Models of Dignity Part 1

All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity

Posted Jan 14, 2014

Chapter 3: MODELS OF DIGNITY Part 1

When first we mean to build,
We first survey the plot, then draw the model.
–William Shakespeare, Henry IV
The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a…construct which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work.
–John von Neumann, digital computer logician and creator of game theory

We Are Model Builders

The title of Mark Twain’s What Is Man? poses a question that humankind has pondered for millennia. Over time, the species that scientists call Homo sapiens (the wise) has also variously been referred to as Homo faber (the builder, by Benjamin Franklin), Homo ludens (the game player, by Johan Huizinga), Homo economicus (the rationalist, by Adam Smith), and Homo babulus (the talker). Twain himself argued that man is a machine (Homo machinus).

While all of the above describe us, none does so uniquely. In fact, it seems that every time someone makes a case that a particular trait sets humans apart, experts in animal life say, “No, animals do that too.”

Animals display intelligence, they build things (nests, dams) and use tools, they play games, make war, communicate, and have emotions.

Nonetheless, there is one faculty that humans appear to have developed more than other animals. It is our talent for consciously building models that represent nature, ourselves, and our institutions. Many of our models, both historically and today, take the form of narratives.

Cooperating across the generations on the development of models and passing on our stories have combined to give our species a dominant role on this planet.

Model building, in combination with complex language, stands as one of humankind’s epochal accomplishments. It’s the faculty that has enabled us to harness nature’s force. The flip side of this is that we often use these powers in ways that cause others indignity. But the modeling skills that have put power in our hands can also help guide us toward dignity-protecting applications of that power. The following paragraphs illustrate some of the key features of model building that will be used throughout this book.

Models Are Everywhere

People learn modeling early, starting with Play Doh, Lego blocks, dolls, and model trains. The stories we grow up with are replete with models of human behavior. Teens today fancy themselves as video game characters and get to try out different behaviors vicariously, without risking their own lives or even punishment for “failure.”

Scientists Francis Crick and James Watson modeled the double-stranded helical structure of the DNA molecule with Tinkertoys. There is a model of the San Francisco Bay–complete with miniature piers poking into the water, a scaled-down Golden Gate Bridge, and “tidal currents” propelled by pumps–that fills a warehouse in Sausalito, California.

By studying it, scientists can anticipate the effects of proposed real-world alterations of the bay. Similarly, to protect Venice, Italy, from the rising sea, engineers use a model of the adjoining lagoon and gulf. Using computers and mathematical models, weather bureaus the world over provide forecasts. As everyone knows, the predictions are not always right, but they’re getting more accurate as the models upon which they are based improve.

Experimenting with model planes in wind tunnels enabled the Wright brothers to build the aircraft they flew at Kitty Hawk a century ago. Even more significant than the plane they built was their pioneering use of modeling in engineering. Models enabled them to anticipate problems through trial and error without paying the price of crashing a piloted plane. Today, flight can be simulated on computers by representing both the airplane and the atmosphere in a mathematical model.

Grand unifying models are the holy grail of every branch of science. In biology, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is such a model. In chemistry, it’s Mendeleyev’s periodic table of the elements. In geology, plate tectonics accounts for all the earth’s principal geological features.

Present-day physicists are searching for a “theory of everything” that would incorporate all known forces. “We hope to explain the entire universe in a single, simple formula that you can wear on your T-shirt,” says Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate in physics. One candidate model, now under development, is string theory. Like all theories and models,string theory will ultimately live or die “solely and precisely,” as stated in the von Neumann quotation at the beginning of this chapter, on whether its implications agree with observations.

The use of models is not limited to science. Indeed, normative, prescriptive social models predate by many centuries the descriptive and predictive nature models just mentioned.

Beginning in the distant past, cultural codes of conduct—for example, the Code of Hammurabi and the Ten Commandments—were used to govern family and tribal relationships. Other examples of social models include the charters, bylaws, and organizational charts of corporations, universities, and religious institutions.

Governance models of nation-states range from the divine right of kings to fascism, communism, and constitutional democracies. Entrepreneurs and the venture capitalists who invest in their companies are guided by business models that, by examining a range of scenarios based on various assumptions, forecast success or failure in the marketplace.

