a high school reunion, and to be honest you haven't interacted with a single person here since graduation.  You know that around 5% of your former classmates are queer, but you don't know which ones.  How would you make your guesses?

This is a loaded question of course.  Why would you ever need to guess?  Why not just assume nothing of anyone?

The irony is that while queer people (or anyone who invisibly deviates from the norm) are the biggest losers in the assumption game, they are also in a unique position to recognize the value of the same assumptions.

Assumption spaces

There's a reason why queer safe spaces are needed.  They are spaces where you can assume that everyone else is queer, or at least very sympathetic.  When an intruder comes into a safe space and attacks people, it's considered worse than the same attack outside the safe space, because it's also an attack on our ability to make assumptions.

Queer dating, clubbing, and hookups are even more in need of assumptions.  Among my queer male friends, it's a perpetual problem to be meeting men in straight spaces (such as the gym), and to have to guess, based on subtle cues, whether they're straight or not.  In an ideal world, you could just ask, but in the real world, this is potentially dangerous, as a lot of straight guys don't take kindly to the mere thought that they could be like us.  Even when not dangerous, it can be uncomfortable, and just plain disheartening to know you'll be automatically rejected 95% of the time.  A lot of queer guys simply aren't up to the risks, and prefer to meet people through designated queer spaces.

[cn: sexual assault] Spaces with special assumptions can have problems.  For example, one of the things I complain about is the ubiquity of sexual assault in gay night clubs.  The problem is there are multiple ideas about what kinds of assumptions are acceptable.  Some think it's okay to grope people non-consensually because they think it's the social assumption in those spaces.  Other people in the same spaces think that's not an acceptable assumption anywhere and you should get consent first (nonverbal consent due to loud music).  The common response is that it's the victim's fault for not understanding the assumptions.  No, I understand the assumptions, I just reject them, and reject the supposition that everyone in the space has ever shared those assumptions.

Signals vs stereotypes

Moving beyond queer spaces, many queer people are still sick of the assumptions placed upon them on a daily basis.  So often they'll adopt signals to make their queerness more visible.  Often the most effective signals you can adopt closely resemble stereotypes.  With gay men in my area, there are a number of fashion markers and mannerisms that allow a gaydar to work.  People aren't necessarily signalling intentionally, but many gay men happen to like these markers, and aren't especially bothered by appearing gay, since they are gay, after all.

This is understandably uncomfortable, because aren't we basically contributing to the stereotypes?  And by merely reading those signals, aren't I imposing those stereotypes on possibly unwilling people?  Rather than combatting assumptions, we're trying to take advantage of them and guide them in the right direction.

And what about people who can't access those stereotypes?  Black queer people can't make themselves white, but unfortunately in our culture that's basically what they'd have to do to send a clear signal.  "I hate signals so much!" "I wish I could signal too!"

Guessing is a battleground

Many people have talked about a distinction between "ask" culture and "guess" culture.  In ask culture, if you want something then you ask for it, even knowing that you may not get it.  In guess culture, it's only polite to ask for things that you're reasonably sure you'll receive.

Ask and guess culture also apply to gender.  In many queer spaces, it's common to ask people for pronouns, because in general you can't tell what gender a person is by seeing how they look.  This is especially important for inexperienced people (unfortunately the same group of people who tend not to understand why it's important), since they may otherwise base guesses on harmful stereotypes.

But trans people, understandably, don't want to spend their entire lives confined to queer spaces, and they have to deal with these guesses and assumptions everywhere.  I've heard many queer people express a desire that we should ask people for pronouns everywhere, not just in queer spaces.  Unfortunately, this strikes most people as extreme.  Society at large clearly has a guess culture with respect to gender; many people would find it insulting if you asked their pronouns when they think they're being perfectly clear.

It's a common saying that "When you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME".  But people clearly like assumptions and derive some value from them.  Assumptions in the public realm are defended fiercely.  Queer people also derive value from assumptions and create spaces and signalling structures around them.

It's about time that we recognize assumptions on their own terms, containing both good and bad.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Ignoring the dystopia

Instead of committing any words to my own novel, I spent the last month or so reading Pride and Prejudice.  It was research, I say.  Research!

Pride and Prejudice of course takes place in the dystopia that is Georgian England.  True to the dystopian genre, there are multiple fantastical constructs which are slowly introduced to a horrified audience.  For instance, there's the idea of an "entail".  I don't really get the purpose of it, but apparently it's a restriction on whether an estate can be passed on in your will.  And then there's "elopement" which just means that a woman runs away with her lover.  It doesn't sound like there's anything wrong with that, but within the dystopia it's a horrible thing to do, and a complete disgrace to the entire family.

There are also many neat world-building details.  I like how the servants are always there, but no one ever thinks about them much, because that's just how wealthy people in this universe think.  At the same time, rudeness towards servants signals an unsympathetic character, and kindness towards servants signals a noble character.  That's the only way the lower classes are ever important: in relation to wealthy people.

I also like how we know exactly how many pounds each character is worth.  In Capital in the 21st Century, the great literary critic Thomas Piketty explains that this is because there are relatively low inflation and constant returns on capital.  Thus, an author can list exact money amounts and expect readers decades in the future to have the same understanding of how much it is.*  Jane Austen really put a lot of thought into that one.

*Upon research, I discovered that Piketty's claims are disputed by quantitative literary theorists.

Changing the subject, the other day, my boyfriend and I saw Never Let Me Go, a film based on the book of the same name.  I had read the book and thought the movie was a terrible adaptation.  My boyfriend, however, detested the movie, because of the way it ignored its own dystopia.  Without any spoilers, the movie involves some extremely questionable bioethics, and nobody ever questions it, much less gets angry at the system.  Bioethics simply isn't a theme in the movie.  Instead, bioethics is just a plot device, a metaphor for the brevity of life.

