One interesting fact about electrons is that they are all literally identical. And I really do mean completely and literally identical, in the sense of sharing all properties. Yes, even the spatial distribution of their wavefunctions.
To illustrate how this is possible, consider a simple scenario, where we have two electrons, one at point A, and the other at point B. At first it would seem that electron 1 has a different location from electron 2. But in fact, the universe is in a quantum superposition of two states–the first state has electron 1 at A and electron 2 at B, while the second state has electron 2 at A and electron 1 at B. So even though we observe electrons at two distinct locations, the two electrons involved are actually identical.
The fact that electrons are identical has really important consequences. One consequence is the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which states that no single state can be occupied by two electrons simultaneously. So when we have a large atom, electrons will occupy many different orbitals of the atom, instead of having all electrons occupy the one orbital with lowest energy.
Of course, it’s not really practical to think of it this way all the time. Generally we prefer to think of each electron as being at a distinct location, and then we tack on additional rules like the Pauli Exclusion Principle.
The point is that the individuality of electrons is an idea that arises from practical necessity, and not from the fundamental physics. Practical necessities arise from social context. And in principle, a different social context could have different needs that are better fulfilled by some other way of thinking about it. Therefore, the concept of individual electrons is a social construct.
(The above argument is slightly naive. I am led to believe, by the length of this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, that there might be a few caveats and complications. But I’m going to take the naive view and maybe I’ll read the article later.)
I take a somewhat extreme view of social constructionism–I believe that nearly everything is socially constructed. Or maybe it would be better to just say everything is socially constructed, without exception.
Generally, when people try to think of exceptions, they name something that they think exists out there in reality, independent of any human contact. Like that rock over there, that shit’s pretty real. My problem with this is, I don’t know what “real” means. If “real” applies to some arbitrary collection of “individual” particles that we’re calling a rock, then why can’t it also apply to other things? Are statistical properties like temperature also real? What about the International Monetary Fund? And gender?
“Real” appears to refer to certain social constructs that are culturally independent across a reasonable range of cultural variation. And fine, that’s a useful concept. Maybe rocks are real and beauty is not. But I fail to see why that means beauty is socially constructed and rocks are not. Both are socially constructed.
My robot boyfriend has expressed confusion at the idea that everything is socially constructed. He thinks of it in philosophical terms; social constructionism appears to be a predicate that applies to all objects. Does such a predicate have any meaning? And if x is socially constructed regardless of x, then what information could we possibly convey by asserting that any particular thing is socially constructed?
Let’s consider another predicate, “is made of electrons, neutrons, and protons”. This predicate applies to nearly all objects, but nonetheless has tremendous meaning. It is still useful to say that my computer is made of electrons, neutrons, and protons, even if the truth of that statement is totally obvious. Because now we can consider the consequences of that totally true statement.
Likewise, it may be completely true and obvious to say that a thing is socially constructed, but it’s still useful to say so, so that we may consider the consequences of that totally true statement.
Typically, it is only really useful to talk about the social construction of things that can actually be changed with a reasonable shift in culture. So we generally don’t talk about the social construction of electrons. But even if we don’t talk about it, I still think it’s true.