Archive | November 2012

A model is a simplified representation of some aspect of the world. In what ways may models help or hinder the search for knowledge?

(Here is an essay, I wrote and edited, on a topic I was introduced by my brother followed by a discussion)

A model is a representation, in a physical, structural or conceptual form of an object or concept. Before, dwelling deeper in the topic, it is important to remember that a model, regardless of context and usage is just that – a representation. It is not the object or concept itself. There is bound to be some difference or deviation between the object (or concept) and the model representing it, which affect one’s understanding and knowledge regarding that object. Generally, a model is simplified (and distorted) to show a systemic process (E.g. The water cycle) or to be used for symbolic positioning (The planets in a Solar System model). Its simplified form facilitates better or faster understanding because the complexity of the aspect it is trying to represent may only confuse the knower. However the simplification of the aspects denoted by a model hinders one from getting a completely accurate knowledge due to the exclusion of details or misrepresentation.

To understand how a model may help or hinder the search for knowledge, one can look the example of Globe – a three dimensional model of the Earth.  As a knower, when I see a globe, I perceive it to be an accurate model of the earth in the first glance. It provides me sufficient knowledge of how the earth looks, how the continents are placed, the size of the oceans etc. So it is safe to say that models allow visualization. Sensory perception, here, thus becomes an effective way of knowing. Most of the Globes have the names of countries, continents and seas which help in identification. Thus language, another means of knowing, is helpful. But when I start reasoning, I realize in how many different ways this model has hindered my search for knowledge. Rather than leading me to the knowledge, more questions arise in my head – Is that how (and why) is the earth inclined? How is the earth held up? Where’s gravity and how does it affect? Suddenly, to me, the limitations of this model of Earth outweigh the actual knowledge it actually gives us. Granted that, most of the question that came in my head, can be answered when with further reading and research, but the Globe by itself does not tell me completely what the earth is like.

Now one may say that models – such as the globe – are meant only to represent a certain aspect and that scope of a model extends only the purpose and intention it was made to be used for. So the globe was only meant to show how Earth looked macroscopically and not how Earth ‘felt like’. This contextualistic viewpoint, may regard me as being overly critical and judgmental regarding the globe, but it fails to regard crucial error in models. Simplifying (or eliminating certain aspects) may help in understanding the working of a model, but it may also lead one to regard that simplistic representation as the reality. Incomplete knowledge or information leads to misconceptions, assumptions and at times even myths. One of the best examples for this is, the atomic model. Growing up, seeing and learning about Bohr’s model of atom, I always pictured and started believing that atoms are these ‘squiggly bunch of tiny balls clustered in the center having many tiny balls orbiting it in different elliptical paths’. I often thought if I look through a very powerful microscope, I shall be able to see electron taking roller coaster ride around the nucleus. But this view was sort of shattered, when I learnt, in my senior years, that modern model of atom – that is currently followed – states that electrons are not point particles but standing waves surrounding the nucleus whose position can be described in terms of probability. This invalidates Bohr’s model as it predicts many spectral phenomena which Bohr’s model fail to explain. However the irony is that, as despite failure of Bohr’s model, it has not been discarded out of current science books in school. Because of its simplified nature, many still learn and perceive atom that way. Although this new model of atom is mathematically convenient, it is very hard to visualize let alone understand, and thus is reserved for people who   satisfy their curiosity or pursue a career in this field. Here, simplistic and convenient representation takes preference over a more accurate representation, hindering many from the search of knowledge.

BOHR’S ATOMIC MODEL       MODERN ATOMIC MODEL

The value of a model is how well it corresponds to the object or aspect it is representing. The purpose is to get as close and accurate as possible. For instance, physicists over the ages like Rutherford, Thompson, Bohr, and Einstein kept disproving each others models, as each model, somehow failed to explain some or the other aspect of physics and kept coming up with new models with better explanations. The search for knowledge continued, and each model helped in the next step for this search.

An economic model, all help in the search for knowledge to an extent, but they hinder it too an extent as they provide limitations. An economic model which shows the circular flow of income, makes many assumptions which may not exist in real life, thus it is not an adequate model for our search towards absolute economic knowledge, though it gives us a brief idea of the process. For a layman, this may have increased his knowledge, but absence of all the complexities and unstated assumptions will not only hamper his knowledge, but mislead him.

Till now, only examples of physical and conceptual model have been discussed. A mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process – a representation how he or she uses their intuitive perception to understand the world or an aspect of it. A philosophy or a concept itself is a model. Interesting thing is that, in mental model, all ways of knowing help and hinder the search of knowledge. Let’s take the example of Free will philosophy. I may believe in free will and this belief can only come through emotion. I need to feel it – feel that I am the master of my own destiny. Yet my emotions and feeling are not without biases. For all I know, I may want to feel it just because I do not like the deterministic model. Same can be said about perception. While my senses helps me in perceiving the world, leading for me to believe in this philosophy due to my past experiences and observation, they have their limitations. Growing up in a certain way, in a certain society and certain time, I am conditioned into believing and accepting certain things and thoughts. Reasoning is a powerful way understanding and analyzing the accuracy of to expresses this philosophical model, I needs to do so through language (whether by telling or writing). Yet, how well I explain this to someone, I am restricted with language i.e. how well I use it and how well that person interprets it.

Models play an important role in religion too. In religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, an idol of a deity is used for praying. The idol is a model too, as it is a simplified representation of some aspect of the world, which is in this case, is God. The concept of God is overtly complex, and to represent Him as an idol helps and hinders our search for knowledge. The knowledge here may be faith, or simply knowledge of what God looks like. It helps our search for knowledge as by representing God as an idol, our way of knowing God is supplemented through emotion, and one finds it easier to communicate or pray when there is an idol in front, which supplements this search for knowledge by evoking emotions better. The presence of an idol of God, ie a visual representation causes an emotional reaction in an individual which supplements the power of devotion needed to pray. However it hinders our search for knowledge because the model of an entity as Supreme as God, a concept so complex and diverse, may limit our understanding of God to that idol itself. Thus it hinders the search for the understanding of God to that idol only, and God is much more than the simple visual model representation of Him. Therefore, in a religious arena, it is better to think of the ‘model’ as just a ‘channel’ to reach to God, rather than using that model to understand God.

Therefore, models help and hinder our search for knowledge in various ways. While the simple representation of actual aspects helps us understand the actual aspects much better with models, the details it omits hinder the search for the absolute knowledge. But this exclusion of details in a model, and the limitations of a model which appear to hinder the search for knowledge, actually help us, because it instigates us to question the model, and thus improve the model till it brings us closer to the actual knowledge. The limitations of one model lead to the creation of an improved model, which brings us closer and closer to the understanding of what the model is trying to represent, and thus models and help and hinder our search for knowledge in various ways.