Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? HTML version
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 gra il 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, the theory of plate tectonics accounts for the earth's princ ipa l geological features.
Physicists are searching for a "theory of everything" (often abbreviated TOE) that, as Leon Lederman, a
Nobel laureate in physics (5), picturesque ly puts it, would "explain the entire universe in a single, simple
formula that you can wear on your T-shirt." One of these models is called string theory (6). Like all
theories and mode ls, string theory will ultimate ly live or die depending on whether its implications agree
Though much of science consists of building mode ls, the use of models is hardly limited to science.
Indeed, normative, prescriptive social mode ls predate by millennia the descriptive and predictive nature
mode ls mentioned above. Beginning in the distant past, cultural codes of conduct—for example, the Ten
Commandments—were used to regulate family and tribal re lationships. Other examples of socio-political
mode ls inc lude the theologies of religious institutions, organizationa l charts of universities, by-laws of
corporations, and nationa l constitutions.
Entrepreneurs and the venture capitalists who invest in their companies are guided by hypothetical
plans—that is, models—that delineate scenarios based on various economic assumptions to chart a path to
profitability. The governance models of nation-states range from the divine right of kings to fascism,
communism, constitutiona l monarchies, and many sub-species of democracy. Sometimes users of social
mode ls actually lose sight of the difference between their models and reality. As Alan Greenspan, former
Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, warns: "A surprising problem is that a number of economists are
not able to distinguish between the models we construct and the real world" (7).
When we see parents, heroes, public figures, and fictional characters as "role models," we're using
behaviora l models to shape our own character.
In summation, models are descriptive or prescriptive representations of the world and ourse lves. Their
functions include providing us with an identity, shaping our behavior, maintaining soc ial order, and
guiding our use of power. Modeling has made humans what we are and our success as a species depends
on learning to use them wisely.
Know you what it is to be a child? … it is to believe in belief….
– Francis Thompson, 19th c. British poet
We don't forget our first ah-ha experience any more than we forget our first kiss. The difference is we
have some idea of what to expect from a kiss, but we don't know what to make of an enlightening
inc ident. The experience lingers in memory as something special, but since we can't account for it, we're
apt to keep it to ourselves.
Only in my thirties did I realize that an experience I'd had in my teens was the analogue of that first kiss.
About six years after discovering that our third grade science book contained mistakes, it struck me that
anything could be wrong. There were no infallible truths, no ultimate explanations.
In high school we were learning that science theories and models were not to be regarded as absolute
truths, but rather taken to be useful descriptions that might someday be replaced with better ones. I
accepted this way of holding scientific truth—it didn't seem to undercut its usefulness. But I still wanted