My boyfriend thought the story wasn't very American.  Which figures, since the writer and screenwriter are British.

But actually I think there's something interesting about that idea.  A dystopia where nobody fights the evil of the system, or even notices that it's evil.  Evil is simply there, and the story addresses completely different themes of love and life.

Although come to think of it, maybe that's too trite.  Maybe that describes every story ever.

Pride and Prejudice ignores the evil of its own dystopia, and instead criticizes smaller evils.  Like how some people are so proud, other people are so prejudiced, and some people are so depraved as to join the priesthood, or to elope.  But sometimes those people learn that they were in the wrong, and eventually come to admit it.

I love that there's a classic romance where the central plot is about two people changing their minds about each other.  Changing minds!  What a rational value!  This also implies that the woman in the romance has a mind to be changed.  A romance where the woman has agency?  It feels like the most progressive romance I've known in ages!

Probably the worst part of the book is that the main reason the woman changes her mind is in response to the man's display of financial generosity.  He's so wealthy, and sometimes he sometimes assists other wealthy people who are on the verge of losing their wealthy status!  The main problem with this part is that it reminds us, the readers, of the dystopia which we were so carefully pretending to ignore.

Generally, I'm not a fan of so-called "classic literature", particularly when people praise it as "timeless".  There is no way that I am reading classic works of literature the same way that contemporaries did.  I don't think I should read it that way.  But Jane Austen was a pretty decent writer, and this novel was worth reading.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Gödel's positive predicates

This is part of my series on debugging the ontological argument.

As explained in the previous post, the basic structure of Gödel's Ontological Argument (GOA) is to first prove the "consistency" of God, and then it follows that God must exist.  In this post, I will how we prove God's consistency.

The GOA introduces a second order predicate, that is, a predicate that is applied to other predicates.  This second order predicate is called "positivity", but the name is more suggestive than meaningful.  For example, we could say that the property of being red is a "positive" property, or we could say that being red is not a positive property.  Symbolically, we would write this as $$P(R)\tag{1}\label{1}$$ where R means "is red" and P means "is positive".

GOA at first appears to stipulate a definition of "positivity", and of course it is fine to stipulate a new definition for a new concept.  But my objection is that the definition is poorly formed.

Too many premises

The GOA takes the following premises about "positivity":

$\ref{P1}$: If positive predicate Z entails1 predicate Y, then Y is also positive.
$\ref{P2}$: Given any predicate and its negation, exactly one of them is positive.
$\ref{P3}$: The conjunction of all positive predicates (called "God-like") is itself a positive predicate.
$\ref{P4}$: If a predicate is positive, then it is necessarily positive.
$\ref{P5}$: Necessary existence is positive.  Necessary existence basically means that in every possible world there is a copy of the given object.

And in symbolic logic:2 $$\forall Z \forall Y~ (P(Z) \wedge (Z \rightarrow Y) ) \Rightarrow P(Y)\tag{P1}\label{P1}$$ $$\forall Z~ P(\lnot Z) \Leftrightarrow \lnot P(Z)\tag{P2}\label{P2}$$ $$P(G);\qquad \text{Definition of G:}~ \forall Z~ P(Z) \Rightarrow (G \rightarrow Z)\tag{P3}\label{P3}$$ $$\forall Z~ P(Z) \Rightarrow \square P(Z)\tag{P4}\label{P4}$$ $$P(NE)\tag{P5}\label{P5}$$ I leave out the logical definition of necessary existence because it's very technical and not relevant yet.

The GOA is not an especially popular form of the ontological argument, and perhaps now you can see why.  It gets rid of some of the questionable premises in other ontological arguments, but it replaces them with five whole new ones.  Five!  It's easy enough to just say, one of those premises must be wrong.

Indeed, I can't think of any reason we should think that any of the premises are true.  As far as I can tell, the proof is not referring to any natural concept of "positivity".3  In particular, I don't see why every property either needs to be positive or its negation does.  What if being red is positive in some contexts, but in other contexts it's better to be not red?  Or what if it's positive in this world, but there's a possible world where it's not positive?

Indeed, we can stop here, as far as rebutting the GOA is concerned.  It sure is a fancy argument, too bad its premises aren't remotely persuasive.

But the purpose of this series is to dig deeper.  So we turn to the question: exactly which of the premises is wrong?

Stipulative definitions

Since "positivity" obviously doesn't correspond to any real concept of positivity as far as I know, the only way I can interpret the word is simply as a placeholder.  We're creating a whole new concept, and "positivity" is just the name we gave it.  And since it's a whole new concept, we can stipulate whatever definition we like for it.

Indeed, I believe that none of the premises are individually "wrong".  "Positivity" is a meaningless word, and we're allowed to stipulate certain things about it.  Any of the premises, taken individually, I find acceptable to stipulate as a partial definition.  Taken together, however, there might be an issue.

It is not true that you can stipulate just any definition for a word.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lists two criteria that a stipulative definition must follow, the first of which is relevant here:
A stipulative definition should not enable us to establish essentially new claims—call this the Conservativeness criterion. We should not be able to establish, by means of a mere stipulation, new things about, for example, the moon.
The whole project of establishing the existence of God by stipulative definitions, therefore seems rather quixotic.  The very success of the proof only demonstrates that the stipulative definition that we began with was wrong.

What's happening here, mechanically, is that the definition of positivity is overly constraining.  As a second-order predicate, "positivity" has only so many degrees of freedom.  As we give it partial definitions, we are constraining its degrees of freedom, but at some point we begin also to make constraints on the world (or on the set of possible worlds).4

It's quite similar to giving a single word two definitions.  I can define a "foo" as an eight-legged snake, and I can define a "foo" as Socrates, and either of those definitions are fine on their own.  Taken together, they can be used to prove that Socrates is an eight-legged snake, which is a sign the definitions too constraining (even if by a quirk of history it turned out to be true that Socrates was an eight-legged snake).

