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Models of Dignity

By       Message Robert Fuller     Permalink
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These failings were overcome by relativity and quantum mechanics.

The twentieth-century theories do not invalidate earlier models. Rather, they stake out and provide road maps to new territory that prior models don't cover. Often, new models do not so much render old ones obsolete as circumscribe their domains of applicability, revealing and accounting for altogether new phenomena that lie beyond the purview of the old models. For example, relativity and quantum theory do not invalidate Newton's laws of motion.

Newton's classical treatment still describes accurately the motions of the objects to which he originally applied them so long as they move at speeds much slower than the speed of light. NASA's space scientists have no need for the refinements of quantum or relativistic mechanics in calculating the flight paths of space vehicles. But if we wish to account for the dynamics of objects at very high velocities or describe atomic phenomena, we must use quantum mechanical models. For everyday-size objects moving at everyday speeds, the quantum and relativistic models reduce to the familiar models of classical physics. In sum, new models usually don't invalidate old ones so much as they transcend them.

This is also a key feature of the social and self models characteristic of dignitarian culture, which will be discussed in chapter. The idea of evolving truth is the lynchpin of such a culture. However, it's crucial to note that just because our models evolve does not mean that "anything goes." Indeed, quite the contrary: at any given time, what "goes" is precisely the best current model we've got. One simply has to be alert to the fact that today's best model may be superseded by an even better one tomorrow.

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Most contemporary students of the natural world are actually excited when they find a persistent discrepancy between their latest model and empirical data because they know such deviations signal the existence of hitherto unknown realms in which new phenomena may be discovered.

The presumption that nature models are infallible has been replaced with the humbling expectation that they will eventually be replaced by more comprehensive and accurate ones.

If the past is any guide, we are unlikely ever to find a theory so comprehensive and accurate that it would bring an end to the search for more fundamental truths. Any model that seemed to account for all known phenomena would still be vulnerable to the possibility that new observations would reveal it to be incomplete.

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Toward the end of the nineteenth century, many physicists believed they'd learned all there was to know about the workings of the universe.

The consensus was that Newton's dynamics and Maxwell's electromagnetism together had everything covered. Prominent scientists announced the "end of physics."Then a few tiny discrepancies between theory and experiment were noted, and as physicists explored them they came upon all the previously unknown phenomena of atomic and relativistic physics. A new world was discovered and with it the technology that put its stamp on the twentieth century.

Albert Einstein believed that the final resting place of every theory is as a special case of a broader one. Indeed, he spent the last decades of his life searching for a unified theory that would have transcended his own landmark theories, reducing them to special cases of a grander theory.

In postulating that the universe is "infinite in all directions," physicist Freeman Dyson suggests there will be no end to our explorations and that we are unlikely ever to come up with an all-inclusive model.

This dynamic has its counterpart in social and self models. Instead of suppressing deviations from the current social consensus, we can examine them for clues that might lead us to a more encompassing synthesis, one that integrates previous experience with the new evidence.

For example, when Alfred Kinsey's studies on sexuality revealed the full range of human sexual behavior, we faced two choices. We could label certain of these behaviors as perverted and try to suppress them. Or, we could relax our prescriptive models pertaining to sexuality and so accommodate them. The advent of reliable, available birth control only intensified the pressure for revising these models.

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The ensuing sexual revolution suggests that the public did in fact gradually move toward a different consensus on sexuality. That movement is still under way as the public comes to terms with homosexuality. Likewise, the worldwide controversy over same-sex unions has the potential to alter the traditional model of marriage.8 In a growing number of countries, the debate has resulted in granting legal status to domestic partnerships.

Instead of repressing or ignoring a question or fact that challenges a current view of ourselves, we can welcome it as a harbinger of change. As we accept something about ourselves that differs from the norm, it is only natural to grant the same acceptance to others. For this reason, the idea of partial, ever-evolving truth is a keystone of dignitarian culture.

Humility is not simply a trait to be admired; it's dictated by the incontrovertible fact that there are viable alternatives to our habitual ways of doing business. Given a chance to prove themselves, some of them may even turn out to be better than our own!

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Robert W. Fuller is a physicist, a former president of Oberlin College, and author of The Rowan Tree: A Novel. He has consulted with Indira Gandhi, met with Jimmy Carter regarding the president's Commission on World Hunger, worked in the (more...)

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