Models: Gotchas

Science is about making models. But models involve inclusion and exclusion. In the process, a particular model may leave out something vitally important. Then you’re in trouble.

One interesting example of this comes from geology. A hundred years ago, geological models left out all effects from living organisms. Geologists felt that the influence of life-forms was simply too small to have any noticeable impact. The biosphere was restricted to a very small slice of the planet, from a short distance up into the atmosphere to a short distance down into the crust. Life just didn’t make much difference to deep geological processes.

Oops.

We now know that life can have huge impacts on the planet. You’re probably thinking about human-made climate change, but that’s small potatoes compared to the Great Oxygenation event. 2.4 billion years ago, the rise of photosynthesizing algae completely changed the composition of Earth’s atmosphere, taking it from about 3% oxygen to our current 21%. Amongst many other effects, this oxygenation basically rusted all the iron exposed on Earth’s surface. We can tell all this from banded iron formations formed around that time. Before the event, there was plenty of raw iron in surface rocks. Afterward, you could only find iron oxides.

That’s just one example of the potential problems with models. Another example is the financial crisis that started around 2007. Economic models of the time simply ignored the possibility that banks and bank-like institutions (like hedge funds) might universally act like ass-hats: taking crazy risks and using dodgy investment vehicles to squeeze money out of the public, on the assumption that if everything blew up, world governments would bail them out.

Oops again.

It’s easy to say, “I’d be smarter than that,” but one of the basic principles of Buddhism is that we aren’t. The Buddhist claim is that we construct deluded models of ourselves. We say, “I’m this type of person,” or, “I always do this,” when the truth is that we change from moment to moment. We’re different around our parents than we are with our friends; we’re different at work than we are at home; we’re different when it’s sunny than when it’s raining. We can be furious one minute, then laughing the next. We may have general tendencies, but even those tendencies change with time and circumstance.

The Buddhist word for this is anatta: no permanent self. Whatever you think you are, you aren’t like that all the time. Any self-image you have is incomplete, and often dead wrong.

Ideally, you should give up trying to characterize your self and thinking of your self as a single unified thing. Instead, just try to be aware of what you are from moment to moment. Such awareness takes a ton of practice; it’s the reason that Buddhists meditate.

Eventually, you’ll recognize that you really don’t stay the same, not even over short periods of time. But that’s okay. Nothing stays the same. Be kind to yourself and others, and don’t try to grasp at any particular identity. It won’t work and it’ll just make you miserable.

[Picture of banded iron formation at Dales Gorge by Graeme Churchard from Bristol, UK, Uploaded by PDTillman) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

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