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Models and Paradigms for Accepting Cultures

Guest Column Vishal S. Saxena

One often hears the word paradigm. Why do so many people use this word? One also hears the word model. Again, why is it so much in vogue? Are these words related?

I think they are. Let us begin with some assumptions, assumptions you may not agree with. However, I do ask for an open mind. First, assume we are ready to give up something now to get some reward in the future. Many people define this as the basis of being human itself. Since we expect something in the future, our whole outlook on life is goal-oriented or result-oriented. We have to perform certain activities either as preparation or as the process itself of attaining the goal. Thus, the claim that one should enjoy life because the process of day to day life is important as well is not completely accurate. One certainly has to do some gruntwork. Now, the difference is whose gruntwork one has to do. If it is your own, then you are happy; if it is not your own, then you are not.

This brings me to my second assumption: control is also important for us. But this is connected to the previous paragraph's last idea: no one is completely unselfish, or at least we believe no one is. One would willingly give up one's control if one knew that what someone else is doing, they are doing for one's best interest. However, this brings me to my third assumption - that one is only willing to listen to someone else if they are totally convinced the other person is right or smarter or both. But how are all these assumptions related to paradigms and models?

Well, since our whole attitude is result-oriented, we seek to create models out of everything. A model is a way of looking at things, of describing things, and hopefully creating things. The whole system of education that we go through is actually helping us build models. But models are only useful if we do something with them. A model in engineering would be completely useless if one couldn't do anything with it. There is no such thing as a right model or a wrong model. A model is justified by its utility. A model is a paradigm, just a way of looking at things. If that way of looking at things produces something useful, then the model is successful. Some would argue that there are plenty of models in math that have no stated utility and that research which is pure is completely unpractical. My caveat here is that we already have certain paradigms in mathematics and science that have proven their utility over hundreds, even thousands, of years. No human is able to predict everything. Therefore, if something has worked for so long, one is likely to say that something based purely on manipulation or usage of rules within this paradigm is likely to work.

Perhaps an example will illustrate things better. Algebra works as one. The equations that make up algebra have been shown to work. People are convinced that other ideas or sub-models coming out of following the rules of algebra will produce the "right" ideas. This is all true and correct. But the axioms that make up algebra are still models and paradigms. All of math is a paradigm. There is nothing elegant in producing "unpractical" results. It is true that because we cannot predict everything, we make models that are seemingly "elegant", but otherwise have no utility. But the success of a model is ultimately tested by its utility. Many of the ideas in math are considered right because the overall paradigm has worked time and again. All of education is therefore a way of teaching us the paradigms that work.

There is one problem though. Some of these paradigms are quite complicated. Many people lose sight of the end goal. The end goal is to do something with those models that we have built, not to prove how complicated a model that we have built, or to show that one model may be better than some other model. Psychology, for instance, is not inferior to biology or physics. But what has all this got to do with the other assumptions that I wrote down previously?

We build models in order to accomplish something. But these models are not restricted to academics. Many of these models reside as part of our personality. They help us to perform our day to day life. Since none of us is the same overall as someone else, we produce different outputs and also receive different inputs from the environment. These outputs and inputs, such as social inputs and outputs, help us make up our own models. Once we get into a certain model, however, we seem to want to hold on to it, unless we are thoroughly convinced that this model is baloney. Part of the reason why we want to hold on to our own model is because we are unwilling to accept that someone else could have come up with something better.

Could ideas be living entities that do not want to perish? Certainly many will disagree with this. But remember that this is just a model. Its purpose is not to convince you that ideas go to the grocery store and buy food for themselves. No, the purpose of this model is to explain the difficulty that people have in giving up a silly idea for one that produces better results; to explain the antagonism that often arises between groups of people and between countries who, for instance, have different overall paradigms, as culture is a paradigm. Could it be that our brains and our bodies are just vehicles or clothes that ideas and paradigms take up just as we take up a different set of jeans when the old ones wear out?

How does one solve this problem of antagonism between groups of people or even between people using this model, or how does this model help us to learn more efficiently? I am not sure. But some paradigms produce better results; these paradigms should be tried out. Ideas that clash with the use of this new paradigm should be discarded. They should be "killed." But, the overall conclusion is that there is a hierarchy of ideas and paradigms that we are capable of building. Some people call this the ability to generalize, to make things more abstract. Thus, the higher up we are in our ability to form paradigms, the more easy it will be for us to accept lower level paradigms.

However, all paradigms do not come from within ourselves. We can grow from accepting others' paradigms. Hopefully, the knowledge that culture is just a paradigm - that arguments often are just the result of an unwillingness of one "idea" to die out - will help us to think of these concepts of culture and arguments as not too important. What will come out is that ideas should be tried out, that the building of new paradigms will help us all achieve our goals, whatever they are.

Vishal S. Saxena is a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.