Saturday, September 13, 2014

Reality, models, and all that jazz ...

My last few posts, on flat earths and my experiences at University, have brought me very close to a topic I've really wanted to cover this year - how do you work out what reality really is?

One of the reasons I wanted to go to University was to study the latest knowledge about physics and astronomy.  But to my initial surprise that wasn't completely the case.  In most subjects, but especially the history of astronomy, we studied how past civilisations viewed the universe.  

So we were presented with ancient models of the universe, why they thought like that, and about the critical observations which ended up leading to new a understanding (and occasionally the controversy that produced).  Prof David Hughes encouraged us to look out through old papers, for instance where astronomers were convinced that the craters we see on the Moon were actually volcanoes.  The point was not to laugh at these people from history and feel smugly superior because "we know better than you", but to understand how our ideas evolve as we find out things from observation to develop a sense of intuition around science.

Having thought about this a bit, this is my view around what scientists such as Stephen Hawking call "model dependant realism" - which is a kind of scientific version of Plato's allegory of the cave (the one that says we're often trying to understand reality not from direct observations, but from watching shadows on a cave wall).


Much like in Plato's cave, "stuff" is going on.  And actually here "stuff" can be the science of the universe, a historical event, even a crime.  It's something that's going on - and it happens whether or not it's being observed, and whether or not people have an adequate model to understand it.  I mean it's not like a tree in a forest starts to fall over and goes "wait, should I hold on until someone is around to hear this?".

Now here's the important thing, we might think we know what reality is, but we don't.  All we can say is we think we have a good working model of it (you'll get this as we go on).


As we watch "stuff happening" we start to gather information or evidence from this observation, and build up more and more of a record.  Just because we have a pool of information though doesn't mean we know what's going on - we often will witness things which at the time seem contrary to what we understand (heck, that's the basis of most scientific experimentation).

"The Model"

The model is basically a set of rules or an understanding taken from evidence which we use to piece together an idea of "what reality might be".  

If you like, it's pretty much the best fit of how reality might work based on the evidence we have.  To do this we have to sift through our evidence, and try and work out which pieces seem the most accurate, and try and work with them.  Whatever model we have has to fit the evidence we have as best we can.  If we're using an existing model, and a lot of the evidence doesn't fit the model, we have to think about building a new model.  

We also have to be careful (as with our flat-earther yesterday) about using the model we have to eliminate any evidence we see which doesn't fit our model (also see; climate change denial and Creationism), and I'll talk about that later.

An example of this process would be for instance Tycho Brahe recorded astronomical information religiously for years, but it was only when mathematician Johannes Kepler started to work on this that he found several mathematical patterns, developing astronomical models to cover them.

But you'll also see it in court - when someone is under trial, a jury is presented with two sets of evidence "for" and "against" including eye witness statements, forensic information, records.  Some of this information will be contrary.  They're then put into a room to sift through everything they've been exposed to, they will deliberate and choose some evidence over others, to attempt to determine a model (guilty or not guilty) that is their best determination of what "reality" probably was (ideally beyond reasonable doubt).

And again in history - as a historian you may find the letter written from a leader after a great battle going, "the enemy surrendered in droves at the end, and we took their arms, and after they pledged to go home and fight no more, they were free to go".  However an archaeologist finds a mass graveyard nearby.  Is that the burial site of the dead from the battle, or did some great atrocity happen?  [A good example is King Richard and his nephews]

So we ignore some evidence?

Unfortunately, sometimes we do have to, but we have to think very carefully when we do.  If you're timing how long it takes raindrops to fall down a window and you get a set of times like "11.1 seconds", "10.4 seconds", "110.9 seconds", "17.2 seconds", "9.2 seconds".  One of those times just stands out as questionable.  Is is possible it really took 110.9 seconds?  Did maybe you leave the stopwatch on without realising?  Or did you do a transposition error when recording?  That piece of data is highly suspect as it doesn't fit in.  You carefully repeat and repeat, but never get anywhere close, and so you do somewhat suspect that data to not be reliable.

In a trial, someone might say they've seen someone at a certain place and time - could it be they're mistaken?  Or that they just saw someone who looked like them?  Or they are flat out lying?  All are possibilities.

I myself suffer occasionally from a very weird condition called sleep paralysis.  It means sometimes I come out of sleep in a very confusing half-awake, half-asleep manner.  You are aware of being awake, but your body is still paralysed as if asleep.

