Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Plugging my amateur social science

Have I ever mentioned that I volunteer for the AVEN survey?  It's a big community survey of people in the ace community, launched last October, and hopefully conducted annually thereafter.  We got about 11,000 ace respondents.

We published some preliminary results, and we're currently working on further data analysis to be published on our blog.  The analysis will all be published in a complete report at a later date, but the blog helps me focus on one step at a time.

Most recently, I published a bit of analysis regarding people's gender histories (under the name Siggy).  I'm particularly proud of this chart, which I made in Adobe Illustrator:

The above graphic shows the prevalence of different gender histories in the ace community, with the thickness of each line proportional to the size of the group.  The color indicates the percentage of people who identify as trans.  For the purposes of the color scale, trans people and people unsure whether they identify as trans were lumped together.  Note that "history" does not necessarily mean that people's gender changed over time; [sex assigned at birth] may or may not reflect a person's gender at birth.
 Most of the other graphs I make aren't nearly so fancy.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Geek cultural hegemony

In the past few weeks, I've been referring to various nerd/geek narratives.  There's the narrative that nerds are socially awkward,  particularly around women.  There's the narrative of being the smart person in your social group.  And there's the narrative of having very geeky niche interests.

There are certain advantages to having "popular" interests.  You have a much easier time finding other people who want to talk about your interests.  A lot more money is devoted to developing products related to your interests.  If you like popular music, you can expect it to be played in retail outlets and nightclubs.  So on and so forth.

What are "geek" interests?  There isn't any precise definition, but we have a wide array of prototypes.  There's sci-fi.  Fantasy.  Anime.  Trading card games.  Dungeons and Dragons.  Video games.  Comic books.  Science.

At some earlier point in time, all of these things were niche interests, primarily loved by geek subcultures.  However, "geek" does not necessarily imply "niche", and so they may persist in being geeky, even if they do not persist in being niche.  In fact, it seems like several of the prototypes I listed are now quite popular.

Blockbuster films have very high budgets, and must be supported by a very popular consumer base.  The infographic on the right is a list of upcoming comic book movies from IO9.  I also show GTAV, one of the best-selling video games of all time, and also one of the most expensive.

If something like Lord of the Rings has vastly more cultural currency than it once did, you might guess that most of the new fans are no longer from the geek subculture.  But so what?  That's what cultural hegemony is.  Even people who are not part of your subculture now feel compelled to recognize the value of your subculture's interests.  Your interests are now popular, and you gain all the associated advantages.  Good for you.

If I sound unsympathetic, it's probably because my biggest geeky interests have not attained a similar degree of popularity.  I'm mostly a math geek.  I like game theory, set theory, real analysis, origami, and logic puzzles.  I have been incidentally interested in sci-fi, but I've never been particularly enthusiastic about it.


One of the antitheses of geek culture is football culture.*  Stereotypically, geeks dislike football, which is fair enough.  Football is injurious to its players, a waste public resources, and most unforgivable of all, incredibly boring.  But most things that have cultural hegemony are obnoxious when they don't personally interest you. 

*That's American football, to all the non-US people.

Maybe it's just because I talk to more geeks than sports fans, but I personally think sci-fi fans are far more obnoxious than football fans.  I can't count the number of times I've been told that I absolutely must see Star Wars, and must read Lord of the Rings or Dune or whatever.  I'm kind of reactionary about it.  I tell people that I actively dislike the "classics".  (Since I'm ace, I privately draw a comparison between the cultural dominance of sci-fi and the cultural dominance of sex.)
Click for bigger original, from XKCD.  My reaction to this comic was that I'd prefer it if people were neither obligated to listen to football, nor to geeky interests they don't care about.  For instance, my dear readers are never forced to read every part of my blog.

Perhaps one of the worst examples of geek cultural hegemony is in video games.  Because the video game market has space for relatively few big-budget games, geeks are incredibly possessive of the medium.  Something like two thirds of US households play video games, and yet geeks complain endlessly that it doesn't count because they aren't the right kinds of video games (because they're casual, or indie, or Call of Duty, or sports games, or Nintendo).  This amounts to having cultural hegemony, and yet still complaining that it's not nearly enough.

Geeks are frequently defined by their opposition to popular culture and appreciation of more niche cultures.  But now that geeks are taking over popular culture, the question is, have geeks learned anything whatsoever about how to be popular without being an asshole about it?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Merging discourses on sexual repression

Content warning: this post deals with some uncomfortable issues regarding people who are or think they are sexually repressed.

In a recent post on The Asexual Agenda, I discussed how it is okay to identify as asexual even if you feel your asexuality was caused by some identifiable reason.  Among the reasons that people commonly identify is sexual repression, particularly from a religious upbringing.