If I were to pinpoint any of the five premises as particularly problematic, I would say that the $\ref{P1}$ is.  The concept of entailment is based on the material conditional, which as I argued previously is a very counterintuitive concept.  Using this premise, if any impossible predicate is positive then all predicates are positive.  I'm not sure what "positivity" is really intended to signify, but this premise would seem to go against the spirit of it.


1. As explained in the previous post, entailment means necessary implication.  In the case of predicates, if Z entails Y, then it is necessary that for every object which has predicate Z, it also has predicate Y.

2. Here are some details on how the proof follows from these premises.  Using premises $\ref{P1}$ and $\ref{P2}$, we can prove that all positive predicates are strictly consistent.  If a positive predicate were not strictly consistent, then it would entail a both Z and not Z, which would mean that both Z and not Z are positive predicates, which contradicts $\ref{P2}$.  Using the rest of the premises, we show that being God-like is positive, and therefore strictly consistent.

3. According to Gödel, "Positive means positive in the moral aesthetic sense (independently of the accidental structure of the world)".  Thus it is clear that he intended to capture some sort of natural concept of positivity, although I think the proof fails to live up to these intentions.  I will disregard Gödel's intentions with the hope of exploring the best possible version of the proof.

4. Premises P1, P2, and P5 suffice to make a constraint on the actual world: they prove that something exists.  Just P1 and P2 suffice to constrain the possible worlds: they prove that it is possible that something exists.  Though what they prove is trivial, it is a sign that the definition is already too constrained and cannot be stipulated.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Dimpled model with curves

Here's one of the very earliest origami models I made, in fact the first 30 unit model.  At the time, I was more interested in documenting the process of creation, so I have a bunch of photos

Shown are 30 units of various colors.  These days I usually assemble the units together as I make them, instead of making them all first.

I assemble the units together in a dodecahedral pattern.

The last few pieces were the hardest.  I recall taking pieces out and putting them back in a few times.

Dimpled model with curves, from Exquisite Modular Origami by Meenakshi Mukerji

Looking back, the coloring of this model is interesting.  Many unique patterns are used, but they're arranged such that the dominant colors form somewhat of a symmetric pattern.  They don't form a "symmetric coloring" in the mathematical sense, but rather, colors shift from red to green to blue.  I feel this is actually more evocative than the mathematical symmetric coloring.

At the same time, I'm critical of the choice to use patterned paper.  There are some pretty curls in the paper, and between the curls and patterned paper it's too busy.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Between rationality and politics

Last year, there was an incident where Arthur Chu criticized LessWrong/Rationalists for abandoning political effectiveness in favor of being "rational".  This has been on my mind increasingly, partly because Arthur Chu went on to become a popular columnist whom I like, and I went on to learn more and more about how pathological the Rationalist community really is.

This has some personal significance, and is somewhat disillusioning.  A decade ago, I became interested in skepticism primarily because I liked thinking about how we think, and how to improve upon the process of thinking on a meta level.  I was also on board with the political project of skepticism (fighting bad beliefs), but became less interested in it over time, which left just the critical thinking component of skepticism.

But if I just have the critical thinking, these are basically the same values held by the Rationalist community.  In fact, some of the things I like to write about, the Rationalist community addresses better than I do.  And then, to discover how the Rationalist community behaves...

But let's go back to the issue of rationality vs politics.

Lies and Shunning

At first, it sounded like "politics" meant lying for a cause.  Part of the original context related to false or misleading statistics.  That seems difficult to justify.  I am in favor of, say, infographics which popularize information while eliding truth just a little.  Certainly there are problems with clickbait pop science, and with partisan "research", but we also can't spend forever getting exactly every fact right, sacrificing all accessibility to get every detail.  So I see both sides and, okay, it's really hard to justify misleading statistics.

But I think I see now that it's not really about lying or eliding truth.  It's about other rational values, such as...
  • Always hear out an argument and consider it in its strongest form before calmly coming to a conclusion.
  • Never shun people no matter how bad they may be.
The idea of not shunning people seems fairly innocuous, or even positive, until you see it taken to its extreme.  Take for instance, the Neoreactionaries (NRx).  They're a small and inconsequential group who believe that we should get rid of democracy and return to the days of white supremacy (no, seriously).  For some reason, many NRx are welcomed in LessWrong, to the point that LessWrong enjoys a space in this map of neoreactionaries.

Scott Alexander, the second most popular LessWrong writer, has talked about how NRx have inspired his writing, even though he thinks they're wrong.  He contrasts them with feminists, who he says has correct "object-level" beliefs but bad meta-beliefs.  On its face, he's basically saying he likes neoreactionaries because they talk the Rationalist talk.  This is funny because there's a Rationalist saying, "rationality is about winning", which means that rationality isn't about how you sound, it's about the ultimate consequences.  Valuing people who talk the talk is basically a bias towards the in-group.  And what an in-group they've chosen!

It's hard to tell exactly what effect it's had for the community to have extended exposure to NRx ideas.  In my limited experience, my impression is Rationalists are perfectly willing to argue for racist things, more than the general public.  I think NRx may have moved the whole Overton window of the community, and maybe Rationalists just think they're immune.  To them, the only valid way to reject NRx ideas is by considering them at great length, and if you absorb some of their ideas in that time, hey, maybe they were good ideas worth adopting, because Rationalists couldn't possibly come to a wrong conclusion on an issue they've thought about.

