Archive for the ‘metaphysics’ Category

Epistemics, Sex, and Gender

Saturday, 15 October 2022

Everyday discussions of epistemics don't require us to discuss foundational epistemology explicitly. Were someone asked how she knew that Johnny and Judy are dating, it would typically be sufficient for that someone to say that Judy were wearing his ring. We don't usually need to ask whether the witness had a false memory or hallucination, mistook someone else for Judy, &c. But it is important always to understand that no one just knows any complex proposition. The only things of which we have perfect knowledge are the things immediately before the mind — such as a feeling of coldness — and then we don't perfectly know their sources. Perhaps some of us are utterly reasonable in constructing models of the world to explain things such as our occasional sensations of coldness; certainly nearly all of us are so convinced of these models that we refer to a major share of their propositions as knowledge. But none of us just knows that Johnny and Judy are dating, that it is cold outside, that his or her eyes are blue, &c. Any reasonable belief in these things is an inference ultimately resting upon primitive experience.

I don't just know how it feels to be a man. I know how it feels to be me; I have memories, which I presume to be reliable, of how it felt to be me; and part of my model of the world (constructed to explain my experience) contains adult male bodies, one of which is my body. And, to that extent, I know how it feels to be a man. When someone else tells me something at odds with my experience of being a man, I don't think Oh, maybe I'm not a man after all! I just infer that the other person is either a man over-generalizing from his own experience or from reports, or is someone who is not a man but engaged in incompetent conjecture. I don't know how it feels to be woman. I don't even know how I would feel if I woke and found that my mind were operating in the body of a woman (which I presume would be different from how I would feel if my mind had for its whole existence operated in a female body). I simply cannot know without the experience. I could, in theory, know that I were unhappy being a man. I could, in theory, know that I wished to have a female body. But I cannot know how it feels to be a woman, and thus in no sense could I know that I somehow had a female mind in a male body. It is impossible for me to know that I am a woman. It is impossible for those who have never had a female body to know that they are girls or women. It is impossible for any of them to just know that they are girls or women. But they can certainly know their unhappiness or know their wishes. And the complement is true of those who never had the experience of being in a male body. They cannot know that they have male minds. It is impossible for those who have never had a male body to know that they are boys or men. It is impossible for any of them to just know that they are boys or men. But they can certainly know their unhappiness or know their wishes.

Hormone treatments are available to make a brain that was supposedly already female be more like an actual female brain and more as if in a female body, or a brain that was supposedly already male be more like an actual male brain and more as if in a male body. But this treatment would be actively absurd if the mind of the subject were already that of the opposite sex. I am not somehow really more a man than my levels of androgen or of testosterone or of estrogen have ever allowed me to be; likewise, I am not somehow really more a woman than my hormones have ever allowed; nor is anyone else. Those receiving such hormone treatments are not of the opposite sex; they are seeking to become more as if of the opposite sex.

If a male body could be made of a female body and vice versa, then it wouldn't matter that the female body had previously been a male body or vice versa. But present technology allows no such thing. A body that has undergone the most extensive reässignment surgery is ruined for purposes of return to its original sexual configuration. What alteration is available is primarily cosmetic, and highly destructive. Testes don't somehow become ovaries or ovaries testes; they are discarded. Breast implants may later be removed, but mammary glands become tissue to be sold or incinerated. The rest of the reproductive system is savaged.

And, if a male body could be made into a female body, or vice versa, then the change would always be something of a leap in the dark. Quite plausibly a great many people would be happy with where they landed, but others would be depressed, shocked, or horrified. With the procedures presently available — with an ultimately irreversible leap — many are indeed depressed, shocked, or horrified, without even the genuine experience of a body with a new sex. I've had at least one friend kill himself because of what he'd had done in trying to be remade into a woman. In the case of children, we are not so much considering leaping in the dark as being picked-up and thrown into the darkness. In ten, twenty, and thirty years, most of those who had been cheering the throwing will speak and write as if society were at fault in the case of those children who discovered that they'd crashed in a terrible place.

