Saturday, January 28, 2012

Maps and Territories

If you are going to visit a city you might want a map of that city that will help you get around. Of course you have to be sure that you have the right map. A map of any city won't do. If the city you find yourself in is London and you try to follow a map of, let's say, New York your trip will be confusing. You might find some resemblances ("maybe this is this street and that corner over there is this, but wait - where is this square?"), but at some point you will find that the map doesn't fit the territory. You realize that for every city you need a specific unique map.

But maybe, you think, there is some way to make a map that will fit every city in the world. A Map of Everyplace - a MoE). One way of doing this would be to only include in the map such things that are common to all cities in the world. Roads for example - but you cannot tell where they are actually going. Buildings - but not where they are. Such a map will be useless you realize (a Map of Very Few Things).But what if, you think, you took all the cities in the world and made an average, a statistical median of all of them? Wouldn't this then be a Map of Everyplace? So you do it and find that this "citymap" doesn't help you travel in any city (It becomes a Map of No City).

Scientific theories and models are map-making. The notion that you can use one map (for example Einsteins theory of relativity) to fit everything (like quantum entanglement) doesn't work. It's like taking the "wrong" map (a map of NY when going to London) with you on a trip. Right and wrong here is contextual, of course. There might be nothing wrong  with the NY map but it still doesn't work in London.

The more generally applicable you try to make a map ( A GUT or ToE for example) the less useful. Science have a natural tendency to abstract away reality. The map is not the territory!


  1. Of course, in physics the different cities mostly correspond to different scales of reality. Large velocities, small velocities, "big" objects, "small" objects etc.

    I think it's still somewhat of an open question how much these cities are fundamentally different. For example, conceivably there might be different theories of motion for large and small speeds. But it turns out that special theory of relativity works for all speeds (at least up to c), so we have a sort of unified theory of motion.

    Encouraged by this kind of result, physicists naturally wish for more and more unification, but lately the road has been very steep.

  2. Show me an abstraction that is not a "real" abstraction and I'll say Yes. Some scientists, and others, may wish to make away with reality, but no one has succeeded yet as far as I know. In my book, one of the most general maps out there is found in Buddhist text i.e. the map over the human mind and its functioning. The Buddha didn't speak of different ways to get caught up in samsara and not a lot of alternative ways to break free. The truth is Not that "attachment lead to suffering" and that "the eightfold path is the way to liberation", but the Buddhas words are neither not-the truth, right?
    Anyways, if the map, whatever map, leads us to skillful actions in "reality" then it is an accurate map.

    The truth is Mu, and by that I believe old Joshu out-mapped all other maps.Theories are theories and they will never clean my bowl.
    With that said, I thank you for clearing my untidy thoughts a bit (much better than reading a tabloid or watching a sit-com) and out I go into the magnificent autumn night to walk a dog that happens to be with me. The leaves are falling off...I guess.