22 December 2015

Is transgenderism healthy?

Tonight I commented on an article about the hot-button issue of transgendered people and locker rooms, and it got me thinking.

I'm very much a civil libertarian: I support people's right to dress, behave, and alter their bodies however they wish so long as they don't harm others. But saying I support their civil liberty doesn't mean I think their choices are wise or healthy. I tried to find studies on long-term mental outcomes for individuals who've undergone a sex change; there's very little research, unfortunately, but what exists is not encouraging:

Persons with transsexualism, after sex reassignment, have considerably higher risks for mortality, suicidal behaviour, and psychiatric morbidity than the general population.

So this raises an issue: in support of people's civil liberties, we left-leaning types tend to deny that transgenderism is a mental disorder. But it seems that even if we don't think there's anything morally wrong with transgenderism, it may nonetheless be in the individual's best interest to seek out psychiatric care rather than surgery.

John Huges, former psychiatrist in chief at Johns Hopkins University, argues in an op ed for the Wall Street Journal that sex reassignment is not the answer, and that transgenderism does indeed fit the description of a medical disorder:

This intensely felt sense of being transgendered constitutes a mental disorder in two respects. The first is that the idea of sex misalignment is simply mistaken—it does not correspond with physical reality. The second is that it can lead to grim psychological outcomes.
I must admit, I'm sympathetic to these arguments. I do not think transgenderism is immoral or repulsive. And ultimately, I support individuals' civil liberty to do with their bodies what they deem best. However, my fellow liberals seem to conflate arguments about civil liberties and morality with arguments about personal health, as if to shout "There's nothing wrong with being trans!" as some sort of unequivocal absolute. The problem is that it appears to produce very bad long term mental health outcomes. Perhaps, in our zeal to advocate for civil equality, we on the left have been hasty in concluding that transgenderism poses no mental health threats to those it afflicts.

11 December 2015

Sorry, Franklin Graham: it's perfectly American to believe terrible things

Neo-conservative fluff emporium WND reports that Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelical preacher Billy Graham, has echoed the concerns of Donald Trump and his supporters by suggesting that somewhere around 144,000 U.S. Muslims tacitly condone terrorism:
Graham’s comments have been posted over the last 24 hours on his Facebook page, where he noted the mantra from “political leaders and world experts” that “the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people. 
Some have suggested that as many as 99 percent fall into this category. Well, we don’t have to guess or estimate; the Pew Research Center has released extensive research on how Muslims in the U.S. self-identify on questions of violence – and the conclusions are frightening. 
Graham cited the 1.8 million Muslim adults in the United States. 
Pew Research released that eight percent of adult Muslims in the U.S. said that suicide bombings and other forms of violence in the name of Islam are ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’ justified. Think about it – that’s 144,000 Muslims who openly say without hesitation that violence in the name of Islam is justified!
This is what the research actually says, from the Pew itself:

More than eight-in-ten American Muslims say suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilian targets are never justified (81%) or rarely justified (5%) to defend Islam from its enemies. Worldwide, most Muslims also reject this type of violence, with a median of 72% saying such attacks are never justified and 10% saying they are rarely justified. Just 1% of U.S. Muslims and a median of 3% of Muslims worldwide say suicide bombings and other violence against civilian targets are often justified, while 7% of U.S. Muslims and a global median of 8% of Muslims say such attacks are sometimes justified to defend Islam.
That sounds a bit less alarmist than Graham is making it out to be. And actually, even on Graham's terms, 92% most definitely does constitute a "vast majority". But, okay: 7% of American Muslims think that violence in the name of Islam might "sometimes" be justified. But what constitutes "sometimes"? I couldn't find any similar polls for Christians, but given that religious conservatives seem pretty gung-ho about carpet bombing large portions of the Middle East to 'defend' Christian America from those Evil Muslim Terrorists, it doesn't seem to me like the idea of religiously motivated violence being 'sometimes' justified is a foreign idea to Christians.
But even to whatever degree American Muslims think violence is "sometimes" justified, and whatever those "sometimes" happen to be, these alarmist conservatives are overlooking a pivotal American value: people have every legal right to hold dangerous ideas. In the McCarthy years of the 1950s, Communism was viewed as such a threat to the American way of life that people were detained and even imprisoned for being 'Communists' or 'Communist sympathizers'. McCarthyism remains an ugly scar on American history for one simple fact: it's not illegal to be a Communist. 

Similarly, it's not illegal to believe that Islamic violence is "sometimes" justified. Just as it's not illegal to be a white supremacist, antisemitic, misogynistic, or to hold any other such contemptible point of view. We may disagree, and disagree strongly, about the justification for religious violence. But as long as those Muslims are law-abiding American citizens, they can believe whatever the hell they want.

Addendum: WND, in what can only be described as some of the dumbest nonsense ever published, also suggests that the reason liberals are sympathetic to Syrian refugees is because they want more votes:
The Pew results also suggested a political reason for a Democrat White House to be pursuing hundreds of thousands of such immigrants to bring to the U.S. 
Pew found that 70 percent of Muslims in the U.S. vote Democratic, while only 11 percent vote Republican.

