The single most useful college class I took, in retrospect, was an introductory philosophy class on epistemology. Technically, epistemology is the theory of knowledge. I dislike that definition because it’s not particularly informative. We spent a semester talking about what it meant to know something. Such as knowing in a Platonic sense, an Aristotelian sense, Cartesian sense, Humean sense, etc.. This class was so useful because I’m an academic, and as an academic it’s a REALLY GOOD IDEA to spend time seriously thinking about what knowledge is and what it means to know something.
Over the semester (and afterwards) I realized I have some strong desires for mechanisms. I want to know how things interact with each other before I really believe something is known, or is even really science. I want to know the method of transmission. I want to know nitty-gritty details. I don’t just want a mass of statistics with light interpretation. I want a model built from the ground up. And in very complex cases, as in biology or the social sciences, a model is also good to test your ideas. It’s good to avoid confusing causes and effects just because of some nice correlations in the data.
And I’m not the only person who wants that. Economists spent quite awhile dealing with “micro-foundations” of their models. Essentially that meant figuring out if there were individual behaviors that, when aggregated to all of society, would lead to the behaviors that the macro-level models predicted. And even before that the physicists were thinking about microscopic models of matter that lead to observed macroscopic behaviors. This was the impetus behind the statistical mechanical foundations of thermodynamics. (I.e. physicists constructed the idea of atoms and molecules bumping into each other and the associated ideas of energy in order to explain relations between temperature, pressure, and volume for gases.)
(Of course the outcomes of these two endeavors were completely different. Statistical mechanics has been a very good theory, but all the pioneering statistical mechanists committed suicide due to massive depression. The micro-foundations of economics has not been quite as successful, but not enough of the economists had massive depression or have committed suicide.)
All of the above is well and good, but there is a serious concern: Isaac Newton. When Newton first published his ideas about gravity, where two objects were attracted by a force proportional to the product of their masses divided by the inverse square of their distance, he had no model to base that on. He just had a bunch of data which happened to fit with his equation. So, in essence, he had a correlation and thought he was smart enough to see how it implied causation. To someone who wants models, this seems unreasonable.
So it seems like I’m left with the uncomfortable conclusion that wanting models would lead me to be one of those Cartesians who attacked Newton’s work. This does not amuse me…