A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 8): Binaries

“[It was an] amazing fact…that our logical intuitions (i.e., intuitions concerning such notions as: truth, concept, being, class, etc.) are self-contradictory.” –Kurt Godel 

The sorites paradox presents a challenge to the notion of clearly definable and graspable concepts such as gender and identity. However, many people may still think that the problem doesn’t extend that far. Even brilliant minds such as that of Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that we are capable of complete understanding through the mutual use of clear language. Thus, there must be a solution to this apparent problem of vagueness that conflicts with our fundamental intuitions regarding semantics (meaning) and logic.

In order to resolve the issue, philosophers have done various things including denying that logic applies to soritical expressions like the one described, denying some premise(s), denying the validity of the arguments demonstrating the problem (i.e., denying that that the conclusion follows from the premises), or by accepting the arguments as sound (i.e., the conclusion does follow from the premises and the premises are true). However, each strategy comes with its own set of problems.

Let’s start with the first. In order to argue that logic doesn’t apply to these expressions, some have argued that there is no actual problem once we are able to eliminate vagueness in our language, thus saving classical logic, which relies on binary truth values: True and False (hence classical logic being referred to as bivalent). Unfortunately, the pursuit to eliminate vagueness hasn’t produced satisfactory results and has largely been abandoned.  As it turns out, vagueness is inherent in our thought as well as in our language.

Okay, well the second strategy might work. What if instead the problem wasn’t a problem inherent to meaning or logic, but was instead inherent to our ability to identify false premises? In other words, a sharp line between heapness and non-heapness exists. The problem is we just don’t know where the line is. That may be a route we could take, but it should be noted that this doesn’t seem to work out very will with other intuitions we might have. Indeed, intuitions are not enough to rule this possibility out, but there are also other reasons (which will be covered soon) to doubt that this is a simple problem of not knowing where the line is.

What about the other two strategies? In an attempt to successfully use them, philosophers have appealed to multi-valent (or many-valued) logics. For example, instead of a binary system only using the values True and False, we can use a three-valued system using True, Indeterminate and False. However, a trivalent logic leads to the same problems. What about a “fuzzy logic” that has infinite values where instead of a binary of truth values we have a spectrum of values? As it turns out, that doesn’t work either because it’s not exactly clear why we need to accept degrees of truth outside of solving these particular problems. Also, whatever degree of truth we assign is going to involve an element of choice. By this point we should be perfectly aware that we cannot objectively determine whether or not a statement is 1/2 true, 1/3 true, 1/4 true, etc. The final reason why is that even if we accepting degrees of truth solves this set of problems, it leads to its own set of problems. Binary logic: can’t live with it, can’t live without it, amirite?!

By now my dear readers are probably either in denial or in the depths of despair because we naturally desire certainty. It provides us comfort because it reassures us that the world is understandable and predictable. I mean, that’s how our ancient ancestors survived. They needed to come up with ways of navigating a very harsh and cruel world. In order to do that, they evolved certain cognitive skills that not only helped their chances of survival and successful reproduction, but also allowed them to think logically. This adaptation gives us an intuitive sense that we can really know our world, so I really apologize for what I am about to do, dear readers.

Enter the liar paradox (a paradox of self-reference): “this statement is not true”. What truth value should we assign to such a statement? It cannot be true because if it is then it’s not true and it cannot be false because if it is then it is true. Well, shit! What does this mean? In the philosophy of mathematics, a famous version of a self-reference paradox known as Russell’s paradox presents a challenge to the rational foundations of mathematics, the ultimate paradigm of rationality and truth. I mean, if 1+1 isn’t 2, then what is it? Fish?!

The paradox is as follows:

“According to naive set theory, any definable collection is a set. Let R be the set of all sets that are not members of themselves. If R is not a member of itself, then its definition dictates that it must contain itself, and if it contains itself, then it contradicts its own definition as the set of all sets that are not members of themselves.”

Bertrand Russell, the paradox’s namesake, is credited with coming up with this particular paradox of self-reference. With the help of Alfred North Whitehead, he sought to dissolve this paradox in their work Principia Mathematica by attempting to ground arithmetic in logic. As impressive as it was, it was eclipsed by its massive failure at the hands of mathematician Kurt Godell (I know that’s not how your technically spell his name, but I don’t know how to configure the text on my keyboard to fix it–so shut up, nerds) and his incompleteness theorems which showed that arithmetic is necessarily incomplete. This means that arithmetic cannot be grounded in logic because it must rely on assumptions that cannot be proven to be true and it cannot show itself to be consistent. Well, what the hell does that all mean and what does it have to do with anything?