Our response to those who have come to desire interaction as if of the opposite sex should not be founded in mystical nonsense; but neither should it be characterized by condemnation or by intolerance. People should not be prohibitted from doing as they will so long as only consenting adults are involved. I think that radical treatments to change an adult's appearance to resemble that of the opposite sex are plausibly the best way for some people to alleviate very great unhappiness. I think that accommodation of such people, treating them as if they are of the opposite sex, is often quite appropriate. However, no one has a right to be treated as something that he or she is not. And, in some cases, very good reasons underlie sexual distinctions and subverting those distinctions is less humane than respecting them.

Much of the discussion of transsexualism has involved confusion — often deliberately fostered — between sex and other definitions of gender. The use of gender to mean sex actually dates to about the same time as it was introduced to refer to the somewhat related but distinct grammatic classification; but, for a time, use of gender in the sexual sense fell away. It began to be repopularized for purposes of euphemism, and continues as a euphemism into the present. The grammatic sense was related to the sexual sense in that things that were male were usually named with words that had the masculine grammatic gender and things that were female were usually named with words that had the feminine grammatic gender; but many things that did not have any sex were named with words having a masculine or feminine grammatic gender even when a neuter grammatic gender was a feature of the language, and some things that had sexes were assigned names with the neuter grammatic gender. Grammatic gender was an often odd social construct.. Grammatic gender and notions of rôles appropriate to each sex each influenced the other. At some time around 1980, the idea began to catch-on of using the term gender not in reference to sex nor in reference to grammatic gender, but to socially or personally constructed notions of those sexual rôles. The scientific and philosophic study of social or personal constructions of sexual rôles is itself very worthwhile; and the analogic appeal of extending gender to refer to such constructions is evident. However, the pre-existing and repopularized use of gender to refer to sex facilitated a hijacking of discourse, which confused sex with a social or personal construct of social rôle, under which hijacking it has been pretended that persons who are masculine are ipso facto male, that persons who are feminine are ipso facto female, that some males are neither male nor female, that some females are neither female nor male, and that any otherwise legitimate distinctions by sex must be replaced with distinctions by personal constructions of sexual rôle.

Of course, more than just grammatic gender or our notions of sexual rôles are here social constructs. Our language and every other language is a social construct, and the taxonomies of biology and of every other science are social constructs. More generally all taxonomies are personal or social constructs. But that does not make propositions subject to falsification by a device of recategorizing things, of exchanging labels amongst categories, or of applying new labels to categories. Rather, with a change of language a proposition is expressed differently; with a relevant change of taxonomy, a proposition involves more or fewer categories. If we adopted the convention of using Earth to mean only the Western Hemisphere, both that and the Eastern Hemisphere would continue as they would under the old taxonomy, rather than the underlying geophysics changing. Propositions about a sex do not become false or true by the device of insisting upon a new definition of man, of woman, of sex, or of gender.

What We Imagine to Be the Territory Is Usually Another Map

Sunday, 18 September 2022

As is often noted, the map is not the territory.[1] But what is usually missed is that, when we attempt to think of how they differ, we most often slip into specifics such that what we really compare is not the map with the territory, but the thing first recognized to be a map with a mental map of the territory.

Our efforts to think about how models differ from reality are usually likewise characterized by comparisons between some model and some other model not recognized to be a model. When we abandon specifics, and attempt to think of reality in the abstract, we almost always think of what amounts not to reality but to a hypothetical, unknown, perfect model of reality.


[1] with Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski being the first to put it just that way

A Note on a Quote

Sunday, 31 July 2022

When Oliver Cromwell wrote, on 3 August 1650 to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland,

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.

he was in fact paraphrasing Richard Hooker,

Think ye are Men, deem it not impoſſible for you to err; ſift unpartially your own hearts, whether it be force of Reaſon, or vehemency of Affection, which hath bred and ſtill doth feed theſe Opinions in you.
Preface [1594] § 9
Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie

(Underscore mine.) In Cromwell's time, and indeed for many years to follow, Hooker's work was widely known and widely respected, and Cromwell had every expectation that his allusion would be recognized for what it were.

Somnabulism

Saturday, 19 February 2022

[ Three years ago, I posted a version of this entry to Facebook.]

Consciousness is largely a response to surprise. We navigate through life mostly unconscious of what we are doing, but when the unconscious mind encounters something for which it is otherwise unprepared, it invokes the conscious mind.

