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The field of General Semantics introduces patterns of thought required for success in computer programming and related subjects, and I’ve been struck by how much its basic ideas of cleaning up human thought by insisting on principles like “the map is not the territory” correspond to real life and all language.
In the 1930s, when Korzybski began to popularize this thought, relatively few people were interested in this subject that had largely been the domain of professional philosophers. Today, this sentiment is so commonplace in many technological areas it is hardly worthy of note, yet the less informed non-technical community will fall into this way of thinking, and propagandists often use it to distort the behavior of their ignorant fellows.
Systems engineering, broadly defined as the application of systems science to the real world, is an approach to solving large problems by assembling smaller components to achieve a goal that is “more than the sum of its parts.” It is an informal way of analyzing situations and synthesizing solutions that emerged in the 1940s from work done on developing a nationwide telecommunications system. Systems engineering knows no recognized debt to General Semantics, although the name/thing dichotomy is fundamental to its epistemology. From the application of systems engineering principles, the use of the scientific method in the evaluation of complex systems, technologists are gaining more advanced understanding of the problems of accurately representing real world experience.
One of the major areas of computer usage today is simulation of complex systems to predict peformance and operating characteristics. A simulation describes a virtual activity as if it were occurring in reality. Thus, a simulation of a nuclear power plant is a bunch of data that describe, in physical terms, the state of every component of the plant. The simulation also determines how the physical state of each component will evolve in time. Thus, core temperature is a state of the core, a data item that represents the expected or known value of a real world quantity. Simulations estimate the state of the system at the next instance of time from all the data and relationships it possesses about the system—the change in core temperature is estimated from current data using credible rules of change. This collection of data and the rules for proceeding from one time step to the next is called a model of the system.
There are many kinds of models, such as a LEGO block model of a pyramid or an ancient astronomical calculator, that are easy to grasp as different from the function of the thing modeled. In each case materials and processes that may or may not relate to a real world product are used to convey a critical idea of the product, without representing (and thus becoming) the product itself. Put very directly, a model of a nuclear power plant will not light a lightbulb, although the thing that is being modeled can power a large city. The model will simply report that, under certain assumptions, the plant will provide an estimated amount of power. The real power plant is a complex assemblage of material that actually exists. The model power plant is a coarse approximation to some of the behavior of the real plant. It helps create understanding by eliminating excessive detail, but what if the information thought to be mere “detail” is, in reality, what makes the thing work the way it does?
If the model is correct for a wide range of conditions, we have a useful model, which yields a plausible estimate of results in “normal” situations, even though it may incorporate no understanding of the activity it purports to describe. And here lies the danger of loose thinking. Seeing the predictive power of the model, people easily come to believe it represents either the way the world actually works or, worse yet, how it should work. And for many areas of experience, like the matured elements of 20th century engineering disciplines (mechanical, electrical, aeronautical, nautical, automotive, etc.) this is entirely satisfactory for routine projects as long as no situation unanticipated in the model can arise to invalidate the model’s assumptions (like an undersea earthquake and the resulting tsunami).
But consider what emerges when the model is computational and it models another, more complex computation. In this case, since everything, real and virtual, is the product of an abstract computation, it is easy to confuse the model with reality. While no one believes that a LEGO model of a locomotive will inform the design of a device for rail transportation, almost everyone believes that a dichotomous model of sex and gender phenomena determines how human relationships are constructed in reality, although the most casual observation shows that real human relationships do not agree with this dichotomous model in any way, since they emerge from sex distinctions only through a very long and complex sequential development process. This elevation of an egotistical construction of the human mind, based on incompetent observation of reality, to the level that almost everyone in our society is forced to order their lives in accordance with this delusion, represents a temporary triumph of mass insanity over the truth and reality of all our personal experiences and observations.
Existing models of social categories fail the test of rationality for two reasons. First, they provide a small or dichotomous choice of labeled properties of the world as data. Second, they fail to recognize the fundamental multidimensionality of all living experience. Nowhere in all human thought and philosophy is this conceptual failure to understand the nature and role of models in science and technology more profound and more injurious to individuals and society than in the complete misapprehension of the nature of sex and gender that oppresses all human activities on this planet.
First consider the insane idea of the dichotomy of human biological sex. It has been noted that over 99% of all humans have either XX or XY sex chromosomes (but not both) in their somatic cells. This is a biological fact. If one then creates a model that says “all humans have either XX or XY sex chromosomes (but not both) in their somatic cells” that model is not correct. If one goes further to say “all persons with XY sex chromosomes have penises” and “all persons with XX sex chromosomes have clitorides” the model becomes much worse in its ignorance of a growing mass of variant sex presentations. When the ignorant and bigoted satraps of human society go even further to assert “all persons with XY sex chromosomes are men” and “all persons with XX sex chromosomes are women” the foolishness reaches a climax of stupidity. At this point it is correct to quote the late Richard Feynman who would tell his students that their model, their idea, is “not even wrong,” that is, it incorporates so many incorrect assumptions as to have little relationship to the thing it purports to describe. But the foolish, irrelevant oversimplification has hardly begun and grows rapidly to serve the forces of oppression.
The failure of all human philosophy about sex and gender on the biological level is made worse by the failure to recognize the rich multidimensionalty of reality, compressing the common conceptual model even further to dichotomous models such as “men work best with men, women with women” or “men do not dress like women, nor women like men” or “men only share erotic play with women, and women with men.” Not only is the basic biology reduced to a false model, lacking a continuum of intermediate values, but also independent levels of genetic sex, sex expression, sexual orientation, social affinity, gender identity, and gender orientation are assumed to be all one thing, determined by genetic sex. An XY body has a penis and fucks XX bodies that don’t. The XY is socially attracted to other XYs and all of them think they are people who wear pants and fuck people who wear dresses, having no idea of the reality of gender.
And such people have largely succeeded in convincing everyone in the world that their blighted understanding, obviously silly at every turn, is the way the world should work and that anything that does not fit this asinine model should be suppressed.
The growth in application of rational methods of analysis and synthesis to understanding inadequately explored aspects of everyday life, driven by the great growth in general understanding of information and systems technology, at least among us geeks, is bringing for a new generation of thinkers, whose superior vision of the true realities of sex and gender freedom will displace permanently the foolish ideas of their pastfathers. Today’s state of social and economic injustice calls for more than mental exercise, it requires bold action to reverse these false hypotheses that create bad thinking and discriminatory laws.
A more complete discussion of the levels and dimensions of sex and gender expression is provided in my paper, I Am an Intersex Bisexual Transgender and So Are You.