Coming to terms with “construction”

These days, if an argument isn’t going the way you like, here’s one easy way to shuffle the deck: zero in on the subject of debate (e.g. gender, race, intelligence) and point out that it’s a social construct. And on this count, you’ll probably be right. All human experiences are socially-mediated; all experiences with social content are constructed.

At this point, there are two basic ways your sparring partner might respond:

1. By folding. “I guess you’re right. Since X is socially constructed, we can’t really talk about it coherently. Unless you want to have a conversation about how X is constructed! (And honestly, that’s not what I came here for.)”

2. By holding. “Now hold on a minute. All the research data suggest that X is stable across societies and across domains. I’m not so sure we can get rid of it so fast!”

The folders do something admirable: instead of reflexively rejecting inconvenient logic, they come to terms with it. But they’ve also fallen into a trap: where there’s a conversation worth having, they’ve been shut down. Granting that all social phenomena are constructed, the folders have bought into the idea that we can’t have a productive discussion about anything human, without cracking into the hieratic chambers of critical theory.

The holders have the opposite problem. The good: they manage not to give into the nihilism of the “socially constructed” trick—they recognize that there’s still a conversation worth having about X as X, one that doesn’t devolve into endless definitional bickering. The bad: they essentialize, assuming that social construction is not at play, or is barely relevant—a brand of overkill that gets in the way of open-eyed inquiry into the truth.

At this point, you can probably guess that I’m setting you up for a third position: something foxier than 1 and 2, which manages to combine their strengths and avoid their pitfalls. Something like this:

“You’re right, X is a social construct. But that doesn’t mean we can throw it out. X still has power. On a certain level, it’s still very real.”

Agreeable, right? You’d think. But if anything, this is the sharpest jab at the common “socially constructed” trick. How so?

Because at the end of the day, this is the message that we deliver when we call something a social construct: It’s not essentially real. It can be broken down. There’s a higher realm where it doesn’t translate—whether or not you believe that race has a correlate in biology, you have to admit: there’s no chemistry or physics of race. And fair enough.

But here’s the rub: What would be essentially real, anyway? What, if anything, continues to hang together, the further you go into abstraction and obscurity? What could possibly be irreducible?

If you believe in God, there’s your answer. A fundamental, inscrutable, perfect unit.

For those of us who don’t, at least as anything other than poetic metaphor, the situation gets pretty weird, if you think about it for a bit. Race, gender, the species, even biological life itself fall apart quite easily. Generations ago, Newton and Bohr gave us models that suggested we might be able to find refuge in physics.

But like all brilliant approximations, Newton’s laws proved to be relative, as did Bohr’s model of the atom as an orderly unit made of electron orbits nested around an indivisible nucleus. In contemporary physics, the concept of a “God particle” is something people approach with skepticism and fear: every time we’ve tried to trust something as indivisible, it’s broken down before our eyes, leaving us groundless once again.

Unless you care deeply about physics or metaphysics, the failure of the nanoscopic world to conform to our expectations of permanence and discreteness isn’t something particularly traumatic. But turn the lens of “construction” on yourself, and the conclusions become much more alarming.

No matter how complex you are, and no matter your take on what consciousness is, you are reducible in the same way that a chair, a palm tree, or a circuit board is. Your mind, which is typically what you identify as your self, can be described in many ways—but one thing it doesn’t do is stand on its own, a foreign graft upon the material world.

It encompasses things other than what you’d think of as “the self”—look out the window, and your mind becomes part-street; look up at the sky, and your mind expands to contain clouds.

From another angle, remember that your mind depends upon the properties of your brain, which is made out of the same atoms as everything around it, molecularly rearranged and reconstituted in every instant. In other words, the mind generates everything in your world, and is generated by everything in your world.

Plus, “mind” is just my small human metaphor for whatever’s going on—so remember not to take any of those claims too literally. And if it’s who you are, good luck identifying yourself with anything in particular.

This core principal of Buddhism, called anatta (no-self), and corroborated by neuroscience and physics, has the potential to be either terrifying or liberating. Not to trivialize how it feels—I’ve experienced both sides of it—but put those feelings aside for a minute and keep rolling with my descriptive point: you yourself, on the deepest level, are a construct too.

