Friday, July 31, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

If you have any better ideas, let me know.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ontology and Gender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Cis diversity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Wait, what's going on at FTB?

Content note: arcane atheist blog politics

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 27, 2015

Asexual Agenda: Asexuality in China

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

Sunday, July 26, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Gods are unimaginably unlikely

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 20, 2015

Plantinga's Modal Ontological Argument

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

Finally, after explaining modal logic basics, I'm going to talk about Plantinga's Modal Ontological Argument (MOA).1  This argument takes as its centerpiece the following premise: $$G \Rightarrow \square G\tag{1}$$ G is the statement "God exists".  This premise is actually quite clever, because it's hardly an assumption at all, but a definition of God.  In order for an object to be God, then the same object must exist in all accessible worlds.2

This definition of God has the funny property that it depends on our choice of frame.  Even if you would call an object God in one frame, you might not be able to call it God in another frame.  As I explained before, frames are simply constructions and it seems odd that whether we call something God should depend on something so arbitrary.  Nonetheless, this difficulty can be overcome if we simply specify a frame as part of God's definition.  I'm not sure if this is what Plantinga does, but I'll propose a reasonable frame.

In this frame, let's say that world w is accessible from u if w is a possible past or future of u, or some combination (such as the possible past of a possible future).  God is taken to be some object which can never start existing, nor stop existing.  Thus if God exists, then God exists in all accessible worlds.  This justifies the premise \ref{ref1}.

Since premise 1 can be justified as a definition, we must look to the rest of the MOA for problems.

Statement of the Modal Ontological Argument

If you understand S5 modal logic well enough, the MOA is actually quite obvious.  If God is possible, then God exists in a world which is accessible from here.  And therefore God is also here.  More formally:
$$G \Rightarrow \square G\label{ref1}\tag{1}$$ $$\Diamond G\label{ref2}\tag{2}$$ $$\therefore G\label{ref3}\tag{3}$$
For those interested, I also include the formal justification for conclusion \ref{ref3}.  In parentheses, I cite the premises and S5 axioms in use.
$$\Diamond \lnot G \Rightarrow \lnot G~(\ref{ref1})\label{3a}\tag{3a}$$ $$\square( \Diamond \lnot G \Rightarrow \lnot G)~(\mathrm{N~and~\ref{3a}})\label{3b}\tag{3b}$$ $$\square\Diamond \lnot G \Rightarrow \square \lnot G~(\mathrm{K~and~\ref{3b}})\label{3c}\tag{3c}$$ $$\Diamond \lnot G \Rightarrow \square \Diamond \lnot G~(\mathrm{s5})\label{3d}\tag{3d}$$ $$\Diamond \lnot G \Rightarrow \square \lnot G~(\mathrm{\ref{3c}~and~\ref{3d}})\label{3e}\tag{3e}$$ $$\Diamond G \Rightarrow \square G~(\mathrm{\ref{3e}})\label{3f}\tag{3f}$$ $$\square G~(\mathrm{\ref{3f}~and~\ref{ref2}})\label{3g}\tag{3g}$$ $$G~(\mathrm{T~and~\ref{3g}})\label{3h}\tag{3h}$$
 Yes, this is logically valid.  All that remains is to justify premise \ref{ref2}, the statement that God is possible.

Is God possible?

Not many people put stock in ontological arguments, and indeed, neither does Alvin Plantinga, even though he formalized the MOA.  Instead, Plantinga merely argues that it is reasonable to think that God is possible, and therefore it is reasonable to believe that God exists.3

The problem is that possibility can mean oh so many different things.  Even if we confine ourselves to Kripke semantics, the meaning of possibility depends on our precise choice of frame.  As for the proof, it requires a very particular meaning of possibility.  Even if it is reasonable to believe God is possible, is it reasonable in the sense required by the proof?

For example, if you take the definition of accessibility that I used in the introduction, then the MOA can be phrased like so: "God existed some time in the past or future.  Since God by nature cannot begin to exist or stop existing, then God also exists now."  This isn't very compelling, because saying that God existed at some point in the past or future is a pretty major assumption.  I am no more likely to believe the assumption than I am to believe the conclusion.

Or suppose we had a broader accessibility relation.  Suppose that world u is accessible from world w if and only if the two worlds obey the same physical laws.  In this case, it's not clear to me how premise \ref{ref1} follows from a natural definition of God.  But let's just take that definition and be careful about the verification of any object as God.  The MOA can be phrased like so: "God exists in some possible world with the same physical laws as ours.  By definition, God must exist in all worlds with those physical laws.  Therefore he exists in our world."

