Both and Neither: On the Utility of Multiple Models

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There are arguments, common arguments, that I’m entirely done with. They can’t be won–the social reason for having an argument–and the debate does little to nothing to clarify the issues–the epistemological reason for arguing. That makes them pointless except as practice debates, and I get quite enough practice on issues I still hold some hope of settling.

What kind of debates am I talking about? These are arguments like modernism versus postmodernism or whether our actions are socially determined or chosen by us. The debates around these topics go on endlessly with much heat and very little light. Proponents of each side hold the other in contempt as obviously wrong.

All these arguments do, as arguments, is degrade our belief in each other’s ability or willingness to reason. Of course, this is a risk any time we enter into an argument with someone, but it’s a nearly inevitable outcome of these particular debates. Why? Because everyone is wrong. That is to say everyone is right.

Confused yet? Great, let’s go on.

Illustration of a pipe over a map with the caption "This is not a pipe nor a territory."
“The Treachery of Images” by Bill Smith, CC BY 2.0

Fundamentally, this is a problem of models. By that I mean that this is a problem we should expect when we take complex and recurring phenomena and work to generalize and simplify it in such a way that we can fit it within the limits of our understanding. We lose something in the translation. “The map is not the territory.” In fact, it may be distinctly unlike the territory in several ways.

We should expect our models to be right, in that they tell us something important about that reality. At the same time, we should expect our models to be wrong, in that they fall short of fully reflecting reality. And when we have competing models that have lasted and have strong proponents on each side? Well, then we should maybe consider that they’re each giving us different pieces of useful information about reality.

Take the case of modernism versus postmodernism. For the purposes of this essay, take them both with many, many additional simplifications.

First, let me start by noting that “modernism” is a colloquial retronym in this context, for all the people gearing up to tell me I have no idea what I’m talking about. Because “postmodernism” has come to be a shorthand for postmodernist philosophy, “modernism” is shorthand for modernist philosophy. Neither is to be confused with the school of art going by the same name, though in each case, the art and the philosophy have traditionally been in dialogue with each other, because this is how art and philosophy interact, and that’s very cool.

Modernism is composed largely of several schools of philosophical thought with their roots in radical epistemology. When we dig right down to the base, how do we know what we know? Empiricism (we know through experiencing) and rationalism (we know through logic) are both represented in these traditions. The tensions between those two schools have largely resulted in a compromise position that says science supplemented by rigorous philosophy is our source of dependable knowledge.

Raise your hand if you agree that this is a generally correct position.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, consists of several schools of philosophical thought that critique the underpinnings of modernism. Most critically for these purposes, they inject humanity back into epistemology. Humans are not row upon row of identical computers waiting to record data and analyze it impartially, but unique complex systems in our own rights, embedded in our histories and cultures. The questions we ask of science and logic and the meaning we derive from the answers they give us are dependent on those contexts.

Now raise your hand if you agree that this is a generally correct position.

Now, I admit that I got to pick and choose which parts of modernism and postmodernism to present, and I fully admit that I stacked the deck. Still, if you’re anything like me, you raised your hand both times. This is why I’m done with this debate.

The question isn’t “Modernism or postmodernism?”, and asking in those terms will all but guarantee that any answer we provide is incorrect. The questions we should be asking are “What does postmodernism tell us about the weaknesses of modernism as a model?” and “What does modernism tell us about the weaknesses of postmodernism as a model?”

Those questions yield far more interesting and illuminating answers.

Postmodernism leads us to note what scientists and philosophers have in common and how that affects the ways they code for meaning in their work. In one classic example, how would a definition of “intelligence” and the resulting tests be different if they came from rural, African women instead of urban, French and American men? Or what would be different if psychology were not so WEIRD?

Modernism leads us to note that there are boundaries to personally and culturally derived knowledge if what we mean by “knowledge” involves being able to make predictions. While the meaning we attribute to something falling may differ, gravity is going to continue to work the same way on all our bodies.

As with empiricism and rationalism above, having both these models is critical at this stage. We know more applying both models than we do applying either one alone. Having and using both models makes us less likely to over-apply either one, to wind up in an extreme position where our map runs right off the edge of our reality.

This is also true of the social conditioning versus choice debate we see particularly in feminism. This is, of course, a special case of the determinism versus free will debate, but with all the rancor that comes from applying politics individually and from questioning people’s motivation. Where modernism versus postmodernism tends to spark contempt, this debate sparks anger. But are either of the sides unreasonable?

Let’s start with the social conditioning side. This is the side that says that in a sexist society, women internalize sexism. They’re no more immune than men are to sexist messages, and sexism also plays a role in determining their behavior. When they engage in behavior that conforms to patriarchal norms, they are expressing that internalized sexism.

While you might be less comfortable endorsing this view outright, most of us would generally accept that we are affected by societal standards and that we internalize them.

However, we also have the choice side of this debate. This is the side that says, sexist society or no, women are still making choices. They aren’t preprogrammed automatons, but people with agency who are aware of sexist norms and standards. They consider those and reflect and go on to make their own decisions.

Again, we would generally accept that people are not slaves to their society. This is not a controversial position.

Again, however, “Which of these models is correct?” is the least interesting of the questions we could be asking. We have better questions, and they give us better answers.

When we ask instead, “What does choice tell us about the weaknesses of a social conditioning model?”, we get something useful. We consider the fact that society is not perfectly self-replicating and has changed greatly in recent history, even as feminists have carried forward internalized sexism. We think about the fact that feminine expression is not merely prescribed but also devalued, such that sometimes a choice which seems conformist is undermining a different sexist norm.

When we ask instead, ” What does social conditioning tell us about the weaknesses of a choice model?”, we again get useful information. We understand that the range of possibilities we can easily consider is limited, and that thinking beyond these options takes a significant degree of work. We see that we may need to work harder if we want to communicate a reason for our choices that goes beyond inertia and that this may be necessary if what we’re trying to do is subvert these norms.

Again, we know more when we use both models to describe the underlying reality than we do when we use either one alone. Neither map is a perfect guide to the territory we want to cover, but unless we use both, we’re likely to wind up lost somewhere we didn’t want to go.

This is why I’m done with these arguments. We’re past that stage, or we should be if we’re looking for the best model we can have. If we need to argue, we should be arguing for synthesis (as Jadehawk does so nicely). If we’re not a point where synthesis is reasonable, or if synthesis produces models that are too unwieldy on their own, we should at least be arguing over the limits of these models, not their cores.

Either way, it’s time to end these uselessly antagonistic arguments over topics where we’re all right and all wrong.

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Both and Neither: On the Utility of Multiple Models