The thing about paradoxes is they seem to be indications of flaws in the concepts that we employ in our thought and in our language. For example, the sorites paradox points out that language is inherently vague, and that can be tough to deal with if we expect to have categories with sharp, definable boundaries. Take male and female as examples. The problem of vagueness suggests that any attempt to come up with clear, definable sets of criteria for belonging in either category is futile. It will necessarily involve a degree of choice and arbitrariness.

With self-reference paradoxes like the liar paradox and Russell’s paradox we are confronted with even more fundamental challenges:

The liar paradox is a significant barrier to the construction of formal theories of truth as it produces inconsistencies in these potential theories…the central question then becomes: How may the formal setting or the requirements for an adequate theory of truth be modified to regain consistency–that is, to prevent the liar paradox from trivializing the system?…Set-theoretic paradoxes [such as Russell’s Paradox] constitute a significant challenge to the foundations of mathematics.

If our notions of truth and the rational basis for mathematics are suspect, what else is at stake? Consider another paradox of self-reference known as the paradox of the knower: “No one knows this statement”. This paradox relies on two assumptions: (1) proof is sufficient for knowledge and (2) knowledge is sufficient for truth. Philosophers use a working definition of knowledge which is justified true belief. In order for a statement to be known, it must be a true statement that a knower has good reasons to believe is true. After all, how could someone know a statement to be true if it is actually false? Also, proof appears to be a high enough of a standard for being justified in believing that a statement is true. Okay, now that we got that all out of the way, let’s get back to the paradox.

If we were to take “No one knows this statement” to be true, then we would be claiming to know a statement that is not known by anyone. If we were to take it as not true, then we would be claiming to know that a statement that is not known by anyone is not true. Regardless, we would be making claims to knowledge that we would at the same time claim we do not have since we are members of the set that is excluded from knowing. The knower paradox is a part of a class of paradoxes known as epistemic paradoxes that present challenges to our understanding of knowledge. If truth and the knowability of statements are suspect, then can we know anything? Is 1+1 actually fish?!

Attempts to solve or get around the paradoxes of self-reference have been made by weakening some of the basic assumptions that precede them. Remember our working definition of knowledge? If “knowledge is justified true belief” is suspect, then what can we know? What does this all mean for us? Am I even real? Are there only two genders? Yes; it depends on what you mean by “know”, “true”, and “justified”; you’ll find out; it depends on what you mean by “I”; Lol hell no – haven’t you been paying attention?


A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 7): Identity

“To exist is to be something, as distinguished from the nothing of non-existence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes…A is A. A thing is itself…Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification.” –Ayn Rand

As stated previously, gender is both spurious and unstable. What exactly do I mean by this? Well, let’s start with the law of identity, one of the three laws of thought (most commonly called the laws of logic): A is A, i.e., a thing is identical with itself, or each object is composed of its own set of qualities or properties–its essence.

This is known as the law of identity and is the first of the three laws that define coherent thought. Some thinkers have taken the law of identity to imply that to be existant is to have properties. Some would take it further and assert that in order for a thing to exist it must have a set of essential properties, properties that make a thing what it is. We can distinguish essential properties from what some have called accidental properties, properties that objects have that are not essential to what it is. For example, one might assert that in order for a chair to be a chair, it must have four legs, have a back rest, and must be man-made. Those are it’s essential properties. Chairs can come in different colors or be composed of different materials. Those are accidental properties.

This sounds intuitively obvious to most of us and as such, has a lot of appeal. However, upon further inspection, what we consider essential properties could be considered accidental properties by others. For example, might it still be a chair if it has fewer than four legs? How many legs differentiates chairs from non-chairs? What about back rests? Well, we call those things stools, but might the deciding factor in distinguishing chairs from stools be, at least to some degree, a matter of choice?

This apparent element of choice is present in all of our categories. Our decisions regarding what is essential for something to be a particular thing are not 100% objective. This is further complicated by the fact that things constantly change. For example, consider the life and death of a particular tree. It first starts out as a little seed, and over its lifespan, grows, gets chopped down and is then processed into paper. At what point in its lifespan did it become a tree? At what point did it lose its treeness?

Now lets consider the paradox of the heap. If 1 grain does not make a heap, then neither do two grains since one additional grain cannot make the difference between a grain and a heap. Following this rule, if 2 grains do not make a heap, then adding one more does not make a heap. If 3 grains do not make a heap than neither do 4 and so on so that we can say if n does not make a heap, neither does n+1. However, if this continues to hold, then 1,000,000 grains do not make a heap. Neither do 10,000,000 grains nor do 1,000,000,000 grains all the way to infinity. The problem is this seems absurd. Obviously we can say that 1,000,000,000 grains is a heap. So how many grains does it take for a heap to be a heap? Where is the line dividing heapness from non-heapness?