There is a similar common narrative among atheists.  For example, Libby Anne said that she used to be "sexually suppressed and extinguished" by religious purity culture, and that she was "essentially asexual".  For thousands more examples, there was an informal study conducted by Darrel Ray (see Greta for a summary), which concluded that leaving religion improves people's sex lives.

These two discourses are in conflict about their valuation of sexual repression.

Asexual discourse is essentially reacting to the accusation that asexuals are sexually repressed.  Some have reacted by asserting that asexuals aren't sexually repressed.  Some have probed the meaning of sexual repression, and questioned whether it exists at all.  Some have questioned whether sexual repression is necessarily a bad thing, even if we acknowledge that its source, religious purity culture, is bad.

Atheist discourse is primarily geared towards criticizing problems with religion and recovering from religion.  Sexual repression caused by religion is a problem to be overcome.  There is no reason to look for any positive or neutral aspects in repression, or to probe its meaning.  For example, Darrel Ray's Sex and Secularism report claims that sexual repression is ineffective at actually reducing sexual activity (although it tends to slightly delay it), and that the primary effect is that people feel guiltier about their sexual behavior. This is pretty damning, because even if you believe that it's good to reduce sexual behavior, repression seems ineffective in achieving that.

I would like for atheists and asexuals to listen to each other more.  However, on reflection I think asexuals are already listening to atheists.  After all, most people in the asexual community are non-religious themselves, and I found Libby Anne's article (as well as others) through ace community discussions.  So really I should say, I would like atheists to listen to asexuals more.

There are many questions which get asked by aces, which are never addressed by atheists. Questions with no straightforward answers.

What does it really mean to be sexually repressed?  In some cases, it appears to mean only that a person has sexual desires, but feels too guilty to act upon them.  In other cases, like Libby Anne's, it appears to mean lacking sexual desires.  If one has no sexual fantasies or desires, how does one know that one's "true" self is the counterfactual self, the one with fantasies and desires?

How do we know that repression is bad?  Though religion may be bad, there is no reason to think that all of its consequences are uniformly bad.  I accept that guilt is bad, especially when it has no positive effect on one's behavior.  Lack of sexual desire or attraction, though, is more subjective.  It may cause relationship problems, and it may cause personal distress.  There are some people who overcome sexual repression and subjectively feel that it is an improvement in their lives.  But are these problems inherent to ourselves, or inherent to the way society is structured (or both)?

How do we know it can be changed?  Yes, we've heard stories of people who have successfully overcome sexual repression.  But I've heard plenty of stories of people who tried and failed. It often constitutes a form of self-harm, as people try to have sex in hopes of "fixing" themselves.  And since sexuality is a spectrum, there are people who try and end up landing in the middle.

How do we distinguish between attempts that will fail, and attempts that will succeed?  This is an empirical question.

If you are recovering from religion, and its effects on your sexuality, your experience is valid.  You only need to come to terms with your own experience, and you don't need to answer to anyone else's experiences.  You don't need to have answers to the questions I've posed.  Nonetheless, I think these are questions that the atheist community should think seriously about.

(Aside: If you looked at Darrel Ray's study, I have an important comment to make.  Darrel Ray hypothesizes that people who grow up religious and then become non-religious still have residual guilt.  This hypothesis is of great interest to asexuals who think they may have been affected by religious upbringing.  Darrel Ray claims to disprove the hypothesis.  However, the associated survey question was, "How much anger do you experience towards religion because of how it affected your sexuality?" which simply appears not to address the hypothesis.  Therefore, I am skeptical of his conclusion, and have ignored it.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Board game metaphors

Sometimes I wish board games had more cultural currency, because then I could use them in analogies and metaphors.  Alas, board games are such a niche interest that they can't really be used as a common cultural touchstone.  In fact, culture has such a "long tail" that only the most popular works can ever be used as a touchstone.  You have your footballs, your Star Warses, and your Bibles, all of which derive value from their popularity, even if their intrinsic value is in my opinion questionable.

Well, I'm just going to ramble about board games regardless of whether anyone "gets" it.

Even within board games, there are a few giants which all people are familiar with.  There's Chess, Poker, Monopoly, Risk, Scrabble.  And among nerdier people, everyone knows about D&D, Magic: The Gathering, and Settlers of Catan.  All of which I have complaints about, although some more than others.  By far the worst is Monopoly, which comes from an era when I think people just didn't understand game design.

I mostly play games in the Eurogame tradition, which is the one that includes Settlers of Catan.  I might as well say that one of my favorite games is Dominion, a deck-building game from 2008.  Dominion reached such popularity that it has been subject to a lot of imitation, and that's basically what the "deck-building" genre is.  I play several other deck-building games as well, like Ascension and Eminent Domain.

