Insights from Scientific Idealism

Copyright 2016 Graham Berrisford. One of about 300 papers at Last updated 26/03/2017 12:09


Scientific idealism is robust; it fits many ways of thinking about description and reality.

This paper explores the use of it, and insights arising from that.


Preface (repeated in other papers) 1

Abstraction from observed realities. 2

Abstraction of envisaged realities. 2

Descriptions of natural realities. 2

Descriptions of designed realities. 4

Linguistics: using words to communicate types. 5

Autopoietic entities and other odd cases. 6


Preface (repeated in other papers)

How are describers, descriptions and realities related?

Realist philosophers say realities have descriptions, which describers can discover.

Idealist philosophers say describers create descriptions to help them deal with realities.

Our scientific idealism separates describers, descriptions and described realities.


Scientific idealism


<create and use>           <idealise>

Describers  <observe and envisage>  Realities


Describers create and use descriptions of realities (past, present and future).

Descriptions are models (mental, documented or other) that abstract concepts from (encode properties embodied in) realities observed and envisaged.

Realities embody structural and behavioural concepts that are describable by describers.


The triangle turns out to be robust, fitting to many ways of thinking about the world.

This paper further explores the use of the triangle, and insights arising from that.

Abstraction from observed realities

Cartographers draw maps of territories.



<create and use>                   <idealise>

Cartographers   <observe and envisage >    Territories

& map readers


At creation time, a map is drawn to model a real-world territory.

At usage time, the map is read by people to find their way around that territory.

Abstraction of envisaged realities

Some descriptions are also designs - created with the intention of constraining how real things are built.

Architects draw architectural drawings to describe and constrain the construction of a building.

Mozart wrote the score of a symphony to describe and constrain an orchestra’s performance of that symphony.


Engineers describe a “real machine” before that description is instantiated.


Machine descriptions

<create and use>           <instantiated by>

Engineers  <observe and envisage > Real machines


In more general system theory, system designers define how systems will behave.

System theory

System descriptions

<create and use>               <instantiated by>

Designers    <observe and envisage >  Real systems


Note there is fuzziness, realities don’t always conform exactly to designs.

Descriptions of natural realities

A natural system runs in reality before it is described - as phenomena instances.

·         The Krebs cycle was a system in operation before it was described.

·         The solar system was in operation before it was described.


Astronomers observed the planets long before the nature of the solar system was clear.

Then, they built various models of how the planets behave in the solar system.

Some solar system models are obscurely mathematical, some are more human-friendly.

A 3-dimensional mechanical model (called an “orrery”) shows an astronomer’s idealisation of the solar system.



<create and use>               <idealise>

Astronomers  <observe and envisage >  The solar system


At creation time, an orrery is made to model the solar system.

At usage time, it is viewed and manipulated by people wanting to understand that system.


In description, the “solar system” is as an abstract definition that identifies celestial bodies and models their orbits.

In reality, those concrete celestial bodies behave - near enough - as that description predicts.


The solar system is that part of reality that astronomers agree to describe as being the solar system.

It is described as a discrete entity – meaning a thing separated from the rest of the universe.

But before it was described, its matter was undifferentiated from the rest of the universe (such as the asteroid belt).

There was a space-time continuum containing matter and energy, but there was no discrete solar system.

The outer boundary of real the solar system was not out there until it first appeared in a description of “the solar system”.


Calling a discrete entity a system conveys an additional meaning.

It tells you that the system’s behavior can – at least conceivably - be tested against a description.

The correspondence of the real solar system to its description need not be perfect.

It only needs to be near enough to help those who know the system description to predict its behavior – well enough.


We understand the solar system is a discrete entity, composed of a few planets that display regular behaviors.

If/when those regular behaviors cease, that entity will stop being the system we understood it to be.


Again, ever since the solar system was first perceived by humans to be a discrete entity, it has existed in two forms – in description and in reality

But over the centuries, both forms of solar system have evolved.

Astronomers have changed their mind about which bodies are included in the system description.

The concrete celestial bodies and their behavior have changed, if imperceptibly and not enough to depart from a description.


Whenever the real solar system evolves to depart from a solar system description, we can change the description to match the reality.

When the real solar system eventually disappears, we might still be around to discuss descriptions retained in memories of the past reality.


In short, the universe is an ever unfolding process in which stuff happens and evolves.

Un-described reality is not amorphous, it is infinitely morphous.

Reality becomes morphous when matched to a described shape (

Activity systems are islands of stability that we carve out of that universe by describing orderly and repetitive behaviors performed by structural entities.