Sometimes users of social models actually lose sight of the difference between their models and reality. As Alan Greenspan, longtime chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, warned: “A surprising problem is that a number of economists are not able to distinguish between the models we construct and the real world.”

In sum, models are descriptive or prescriptive representations of the world and ourselves, and they serve a variety of functions. Among these are to provide us a sense of identity, shape our behavior, maintain social order, and guide our use ofpower. Model building has made us what we are and holds the potential to guide us as we put our predatory history behind us and move into a dignitarian era. To see how models can help us make this transition, we need to familiarize ourselves with the broad features of the model-building process.

Models Evolve

Inherent in the notion of building models is that they change. That models are perpetually works in progress is a key reason why they are so useful. But it has been hard to accept the notion that models can and should change, yielding to modified or radically new ones as we gain more insight and information. Until relatively recently we have much preferred to stick to what we know—or think we know—and defer to existing authority and received wisdom. But ironically, our principal heroes are precisely those people who have struggled and suffered to overcome the notion that “the truth” is forever, usually by championing a new truth that contradicts the prevailing social consensus.

A turning point in the history of intellectual development came in the seventeenth century when one such figure, the English physician William Harvey, discovered that the blood circulates through the body. His plea—”I appeal to your own eyes as my witness and judge”—was revolutionary at a time when physicians looked not to their own experience but rather accepted on faith the Greek view that blood was made in the liver and consumed as fuel by the body. In persuading people to see for themselves, Harvey drove another nail into the coffin of Aristotelian fundamentalism, which had dominated thought for more than a thousand years.

As Bertrand Russell, the Welsh mathematician and philosopher, said, “Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to open her mouth.” The idea that institutional dogma be subordinated to the empirical experience of the individual represented a critical juncture in human affairs. States quite rightly saw it as a threat to their monopoly on power. In fact, what we like to think of as the unassailable truth is actually just our best current understanding of things—in other words, our latest model. Nothing is more natural than that models should change with time.

Another classic example of the evolution of models was the shift from the geocentric—or Ptolemaic—to the heliocentric—or Copernican—model of the heavens. Until five centuries ago, it was an article of faith that the sun, the stars, and the planets revolved around the earth, which lay motionless at the center of the universe.When the Italian scientist Galileo embraced the Copernican model, which said that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun, he was abandoning the received wisdom of the church. This was considered sacrilege, and under threat of torture, he was forced to recant:

I, Galileo Galilei, aged 70, arraigned before this tribunal of Inquisitors against heretical depravity, swear that I have always believed all that is taught by the Church. But whereas I wrote a book in which I adduce arguments of great cogency…that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center and moves, I abjure, curse, and detest these errors and heresies and I swear that I will never again assert anything that might furnish occasion for suspicion regarding me.

By maintaining that his arguments had "great cogency," Galileo defended his integrity while sparing himself the fate of some of his predecessors. The Dominican friar Giordano Bruno, an Italian philosopher-scientist like Galileo, was burnt at the stake in 1600 for championing the Copernican model. Fundamentalists have never lacked for conviction.

As Galileo withdrew from the court, he is said to have mumbled, “But it does move. “He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, making further astronomical discoveries and writing books for posterity. In 1992 an ecclesiastical commission appointed by Pope John Paul II finally and formally affirmed that Galileo had been right.

The Galileo affair was really an argument about whether models should be allowed to change without the church’s consent. Upon the geocentric model rested a whole edifice of theological thought, much of which was also contradicted by new evidence. For example, finding seashells on mountaintops and fossil evidence of extinct species undermined theological doctrine that the world and all living things were a mere six thousand years old. Such discoveries posed a serious challenge to conventional wisdom and the authority of the church. Freeing ourselves from the idea that the world is fixed, immobile, and unchanging marked the birth of modernity.

Galileo’s models were later improved upon by Newton, whose three laws of motion form the foundation of classical dynamics. Then, in the twentieth century, limitations were discovered in Newton’s model. It works fine for falling apples and for space vehicles, but when applied either to objects moving at speeds comparable to the speed of light or to particles on the atomic scale, Newton’s laws give erroneous predictions.

These failings were overcome by relativity and quantum mechanics.

