Can the World be Understood?
People have very definite ideas about this – but they are not usually aware of them. In the pre-modern world the answer was “No,” and to pretend it was possible was a religious heresy. In the post-modern world the answer is also “No,” for much the same reason, but the religion has changed and become much more complicated. But the attitude is the same: only belief is acceptable – and people make it very clear that they believe. Anyone who has his own ideas is in big trouble.
In the modern world the answer was “Yes!” and everyone wanted to understand. This was the goal of science in particular.
From the book Complex Adaptive Systems, from the chapter Modeling (page 35):
Nothing is built on stone; all is built on sand. But we must build as if the sand were stone.
Jorge Luis Borges
We begin with the basics of scientific modeling. This topic is so fundamental to the scientific enterprise that is is often assumed to be known by, rather than explicitly taught to, students (with the exception of a high school lecture or two on the “scientific method”. For whatever reason, learning about modeling is a lot like learning about sex; despite its importance, most people do not want to discuss it, and no matter how much you read about it, it just doesn’t seen the same when you actually get around to doing it.
All modeling requires the faith that, as Borges expresses it, we can occasionally turn the sand of the real life into stone. Effective models require a real world that has enough structure so that some of the details can be ignored. This implies the existence of solid and stable building blocks that encapsulate key parts of the system’s behavior. Such building blocks provide enough separation from details to allow modeling to proceed. For example, Mendel was able to develop his key ideas about heredity without knowing anything about DNA, and economists have been able to generate useful theories of individual and firm behavior without having to delve deeply into the human mind or the organization of the firm.
Climate Science depends heavily on models, and it arouses the wrath of our present religion and its believers like nothing else. Their cardinal rule is “Don’t think!” and it the attempt to understand violates this all-important rule.
This implies something even more important, since thinking is a vital part of us. The more general commandment is “Do not be!” And sure enough, people no longer exist in any vital sense.
They are no longer aware of (or understand) themselves. And they consider this a big improvement.