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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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The Meaning is in the Model: Even on Vacation

– By Byron Jennings, Theorist and Project Coordinator

Here I sit on vacation, looking out the window. I see the grass reaching to the cliff edge, a Douglas fir tree, the blue water, a small island, and in the distance the mountains on the BC mainland. All in all, a pretty picture. Oh, I forgot to mention the crane doing some work shoring up the cliff face and standing in the middle of the picture. There’s always something. And the wifi is not working and the daughter wants to go do something.

But what do I actually see? The eyes detect some electromagnetic radiation lumped into three arbitrary groupings and from this, constructs a model of the surroundings which it presents to the conscious mind. The three dimensional layout, grass, trees and water are all constructions of the unconscious mind. The human perceptual apparatus creates a model that we mistake for reality. The grass and water are automatic. The Douglas fir tree requires a little conscious effort to identify based on previous knowledge of trees. That the land out there is an island and the far land is the mainland relies on my knowledge of geography and which way I am looking. The knowledge of the cliff relies on my looking around last night and the assumption that things do not change capriciously over time. Models within models.  All constructed by the human mind, most unconsciously, a few consciously.

Now, the reductionist would claim the model is seriously flawed: no atoms, electrons, atomic nuclei, or quarks. String theorists would even claim the number of dimensions is wrong. But it is a very good model for scales from a millimeter to kilometers. It was honed by evolution and gives meaning to our surroundings; meanings like, “that tawny colored blob over there is a cougar! Run!”  (Well, running from a cougar is not a good idea.)

In everyday life, as in science, the meaning is in the model (and the context), not in the raw observations. Examples abound: Consider idea of naturalism, discussed in the blog on Pure Reason. Both in philosophy (naturalism) and in marketing (natural products), the meaning comes from the model. In marketing, natural seems to mean using techniques developed before 1900 or thereabouts. And we laugh at the Amish. But I digress.

Cause and effect is also something that comes out of the models used to describe observations, not in the observations themselves. As the statisticians say: correlations do not imply causation. The sky lighting up in the morning does not cause the sun to rise, despite the invariant correlation with the light preceding the rising of the sun. I have seen a philosophy paper wax elegant for pages, trying to determine if a fence post causes the shadow or the shadow the post, without building an explicit model. It may be possible, but why bother. That is not how science or the mind works. Cause and effect come out the model.

Similarly, it is the models that provide explanations. While the prime goal of science is to construct models that describe observations, these models frequently provide explanations. Why do the planets have retrograde motion? They and the earth circle the sun (or they move on epicycles, take your pick). Why do people get the common cold? Viruses. Why was your high school science teacher such a dork? Well, no scientific model can provide an explanation for that!

While the meaning given to observations is model dependent, contrary to Kuhn, the observations themselves tend not to be. The moving lights in the night sky (not airplanes, the planets) have been described using various models, from Gods to objects orbiting the sun. But the observations remain the same: lights moving about in the night sky. The Ptolemaic and Copernican systems may be different paradigms, as are Aristotelian physics and quantum mechanics, but they all agree on the observations regarding the lights moving in the sky. Even string theorist would have to agree.

Thus science has a firm ground to stand on: observation. More specifically, largely model independent observation (Kuhn be damned). Otherwise we would be building on sand. But speaking of sand, I must go and see the sand castle competition. Magnificent creations, but built with sand on sand. Perhaps building on sand is not always a bad idea.

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