People are of two sorts about that. For some of them, consciousness is a happier state, and so they are constantly seeking things to make them conscious. For others, it is unpleasant, and they seek always to return to unconsciousness. Perhaps most people fall between these extremes, not always wishing to be conscious nor always unconscious.

Perversely, when people speak or write of raised consciousness, it is often just the opposite; it is the adoption of a set of formulæ that allow one to engage in less conscious thought. And, really, most people who like to style themselves as woke have found a way to sleep still more as they go through life.

Some Common Sense about Common Sense and about Common Sense

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

I often hear or read Common sense isn't common. or, ambiguously, Common sense isn't.

The term common sense refers to variety of things believed or formerly believed to be closely related. In some cases, the term is indeed a description; in others, it is like Common Raven, which began as a description or as an attempt at a description, but names a now uncommon bird.

Consulting the SOED, I find about five definitions of common sense. Archaically, common sense refers to a supposed faculty that coördinated and united senses such as those of sight and of touch to form impressions of the world. The term may refer to ordinary or normal understanding (which must be common). Common sense may also refer to collective judgment across some group of people. Philosophers may use common sense to refer to the power by which generally accepted beliefs are formed in the absence of contemplation and of instruction. Normatively, common sense refers to reliable practical wisdom in everyday matters.

I don't use the term common sense much at all, but I occasionally use it normatively, as when I tell people that an introductory course in microeconomics will start with building-blocks of common sense but assemble them with uncommon care. Now, I suppose that I could use those very same words without normative intent, but I really am hoping that the audience will accept the blocks as themselves reliable. I cannot teach my audience everything, and I shouldn't have to teach those blocks to them.

When I use common sense normatively, the notions that I have in mind are of sound reasoning that is within the intellectual capabilities common to human beings, and of the structures of belief that result from such application. Something that would not be what I were normatively calling common sense would be unsound or outside of the possibility of common understanding. However, I'm more likely to say That should be common sense. than That seems like common sense. I'm even more likely to say That should be obvious.

I'm on the subject of common sense because various people in various groups will treat beliefs as if they are obvious to everyone who is not a fool when they are no such thing. Treating them as common sense — here using common sense normatively — is a form of implicit or explicit begging of the question; it is a violation of the rules of proper discourse. That said, most of those who treat those beliefs as common sense sincerely, thoughtlessly regard most of them as such; these people are not violating the rules willfully.

I've encountered this begging of the question by the political left, by the political right, and by political moderates. But I am at present most concerned by the misrepresentations from the left, because they have control of so much of the commanding heights of our culture. When a strong wind prevails, one leans against it, not against a wind of the past nor against a wind that may come in the distant future.

Examples of propositions that some or all of the left treat as common sense include

  • that greater economic efficiency can often be achieved by replacing markets with state administration based upon centralized collection of relevant information;
  • that material inequality is a social ill;
  • that poverty may be reduced by state-directed redistribution of wealth or of income from the affluent to those of little means;
  • that, if a school system is performing poorly, then some increase in the material resources provided to it would be sufficient to improve that performance, and that any decrease in such resources will be followed by a decline in performance.

Treating these propositions as common sense precludes consideration.

To impel consideration of all that the left distinctly takes to be common sense, we want a concise label for that group of their beliefs. We want an X such that we can say things such as This idea is X; if you're going to treat it as common sense, then you're first going to have to show that it truly is common sense. or such as This idea is X but it is not common sense; if you're going to justify it, then you're going to have to justify it on some other basis. Any label that itself begs the question, in some contrary way, will do little or nothing to promote thoughtful consideration. It will not provoke the left to think, and it will offend uncommitted members of the audience (with whom we should be principally concerned) and otherwise cause them to dismiss the argument as logomachy amongst knaves and fools. An insulting label would beg the question in an especially counter-productive way.

But the label should be used to establish a context of discourse across arguments and conversations in which context the left can no longer simply proceed with its presumptions as such or it will come to seem absurd to the audience and outmanoeuvred to itself. I don't know what the properly effective label should be.

