Models and their constituent parts

Douglas P. McManaman
Copyright © 2014 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

I believe one of the most important objectives for a young student of the Theory of Knowledge is to come to some understanding of where necessity applies and where it does not apply. Certitude is the result of seeing the necessity of a proposition (it cannot not be true); if necessity is outside our grasp, we experience uncertainty, a degree of probability (either high, low, or around 0.5). In other words, it is very important that we come to some appreciation of the scope of certainty and probability.

It is indefensible to categorically deny certitude; one would have to be certain that one cannot enjoy certainty, which is contradictory. However, it is safe to say that most of what is in the mind is characterized by a degree of uncertainty. Consider once again the following inference:

If p, then q

This is a standard inference people typically make, and it is invalid from a deductive point of view. The conclusion is not necessarily true, thus the conclusion is uncertain.

If a person has diabetes, then he will experience extreme fatigue
The facts in evidence before us are that this person experiences extreme fatigue
Therefore, he has diabetes.

The conclusion "makes sense", but this does not mean it is true (all that is true makes sense, but not all that makes sense is true). Because it makes sense, however, most people are inclined to treat the conclusion as true, as having necessity and thus as certain, and if the hypothesis (the antecedent) is an injustice, they will react with indignation (i.e., If the teacher is partial, he will give me a low mark. I received a low mark. Therefore, he's partial).

What you will notice, if you really listen to people, is that they treat so many of their inferences as certain, and they believe their anger is warranted (or their sadness, or fear, etc.). The conclusion, however, is only probable and needs to be tested, and tested again, and tested further. Science is a matter of formulating hypotheses in order to account for the evidence - it is inductive, a matter of inferencing to the best explanation - , which is why testing is a constituent part of the scientific method. Roger Bacon, one of the pioneers of the scientific method, wrote: "We scientists of the human spirit shall experiment, experiment, ever experiment." The inferences people make every day also need to be tested empirically in some way, but outside the lab, most people treat their impressions and inferences are true and certain if they "make sense".

A model is that through which we interpret , at any one time, the data of our experience. All of us are subject to a model; for we are "subjects" who know, who interpret the real. The objects of our knowledge never appear in the fullness of their objectivity. Becoming aware of this is very important, especially for the sake of social harmony, dialogue, and progress. The models through which we interpret the world and all that is in it are made up of a number of things, namely, first principles, reasoned conclusions, inferences, language, experience, and biases. That may not be all, but let's consider each one.

1. First principles, both speculative and practical. The starting points (principles) of all knowledge are self-evident and intuitively grasped. This means they are apprehended immediately. If I know anything at all, I first know, albeit pre-consciously, that each being is what it is, not what it is not (the principle of identity). Thus, I know that nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect . As a result of knowing this, I know that from nothing comes nothing , thus the effect cannot be greater than the cause (a thing cannot give what it does not have). I also know that "what a thing is" (essence) is really distinct from "whether or not it is" (existence) . Again, I may not grasp this explicitly, but it is implicitly known (knowing "what" a woolly mammoth is does not tell me whether or not it is). There are also a host of practical principles (goods) intuitively known (per se notum), such as human life, knowledge of truth, contemplation of beauty, friendship, justice, marriage, integrity, etc. These are intelligible human goods that are the motivating principles of human action, sought for their own sake; for I know through self-knowledge that I am naturally inclined to them and that I seek them as ends in themselves.

2. Reasoned conclusions: The model through which I interpret the world I experience is also made up of reasoned conclusions, some of which are true, but many of which are incomplete, such as the moral reasoning. Most people know, as a result of reasoning on the basis of intelligible human goods and the first principle of morality that good is to be done, that one ought not to do to another that which one would not want another to do to oneself, or one ought not to harm others, or one ought to act reasonably, etc. But most people do not think about the further implications of these principles, and the result is that most people apply them inconsistently. We also reason incompletely on the basis of the first principles of speculative reason. We know that contradictories cannot be true at one and the same time, but we do not bother to draw out the further implications of this principle, in order to evaluate some of the contradictory or inconsistent viewpoints we might hold. A physicist might conclude that solidity is an illusion, because an atom is mostly empty space, and yet he takes cover when he hears gunshots coming from the ghetto.