An operational system is only a system in so far as it is perceived to have the properties described in a system model of some kind.

There is no system without a description of it (mental, documented or physical); there is just stuff happening.

Descriptions of designed realities

A designed system is described before it exists in reality - as a set of phenomena types.

·         Microsoft Word had to be described in coded types before it could be used to write a document.

·         A machine has to be described by an engineer (if only in a mental model) before it is built.

·         A professional tennis match was described in laws before any matches of that type were played.

The designer describes the reproducible behaviors if a system before it can operate.


The LTA wrote the laws tennis to describe and constrain realities – each one being a tennis match.

The rules record ideas abstracted from the infinite variety of real tennis matches.

But a professional tennis match was described in laws before any matches of that type were played


Laws of Tennis

<create and use>              <instantiated by>

LTA         <observe and envisage >   Tennis matches


A tennis match can be called a discrete entity – meaning it is separable from the rest of the universe.

Telling you that it is a system conveys an additional meaning.

It tells you that the system’s behavior can – at least conceivably - be tested against a description.

The correspondence of a real tennis match to its description need not be perfect.

It only needs to be near enough to help those who know the system description to predict and direct its behavior – well enough.


We understand that a tennis match is a discrete entity composed of players and officials that display regular behaviors.

Without those regular behaviors, there is no longer anything describable as tennis match.


A particular professional tennis match is a system in which actors perform actions.

Tennis players, coaches, commentators and spectators take an actor-centric view of the match.

They see it as an endeavour that engages individual players with differing skills and states of mind.

The players choose their match strategy, they play shots as they see fit, and even break the rules now and then.


The tennis match as a type is only an abstract description of roles and rules.

Structures described include the court, balls, rackets, scoreboard, umpire, line judges.

Behaviors described include scoring, umpire’s calls, and a few aspects of what the players do.


This system description says nothing about any individual player’s motivations, skills or game strategy.

It says nothing about what individual players are or do to win a match.

Most of what they do during a match is beyond any general description of roles and rules.

Linguistics: using words to communicate types

We humans developed the ability to communicate descriptions of realities using spoken words.

Then found we could describe words using words, and convey these definitions to a message receiver.

We developed ways to preserve and share descriptions using written words.

We invented dictionaries, and conventions for defining words (by genus and difference).


Long ago, astronomers observed things in the sky that shared the property of being a light source, a “star”.

They noticed some “stars” shared a second common property, that of being “wandering”.

They invented the type name “planet” as a short-hand label for these two properties of a planet.


The spoken word is transient, and has a limited audience.

To illustrate verbal type names and definitions, this work has to use the written form.


are described using a

which is to imply the ideas/properties in this


Type name

Type elaboration

Venus, Mars etc.


Wandering thing, Starry thing


The table above shows how human actors idealise real things, and encode those ideas in verbal descriptions.

We use type names as a short-hand to describe things that are observed or envisaged.


By defining words using words, our brains surely grow a vast network of type names, associated with each other and with other sense memories.


Now, all astronomers can describe a thing as a planet, and envisage planets they have never seen.

The abstraction of the verbal type from the things can be shown in our triangle.

Type as word


<created and use>            <idealises>

Astronomers        <observe >  Venus, Mars, etc


Botanists use the type name “rosea” to label a group of abstract ideas or properties associated with all rose bushes.


are described using a

which is to imply the ideas/properties in this


Type name

Type elaboration

Rose bushes


Thorny, Flowering, Bushy


Again, the abstraction of the verbal type from the things can be shown in our triangle.

Type as word


<created and use>         <idealises>

Botanists        <observe >    Real rose bushes


In general, people create and use words to label a group of ideas or properties abstracted from similar things.

Type as word

Descriptive word

<create and use>          <idealises>

People               <observe >     Similar things

Autopoietic entities and other odd cases

There are self-describing entities and other peculiar cases.


In biology, the cells that instantiate the description encoded in DNA also manufacture it.

Self-sustaining cell

DNA molecules

<manufacture>     <instantiated by>

Cells         <sense and maintain>        Cells


In some social systems, the actors who instantiate defined roles also define them.

Self-defining social system


<define>           <instantiated by>

Actors   <observe and envisage>     Actors


In Luhmann’s social systems, communications both respond to and stimulate other communications about the same code.

Self-sustaining code

A code

<perpetuate>           <is perpetuated by>

Communications <respond to and stimulate> Communications


Normally, the things that instantiate a type are only partly described by that.

In software design, the objects that instantiate a class are completely described by that class.

OO programs


<code and read>     <instantiated by>

Programmers <test and envisage> Objects




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