These examples illustrate some critical problems for the ideas of identity and essential properties, and suggest certain limits of language and logic. If objects are not necessarily what they appear to be and if they are constantly changing, what does that say about us and our personal identities? Might we also be spurious and unstable?


A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 6): Drag

“I would suggest as well that drag fully subverts the distinction between inner and outer psychic space and effectively mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity.” –Judith Butler

To those who are unfamiliar with queer culture, a drag performer is someone who dresses in the clothing of a gender that (often) differs from that of their own. Drag queens are (mostly cisgender gay) men (sometimes transgender women and non-binary individuals) who dress as women with exaggerated feminine qualities. It is often performed in a satirical manner–hence Butler viewing it as subversion of gender essentialism, the notion that gender is an inherent property of individual persons.

In her book, Gender Trouble, Butler argues that gender is “a stylized repetition of acts…which are internally discontinuous…[so that] the appearance of substance is precisely that, a construed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief”.

Stated differently, gender isn’t something within us, it is something that we do and its reality is dependent on our behavior. The behaviors that we adopt as part of this performance are informed by our cultural beliefs about gender. Thus, gender norms produce gender and conceal their normative force through our stylized repetitions leading us to believe that gender is essential to who we are.

Further, these norms are what are behind the heterosexual matrix mentioned in the last post. Recall that anyone who deviates from commonly accepted norms are difficult to understand by many in the dominant culture. This apparent unintelligibility of queer identities seems to present a challenge for any pragmatist defense of Katy’s status as a woman. However, this challenge is rather superficial.

Most of us understand that norms regulate our behaviors and one way they do that is by prohibition. For example, social norms dictate that we in Western culture greet our friends with smiles and a verbal acknowledgement. These same norms prohibit other behaviors such as avoiding eye contact. When they do happen, such behaviors are seen as rude and a kind of social sanction often follows.

What most people do not understand is that norms are also productive. They generate certain behaviors as much as they prohibit others. Using our example, we can view smiling as a behavior that is produced by Western social norms (in the context of this particular example). Thus, if norms are productive as well as prohibitive, then what might be said about queer identities as they relate to norms in the dominant culture?

The same norms that discourage and sanction queer identities are behind their production. Queer folks like Katy, even though they don’t occupy favorable social positions in dominant culture, are still part of it nonetheless, albeit in more marginalized positions. Therefore, Katy’s status as a woman isn’t challenged by it being difficult for others around her to understand.

What about drag? Drag is a kind of performance that exposes the spurious and unstable nature of gender and the norms that constitute it. How exactly is gender unstable and how might that instability produce queer bodies? If gender is more properly conceived of as performative, what are we to do with concepts like “gender identity”, “sex” and “sexuality”?

A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 5): Practice

“Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” –Charles Sanders Pierce 

We now turn our attention back to the Katy question: Is Katy a man or a woman? Based on what we have covered so far, we should probably be hesitant in assuming that our judgments are going to be objective and based on immutable “facts”. After all, we are prone to overestimate our objectivity due to the subjective nature of perception, which is informed by prior knowledge, beliefs, language and cultural practices that aren’t necessarily representations of reality providing truths that correspond to the way things really are.

If we can’t appeal to objective facts or truths to settle the matter, then what can we do? Like many transphobes who misunderstand and abuse it, I would like to appeal to scientific method in the broad sense, meaning that if we want to know a thing about the world, we have to consider how it helps us make sense of what we experience and understand how to navigate it, i.e., how useful it is to believe that such a thing is true. We determine a belief’s usefulness by testing it. Taking all of that into consideration, we can reformulate the Katy question this way: what are the practical consequences of considering Katy a woman and what are the practical consequences of considering her a man?

“Aha!” the transphobes gleefully reply. “You have forfeited your position! It obviously makes more sense to believe that Katy is a man because science says so. If we were to say that Katy is a woman, we would be ignoring science and society would have to do a lot of work just to accommodate a very small minority. Checkmate, SJW’s!”

Well, shit! The situation seems even more hopeless when we consider Butler’s point that the heterosexual matrix–a set of norms or practices that construct the notion that men are masculine and heterosexual and women are feminine and heterosexual–makes it so that the idea of Katy being a woman is “culturally unintelligible”, i.e., difficult (if not impossible) for many members of the dominant culture to understand.

