Sex, Physics and Constructing Reality

What lies beyond us: eternal, unchanging and sublime?  What lies within us: temporal, arbitrary and constructed?

In 1996 physicist Alan Sokal put the finishing touches on a new manuscript and sent it off to an academic journal.  The manuscript wasn't a description of a new experimental method or a new theoretical calculation. The journal wasn't a scientific publication. Instead Sokal send his new work to Social Text, a journal focused on "postmodern culture studies" and his entire article was nonsense, a hoax.

The journal was dedicating an issue to the so-called Science Wars that erupted in 1980s and 90s when some scholars in the humanities began arguing that science was "socially constructed". In their view there was no inherent truth to be found in scientific practice.  Instead, the results of science were a kind of agreed-upon fiction, a game with made-up rules like Bridge or Chess.  The language of social constructivist arguments drew heavily from post-modern studies of literature and could be highly obtuse and arcane.  Sokol's article "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," appeared to favor the social constructivist argument claiming quantum gravity was a cultural invention that depended solely and explicitly on linguistic conventions.

This was not, of course, what Alan Sokal believed.  Instead Sokal wanted to see if the journal would "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions." The journal did publish the article to their great humiliation once Sokal revealed his hoax.  A firestorm of controversy erupted that has yet to fully die down.

Social construction can make sense when discussing those aspects of human experience where culture plays a role. This is true even in fields where the boundaries with the "natural" realities of science are fuzzy.  Sex is one domain where the social constructivist position seems to reach something solid.  What does it mean to be a man?  What does it mean to be a woman?  What determines gender roles? Is it gene expression set in place tens of thousands of years ago or definitions that are simply culturally manufactured?  In other words are sex-roles something set down in traditions and, as such, are arbitrary (though useful) having nothing to do with laws of nature? Depending on who you talk with, questions like these have real import and meaning.  Gender-roles may be one domain where thinking about socially constructed realities opens new doors to new understanding.  But what about physics?

The "hard" version of the social constructivist argument, the idea that science does not reveal aspects of the world's own structure, is surely a mistake.  The world clearly pushes back.  From heat diffusing through a metal rod to the orbital dynamics of planetary motion, there are repeating (and repeatable) patterns that are amenable to generalized description in quantitative languages (math).

It is true that there are higher and higher levels of abstraction to be climbed as one goes from Galileo’s insights on inertia to Maxwell's insights into electromagnetic unification.   But the very real-world control these insights have given us over the real world would argue quite concretely that the efforts of physicists must be more than a game.

The reality we encounter through physics cannot simply be something the culture agreed upon, something it constructed. This must be true because that reality relies too heavily on agreements with the world itself, not other people.  Even in the most massive, complex experiments like the Large Hadron Collider there is contact with the world, with raw experience.  Last years total shut down of the LHC in the face of failed superconducting magnets clearly demonstrates that the world pushes back.

But that is not all there is to the story (if it were why write a whole blog on the subject). There are ways in which culture colludes with physics in the construction not of eternal realities (if such a thing exists) but of human realities.  Every human culture has to justify itself.  It has to explain to its participants why things are this way and not some other way. From paying taxes to supporting grand collective efforts like war or cathedral-building every culture needs a collectively agreed upon Universe to make collective sense of human experience.  And since it's collective experience we are talking about, i.e. culture, there can be no escaping the cultural construction of many aspects of our experience.

The Universe of science is the background on which we build and justify the lives we are born into. Why do we have spent 8 hours a day in jobs which regiment our time like delicately balanced machines? Why do we send our kids to schools where they learn to slice and dice time in the same way: fourth period is for math but fifth period is for English.   We do this because we have a particular vision of what time is and how it should be used - a vision we can hold up to the cosmos and say "But this is what science shows us about time!"

The point is this - the worldview of science can be used to construct social realities even if the results of science are independent of those constructions.  As we tumble deeper and deeper into a world dominated by science and technology this perspective may be one to keep in mind. It just might help us as we search to create more open and hopefully, more humane, human constructions.

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