It's a very confusing state to be in.  For instance, this year I've woken up to find my dead father-in-law sitting on the bed, and he had a decent chat to me about some guy he knew who used to go fishing.  The scary thing is it feels incredibly real, and it registered in my brain is as real as any waking conversation I've had.  That said, I don't find myself believing in ghosts from it, despite having witnessed this.  The clues are (a) I suffer from sleep paralysis and (b) I couldn't move or speak.  This sadly causes me to have to disregard the experience, although of course I do want to believe I've spoken with him, it's hard not to.  As with our flat-earther, there are things we find ourselves emotionally attached to, and you don't get any more emotionally attached than to someone who died who you loved.

Where it all goes wrong

The models we have of course are only as good as how they help us to make sense of this thing out there called "reality" - to understand our observations, and indeed to predict what may happen.  Science, understanding of some historical event and indeed religion are all models.

Sadly humanity goes wrong though when we start to hold a model sacred, especially if there's a vested interest in the continuance of that model.  Invariably then what happens is the model is used to filter out observation and evidence that contradicts it, instead of using this evidence to drive towards a better understanding of reality.  Our flat-earther yesterday pretty much dismissed all evidence provided because it contradicted his model.  If he could find the smallest area of doubt, he dismissed the whole piece of evidence entirely.

You see a similar phenomenon when fundamentalist religions (of all denominations) will dismiss anything which seems contrary to their teachings and understanding of the universe.  It happened to Galileo when he suggested the world might orbit the Sun, instead of the Sun orbiting the Earth, and he wasn't alone.

Sadly this is a course of action which can keep people in ignorance, and leave us "blaming the observers" over seeking better models.  I actually don't think religion needs to be all bad - many of them have been around for hundreds of years.  I fundamentally (but not too fundamentally you understand) believe that religions in a similar manner to Shakespeare's old plays, endure because they speak to an inner questioning voice we all have.  [Shakespeare's plays though based hundreds of years ago are still fundamentally about love in the face of obstacles, revenge, jealousy, betrayal, joy - human conditions which continue to endure in modern life]

As a scientist when I used to read Genesis's version of the creation, I didn't take it literally, but liked the idea of how God related to each step of creation, and it all formed a logical sequence.  Following our current scientific models of the evolution of the universe, we do believe still that it did begin with light, created land then the sea, then animals and finally humans.  Ish.

But it's the ideas of how we should treat each other that endures the most and from that we hold most dear and relevant from religion.  Ideas like "thou shalt not kill", "thou shalt not steal", "thou shalt not commit adultery" and "thou shalt not covet thy neighours ass" do make a kind of sense, and have been the fundamental basis of most human laws (although sometimes badly followed according to if you're the person in society "with the power").

In general, I as a human am going to find myself a lot happier if I don't go around killing others, and likewise it causes others around me to reciprocally be happier.  Okay there might be special cases, for instance if someone is intent on committing harm to myself or my family, but generally it holds.  A similar logic goes for stealing and those other items.

Even the most ardent atheist I know has a strong sense of justice, which in many ways is a distillation into our society of those originally religious laws (just leaving behind some of the God bits).  But even so, it's another example of people finding some things from a model useful and applicable, so using them to move forward, but leaving those elements which can't be supported behind as superstition and "past their sell by date".

We can do that without leaving the religion behind altogether if we still find it has value - not everyone who wants to revisit their models has to be an atheist.  Indeed, I'm not.  As a young man in my early 20s I found the teachings of Christianity really important, especially the redemptive message of forgiveness for ourselves and others.  We don't have to be perfect, we just need to strive to be our best (sadly not all Christians take it that way).  And hence my faith allowed me to strive to be the best person I could be (over sadly how others will use it as a metre to measure others as unworthy).  I took the pieces from the Bible that inspired that, but with the case of pieces from Genesis I took them more as a "metaphorical explanation" over a "nuts and bolts description of how the universe was created".  After all it was a model, and we'd happened to find better models ...

The bottom line is though, don't be a slave to your models!  And yes, that includes certain models of testing ... cough ISO 29119 cough ...

And finally

Since writing about Prof David Hughes and my experience with him, I've found a couple of presentations by him.  He's without doubt one of the most inspirational speakers and thinkers I've met, and even if you've got a casual interest in astronomy, you may find a lot to take away from his talks ...

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