The Map is Not the Territory

Someone told me that an expert is someone who knows a lot about a very narrow area of human experience. He went on to say that as we go through life developing more and more understanding of our chosen subject, we would be getting to know more and more about less and less and in the end, we could finish up knowing everything about nothing.

Besides being rather funny, I think that statement also contains a nugget of truth. As we get to know more and more, it seems that somewhere along the way, we may eventually come to realise that we really don’t know very much at all and even the stuff we thought that we did know, we may come to realise, is at least debatable.

Perhaps reaching that point is a part of what it takes to become a bit wiser because once you realise that you are really not so well informed, you will simultaneously become less prepared to staunchly defend any particular idea. You will be more inclined to believe that the other person has a valid point and, hopefully, you will be more prepared to respect such views when they differ from your own.

Personally, I don’t think that everyone necessarily reaches that point in their own development. In some cases, I think people become more entrenched in their views as they get older. The reason, I think, is that they have stopped the process of ‘map-making’ and they now blindly trust the maps they have already made.

By ‘map-making’, I refer to the business of creating approximations of reality within our mind. They are the internal models and schemas to which we refer when making decisions about what actions to take in life. We make them and continually refine them over the course of time and then we come to trust them. Of course, they are not right, they are only approximations, but they serve us well and so we may sometimes be inclined to confuse the map and the territory.

As you get older, I hope that you will continue to learn. I hope that you will continue to refine your maps recognising that they are only approximations and they can always be improved. I hope that you will never get to the stage where you are sitting there pontificating to some youngster about what you know to be the truth when, in reality, you don’t.

You really only know what you believe to be true and that amounts to opinion. There is nothing wrong with having an opinion, of course, and there is nothing wrong in sharing it with those who are genuinely interested in hearing it. But remember that your opinion, no matter how well crafted and carefully formed, is still that – an opinion. Other people are entitled to theirs too.

3 thoughts on “The Map is Not the Territory

  1. I seem to remember that old joke – mentioned by Carl Sagan (?): The scientist’s field gets so narrow that he ends up knowing everything about near nothingness, while the philosopher’s field gets so wide he ends up knowing nearly nothing about everything.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Over the years, I’ve found this to be so true. Arguing about points of view is a waste of time.

    Also with the advance of technology, I find my scope of what I can know is very narrow but as I research to expand my knowledge, I’m loving every minute of it.

  3. Excellent points you made here, Will! About ten or so years ago(maybe when I turned 40), I thought about all the knowledge I gained on the various subject I’m interested in and also the opinions I wove out of them as well. My realization? “The more I know, the more I realize that there is way more that I don’t know and probably will always be that way.” It floored me and also helped me realize that it’s okay and to start assessing what is worth sharing and what isn’t. To pick and choose my battles and let go of “defending” my position. If it concerns what happens to me, I am learning to stand up for it. If it’s just a difference of opinion, I let it go. Thanks for the great topic!’
    Love and Light,

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