Containment Thread on the Motivation and Political Context for My Philosophy of Language Agenda

by Zack_M_Davis1 min read10th Dec 20205 comments


Personal Blog

So, if you've been reading my Less Wrong posts over the last twenty-one months, you'll notice that I've been doing a lot of philosophy-of-language blogging lately! Those posts are:

But, if you didn't know, the reason I've been doing so much philosophy-of-language blogging lately is because I was frustrated because I thought a lot of people were motivatedly getting the philosophy of language wrong for political convenience, specifically around transgender issues. (I think assertions like "trans women are women" and similar need to be argued for on the empirical merits; you can't just define them to be true.)

In particular, "Where to Draw the Boundaries?" was intended as a "stealth reply" (quoting/paraphrasing without attribution in order to reply to the philosophical substance while eliding the political context) to:

I also write a blog about gender issues under a differential-visibility-but-not-actually-Secret pen name. The posts from that blog that are most relevant to my philosophical writing on Less Wrong are:

To allay concerns about premature abstraction of political issues, I'm putting up this non-Frontpageable post in case anyone wants to comment on or ask questions about my object-level motivations without cluttering up our philosophy discussions.


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If I understand it correctly, you are willing to use the preferred pronouns for passing trans people, because your System 1 doesn't object. May I interpret it as: "as long as we are not mentioning biology explicitly, I am okay to use the words 'man/woman' in the sense 'what my System 1 perceives as a man/woman', because that is a natural boundary"? (Like, biology is one natural boundary, System 1 judgment in another natural boundary, neither is inherently better than the other, the proper choice depends on context.)

This makes me imagine an opposite example: a non-passing cis person. Like, a fat man with man-boobs, with long hair, cleanly shaven, having somewhat feminine skull shape... who insists on being called "he". Or a bald muscular woman, with some facial hair, wearing male clothes... who insists on being called "she". I assume you would agree that it is proper to use their preferred pronouns (and would be quite offensive not to), because they match the biology (even in situations where biology is not explicitly mentioned), and to ignore the confused feelings of System 1. Am I right?

I appreciate this set of links grouped together being made because, given the similarity between them, having them grouped together seems useful.

I also think that every one of those posts is probably too long. Specifically, longer than they need to be. I consider this evidence in favor of 'keeping politics out of lesswrong does help with 'rationality''.

I consider this evidence in favor of 'keeping politics out of lesswrong does help with 'rationality''.

Sorry, I'm not following the reasoning here; can you say more? Why that specific hypothesis, rather than "ZMD's writing is too long-winded in general"?


  • Charity (see B.)
  • I didn't generalize that much.
  • Confidence (distinct from probability)*
  • Decision making heuristic (also distinct from probability)**


  • I've read stuff that you've written that didn't seem bad the same way.

Reading Where to Draw the Boundaries?***

  • It's long, hard to read/understand, and seem kind of wrong. Sometimes this is because the author is bouncing between (two) things that conflict, like: 'I think I'm right about this interpretation' and 'multiple interpretations are possible'. (This confusion that might be fixable by breaking things up more.)
  • Given that the post is about a specific thing, maybe it's written in a way that is really hard to read because references to thing have been moved/altered. (I could make some of the same points just using numbers and functions. An infinite number of series**** begin with 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, then don't follow up with 36, 49, etc. And yet, upon seeing those numbers you may see a pattern, and expect the 36, and the 49. And if "our brains know what they're doing" there's a reason for that. (But beware the Law of Small Numbers.))
  • It's also like a dialgoue, but without the two sides delineated, or the reader doesn't get to read half the conversation and it's really confusing because the rebuttals are confusing on their own.

The issue with removed references/abstracting politics has been mentioned before. On it's own it's slightly convincing. Looking these specific examples, it seems like it's horribly accurate.

*Like probability, but with wide error bars.

**Do more general hypotheses 'need' more evidence, or less?

***The word "the" might be out of place in that title. (And borders are drawn on maps. And they're messy around the edges.)

****Similarly, an infinite number of functions have the properties that f(1) = 1, and f(2) = 4, and...

I recently read Algorithms of Deception! and claim that it is of appropriate length.