This isn't very compelling because it raises the question, how do we verify that a particular object is God?  In order to check the object against the definition of God, we have to check all accessible worlds to see whether the same object exists in those.  Maybe that's not so bad if we chose a frame where there aren't so many possible worlds, but there is one world we need to check no matter what: our own world.  But by the time that you've verified God exists in our world, what need is there for the MOA?  The MOA is in this interpretation "useless".

While Plantinga argues that the premise of the MOA is "reasonable", we can see that this has no value.  It does not matter whether we believe in gods or not; because the MOA is "useless", it should not advance our belief in God even a little bit.


1. I'm really considering the simplest possible form of the modal ontological argument, skipping some steps for aesthetic reasons.  Plantinga's full argument can be found here.

2. For the moment we'll just forget about the problem of how to say that two objects in two separate possible worlds are the "same".  We'll also forget about whether existence is a predicate.  These are serious problems, but purely technical ones that will be solved later.

3. One thing you may not have known about Plantinga is that he has written an awful lot about his "reformed epistemology", and I'm sure he has something very particular in mind when he says the premise is "reasonable."  I am not familiar with Plantinga's reformed epistemology and won't address it.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Marriage and privilege

I've seen some queer commentators complain about the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in the US.  I will comment only briefly.

First, I am entirely sympathetic to a lack of enthusiasm and celebration, and understand why people might be annoyed by other people's enthusiasm and celebration.  Man, whatever, what about employer discrimination and poverty and suicide?  If anything I'm glad it's over so that the big activist organizations will move on to more important things.  I'm worried that they will lose donors and momentum.  More trans advocacy please.

Second, I am honestly puzzled by the racial dimension.  For instance, Darkmatter said, "The institution of marriage has and continues to exacerbate the (racial) wealth divide in this country," but does not explain how that works.  I've also heard that marriage imposes a nuclear family structure, which is colonialist/capitalist.  Some of the connections here are difficult for me to understand, since I come from a wealthy extended Chinese family that basically makes its money by renting out capital.

Third, people argue that marriage privileges certain kinds of relationships, and disprivilege others.  This is true, although I think it is right for government to grant privileges to grant rights to some pairs of people and not others.  I don't want strangers to have hospital visitation rights for instance, even though strangerships are the most important relationships.  Therefore I support even more kinds of "relationship contracts" for more kinds of relationships, without the romantic/sexual assumption.  More, not fewer.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

No, Obama did not nullify Hobby Lobby decision

Last year, the Supreme Court declared their decision on Burwell vs Hobby Lobby, ruling that the Affordable Care Act (ACA, also known as Obamacare) cannot force religious for-profit organizations to pay for birth control for their employees if they have a religious objection.

This year, a few news sources are reporting that Obama rendered the Hobby Lobby decision obsolete.  Basically, if a religious organization has a religious objection to paying for birth control, then the health insurance provider must provide birth control coverage at no charge.

But it would be wrong to say that this nullifies the Supreme Court decision.  Rather, Obama is implementing the decision.

Here are some facts:
  1. ACA, as written, already had the same policy for religious non-profits.  That is, if they had a religious objection to paying for birth control, then the insurance provider must provide birth control coverage at no charge.
  2. The rationale behind the Hobby Lobby decision is that if the ACA does it for religious non-profits, then it can (and must) do the same for religious for-profits.  And now Obama has made it so.
When I covered the Hobby Lobby decision in detail last year, I noted that a lot of people were panicking about it, and didn't seem to understand what it actually said.  Now that Obama is implementing the decision, many people are relieved that it's not as bad as they thought.  This is one of the dangers of panicking: people are satisfied with less once they realize that things are not quite as terrible as they initially thought.

There was never any danger of female employees losing access to birth control coverage.  The danger is that it makes religious rights too expansive.  Can religious employers discriminate merely because their religious beliefs tell them to?  The Hobby Lobby decision doesn't outright say that they can, but it sets a poor precedent.

I also worry about perverse incentives.  Why should organizations with particular religious beliefs have to pay less for health insurance?  I do not want to financially incentivize those beliefs, and it is simply unfair.

Though there is a lot of focus on the Hobby Lobby decision, I find the decision itself hard to argue with.  I think the real problem is in the original ACA policy, as written by the legislators.  Religious organizations should not have a right to discriminate, and the ones that do should not have their operating costs subsidized.

Building characters

One thing I sometimes hear from writers is the idea that characters have minds of their own.  The author doesn't tell the characters what to do, the characters just do it because that's who they are, and then the author just tries to describe it.

