The map and the territory 7

A common discussion with some of my friends is about science and its limits. I’m really concerned with how people understand science nowadays, as if something is true just because it’s scientific. I’m not the first one worried about this, Popper, one of the key figures in defining modern science, used the term “scientism” pejoratively against the dogmatic believe in science. This term, scientism, is widely debated today in science and philosophy.


Illuminated slogan on the wall inside a building of the free university berlin (courtesy of Paul Keller)

Science is a really useful tool to understand the world around us. It is useful not only because it explains many things in our world but also because it enables us to build instruments and, sometimes, control a limited part of this world. Who, in his or her own mind, would argue against it? Science has many problems, it’s true. Starting with what can be called “bad science,” people who tamper results to accommodate their own views and many other uses of science that doesn’t accommodate the canon, and continuing with gatekeepers to scientific discovery (journals, communities, associations, governments and even corporations) we can see that science is not perfect. These problems are dealt in a day-to-day basis by researchers and, in the long run, we can see that important discoveries make their way through.

But these problems are just the tip of the iceberg, a problem of implementation more than a problem with the method in itself. Science is a specific way of seeing reality and accepting (or rejecting) statements about it, but it is limited by our cognitive capabilities and senses. A big problem comes when people start mistaking the map for the territory, science for reality. A map is very useful and can include many aspects of the territory it’s representing, but even the most detailed map is not the territory. The same happens with science, it is a good explanation of reality, of how reality works, but it is not reality itself.

The only good model would be reality itself, any other model would leave out some aspects, but I’m not referring to that. As with Magritte’s painting, “The betrayal of images”  (the drawing of a pipe with the caption “this is not a pipe”), a model is just how we see the world, one possible representation among many. As a map is limited by our perception of the territory, the tools we use to create this representation and how we read the map afterwards, so is science in its own domain. It’s not a problem of accuracy but of denial, denial that the theory is not how reality actually is or denial that there are other ways of knowing the same object.

To sum this up and leave it open to discussion and further articles, science is a very useful way of understanding the world but it’s limited and provides just one of many interpretations about reality, one that can be observed and experimented with. Not considering its limitations, thinking it’s the only valid or acceptable way of knowing and trying apply it to anything (as philosophy or the arts) is transforming science into a dogma. Science is based on critical thinking, be critical also about science.

7 thoughts on “The map and the territory

  1. Reply Pablo Llopis (@pablollopis) Nov 6, 2012 13:50

    I agree with most of what is written in this post. I think your comparison with the map and the territory is excellent. Not sure if it is yours or not, but it is the first time I hear about it and I really like it, so I will borrow your simile throughout this post.

    I just have one gripe with this post. While it is obvious that a theory and a model may be just one explanation out of many, I think I understand that a bit different than you do: I think it may be just one explanation out of many because there may (always?) be a better model, a theory which is more detailed and does not contradict observations. A better map for the territory. That is, IMHO, what science is all about: finding the imperfections in the map and improving it to be a better reflection of the territory. There may be no way to do science without being critical about science (RE: your last sentence).

    What I think you are implying in that last paragraph, is that because others have different ways of understanding the world they should be accepted as well. But that is like saying that because they have different maps of the territory, they should be accepted. Well, I think people shouldn’t be upset because their map was held to the same standards as all other maps and it turned out to be inaccurate. This isn’t a democracy where a map should be regarded as accurate just because a group of people believe it is accurate. It should be tested, and it can turn out to be accurate or inaccurate. I don’t think any scientist worthy of the name will tell you that they don’t accept a map just because it is different from theirs. Quite the opposite, in fact, because a scientist is always trying to find a better map.
    And if you can’t even propose a new (better) map, and you can’t point out new spots where the map is inaccurate, you aren’t contributing new knowledge.

    Now, you did not go into any specifics in your last paragraph (I think that’s a pity). I’m not sure anybody coming from “other fields” such as theology, arts or philosophy has ever proposed a map which accounts for more details than the “scientific map” and which has been rejected. Maybe they have just been considered hypothesis, or they have been rejected by pointing at its contradictions with the territory and inaccuracies (Creationism comes to my mind).

