Saturday, April 4, 2009

The gilded & the austere

We love to project things onto one axis, then collapse the spectrum along that axis into to extremes - sure, this is limited and often a bad fit to reality - but it focuses thought and helps think about reality.

What is surprising about this tendency is not that we do it (simple models and generalizations are good), but that people seem to actually believe that models fully describe reality, or (just as bad), that using such models is "bad" (the irony of labeling the use of simple binary models as "bad", as opposed to "good", is pretty sweet).

Here is my gross attempt at simplifying reality.

"So two guys walk into a bar, one gilded and one austere..."

I have never understood transsexuals. Some facts are: the feeling of being the wrong gender is real (often beginning in early childhood), crossing is costly and risky - financially, socially, and physically. It is also fairly rare, likely highly accentuated due to the costs, so I have not been able to strike up a close enough relationship with a transsexual to discuss this.

Thinking on transsexuals, I also realized I do not understand some (read: most) strains of feminists, "high church" types, high brow literary wonks, .... In fact, I do not understand anyone who strongly identifies with a group, or in general, with archetypes and archetypal thinking. It seems that some people strongly identify with conceptual models of the world, that are archetypal, highly ordered & structured & developed, and, well, gilded, in nature. I call this type of people the gilded.

Another type of person is one who does not identify with conceptual models of the world, tends to discount theory, see models as highly stylized, and takes a stance towards the world as a place that is unknowable, in the sense of a consistent model, and full of high variation. These people weakly identify with conceptual models of the world, and instead of building more detailed models that are overarching, consistent, and gilded, they take models as limited, cartoon like, helpers that are more one-shot and limited in scope and application. I call this type of people the austere.

It seems that the gilded and the austere perceive and feel reality quite differently from each other. I literally cannot understand why someone would "feel" their gender (or any other group identification) as them, as defining and making, in large part, their character, why it is such a big deal.

I imagine that operationally the gilded & the austere will hold many of the same beliefs about the world, as measured by actions, predictions, and statements about workings of the world, since both the hobbled together models ("the bazaar") and the overarching model ("the cathedral") are tempered by reality: objectively there will be little difference (in areas where we can get a good gripe on the world). However, I also imagine that subjectively the gilded & the austere will be in high disagreement.

As both personality types have their feet held to the fire of reality they should converge in factual understanding of the world; given enough time and dedication to overcome mistaken priors, one could test them on objective reality and get no difference. However, questions relating to subjective reality would be in high disagreement. Given our limited time and honesty (i.e. dedication to the hard work of thinking about and correcting "priors") I imagine that, to the extent that people can be accurately described as being gilded or austere, we will have highly divergent beliefs about the world, both on "factual" (objective) questions and on "personal" (subjective) ones.

Given that what is most interesting and important about the world is the subjective this suggests that, well, not much - we already know the world is beautiful and complex.


  1. Dear Arare Litus:

    You are very bold to say that you do not "understand" transsexuals. Let me help you escape the vocabulary of "understanding" in the sense in which one "understands" the Pythagorean Theorem, or the frail logic of significance tests, say. Do you "understand" why Ms. Smith prefers vanilla to chocolate ice cream? Do you "understand" why Mr. Jones believes in an Anglican God? Do you "understand" why Ms. Brown loves Ms. Boticelli?
    You see, such human sympathies and tolerations are not like proofs. The vocabulary of "understanding," of course, is often a preface to intolerance and violence---which I am sure you do not advocate (though you do not appear to grasp that you associate yourself with such haters by talking of not "understanding"). The homophobe declares, "I don't understand queer sex," and then proceeds to beat up a queer.

    So I recommend that you read and consider, and stop standing there declaring your lack of "understanding"!


    Deirdre McCloskey

  2. Hello Deirdre,

    Thank you for responding.

    A few responses:

    (1) "The homophobe declares, "I don't understand queer sex," and then proceeds to beat up a queer."

    I believe you are mistaking objective facts with subjective impressions: you are making a classic causation/correlation mistake. I very much doubt most homophobes say they don't understand queers. I suspect rather, based on what *they* tend to say and what surveys and other research indicate, that they *think* they DO understand - they think it is a choice, which is immoral, and hence queers are "bad people", or other negative beliefs (belief being a type of understanding).

    Based on evidence homophobes are wrong in their self evaluation of "understanding", and do NOT understand queer sex - and don't care enough about reality to find out more. This objective correlation with NOT understanding does not imply a subjective causation - and homophobes words and other evidence support this.

    (2) "Let me help you escape the vocabulary of "understanding" in the sense in which one "understands" the Pythagorean Theorem, or the frail logic of significance tests, say."

    Do I need help escaping this sense of understanding? As I identified myself with "the austere" in the above, I have limited faith in models to accurately reflect the world - based on my words did I suggest this sort of "understanding"?

    As to your list of examples - I would say, yes, I can understand such preferences.

    (3) "I recommend that you read and consider, and stop standing there declaring your lack of "understanding"!"

    I am, hence the post and contacting you - discussion is an useful means of gaining knowledge, and the only real way to learn the subjective worlds of others. At least that is my "understanding".

    Arare Litus

  3. Dear Mr. Litus, if so you are yclept:

    I haven't got time to educate you. This is responsibility you must undertake yourself. So go read, and don't write on the subject until you know what you are talking about (good advice for us all, especially in the undisciplined blogosphere!). I am sure you did not intend to hurt. But you repeat the cliches of transphobes and queer haters.


    Deirdre McCloskey