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January 04, 2009


Strong enough to disrupt personal identity, if taken in one shot? That's a difficult question to answer, especially since I don't know what experiment to perform to test any hypotheses. On one hand, billions of neurons in my visual cortex undergo massive changes of activation every time my eyes squeeze shut when I sneeze - the raw number of flipped bits is not the key thing in personal identity. But we are already talking about serious changes of information, on the order of going to sleep, dreaming, forgetting your dreams, and waking up the next morning as though it were the next moment.

It sounds as if you believe in a soul (or equivalent) that is "different" for some set of possible changes and "the same" for other possible changes. I would suggest that that whether an entity at time n+1 is the same person as you at time n is not an objective fact of the universe. Humans have evolved so that we consider the mind that wakes up in the body of the mind that went to sleep to be the same person, but this intuitive sense is not an intuitive understanding of an objective reality; one could modify oneself to consider sleep to disrupt identity, and this would not be a "wrong" belief but just a different one.

I think most people are most comfortable retaining their evolution-given intuitions where they are strong, but where they are weak I think it is a mistake to try to overgeneralize them; instead one should try to shape them consciously. If you want to try being female for a while, why spoil your fun with hang ups about identity? Just decide that it's still you.

Congratulations on the coining of "to ranma around".

Any Kwisatz Haderach can totally do this with the Spice of Life and certain Fremen rituals...

Intuitions about personal identity are probably incoherent under an increased understanding of the mind, just like free will is.



It's no curse to be a girl, honestly.


"If you want to try being female for a while"

I mean, if anyone wants to check it out, just try Second Life. Most guys who try it tho' in my experience scarcely last a day - if you think it's hard to talk to girls as a guy, try to see if you can manage to talk to girls as a girl - they flunk the shoe chatter and reveal themselves quickly.

I know only two who are convincing for more than a couple of hours in regular conversation - and one of them is a filmmaker who writes screenplays for a living, which is how he learned to really "hear" and create feminine dialog.

Great post.

You seem to think of personal identity (PI) as a brittle thing, easily broken.

I want to note that the issue you raise, about whether PI is thick or thin (e.g. thick to the point of brittleness), seems to divide compatibilists and incompatibilists: compatibilists think PI is thick, incompatibilists thin. Consistent with my interpretation, you both (i) defend a thick notion of PI and (ii) strongly sympathize with compatibilism. Note that Daniel Dennett, another compatibilist (whom you seem fond of), raises many of the same objections about people-switching and memory-wiping at the end of Freedom Evolves (in particular, in criticizing Mele's view).

Here's how the issue of PI divides compatibilists and incompatibilists. Suppose PI is thin. In fact, suppose that PI is just associated with numerical identity (in the philosophical sense). Numerical identity, as I will call it, just picks out one particular thing in world, and tracks it, *even if the thing slowly evolves into a competely different TYPE of thing*.

The classic example is Theseus's ship. Is it still the same ship? Incompatibilists will say yes. This will still tend to be true, even if the ship slowly morphs into a completely different kind of ship.

Compatibilists say no. They focus on, not on picking out and tracking an evolving object, but on expressing characteristics and features of a person. What matters to them is that angry people can express anger, throw punches, and start fights, without being held back by chains; and sad people can cry and lie in bed all day, without being held back by chains. Compatibilists, in short, are concerned with a freedom that nobody doubts most people have most of the time.

Incompatibilists, rather than being concerned by this shallow freedom, are concerned with how people came to be the types of people they are. In particular, they are concerned with the idea that, if people did not control how they came to be who they are, and if what they do flows naturally and inevitably from who they are, how fair it is to hold them responsible and accountable.

"so you don't throw up every time you remember what you did on your vacation."

Oh man. If this AI thing doesn't work out, maybe you can try comedy?

I read on some skeptics blog that Jim Carey left $50 million to Jenny McCarthy. That sure could fund the SIAI for a while...

You seem premising this post on the idea that gendered behavior is hard-wired into the brain at birth, and I think it would be a good to take a second look at that assumption; after all the name of this site is "Overcoming Bias" isn't it? Your premise is such a common belief in our society that it's easy to overlook, and very few cisgender people (those with the same gender identity as the one assigned them at birth) ever think to question it. However, it's important to acknowledge that there are two different sets of sex/gender traits we observe in different ways: the biologically observable sex of someone's body, and the social set of behaviors associated with each gender; most transgender people like me use "sex" to refer to biological traits and "gender" to refer to social behaviors. There is some evidence that biology can impact some social behaviors we associate with the two genders, but there's nothing close to a complete picture how you go from microcosmic biology to macrocosmic actions. Therefore, since we can only observe gendered behaviors through social interaction the presumption should be each behavior has a social origin; biology carries the burden of proof to prove otherwise on a case-by-case basis.