I definitely do not feel the same way about my characters.

For me, the characters are not set in stone, and can be changed to conform to whatever actions I want them to perform.  I ask myself, what kind of person would do that?  And then that's who they are.

Perhaps I'm too early in the novel, and the characters' choices will become more constrained later on.  Or perhaps I'm just doing things wrong.  That's always a possibility.

There are disadvantages to building the characters as you go. It encourages flatter characters.  It may lead to facades that only make sense from the perspective of the particular boat ride created by the book.  If you were to step out of the boat and see the cardboard cutouts from the other side you'd see that there was no back story, no additional character details, nothing.

I would, however, defend my approach.  I believe it mirrors how real people behave.  First they act.  Then they come up with justifications for their actions.  And finally, they become who they think they are.  Choices and behaviors make up who a person is.  So-called "character traits" are only descriptions after the fact.

I also think that when some authors have a whole coherent character in mind from the beginning, maybe they're just thinking of an archetype.  We have all these ideas and prejudices about what kind of character traits go together, and I think it's an illusion.  People have a mostly random combination of traits, and we just have an illusion of a coherent whole.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Defining evidence

To define "evidence", a good starting point is the Bayesian definition:

B is evidence for A if P(A|B) > P(A)

In other words, evidence is "anything that increases your belief in a claim."  This definition is appealing for a number of reasons.  It's sufficiently precise that in principle everything either counts as evidence or it doesn't.  And we can apply Bayes' theorem to build an intuition about what counts as evidence.

However, The Barefoot Bum points out a couple deficiencies in the definition.  First, just because B is evidence for A does not mean that A is very likely.  Second, it is possible to exploited the definition.  Here, I only wish to address the first deficiency, but the best illustration of why it is a problem is to show how the definition can be exploited.

Suppose I play a single game of poker with my robot boyfriend.  I'm dealt a mediocre hand, with aces high.  After we reveal our hands and I lose, we have the following argument:
Robot boyfriend: This is evidence that you cheated!
Trivialknot: That's absurd!  This is a typical hand.
Robot boyfriend: But there is no typical poker hand.  There are millions of possible hands, and each is very unlikely.
Trivialknot: You are correct, but surely if I cheated by choosing a hand for myself, this hand would be even more atypical.
Robot boyfriend: You're right.  Let's instead consider the hypothesis that you cheated and gave yourself this particular hand.
Trivialknot: Why would I do that?
Robot boyfriend: Who knows, but we can see the evidence for it right in front of us.  This is an atypical hand to be dealt randomly, but an extremely typical hand for someone who wants to cheat their way into a 3 of spades, 5 of hearts, 7 of diamonds, 8 of spades, and ace of hearts!
Trivialknot: And I would have gotten away with it too if it weren't for your Bayesian analysis!
[note: this is not a realistic scenario since we don't like poker.]

Essentially, it is possible to exploit the definition of evidence by carefully tailoring the hypothesis to fit hypothesis.  In mathematical terms, we are choosing A such that P(A|B) >> P(A), at the cost of making P(A|B) << 1.  This is obviously exploitative, because the entire point of evidence is to find out what is true, and yet here we're discussing a hypothesis which is extremely unlikely to be true even after the strong evidence for it.

Unfortunately, the distinction between exploitative and non-exploitative uses of the definition of evidence is not always clear cut.  Even in science we do want to tailor our hypotheses to fit the evidence.  Just not in that way, you know?

There are three kinds of resolutions to this problem:

1. Stick to the original definition of evidence.  Bite the bullet.
2. Formulate another precise definition of evidence.
3. Leave some of the definition up to subjective judgment.

I have, in the past, stuck with the standard definition of evidence.  It is useful, for example, to prove that absence of evidence is in fact evidence of absence.  That's always true in the technical sense.  And then if we want more nuance, we can discuss what makes evidence strong or weak.

On the other hand, the word "evidence" has some value attached to it.  Evidence is desirable, laudatory, and the way to truth.  If there is a way to use the technical definition of evidence in order to frame what is untruthful as truthful, then maybe there is something wrong with the technical definition.