    Remember, a theory is far from mere hypothesis, speculation, and conjecture, but is confirmed by observation or experiment, accepted as accounting for known facts. Perhaps most importantly, it is able to accurately predict events in the future. You can test the map to be accurate with the territory or not. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just the best map you’ve got for now. I don’t think any scientist worthy of the name is disregarding other maps just because they are different and because their map is perfect and 1:1 with the territory. Maybe they are just rejecting those maps which don’t represent the territory, or have drawings which can’t possibly be tested to be accurate or inaccurate. In the latter case, if somebody claims to have mapped a territory which can’t be tested, you can either remain agnostic, putting the map “on hold”, or you can reject it for the moment for being no different from any random map: you can’t just assume that part of the map to be true. You can’t treat hypothesis as theories, or “theories” which don’t match the territory as valid.

    Just to make sure we are clear: I don’t think science has anything to say about what is right or wrong, or which moral is best. That is “subjective domain”. You decide whether that hill in the map is steep, the tree is tall or short. Science can help you measure the height of the tree, and have a topographic map of the hill, and help you decide what you consider it to be, if you really want to.

    TL;DR: Everybody knows our maps are inaccurate and our methods and tools to build them are limited. (That is, I think, why many people find science so interesting.) But if you think you can do better, show the maps, and have it matched against the territory, just like every other map does. Then we will see how good your map is. If it is better, nobel prizes are waiting to be handed. Be constructive!

  2. Reply Juan Cano Nov 6, 2012 15:28

    I will keep writing on this topic, don’t worry. I don’t like writing really long posts because people usually don’t read them, so I limit myself to 500 words or so.

    I think you didn’t get one of the things I wrote. I’m not criticizing the level of detail but the way of creating the map. Only reality can explain all that reality is and adding more and more details to a map will only make it impractical. The simile is not mine, the map-territory comparison has been there for a long time:

    The thing is that science is not reality, it can only prove or disprove scientific knowledge and not any other type of knowledge. It would be like judging a fish for its ability to climb a tree, like in the quote attributed to Einstein.

    If there only existed scientific knowledge it would be possible to reduce everything to science and science would be, or could become, a 1:1 map to reality. We wouldn’t need any other type of knowledge as we could explain everything using science. But remember that science, modern science, was “created” in the 17th century as a branch of philosophy so there must be, at least, philosophical knowledge as well.

    Science as we understand it, is based on certain assumptions. Depending on your scientific field and your philosophical inclinations this assumptions will be different. As basic assumptions you have that science is the knowledge of anything that can be observed and that you can do experiments with, and the process to acquire this knowledge. If you limit your definition of science to this, maths is not a science at all, most of physics (including astronomy and particle physics) will be mere speculation and biology, specially evolutionary biology, would be unscientific.

    You cannot use science outside its domain and you shouldn’t think that the domain of science is all that there is. You can draw a map of a territory, but there are many other ways of knowing this territory, for example using instructions (go to the cherry tree and then 10 steps west you’ll find the well), telling stories (Simba, all that the light touches is your kingdom), or even, as ants do, creating maps with pheromone trails. The usefulness of each method depends on what you want to do with it.

    My way of being constructive is to consider science as just what it is, a set of rules or a tool to obtain knowledge about a limited (and it will always be limited) part of reality.

  3. Reply Pablo Llopis (@pablollopis) Nov 6, 2012 16:42

    OK, I don’t wish to argue about names here. It seems most of your post is trying to define what science is or what is scientific knowledge, or what is a scientist. It is not really important to me if you consider Pythagoras a philosopher, or a scientist, or whatever. What matters to me is that there have been people contributing new knowledge about how our world works for a lot of time (of course, we can not start at the 17th century), so yes, you would include then-philosophers as contributors of knowledge. Whatever. Again, I do not wish to argue about names and that each of us defends a particular twist on what a word means. I take it you don’t think physics, biology and evolutionary biology are mere speculation or unscientific. Of course, sciences are not unscientific by today’s standards.

    I would like to ask you to be more precise on what you understand by non-scientific knowledge. What is it you mean is, specifically, outside the domain of science? I’m not sure I’m following you there.
    Because for me, knowledge (about how our world works) is just knowledge. It doesn’t matter if it’s a philosopher or a scientist contributing new knowledge about how this world works. I don’t see the difference between what you call scientific knowledge and philosophical knowledge. When you say it like that it sounds to me like “scientific knowledge” refers to the natural, physical world and philosophical knowledge would be answers related to morals or subjective questions which can have more than one answer and don’t add new knowledge about how the universe works.

    Maybe you refer to stuff which is not natural or physical, and which we can’t measure, observe or experiment with? I would not want to go there because it seems (to me) a waste of time. What could I possibly say about something which, by definition, is indistinguishable from something which is non-existant? Whether it exists or not, I can merely speculate, and it will get me nowhere towards knowing more about how this world works (would be a pity btw, hope it’s not the case).
    And yes, if you want to learn how this world works you absolutely have to make basic assumptions like, for example, that everything has a natural cause. So far, we can only believe and assume that is the case. But what if it isn’t. Then we can’t find out, by definition. So all we can do is stick to this, and it seems to be working every time. But we couldn’t do anything else, there is not much of a choice, really.

  4. Reply Juan Cano Nov 6, 2012 19:39

    Giving names is just a way to make it easy to communicate. We can always use the definition over and over again, but it is easier to just use the name or label.

    Your argument is a little bit incoherent. On the one hand you say that only the observable and measurable is important or is the only thing that exists, but on the other hand you accept philosophy as contributing knowledge (which is not always based on observations) and admit that there are things that science cannot explain (subjective observations, right or wrong, etc).

    Your position, if I understand correctly, is that there is nothing that is not natural or physical, and even if it existed is not important because, for you, it’s indistinguishable from something that doesn’t exist. But that is just one of many beliefs, why is it correct? Or, even better, why the rest is not correct?

    And I’m not only defending religion and spirituality, despite your rejection of it, but many branches of the sciences and a huge chunk of philosophy that don’t really fit with your worldview. There is phenomena that can be observed but not experimented with, some other phenomena you can experiment with but not observe, and there is phenomena that you cannot observe or experiment with but still exists. For example, you are assuming that everyone else in the world can think like you do, in the sense that everyone has a consciousness, but you cannot observe this “consciousness” or experiment with it. That doesn’t mean that consciousness doesn’t exist, but it means that it is not possible to study it from a scientific point of view and you still believe in it.

    In case you’re interested, your position is called materialism, there only exists matter and energy and everything else is derived from this (I may be wrong as I’m not a philosopher). There is a huge literature in philosophy that defends that point of view and they provide really good arguments. But there is also idealism, the belief that reality is nothing but a mental construction, and there is also a lot of arguments that justify this point of view and all of them are equally valid to the ones of materialists. How can you prove that this reality is not just a mental construction or that there is nothing else than matter and energy?

  5. Reply Pablo Llopis (@pablollopis) Nov 6, 2012 23:27

    No, I am not saying only the observable exists. I am only saying that if it is out of reach for science, it is because it is indistinguishable from non-existant stuff. I remain agnostic towards the existence of non-natural stuff. Therefore, even if it exists, we can not do anything about it. Nobody does, by definition no discipline will ever find out about it, because it is indistinguishable from non existant stuff. We have to work with what we have(*), and certainly can not assume its existence. Otherwise it can be measured or observed somehow. Dark matter and dark energy, perhaps the biggest misteries about what the universe is made of, come to my mind. We can not see or measure them, but because they interact with our universe, we can see their effects, and can therefore not only conclude that something unknown out there exists, but that 96% of the universe is made of that stuff.

    As for accepting philisophy as contributing knowledge, I am saying I am not fond of such labels because depending on who and when you ask, they mean different things. There were certainly scientific discoveries made before the word scientist even existed. Based on evidence which is repeatable today. Those were called philisophers. Today they would have been called mathematicians, astronomers, or whatever. My point is that I do not really care about which label you use. The point is that they did what we today refer to as science. If somebody wants to claim new knowledge about how this universe works, they better show some good evidence or proof. Otherwise they will not be taken seriously, and rightly so. Don’t you agree? This is not about belief and faith, I am talking about something which is supported by evidence,confirmed by observation or experiment. If you do not require alternatives to back up their claims with evidence, you could literally claim anything to be true. You can not disprove the flying spaguethi monster, or Thor, or Odin. That does not mean they should be treated as valid representations of reality.
    What would be, specifically, one knowledge contribution to how our world works, made in a non-scientific way? or better yet, can you think of a single contribution to our knowledge of how our universe works, or how we came to be, which is not made by science? I bet you can only find hypothesis, or can only refer to people who were called philisophers back in the day but did lots of observations or experiments. Or right out developed mathematical theorems, which are factually true (what I would call scientists).

