What is real?

Science writer Nicholas Wade recently wrote a book about the role of race in the development of human culture. According to his thesis, the different races possess more or less of certain collections of genes and some of these genes are responsible for human behavior therefore certain races are genetically predisposed towards certain behaviors*. This is controversial because it implies that in some sense, races can’t change and efforts to help them do so may be doomed to failure.

* Summarizing what Wade is saying is close to impossible and I’m sure people could niggle with what I’m saying here but I feel it’s close enough for this discussion.

Many people disagree with Wade’s theory and one frequent rebuttal is that race itself doesn’t exist—it is, they frequently say, a “social construct.” By this they mean, the division of race has no real meaning in nature. For example, the term species divides animal groups who can’t reproduce with each other. In that sense, species is a real term. But race is much harder to define. Different races (called sub-species by people who debate this stuff) can have sex with each other. One might point out the differences of skin color and appearance between different races but that gets messy quickly. There are plenty of light skinned blacks or Asian looking Caucasians etc.

In this sense, I tend to agree that race is a social construct. But, as you think about it, so is pretty much everything. Words have meaning because enough of us got together and agreed they have meaning. If we didn’t all agree that a cup was a cup and that its purpose was to hold things to drink, it wouldn’t be a cup. If everyone on earth died then cups would no longer exist. They might exist in the sense that their matter would still exist (assuming the earth wasn’t destroyed or what have you) but as an object—a category—cups would be extinct. The definition of cups is a man made distinction which has no objective meaning.

(Of course, definitions are kind of blurry. Some people might look at a tall cup and claim it’s a flower vase. And we also hear about weird German words that have no translation in English.)

This reminds me of a few tidbits I’ve read in relation to Buddhist thought. There is a notion there that you can experience an object before you apply all the man-made definitions and correlations related to it. I suppose we all do this for a nanosecond before we mentally identify an object. For the briefest of moment, before you identify a cup, you experience it as some undefined thing. (This moment is so fast it’s questionable whether you can say we “experience it” but there you have it.)

Watching my dad and his wife, both in their 90s, I see a certain breakdown of this system of categories, this taxonomy, that we apply to everything around us. They might be baffled by what a fairly basic object is, or they might understand it but mislabel it; there’s a lot of calling things with words that rhyme with the real name—cup could become pup for example. I suppose this is what life was like when we were babies—everything was just a thing, and often we probably couldn’t even differentiate between things. A newspaper next to an apple next to a kitten was just a pile of “stuff” in our new minds.

This leads to an interesting point. What babies and demented people have in common are essentially brains that don’t categorize well. The neurons of their brains have limited connections (either because the connections haven’t formed yet as in the case of babies, or because they have deteriorated as in the case of older adults.) This would imply that the meaning we apply to the objects we encounter is literally wired into our brains. It’s the structure of our brains that applies meaning. From this one can presume that a brain structured differently would find different meanings in the world. (Say the brain of an autistic child. Or an alien. Or a sentient computer.)

It really leads to the question of “what is real.” Our words are not real. Our categories are not real. The only thing really real that I can see is the physical matter of the universe. Even the distinctions between these bits of matter (e.g. molecules, atoms, electrons, quarks etc.) are not really real.

This is heavy shit to think about. It’s giving me a headache.

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