I think there is a lot of value in a more subjective definition of "evidence", and practically speaking, people are making subjective judgments anyway, so we might as well admit it.  But it's at least worth looking for a technical fix.  The Barefoot Bum suggests that we speak of evidence as something which favors one hypothesis relative to another mutually exclusive hypothesis:

C is evidence for hypothesis A relative to hypothesis B if P(A|C)/P(B|C) > P(A)/P(B)

This definition is still exploitable if we carefully tailor our hypotheses.  However, we can add the restriction that A and B are only comparable if they receive similar degrees of tailoring.  Thus we retain the ability to tailor hypotheses while removing the ability to do so in an exploitative way.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Surveys and validation

This has been cross-posted on The Asexual Agenda.  Obligatory disclaimer: My views do not necessarily reflect those of the AVEN survey committee. I speak only for myself.

When the AVEN Community Census, a volunteer-run survey of asexual communities, approached the data analysis phase, someone on the committee said, "Who will help me eat the bread?" That phrase stuck with me as a particularly apt description of survey creation, albeit completely backwards.

The question, "Who will help me eat the bread?" comes from the folk story, "The Little Red Hen". In the story, the hen asks for volunteers to help in the various steps to create bread, but none will volunteer. Finally, she asks for volunteers to eat the bread, and suddenly everyone is feeling helpful!

As the committee member put it, writing the questions and disseminating the survey is the hard work to make bread. Analyzing the survey is eating the bread. Everyone wants to know the results!

But having actually worked on the survey analysis, my impression is that writing the questions is eating the bread, while data analysis is just plain work. Even when it comes to myself, I'm enthusiastic about doing analysis but it's a lot of work and I can't seem to find the time. (In contrast, finding time for blogging is much easier.) And this is not a singular pattern. You can see from the history of asexual community surveys that the hardest part is getting the analysis moving.

Writing questions also garners a lot of community interest, judging by the abundance of complaints about questions, and scarcity of complaints about the lack of analysis. More specifically, people are interested in what's in the questions, because questions are a form of validation. People really want to see their particular identity, their particular experience, and their particular views reflected in the survey.

And this is all wrong, in my opinion. What makes a good survey question is independent of validating identities. For example, when choosing what romantic orientations appear on the survey, the primary consideration is to capture the most common combinations of identities, basically so we can minimize the labor of interpreting write-in responses, and create a succinct summary of results. To assign validity according to whether the romantic orientation appears in the survey is to assign validity based on popularity.

There are other concerns too, such as whether an experience can be easily quantified, whether it tells us something we already knew, and whether it's the sort of thing we want to measure on an annual basis, or just for one year. Plus there are a bunch of random personal factors and plain stupid oversights, so I'm not saying it's wrong for people to complain.

Complaints about survey questions evoked many mixed feelings in me.  Some critiques of the survey were valid, and I don't wish to discourage people from giving them.  And even if there's nothing to be changed, people's feelings are still valid and can be expressed freely.  But clearly a lot of people have an emotional need for validation from authority, any kind of authority at all. I don't want to be your benevolent authority, I want you to be free.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

What liberal Christians are saying about same-sex marriage

When the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage must be legal throughout the US, many people responded with celebration.  But there were other kinds of responses as well:

-Activists reminding us that the fight is not over.
-Radical queers, feminists, poly folk, and singles complaining about the way marriage privileges certain people.
-Libertarians opposing all state marriage.
-Presumably there's a range of conservative responses as well, but I don't pay attention to them.

Here I wish to highlight a different response, those of liberal Christians.  Surely it is possible to find liberal Christians who say all sorts of things, so I will constrain myself to the links shared by Christian friends on Facebook .  These are all friends from IVCF, a relatively liberal evangelical college campus ministry, although that does not necessarily reflect the views of the links they shared.

1. SCOTUS by Dora4Yiu
I have many mixed emotions right now. Probably more than I can articulate well.
-I don't find it very inspiring when the liberal Christian response is "it's complicated."  So... you think that the pro-gay and anti-gay sides both make good points and that the truth is somewhere in the middle?  It's difficult to tell from such a short piece.

-Dora briefly mentions the distinction between the sacred contract of marriage and the government contract of marriage.  She believes that the government contract is all the LGBT activists really wanted.  This sounds like saying, it's fine for same-sex couples to have equal legal rights because we all know they're still symbolically second-class citizens.

-Dora also echoes some of the points that I hear from my radical queer friends: same-sex marriage is mostly being celebrated by white people, and also marriage privileges certain relationships.  I have opinions about this, but there isn't space here.

-Dora thinks Christians need to clean up their own act and stop idolizing marriage.  I honestly don't understand the point being made, since the idea of idolatry has no secular translation.

2. Some Advice on Same-Sex Marriage for US Church Leaders From a Canadian by Carey Nieuwhof
I hope [this essay] pulls debate away from the “sky is falling/this is the best thing ever” dichotomy that seems to characterize much of the dialogue so far.
-Like the first article, Carey seems to think it's complicated and that both sides have good points.

