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Understanding Models and why we create them

Updated on March 11, 2013

Understanding what a model is is perhaps one of the most important things to understand about how the human mind makes sense of the world.

As I have written before, scientific hypothesis and theories are models of how the universe works based on evidence. But they are not to be taken as the last word on the subject because of the nature of models.

A model is basically just an explanation of a number of facts. It is a narrative that explains why these facts exist and what they mean as a group. But not all models reflect reality even though they are based on facts.

Recently I saw a talk between Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, two people who’s intellect I admire greatly. They came to a point in their discussion where they were talking about religious logic. Dawkins likened religion to a primitive tribe who’s beliefs were wrong scientifically, but to them it didn’t matter because within the tribe everything was structured toward that belief so that within the confines of the belief there is a coherence which acts like logic, but isn’t based on facts. In the end Dawkins stated he didn’t know why anyone would want to do that.

Lawrence Krauss then said that Dawkins had alluded to the answer. He went on to say that for survival it was probably important for early man to believe that there was a story that explained their existence. That existence wasn’t just “capricious” and that there were reasons for what they were observing. He likened early man kind to scientist looking for answers. The stories then would be the impetus for religion.

For two brilliant scientists they danced around the point without ever coming to it. What they could have simply said was that religion is a model of life. It is based on the facts of the human condition and tries to explain them. It is no wonder that religion persists. The subjects it talks about are real, and real solutions can be found in the answers religion provides.

Religion is indeed an explanation of the facts of life. But is the model correct? No. But it doesn’t have to be unless you are looking for the truth.

It turns out that it doesn’t matter for everyday living. Religion gives people a story that they can base their lives and behaviour on. And it is based on the facts of the human condition. It has remedies for problems like adultery, theft, murder, etc. Mostly it says don’t do these things. If you do not do these things your life will be a lot better because you won’t be bringing the consequences of these acts on your head. And this is of course true and sound advice.

The part about gods and their relationship to mankind, and what the gods want from us is irrelevant in this context because no gods ever show up in our day to day lives. They just figure as part of an explanation which isn’t really needed in real life. In fact, it talks mostly about death and thereafter.

The Genesis story is a perfect example. It tells us about how mankind came to understand right and wrong, good and evil. How we became self conscious. The story acknowledges that woman have a hard time in labour. It explains why we have to work hard to survive. It also provides us with a story of how the snake lost its legs. The story itself is fiction, but the facts are correct. Woman have a hard time in child birth, snakes do not have legs, people have to work to survive, we are self conscious, and we do have a sense of good and evil, positive and negative.

We already know all the facts, so the story explaining them is just window dressing. We know we are conscious, we know woman have a hard time in child birth, etc.

Models are interpretations of the data at hand. I could tell you that the moon god provides for us and loves us because he makes hens lay eggs for us. Well hens do lay eggs. When we get up in the morning and go to the hen house there are eggs waiting for us there. The model must be true.

Well the model is not true, of course. I made it up. But I used facts, so the model is based on facts. Hens lay eggs, we collect them and use them as a food source. But hens do not lay eggs for us, they do it for their species. The moon god has nothing to do with it, and probably doesn’t really love us after all. Not to mention that he probably does not exist.

But so what if someone believed that? Chickens lay eggs and we eat them. The lies have no bearing on the day to day. However, they would be believing a lie, and for those wanting the truth no matter what it is, a lie is not good enough.

In science the only models that are used are the ones that work or predict the behaviour of the world in some way. In cosmology the models are used to try to explain the origins of the universe. The Big Bang is the most popular theory because for the most part, if it is true, it explains how the universe came to be in its current form. Mathematically the sequence of events that are said to have taken place conform to the idea of BB. But it is still not the last word and the model will be and has been modified many times.

QM is a tool that makes the most precise predictions about the quantum world. There are many hypothesis as to why. There are many interpretations concerning what it all means. In other words there are many models out there, none of which have been proven. But what is key is that no interpretation is required to do the math. All those interpretations and explanations are irrelevant when working with QM. It just works.

A model is very useful but it should not be taken as the absolute truth of the matter. Scientists use models and build on them by doing experiments designed to falsify the theory. If it cannot be falsified it comes closer to being accepted as the likely truth of the matter. You can try a thousand times to falsify a theory and even if it cannot be done the first one hundred times that does not prove it is the factual way the world works. But if just once it is actually falsified, it can be ruled out as the way it actually is

People need models because they want to know what the data they collect means. So what they do in essence is make as good a guess as they can, and then try to tear their idea apart or prove it to be the most likely. They may have mathematical evidence or evidence through logic, but until the model is proven fact, it isn’t fact.

It is really better to forget the interpretations and allow the facts to eventually build up and speak for themselves. But people want an explanation of what they are observing.

Scientists and theists are not the only ones who tell stories to explain the world. Building models is what we do all the time. In fact beliefs are models. Opinions are models. Concepts are models. Interpretations are models. All of them usually based on some sort of facts. But that does not mean that the model actually explains the facts.

Fiction writers are happy to tell us that their work is fiction. But if it was not based on some sort of facts or human conditions the story would not resonate with us. The writer’s model may be a cautionary tale, or one of sex and conquest. While the story itself is not true it uses situations and conditions that can and do exist.

I sometimes wonder if scientists know that what they are doing is telling us a narrative, just like the person who first recounted Genesis was doing. But with a little more evidence to back it up.


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