3. Inductive inferences (beliefs): A large part of the model through which we interpret the real is made up of inductive inferences that begin with the evidence (the facts, the consequent, etc.) and proceed towards a hypothesis (the cause, the antecedent, the sufficient reason for, etc.). As was said above, inductive inferences have probability only, not necessity, and so they are uncertain and need to be investigated further. However, over time, many of these inferences have gone unchallenged and so they have crystalized, like honey in a jar, into what appear to us as solid truths. It is out of that crystallization that arises the illusion of necessity, which in turn causes us to "feel" our inferences are certain. They are, however, nothing more than inferences, beliefs, possessing the same degree of probability as they had originally, unless of course our knowledge base has changed, in which case we immediately recognize their status as probable, and thus uncertain. Because no one has challenged those inferences - since we tend to associate with those who think just like us - , we become increasingly convinced that they must be true, otherwise they would have been refuted. It is very difficult to convince someone of a mistaken inference when he has believed it for so long; often there is too much that has been invested emotionally for some people to allow their model to undergo revision.

4. Language: The model through which we interpret the real is limited and shaped in large part by the language we speak. Language both frees us to think, but it also limits, for a language embodies a cultural weltanschauung . When we learn another language, we begin to see how differently a nation sees the world. Some languages make distinctions we don't make, and those distinctions open our eyes to the richness and many sided character of a particular phenomenon, like love, or happiness, etc.

5. Our own limited experiences. Nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses, and what is in the senses depends on where we are and "when" we are and how long we've been there. Our personal experiences have contributed to an emotional frame of mind, and those emotions influence how we see and interpret things. Feelings can be very misleading, but we rarely suspect they are misleading us. We tend to regard them as evidence that we've interpreted things correctly - which of course is far from being necessarily true. For example, I feel angry; therefore I have been a victim of an injustice (i.e., my interpretation of what has happened cannot be mistaken, for it feels as if I am right). But the emotions incline us to settle upon a particular alternative, that is, to make a particular inference, and that is the inference that is likely to make us feel better (i.e., many people want something to be angry at). This is where prejudices arise. Moreover, there are often feelings of loyalty behind the inferences we've made over the years, or feelings of fear, or the desire for pleasure, etc.

6. Biases. A bias is a slant. We are often unaware of them, but they influence the way we reason. The result is our conclusions are not as objective as we might think. All of us are subject to an availability heuristic bias, and we are inclined to believe that "What You See Is All There Is" (WYSIATI). But there is so much you and I have not seen and experienced. There is hindsight bias, anchoring, selection bias, statistical illusions, regression to the mean, etc. There are, as well, slants or biases of a different sort: I have particular interests, and I ask particular questions that interest me, and the types of questions I ask arise out of a tradition, that is, out of my experiences within a community (i.e., the scientific community, my religious community, the educational community, etc.). My questions are often limited to those scientific questions congruent with the tradition and pattern in which I have been trained to think for many years. The same is true for the philosophical questions I pose, the moral, theological, or economic questions, etc. The moment I ask questions rooted in a different tradition, questions that do not conform to the pattern with which I am familiar, I begin to experiment with a new paradigm, a new model. I.e., what if the criminals I am interviewing are feeding me the answers they know I'm looking for? Could I be the victim of their cunning and manipulation? What if it turns out that I've held onto an assumption that needs to be re-examined, namely, that they've been the victim of a bad environment, as the psychological community has inferred and which I was taught throughout my training in psychology? Such questions led to a paradigm shift for one renowned forensic psychologist.

Concluding thoughts

If a person has been preoccupied with an area of knowledge involving a high level of abstraction, such as mathematics or metaphysics, etc., he may tend to overlook the degree of uncertainty that belongs to the kind of knowledge that arises out of the ordinary level of our day to day inductions. He may be habitually inclined to attribute the light of certainty and necessity to an area of knowledge involving a lower level of abstraction, such as economics or history, a certainty these areas of knowledge do not enjoy. The converse can also take place (i.e., the historian or scientist concludes that nothing is certain). There are many clouds in the sky of our intellect, and there is much light that permeates those clouds (the light of necessity); however, the clouds still cloud, even for a pilot who flies during the day.

The model through which we see and interpret the world around us needs to be subject to critical scrutiny on an ongoing basis. To stop doing this is to get old, and there are young people who have gotten old too soon, and there are old people who still have the heart of a child. The young adult tends to lack an awareness of his limits, for he has less experience in being wrong than those older than he, and so he tends to exude overconfidence, is high energy, and is often reckless. If he refuses to allow the vast complexity of reality to change him, he inevitably becomes an old dog that refuses to learn new tricks.

The extremes we need to avoid are relativism on the one hand, and absolutism on the other. The western world in particular has embraced relativism because it wants to do what it pleases, and every culture, including western culture, inclines towards absolutism because we have an aversion to opposition and find uncertainty uncomfortable.