One of the interesting design choices in Dominion is the near-complete elimination of "politics".  In board games, "politics" refers to situations which depend on the power dynamics of the players.  A typical political situation is if I have a card that hurts one other player, but I can choose which player to hurt.  In Dominion, it is generally not possible to single out any opponent to hurt.  In a game like Settlers of Catan, players trade goods with each other, which is inherently political.

Because there aren't any politics, Dominion ends up being more of a pure game of economic development.  Each player has their own deck of cards, and they buy new cards to put into the deck.  Most cards improve your deck, allowing you to buy even better cards to put into it.  But you also want to buy "victory" cards, which actually make your deck worse.  When the game ends, you count up the points on your victory cards, and the highest score wins.  So the basic strategy is that you progressively improve your deck until a critical point, when you start "greening" and buying lots of victory cards (which are colored green).  The most important part of playing well is knowing when to green.

The build-up/cash-out structure is shared by many other Eurogames, even ones that are not deck-building games.  For example, in Race For the Galaxy, each player expands their galactic empire.  However, halfway through the game, some players might choose to switch to a "consume" strategy, where they take the empire they have, and focus on making lots of victory points.  Victory points don't help you expand your empire at all, but they are, after all, what's used to determine victory.

What's this a metaphor for?  Man, I don't know.  Life.  Except that life is political.

Here's another metaphor.  In Dominion, there are ways to remove cards from your own deck.  Beginners often don't understand why this is useful.  I bought those cards, why would I want to get rid of them?  Turns out getting rid of cards is one of the most powerful abilities, because it's the average card in your deck which matters.

That right there, that's a metaphor for life.  Life is like a deck of cards, and sometimes you want to get rid of some cards.  And sometimes you want to go for the village/smithy engine or the duchy rush strategy or the double jack strategy, or maybe the metaphor is breaking down here...

I don't know where I'm going with this.  Do any of my readers play board games?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Sexual economics, a theory in need of reworking

Recently, my attention was caught by the idea of the "sexual marketplace".  Specifically, there's a theory of sexual economics created by Baumeister and Vohs.  If you'd rather not read the paper, the Austin Institute* made a fancy video about it:

*Apparently, it's a think tank run by Mark Regnerus.  Yes, that Mark Regnerus.

Note that the video makes a bunch of claims about how people should behave, rather than just how they do behave.  I'll get to that part later. 

Basic Sexonomics

Baumeister and Vohs (B&V) model sex as an exchange that takes place within a marketplace.  We're ignoring everything except straight sex because, sure, that's ~90% of the sex.  So far, fine with me.  Since I'm a physicist I think you can make a simple model of anything.

But B&V add one extra component to the theory.  Men like sex more than women.  Therefore, sex is "sold" by women, and "bought" by men.  Men don't typically pay in money, but instead may offer
a fancy dinner, or a long series of compliments, or a month of respectful attention, or a lifetime promise to share all his wealth and earnings with her exclusively.
I'll just grant, for the sake of argument, that men really do want sex more than women, and I won't discuss whether that's cultural or biological.  The idea that women are "sellers" doesn't follow.

In general, sex is an exchange where both parties benefit, regardless of whether anything is bartered for it.  There are people who don't like sex, but they're not really participating in the market.  You'd think people would just have sex all the time, but I suppose you need time for other stuff and there's probably diminishing returns.  I also suppose there's also some opportunity cost associated with having sex with this person rather than that one.

Anyway, you can imagine supply and demand curves, where the demand curve is the marginal value to men, and the supply curve is the marginal "cost" to women.  Since sex is valuable to both parties, the "cost" is actually negative, but whatever.  The efficient market price is at the intersection of the supply and demand curves.  Since men want more sex than women, the efficient market price is positive (from men's perspective).
I worked really hard on this graph so you know it's right. 

However, it is not clear to me that the pricing will be the same across the board.  That may be true in the case of interchangeable products like bread, but is clearly not the case for people.  It may be the case that on the margins, paying women for sex can be the only way to make mutually beneficial agreements, but it's not obvious that this applies to the market as a whole.  For people who positively value sex, a large range of prices are possible (anywhere between the supply and demand curve shown above).

It is not merely that each person has a different valuation of sex.  It's that the value of sex is a function of both who you are and who you're having sex with.  I don't know how you get from this two-variable function to the supply and demand curves. I don't know if it's even sensible to speak of supply and demand curves.  You can't just assume that all human variation automagically averages out.

B&V also repeatedly emphasize that men are paying by giving the women committed relationships.  So the sexual market, where women sell sex, is coupled to a relationship market, where men sell relationships.  The thing is, like sex, relationships also benefit both parties, and again they ignore that aspect.