I'm MTF (post-op, for what it's worth) and my experience has been that gender identity works like any other social identity; it's nothing more or less than a way you want to see yourself and be seen by others. I couldn't explain to you why being a woman works for me and being a man doesn't, but we don't expect anyone else shifting their identity to justify themselves that way. An analogy I like to use is someone changing their religion; we take them at their word when they say a different way of seeing themselves and their place in the world just seems more true to them. However, our society is much less tolerant of people like me who don't want to live with the gender identity assigned us at birth because it conflates sex and gender; in a better world, transgender people wouldn't have to change our physical sex for our gender to be accepted.

Well intentioned and intelligent people can disagree in the "nature vs nurture" debate on gender; it's been a contentious issue in feminist and LGBT theory for at least half a century. However, I would hope you realize the danger of assuming all gendered traits are "hard wired" into the brain; amongst other problems, that can support the idea that the much greater incidence of men committing acts of violence is "natural male aggression" that we can't ever eliminate.

Finally, I'd like to ask a question posed to me by one of my law school professors: "Have you ever dreamed you were a different species, a different race, or a different gender?" In our class, as in every other one where he's taken this survey, far more people said they'd dreamed of being an animal than dreamed of a different race or gender. Why should this happen since being an animal is so much farther removed from our life experience? The answer he proposed is that we work hard to construct a mental barrier defining our gender and racial identities; we never have to try to be human, and so it's easier to let ourselves play with dropping that identity. I don't mean to suggest that we can really sympathize with animals, but I do think we understand what it means to be a different gender or race more than we'd like to admit.

"give you a vagina-shaped penis, more or less"

Nitpick: You'd end up with a clitoris-shaped penis, and a vagina-shaped scrotum. I know this because I've read about sexual anatomy and embryonic development on the Internet. The bit of flesh that turns into the penis in a male fetus develops into the clitoris in a female, and the closest male equivalent to the vagina is the scrotum.

Incidentally, simply "wearing a female body like a suit of clothing" and letting the brain react to the different hormones, body shape, etc., with its natural plasticity might be close enough to what people mean, anyway.

(Oh, and Ranma still considers himself male even during those times when he happens to be stuck in a female body for a while.)


Thank you for such an honest telling of your perspective. It's very moving. I embrace you.

"that gendered behavior is hard-wired into the brain at birth"

Eli I think here is very careful to say "genes on your Y chromosome that tweaked your brain to some extent" - note the some, he avoids speculating as to how much - and uses the term "emotional architecture" as well as correctly in his comments distinguishing between the terms sex and gender. As a cisgendered F, I hope you will accept my word that Eli is scrupulous in his language here and well-intentioned.

I find neither Robin nor Eli are narrow-minded in these things. I hope you will join the OB community on a regular basis.

@Doug S


Stuck!?!? Tiresias is said to have enjoyed his time as a woman: "Of ten parts a man enjoys one only." Ahem.

I agree with Doug S. What most people think about, when they want to "try being female for awhile", is to keep their same mind (or perhaps they believe in a soul) while just trying out different clothing. Basically, be in The Matrix, but just get instantiated as the Woman in the Red Dress for a week. Or maybe more like the movie Strange Days, with a technology that's like TV (but better!), kind of like virtual reality. Like watching a movie, but using all your senses, and really getting immersed into it.

I don't think most men imagine actually thinking like a woman's brain thinks. As you say, that wouldn't really be them any longer.

Eliezer: "[E]very time I can recall hearing someone say 'I want to know what it's like to be the opposite sex', the speaker has been male. I don't know if that's a genuine gender difference in wishes [...]"

*sighs* There's a name for it.

Eliezer: "Strong enough to disrupt personal identity, if taken in one shot?"

Is it cheating if you deliberately define your personal identity such that the answer is No?

Frelkins: "I mean, if anyone wants to check it out, just try Second Life."

Not exactly what we're looking for, unfortunately ...

Frelkins: "[T]hey flunk the shoe chatter and reveal themselves quickly."