Okay, so far this doesn’t look good for Katy. If we are to run with the pragmatic assumptions I laid out earlier, it seems that the answer to our question is that Katy is a man by virtue of what both science and culture at large suggest. Damn it!

Where do we sorry social justice warriors go from here? It looks like this is the end of our story…Or is it?

A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 4): Discourse

“What can be meant by ‘identity,’ then, and what grounds the presumption that identities are self-identical, persisting through time as the same, unified and internally coherent? More importantly, how do these assumptions inform the discourses on ‘gender identity’?…[T]he ‘coherence’ and ‘continuity’ of ‘the person’ are not logical or analytic features of personhood, but, rather, socially instituted and maintained norms of intelligibility.” –Judith Butler

When Katy was 22, she discovered what it really meant to be transgender. Not only that, she found the lived experiences of transgender people disturbingly relatable. As a consequence, she came to terms with the fact that she was a transgender woman and began her transition. The first couple of years of her transition were difficult–she lost her job, her friends, and the relationships she once had with several of her closest family. She came to find that people often didn’t take her seriously, some straight men wouldn’t even look her in the eye, and she needed to be extra cautious in public spaces.

According to Butler, Katy’s transition altered her social position. Though she was never truly a part of the dominant culture, her transition made her lack of fit within it more obvious to others. In other words, though she was always marginalized, the sense in which she was marginalized changed and this change was due to discourses on gender.

A discourse is a body of knowledge and social practices that dictate how we think of and talk about the world (or some part of it). Stated differently, discourse determines what narratives we adopt, the language-games we play and the shape that our schemes take. According to Katy’s culture, people are (supposed to be) either masculine, heterosexual men or feminine, heterosexual women. Whoever deviates from the norm is considered less human as their existence is difficult for those who fit within the dominant culture to understand. This lack of understanding often stirs a kind of dread in the people Katy encounters because her existence challenges their own identity–the narratives they have come to adopt from their culture.

In order to deal with this dread while maintaining the discourses that have informed their worldview, many in the dominant culture come to perceive Katy as a mentally ill man in a dress, a sexual deviant, less than human. This narrative is reinforced and repeated in media, in the language we use, and in our practices.

The important point that Butler makes is that there is no person or position outside of culture, or the discourses that constitute their being. Therefore, no one is exempt from having to participate in discourses–including those on gender. The only choice we have is whether or not we affirm or subvert.

A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 3): Narrative

“The distinction between successive selves can be made by reference…to the degrees of psychological connectedness…On this way of thinking, the word ‘I’ can be used to imply the greatest degree of psychological connectedness.” –Derek Parfit

In her paper “Narrative, memory and social representations: a conversation between history and social psychology”, Sandra Jovchelovitch argues that narratives are at the heart of social norms and not only our own understanding of our individual selves, but our collective understanding of our history and present. She explains that “Stories allow us to retain and understand information, to deal with time, and give us at least the illusion of a stable identity. Narration is essential for our sense of self and our cultural history; indeed the organization of experience in terms of a plot shapes the very structure of our thinking and our sense of reality”.

Recall from parts 1 and 2 that our perceptions of reality are the result of construction and that our language plays a critical role in said construction. If Jovchelovitch is right, these constructions, including the self, are built into a narrative plot with a beginning, middle and an end. In other words, we take bits of unorganized information and put them together in a context that we can understand and work with, i.e., a story. This theory of the relation between psychology and history presents another challenge to the notion that we have access to things as they really are.

Let’s suppose that Katy meets a gentleman named Rick, who (as far as he knows) has never met a transgender woman before. His only understanding of trans women comes from the media that tends to portray transgender women as sexual ‘deviants’. He is surprised to learn that his experience with Katy contradicts that narrative–she seems no more ‘deviant’ than most of the people he knows–and becomes more accepting of transgender women as he constructs a new narrative.

As mentioned earlier, narratives are also at the heart of our sense of self. Rather than being a stable entity that persists through time, the self is more dynamic, i.e., it is constantly changing. Like many other transgender women, Katy’s earlier understanding of transgender women came from a narrative similar to that of Rick’s. She didn’t see herself in media representations of trans women and, as a result, didn’t realize she was a woman until later in life when something else caused her to experience a change in narrative–a change in her sense of self.

