Mental models and metalanguage: Putting it all together

By Gordon Rugg

The previous articles in this series looked at mental models and ways of making sense of problems. A recurrent theme in those articles was that using the wrong model can lead to disastrous outcomes.

This raises the question of how to choose the right model to make sense of a problem. In this article, I’ll look at the issues involved in answering this question, and then look at some practical solutions.

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Mental models, worldviews, Meccano, and systems theory

By Gordon Rugg

The previous articles in this series looked at how everyday entities such as a cup of coffee or a Lego pack can provide templates for thinking about other subjects, particularly abstract concepts such as justice, and entities that we can’t directly observe with human senses, such as electricity.

The previous articles examined templates for handling entities that stay where they’re put. With Lego blocks or a cup of coffee, once you’ve put them into a configuration, they stay in that configuration unless something else disturbs them. The Lego blocks stay in the shape you assembled them in; the cup of coffee remains a cup of coffee.

However, not all entities behave that way. In this article, I’ll examine systems theory, and its implications for entities that don’t stay where they’re put, but instead behave in ways that are often unexpected and counter-intuitive. I’ll use Meccano as a worked example.

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Mental models, worldviews, and mocha

By Gordon Rugg

Mental models provide a template for handling things that happen in the world.

At their best, they provide invaluable counter-intuitive insights that let us solve problems which would otherwise be intractable. At their worst, they provide the appearance of solutions, while actually digging us deeper into the real underlying problem.

In this article, I’ll use a cup of mocha as an example of how these two outcomes can happen. I’ll also look at how this relates to the long-running debate about whether there is a real divide between the arts and the sciences as two different cultures.

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Mental models, worldviews, and the span of consistency

By Gordon Rugg

In politics and religion, a common accusation is that someone is being hypocritical or inconsistent. The previous article in this series looked at how this can arise from the irregular adjective approach to other groups; for example, “Our soldiers are brave” versus “Their soldiers are fanatical” when describing otherwise identical actions.

Often, though, inconsistency is an almost inevitable consequence of dealing with complexity. Mainstream political movements, like organised religions, spend a lot of time and effort in identifying and resolving inherent contradictions within their worldview. This process takes a lot of time and effort because of the sheer number of possible combinations of beliefs within any mature worldview.

In this article, I’ll work through the implications of this simple but extremely significant issue.

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Mental models, and the Other as dark reflection.

By Gordon Rugg

This article is the first in a series about mental models and their implications both for worldviews and for everyday behaviour. Mental models are at the core of how we think and act. They’ve received a lot of attention from various disciplines, which is good in terms of there being plenty of material to draw on, and less good in terms of clear, unified frameworks.

In these articles, I’ll look at how we can use some clean, elegant formalisms to make more sense of what mental models are, and how they can go wrong. Much of the classic work on mental models has focused on mental models of specific small scale problems. I’ll focus mainly on the other end of the scale, where mental models have implications so far-reaching that they’re major components of worldviews.

Mental models are a classic case of the simplicity beyond complexity. Often, something in a mental model that initially looks trivial turns out to be massively important and complex; there’s a new simplicity at the other side, but only after you’ve waded through that intervening complexity. For this reason, I’ll keep the individual articles short, and then look in more detail at the implications in separate articles, rather than trying to do too much in one article.

I’ll start with the Other, to show how mental models can have implications at the level of war versus peace, as well as at the level of interpersonal bigotry and harrassment.

The Other is a core concept in sociology and related fields. It’s pretty much what it sounds like. People tend to divide the world in to Us and Them. The Other is Them. The implications are far reaching.

The full story is, as you might expect, more complex, but the core concept is that simple. In this article, I’ll look at the surface simplicity, and look at the different implications of two different forms of surface simplicity.

It’s a topic that takes us into questions about status, morality, and what happens when beliefs collide with reality.

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Crisp and fuzzy categorisation

By Gordon Rugg

Categorisation occurs pretty much everywhere in human life. Most of the time, most of the categorisation appears so obvious that we don’t pay particular attention to it. Every once in a while, though, a case crops up which suddenly calls our assumptions about categorisation into question, and raises uncomfortable questions about whether there’s something fundamentally wrong in how we think about the world.

In this article, I’ll look at one important aspect of categorisation, namely the difference between crisp sets and fuzzy sets. It looks, and is, simple, but it has powerful and far-reaching implications for making sense of the world.

I’ll start with the example of whether or not you own a motorbike. At first glance, this looks like a straightforward question which divides people neatly into two groups, namely those who own motorbikes, and those who don’t. We can represent this visually as two boxes, with a crisp dividing line between them, like this.

However, when you’re dealing with real life, you encounter a surprising number of cases where the answer is unclear. Suppose, for instance, that someone has jointly bought a motorbike with their friend. Does that person count as being the owner of a motorbike, when they’re actually the joint owner? Or what about someone who has bought a motorbike on hire purchase, and has not yet finished the payments?

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Surface structure and deep structure

By Gordon Rugg

The concepts of surface structure and deep structure are taken for granted in some disciplines, such as linguistics and media studies, but little known in others. This article is a brief overview of these concepts, with examples from literature, film, physics and human error.

The core concept

A simple initial example is that the surface structure of Fred kisses Ginger is an instantiation of the deep structure the hero kisses the heroine. That same deep structure can appear as many surface structures, such as Rhett kisses Scarlett or Mr Darcy kisses Elizabeth Bennet.

There are various ways of representing surface and deep structure. One useful representation is putting brackets around each chunk of surface structure, to clarify which bits of surface structure map onto which bits of deep structure; for example, [Mr Darcy] [kisses] [Elizabeth Bennet].

Another useful representation shows the surface structure mapped onto the deep structure visually. One way of doing this is as a table, like the one below.

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