Life is a Social Construct

There was a period in my life where I used to refer to myself as ‘living in the postmodern abyss’. This was as a result of my having arrived at the concept of unknowability through my readings in physics. My first encounter with unknowability was in reading about our theories of the big bang. At the time, our models could “see”, or theorise, back until around 1.35 × 10−43 seconds after the creation event. That’s nought-point-forty-two-zeros-135 seconds, which is a very short time indeed. However, I thought, if we don’t know what happened before that, we really don’t know the nature of our existence. What “caused” the big bang to happen? Could something have come from ‘nothing’? How can potential exist in nothing? Ideas of our universe popping out of black holes in other universes are all very well but they just put off the matter of first cause rather than resolving it: a concept affectionately known as ‘infinite turtle theory’. I re-encountered the idea of unknowability a number of years later in The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinowgiven as the idea of ‘model-dependent realism’. It’s worth quoting.

Model-dependent realism can provide a framework to discuss questions such as: if the world was created a finite time ago, what happened before that? An early Christian philosopher, St Augustine (354–430), said that the answer was not that God was preparing hell for people who ask such questions, but that time was a property of the world that God created and that time did not exist before the creation, which he believed had occurred not that long ago. That is one possible model, which is favoured by those who maintain that the account given in Genesis is literally true even though the world contains fossil and other evidence that makes it look much older. (Were they put there to fool us?) One can also have a different model, in which time continues back 13.7 billion years to the big bang. The model that explains the most about our present observations, including the historical and geological evidence, is the best representation we have of the past. The second model can explain the fossil and radioactive records and the fact that we receive light from galaxies millions of light-years from us, and so this model—the big bang theory—is more useful than the first. Still, neither model can be said to be more real than the other.

This idea also exists in postmodernism expressed, according to Britannica, as a denial of the idea that:

There is an objective natural reality, a reality whose existence and properties are logically independent of human beings—of their minds, their societies, their social practices, or their investigative techniques. Postmodernists dismiss this idea as a kind of naive realism.

However, my understanding of postmodernism was, it appears, incorrect. Acknowledging unknowability and denying the existence of objective reality are very much not the same thing.

This has come to the fore in my life in recent years due to statements about social constructs in relation to social justice – that biological sex is a social construct or that race is a social construct without a basis in biological reality. As someone who is very left-leaning – I would be most comfortable pinning my colours to democratic socialism as my socio-economic system of choice – I find it very difficult to align with systems that deny external reality. I find myself on the outside of what looks like the mainstream movement towards equality because, not only does it appear irrational in its pronouncements, it actively drives people away from equality in its demands that everyone bow down to its denial of objective reality.

I have recently taken part in anti-anti-gender protests at my local library in defence of library staff who are being intimidated by ‘anti-gender’ activists. That is because I love my library and have been in the habit for years of expressing appreciation to the staff on almost every visit for the great work that they do and the contribution their service makes to my life. However, the anti-protest protests are highly adversarial, branding the anti-gender protesters ‘Nazi scum’ and various other put-downs. Personally, I’d just like to let them know that they’re not quite getting the picture when their main banner says, ‘There are only two genders | Male and Female’. I think that what they wish to point out is that sex is dimorphic and that gender relates to things that are, actually, social constructs. While, stopping to listen to their speeches previously, I have definitely heard their speakers indulging in xenophobia and various other negative isms. Nevertheless, their beliefs about biological sex are basically in line with what our culture reasonably considers known about dimorphic sexually-reproducing species. The sheer absoluteness of the other side – my side – brooks no discussion on the matter and presents a wall of near-hatred. This is not the way to a kinder and more equal world.

This is not to say that there is no truth to the statements above about sex and race being social constructs. However, the truth of those statements is in the realm of semantics – the meaning of words and language – and the conclusions reached simply deny that reality exists beyond our descriptions of it – beyond our language. Those conclusions do not follow unless we believe that reality itself is derived from language. Postmodernism is a religion that is missing its creation myth. If reality is entirely created by language, then how did reality exist in the pre-verbal mammals that were our ancestors? How could we have evolved if language is a precondition of our existence? Postmodernism denies evolution: it denies science.

I have now heard and read others who also see the social justice movement as being entirely reliant on theory of language to the exclusion of the idea of an objective reality but it was the argument “what is a mammal” by PhilosophyTube’s Abigail Thorn that tipped me off to the nature of the arguments that are being presented. Thorn’s show, which I’m a big fan of, presented the idea that our idea of mammals as a distinct class falls down on the existence of the platypus. The platypus does not meet all our defining characteristics for a mammal and, therefore, the category ‘mammal’ is a social construct of limited usefulness. This is completely true. The term mammal is an idea – a word – with an array of other associated ideas – gives birth to live young, suckles, etc. – that applies to lots of creatures but not quite the platypus. Platypus’ also don’t fit into our other categories of the animal kingdom either; although platypus’ lay eggs that hatch outside of the mother’s body, they are not birds or reptiles or amphibians. The real point here is that, in language, edges are blurred and our definitions have a range of usefulness. That doesn’t, however, justify the leap to the assertion that, because something is a social construct, the thing in objective reality that it refers to does not exist.