Derek Parfit argues that the most important connection between Katy’s past self and her current self is her memory which creates a psychological connectedness. While illustrating the significance of this connectedness, he considered what it means to talk about a future self in light of the fact that the self is constantly changing:

“If I say, ‘It will not be me, but one of my future selves,’ I do not imply that I will be that future self. He is one of my later selves, and I am one of his earlier selves. There is no underlying person who we both are. When I say, ‘There is no person who we both are,’ I am only giving my decision. Another person could say, ‘It will be you,’ thus deciding differently. There is no question of either of these decisions being a mistake. Whether I say ‘I’, or ‘one of my future selves,’…is entirely a matter of choice.

Stated differently, what is important isn’t that there is a stable self that is the same self in the past, present and future since there is no such thing. What is important is that there is a psychological connectedness between past selves, a present self, and potential future selves. This psychological connectedness is the constructed narrative of the self that gives us the sense of stability and persistence through time.


A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 2): Language-games

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein 

In the field of Cognitive Neuroscience, there is an idea known as the mental lexicon—“a store of information about words that includes semantic information (the words’ meanings), syntactic information (how words are combined to form sentences) and the details of those word forms (their spellings and sound patterns).” Recall in Part 1 when it was explained that knowledge of the world is organized around a mental web (network) of cognitive schemes: models, representations and frameworks that give meaning and structure to our experiences. The mental lexicon can be considered a critical part of the neurological basis for the mental web of innate structures Kant and Piaget argued for, and are the basis for our respective individual constructions of reality.

The mental lexicon is organized around four principles that help the brain process the spoken or written word into its meaning. The principle we will consider is the fourth. The fourth principle is the semantic relationships between words. “…[W]ords related in meaning must somehow be organized together in the brain, such that activation of the representation of one word also activates words that are related in meaning.” After being processed by the mental lexicon, the language inputs activate the conceptual system resulting in the generation of concepts, i.e., abstract ideas.

Trust me—there is a point to covering all of this science stuff first. What is important to understand is that our comprehension of the world is mediated by a complex process that is active in its construction. It is also important to understand that each person’s processing and construction are unique (as was argued in Part 1).

Do you remember Katy? Some people believe that even though Katy is a transgender woman, she is still “biologically male”, despite her protests to the contrary. Who is right?

On the one hand, Katy does have “male genitalia” and XY chromosomes, but she also has female-typical levels of estrogen and testosterone, and has developed breasts. Central to resolving this question is the notion of meaning.

Many of us intuitively believe in inherent meaning, the idea that words and statements have meanings that are essential, or necessary. In other words, there is an objective set of necessary criteria that constitute a “biological male”, and all must be present in order for one to be “biologically male”. However, there is a fatal problem with this view. What we ultimately decide on as necessary is partially determined by an element of choice (or preference).

What if instead of viewing meaning as inherent, we abandoned the idea in favor of something different? What might a word’s meaning be if not a set of necessary and sufficient conditions? Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the meanings of words and statements are functions of their use. In other words, in order to understand the meaning of a word, or a statement, you need to understand how it is being used.

In his work Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein introduced and developed the concept of language-games. Think of a paradigm case of a game: chess. In order for a player to play chess successfully, she must first understand the rules of the game, have an ability to identify patterns and anticipate the moves of her opponent. Like playing chess successfully, effective communication requires an understanding of how words are being used by being able to understand general rules, recognize patterns in communication, and anticipate what fellow communicators intend to convey by reading context clues.

Wittgenstein illustrates how this works with a simple example:

“Let us imagine a language …The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones; there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words ‘block’, ‘pillar’, ‘slab’, ‘beam’. A calls them out; –B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. — Conceive of this as a complete primitive language.”

Before Wittgenstein, the traditional thinking was that language corresponds with reality and in order for concepts to be meaningful, they must be clearly defined. However, the notion of the language-game challenges this thinking. Rather than having to be clearly defined by a complete set of necessary and sufficient conditions in order to be meaningful, concepts have meaning by virtue of their relations to each other–what Wittgenstein called family resemblance (compare that to the mental lexicon discussed earlier).

Now let’s shift back to Katy. Is she a “biological male”? The answer to that question is determined by how we use the term. Those who assert she is are playing a particular language-game. A trans-exclusionary radical feminist (or TERF) might concede that she is a woman, but at the same time will still assert that she is “biologically male” in an attempt to invalidate her experiences without being too overt about it. In other words, even though Katy is a woman, she still has qualities that connote an element of ‘maleness’ that differentiates her from cisgender women in a way that makes her less of a woman. This is done by appealing to certain biological ‘facts’. According to the TERF’s language-game, being assigned male at birth due to having a penis makes one a “biological male”.

The good news for Katy is that’s not the only way to play.