EA and AI

I should mention that there appears to have been some sort of Rationalist diaspora.  From what I've heard, the community used to be more centralized on the LessWrong website, but has now spread out to new websites and to new ideas.  It is near certainty that what I criticize does not necessarily apply to the entire diaspora.

Probably one of the best things to come out of Rationalism is the Effective Altruism movement (EA).  They believe in figuring out which charities do the most good for your dollar and then donating lots of money to them.  They're associated with organizations like GiveWell and Giving What We Can.

They're pretty hard to fault.  I mean, we can criticize the details, such as the particular things that they prioritize in their calculations.  I'm also really iffy on the idea of "earning to give".  But one of the problems with EA is that telling people that their donations are ineffective sometimes just discourages them from donating at all.  Likewise, if I criticize EA, I think that might just discourage people from donating at all.

More recently, EA came under fire because their EA Global conference prominently featured AI risk as one of their causes.  That means people were talking about donating to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI) to do artificial intelligence research in order to prevent extinction by a malevolent AI.  Said research involves trying to build a benevolent AI.  In response to criticism, Jeff Kaufman, who is known for advocating against AI research within EA, called for pluralism.  (Scott Alexander, for his part, argued that AI risk was at least somewhat reasonable and anyway less than a third of his donations go to MIRI.  How inspiring.)

So this is another case of not shunning people, but instead welcoming them.  And as a consequence, some people in the community begin to regard it as correct, and most regard it as somewhat reasonable.  But really, what place does AI risk have in an evidence-based charity group?  It seems to be based more on philosophy--a very idiosyncratic take on utilitarianism, and a bunch of highly questionable probability estimates.

Incidentally, that particular kind of utilitarianism is the kind advocated by LessWrong, and more specifically, its founder Eliezer Yudkowsky.  Eliezer Yudkowsky has long argued for the importance of AI risk, and is the founder of MIRI.  In some ways, convincing people to donate to MIRI was underlying motivation for teaching people his ideas about rationality.  He wanted to show people that his own cause was right, despite being contrarian.  And it worked!  Not only do a lot of Rationalists accept the value of MIRI, there's also a preponderance of other strange beliefs held by Eliezer, including his favorable views towards cryonics and paleo diets.

So basically, the EA movement is weighed down by the history of the Rationalist community and its particular in-group biases.

Political rationality?

Given the way the Rationalist community has turned out, I'm glad I never got involved, despite my intellectual values clearly leaning in that direction.  One question is whether I can synthesize anything better.

I wish I could, but I don't think I can.  I feel conflicted about the whole thing.

On the one hand, I have these rational values.  Arguments should be treated based purely on content.  It's easy to be blanket-skeptical about things which are actually reasonable.  Ideas that sound too crazy to entertain can be right.  Even if something is too crazy, rebutting it point by point can be helpful to other people who find it somewhat reasonable.

On the other hand, I also believe arguments are about power.  If you stick to purely rational arguments, you'll lose your audience and miss the point.  And rational arguments aren't even very effective to help yourself come to the correct conclusions.  I believe in the Overton window, and I believe it's something we need to fight over--actually fight, not just debate.  I believe anger is so useful that I'll fake it if necessary.  Finally, I believe in the goodness of shunning people, and shutting down arguments.

I don't think I am always consistent about which tack I take.  And I don't think I have the ability, or commitment, to map out consistent rules for it.  Better to take it on a case-by-case basis and spend that time on other things.

This all makes me glad that I'm changing my blog title in a month.

Friday, August 28, 2015

A personal history with trans issues

Since I'm resolving, as a cis person, to talk about transgender issues more often, I wish to explain the personal trajectory that lead to my current perspective.

I first started identifying as queer in 2009.  More specifically, I'm gay gray-A, meaning that I'm on the boundaries between asexual and gay.  Back then, I was nominally accepting of trans people, but I didn't think about them that much. And the reality is that in this society, transphobia and ignorance are so pervasive that if you haven't thought about it you are almost certainly the holder of many problematic views and behaviors.

But I would say I was eager to learn, and here enters the asexual influence.   Asexuals were a small group that hardly anyone in the queer student groups understood or spoke of.  Transgender people were in the same boat.  Clearly we should be friends.

Essential commentators

I didn't actually have a personal friend who was trans until 2010.  We were both affiliated with queer-themed housing and were outcasts of sorts from the main cliques (which consisted of gay men and straight women, naturally).  We ended up talking a lot about trans issues, often so she could vent about things that other people in the house were saying.

This was of course very eye-opening.  But the most eye-opening stuff I learned was not trans 101, but learning about the turbulence of trans politics.  The very first thing I learned about were trans-exclusive feminists.  And then the real kicker was learning about transphobia among trans people.  The overall impression I had was of a bunch of people on a boat that's been hit with a missile.  As it sinks, everyone shouts over whose fault it was and then tries to throw each other off the boat.

That isn't what you'd think of as an ideal introduction to a subject.  But I tend to think inter- and intra-community conflict is intriguing and hashes out a lot of details that would otherwise go undeveloped.  And sometimes skipping to the advanced issues makes the basic issues seem all the more obvious and urgent.

Since then, I've found trans writers to be essential commentators.  I don't mean to treat trans people like magical social justice wizards, but over the years I happened to like a lot of social justice critics who were trans activists.  I don't know if I could really pin down the emotional reasons why.  I would say... progressive movements are absolutely essential to trans people, but trans people also tend to have a healthy degree of cynicism about the same movements.  I also need those progressive movements, and need that cynicism.

Non-binary aces

Most of the trans writers I'm thinking of are trans women.  But my central image of a trans person is someone who is non-binary.  Because being in the ace community, non-binary people are everywhere.  There are more non-binary people than there are men.

