Mental Models and Change LO29391

From: AM de Lange (
Date: 10/25/02

Replying to LO29357 --

Dear Organlearners,

Fred Nickols <> writes:

>Hmm. I fear I've asked another dumb question but I'll give it another

Greetings dear Fred,

That is why I like you. You ask dumb questions like Socrates once did. It
led to the Golden Age of Greek civilisation.

>I then draw out on paper something like the following:
>. i E
>. | |
>. | |
>. v g v
>. o ------------> A -----------> o
>. ^ |
>. | |
>. | v
>. p <---------------------------> R

In my reply to Chris Macrae's LO29370 in which he writes about his
"obsession" with maps, i suggested to him to have a look at the maps or
diagrams of MCT (Mathematical Category Theory). Your drawing above would
have been a perfectly valid diagram, were it not for the arrows from E and
v not commuting withy either A or o. Shift them to the left or right and
you will have drawn a MCT diagram (map). If i understand you correctly,
they have to be shifted to the right.

By the way, the "unit of change" in MCT is called an "arrow" with the
arrow head drawn at its output side.

>I was questioning the existence of mental models, Chris,
>because it suddenly dawned on me that I'm not sure what
>that term means. Right now, I put it in the same category
>as motivation, that is, some internal state attributed to one
>person by another but for which there is no hard evidence
>that it actually exists. "Mental models," then, is, to my way
>of thinking, like motivation, a convenient explanation for
>certain observed phenomena.

Allow me to give a very brief history of the theory of Mental Models. It
concerns the question "How do we know the external world?" This question
was already posed by the ancient Greeks, but in its broadest sense of all
knowing. The answering of it became a major branch of philosophy called
epistemology. It remained to be the case for the next two millenia. The
last to think along this classical line was Ludwig von Wittgenstein in his
epic work "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus" (1922). The questions which he
posed in this work were of such a formidable complexity that they became a
seemingly impenetrable wall. The burden of answering the question "How do
we know the external world?" began to shift from philosophy to psychology.

For the next twenty years little advancement was made until Kenneth Craik
(1943) in his "The Nature of Explanation." (Cambridge University Press)
daringly proposed the concept Mental Model (MM) in the face of hotly
pursued behaviourism. For Craik a mental model was a dynamic
representation of a corresponding system in the external world. The MM had
a relational-structure by which the knower simulates the dynamics of the
external system. After that slow progress was made on Craik's novel work.
The names of cognitive scientists like Pribram in the sixties and Minsky
in the seventies come to my mind.

But also in 1976 PN Johnson-Laird as co-auther with Miller entered the
stage with "Language and Perception". Suddenly the question of cognition
became hotly pursued. The number of publications increased rapidly as
cognitive science became air borne. In 1983 Johnson-Laird's "Mental
Models: Towards a Cognitive Science of Language, Inference, and
Consciousness" was published. For him MMs are the mechanisms which humans
use to solve deductive reasoning problems. In the same year "Mental
Models" by Gentner and Stevens was also published. For them MMs provide
humans with information on how physical systems work.

Fred, there is an electronic version of an informative article some dozen
years ago by Johnson-Laird at
< >
You may find that your thinking is perhaps not that much different from
his. Fellow learners may also have a look at
"Mental Models and Usability"
< >
which explores MMs in the field of Human-Computer-Interaction.
Obviously, there is also the work of Argyris on MMs in organisational
learning and the work of Senge on MMs in Learning Organisations.

As for myself, I feel like Wittgenstein once did. The information on MMs
is now so vast and fragemented that I think the wheels of it are beginning
to fall off. For example, many people speak of mindsets rather than MMs.
Furthermore, how do beliefs differ from MMs? I also cannot find a writer
on MMs who clearly distinguishes between the abstract and the concrete,
learning and knowledge, knowledge and consciousness, knowledge and
information, etc., what even about bringing them all together as one

I wonder where Craik got his idea of Mental Models (MMs) from? It looks
very much like the prevailing models of physicists in those years. But it
is not only phsyicists who study the external world? What about chemists,
biotanists and zoologists and how they represent information?