This all makes me wonder, where are B&V getting this from?
Although not many others have explicitly discussed sex as a female resource, we believe that that view is implicit, though often unstated, in many writings.  For example, Wilson (2001) recently published a widely influential sociological analysis of the decline of marriage in Western cultures, in the course of which he found it necessary to invoke unsupported assumptions such as [...]
Translation: "We may not have much evidence for our theory, but other researchers don't have evidence for our theory either, so nyah!"

In fairness, they offer a bunch of other evidence, such as prostitution, and societal attitudes towards infidelity in men and women.  And certainly, you can fit some facts about our culture into the theory.

However, at times it just seems like B&V are really fishing for the "that totally confirms my pre-existing prejudices" response:

Advanced Sexonomics
Typically, a group of men brought back meat for the group and all the meat was shared.  Miller et al. argued that this arrangement obscured individual hunting ability, and therefore women could not easily use gifts of material resources as a sign of long-term mate potential.
Here's the obligatory evopsych just-so story.
A low price of sex favors men, whereas a high price favors women.  Therefore, men will tend to support initiatives that lower the price of sex, whereas women will generally try to support a higher price.
And that's why feminists are in favor of slut-shaming.
Why should a woman care whether men in her community purchase pornographic materials and masturbate? But if pornography satisfies some of the male demand for sex, then it may reduce the total demand for her own sexual favors, and as a result the price she can obtain will be lower.
I guess that is one explanation.
Sexual decision making is likely to be more complex for the woman than the man.  Faced with a suitor desiring sex, she may feel pulled in conflicting directions.
Is there some economic principle that I'm unaware of that says "sellers" are more emotionally conflicted than "buyers"?  (It should be noted that B&V are not economists.)
As social exchange theorists emphasize, the value of any commodity rises and falls with scarcity. [...] By analogy, sex would have high value if the woman has had few lovers or is known to be reluctant to grant sexual favors, whereas the same activity might have less value if the woman is reputed to be loose or to have had many lovers.
In my understanding of economics, the value of a commodity rises and falls with global scarcity.  If one person can sell more of a commodity, they simply earn more profits.  So maybe there are some people who prefer sex with sexually inexperienced people, but that's just an ad hoc preference, not a rational response to the market.
Both men and women said they would be more upset if their partner had sex with a man than a woman.  This fits the view that, in sex, women give and men take.
Again, B&V make it out like this is a rational response to the market, rather than an expression of ad hoc preferences.  I really don't see how this could be.  Most sex benefits both parties, and it only "costs" women in that there is an opportunity cost.
[cw: rape] A milder version [of this theory] thus holds simply that female coercion of male victims lacks an important dimension, namely theft of the resource, and so the trauma and victimization are less severe.
I really don't think the theft of resources is the most important factor for trauma!  It's not like hiring a prostitute and having your check bounce.  Alright, I'm done with this paper!

Normative Sexonomics

Even aside from the merits of sexual economic theory, the video at the top is awful.  It argues that sex has become cheap (because birth control), and therefore men are less likely to pay women with marriage.  The video argues that this is bad.  Therefore, women should collude to make sex more expensive again.

Within their own stupid theory, if there's more sex and less marriage, this satisfies men's preferences.  Why is it bad for men to get what they supposedly want?

Message: Men's desires are destructive to society.

Collusion is kind of a ridiculous idea.  In theory, if enough women collude, this could give them an advantage in a market.  However, the women who are not part of the collusion reap even more benefits, so there's not much incentive to collude.  The only way collusion is possible here is if it's coerced.  For example, by public shaming of women who have sex too freely.

Message: We need more slut-shaming.

Saying "sex is cheap" sure makes it sound bad.  However, within the theory, the more expensive sex is, the less equitable the market is, so cheaper sex means more equality.  Note also that as sex becomes cheaper, sexual economic theory becomes less valid.

Message: Men and women have become more equal, and it's making our theory break down, so we need to stop it!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Asexual, because reasons

I wrote the following for The Asexual Agenda.  As usual, I target these at an asexual-spectrum audience, but I like the essay enough to share.
 I grew up in a family that never talked about sex or even really relationships and intimacy. Of course I was still surrounded by sex in media, my peers, etc, but I never got “the talk” or had any discussions about sex within my household. My therapist wanted me to consider if that could have influenced my disinterest in sex and lack of sexual attraction.
Seen on AVEN

I don’t feel sexual attraction to people but I know my antidepressants repress my sex drive so I don’t know what I feel naturally and what’s been taken away from me if that makes sense.
–A question seen on Asexual Advice
In a world that continually erases Asian (male assigned) sexualities I was coerced into asexuality. It is something I have and will continue to struggle with. My asexuality is a site of racial trauma. I want that sadness, that loss, that anxiety to be a part of asexuality politics. I don’t want to be proud or affirmed […]
Alok Vaid-Menon

There’s a common theme among people questioning whether they’re asexual. What if I’m really this way just because of _____? Replace the blank with “trauma”, “hormones”, “medication”, “my age”, “gender dysphoria”, “abuse”, “anxiety”, “repression”, or “upbringing”.

