“The map is not the territory” is a well-known saying that is often used to illustrate the idea that all models of reality are not reality itself. James A Lindsay, in his book Dot, Dot, Dot reminds us that even
Our mathematics, our scientific theories, our models, our philosophical conjectures, and our theological ramblings are all abstract structures that we designed as maps, or tools for map-making, to attempt to better understand the terrain of the universe we find ourselves in.
Making maps and models of reality is essential if we are to organise and understand the world we live and navigate in. It can be easy to mistake these maps or models of reality for the actual territory but doing so can lead to serious problems.
One of the most obvious examples of this is in politics. We are constantly being presented with different models of reality by politicians and the media. It can be easy to believe that what we are seeing is the actual reality, when in fact it is just a model that has been created for us. This can lead to us making decisions based on false information, which can have dire consequences.
It is also a problem in personal relationships. We often create models of reality in our heads based on our upbringing, education, experiences, culture, and the information we receive from others. And we often assume that our internal map of reality is shared in every detail with someone else’s. If we mistake these models for reality, it can lead to us misunderstanding each other, and communicating poorly. For example, have you ever argued with someone and afterwards realised that you were both arguing about two completely different things? This is often because you were each operating with a different model of reality.
This problem can also occur in the world of business. We may create models of reality based on market research or other data that is available to us. However, if we mistake these models for reality, it can lead to us making poor business decisions. For example, we may make investment decisions based on false information about the market.
And even in areas like philosophy, science, maths, and religion, where we might think that our models of reality are based on objective truth, we can still fall into the trap of mistaking the map for the territory. This can lead to us making wrong assumptions and coming to false conclusions.
So, it is important to remember that all models of reality are just that — models. They are not reality itself. Making the mistake of equating a map with the territory can lead to serious problems in various areas of life. It is important to be critical of the information we are given and to question whether it is true. Only by doing this can we make sure that we are making decisions based on accurate information.
Like all maps, they need to be constantly reviewed and improved by filling in gaps, changing the models, removing distortions, and resisting generalising from our maps to the realities they represent. But how do we do this?
It is important to be aware of the limitations of our models and to constantly question them. We need to be open to new information and willing to change our models if they are proven to be wrong. We also need to be aware of the potential biases that can distort our view of reality. Like the maps we use to find our way in the car when travelling, they can be useful tools, but we should never mistake them for reality itself. The map is not the territory!