    (*) you can, indeed, argue that all your thoughts, maybe even all matter in the universe, was created only 5 seconds ago. You can not possibly know if that is be the case. I think that is what you were referring to at the end of your last post and it is what I was referring to at the end of my postnas well. To me, that argument is a waste of time, because it defeats the purpose of any debate, argument, theory, etc.. yours and mine. Yes, we can not know if we were made 5s ago, but there are some things you just have to assume if you want to be having this debate. Asking to prove something which by definition you can’t prove is like asking to disprove non-existant stuff like the FSM. I think that path goes nowhere, it’s like giving up. Newton cited the work of god (it’s just magic, the way it is!) when he got stuck describing how planets interact with each other. Kinda sad considering a few years later somebody else figured it out. He was proven wrong, of course.

  6. Reply Juan Cano Nov 7, 2012 11:56

    I can give you an example of a contribution to how our world works made in a non-scientific way: science. But let’s build up some ideas to get to that point.

    You say that you don’t believe that only the observable exists but at the same time you demand for evidence of it’s existence. Asking for evidence is not the problem here, but that you ask for evidence in a specific way (scientific evidence) and this evidence is based on materialistic assumptions (*1). Evidence is just another way of saying “proof,” and it can come in many shapes. By restricting evidence the way you do you are taking a stance, considering real only those things that can be explained scientifically.

    Your definition of philosophy is also very limited. When I talk about philosophers I’m not referring exclusively to those who were scientists before science was defined, I’m talking about all the philosophers. There are many branches and many schools in philosophy, as in any other discipline. You have philosophy of science, of mind, of law, and some others. If you go deeper you have metaphysics, aesthetics, epistemology, teleology and others. And studying this aspects you have different approaches.

    Going to a the Wikipedia for a definition we find that philosophy “…is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument.”

    Modern science was born from some closely related schools of philosophy: materialism, empiricism, pragmatism, naturalism, positivism and many others. Before asserting that the only true knowledge about reality is the scientific knowledge you should first evaluate what is reality and what is knowledge, then we can ask what we can know about reality and how we can know about it.

    And this is the point where I started this comment: Science comes from certain assumptions that cannot be proved scientifically. These assumptions come from philosophy, from definitions of reality and knowledge that can only be verified to be true by reason. As you well said, you cannot prove something does not exist so, if you accept the idea that for scientific knowledge to be valid it must be falsifiable (as Popper suggests), you find that you cannot disprove science as you cannot prove the existence or inexistence of phenomena science can’t observe, at least not using science. It is not possible to prove the inexistence of something using science, as we agreed, and proving this phenomena exists would be a paradox as this proof would turn it into something you can study scientifically.

    (*1) This is a broad generalization. Social sciences, for example, relax this condition in many cases.

  7. Reply dovhenis Nov 8, 2013 07:56

    Comprehend Scientism’s Universe:

    What Holds In The Real World

    The Nobel Prize Committee Is Wrong. There is Definitely NO Higgs Particle. Gravitons are the elementary particles of the universe.
    Origin and nature of “may be gravitational waves” are continuously released gravitons since the last big-bang as singularity mass reconverts to energy.

