In praise of feelings

Is being trans just a “subjective feeling”? If so, does that matter?

Someone asked me to define “woman” “in a way that is not circular (a logical fallacy) and does not reduce it to a subjective feeling (which cannot be evidenced)”. She may be trans, asking for help in argument, but I feel she thinks this a knockout blow- once women accept her feminism, there will be no trans people ever again.

“Subjective” may not add much, describing feelings. What would an “objective feeling” be? We can observe people looking at art, and from their movements and facial expressions see they are deeply moved by the beauty, or bored. Objectively, there is a person who reports a feeling, delight or boredom, and others who observe them and believe they hold the feeling, and know from their own experience that art works can bore or delight them, perhaps depending on their mood.

Some people are frightened of spiders. Some people are not. I know the fear in my friend is real, and I want to alleviate it. I kill the spider because rescuing it would take too much time and prolong my friend’s agony. Others would, because of feelings, rescue the spider and object to my cruelty. If one person feels the death penalty for murder is appropriate, and another feels it abhorrent, there can be a decision, but not necessarily persuasion, and probably not rational argument about the issue.

It’s rare to find a feeling everyone feels. At a severe earthquake, most will feel fear, but some may feel exhileration.

Feelings are perceptions. Like the amoeba, humans are creatures drawn to what will benefit them, repelled from what will harm them. The desire may be one only one person feels, but the desire is still real for that person.

If being trans is “a subjective feeling”, it can be evidenced that people have felt it all over the world, and for millennia. Do you believe it exists? If you are not frightened of spiders but believe some people are, you should be able to believe that the desire to transition exists. It is long-lasting, often for decades. It can be more important than anything else in the world, as it was to me. This is subjective in that it is my feeling and no-one else’s, and it is a feeling, if you don’t accept there are differences in brain structure between men and women and trans women’s brains are in some objective and relevant way the same as cis women’s, but feelings should be respected. Love brings happiness and makes procreation possible- it is “a subjective feeling”. Some feelings should be acted on, others not, but even if being trans is only a feeling does not mean it can be discounted by anyone else.

Is my definition “circular, a logical fallacy”? I defined woman to include trans woman, to my own satisfaction.

What is a “circular argument”? Wikipedia tells me it is an argument where there is no need to believe the premises unless one believes the conclusion. It relates to deductive logic. But deductive logic never tells us anything new, for all conclusions are embedded in the premises. Socrates is immortal, in that as long as there are human beings we will tell each other about Socrates. Definitions are not logical argument. There is no clear line between red and orange on the light spectrum, and other cultures define colours differently and see them differently, but the word “red” still has a useful meaning. The concept of “species” comes from the early seventeenth century, before evolution was observed to exist. Now we know of speciation, where one species divides into two, and there is a moment in that process where it is unclear if there is one species or two. So the definition of “species” is clear, but whether a group of animals fits it may be unclear.

If trans excluders believe “We’re women! They’re Not!” that is a strong feeling. “Trans women are women,” say Labour MPs, equably, and trans excluders are enraged, resentful or contemptuous. They encourage these feelings in each other. It’s only a subjective feeling. They want it not to be- three hundred held a zoom meeting last week on the “materialist feminist analysis of sex”, where many were no doubt delighted by the apparent objectivity of their cause, but human beings are too diverse and strange to be crushed into such neat categories. Trans women are women. Whether we should be admitted into women’s spaces or not cannot be answered by objective definition.

Logic problem

In The Pyramids of Mars, Sarah-Jane Smith is trapped. There are two switches, one of which will release her, one of which will kill her. There are two guardians,  one of which tells the truth, the other always lying. The Doctor can ask one guardian one question. He asks,

“If I asked the other guardian which was the life switch, which would it indicate?”

The liar will lie about the truth-teller, and so indicate the death switch. The truth-teller will tell the truth about the liar, so indicate the death switch. The Doctor presses the other switch and Sarah is released.

John Finnemore did a sketch in which the guardians are fed up because everyone now knows what to ask- so they introduce a third guardian who strictly alternates, lying in one answer then telling the truth in the next. You will not know whether the alternator will lie or tell the truth, because you do not know which it did last time, to the last intrepid explorer. It will only change from lying to telling the truth if asked a question. There are still a life switch and a death switch. The only permitted questions are those which can be answered by a guardian pointing at a switch.

If you ask the first guardian, which is the Life switch, then ask the first the same question again, and the answers are different, you know that the first is the alternator, and you can ask the second guardian the Doctor’s question about the third. If the first’s answers are the same, and you ask the second guardian the same question twice, if the second’s answers are the same the third is the alternator: ask the first the Doctor’s question about the second; but if the second’s answers differ then it is the alternator, and you ask the first the Doctor’s question about the third. So you can always identify the life switch in five questions, and sometimes with three.

However, I can always identify the life switch with three questions.

What questions do you ask so that, whatever the answers, you can always find the life switch with three questions?

Call the guardians 1, 2 and 3 and the switches X and Y. Kudos to anyone who answers this. If anyone asks, I will answer it in a week, in the comments. (Added: The answer is now below, in the comments.)

I have no idea if anyone else has worked on this puzzle. It seems likely someone has. I thought I had answered it, then found a flaw in my argument, and scheduled this post for 1 April; but now, I am clear that I have answered the puzzle.