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[This is the 4th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship]

Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself,
and then comes to resemble the picture.
                – Iris Murdock
The title of Mark Twain’s What Is Man? poses a question that humans have pondered for millennia. Our species modestly calls itself Homo sapiens—Man, the wise. We’ve also been dubbed Man, the builder; the tool maker; the game player; and the talker. Twain himself argued that man is a machine, Homo machinus.

While all these characterizations capture some aspect of humanness, none does so uniquely. On the contrary, it seems that every time someone makes a case that a particular trait sets humans apart, experts in animal life say, ‘No, animals do that too.’ Animals show intelligence and build nests, dams, and webs. They make tools, play games, and make war. They communicate and display emotion.

But no species other than ours holds the fate of the Earth in its hands. The question, then, is what is it about humans that has brought us such power?

There’s one faculty that humans have developed more than other animals. It’s our capacity to build ever more accurate and comprehensive models that explain the world and nature and thereby give us a measure of control over it. In this context, you can think of models as explanations and stories—explanations of how the world works; stories about how we ourselves behave.

I’m not saying that other animals don’t employ models. Once again, the distinction doesn’t appear to be absolute. We may never know exactly when our hominid ancestors began inventing stories and telling fortunes, making maps and myths, keeping accounts and ledgers, depicting animals, explaining disasters, and speculating about death.

What’s clear, though, is that these first steps to simulate aspects of the world and our place in it were taken at a time when there was no distinction between religion and science. Though we didn’t think of it as modeling, building models was what we were doing. The crowning accomplishment of proto-religion and proto-science, which were then one, was the emergence of a model featuring us as individuals in the cosmos.

It’s beside the point that these early models are now dismissed as “creation myths.” What’s important about them is not their validity but their existence. When humans began trying to explain the world, they embarked on a path that in time would give them a power advantage not only over other animals, but also over other human groups that handicapped themselves by clinging to inferior explanations.

Explanations, theories, maps, laws—models—are the path to power. Most of them are no good, but the few good ones rule. When models compete, better ones confer advantages on those who adopt them, and, over time, these first adopters gain an advantage over people saddled with models that harness and organize less power.

A Primer on Models

The sciences … make models. By a model is meant a … construct which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work.
    – John von Neumann (1903–1957), Hungarian-born American mathematician, creator of game theory and computer logic
Scientists use the terms “model,” “theory,” “explanation,” and “law” almost interchangeably. The popular idea that a theory is more tentative than a model, or even a law, is quite wrong. These terms do not indicate relative degrees of certainty, but rather have their origins in history. For example, Newton’s classical dynamics are referred to as “laws of motion” whereas the relativistic dynamics that Einstein discovered go by the name of the “theory of relativity.” One might think the word law would indicate greater certainty, but in this case it’s just the opposite. As of this writing, Einstein’s “theory” has no known exceptions, and Newton’s “laws” break down in the subatomic realm and for ordinary objects moving at high speeds.

Similarly, Darwin’s “theory of evolution” is not so-named to suggest flaws in it. The theory of evolution has been thoroughly tested and to date has not been found wanting. Another very accurate, comprehensive scientific theory describes the elementary particles and their interactions. It goes by the unassuming name of “the standard model.”

Building better models is humankind’s defining activity. For better or worse, it’s made us who we are. The aforesaid “standard model” describes three of Nature’s four forces, and, by enabling us to predict their effects, allows us to tap sources of energy otherwise unavailable. The flip side of taming Nature’s power is that we may use it in ways that damage the planet and harm each other.

We learn modeling early, starting with Legos, dolls, and model trains. The fables we grow up with can be understood as models that show us how to behave. People fancy themselves as characters in video games, sometimes deploying an avatar, and can try out different behaviors vicariously without risking their own lives.

Scientists Francis Crick and James Watson modeled the double-stranded helical structure of the DNA molecule with Tinker Toys. There is a model of the San Francisco Bay—complete with miniature piers poking into the water, a scaled-down Golden Gate Bridge, and “tidal currents” propelled by pumps—that fills a warehouse in Sausalito, California. By studying it, scientists can anticipate the effects of proposed real-world alterations of the Bay.

Weather bureaus, using computers and mathematical models, provide weather forecasts. As everyone knows, the predictions are not always right, but they’re getting more accurate as the models are improved.

Experimenting with model planes in wind tunnels enabled the Wright brothers to build the aircraft they flew at Kitty Hawk. Even more significant than the plane they built was their pioneering use of modeling in engineering. Models enabled them to anticipate problems through trial and error without paying the price of crashing a piloted plane. Today, flight can be simulated on computers by representing both the airplane and the atmosphere in a mathematical model.

Grand unifying models are the holy grail of every branch of science. In biology, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is such a model. In chemistry, it’s Mendeleyev’s periodic table of the elements. In geology, the theory of plate tectonics accounts for the earth’s principal geological features. Physicists are searching for a “theory of everything” (often abbreviated TOE) that, as Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate in physics, picturesquely puts it, would “explain the entire universe in a single, simple formula that you can wear on your T-shirt.” One of these models is called string theory. Like all theories and models, string theory will ultimately live or die depending on whether its implications agree with observations.

Though much of science consists of building models, the use of models is hardly limited to science. Indeed, normative, prescriptive social models predate by millennia the descriptive and predictive nature models mentioned above. Beginning in the distant past, cultural codes of conduct—for example, the Ten Commandments—were used to regulate family and tribal relationships. Other examples of socio-political models include the theologies of religious institutions, organizational charts of universities, by-laws of corporations, and national constitutions.

Entrepreneurs and the venture capitalists who invest in their companies are guided by hypothetical plans—that is, models—that delineate scenarios based on various economic assumptions to chart a path to profitability. The governance models of nation-states range from the divine right of kings to fascism, communism, constitutional monarchies, and many sub-species of democracy. Sometimes users of social models actually lose sight of the difference between their models and reality. As Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, warns: “A surprising problem is that a number of economists are not able to distinguish between the models we construct and the real world.”

When we see parents, heroes, public figures, and fictional characters as “role models,” we’re using behavioral models to shape our own character.

To sum up, models are descriptive or prescriptive representations of the world and ourselves. Their functions include providing us with an identity, shaping our behavior, maintaining social order, and guiding our use of power. Modeling has made humans what we are and our success as a species depends on learning to use them wisely.

In the next post, we face the fact that despite our preference for fixity, models evolve.

Religion and Science[All 20 posts of this series have now been collected in a free ebook: Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship. If you enjoyed this series please let me know at My most recent book, The Rowan Tree: A Novel,  explores  the personal and political ramifications of my ideas as part of the coming of age of America in an era of global partnerships. The Rowan Tree is available as an ebook or in print format.]

Originally posted to Robert Fuller on Sun Jun 24, 2012 at 11:04 AM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets and Spiritual Organization of Unapologetic Liberals at Daily Kos.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (9+ / 0-)

    Continue the conversation at

    by Robert Fuller on Sun Jun 24, 2012 at 11:04:33 AM PDT

  •  Republished to Street Prophets (6+ / 0-)

    I also do an honors seminar on "The Origins of Language and Religion" in which we stress model building. I will be quoting you in the next seminar.  Thanks.

  •  Yo Rescue Rangers! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    This needs to be rescued-to-rec.  

    "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

    by G2geek on Sun Jun 24, 2012 at 06:27:42 PM PDT

  •  Don't really have anything to add today... (0+ / 0-)

    thanks for keeping the series coming.

    If religion means a way of life, and life's necessities are food, clothing, and shelter, then we should not separate religion from economics. - Malcolm X

    by dirkster42 on Sun Jun 24, 2012 at 07:31:56 PM PDT

  •  seems that we need to standardize the terms. (0+ / 0-)

    Throughout the sciences globally, there needs to be a standardization of language for these things, so the meanings are uniform and clear to everyone.  This will also help laypeople to understand what's going on.

    The way I learned it was:

    A fact = a measurement.

    A hypothesis = a falsifiable prediction about measurements that will occur under specified conditions.

    Hypotheses are falsified (disproven) or supported, but not "proven."  

    "Proof" is "logical proof," only used in mathematics where it is necessarily true in all specified cases and there will be no exceptions.  

    "Support" is "empirical support," whereby the measurements are consistent with the predictions of the hypothesis.  We recognize that in a probabilistic universe, it is possible to have anomalous or outlying facts that do not comport with a hypothesis, but do not rise to the level of falsifying it (e.g. patients who don't get better when given a medicine, even though the medicine works for most patients).

    A theory = a big-picture description of a set of phenomena, that is based on some supported hypotheses and that also gives rise to additional hypotheses that can be tested.  When the predictions of a theory (as spelled out in the hypotheses it spawns) are strongly supported, we say that the theory is powerful or has strong explanatory power.  

    A paradigm = an overall view of a subject matter, that arises as a cultural worldview among people working in a field.  

    A "law" = a theory that is so strongly supported by empirical facts, that few if any exceptions can ever be expected (objects don't fall upward).  It may also occur that a "law" has its domain of applicability circumscribed by subsequent findings (e.g. as Newtonian dynamics were circumscribed by GR, and then by QM), but it still holds within its limited domain.  

    Now IMHO it would be fine to adopt the above system universally, but there are other systems and definitions, and what matters most is to achieve some kind of standardization.  This may include re-naming certain things e.g. we might do away with the word "law" entirely and rename "Newton's laws of motion" as "Newton's theories of motion," and likewise for "the laws of thermodynamics" becoming "the theory of thermodynamics."  

    As for anti-evolutionists saying "it's only a theory," the answer to that is "so is the germ theory of disease, do you want to try to disprove it by eating some poo?"

    "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

    by G2geek on Sun Jun 24, 2012 at 08:18:33 PM PDT

    •  "… ONLY a theory" (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      The lexicon suggested by G2geek would indeed be better than the loose, informal way that scientists speak of laws, theories, rules, models, and paradigms. Within the "club" it probably doesn't matter -- as practicing scientists know what they mean -- but the variety of names for what are all models does confuse the public. I deal with the "It's only a theory" criticism of evolution in a coming post. The quick reply is to ask "What else could it be?" All scientific models are subject to disproof. Science insists they be falsifiable, else they are, in Wolfgang Pauli's famous words, "Not even wrong."

      Continue the conversation at

      by Robert Fuller on Mon Jun 25, 2012 at 07:37:31 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  this is interesting.... (0+ / 0-)

        You have it that hypotheses and theories are subsets of models, and I have it that theories and models are entirely different animals.

        I'm wondering where that difference comes from, for example do the physical sciences (your background) use one set of definitions and the social/human sciences (my background) use a different set of definitions?  

        In which case, I'm inclined to believe that the social/human sciences should defer to the physical sciences for standardization of language.

        Falsifiability is to fundamentalists a sign of weakness: in their universe, certainties are absolute and unchanging, and paradoxes such as wave/particle duality are signs that the deity is testing our faith.  In order to undo the brainwash, I would guess that it's necessary to come in with something that matches their emotional desire for absolute certainties (or as close to that as possible) such as Newton's theory of motion, and from that, derive clearly understandable conclusions that break through their paradigm.

        Though, the other problem is, their paradigm is all-or-nothing.  Proof that the universe is 13.7 billion years old would break their young-Earth creationist beliefs so therefore they do not tolerate or accept any such evidence.  

        And when they have power, they use it the way they did back in the days of Galileo.  

        "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

        by G2geek on Tue Jun 26, 2012 at 04:22:30 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  oh, and about models: (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Robert Fuller

    A theory is a literal statement about relationships between facts.

    A model is an abstraction of a set of facts, similar to a metaphor.  Models are created based on existing theories, or as a method of testing new theories on a small scale.  

    A model can tell you "what something is like" but not necessarily tell you "exactly how it works."   For example the holographic model of memory refers to the metaphor of the hologram whereby the stored pictorial information is distributed throughout the storage medium.  

    The metaphor of the hologram is used to represent the concept that memory in the brain is stored in a distributed manner, but it doesn't tell us the mechanism by which memory is stored or recalled.  Starting from "what something is like" can lead to useful insights that can turn into hypotheses, for example tests that can be performed on actual human brains to ascertain how memory is stored.  

    One can build a small-scale model aircraft to test its aerodynamic performance, before building a full-scale mockup of the aircraft.  The model will point out obvious strengths and flaws in the design, that can be refined on a small scale before committing the resources to build the full-scale mockup (which itself is also a model: it won't be outfitted with seats and airline logos etc.).  

    Even models built for purely aesthetic reasons (hobbyist model-building) can provide useful insights into their fields or associated fields.  For example model railroads built as artistic exercises can demonstrate facts about switching and traffic capacity of railroads, design of railroad facilities, and so on.  The model railroad club at MIT, back in the days when the control systems for its layouts were implemented with telephone relays, led to insights that were applied in switching and communications systems and in cybernetics.  Every automobile manufacturer seeks new design concepts by starting with small scale models.  And architectural firms commonly create physical models of new buildings to help work out design ideas both aesthetic and practical.  

    "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

    by G2geek on Sun Jun 24, 2012 at 08:33:33 PM PDT

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