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Models of reality

Most science is underpinned by a model (or several) of reality. Physical models – Newtonian mechanics, electro-magnetism, general and special relativity, quantum, cosmology, and others. Biological models. Medical models. Chemical models. Psychological models. And so forth.

In a simple situation – for instance an apple falling off a tree – very few models are required to describe the immediate reality of what happens. Newtonian mechanics describes the path that the apple takes through the air. Fluid dynamics might describe the currents in the air, if they’re not too complex. But look closer at the apple, and you need to get into plant biology models. Ditto the tree. And you can get into evolutionary models: evolution of plants, evolution of the planets, and off into models of stars, cosmology, the Big Bang… Take another direction, and you’re in biochemistry, chemistry, atomic and molecular scale interactions, sub-atomic particles, quantum, the Higgs boson.

The point about all of these models is that they are representations of reality. These are how we understand our world, and ourselves as part of that world. Later, we test any new ideas against existing models, and adapt the models according to the test results – this is a simple version of how science happens.

In the case of physical objects doing physical things, such as our falling apple, Newtonian models of mechanics hold true (i.e. they describe most, if not all, of the observed behaviours) for a specific range of sizes, masses and speeds of objects. Too small? Quantum describes the behaviour better. Too large? Cosmology. Too fast? Relativity.

Each model is appropriate for its own purpose. When the model breaks, when something behaves unexpectedly, and this new, unexpected behaviour happens consistently, a new model gets developed, tested and then applied. The important point here is that each model is only good within its own limits, for its own subject matter.

But what happens when an idea, or result (an experience of reality – the French for experiments is “experiences”, a turn of phrase I rather like) falls outside any of these models? An idea such as “humans sense things by using more than the usual five senses”, based on the observations and experiences of quite a number of humans, myself included.

On the one hand, such an idea or result can lead to new science, new studies, new models. Let’s investigate this idea. Let’s figure out some tests. Let’s get some people who say they can sense things differently, and find out how they describe it and what they say they can sense. Let’s figure out how we can study it. Can people really do this? If people really can do this, let’s see how we can categorise it. Can we build a model to explain it? How does it fit with other science that we know so far – does it agree, disagree, or perhaps not overlap at all? Does it provide any new understandings that can be used for positive benefit? A whole research field opens up.

On the other hand, this idea about human senses can also be rejected as “nonsense”, “impossible”, or, ironically, “unscientific”. Given that the scientific method is based on hypothesis and testing, rejecting a hypothesis without any consideration or testing beyond “nah, I don”t think that’s possible” is to fail to apply the scientific method itself.

So in your own mental model of how science explains the reality we live in, make sure you leave an area labelled “As yet untested by science”. Keep some open space: you never know what you might need to add in there.

How do you incorporate new models into your existing models of reality?

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