Even if you’re sure you don’t experience sexual attraction, if the reason you don’t experience it is due to any of the above, your claim to the identity becomes contested. The only universally accepted reason to identify as asexual if it’s “just the way you are”.

Philosophically, this drives me up the wall, because “it’s just the way you are” is not really a reason. It’s an admission that no one knows the reason. Suppose we discovered that 60% of aces are that way because they were subject to larger amounts of a particular brain chemical at the age seven. Would that mean that those 60% are no longer “really” ace? Would that be a case of SCIENCE disproving 60% of asexuality?

Who cares what the reason is? Does it make a difference to your lived experience? Does asexuality-because-hormones feel any different from asexuality-because-genes? If you don’t know whether your asexuality has anything to do with hormones, does that put your experience of sexual attraction into a quantum state?

However, the answer to “who cares?” is you care. And I care. If people just didn’t care, then Alok wouldn’t have written that essay, people wouldn’t ask Asexual Advice for advice, and nobody on AVEN would ever talk about it. Let’s think hard about why people care.

1. The “real” you

Many of the “causes” I mentioned appear as external forces, which could push you away from the “real” you. For example, if I’m asexual and taking antidepressants, would the “real” me, who is not on antidepressants, not be asexual? Of course, then the “real” me would also be depressed.  The question is not, “Who is the real me?” it’s, “Who do I want to be?”

2. A product of error

If one’s asexuality is the product of something like horrible, such as trauma, that feels deeply uncomfortable. How can I celebrate my orientation when it may have been caused by something so terrible?

You are free to celebrate your feelings or not.  However, always remember that neutral and good things can come out of bad. For example, I had parents who argued all the time, and that was bad. But I also learned to be good at conflict resolution, and I can still celebrate that consequence.

3. Unaddressed problems

If you think you’re asexual because of anxiety, or because of hormones, you might worry that by identifying as asexual, you’re ignoring the real problems in your life, whether those problems are social or medical.

Although, I haven’t heard any cases where an asexual identity caused people to ignore their other problems. If you’re worried about unaddressed problems, an asexual identity doesn’t require you to stop addressing them.

4. Predicting the future

What if it later turns out I’m wrong? What if it’s due to my gender dysphoria and I stop feeling asexual when I transition? What if it’s due to “repression”, whatever that means, and I stop feeling asexual when I’m no longer repressed? What if it’s due to my age, and I stop feeling the same way in a few years?

The future is scary, and there’s little I can say to make it less scary, since it’s not like I can predict the future. If you’re worried that tomorrow you will stop feeling asexual, you’re welcome to take a day to think it over. If you’re worried that it will happen over the next few years, I can’t tell you what to do with that. You may either give it time, or you can take your experience as it is now.

5. But other people are saying I can’t be ace…

They’re not the boss of you.  It’s your choice to make.

And although I offer reasons why you may still identify as ace, you may also ultimately decide that an ace identity is too uncomfortable.  I respect that, because it is your choice to make.

Monday, February 9, 2015

An altruistic prisoner's dilemma

Jeff Kaufman talks about an ethics trade that he sometimes does with a friend.
I have a friend who is vegan for animal welfare reasons: they don't think animals should be raised for food or otherwise suffer for our benefit. On the other hand, they used to really enjoy eating cheese and miss it a lot now that they're vegan. So we've started trading: sometimes I pass up meat I otherwise would have eaten, and in exchange they can have some cheese.
This is a win-win for the vegan, since they get to have some cheese, and there is no net harm to animal welfare.  It is not clear what's in it for Jeff though, except for his idiosyncratic preference to have such trades.  I am not sure this is an interesting scenario by itself, since, in general, any trade is possible with sufficiently idiosyncratic preferences.

Therefore, I propose a similar scenario, which I'll call the vegan/omnivore dilemma.

Suppose we have Vivian, who is cares about animal welfare, but likes eating meat, and Oscar, who doesn't care about animal welfare, but is so-so on meat.  Both people are altruistic, in the sense that they care about the total utility, not just their personal utility.  However, Vivian thinks the total utility includes the welfare of animals, while Oscar does not.

Let's say that if Vivian eats meat, that results in 2 utils compared to eating vegetables.  If Oscar eats meat, that results in 1 util.  Since both people are altruistic, these utils are seen from both of their perspectives.  For each person that eats meat, that results in a net loss of 3 utils, but only from Vivian's perspective.  Here's the outcome matrix:

Structurally, this game is identical to the prisoner's dilemma.  Vivian prefers to eat veggies, because eating meat is a net harm.  Oscar prefers to eat meat because he likes meat.  And yet, if each person acted upon their preferences, we'd get the outcomes in the upper right corner (1 util from Oscar's perspective, -2 utils from Vivian's).  From both people's perspectives, this is worse than the outcome in the lower left corner (2 utils from Oscar's perspective, -1 util from Vivian's).

