Wednesday, April 06, 2016

It's only a model

 In Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail, the assembled knights look in awe upon the imposing walls of “Camelot”… until someone points out that “it’s only a model.”

Bob Prokop wrote:  
I remember well a discussion I had about 2 years back with astrophysicist Dr. Ron Lee. I was floored when he told me that no serious cosmologist believes that something called the "Big Bang" actually occurred billions of years ago. The Big Bang (or, to give it its official name, the Standard Cosmological Model, or SCM) is simply a mathematical construct that helps make sense of and provides a framework for observations made in the contemporary universe. But as to what really happened at the Dawn of Time, I was told, "That's not a question for science, but for theology."

Similarly, nuclear physicists employ something called a quasiparticle to explain what occurs within matter at the subatomic level. Quasiparticles have no physical existence, but once again are merely mathematical models used to account for observations.

It turns out that quite a lot of scientific terminology is like that.


VR: Why do we NEVER hear this sort of thing from evolutionary biologists? 

12 comments:

Joe Hinman said...

I swear to God I just put up an essay about this on Metacrock's blog:

Quntum particles do not prove something from nothing

A minority in physics called "scientific realists," argue that there is really events we can pin down and actual laws of physics. The view you are talking about (the mnain stream) are called "Humeans." There is a subset of realists called "Austrailassian:" guys from Australia and Asia. One their main guys is Alan Chalmers. I have not able to learn if he is related to David Chalmers but he is Aussie. Howard Sankey wrote compiled anthology anthology called laws of nature, Chalmers is kin it.

jdhuey said...

May I suggest that you put the words "models in Evolution" into google to find a number of references to the use of the term model.

Victor Reppert said...

But surely they don't say of evolution itself that it's only a model, and that there are questions outside the competence of science that, ultimately, they are not answering.

William said...


There is 'evolution' as a historical claim (that one group of creatures is the historical ancestor of a different group of creatures) and 'evolution' as expressed by a mathematical model of change in frequencies of characteristics of a population. The historical claim cannot be a model, the other one already is such a model.

jdhuey said...

"But surely they don't say of evolution itself that it's only a model, and that there are questions outside the competence of science that, ultimately, they are not answering."

True, evolution, per se, is not considered a model, in the same way that a roughly spherical planet is not considered a model for the shape of the Earth: they are, today, considered simply facts. That evolution happen is a fact, the explanations for the processes that produced that fact are the theories and models of biology.

In Darwin's day, things were, of course, different. The unity and interrelatedness of all life was a just a flaky idea.

Cal Metzger said...

"I was floored when he told me that no serious cosmologist believes that something called the "Big Bang" actually occurred billions of years ago."

?

"The model of the universe's expansion is known as the Big Bang. As of 2015, this expansion is estimated to have begun 13.799 ± 0.021 billion years ago. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronology_of_the_universe)

William said...

Perhaps a better example of a historical claim in astronomy would be the identification of a comet described in some ancient writings with a particular solar system object we could see today.

Cal Metzger said...

VR: "VR: Why do we NEVER hear this sort of thing from evolutionary biologists?"

Maybe because there are known limits (e.g., the speed of light) that prevent direct observational study in physics of things like the Big Bang and subatomic entities, whereas the limits of biology are not so clearly established?

"But as to what really happened at the Dawn of Time, I was told, "That's not a question for science, but for theology." Similarly, nuclear physicists employ something called a quasiparticle to explain what occurs within matter at the subatomic level.

The two sentences above don't seem similar at all. The first sounds like someone saying that a question is, well, incoherent. The second is the opposite -- that physicists use a mathematical model (no way!) to accurately represent (explain, predict, etc.) what happens at the subatomic level.

Legion of Logic said...

Never thought I would say this, but I gotta agree with Cal on this one. Lines of evidence are more readily available in certain fields, such as chemistry or biology, than in quantum or astrophysics which rely more heavily on mathematical representation in lieu of direct observation.

Victor Reppert said...

I try to imagine what I would do if I were a biologist, with respect to claims of design. Now, I have no trouble affirming the ancient earth, gradual development or even common ancestry. And while I might believe in intelligent design, I am less certain than your typical ID advocate that science can or should go looking for it. There are more proximate causes that need to be traced, I might just think that I should trace them and table the question of ultimate design. I have never been able to figure out why evolutionary biology needs to either affirm or deny intelligent design. Some people think that design was put in at the initial conditions of the universe, if so biological investigation won't necessarily turn it up.

It is very interesting to me that both religious and non-religious scientists do perfectly good science. Atheists like to portray religious scientists as living in a world of cognitive dissonance, of believing in design while leaving design out of their science. But probably they just do the science and, when asked about design, just say, "Well, I'm not in the business of looking for it."

Vishal Mehra said...

The astrophysicist is entirely correct. Creation from nothing is not within the province of physics and is strictly a metaphysical matter.

Joe Hinman said...

saying it's only a model is like say8ing evolution is only a theory. Model is the same as a Paradigm for Kuhn so it's very crucial drives all the research and all the thinking.

Neverthel3ww those realists are really put out with the Hume guys because they rely are proposing a universe of verisimilitude.