How you construct your “realities” :#2

Posted on September 30, 2011

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Where do we get our models – the models we use to construct our ‘realities’ … our truthies?

Once upon a time there was a young man – lets call him Peter –  who won two prizes in his last year of high school. He won the mathematics prize and the history medal. He liked math because it was so neat and tidy – there was only one ‘right’ answer. On the other hand he liked history because it was kind of  rough and tumble, sort of anything goes… even had different answers to the same question – for instance somebody discovers ancient manuscripts in a cave beside the Jordan river, or some old letters in a trunk in the attic… so  history has to be rewritten to accommodate the latest information… history is a collection of ‘truthies’ … a work in progress.

Math certainty

In a sense mathematics involves decisions under certainty (an  artificial certainty)  created by man-made (sorry, person-made)  rules. Whereas history requires making decisions under uncertainty. Math is a game you play with numbers and the game involves certain assumptions or axioms and you see what happens with the numbers when you play the game or change the rules. For instance 1 + 1 = 2, assuming  that your dealing with stones or billiard balls – with hard-edged objects. Can you think of a situation where 1 + 1 = 1?  Well, 1 drop of water plus 1 drop of water equals 1 drop of water. Ha HA!  So assumptions,  whether explicit or implicit, are  very, very important. In fact, we claim that  most (all?) arguments about what’s real or  true arise because the combatants are blindly relying on different assumptions, on different models, beliefs, or biases.

So in high school Peter gradually acquired two models, a neat and tidy one based on mathematical assumptions, involving a world  – a ‘reality ‘- of high certainty… if you played by the rules. Later he would learn that some mathematical models could be used to describe and predict other aspects of our experience – other ‘realities’. But that story comes later.

The second model – derived from studying history – is also based on assumptions – and involves a world – a reality – of  uncertainty. historical realities depend a lot on four things: the time, the place, the people being studied and the person doing the studying, or writing it.

                                   As Churchill said:”History will be kind to me because I will write it.”

 Notice a big  difference between math and history – if two different people generate different answers to a math problem  you’re surprised and conclude that there is a “correct” answer and so at least one of them made a mistake. Whereas if two people come up with a different ‘historical’ answer about the same time, place and people, not only do we not know whose reality is ‘right’, but we don’t know – and will never know what the ‘right’ answer is – it remains an open question.

So, Peter has acquired two models for constructing his “realities”: One neat and tidy, the math model which provides an artificial certainty – a trusted reality as long as you follow its rules or assumptions. But he also acquired a messy model – the constructs uncertain  “realities” – plastic realities that can be shaped by those who construct them. But those who construct them don’t ‘see’ them as plastic, they see their constructions as real and true. They don’t know, or care, about the model of reality Simon and Hawking – the one that says all our realities are shaped by people of bounded rationality who shrink complex experiences (like history) by relying on simplifying models,  simplifying assumptions, beliefs and biases. These implicit, blindly trusted simplifying models help us construct certainty and confidence in our constructed realities and truths. Just as the explicit assumptions or axioms of mathematics help create confidence and certainty into constructed mathematical realities.

So is it possible that the most important thing we construct is certainty in different models regardless whether we’re  dealing with artificial worlds like mathematics, or messy experiences such as those provided by history?

In future posts we’ll not only expose new models that Peter acquires as he walks, runs, jumps or limps into the future, but also look at the degree of certainty each model earns or generates. But notice in the case of  both math and history their legitimacy depends on the confidence we have in the  models used to construct them,  on the trusted assumptions  (axioms, beliefs, biases) we rely upon cut the flow of experience down to mind size.

Math: flickr.com/photos/novikorisnik/113030567

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Posted in: Sciencing