At this point, I hope I’ve convinced you that “construction” is something that our brains do, that whatever’s being constructed—national identity, atoms, chairs, or selves—the process is the same, and it’s primarily cognitive, and only incidentally social.

So what shocks me is that people insist on keeping the conversations separate—treating “social construction” as a special, damning secret about identities and group phenomena, while continuing to treat the self as something like Democritus’ atom, irreducible and subject only to external, social forces—or more simply, just refusing to admit that construction happens everywhere, to everything we have any reason to think or talk about.

If we accept construction as a given, we can no longer use it as an excuse to derail conversations—unless you deeply believe we have no right to talk about anything in the terms that come naturally to us.

Here’s an example: a few years ago, I was interviewing for a job at a company that makes interviewing into a day-long, round-robin debate tournament, the interviewers goading would-be hires into intellectual traps and silly thought experiments. My kind of game.

The first topic of the day, presented to about 8 of us, was free will—same old song and dance, does it exist or doesn’t it. Well-informed nihilists squared off against bright essentialists, getting into the definitional weeds, talking past each other with points from neuroscience, ethics, and classical epistemology. (I’m shocked, once again, by how few people make the leap from “free will doesn’t exist” to “the self doesn’t exist”, outside of Buddhist circles at least.)

I didn’t get the point of the debate, as it was staged. The heart of the matter seemed clear enough to me, so I spoke up: “Unless we’re gonna make this into a debate about souls, free will is obviously something that emerges from neurochemistry. But so is the feeling that we have free will, which itself matters, and isn’t going anywhere. Knowing that ‘free will’ doesn’t ‘exist’ doesn’t change anything!”

And that’s the kicker: while recognizing that all objects and concepts are constructed is interesting fodder for thought experiments and maybe even nirvana, it won’t change the fact that “construction” will never stop. There’s no truly, permanently stepping out of it, because it’s part of our cognitive architecture—and thank God for that.

Object permanence and concept coherence, driven by our innate capacity for metaphor, are what keep us functional in a world of constant flux, where if we can’t get it together enough to acquire resources and forge social bonds, we’re toast.

(We might go even deeper and say that “construction” is an essential property of information processing: to perceive or compute anything, you have to approximate it, and to approximate anything, you need to boil it down into generalized attributes.)

So a final point on the terms real and exist—“everything is constructed” doesn’t just mean that nothing is real, or that everything is arbitrary. It’s easy to leave it there, as I did when I first came down off the God trip at 16, and give it all up to the void of nihilism.

“Everything is constructed” has an equal and opposite meaning too, as strange as that sounds: everything is real, in some sense. Since even the most trivial absurdity, like “purple walruses dance on the moon”, has a nanogram of reality if it creates an image in your brain, concepts like “the Caucasoid race”, “girl”, “Central Park”, and “I” are most certainly real on some level, even if they’re not real in the way a five-year-old, a Sumerian, or a contemporary believer in souls might think.

David Chapman of Meaningness talks about this approach to reality and meaning by identifying two idealized, but helpful poles that get at how things can be both real and unreal at once, depending on your level of reference. These are nebulosity, the universal tendency of objects and concepts to lack perfect boundaries and perfect coherence, and pattern, the tendency of reality to be textured by difference, and for objects of perception to emerge out of it.

Chapman, an AI researcher by training, takes his inspiration for this conceptual framing from the ground principle of Buddhist thought, which makes sense if you think about it, and even more sense if you experience it*:

Form itself is Void, and Void itself is Form.
Form is not other than Void, and Void is not other than Form.
The same is true of Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations, and Consciousness.

— The Heart Sutra

The same is true of markets, political movements, identities, wine, and airplanes. To say nothing of you, with your particular circumstances of birth, physical features, and Social Security number. On this point, some closing words of reassurance from Douglas Hofstadter, an honest, relentless chaser of the elusive self:

To see ourselves this way is probably not as comforting as believing in other-worldly wisps endowed with eternal existence, but it has its compensations. What one gives up on is a childlike sense that things are exactly as they appear, and that our solid-seeming, marble-like “I” is the realest thing in the world; what one acquires is an appreciation of how tenuous we are at our cores, and how wildly different we are from what we seem to be … And to my mind, the loss is worth the gain.

– “I Am a Strange Loop”

* We’ll get to “experiencing it”, as opposed to “knowing it” in another post.

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