Surely you're not literally claiming that there are no women who aren't good at shoe chatter. Maybe in Second Life there are enough men using female avatars such that P(male-in-RL | female-avatar-bad-at-shoe-chatter) really is greater than P(female-in-RL | female-avatar-bad-at-shoe-chatter). But I should hope that being a woman or man is not conflated with behaving in gender-typical ways, for to do so is to deliberately ignore the nontrivial amount of variation in actually existing women and men.

Frelkins, in the other thread, you said you were saddened by Tino Sehgal's Edge answer about the end of masculinity as we know it, and you asked, "Why do even men hate men nowadays?" Well, please take my word for it that Sahgal and friends don't literally hate men. Rather, we just find it kind of obnoxious that far too often, being male is systematically conflated with talking about porn or football or whatever it is that "guys' guys" talk about (I wouldn't know--or I wish that I didn't). I hope I am not misunderstood--of course there is nothing wrong with being typically feminine or masculine. It's just that there should be other options.

adept42: "Therefore, since we can only observe gendered behaviors through social interaction the presumption should be each behavior has a social origin; biology carries the burden of proof to prove otherwise on a case-by-case basis."

I really don't think that follows. These empirical questions aren't like a court trial, where "nature" is the prosecution and "nurture" is innocent until proven guilty (cf. Eliezer's "The Scales of Justice, the Notebook of Rationality"). Rather, for each question, we must search for evidence and seek out the most accurate belief possible, being prepared to update as new evidence comes in. Sometimes this is very painful, when there's something you desperately want to be true, and you're afraid of the evidence. But we must be brave together, else we be utterly deceived. And what would we do then?

Adept42, there really are such things as sex differences, not just gender differences; the verdict of the experimental evidence on this is definite. See e.g. The Blank Slate by Pinker. (Though of course I'm quite willing to believe that there are alternate Everett branches where men wear skirts and women wear pants, etc.)

There are different reasons why people go transgender. But a transgender of the sort who's always known, growing up, that they were one of the girls rather than one of the boys (or vice versa), knows on a very visceral that sex is hardwired into the brain at a level that transcends your suit of flesh or anything socially expected of you. In fact, a transgender did look at an earlier version of this essay and say, more or less, "Yeah, that's right."

I understand that there are a lot of things attributed to sex that ought to be attributed to gender. But if brains were not sexually typed, brains born into the wrong bodies wouldn't be in such awful straits - they could just construct a gender that matched their body. Yes, there are androgynous men and women, bisexuals, people who go transgender for other reasons... But to deny that many brains are strongly sexually typed is to deny the very real problems of a male brain born into a female body or vice versa.

frelkins: Well, Ranma isn't Tiresias. The Ranma 1/2 manga was written by a woman, if that changes anything.

Here's a little bit of silliness. Inquest Gamer magazine once ran a poll asking people to choose between various (silly) options of which horrible fate they would prefer to endure. One was a choice between "Randomly change the Magic rules each time you create a killer deck" and "Randomly change your gender each time you go to sleep." "Gender" won by a large margin.

I'm a female who would love to experience what it's like to be a male. When I say that, I find the concept fascinating that I would be able to experience the full onslaught of adult-male thinking and being (preferably a geeky rationalist, "traditional masculinity" as mentioned earlier doesn't interest me as much) and somehow retain that knowledge. Then again, I don't actually feel the need to literally have the physical body of a man, as long as I just thought I did.
It does appear rather complicated.

Eliezer is attacking human augmentation for the same reason he attacked subsumption arch: to rationalize his working on from-scratch AI. I don't yet see quantifiable arguments why from-scratch AI is easier.

However, I would hope you realize the danger of assuming all gendered traits are "hard wired" into the brain; amongst other problems, that can support the idea that the much greater incidence of men committing acts of violence is "natural male aggression" that we can't ever eliminate.
Leaving aside the question of whether or not that belief is accurate, if it hypothetically was would you still discourage someone from voicing it for reasons other than truth?

that can support the idea that the much greater incidence of men committing acts of violence is "natural male aggression" that we can't ever eliminate.

The whole point of civilisation is to defeat nature and all its evils.

Intelligent machines will not really be built "from scratch" because augmentation of human intelligence by machines makes use of all the same technology as is present is straight machine intelligence projects, plus a human brain. Those projects have the advantage of being competitive with humans out of the box - and they interact synergetically with traditional machine intelligence projects. For details see my intelligence augmentation video/essay.