The twentieth-century theories do not invalidate earlier models. Rather, they stake out and provide road maps to new territory that prior models don’t cover. Often, new models do not so much render old ones obsolete as circumscribe their domains of applicability, revealing and accounting for altogether new phenomena that lie beyond the purview of the old models. For example, relativity and quantum theory do not invalidate Newton’s laws of motion.

Newton’s classical treatment still describes accurately the motions of the objects to which he originally applied them so long as they move at speeds much slower than the speed of light. NASA’s space scientists have no need for the refinements of quantum or relativistic mechanics in calculating the flight paths of space vehicles. But if we wish to account for the dynamics of objects at very high velocities or describe atomic phenomena, we must use quantum mechanical models. For everyday-size objects moving at everyday speeds, the quantum and relativistic models reduce to the familiar models of classical physics. In sum, new models usually don’t invalidate old ones so much as they transcend them.

This is also a key feature of the social and self models characteristic of dignitarian culture, which will be discussed in chapter. The idea of evolving truth is the lynchpin of such a culture. However, it’s crucial to note that just because our models evolve does not mean that “anything goes.” Indeed, quite the contrary: at any given time, what “goes” is precisely the best current model we’ve got. One simply has to be alert to the fact that today’s best model may be superseded by an even better one tomorrow.

Most contemporary students of the natural world are actually excited when they find a persistent discrepancy between their latest model and empirical data because they know such deviations signal the existence of hitherto unknown realms in which new phenomena may be discovered.

The presumption that nature models are infallible has been replaced with the humbling expectation that they will eventually be replaced by more comprehensive and accurate ones.

If the past is any guide, we are unlikely ever to find a theory so comprehensive and accurate that it would bring an end to the search for more fundamental truths. Any model that seemed to account for all known phenomena would still be vulnerable to the possibility that new observations would reveal it to be incomplete.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, many physicists believed they’d learned all there was to know about the workings of the universe.

The consensus was that Newton’s dynamics and Maxwell’s electromagnetism together had everything covered. Prominent scientists announced the “end of physics.”Then a few tiny discrepancies between theory and experiment were noted, and as physicists explored them they came upon all the previously unknown phenomena of atomic and relativistic physics. A new world was discovered and with it the technology that put its stamp on the twentieth century.

Albert Einstein believed that the final resting place of every theory is as a special case of a broader one. Indeed, he spent the last decades of his life searching for a unified theory that would have transcended his own landmark theories, reducing them to special cases of a grander theory.

In postulating that the universe is “infinite in all directions,” physicist Freeman Dyson suggests there will be no end to our explorations and that we are unlikely ever to come up with an all-inclusive model.

This dynamic has its counterpart in social and self models. Instead of suppressing deviations from the current social consensus, we can examine them for clues that might lead us to a more encompassing synthesis, one that integrates previous experience with the new evidence.

For example, when Alfred Kinsey’s studies on sexuality revealed the full range of human sexual behavior, we faced two choices. We could label certain of these behaviors as perverted and try to suppress them. Or, we could relax our prescriptive models pertaining to sexuality and so accommodate them. The advent of reliable, available birth control only intensified the pressure for revising these models.

The ensuing sexual revolution suggests that the public did in fact gradually move toward a different consensus on sexuality. That movement is still under way as the public comes to terms with homosexuality. Likewise, the worldwide controversy over same-sex unions has the potential to alter the traditional model of marriage. In a growing number of countries, the debate has resulted in granting legal status to domestic partnerships.

Instead of repressing or ignoring a question or fact that challenges a current view of ourselves, we can welcome it as a harbinger of change. As we accept something about ourselves that differs from the norm, it is only natural to grant the same acceptance to others. For this reason, the idea of partial, ever-evolving truth is a keystone of dignitarian culture.

Humility is not simply a trait to be admired; it’s dictated by the incontrovertible fact that there are viable alternatives to our habitual ways of doing business. Given a chance to prove themselves, some of them may even turn out to be better than our own!

This is the fifth part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.

[Robert W. Fuller is a former president of Oberlin College, and the author of Belonging: A Memoir and The Rowan Tree: A Novel, which explore the role of dignity in interpersonal and institutional relationships. The Rowan Tree is currently free on Kindle.]