    On The Essence And Matrix Of The Universe-Life
    The following three sentences are the shortest data-based TOE. Seriously. Very seriously.
    The clearer the shorter

    Natural Selection to Self-Replication is Gravity

    - Self-replication is the ultimate mode of natural selection is the essence and drive and purpose of the universe. Period.
    - The pre-Big-Bang singularity is the ultimate self-replication (SR) of the cycling mass-energy universe. Period. (mother of universal SR mode…)
    - Earth’s RNA nucleotides life is just one of the myriad modes of self-replication.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)
    -The 20yrs development, and comprehensive data-based scientism worldview, in a succinct format.
    -The Genome is a base organism evolved, and continuously modified, by the genes of its higher organism as their functional template.
    - Everything in the universe derives from mass-energy duality, from the universe cycle between its two poles all-mass/all-energy.
    - The Origin Of Gravitons is the ONLY thing unknown-unexplained in the Scientism Universe.

    PS: Spoon feeding

    The universe is a (circa 20 hillion yrs?) cyclic affair between all-mass and all-energy poles. NATURAL SELECTION of a mass format mandates energy intake because since the big-bang the resolved mass is reconverting at a constant rate from inert mass to energy, to moving mass. The mass that reconverts to energy SELF-REPLICATES to mass, in black holes, for the eventual re-singularity. The energy-to-mass SELF-REPLICATION process is GRAVITY. All this is enabled and goes on and mandated by/due to the small size and shape and inter-attraction of the gravitons that enable zero distance between them to re-form singularity. Black holes extract the gravitons from matter and store them at low energy level. Singularity is attained only ONCE per circa 20 billion years when ALL the gravitons of the universe are together at zero inter-gravitons space because it takes the totality of their combined low inter-attraction force to form the universal singularity.

    I hope that now it is understood what gravity is and why it is the monotheism of the universe…DH
    Black Holes Whence and Whither

    Black Holes Whence

    Galactic clusters formed by conglomeration?
    No. Galactic clusters formed by Big-Bang’s fragments dispersion, the released built-in singularity’s stresses, evidenced by their Newtonian behavior including their separation acceleration.

    The big bang is the shattering of the short-lived singularity mass into fragments that later became galactic clusters. This is inflation. The shattering is the start of movement of the shatters i.e. the start of reconversion of mass into energy, which is mass in motion. This reconversion proceeds at a constant rate since the big bang as the resolution of gravitons, their release from their shatters-clusters, proceeds at constant rate due to their weak specific force due to their small size.

    Black Holes Whither


    A commonsensible conjecture is that Universe Contraction is initiated following the Big-Bang event, as released moving gravitons (energy) start reconverting to mass (gravity) and eventually returning to black holes, steadily leading to the re-formation of The Universe Singularity, simultaneously with the inflation and expansion, i.e. that universal expansion and contraction are going on simultaneously.

    Conjectured implications are that the Universe is a product of A Single Universal Black Hole with an extremely brief singularity of ALL the gravitons of the universe, which is feasible and possible and mandated because gravitation is a very weak force due to the small size of the gravitons, the primal mass-energy particles of the universe.

    This implies also that when all the mass of the presently expanding universe is consumed by the present black holes, expansion will cease and be replaced with empansion back to THE Single Universal Black Hole.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)


    The Universe, Some Updates

    What Big Banged To Produce The Universe
    From :
    A commonsensible conjecture is that Universe Contraction is initiated following the Big-Bang event, as released moving gravitons (energy) start reconverting to mass (gravity) and eventually returning to black holes, steadily leading to the re-formation of The Universe Singularity, simultaneously with the inflation and expansion, i.e. that universal expansion and contraction are going on simultaneously.
    Conjectured implications are that the Universe is a product of A Single Universal Black Hole with an extremely brief singularity of ALL the gravitons of the universe, which is feasible and possible and mandated because gravitation is a very weak force due to the small size of the gravitons, the primal mass-energy particles of the universe.
    This implies also that when all the mass of the presently expanding universe is collected and stored at very low energy level in black holes, expansion will cease and be replaced with empansion back to THE Single Universal Black Hole.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)


    Universe Inflation And Expansion

    Inflation on Trial
    Astrophysicists interrogate one of their most successful theories
    Inflation and expansion are per Newton.
    Since the Big Bang galactic clusters loose mass at constant rate. Mass, gravitons, continue escaping at constant rate from their Big Bang fragments-clusters thus becoming energy, mass in motion, thus thrusting the clusters. Constant thrust and decreasing galactic clusters weight accelerate the separation of clusters from each other.
    Common sense.
    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)

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