This is interesting, since the typical statement of the prisoner's dilemma assumes selfish preferences.  Usually we have two prisoners, each of which wants to reduce their own jail time, and does not care one iota about the other prisoner.  But in the vegan/omnivore dilemma, both people are acting upon a measure of total good.

One possible resolution to the prisoner's dilemma is for both prisoners to start to think about the other prisoner, and exercise a bit of altruism.  However, in the vegan/omnivore dilemma, each player believes they are already being altruistic, and that the other person is simply incorrect about their assessment of what is good.  Must each person exercise "meta-altruism", and help the other person fulfill their misguided ideals?

I'm inclined to think this might be a case where "defecting" is the morally correct choice.

Although the typical prisoner's dilemma can be resolved by introducing altruistic preferences, the vegan/omnivore dilemma can be resolved by introducing selfish preferences.  Suppose each person selfishly prefers having money, and doesn't care how much money the other person has.  Then each player could "buy" the other player's cooperation.  If the prices are right, there doesn't need to be any actual exchange of money.  This is basically the situation described by Jeff Kaufman.  However, for a number of practical reasons this resolution isn't very satisfactory.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Taking the smart train

As I said earlier, I grew up having a reputation for being smart.  And I as I got older, I also entered increasingly selective intellectual spaces.

My social bubble right now consists almost entirely of educated elite.  Therefore, I strongly suspect that most of my friends went through a significant period of their life having the reputation for being smart, for being a nerd or a geek.  However, this experience does not last forever!

For me, it lasted for a long time, probably more than most.  I was the top of my class in middle school.  In my private high school, I was only in the top ten or so, but it was also widely known that I was the best at math.  In college, I was a physics major, which is already enough to get you labeled as smart among non-physics people.  Even among physics people, I was known for getting exam scores so high that they'd need to be excluded from the grading curve.  When did I ever get off the smart train?
Image borrowed from a transit blog, with apologies.

I finally got off at grad school.  I got good grades in my classes, but who cares about grades in physics grad school?  And now I don't take classes at all. It turns out that test-taking skills don't transfer perfectly to research.

I am fine with this.  The smart train wasn't so great anyway.  I was increasingly disillusioned with it by the end.

It is right and good that intelligence and academics are celebrated in our society.  It's important to the betterment of society, and also just intrinsically desirable.  However, living as an example of what is celebrated is fraught with problems.

There are the awkward nerd stereotypes discussed before.  There's the jealousy.  There are the expectations.

And there's the blatant unfairness of it all.  I have no idea why I had more academic success than other people.  Talent?  Upbringing by educated well-to-do parents?  Hard work?  I sure didn't feel like I was working hard, I felt like I was lazy.  I hated that other students felt like they could never do as well as me, no matter how hard they worked.  I hated that Biology and History students felt dumber than me.

That's my personal attitude.  And I think it's been quite adaptive, because I was able to step off the train relatively safely.  From what I've heard, some people only get off the train when it crashes.
I'm speculating here, but the main problem seems to be hubris.  You're told that you're smart, and that makes you better than other people.  So you simply believe it.  But eventually you get to such a level of education where your peers are as smart or smarter than you.  It's the Peter Principle for nerds.  And then what's left?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Is existence a predicate?

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

We will first consider a simple definitional ontological argument (henceforth referred to as the DOA).  I will address it in much greater detail than is strictly necessary, but part of the point is to build tools to understand more advanced ontological arguments later in the series.  The DOA is as follows:
$$\text{God is defined to be a being which has every perfection.}\tag{1a}\label{1a}$$ $$\text{Existence is a perfection.}\tag{1b}\label{1b}$$ $$\text{Hence God exists by definition.}\tag{1c}\label{1c}$$
This argument was famously refuted by 18th century philosopher Emmanuel Kant in his book Critique of Pure Reason.  Actually, my understanding is that Kant refutes it several times over with several distinct arguments.  Perhaps one of his most famous refutations is summed up in the statement, "Existence is not a predicate."

But what does it mean to be a predicate?  To understand what Kant meant, one would need to study Kant.  But here I will use a more modern concept of a predicate, taken from First-Order Predicate Logic (FOPL).