Physicists use models in addition to theories to present information in a
compact form. The difference between their models and theories is that the
model contains an algorithm to contract information or expand it in a
precise manner. A model is like zipping or unzipping a computer file. But
physicists use equations in a similar manner. Does this make equations MMs
too? Chemists also use models. However, they also use other information
"zippers" like reaction pathways and phase diagrams. To think of a phase
diagram as a MM is becoming for me too thick for a dollar. When
considering botanists and zoologists, they have many information "zippers"
unique to them like systematical drawings and taxonomic keys. Are these
"zippers" Mental Models too? They definitely do not fit the descriptions
of Craik, Johnson-Laird or Gentner and Stevens.

I think that all "zippers" like those mentioned above are part of
information and not knowledge since they are created in the
"world-outside-me". They all lack the one thing which knowledge has. The
etymology of the word knowledge gives us a clue what it is -- "cnawlec".
The suffix "lec"=like. The root "cnaw"=emergence. Knowledge can have
emergences. But is impossible for information and even any "zipper" of it
to have any emergence. For example, ask a model to make a new one, an
equation to make a new one or any phase diagram to make a new one. We can
wait until horns emerge on horses or wings on fishes, but the "zipper"
will not have an emergence.

It is my opinion that all these information "zippers" (Mental Models among
them ;-) are outcomes of the formal/articulated/explicit level of my
knowledge. Those who have much to say on Mental Models (MMs) have little,
if anything, to say on tacit knowing. In fact, to insist that our
cognition depends on mental models is to deny that we also have a tacit
level of knowing. Tacit knowing means that we are not yet able to express
that knowing as information, whether with a known "zipper" or not.

Perhaps the most serious obstacle which I had to overcome in my research
into soils more than thirty years ago, was to combine physical, chemical,
geological, metreological and biological information into one whole. Each
subject had its own "zippers" and these "zippers" would just not become
friends. But they had to because a soil is a whole more than the sum of
its parts. I needed the knowledge to deal with all this fragmented
information and my mind was in agony for not having it.

But I digress. I have the immense forbearance that a great catastrophe is
in the making because we have many "zippers" in information at large which
cannot be joined. Yet we each need to have one knowledge to understand
information with all its "zippers". The events of 11/9/2001 might have
been the outcome of the terrorist group El Qaida or a governmental
conspiracy. But the execution of these plans were not made possible by El
Qaida. What these terrorists did, was to engineer their own devious plans
within the fragmentation of knowledge among their enemies. Their enemies
were absolutely ignorant to their strategies. When knowledge is cut into
an archepelagio of islands, there are many channels of sea to travel
through with a ship bent on destruction.

The last couple of days I have a deadening forbearance that something far
worse than 11/9/2001 is in the making. I dream of it in sleeping on my bed
and think of it while driving my truck. I cannot write on my computer
without thinking that the lack of wholeness will cost us unprecedented
sufferings. Our little knowledge in the vast panorama of segmented
information has made us extremely vulnerable. Many of us are going to
suffer as never before for not seeking the wholeness of knowledge. I
cannot predict where the event will occur nor what its particulars will
be. But that it will happen soon is making me sick with concern.

Goethe some 200 years ago did not allow the many fargemented
subjects of academy to fragment his "world-inside-me". He felt
already in his time a stranger in the academical world. He would
nowadays felt like an alien from outer space. Why this splitting of
knowledge in thousands of disciplines? I can think of only one reason
-- to produce "parcels" of information, the "publish-or-perish"
syndrome forced upon the academical world. It has become so
worse that few are aware of the "publish-and-perish" epidemy which
has struck humankind. Knowledge is dying.

With care and best wishes,


At de Lange <> Snailmail: A M de Lange Gold Fields Computer Centre Faculty of Science - University of Pretoria Pretoria 0001 - Rep of South Africa

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