Golly, why on Earth don't more U.S. Muslims vote republican?

Firstly, the "hundreds of thousands" number is completely made up. The U.S. accepts around 80,000 refugees each year; that's not Syrian, by the way — that's all refugees from all over the world.

Secondly, it takes nearly two years just for refugees to be accepted for settlement in the United States. This does not grant them American citizenship, which could take many more years or even decades. Hence, they do not actually have the right to vote. WND, being the intellectual black hole that it is, is just engaging in more ultrapartisan fear mongering by pandering to the lowest common denominator.

01 December 2015

Why didn't philosophers predict the quantum universe?

Anyone who's read my blog(s) over the years knows that I'm very skeptical about 'metaphysics' as an intellectual and academic discipline — particularly the notion that a 'study of metaphysics' can reveal any stable truths about reality. There are many reasons why, but I'll recap the most important ones:
  • 'Metaphysics' as a concept has never been consistently and clearly defined
  • The notion of what constitutes a metaphysical problem has never been consistently and clearly defined; indeed many past 'metaphysical' conundrums have been subsequently subsumed under scientific inquiry
  • A clear and consistent methodology of solving metaphysical problems has never been established. Instead, to quote Lakoff,
    • "For the most part, philosophers engaged in making metaphysical claims are choosing from the cognitive unconscious a set of existing metaphors that have a consistent ontology. That is, using unconscious everyday metaphors, philosophers seek to make a noncontradictory choice of conceptual entities defined by those metaphors; they then take those entities to be real and systematically draw out the implications of that choice in an attempt to account for our experience using that metaphysics. Metaphysics in philosophy is, of course, supposed to characterize what is real-literally real. The irony is that such a conception of the real depends upon unconscious metaphors."
The problem is simple, but provocative: we cannot know our own minds through introspection alone. Our processes of reasoning are dependent on a litany of subconscious processes to which, by definition, we have no access; the mind must be studied empirically. So if we cannot know through introspection alone the processes that shape our reasoning, how could we possibly reason our way to stable ontological truths?

Philosophy and quantum mechanics

Quantum mechanics is without question the most successful field of science in history. Its predictions are astoundingly accurate; Richard Feynman once described it as akin to predicting the width of the United States with a margin of error the width of a human hair. But quantum mechanics does not neatly follow classical conceptions of being, causality, time, and space that Newtonian physics does. A philosopher of antiquity likely could not have discovered the exact mathematical formula for the effect of gravity (the force decreases with the square of the distance), but such a philosopher could have said that no matter the exact parameters, you could not have an object in more than one place at once. A change in one object could not instantaneously affect another at an arbitrary distance. Objects would have clearly defined volumes and exist at specific points in space. We could know their location and velocity with equal precision, and they would certainly never just instantaneously materialize into existence.
All of these things happen in quantum mechanics. Particles follow all possible paths between points simultaneously [1]. Entanglement allows particles separated by an arbitrary distance to instantaneously affect each other [2]. Subatomic particles do not have a definite, location, speed, or volume [3]. Quantum systems are described by a wave function, and we cannot know the location and velocity of a particle with equal precision [4]. And virtual particles instantaneously materialize into existence [5], and even form a crucial aspect of the theoretical evaporation of black holes through Hawking radiation [6].

If metaphysics were a legitimate field of inquiry, then we should be able to assume that even if the equations were the domain of scientists, metaphysicians could clearly define the parameters under which a proper quantum theory must be logically subsumed. But philosophers of antiquity could never have predicted the emergence of quantum theory, because metaphysical philosophy is based upon purely intuitive assumptions about reality — it has to be, because it is derived purely from rational introspection. It can't be understated the degree to which the inconvenient truth that we cannot know our own minds undermines such assumptions. Our rational intuition gives us much useful information about the world, certainly; but it stops well short of allowing us to derive immutable truths about reality — it must, because even our own rational introspection is shaped by subconscious processes which we can only understand through empirical study.

Quantum mechanics, meanwhile has proved an astounding empirical success despite its bizarre, frequently counter-intuitive concepts. Indeed throughout its history, esteemed physicists have scoffed at the implications of quantum mechanics; Einstein himself famously described entanglement as "spooky action at a distance" and scoffed at now universally-accepted quantum indeterminacy [6], saying "God does not play dice". Metaphysicians (insofar as that's a thing) did not predict quantum theory because the 'study' of 'metaphysics' is derived purely from rational intuition, while quantum mechanics has shown us that reality is often highly counter-intuitive. In philosophy of antiquity, local empirical observations — "something cannot come from nothing", or "everything must have an explanation for its existence" — were subsequently cantilevered into universal principles. Quantum mechanics shows us why such an exercise is short-sighted: what we take to be intuitively true is not necessarily a complete description of reality. We might not be able to imagine a particle in all possible places, or intuitively comprehend an entangled system, or visualize how virtual particles can emerge into existence in a manner that can only be understood as probabilistic rather than causal. But these are stable truths nonetheless, and their success shows why 'metaphysics' today remains little more than a relic of antiquity championed almost exclusively by religious philosophers who mistakenly believe it can guide them toward immutable truths about the divine.