A predicate is a function that takes in a variable x, and outputs a proposition which may be true or false.1  For example, consider the following predicates:
F(x) means "x is greater than 2."
L(x) means "x is alive."
G(x) means "x is a god."
P(x) means "x has all the perfections."
Note that the variable x can either represent a number, a person, or object, depending on the predicate being defined.  The domain of a predicate is the set of all things the predicate applies to.  In the case of the DOA, we are interested in the domain of all objects in the world

In this post, I will explain why existence is not a predicate, and the DOA is nonsensical.  But in a later post I will also explain why existence may be a predicate after all, so keep that in mind.

Why existence is not a predicate

What we would like is some sort of predicate E(x) that means "x exists".  The problem is, that the domain under consideration consists of all objects that exist.  In other words, E(x) is true for every x in its domain!  Extensionally,2 the predicate E is equivalent to another predicate:
T(x) means "x is x"
Since E(x) is just tautologically true, it doesn't capture our meaning when we talk about existence.  And that's why existence is not a predicate.

The story doesn't end there though.  FOPL offers another natural way to think of existence: existence is a quantifier.  A quantifier specifies how many variables x there are for which a statement is true.  The two quantifiers we'll consider here are $\exists$ and $\forall$, which are defined as follows:
$\exists$x F(x) means "There exists at least one x in the domain for which F(x) is true."
$\forall$x F(x) means "For all x in the domain, F(x) is true."
There are lots of logical rules governing the allowable inferences with quantifiers, but they're mostly intuitive and details won't be necessary.

A note on definitions

To translate the DOA to logic, we first need a sense of what it means to define something, or to say that something is true by definition.  I'm used to defining things all the time in mathematics, but the trouble is you don't really "define" predicates in formal logic.  The predicates simply are.  What you can do is describe some or all of the properties of a named predicate.  For example, we could "define" G(x) with the statement:
$$\forall x~[G(x) \Leftrightarrow P(x)]\tag{2}\label{2}$$
This tells us that "by definition" G(x) implies P(x), and P(x) implies G(x).  If we replace G(x) and P(x) with plain English, then we could say, for example, that if x is a god, then x has all the perfections, by definition.

An important question: why is it that we can simply posit statement \ref{2} as true?  Maybe it's not true that G(x) means P(x)!  Certainly, if we're given plain English interpretations of G(x) and P(x), we may reject statement \ref{2} as simply untrue.

But in this series, I will begin all logical analysis by only considering the logical statements by themselves.  We are allowed to posit statement \ref{2} as true because there are some predicates G(x) and P(x) for which it is true.  Later on, if and when we're satisfied with the logic, we'll consider which English interpretations might fit the symbols.

On a side note, there are some definitions which are good, like statement \ref{2}, but there are also bad definitions.  Some definitions simply cannot be posited under any circumstance.  In general, distinguishing between good and bad definitions is hard.  Luckily, we'll only be dealing with good definitions until much later in this series.

Translating the Definitional Ontological Argument

We now have the tools to translate the DOA stated in \ref{1a}-\ref{1c} into logical statements.  Here is one translation, using existence as a predicate:
$$\forall x~[G(x) \Leftrightarrow P(x)]\tag{3a}\label{3a}$$ $$\forall x~ [P(x) \Rightarrow E(x)]\tag{3b}\label{3b}$$ $$\forall x~ [G(x) \Rightarrow E(x)]\tag{3c}\label{3c}$$
\ref{3a} and \ref{3b} are "good" definitions and can simply be posited.  The inference to \ref{3c} is valid.  However, it does not prove what we want to prove.  It just shows that if x is a god, then x exists.  So what?  We want to find a god, not just talk about its hypothetical properties once we find it.  The fact that E(x) is tautological for all x makes the conclusion even more worthless.  The conclusion we want is:
$$\exists x~ G(x)\tag{3c'}\label{4}$$
Unfortunately, \ref{4} simply does not follow from \ref{3a} and \ref{3b}.  The proof has fallen flat.

So here is an alternate translation of \ref{1b}, interpreting existence as a quantifier:
$$\forall x~ [P(x) \Rightarrow \exists y ~~y=x]\tag{3b'}\label{5}$$
This means "For all x such that P(x), there exists some object y which is identical to x."  This makes sense, but just as tautological as \ref{3b}.  It does not help us reach the desired conclusion.  You can try a few other translations, but I assert that none will work.  The DOA has gone nowhere fast.

In the subsequent posts we'll consider ways in which existence might be interpreted as a meaningful predicate after all.


1. It's also possible to define predicates which are functions of two variables x and y, or even more variables.  For example L(x,y) could mean "x loves y".  I don't think this is ever relevant to ontological arguments.

