Maps, menus and all that jazz

If you study Eastern philosophy, neurolinguistic programming or rationalism, you’ll probably come across this notion:

The map is not the territory.

Sometimes also expressed as, you can’t eat the menu.

There are worlds of wisdom in these simple lines:

Excluding some esoteric philosophies, most folks agree ‘reality’ exists on some level. The world out there ‘is real’ and ‘it exists’, in the sense that it doesn’t need us to continue being.

The Earth spun before we were born and will keep on spinning after we die.

And then there are our thoughts, experiences and perceptions. They are, at least in some way, created by the outside environment. When we see an apple, it’s because an apple ‘exists’ and light reflects off its surface into our eyes.

Not a lot of wisdom so far…

Until you realise just how enormous the gulf between the two is.

We only see a tiny sliver of light – most of it is invisible to the human eye. We can’t see most particles at all, even though plenty of them pour from the Sun like light does. Our fingers can only touch things within reach… and nothing too small, like electrons. Ears can only hear specific frequencies.

Most of reality is invisible to us.

It gets worse. We don’t actually ‘see’ light directly. Your eyes convert light to electricity to chemicals to electricity, until the brain eventually registers a tiny splotch of blue.

It gets worse again, since your unconscious filters out most of the signals the brain receives. Right now, I’m not aware of the sounds of traffic going by my window, the feel of carpet under my feet, the slight tension by muscles need to keep me upright, the air on my skin…

It still gets worse. Your brain has to do something with the information it gets. When you look at a loved one’s face, you don’t see splotches of light – you see them. Your brain extrapolates meaning from the raw data.

By the time you become aware of anything, your perspective is so warped, simplified and fabricated that it’s amazing we can survive this world.

But it’s not like we’re stumbling around blind here.

The map is not the territory. A territory is immense and richly detailed. Think of all the trees, bugs, rocks, plants, bumps, valleys, warrens, holes, hills and animals that might be in a single square kilometre of nature.

The map shows none of that. It might be a few black squiggles on white paper.

But the map’s still useful. Even if it’s laughably basic compared to the territory, it can still get you safely through it.

You can’t eat the menu. Words on a page have none of the useful properties of the meal. No matter how sophisticated the menu is, it won’t stave off hunger or malnutrition.

But it still shows you what’s possible and helps you get to the meal.

This is the human condition: your mental maps and menus (or ‘models’, if you prefer) are wrong. And that’s okay! Unless you’re a philosopher, it’s better to rate a model by how useful it is, not how accurate it is.

Some folks see this as somewhat nihilistic. If none of what we experience is ‘real’ – at best, simple squiggles compared to the majesty of a national park – then what’s the point?

I have two responses to that:

One, it’s real enough to you. I wonder what makes that not enough for it to be meaningful?

Two, this should fill you with hope.

If your perceptions reflect reality, then you become a victim to it. Indeed, this is how most folks think. They think “that person made me angry, so they must be filled with anger-inducing essence!” And when other folks can’t see that essence, they must be stupid, wilfully blind or lunatics who enjoy anger-inducing essences.

(Did I just summarise arguing on the internet?)

But there’s no anger-inducing essence in the territory. That’s all in the map. And when you trade your map for a better one, you can see the territory not only more clearly, but more calmly too.

If you want to experience a map upgrade, follow the squiggly lines that lead to this link:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: