Thursday, April 14, 2005

Some notes on models

Models are conversational essentials. That is to say, it’s pretty hard to talk about something as it is in its entire truth, because there’s so much to any particular thing that we get overwhelmed just looking for an entry point to the conversation. That’s why we come up with models. A model enables us to get a conversation started around something, in this case, service and self mastery. Models are often mistaken for the truth of the thing itself. That’s a common problem with models. My favorite example of that mistake is the rational actor model from economic theory. In its attempt to understand the structures of economic exchange and to create predictive theories, the rational actor model offers a stripped down version of the human being. In this version, a person is a “rational actor,” whose every act is considered relative to the principle of maximizing self-interested gain. The model assumes that all persons demonstrate their rationality when they act exclusively in their own self interest, usually summed up in getting what they want. Now this model has been providing grist for the economic mill for many years, and as a result of the predictive power of the model, you will find people in economics departments at universities who come to believe that the version of the person described by the model is in fact truly and exhaustively representative of human motivations, and that it provides a sufficient understanding of the human person.

Now, for you wizened economists out there reading this, you may feel I’ve created a bit of a straw man, but I promise you I have had this conversation with real live economists, who have indeed bought into this extremely reductive description of a person. But here is the fact: a model doesn’t work because it’s version of reality is true. Actually, it only works as a model to the extent that it is not “true.” A model’s effectiveness depends upon its ability to reduce reality. The whole point is that reality is so complex that our rational limits can’t get a grip on it all at once, so it needs to be “mocked up” and shrunk down in a manner that renders it comprehensible. So when you mistake your model for the truth, you’ve realy gotten things upside down and backwards. The mistake usually occurs when your model is up and running. Take the example of “modern” medicine and the mechanistic model of the body. In this model, the body is reduced to a machine composed of discreet parts which can be disassembled to be understood, parts which can be fixed an replaced when broken. Using this model, lots of interesting and sometimes helpful surgeries have been devised, and medicines developed, which have proven immensely helpful to the lifes of many people. Just because the model is useful, however, it is not fair for the doctor to conclude that the body is nothing but a machine. In the same way, it is not fair for the economist to conclude that the whole human person is sufficiently described as a rational actor maximizing self interest. Yet these conclusions are precisely where many doctors or economists end up. Oops!

The reason I bother to make this point is that the model you come up with can have a huge impact on the way that you relate to people, especially when you make the mistake of believing your model to be true simply because it “works.” Doctors who fall into the error of believing that the body is nothing more than a fancy machine can be found treating their patients more like cars than persons. You don’t need to talk to a car to fix it, after all. And economists who in their own life assume that everyone around them is selfishly pursuing their own self interest will likely do unto others as they assume they are being done unto!

Now, in defense of models, they are, as I said, necessary. It’s hard to have a conversation without one. I am simply pointing out the tremendous importance of keeping track of the models you use, and offering a warning to be cautious when using them, to avoid the common trap of believing in the reduced reality of the model. For instance, I have just built a model with you over the last several posts, we’ll call it the “universal law triangle,” and I warned you at the beginning that universal law is really a bit more complicated than the model would lead you to believe. But a least we got the conversation rolling with it, and if it’s the only thought you ever give to universal law, at least its something. But it would be foolish to start having arguments in coffee shops based upon this knnowledge that these four points really do describe universal law, for sure, and someone else’s utterly different four points and two squares and seven lists and twenty two chakras do not!

Such foolishness is actually the stuff of academics, and it is reason number 365 “why I didn’t pursue a career in academics.” (Some of my best friends and greatest heroes are hard core academics, by the way, so don’t assume my crass generalizations are meant to reduce that profession to a box, any more than I mean to say that all doctors missunderstand the reality of the body or all economists missunderstand the reality of the person! I am rather simply noting common errors and having some fun while I do it.) For my part I am more than happy to conjure up models all day long, but I absolutely refuse to defend my models as exhaustive or sufficient relative to any given topic. Yet university halls ring, even this very moment, with the shrill arguments of folks who have based entire careers on their ability to propound their model as THE model, as THE truth of the matter. I well remember a not so humbly titled book from my graduate studies, The Theory of Morality, the hubris of which put me to sleep before I even opened the cover.

So consider mine a quest for honesty and consciousness and humility with respect to models, which we must use, and can use well, and helpfully, and despite their helpfulness, we need never believe them to be sufficient or exhaustive as approaches for expanding our understanding of reality. Another good model is always lurking around the corner of our imagination which can take us another step along the way. Just know your model is a model, and enjoy! In the next few posts I’ll put our triangle models together, as well as spell out a model of the whole person and a model of the body which I feel can be effective tools in the pursuit of service and self mastery.


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