A few anecdotes might establish that non-binary people weren't simply present, but taking important roles.  Back in 2011, I wrote a short history of the Livejournal asexuality community.  That history was based on an interview I had with the founder, Nat Titman; Nat is non-binary.  They're like the dark knight of asexuality.  They played a very important role, but dropped out of public view for many years, partially out of concern that people would confuse asexuality with gender.

Also in 2011, I conducted an interview (not available online) with Charlie, one of the figures in the Transyada community. The Transyadas were a big deal in 2011.  They started out as a massive thread on the AVEN forums, but later decamped and moved to the Transyada forums.  Note the reason they decamped was because they were dissatisfied with the amount of transphobia on AVEN, so that's a hint while non-binary people have always been around, ace communities haven't always been friendly to them.

Aside from that, I've had many colleagues, cobloggers, copanelists, interviewees, and friends who were non-binary.

That said, I've never made any concerted effort to learn about non-binary issues.  What I know about non-binary people is mostly from osmosis over the years.  I understand pronouns, and much of the vocabulary, but that's very much on a different level from being able to blog about it extensively.

On blog focus

When you have a personal blog, your choice of topics is a very personal decision, and one that I don't need to defend.  But I'll briefly comment on why I haven't blogged much about trans issues in the past despite considering them important.

The basic reason is that I mostly use this blog to share original thoughts.  When it comes to trans issues, the most appropriate thing is not to share my original thoughts, but to amplify trans voices.  And I don't have very much power to amplify so what's the point?

I feel the same way about Black Lives Matter.  It's a very important movement but also I don't know what to say about it.  When I comment on an issue, I tend to complicate things and add nuance.  But do I really need to bring any nuance to the issue of police being violently racist?  That strikes me as straightforward.

But now I want to talk more about trans issues. Following my usual blogging style, that means adding nuance.  But I'm keenly aware that as a cis person, my ability to add nuance is limited, and I will ultimately make mistakes.  I hope I have enough trans readers around that they'll poke me if I say something wrong.


-Trans issues are important to me, and I also find trans women activists to be great social critics in general.
-In my experience with the ace community, I interact with a lot of non-binary people, but I don't necessarily understand their issues in great depth.
-As I begin to comment more on trans issues, I try to be aware of the limitations in my cis perspective.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Discontinuity of self

I like to observe the LessWrong community from the sidelines, because sometimes they have such strange consensus beliefs.  Roko's Basilisk is not believed by most LessWrongers, but it is a rather amusing introduction to some of their beliefs.

Roko's Basilisk is the idea that a benevolent AI could take over the world in the future, and then torture a clone of you unless you donate more money to building the AI now.  The idea is absurd on its face, but becomes even more absurd when you learn that it sort of makes sense, given a bunch of beliefs that many LessWrongers have:
  1. An AI takeover in the future is highly likely, and it will resemble LW predictions (e.g. it will follow their particular brand of utilitarianism, have the ability to clone people).
  2. If someone clones your state of mind, then you are the clone.
  3. It is rational to provide incentives for past actions that have already occurred.  This all part of Timeless Decision Theory, a utilitarian philosophy based on gazing deeply at Newcomb's Paradox and trying to rigorously justify the one-boxer position.
Note that this is unlike Pascal's Wager, in that the only people who get tortured are the true believers.  If you don't believe in Roko's basilisk or aren't aware of it, then no good could come out of the threat of torture.

There are good counterarguments to Roko's Basilisk, even within LessWrong assumptions, but for me it's all moot since I find the AI predictions to be implausible.


I also disagree with the idea that I am my clone, for idiosyncratic reasons.

I believe the me of right now and the me of a minute from now are different people.  We are in different space-time locations, we have different brain configurations, why would we be the same person?  Yes, clearly we are the same person, falling along the same continuous line, but we're not the same same, we're not identical.

Since I am unquestionably different from the person I was a minute ago, the question is why should I particularly care about this other person?  He's not so special, you see.  Maybe I shouldn't particularly care about him, maybe I should care about everyone equally.  But the fact of the matter is, curse this material body, I care a lot about future me even though he is not me.  I would act against the interests of everyone else to favor this one random guy, I really would.

If someone clones my exact state of mind, that clone is not me.  Like my future self, the clone would be a lot like me, but still not be identical.  But unlike my future self, I don't particularly care about my clone.  Why should I?  I may care a lot about my future self, but that favoritism is a necessary evil.  I see no reason to extend that evil any further to my clone.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Flibanserin/Addyi: Potential problems for asexuals

The FDA recently approved Flibanserin/Addyi as a medication to treat low sexual desire in women.  Let's talk about what that means for asexuals.


I apologize for repeating some background, but it's necessary because of the many misconceptions about Addyi.

Addyi is the very first drug approved for low sexual desire.  No, Viagra was never a treatment for low sexual desire.  Furthermore, Addyi is taken daily, while Viagra is taken as needed.  Addyi also has serious side effects.  Most significantly, it absolutely does not mix with alcohol.  It's also considered too dangerous to take in the daytime.

Additionally, the effects of Addyi are extremely marginal.  In a trial, women with sexual desire disorders started with a baseline of ~2.7 "sexually satisfying events" per month.  Placebo increased this number by once a month, and Addyi increased it by less than twice a month.  So we're talking about an increase of about 20%, which for all I know could be achieved by Addyi's sedative side effects.

Hypothetically, a drug like Addyi could do some good for some people, but let's talk about the drug we actually have.  And regardless of the good that it might hypothetically do, we also need to weigh that good against the bad.

Asexuals vs Desire Disorders.

The basic problem is that there may be some people with sexual desire disorders, but asexuals exist too, and not everyone can distinguish between them.  Asexuality as an orientation has only come to public awareness over the past decade or so, and it's extremely common for asexuals themselves to be unaware of it.  When confronted with asexuality, many doctors, asexuals, and people in general deny what is unfamiliar to them.

