Models, a story of human success

· 5 minute read

It is not what you think. I think. I am referring to the abstract concept, not the profession in the fashion industry. Models that simplify, that abstract and approximate. These are the models I am speaking of and they are awesome – truly! Why? They help us to think way beyond our ken and through that they drive all human intellectual endeavors, all technological innovation and all scientific progress ever made, since we left the trees.

Why, you ask, can models do that? Well, because they enable us to have meaningful discussions about complex topics. With ourselves, in our own mind, or with others. That said, those discussions may still not be easy, but we can at least have them. I know, that does not answer the question why models can do that. I’ll get to that by separating the question into two:

  1. What makes discussions about complex topics hard?
  2. How do models make these discussions easier?

To get to the first part we need to agree that complexity means that there are many parts with many connections in between. That means a thing or topic is simpler than another thing or topic, if it has comparatively less parts and connections than the other (I don’t know if parts and connections count equally, I will assume it’s about the total sum). With that definition, and our current understanding of cognitive sciences, we already know that the human capacity to hold many things in our brain is limited (see working memory capacity). That alone means: we need to find a way to whittle down the quantity of things that we cram in our head. But it gets worse from there: when discussing any topic of real complexity, there are multiple layers of perspectives, of resolution to it. We need to switch in between them as we think and argue. Again cognitive sciences quantify how poor our abilities are in that regard (see memory decay). While I am sure there are even more reasons, these two alone suffice to make any discussion about complex topics in detail hard or even impossible.

Now that we have established we simply cannot speak about the whole complexity at once: how then can models help us to still do it? Well, the answer to that follows from how we arrive at a model of a thing. We do so, in very basic terms, by removing both parts and connections, until we are left with something that still has the general shape, the general character of the original, but has a sufficiently small amount of parts and connections to fit into our finite faculties. This is the model. A simplified picture of the original, where only the broad strokes, the outlines, survive.

Sure, the process I described may be simple, but simple in the sense that running a marathon is simple: just put one foot in front of the other until you arrive. Simple: yes. Easy: no. To make this easy, or at least easier, we humans came up with a great strategy that begins by finding another thing that is somewhat similar to the thing we actually want to talk about. For example, explaining that good ideas are like seeds that, once planted into a person’s mind, can take root, grow and bear fruits - and become seeds again, that this person will then carry forth and plant into another person’s mind and so on. Most of us, even ardent city dwellers like myself, understand deep down what seeds are, how they become plants and produce more seeds, which in turn easily explains how ideas propagate and conveys what properties an idea must have to spread better.

These analogies are not models, but they give us a starting point, a first glimpse of what will become a model of an idea. More so: Finding a useful analogy forces us to zoom in on the quintessential properties, these aformentioned broad strokes of the thing that are the real subject which we want to discuss. In that sense analogies and models are also alike: they both serve a specific perspective on the matter, they both leave out any details that are not relevant to that and they both aim not for completeness, but for understanding.

The amazing Yuval Noah Hararari – the author of Sapiens, Homo Deus and many more world shaking books (I am a big fan, if you can’t tell) – famously said and keeps repeating that the human superpower is to invent and believe fictional stories. That this gives us the ability to collaborate on a huge scale and to build societies that are magnitudes of size beyond the scope of our innate ability to create stable social relationships. Something no other creature on this planet can claim. I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment and I think that stories are the infrastructure on which another thing travels, that feeds this superpower of ours: the model, the abstract concept, that permits us to tame seemingly endless complexity, that enables us to share meaning and to teach understanding. I like to imagine that the model, the abstract thought, has pre-dated spoken language, has given rise to it. I think that is what makes us different, what triggered our long success story and that may enable us one day to go beyond our lone planet and seize the stars.

The humble model, the key to human success.

Limited Warranty: As a side-effect of reducing the amount of parts and connections your models will be incomplete and will not show every aspect of the thing that they are encoding. Some situations may require multiple overlapping and potentially partially conflicting models. Use wisely and with care. Beware of mathematicians: they often leave behind fully coherent models that are tangential to reality. Ask your local apothecary for alternative treatments.