Constructing reality # 7

Posted on October 18, 2011

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In his ship’s meager library Peter comes across a small paperback: The Story of Philosophy by Will Duran t- a handbook of anciet meta-models. One that captures Peter’s life-long attention: Plato’s Cave. It was his first encounter with the idea – recently promoted by Stephen Hawking – that we construct our truths from reflections or shadows of ‘reality’. Look up Plato’s Cave on Google.

Shadows in Plato's cave

In brief the parable goes something like this. Plato has us inside a cave, chained to benches facing the back wall of the cave on which shadows of the outside world – ‘reality’ – are reflected. From this endless  flow of shadows we must construct our realities. If one of us were to escape his or her chains, look out the cave opening at the outside world that creates the shadows, then returns to tell us what they saw … we wouldn’t believe them. In the same way that we have trouble believing some of the weird ‘observations’ reported by scientists or wise ones returning from peeking or exploring outside their caves.

According to Plato we discover or construct models of reality – we create our reality from shadows.

On the other hand his student  – Aristotle  – added to Plato’s model, proposing that we not only create or discover reality by relying on models to construct our realities by reasoning  from the general or theoretical to the particular – by reasoning from the top down – but also by reasoning from the particular – not just from shadows but from ‘facts’, from observations – to generalizations, from the bottom up. Which is the basis of the traditional scientific method.

After the war, as Peter wended his way through university, he bought into models of constructing reality – from top down or from theory to reality, and from bottom up, from observations up to theory, to ‘reality. Today we’re familiar with the  Platonists, the famous theoreticians, the black board scientists like Einstein and Hawking, who provide the theories ( the models, the treasure maps of truth ) that keep thousands of researchers looking for the particulars, for the observations that support the theories, that fit the models.

Which model of  science – of reality  is right? Einstein the theorist, and our most famous scientist – says, that if an observation doesn’t fit his elegant theory then the observation is wrong. So for him Plato wins.

But it’s not that simple. Most theories are designed with trusted observations in mind, are designed to help explain weird or surprising observations or puzzles.

Peter now sees scientists endlessly traveling up and down between trusted observations and trusted theories – a work in progress. In the process popular theories – models – shape our view of reality. Schools of thought develop supported by true believers who slant the flow of grant money so as to support scientists working on hit parade theories or models and relevant reasearch.  But like hit parade songs, hit parade theories come and go. But science needs it’s theories to cut problems down to mind size. And  this is particularly so as scientists face more and more complicated problems – climate change, economic meltdowns, drug resistant drugs, chronic illnesses of an aging population, depletion of oil supplies, etc.

Years  later Peter comes across another treasured meta-model titled Flatland – Google it. Good fun.

Ploto cave: flickr.com/photos/danstrange/13723097

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Posted in: Sciencing