Of Things Unspoken

“The Map is not the Territory”

This saying was first coined by Alfred Korzybski, the man who gave us the book “Science and Sanity” in 1933 which founded General Semantic. I first encountered it in a book by Robert Anton Wilson who spent a lot of his writing expounding on this idea and providing parables and exercises designed to help those interested in getting comfortable with this stark fact of life. Ken Wilber often uses this quote as a grounding principle when discussing the Integral Model. Alan Watts had a more whimsical version, “The menu is not the meal.”

Basically, it means that our perceptions, maps, and models of reality are never reality itself. An idea about a car will not get you to the airport. The word, “water” will not quench your thirst. An understanding of how trees grow provides no shade. An orange is actually pale blue, which is the shade of light it absorbs, leaving behind the orange we see.

Our eyes only perceive a certain band of the light spectrum. Our ears only catch a limited range of tones and volumes. Our skin is not infinitely sensitive. To our tongues, some flavors don’t exist.

This is all to say that the world as we perceive it is not the world as it actually is. That doesn’t mean our approximations aren’t useful. What it does mean is that we should be careful to not be fooled by them. There is an old experiment that goes back to the time of the Greeks. Put your left hand in a bowl of cold water, and your right hand in a bowl of warm water. Wait for a minute. Then put both hands in a bowl of room temperature water. To your left hand, the room temperature water will feel warm. To your right hand, the room temperature water will feel cold. So, which is it?

Words, maps, and models are only ever good for description. They are never the thing itself. Perception is only good for a general notion. The thing perceived is never precisely what is perceived. To believe that reality is as we perceive it to be is a notion in philosophy known as Naive Realism. The Buddha refuted this view of the world 2500 years ago. At least once every century, some philosopher comes along to do it again. It seems like we need a regular reminder of this truth because the delusion that things are as they seem is so persistent.

When I was a boy I had this problem with the television in my room. Whenever I woke up and turned the set on, or came home from school to watch some TV while doing my homework, I would get upset because my shows were no longer where I had left them. I would get quite upset and yell at my brother and mother, blaming them for turning the set on while I was away. They didn’t know what to do with me. It took me many years to understand that the shows ran on their own schedule whether I watched them or not. This is one example of how the conviction of naive realism can cause us trouble. (Of course these days, with streaming video and on-demand programming I would not be such a frustrated kid.)

No matter how much we would have it otherwise, the map is not the territory. Persisting in believing otherwise leads to needless suffering.

I mentioned that Robert Anton Wilson gave out a lot of exercises in his work to deal with the persistent delusion of mistaking the menu for the meal. One simple one is this: whenever you pick up a thing to use, take a brief moment to look at it and remind yourself, “this is not what I suppose it to be.” Then go on with whatever you were going to do. Reality still works, even if we can never quite know it.

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