Even if we were to approach the problem from a clear-minded perspective, no simple rules can be used to make the distinction.  You can't use distress as a distinction because asexuals may be distressed about their orientation, and often are.  Even if the distress is due to society, the asexuals themselves may not make that connection until later.  You can't use a sudden change in sexual desire as a distinction, because sexuality can fluctuate.  Someone who was happy with higher sexual desire may also find happiness with low sexual desire.

Some people think that there are at least a few clear cases, such as women with low sexual desire due to other medical conditions, or as a side effect from other drugs.  But Addyi is explicitly not approved for such cases, because the risks haven't been assessed.

Predicted problems

These are my predictions for what problems will occur affecting people on the asexual spectrum.

Ad campaigns - There will likely be ads for Addyi which encourage people to view low sexual desire as a problem, even if they wouldn't otherwise.

Unaware asexuals - People who don't experience sexual attraction might be even less likely to learn about asexuality.

Disbelieving public - Partners, friends, relatives, and the general public are often already predisposed to disbelieve asexuality, and might be even more encouraged by Addyi and its marketing.

Pushy doctors - Doctors who do not recognize asexuality, or simply unaware, might encourage their patients to take Addyi without making them aware of the asexual spectrum.

Disbelieving doctors - Doctors who hare aware of Addyi may be less likely to believe patients who disclose their asexuality.

Pushy partners - People with partners with higher degree of sexual desire might be persuaded or even blackmailed into seeking Addyi.  It could be used as a tool for control in abusive relationships.

If you can think of any other predictions, I'd like to hear about them.

Proposed solutions

Since Addyi is already approved, nothing can be done about that for now.  But to counteract some of the negative consequences, I propose that:
  • Doctors certified to prescribe Addyi should be educated about asexuality.
  • Addyi marketing materials should be criticized and mocked.
  • There should be more mainstream articles thoughtfully addressing Addyi and sexual desire disorders in relation to asexuality.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Consistency and the material conditional

This is part of my series on debugging the ontological argument.

In the previous post of this series, I introduced Gödel's Ontological Argument (GOA) by discussing all the things Gödel got right.  I also use this discussion as a means of gradually breaking down the argument without throwing all of it in your face at once.1
The three major parts of the GOA are:
  1. God is consistent (proven in earlier steps, to be discussed in next post).
  2. If something is consistent, then it is possible.
  3. If God is possible, then God is necessary (for reasons already discussed).
 Here I will discuss the second step.  At first it is highly counter-intuitive, but upon understanding the logic, you will find that the reasoning is valid, and even trivial, but still unsatisfying.

Material consistency

The intuitive definition of consistency is that there are no contradictions.  To say proposition S is consistent is to say that S does not lead to any contradictions.  But there's a lot of work done by the phrase "lead to".  In logic, we might translate this to logical implication. $$\lnot \exists Q ( S \Rightarrow (Q \wedge \lnot Q) )\tag{1}\label{1}$$ In English, this is "There does not exist a proposition Q such that S implies both Q and not-Q."  Here, "implies" is logical implication, also sometimes called the "material conditional".

The material conditional is notorious for causing countless errors in students of math and logic.2  The statement "If S, then R" means that either R is true, or S is false (or both), and it says nothing about the conceptual connection between R and S.  For instance, I can say, "If Mars is a giant egg, then the moon is made of cheese." and it would be literally true, because Mars is not in fact a giant egg.

The material conditional makes for a particular definition of consistency, which I will call material consistency

If S is materially consistent, then S must be true!

The reasoning is actually quite trivial.  The only way for a material conditional "If S, then R" to be false, is if S is true and R is false.  Thus, if S does not imply a contradiction, then S must be true.  In fact, if there is anything whatsoever that S does not imply, then S must be true.

You should find this a rather unsatisfying definition of consistency.  Literally everything that is untrue is materially inconsistent.  It is inconsistent for me to live in Southern California.  It is inconsistent for you to be standing next to me.  It is inconsistent for my pen to be out of ink.  Is that really what we want to say?

Strict consistency

The major reason that so many people find the material conditional counterintuitive is that we are accustomed to so many other kinds of conditionals in natural language.  For example, I am much entertained by these examples documented by Language Log:
If you want to know, 4 isn't a prime number.
If Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, Germans have as many for bureaucracy.
It's all perfectly normal — if troublesome to varying degrees.
Language Log refers to these as the biscuit conditional, bleached conditional, and concessive conditional respectively.  In my personal experience, it's a standard joke among math and logic enthusiasts to naively interpret a conditional statement using the material conditional even when it doesn't make sense.

But even when people are using a more logical kind of conditional, they are often thinking of more than just the material conditional.  For example, the statement, "If Mars is a giant egg, then the moon is made of cheese," might mean that Mars being a giant egg might somehow physically cause the moon to be made of cheese.  Or perhaps it means that given the counterfactual universe where mars is a giant egg, then the moon would also be made of cheese.

Since this series is primarily concerned with what can be translated to symbolic logic, we will take a particular conditional called the "strict conditional", also called entailment.  Symbolically, I'll distinguish between implication and entailment by using different kinds of arrows: $$S \Rightarrow R\tag{2}\label{2}$$ $$S \rightarrow R \tag{3}\label{3}$$ Statement \ref{2} means "S implies R", while statement \ref{3} means "S entails R".  S is said to entail R if S implies R in all possible worlds.  We've already built modal logic to make sense of the concept of possibility, so we might as well use it.

The strict conditional leads to another definition of consistency, which I will call strict consistency.  "S is strictly consistent" means $$\lnot \exists Q ( S \rightarrow (Q \wedge \lnot Q) )\tag{4}\label{4}$$ If S is strictly consistent, then S must be possible.

