Monday 1 July 2013

It is human to model

René Magritte's "The Human Condition II" (1935) is not about waves, even though it has got waves in it. This is a painting about modelling.

Inside the room stands an easel bearing a painting, which depicts the waves in the landscape outside the room. The painting on the easel gives the illusion of blending in with its subject: only close inspection reveals where one starts and the other ends. This wry joke rings true for engineers: unless we pay attention, we could risk confusing a model with the real system.

"The Human Condition II" shows another potential pitfall of engineering models: although the painting on the easel is a good representation of the seascape we can see, we do not know whether it is a good representation of the seascape we cannot see. Here the seascape is obscured by the room and also by the painting on the easel. Following through with the metaphor, there is a limit to human understanding of the real world: part of its mysteries are obscured by the boundaries of our own knowledge (the room), and from a particular vantage point, part is obscured by the very model we have constructed (the painting) to describe it.

Magritte was not aware he was painting a warning about improper use of engineering models. His intention was to describe human consciousness. We think that the world we see with our eyes is in fact the real thing, but it too is just a representation. Our mental model of the world is based on what we can see from our small window/doorway of understanding; it is a small part of the whole, and sometimes our mental model itself can obscure reality.

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