The thing that doesn't make much sense is building directly on the human brain's wetware with more of the same. Such projects are typically banned at the moment - and face all kinds of technical problems anyway.

I don't yet see quantifiable arguments why from-scratch AI is easier [than human augmentation].

From-scratch AI could also be justified as yielding greater benefits even if it as difficult (or more difficult) than human augmentation.

I had an elective castration, and lived as a eunuch for awhile with no hormone replacement. I later had some testosterone replacement. Through all this, I didn't feel like I became a different person. If anything, I became focused on transhumanism more. Any questions?

Is AI possible without emotion? Seems doubtful. Without interaction? Not even in the exchange of ideas and thoughts? Without gender? Hmmm.

Lord: see Points of Departure.

Z M Davis, "Autogynephilia" is a theory, based on the observation that some M-F transsexual people are sexually aroused by female behaviour, which imagines that the arousal causes the desire to appear female. However, in reality the desire may be caused by other circumstances, such as innate brain differences, and supporters of autogynephilia theory have not established the causal link.

It is a failure of the imagination, an attempt to enforce the map on the reality. There are men, and there are women, in the map. Here is a woman with testicles. The map says that cannot be so, the person is a man. However, reality ought to trump the map.

The point of the post still stands. A man does not use a woman's body, and would have to learn how to do so. A man does not use a woman's brain, and would have to learn how to do so. Whether after the change was made it was "the same person" depends on what you mean by "the same person". Upgrading an adult brain is a very difficult problem.

Abigail, I don't think we actually disagree. I certainly wouldn't defend the strong Bailey/Blanchard thesis that transwomen can be neatly sorted into autogynephiles and gay men. However, I am confident that autogynephilia is a real phenomenon in at least some people, and that's all I was trying to refer to in my earlier comment--sorry I wasn't clearer.

I have strong reservations about the completely unsupported theory of autogynephilia. As Abigail wrote, it is a theory posited by someone with a limited imagination, who can only see a world in which gender and sexuality are linked, instead of independent of each other. Like the captain said in Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

There is strong evidence that the brain is sexed from birth. One example is the research being done by Zhou, Hofman, Gooren and Swaab and another is the body mapping research being done by V. S. Ramachandran at U.C. San Diego. There is not enough evidence to propose a strictly binary model, where a person’s brain is either male or female with no variations in between, but there also isn’t any evidence supporting the idea that each person’s brain falls somewhere on a spectrum between male and female. Any evidence that the brain is inherently sexed, hardwired from birth with both a sexual identity and male or female body map contradicts the theory of autogynephilia.
The problem that we run into is that our language has not evolved enough to adequately discuss gender and transsexuality. It has also not evolved enough to adequately describe the experience of being the sex opposite to the one a person is born into. Let’s say that someone is considered a “normal” male or a “normal” female. For simplicities sake, I will use someone born female as my example.
That person would be:
Biologically female - This is a more complex question than simply saying that the person has XX chromosomes. The most common accepted biological definition is that this person does not have an active SRY gene, which would mean that her Mullerian ducts would develop into female reproductive anatomy instead of her wolffian ducts developing into the corresponding male anatomy and her gonads would develop into ovaries instead of testes.

Gendered female – Having a brain which is hard-wired female by the proper hormonal influences in the womb

Anatomically female

Socialized female – Raised in a manner consistent with her anatomy in the culture she lives in

On top of the previous variable, layer sexual orientation. The majority of “normal” women are sexually attracted primarily to males. I am not making a value judgment here, just expressing what the majority is. Most rational people would concede that sexual orientation is an innate trait as well. If we take this person, biologically, anatomically, gendered, and socialized female with a sexual attraction to males, what would it mean for her to live as a “male but ‘otherwise identical’ copy of herself”. It would require someone biologically, anatomically, gendered, and socialized male. It seems that to make that many fundamental changes to an individual would cause that person to have a completely foreign identity to the original person. If I replace every part on a 1976 Chevrolet Chevette, part by part, structure by structure, with the parts from a 2009 Chevrolet Corvette, modifying and re-modifying the parts as needed, until there are none of the original parts of the Chevette left, and all the Corvette’s parts are in place, is it still the same car? It seems hard to believe it is.