This follows trivially, since if S does not entail a contradiction, then there must be at least one possible world where S does not imply a contradiction.  As argued before, if S does not imply a contradiction in some possible world, then S is true in that possible world.

Why this is unsatisfying

In my history of arguing about the ontological argument, I find that some people find it "obvious" that God is consistent.  There's simply no contradiction to be had in the definition of a perfect being.  And then, you hardly need the rest of the GOA, you just assert that God therefore exists.

The problem I have with this argument is, what kind of consistency do you think is so obvious?  The very idea of strict consistency has nothing whatsoever to do with the definition of God, so it doesn't matter how sensible (or insensible) the definition of God is.  All that matters is whether God exists in a possible world.  If not, then God implies a contradiction, because using the material conditional, God implies absolutely everything.

Furthermore, the idea of strict consistency relies on the idea of possibility, which in turn relies on our choice of modal logic semantics.

For example, consider the statement, "If the moon is made of cheese."  Let's consider "possibility" to refer to all possible pasts and futures.  I don't believe that the moon is made of cheese in any possible past or future, therefore, the very idea is strictly inconsistent.

Now, let's consider "possibility" to instead refer to all universes with the same physical laws.  I believe it's physically possible to have a moon with the same chemical makeup as cheese, and thus we would say that the idea is strictly consistent.  But which is it?  Is a moon made of cheese consistent or inconsistent?

In the next post, I will discuss how God's consistency is proven in the context of the GOA.


1. If for some reason you really do want the entire argument thrown at you all at once, I wrote up Gödel's ontological argument step by step in 2009.

2. A good exercise, if you've never seen it, is to try the Wason selection task.  The task is, given a number of cards in front of you, to decide which cards need to be flipped to verify a particular hypothesis about them.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Meta-issues with petition

Earlier, I wrote about a petition to the FDA to disapprove the drug Flibanserin (brand name Addyi), and expressed my (lukewarm) support of it. The petition is no longer circulating, since the FDA has already made its decision. It was approved.

Previously, I made an error: I said that Flibanserin was a treatment for Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder (FSIAD).  In fact, it was tested for Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD), which is an out-of-date diagnosis.  That's bad because HSDD doesn't have a loophole for asexuals.  Furthermore, HSDD is defined to include people with "interpersonal difficulties", which means if their partner is unhappy with it they could get diagnosed.

So now that it's done, I have to say, I really don't get the point of the petition.  A drug should be approved or disapproved on scientific grounds.  And a petition is not exactly proper scientific protocol.

The basic problem with petitions is that they only contain information about how many people agreed, and not how many people disagreed.  Circulate a petition widely enough, you can get as many signatures as you want.  Even petitions signed by scientists are pretty useless, as parodied by Project Steve.

Many people signing the petition dwelt long on arguments over whether the clinical trials show that Flibanserin is effective.  I don't see how that is relevant to the petition.  The FDA already knows about the clinical trials.  It doesn't need thousands of people on the internet to offer their own opinion.  That's why, in my argument in favor of the petition, I waved away the results of clinical trials in favor of discussing the social ramifications of the drug.

At the same time, I'm highly doubtful that the FDA even considers social ramifications in its approval process. I'm also doubtful that they should.  Say that the FDA is deciding on a contraceptive drug, do I really want them to even consider arguments that birth control ruins our culture?  I don't think so.

The Ace Flibanserin Task Force was also plugging another petition which urges the FDA to stick to the science and ignore all the pro-Flibanserin PR.  The thing about that petition, its message is inconsistent with first petition.  One petition says, just look at the science and nothing else.  The other petition says, also look at these social ramifications.  Well.  That's politics I guess.

Really, the main point of this petition seems to be to get people in the asexual community to talk about Flibanserin.  Fine, it got me to talk about it.  It didn't get me to stop being a cynic.

Now that it's been approved, I suppose we'll see what its social ramifications are.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

What is idolatry?

There are some Christian ideas that are easily translatable into secular ideas.  For example, a sin is just something that's morally wrong.  And so when Christians say homosexuality is a sin but they're not judging, nobody is fooled.

Idolatry, on the other hand, is a mystery.  You shall have no other gods before YHWH... why?

I'm not up on my Biblical history, but my understanding is that at the time, polytheism was common, and early Jews believed their god was just one of many.  So the rule about idolatry basically expresses the jealousy and pettiness of their god.  It is also an expression of ethnocentrism--you shall never leave our group or ever adopt practices from other groups.  This law is basically awful and a force for evil.

In many modern interpretations, idolatry is not so much about other gods, but about other "gods".  You're not supposed to hold any idea higher than the one god.  For example, any form of addiction can be described as idolatry since the object of addiction is being held higher than God.  For another example, atheists are frequently described as idolatrous because they're supposedly replacing God with reason or science.

This frankly leads to a very poor understanding of addiction or atheism.  It's a peculiarly Christian-centric worldview, to say that everyone is just like you only sometimes they deviate from the platonic ideal in certain ways.  This is the sort of thing that makes people think it's appropriate for Alcoholics Anonymous to refer to God "as you understand him".  Have you considered that some of us just don't have a God-analogue in our lives?

I also find it strange to have a rule which basically says, the beliefs specific to our group are the most important.  Nothing else in your life should be as important.  This is just more ethnocentrism, and it should not be an explicit value.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Moore's paradox and gender

After just criticizing myself for being overly philosophical about trans people, I can't help myself.  Philosophy ate my brain, and anyway it's an attention hook.  Let's talk about Moore's paradox.
It is raining, but I don't believe it is raining.
P, but I don't believe P.
The funny thing about Moore's paradox is that the statement might very well be true.  Sometimes, a fact is true even though I don't believe it.  On the other hand, if I actually made that statement, you would know that either I'm lying or that I think I'm lying.

