For those of you just joining us, this essay is part of my blog series where I lay out my idea for what “truth” looks like and what can constitute “knowledge”.
I started in “The Origin of Truth” defining a basis for how knowledge comes to be gathered through the interpretation of personal experiences, using logic and language. I also explained why we would want knowledge, because of it’s enormous instrumental value in satisfying our goals.
Then in “Meaningfully True” I develop the idea of making predictions of what will be based on what is believed to be true. Using this, I define “true” to be seen in our goals being actually satisfied, predictions we make actually occur, our beliefs cohering with each other with no contradiction, and different methods coming to the same beliefs with no contradiction.
Third in “The End of Cartesian Demons”, I built off this to develop the idea of what is a meaningful statement to consider: one that makes predictions about our world that we can actually test, even if only in principle.
I clarify this “Clarifying the Idea of Meaning”, declaring such statements to be “truth-apt” (capable of being true) and further explaining why only these statements are worth considering. Both of these essays then draw the conclusion that we should not be worried about being in a computer simulation or being under the influence of a Cartesian Demon.
Lastly, I make some further clarifications in “Knowledge: A-Priori and Absolute” about whether traditional conceptions of different types of knowledge still hold with the theory I advocate, finding they do depending on how you talk about them.
Now that we have all that grounding in place, it’s time to further draw out the distinction between the beliefs we have in our head, referred to as the map, and the things that actually take place in this external reality we don’t directly know of (the territory).
Separating the Map from the Territory
It is said that the only absolutely correct, atom-by-atom, perfectly-to-scale representation of what California looks like is California itself. However, you can’t fold up California and put it in your glove compartment. Thus the need for maps.
A map of California is an abstraction — you lose the massive amounts of detail in exchange for greatly increasing the portability and readability of your representation. Perhaps you only focus on specifically what you need to know to navigate: going from Los Angeles to Sacramento does not require you to know the exact amount of pebbles on nearby beaches.
But even if you wanted to know what California looked like in the absolutely correct, atom-by-atom, perfectly-to-scale version, you’re still stuck. This is because the only way to actually take in information about California (the territory) is through making a map of it in your head (the map). You use your eyes to observe reflected photons that send information to your brain that is processed into descriptions of California.
It was Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski who first came up with this “map-territory distinction” and remarked that people often confuse the two when they shouldn’t. Another way to see this distinction is to notice the difference between your keys being missing and you knowing your keys are missing. Sometime throughout the day, your keys fall out of your pocket and land on the ground.
This is an actual event that actually took place in the territory, yet it did not take place in your map because you didn’t notice the event take place and therefore you never recorded it as a belief. This is the map-territory distinction, we acknowledge that things can take place in the territory that do not take place in our personal maps.
It wasn’t until later that you notice your keys are missing do you update your map to match the change in territory. It is these updates that we learn about the territory and continue to update our maps to better reflect it, as seen in discussions about making predictions in “Meaningfully True”.
The Problem of Territory
This sets us up for perhaps the only realization that is both stunningly profound and stunningly obvious: you will never have direct access to the territory. Instead, all you will ever access to is your map: a bunch of beliefs about the territory you have built over time.
Different people, having different experiences, will end up with different maps, even though they’ve evaluated the same territory, because no one has evaluated the whole territory. Even the utmost experts in one topic do not have a fully accurate map of the entire territory in that one location or category.
This is the Problem of Territory: because we’re separated from the territory because we’re forced to use maps, we will have different perspectives. This is to be expected, and it has a solution: sharing our maps with each other.
We do this in conversations and debates: we use each other as ways of gathering more information of the territory, because I can hold your observations to be at least somewhat reliable, and use those observations to check against mine. Since we are both attempting to describe the same territory, we can expect our information to not contradict unless one of us is wrong.
So after I notice my keys are missing but have no record of where they fell, you could inform me that your map has a record of the keys falling out in my office. Then I would have the information I need, thanks to you, to go back to my office and get my keys.
The Problem of Abstract Categorization
The distinction between our maps and the territory also sets us up for another problem: attempting to describe the territory with things that exist only in our maps. For example, there is nothing about a pebble itself that makes it “smooth”; that’s only a description of what we feel when we touch the pebble. Instead, the pebble just has a specific atomic structure that we’re ultimately describing.
Likewise, there’s actually nothing that is truly a “pebble”. Instead, the word “pebble” is a definition we give to describe certain kinds of rocks based on size, which in turn is a description we give to certain forms of Earth, which in turn is a description of a certain arrangement of atoms that we encounter.
“Smoothness” and “pebbles” don’t exist out there in the territory. In the territory, there are only various arrangements for us to observe and categorize through our use of definitions. We have to be careful not to get caught up in abusing definitions with the hope that it will change reality; to be careful not to project our map back onto the territory.
We have to be careful not to smuggle our connotations, because doing so is not being fully aware of how we are mapping our territory. The moment when the words control how we see reality rather than the sight of reality itself is the moment when we no longer have an accurate method of forming maps from territories. All of us who value truth and want accurate maps should take care to prevent this.
Instead, a categorization in itself is an abstraction, where data is lost. Calling something a pebble only distinguishes the object from all other possible objects based on material composition and size. We know it will behave like how we’ve described a sufficiently small rock, but we lose all other data on the pebble, such as it’s individual color, size, type of rock, past history, age, etc.
In the territory, there are no categories because no two things are identical. There is always something to further distinguish objects in a category, as categories only exist to make things easier to understand when we don’t need to care about what further distinguishes them. In the territory, no two pebbles are the same.
Likewise, there is nothing that makes our abstract categorizations of objects better than anyone else’s, except for ease of use and efficiency in communication. Thus why debating definitions can be a folly, as long as we recognize the territory we are attempting to describe, and can actually describe it in a manner that communicates what we want, we have all we need.
There is no need to further debate whether a rock is small enough to be a pebble, as long as we know which rock-object we are talking about. But making sure we both know which rock-object we’re talking about is still a tall order, and a big problem for communication.
Knowledge in Our Map
Knowledge is all about getting our maps to more accurately reflect the territory, and truth is all about recognizing when our maps accomplish this goal. We need to understand how to derive an accurate map from an observed territory, and then do so.
Knowledge isn’t magic, it’s a process. And as a process, it can be understood and done better. Finding even more efficient and accurate methods of doing this is the art of learning how to think and observe better.
The next posts in this series will cover this, explaining how we can gather evidence, how we know if evidence is reliable, and how we can use reliable evidence to form working theories about our world.
Followed up in: The Meaning of Morality and Birds Are Dinosaurs, But Pluto Isn’t a Planet, Part I
I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.