Illusory Mites

Wednesday, 27 October 2021

In the past several years, I have had occasional episodes of a false sense-perception that tiny insects or insect-like creatures are crawling on me. The technical term for such experience is formication, loosely adapted from formicate, which means crawl like an ant (from the Latin formica, meaning ant), though in my case the sense-perception is that of being crawled upon by something such as fleas or mites.

I use the term sense-perception because, in my case, an underlying sensation is real; the falsity is in how that sensation is unconsciously interpretted. The sensation is actually produced by an allergic reaction. My skin is allergic to many things in my present environment. I don't know what all of these allergens are, but normally I can keep my discomfort and other symptoms at a low level by avoiding detergents and scented cleaning products. However, sometimes a threshold is exceeded, perhaps by something I recognize, perhaps not, and one consequence might be sensations so much like those of having tiny bugs crawling on me that my unconscious mind signals that just that is happening. None-the-less, when I can see some of the areas in question, no creatures (other than myself) are visible. Further, the inferred creatures don't make any progress; it is as if they are crawling-in-place. And, finally, wounds are not later discoverable on these sites. (As it happens, an episode can be triggered by an actual insect bite, but then further wounds are not found.)

Being rational in how I consciously interpret the sense-perception doesn't seem to cause it to change. That's probably because, for most of my life, when I felt as if creatures were crawling on me, it was because I had creatures crawling on me. Years of neural networking would have to be revised for my brain not first to think that bugs were crawling on me. And a practical adaptation would account for the possibility, when the sensation were felt, that bugs were crawling on me and warranted a swift response.

If I were less rational or didn't have other awareness of my allergies, it would be natural for me to conclude that, while I could not see tiny creatures, they must never-the-less be crawling on my skin or perhaps just below its surface. Let's add to such inclinations that most of those who would deny that these creatures were crawling on-or-under my skin would themselves get matters fundamentally wrong. In particular, failing to distinguish the raw sensation from the sense-perception, most people would deny the reality of the former, not only in their protestations but in their attempts to locate the dysfunction. It wouldn't be all in my head.

Basic Ontology

Thursday, 2 September 2021

When natural languages first had need to refer to concepts as such, this need was so limited and so vaguely understood that the very same term would refer both to a concept and to that to which the concept pointed. A horse is a mammal. and A horse is on my lawn. seem superficially to be statements of the same sort. Some people, sensing a difference, declare that the first statement is essential, while the second is accidental, but this way of speaking and of writing seems to treat a horse as referring in both cases to the same thing, and embroils us in conflicts over which attributes are essential, which are accidental, and by what methods we all ought to agree on a resolution. The primary difference between the two statements is that in A horse is a mammal. the term a horse typically refers to a concept, whereäs in A horse is on my lawn. the term a horse usually refers to something to which the concept corresponds, which we may call an instantiation of the concept.

I say usually because in theory someone might use a horse only for creatures who were, amongst other things, found on her lawn; but we understand that this practice is not usual, and can find the difference between concept and instantiation by considering usual practice. At the same time, we can see that struggles about essential and accidental attributes are largely rooted in different people simply using related but different concepts.

Even people who are careful to indicate a distinction between some Y and the concept of Y when Y is not itself a concept may fail to do so when it is. But the concept of the concept of X is not the concept of X unless we can find some X which is no more or less than the idea of itself.

From this point, we should see that, to believe that instantiations depend upon their concepts, we must accept an infinite regress. The alternative is not to accept that concepts depend upon that which instantiates them — some concepts are not instantiated — but to understand that concepts must be constructed by employing some thing or things that are not concepts.

In any case, always marking the distinction between concept and instantiation can become a very great burden as we begin to ponder ideas as such, part of which burden would fall upon a reader dealing with compounding of expressions such as the concept of; but, one way or another, we should remember what we are contemplating or discussing.

The confusion in using the same term for concept and instantiation is most acute in existence statements.

The subject in Unicorns do not exist. is the concept of unicorns, not any instantiation of that concept. Grammatically we treat nothing as a something and grammatically we treat non-existence as a property of nothing-as-something. But, underlying this practice, statements about non-existence are really statements that some concepts have no instantiations; if claims about non-existence refer to properties of somethings, then these somethings are concepts. Unicorns do not exist. is not really about unicorns; it is about the idea of unicorns. We can only speak or write of the idea of unicorns.