So, how do I try to show these arguments for what they are? I think the best way is to show an outlying case so that we can see the implications of what is being said.

Life is a Social Construct.

Now that we’ve had a recent global viral pandemic, there are lots more people who know something about viruses. Many people know many vastly different things about viruses, at least some of which must be completely untrue. I’m happy enough to pin my colours to the science: Covid-19 is an RNA strand with a protein coat, a membrane and a spiky thing that gets absorbed into cells which make copies of it and distribute those copies to other hosts. Etc.

During a previous major pandemic in the early 20th century, it was suspected that a pathogen was responsible but we didn’t have microscopes strong enough to see them. Viruses are very very small. (I remember the ubiquitous use of the word “unprecedented” during the pandemic but, of course, it was no such thing. Epidemics and pandemics have raged back and forth across the planet: probably since the emergence of life itself. It was banned in outbound communications in my workplace.)

There is an ongoing debate as to whether or not viruses represent a form of life or not. There was lots of speculation and research during the pandemic as to how long the virus could “survive” outside of the body: on different types of surfaces; at different temperatures. However, the term ‘survive’ in this case is a misnomer as, at this stage of its (life!?) cycle, the virus was most certainly not “alive” according to how we think of that term. ‘Viable’ might have been a better option.

Viruses consist of strands of nucleic acid, RNA or DNA depending on the virus, wrapped in protein and, sometimes, with a fatty outer wrapper. Of themselves, they do not have a metabolism and they are incapable of reproducing themselves and they do not “act”in any way. What they do have is a propensity to be absorbed into living cells which cells then reorganise themselves and produce copies of the virus. It is at this point that the question of whether or not the virus is alive or not is most pertinent. If we consider that the infected cells “belong” to the virus, then the virus meets our definition of life. If, on the other hand, we consider that the infected cell still ‘belongs’ to the host organism, then the virus is simply proteins and information that is being reproduced by the host: it is not, in itself, alive.

Who does the cell belong to? This is the question on which hinges the aliveness or not of the virus. In some cases, almost all of the host DNA in a cell is swapped out for viral DNA, so the majority of the DNA in the cell is viral DNA. However, the cell still exists within, and is sustained by, the life processes of the host. The question of the virus being alive comes down purely to a value judgement on ownership – a judgement in which we can in no way be definitive.

This is not the only situation in which our definitions of life come under challenge. Take tardigrades, often referred to as water bears. Topping out at around 1.5 mm in length, these robust little creatures can enter into ‘cryptobiosis’, i.e. suspended animation. We might say that they are still alive and that life is just suspended but, should they die before reanimation, at what point do we say that they died? When their metabolism ceased or when their potential to reanimate ceased? Essentially, when suspended, they have the propensity for life – to be alive – but they are not being alive and so they challenge our definitions of what it is to be alive.

So, why does this matter? As a reminder, I am looking at the idea of social constructs and how they are used. The uses of words such as ‘life’, ‘alive’, ‘dead’, that I am referring to here are not the states themselves but the set of concepts that we link to those states: we define things in terms of other things and our definitions, generally, at some point, become unuseful. This is because what we think and say about an entity is not the entity itself. The map is not the territory. While we define our reality through language, language is not the reality that it defines. A virus will reproduce, spread and evolve regardless of whether we can agree on whether or not it fits our definition of life. Tardigrades, also will live, not live, die, reproduce and evolve, happily ignoring the fact that they challenge our notions of what it is to be alive or dead or what in-between might mean.

So “life” is a social construct. The word, that is. It describes an idea around which we have other ideas: principally, in this case, the ability to metabolise and reproduce. Its usefulness is limited by the fact that the external realities to which it refers don’t always fit within to our definitions. The word is a map: an abstraction from reality. That does not mean that life, the territory, does not exist.

That is not to say that social constructs or their consequences are not real. They are. Our entire civilisation is based on the development, use and transfer of ideas. We could not create the civilisation we have without the abstraction of language. But, to quote Einstein of our most accurate language:

as far as laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality

Likewise English and other spoken / written languages. We are uncertain in relation to reality. Unknowability is real. We can’t prove that anything exists beyond our own mind: ‘cogito, ergo sum’ and all that. But to assert that our inability to experience objective reality directly means that objective reality does not exist is absolutist and fundamentalist. Assertions that our ideas are social constructs are true but assertions that objective reality does not exist or is subsidiary to our social constructs are simply without foundation. Not definitely untrue: without foundation. Therefore, demands that others believe and act on beliefs that are unprovable are unreasonable and can only lead to a backlash. It is happening. That is why I feel antipathy towards a movement that, on the surface, holds the same values of equality that I hold and have held for as long as I can remember. (That and the fact that that it promotes a type of “equality” that exploitative capitalist corporations can champion without apparent irony.)

I no longer describe myself as living in the postmodern abyss. That is a far weirder place than I previously thought it to be. Uncertain as I am, I believe that the world exists and no-one can prove otherwise.

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