Truth Without Falsification
One of the ways I differ from the typical gay-activist blogger (aside from being a shameless free-marketeer) is that I’m willing to give ex-gays at least some benefit of the doubt, in a few very limited ways. These seem related to our conversation below about falsifiability, so I thought now would be a good time to share them.
Being an openly gay man means asking people to credit my inner experience in a way that, in Popperian terms, is not falsifiable. I declare that I’ve always felt this way, that I’ve never sincerely been attracted to women, and that I really, genuinely find intimacy with my husband appealing rather than uninteresting or repulsive. That’s just how I am, I ask you to believe, and I ask for this belief on no evidence whatsoever. And guess what? Most of you believe me!
It seems only fair, then, that I should credit others’ affirmed internal experiences as well, even if I can’t falsify theirs, either. So I don’t imagine that I can convert heterosexuals. When they tell me that they can’t change, I accept it.
Likewise, I’m willing to credit ex-gays — those who say that they can change, and who say that they have changed. Ex-gays often fault gays for failing to do this, and I have to admit that they have a point. If we’re going to make truth claims based on introspection, we had better at least be consistent about it.
Thus: If ex-gays live up to the change that they declare has happened, and if they are happy with themselves, then I have no business doubting. The world is a big, complicated place, full of strangeness and wonder. It confronts me every day with things that I can scarcely imagine, including this. That’s just how it works. I accept you, ex-gays, as sincere.
(Yes, yes, ex-gays often doubt the validity of my own subjective experience, but I’m not trying to follow them in every particular. I’m trying to construct an internally coherent methodology for dealing with questions of claimed sexual orientation in general, which is far more than ex-gays themselves seem to be attempting. Philosophy deals tyrannically with all of the other sciences, does it not?)
Consistently crediting everyone’s affirmed internal experiences produces a very different picture of human sexuality from either the gay or the ex-gay conventional wisdom. It suggests not only that our sexual orientations are diverse as to object, but that they are diverse as to mutability, too. It appears that some people can change, and that others probably can’t, at least not by the methods they’ve tried.
That particular hypothesis (“Method X will change person Y.”) is falsifiable, at least on a meta level: You say you want to change, you try it, you don’t change — the hypothesis is falsified, precisely by our initial methodological approach of crediting the affirmed internal experience of others.
One of the great things about this approach is that I no longer need to see ex-gays as potentially a threat. Ex-gays love to see themselves as a threat — because, they say, if they can change, then everyone can change. The gay identity itself is in danger of evaporating.
But that claim simply doesn’t follow anymore. If they can change, then they can change. Others’ internal experiences may well be different. What kind of person are you? That’s for you to answer, the best you know how. It’s also for me to answer — for myself, and not for you.
What about those ex-gays who say that everyone is “really” heterosexual, and that no genuine gay identity exists at all? They’re disqualified, because they’re not playing by the rules. In making these claims, they speak not only about their own internal state (“I was never really gay.”) but also about others’ internal states (“Therefore no one else is really gay, either”). That’s neither consistent nor fair, because it privileges one set of internal experiences over another.
And lastly, what about the ex-gays who fail to live up to the change they say they have undergone? Again, I’d ask them what they think they are. If they still report that they’re ex-gay, and that possibly they had a slip-up or a moment of weakness — fine! Some gay people (and straight people) have moments of weakness too, in which they behave in ways that differ from their preferred self-image. Doesn’t everyone? This doesn’t really undercut the ex-gay identity as it relates to one’s internal or experienced self.
We are free, however, to think that these people are rank hypocrites, or at least that they are insufficiently self-reflective, especially after repeated “slip-ups” that seem less and less like isolated incidents. Simply put: Having a stated ideal is not falsifiable — you state it, you have it. Being true to that ideal, however, is falsifiable, and that turn takes us beyond the scope of the post.
Is any of this science? No, absolutely not. It’s practical wisdom. It’s a way of living and letting live. Any truth to be gained here is not scientific, but merely phenomenological. Given that everyone’s internal experience of sexuality is likewise phenomenological, this is hardly a telling criticism of the approach.