And, when we speak or write of existence, we are speaking and writing of concepts. The claim Horses exist. is really about the concept, that it is instantiated. Coherent existential claims are no more or less than claims that concepts are instantiated.

That statements of form X exists. unpack to form The concept of X is instantiated. should lead one to recognize that a proper reading of The concept of X exists. unpacks to The concept of the concept of X is instantiated. We don't generally need a concept before we use something that would instantiate it — otherwise the infinite regress of concepts would be needed — but anything that we use is at least potentially an instantiation of multiple concepts. Some might be tempted to conclude that, thus, X exists. needn't refer to the concept of X, and can be unpacked as X is potentially an instantiation of some concept. It may seem doubtful that anyone has ever previously intended such a thing with an existential claim, and certainly existential claims are not usually claims about the ability to find or to construct an idea of a thing said to exist. However, to be potentially an instantiation of some concept is no more or less than to possess properties, so this notion would treat existence as something like a generalization of the concept of property. Still, the formula cannot be adapted to X does not exist. as unpacking it to X is not potentially an instantiation of some concept. is always incoherent when not false, whereäs declarations such as Unicorns do not exist. may be coherent and true. And we are incoherent if by a horse we mean the same thing in A horse has no properties. as in A horse is on the lawn.

I don't propose that we try to reshape our speech and writing nor our work-a-day thinking to distinguish overtly-and-always concept from instantiation. I don't even propose to do so in all philosophic discourse. But, when discussion of existence seems troubling or profound or both, then we may need to bring that distinction to bear.


Some people, encountering a discussion such as the foregoing, will not much attend to it, because they feel certain that they clearly see a truth that contradicts it. I'm going to address propositions of two sorts, mistaken for such truth.

One sort, in which X is something like what is meant by a horse in A horse is on the lawn. says X V because it exists. where the variable V takes the value of a verb. For example, A hot stove burns you because it exists. The first thing to note is that specific values of V that supposedly prove existence aren't universally applicable; we don't say A horse burns you because it exists. Generally, existence is intended to be seen as a necessary but not sufficient condition for X to V. But, when we add conditions to achieve sufficiency, we find that the added conditions (eg, being at a temperature at or above 118°F) are by themselves sufficient, without a mysterious complementary property of existence possessed by X; the notion of such a property results from thoughtlessly confusing a way in which a concept of X may be said to have properties with the way in which X has properties. What we call the horn of a unicorn is itself a concept of a horn.

Though I have encountered at least one would-be follower of Ayn Rand who mistook the tack of because it exists for hers, she made a different mistake. She declared the concept of existence to be irreducible but axiomatic, and that we were to see that it were found and proven in-so-far as a self-contradiction would result from denying Existence exists. However, because we can show that a self-contradiction indeed obtains while interpretting existence and its coördinate terms as in the prior discussion, her attempt to prove the existence of some other concept (profound or otherwise) is a failure.

If we unpack Existence exists. as we can, it is The concept of being an instantiated concept is instantiated. The source of self-contradiction in denial of this proposition is that the concept of a concept being instantiated must have been instantiated for the proposition to be formed, though this proposition could not hold before formation of the concept of existence. And its subjects are not of the sort that Rand and her followers imagined or imagine.

For whatever it's worth, if we grab for potential instantiation then the unpacking is to The concept of potential instantiation is potentially instantiated. that is, more simply put, to A concept can be formed of being the subject of a concept. Again, self-contradiction ensues if we attempt to deny the claim, but in neither expression is the subject that for which Rand reached.

Checked against What?

Sunday, 4 July 2021

Recently, I encountered a bizarre claim about deaths from two different causes, and a link to a supposèd fact-check at Lead Stories, which unequivocally called the claim false. However, when I read the rest of the report, the alleged fact-checker had only failed to find substantiation for the claim. So I sent an inquiry to Alan Duke, the Editor-in-Chief:

Date: Sun, 27 Jun 2021 05:12:03 -0700
To: alan@leadstories.com
Subject: Method?

How do you get from your not knowing of any substantiation of a claim to a declaration that the claim is false?

Merely not knowing that a claim is true is equivalent to merely not know that it is false. Declaring it to be unproven would be perfectly reasonable, but that's not always what you do (though it may sometimes be what you do).

