The Territory

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of hiking in the wilderness with a map and compass but no cell service. I recommend it, if you haven’t.

I somehow did not quite all-the-way understand what a map even is until I was lost on my own under these circumstances. I knew in a “factual knowledge” sense that maps were drawings of the land, and I’d even used them as a kid and teenager to help my family navigate on road trips. But when I was lost in a national park, trying to find my way back to my car, I confronted the incompleteness of my knowledge of maps. There was a shift.

My map had trail lines drawn on it, with labels like “Canyon Trail”. I’d pause my walking to look at the shape of “Canyon Trail”, noting that it intersected “Overlook Trail” somewhere off to the left of where I was standing. Then I would walk again—attempting, I think, to “follow Canyon Trail to Overlook Trail”.

I would move back and forth between walking and map consultation, making sure I remembered which way the trails were supposed to go, constantly placing and replacing myself within the borders of the lines drawn on the paper. The more distressed I felt about being lost, the more often I turned to the map, looking for something to hold on to.

The shift happened after… (this is sort of embarrassing, it’s so simple. But it’s true.) The shift happened after, having oriented myself toward “North”, I happened to lower the map a little bit, probably out of exhaustion. I held it a bit below eye level, so that it was no longer taking up my whole field of vision.

I looked at the squiggly blue line on the map, and the close-together lines that I knew indicated steepness. And I saw to my left, because the map was not blocking my vision, a creek. Up ahead, I saw a steep hill.

I realized that the blue line was probably a drawing of that creek.

The contour lines were a drawing of that hill.

And then this wild rushing sensation began to wash over me. I was starting to get it. Slowly, I tilted the paper in my hands from a vertical position, partially blocking my view... a horizontal position, parallel to the ground.

I held the map that way, looking out at the world the cartographer had tried to draw, and it was as though the territory rose up to meet the map, while the map spread itself across the surface of the territory. And I said to myself, “It’s a picture!”

For the first time, I understood in a practical way that a map is meant to be a top-down picture of the real world.

Before I had this realization, I wasn’t behaving as though I knew myself to be in the territory, using the map as a tool. I was acting as if I were traversing the map, using my body as a kind of clunky video game controller. I had been treating the map as the terrain I “really” had to navigate.

But once I stopped playing that game, and started actually traversing the forest I was in, things went very differently. I spent most of my time looking at creeks and trees and hills, making sure I knew how the real world around me was shaped. And from that perspective, I looked down at the map to help me predict what I’d see next.

And I found my car shortly thereafter.

There are ways to increase some kinds of knowledge that largely involve staring at maps. Perhaps your own map is not clearly labeled in places, or it’s somehow inconsistent with itself, or it doesn’t match the map of an expert.

This is why it’s often valuable to clearly articulate your beliefs, even just to yourself. It’s valuable to ask yourself what you expect, and to notice when you feel confused about that. It’s valuable to ask other people what they think, or to read their books and blog posts, especially when you have reason to believe they know important things that you don’t.

But the main thing a cartographer ought to be focused on, the vast majority of the time, is the world itself.

I started studying “original seeing”, on purpose and by that name, in 2018. What stood out to me about my earliest exploratory experiments in original seeing is how alien the world is.

I don’t mean that reality is weird or surprising. Nothing weird has ever happened, and all of that. What I mean is… well, I think I should actually grab an Eliezer quote here:

Human intuitions were produced by evolution and evolution is a hack. The same optimization process that built your retina backward and then routed the optic cable through your field of vision, also designed your visual system to process persistent objects bouncing around in 3 spatial dimensions because that’s what it took to chase down tigers. But “tigers” are leaky surface generalizations—tigers came into existence gradually over evolutionary time, and they are not all absolutely similar to each other. When you go down to the fundamental level, the level on which the laws are stable, global, and exception-free, there aren’t any tigers. In fact there aren’t any persistent objects bouncing around in 3 spatial dimensions.

I started my earliest experimentation with some brute-force phenomenology. I picked up an object, set it on the table in front of me, and progressively stripped away layers of perception as I observed it. It was one of these things:

I wrote, “It’s a SIM card ejection tool.”

I wrote some things about its shape and color and so forth (it was round and metal, with a pointy bit on one end); and while I noted those perceptions, I tried to name some of the interpretations my mind seemed to be engaging in as I went.

As I identified the interpretations, I deliberately loosened my grip on them: “I notice that what I perceive as ‘shadows’ needn’t be places where the object blocks rays of light; the ‘object’ could be two-dimensional, drawn on a surface with the appropriate areas shaded around it.”

I noticed that I kept thinking in terms of what the object is for, so I loosened my grip on the utility of the object, mainly by naming many other possible uses. I imagined inserting the pointy part into soil to sow tiny snapdragon seeds, etching my name on a rock, and poking an air hole in the top of a plastic container so the liquid contents will pour out more smoothly. I’ve actually ended up keeping this SIM card tool on a keychain, not so I can eject SIM trays from phones, but because it’s a great stim; I can tap it like the tip of a pencil, but without leaving dots of graphite on my finger.

I loosened my grip on several preconceptions about how the object behaves, mainly by making and testing concrete predictions, some of which turned out to be wrong. For example, I expected it to taste sharp and “metallic”, but in fact I described the flavor of the surface as “calm, cool, perhaps lightly florid”.

By the time I’d had my fill of this proto-exercise, my relationship to the object had changed substantially. I wrote:

My perceptions that seem related to the object feel very distinct from whatever is out there impinging on my senses. … I was going to simply look at a SIM card tool, and now I want to wrap my soul around this little region of reality, a region that it feels disrespectful to call a ‘SIM card tool’. Why does it feel disrespectful? Because ‘SIM card tool’ is how I use it, and my mind is trained on the distance between how I relate to my perceptions of it, and what it is.

There aren’t any tigers, and there aren’t any SIM card tools, either. It now feels… almost disgusting, to me, to lose sight of that. Disgusting like thinking of trees only as “lumber”, and cutting down entire rainforests as a result.

Which doesn’t mean it’s useless to conceptualize tigers and so forth. It absolutely is useful and correct. The purpose of cartography is to draw cartoon pictures that are relatively useful to travelers, and certain features of the cartoon pictures need to correspond to the real-world not-actually-”tigers” to be useful. There exist for-real regions (or properties, or patterns) of the territory itself that it makes sense to call “tigers”, as long as that concept is doing the right stuff, such as paying rent in anticipated experiences.

But ever since I began my study of original seeing—ever since observing the so-called “SIM card tool”—it has felt a little different for me to use the word “territory”.

I think that before, when I said “the territory”, I must have accidentally meant something like “the much bigger map; the thing I’m drawing a map of, which is basically like my map but a lot more complex”.

Now I mean something like, “The thing that is made of something other than my own perceptions and interpretations. The thing that resists my expectations, according to its own rules. The thing that does not care what I think, or what I have happened to imagine.”

In the sentence, “Knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation,” what I mean by “territory” is “the thing that is made of something other than my own perceptions and interpretations”.

Knowing [the thing that is made of something other than your own perceptions and interpretations] takes patient and direct observation.

Next, there will be a short interlude on realness, and what it feels like to lower the map. Then I’ll talk about observation of the territory.