2. Here I'm using the extension/intension distinction in philosophy.  The extensional meaning of a predicate is simply the complete set of objects that the predicate applies to.  The intensional meaning of a predicate is its conceptual content.  For example, "x was the president of the United States in 2015" and "x is Barrack Obama" are extensionally equivalent, but intensionally distinct.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Debugging the ontological argument

I'm introducing a new series on the ontological arguments for the existence of God.  Ontological arguments are basically attempts to prove that God exists using pure reasoning alone.  For example:
God is defined to be the most perfect being.
It is more perfect for something to exist than to not exist.
Therefore, God exists.
However, this is just one ontological argument, and I will cover several more, culminating in Godel's ontological argument.

This is the masterpost for the series, containing a complete list of links, as well as an explanation of my purpose and perspective.

Outline of series:

The primary purpose is to talk about logic.  When we discuss apparent paradoxes, I find that many beautiful details about logic come out of the woodwork!

I also know there are lots of people out there who are just plain curious about the ontological argument, so my secondary purpose is to satisfy your curiosity.

I am not here to merely show that ontological arguments are wrong.  If I wanted to persuade people, I could simply assert the argument's absurdity--this is essentially the strategy adopted by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, for instance. The fact of the matter is that a vanishingly small number of people think ontological arguments are correct.  While I'm sure a few proponents will show up in the comments, most people look at ontological arguments and immediately find them absurd and unpersuasive.

My purpose here is to pinpoint errors in the ontological arguments.  I also call it debugging the argument, as if to go line by line in a computer program and find the missing semicolon. Although unlike debugging a computer program, I will not actually correct the errors, since ontological arguments are fundamentally unfixable.

There are definitely ways to refute ontological arguments without pinpointing the problems.  For example, an argument ad absurdum extrapolates the argument to reach an absurd conclusion:
Ted is defined to be the most excellent being.
It is more excellent for something to exist than to not exist.
Therefore, Ted exists.
But even if you accept the argument ad absurdum, that doesn't tell you what is wrong with the argument.  It's like executing a program and encountering an error--it tells you that there's a bug, but doesn't tell you where.  Thus, in this series, I will refer to, but not rely on argument ad absurdum.


I am a random person on the internet.  I am not here to explain historical refutations of the ontological argument, I am offering my own original vision.  For a more scholarly treatment, I recommend more formal resources such as Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

My perspective is more that of a mathematician than a philosopher.  Most ontological arguments can be framed in logical terms, and my writing will focus on these terms.  Some ontological arguments add rhetorical bells and whistles to the logic, and privately I view these ornaments as unhelpful at best and obscurantist at worst.


Unless you count my minor in math, my expertise here is basically self-taught. I taught myself philosophical concepts as necessary, sometimes consulting my boyfriend, who has a degree in philosophy.  Many years ago, I taught myself modal logic just so I could understand modal ontological arguments.  I wrote a bunch of blog posts about it (see references below), and argued endlessly with a few ontological argument proponents.

Basically, you shouldn't trust me based on my expertise, but based on my arguments and reasoning.

Comment Policy:

If you have comments that do not pertain to any specific post, please comment here on the masterpost.  I will not reply to all comments.  I do not promise to be polite.

Throughout this series I will use MathJax to render LaTeX equations.  This requires that you enable Javascript.  LaTeX will not work for comments, so in the comments I will adopt the following conventions:

E - existence quantifier
A - universal quantifier
~ - negation
^ - and
V - or
=> - implication (will be rendered as =>)
&lt;=&gt; - equivalence (will be rendered as <=>)
N - necessary
P - possible
-&gt; - entailment (will be rendered as ->)
|= - satisfaction relation

I encourage readers to adopt the same conventions to avoid confusion.
Complete list of old posts
This is all the stuff I've previously written on the ontological argument.  I'm afraid some of it is not very clear, and I may have changed my mind on some of the details.  This new series is intended to be my definitive word on the subject.

A simple ontological argument
A modal ontological argument
Godel's ontological argument
Godel's ontological argument, step by step
Modal ontological argument, revisited
Plantinga responds to me
An anecdote on obscurantism
Necessity isn't so necessary

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Etna kusudama cube

A variation on Etna Kusudama by Maria Sinayskaya.  A guitar pick shown for scale.

Here I show very small model I created with a particular purpose in mind.  I wanted to use an "aro flag" coloring scheme, which includes black, gray, yellow, light green, and dark green.  The trouble is, that's five colors, and five is an odd number.

The Etna Kusudama uses edge-based modules.  It's recommended that you make 30 of them and make an icosahedron.  Each face of the icosahedron will consist of a triangular pyramid with an opening at the tip.  An icosahedron is a nice shape to make because there exists a symmetric way to color 30 edges with five colors.

However, edge-based modules can frequently be connected in a variety of ways.  Here I connected 12 edges into a cube.  There exists a symmetric way to color the 12 edges with four colors.  The fifth color... is inside.

Yep, I just stuck a plain cube in there!  It's made of silver foil.  As a bonus, it makes the model more structurally sound.