As nonsensical as that is, sometimes people say something similar about gender identity:
I don't identify as a woman, I am a woman.
By saying that you're a woman, isn't that in itself identification as a woman?  What are we to make of this nonsensical statement?  What is the intended meaning?

In queer discourse, we talk about our identities all the time.  So sometimes I might say, "I'm gay", and the act of saying so is an act of identifying myself.  Other times, I might say, "I identify as gay", and that's a statement of my typical actions.  And there are a lot of nuances.  For instance, I might identify as gay on Facebook, but not in a job interview.  Or maybe "gay" tells an imprecise story about me, and sometimes I prefer to tell a more precise story.

I surmise that trans people are similar, and for this reason often talk about which genders they identify as.

Many cis people are privileged enough that they never have to think about their gender identities or the nuances thereof.  So when they see trans people saying they identify as X or Y gender, they see an opportunity to assert the superiority of their own gender identities.  The thought process goes, "All those trans women only identify as women, but I am different.  I am a woman."  But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what is meant by identity.

I also learned that some people--feminists--have something different in mind when they say they don't identify as women.  They are trying to say that they don't identify with all the trappings of women's gender roles--pink dresses, makeup, shopping, homemaking, being overly emotional and caring.  This is a fine thing to say, but also represents a misunderstanding.  Trans women may also express discomfort with all the trappings of women's gender roles, or they may not.  Just like cis women.  When they identify as women, they aren't really making a statement either way.

This is all part of the myth that trans women always take femininity to the extreme.  And for decades, the image of trans women has been that of hyper-feminine women.  However, this image comes from outright erasure of less feminine trans women (as well as the rest of the trans spectrum), and also the medical barriers which basically required trans women to exaggerate their femininity in order to get life-saving treatments.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The petition against Flibanserin


Flibanserin (trade name: Girosa) is a drug that treats low sexual desire in women (Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder, or FSIAD).  It is not publicly available because it has not (yet) been approved by the FDA.  The FDA will approve or disapprove of it by the end of the week.

Flibanserin is not like Viagra, although that's a common misunderstanding.  Viagra does not treat low sexual desire, but rather erectile dysfunction.  Furthermore, Flibanserin is intended to be taken on a regular basis.  Trials show that women with acquired sexual desire disorders who take Flibanserin had on average 0.7 more satisfying sexual events per month, as compared to placebo.  Specifically, it increased the number from 2.8 to 4.5, whereas placebo increased it from 2.7 to 3.7.  There are also side effects, though I'm not too familiar with what they are.

The Ace Flibanserin Task Force is circulating a petition among aces to recommend that the FDA disapprove.  The existence of Flibanserin would encourage doctors to diagnose asexuals with FSIAD, and it is likely that the Flibanserin/Girosa ad campaign will involve shaming women for low sexual desire.

This has sparked some argument over whether the petition is right.  Asexuals may be "happy" with a lack of sexual desire (though there are always external factors affecting their happiness), but that doesn't mean that everyone is happy with it, and perhaps some people have conditions that are best treated within a healthcare framework.  Is it right for asexuals to take away that choice?

These are good questions to ask.  Way back in 2010, Flibanserin was also being considered for approval by the FDA (it was rejected), and a similar petition was being circulated.  So I helped create this interview with a sexual dysfunction activist, so that we could learn what the "other side" is concerned about.

Why I support this petition

Is it right for asexuals to take away the choice of people who want effective treatment for sexual desire disorders?  While this is an important question, it is not the same as the question of whether to sign the petition.  A petition simply doesn't have the power to take away an effective medical treatment.  The petition is neither created or signed by scientific experts, and the FDA knows this.

The purpose of the petition, in my view, is to ask the FDA to consider the externalities of approving Flibanserin.  Principally, I am worried about that public ad campaign which will amplify the social shaming of low sexual interest, and doctors' inability to distinguish between asexuality and sexual desire disorders.  The harms caused by these externalities would be difficult, if not impossible to measure with scientific studies, but they are still real harms.  And without a petition, the FDA would not have much of a basis to consider these harms.

In many of the arguments over the petition, people are talking about the scientific research into Flibanserin, and its exceedingly marginal effect.  If you're willing to read the research, you may let that inform your decision.  However, in principle, you shouldn't have to.  It's the FDA's job to consider the body of research, and as a non-expert I cannot meaningfully contribute to that.

All that matters is that, at a glance, the effects of Flibanserin look marginal, so there's a chance that the external costs might matter.  The FDA can weigh the petition in their own cost-benefit analysis, and can still decide either way.  Since I am not an expert, I trust the FDA's judgment more than my own.

On people with sexual dysfunction

In the interview with the sexual dysfunction activist in 2010, we learned a few important things. 
While it is true that many asexuals have difficulty getting their doctors and therapists to recognize their asexuality, the flipside is that people with sexual dysfunctions have the same difficulty.  Even when the dysfunction literally causes pain, doctors may not recognize it or offer treatment.

Furthermore, there are also many feminists who oppose any drug to increase sexual desire, even if effective.  Instead they take the view that "low sexual desire" is a social problem, or that we're socialized to think it's a problem.  I looked around to see what feminists are saying against Flibanserin now, and they do raise many valid concerns.  On the other hand, the articles minimize or wave away people with sexual dysfunctions.  As our interviewee observed in 2010, voices from people with sexual dysfunctions are entirely absent.

Though I support the petition, I do not support the silencing of the concerns of people with sexual dysfunctions.

Corrections 8/18/2015: Flibanserin's brand name is Addyi, not Girosa, and it was tested to treat Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD) rather than FSIAD.