-The main thrust of the article is that it's okay for the church and law to be at odds, since that's how it's always been.  He's basically trying to comfort anti-gay Christians for their loss.  I hope this isn't too flippant (that's a lie), but no, you should not be comforted, you should stop being anti-gay.

-"Judgment is a terrible evangelism strategy."  I dunno, social justice advocates are pretty judgmental and seem fairly successful.  The problem is when most people can tell your judgments are wrong.

3. How I Came Around on Gay Marriage by Liz Lin
A few years after I changed my stance on gay marriage as a civil rights issue, the needle started to move for me theologically as well.
-This is the most positive essay of the three.  Like in the others, Liz expresses "it's complicated" views, but these are only part of her personal trajectory towards a more gay-friendly view today.

-Like Dora, Liz also makes a distinction between the religious idea of marriage and the civil rights associated with it.  By thinking of same-sex marriage in terms of a civil rights question rather than a religious question, she was able to support it earlier on.  Later she came around on the religious question too.

-The reasons for Liz's change of religious views come from careful consideration of the Bible, and hearing stories from LGBT people.  From the perspective of someone who thinks reading the Bible is a lot like reading tea leaves, I sure am glad that the tea leaves were arranged that particular way!


Being a Christian and also a decent person is a struggle.  :'-(

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Sierpinski Tetrahedron

Sierpinski Tetrahedron, a model designed by me.  It also uses Equilateral Triangle Edge Modules by Lewis Simon & Bennett Arnstein.

Although I designed the particulars of the construction of this model, the idea of a Sierpinski Tetrahedron is not original.  It comes from one of the best-known fractals, the Sierpinski triangle.

Image borrowed from David Darling.

The Sierpinski triangle is constructed by taking three congruent triangles, and using them to form a larger triangle.  Then we take two more copies of the larger triangle, and use them to form an even larger triangle.  And repeat ad infinitum.

The sierpinski tetrahedron is a natural generalization, where you take four congruent tetrahedrons, and use them to form an even larger tetrahedron.  And then with four copies of the larger tetrahedron, we make an even larger one.  We stop there though, because 16 tetrahedra is enough to get the picture.

I'm also inspired by Tomoko Fuse's Unit Origami, where she shows ways to connect simple polyhedra together.  But what larger whole can I construct with lots of little polyhedra?  And so came the idea of the Sierpinski Tetrahedron.  All that remained was to design a connector so that the tetrahedra would stick together.  I'm not entirely satisfied with the connector design though, since it could stand to be more stable.

I tried searching for other connector solutions on the internet, and I found that most people just use tape.  Except for this one, which claims to use paper links.

But as I can plainly see, there are no connectors.  I think the website is lying to me.  You can't fool an origamist!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Paper: Evolving out of corruption

I previously summarized a paper which showed that an evolutionary population can cooperate if there's a subpopulation of "corrupt policers", hypocrites who punish others for defecting, while also defecting themselves.  A small population of corrupt policers is still better than an entire population of defectors, so the conclusion was that corruption can be a force for good.

"Evolving Righteousness in a Corrupt World" is a paper that disagrees with those conclusions.  They begin with the observation that in human societies, corruption doesn't really appear to be a force for good.  Then they show that there is an alternate possibility of a "righteous" population, where nearly everyone is a cooperative policer.

The critique in this paper is actually quite similar to the critique I made at the end of my last post.  I said that it didn't seem to describe police officers very well, since police are publicly funded.  So what would happen if we had a game where all cooperative non-policers paid a small fee to the policers?  The fee doesn't even need to be large, it can be a small perturbation.  This paper shows that this small change allows the existence of righteousness under certain conditions.

And that's this paper in a nutshell.

To promote righteousness, you basically need two things.  You need punishments to be more egalitarian (i.e. policers get punished almost as badly as non-policers do when they defect), and you need punishments to be harsh (at least harsh enough to offset the benefit of defecting).  In the context of police, that means not giving police officers special treatment when they break the law.  Hey, that seems like it should be a fairly obvious democratic principle!

On the other hand, I'm still wondering if this is a good model of the police.  After all, not everyone is a police officer, and those who are police officers aren't all corrupt.  Maybe you can think of certain people as being police for game theory purposes simply because they'll report crimes to the police.  Or maybe the model just needs further modification.  I'm sure there's some way to fund the police department without having the police be zombies who take over the entire population.