Is sexual orientation part of this discussion, or is it a trait unrelated to maleness and femaleness? I would argue that the two are separate, and only useful to define homosexual and heterosexual, rather than implying anything about a person’s gender. The situation becomes even more complex when considering someone who is transsexual. What defines homosexuality in their case? Is it their anatomy, their biology, or the gender of their brain? When are two people considered to be the same sex? These are questions ignored by Blanchard, Bailey, and Lawrence, as well as anyone else who believes that autogynephilia has any merits as a valid theory of transsexualism.

This is an interesting post, but you're a failing to distinguish between becoming a member of the opposite sex, and becoming a typical member of that sex, or the person that you'd have been if you were born with the same brain but different chromosomes.

The former has a much broader range of outcomes, and there's no unique set of characteristics or experiences that define 'man' or 'woman' - just a bunch of correllations.

Hi folks,

I'm an occasional contributor dropping in under another name to talk a bit about autogynephilia and what it might have to do with Eliezer's original post.

Z.M Davis said:

Abigail, I don't think we actually disagree. I certainly wouldn't defend the strong Bailey/Blanchard thesis that transwomen can be neatly sorted into autogynephiles and gay men. However, I am confident that autogynephilia is a real phenomenon in at least some people, and that's all I was trying to refer to in my earlier comment--sorry I wasn't clearer.

Well said, Z.M. In my case, I am autogynephilic, so I know that it's real. But I am not transsexual, and I don't think the truth of the existence autogynephilia depends on the truth of certain theories of transsexualism involving autogynephilia. I have male nerd psychology, and I more often feel like an android than I feel either masculine or feminine (many people reading this blog will relate to this). I only feel feminine sexually, and this only occurs sometimes by myself in a certain mood or with certain people.

I am, however, bisexual. I like the idea of having sex with a man with a woman's body, taking the feminine role (would I actually want to have sex with a man [i]as a woman[/i]? Maybe, but that gets into the questions Eliezer raises, because that person wouldn't really be me anymore). I wonder how common it is for autogynephiles to be bisexual? I think it's possible to argue that autogynephiles are bisexual by definition.

In my view, it makes sense that there is a link between the autogynephilia and bisexuality. Bisexuals are more likely than typical straight men and typical gay men to be interested in sexual relations with individuals presenting both male and female stimuli, or in men dressed up as women (which would include oneself dressed up as a woman). I'm still figuring out whether my bisexuality and autogynephilia are different sides of the same phenomenon, or whether they are separable.

Hope_WA said:

Any evidence that the brain is inherently sexed, hardwired from birth with both a sexual identity and male or female body map contradicts the theory of autogynephilia.

I also believe the brain is inherently sexed, and that sexual identity and orientation are biologically hardwired or heavily predisposed, but I don't think this contradicts the notion of autogynephilia. If you are talking about people with typical development, then it's hard to see how autogynephilia would exist, but autogynephilia could well be a developmental atypicality like homosexuality.

Typical straight males are visually attracted by presentation of female stimuli, as long as these stimuli (a) aren't being presented by other people who they know are male, and (b) aren't being presented by their own body. But if you take a male with an atypical development, especially if he is bisexual, then either (a) or (b) or both might no longer be true due to some combination of biological and perhaps other factors.

We also know that bisexual men exist who like taking a feminine role sexually, so it's not much of a stretch to imagine that some of these men might also like to have a highly feminine or even female appearance or even female body as part of their sexuality.

As for Eliezer's original question, I'll have to get to that more in a future post, but it's something I've thought a lot about for obvious reasons.

When I started taking hormones in order to fix the sorry state my body was in I really didn't think they would change me much in the realm of personal identity. And there really hasn't been any earthshaking alterations, not sure if that is because my brain architecture was already mostly female or because hormones don't cause many changes, but the amount of small subtle changes and a few moderate ones that added up to make me a almost a completely different person. I may have some other flaws that make it difficult for me to form a personal identity but I think it is next to impossible to maintain a coherent personal identity while going through this type of change.

The first thing I think a newly minted girl would notice is that everything smells different. And these smells effect the way you think in interesting ways, such as altering what type of foods you enjoy by changing how they taste. Let's not even get into smelling other people. That alone has caused my sexual orientation to flip-flop back and forth so much that I am just confused.

To pack all this into a single jolt would likely destroy any hope of sanity in the near future. So I can see Eliezer's problem here pretty clearly, still struggling to keep my own self from going loopy. Yep.

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