When declaring an unproven claim to be false, or its unproven contradiction to be false, do you flip a coin? or do you decide by some other method?

I've not received a reply.

Now, some people will declare You can't prove a negative! But the mathematic form of the claim being checked was x > y . Accepting that x and y correspond to real numbers, the contradiction of the claim is yx . I don't know that one of these claims should be regarded as positive and the other as negative.

Of course, all but the most terribly gullible understand that what is now-a-days called fact-checking is primarily concerned to protect some narrative or to attack some narrative, and will disregard even basic logic if that concern seems best served by doing so.

Rôles of Prescriptive Models in Economics

Sunday, 30 May 2021

In introductory treatments of economics, one often encounters a distinction drawn between what is called positive economics and what is called normative economics. In these names — and in typical discussion — there are problems.

The meaning of positive here is restricted to fact, as opposed to speculation. Now, on the one hand, supposedly positive economics, like all attempts by human beings to understand the world, is permeated by speculations, which in scientific effort are hypotheses. (The philosophic movement called positivism arose with incompetent aspirations.) On the other hand, contrasting the normative with something called positive entails an implication, insinuation, or declaration that the normative cannot be placed on as solid a foundation as the rest of our understanding. Sometimes a lack of present agreement is treated as if proof that there is no objective ethical truth; sometimes the question is just begged. In any case, the distinction is irrational.

Instead using the terms descriptive and prescriptive steps away from the worst aspect of using positive, though it would be less corrosive to refer to non-prescriptive economics as, well, non-prescriptive or as non-normative.

However, in behavioral science, elements drawn from prescriptive theory are often useful non-prescriptively, either as approximations or as bounding cases. Economic rationality and expected-utility maximization (the latter sometimes conflated with the former) are such elements.

Some economists would not even recognize economic rationality or expected-utility maximization as prescriptive in any case, because they are meta-preferential — they express a preference for structures of preference that have ordering properties such as transitivity and acyclicity, but say nothing about ultimate objectives and thus, in themselves, say nothing about whether one should prefer tomatoes to apples or life over death.

The prescriptive arguments for economic rationality and for expected-utility maximization are to the effect that those who conform realize more of their objectives — regardless of what those objectives might be — than those who do not, with it usually treated as tautologic that one desires such maximization.[1]

The non-prescriptive arguments for economic rationality and for expected-utility maximization as approximations note that these are relatively tractable models of behavior for which evolutionary dynamics will select. Because the models are taken from prescriptive work, some people mistake or misrepresent any use of them as necessarily prescriptive, but the claim is neither that social or other biologic evolution ought to select for something approximated by such behavior nor that agents ought to engage in the behavior for which evolution selects. (If anything, what is illuminated is that evolution selects for a propensity to such prescriptions!)

I endorse use of these models as tractable approximations in many cases, but I also embrace use of a weaker notion of economic rationality as a bounding case. A boundary of economic outcomes is given by considering what those outcomes would be were agents economically rational.

Behavioral economics concerns itself with when-and-how people actually behave, and especially with failures of the aforementioned models. Although this research is not what I do, I acknowledge its value. However, a great deal of what passes for behavioral economics involves an inferential leap from identifying a real or apparent deviation of behavior from one of these models to a conclusion that this-or-that result could be obtained by state intervention, with the researcher looking away from any proper examination of the behavior of agents determining practices of the state. Behavioral economics is thus used as the motte for a statist bailey. Additionally, even behavioral researchers with no apparent statist agenda often fail to recognize when behavior that seems at odds with these models is or may be instead at odds with some presumption of the researcher.[2]


[1] The main-stream of economic theory treats completeness of preferences as a feature of economic rationality but I've never seen a prescriptive argument even attempted for this feature. The prescriptive cases for transitivity and for acyclicity seem to presume an absence of conflicting, prior meta-preferences. The prescriptive argument for expected-utility maximization is especially problematic.

[2] While I have problems with some of the work and with much of the rhetoric of Gerd Gigerenzer, he has ably identified important cases of such failure on the part of researchers.

Nick Hudson on SARS-CoV-2 and the Policy Response

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Alphabet has removed this video from YouTube: