The Map-Territory Distinction Creates Confusion

LessWrong isn’t exactly founded on the map-territory model of truth, but it’s definitely pretty core to the LessWrong worldview. The map-territory model implies a correspondence theory of truth. But I’d like to convince you that the map-territory model creates confusion and that the correspondence theory of truth, while appealing, makes unnecessary claims that infect your thinking with extraneous metaphysical assumptions. Instead we can see what’s appealing about the map-territory metaphor but drop most of it in favor of a more nuanced and less confused model of how we know about the world.

The map-territory metaphor goes something like this: a map is a representation of some part of the world—a territory. The mind that models the world via thoughts can be said to create a map of the territory of reality. Thus, under the map-territory model, beliefs are true if they represent what we actually find when we investigate the territory directly. Or, if you want to add some nuance, the map is more accurate and thus closer to being true the better it represents the territory.

The map-territory model implies a correspondence theory of truth. That is, it’s a theory of truth that says propositions are true to the extent they accurately represent reality. On the surface this seems reasonable. After all, the process of finding out what the world is like feels a lot like drawing a map of reality: you collect evidence, build a model, check the model against more evidence, iterate until the model is good enough for whatever you’re doing, and if the model seems like it matches all the evidence you can throw at it, we might call the model true. But there are problems with correspondence theories of truth. I’ll focus on the one that I think is the worst: unnecessary, metaphysical claims.

In order to set up a correspondence between map and territory and judge truth based on the accuracy of that correspondence, there must be an assumption that there is something we call “the territory” and that in some way we can construct a map that points to it. Whatever we think the territory is, we must presume it exists prior to establishing a criterion for truth because if we don’t have a territory to check against we have no way to assess how well the map corresponds to it. Two common versions of the territory assumption are the materialist version (there’s an external physical reality we observe) and the idealist version (there’s an external source of pure form that grounds our reasoning). Both are metaphysical assumptions in that they are being made prior to having established a way to reckon their truth.

Nota Bene: Just so there’s no misunderstanding, neither materialism nor idealism need be metaphysical assumptions. Questions about materialism and idealism can be investigated via standard methods if we don’t presuppose them. It’s only that a correspondence theory of truth forces these to become metaphysical assumptions by making our notion of truth depend on assuming something about the nature of reality to ground our criterion of truth.

What alternative theory of truth can we use if not a correspondence one? There’s a few options, but I’ll simply consider my favorite here in the interest of time: predicted experience. That is, rather than assuming that there is some external territory to be mapped and that the accuracy of that mapping is how we determine if a mapping (a proposition) is true or not, we can ground truth in our experience since it’s the only thing we are really forced to assume (see the below aside for why). Then propositions or beliefs are true to the extent they predict what we experience.

This lets us remove metaphysical claims about the nature of reality from our epistemology, and by the principle of parsimony we should because additional assumptions are liabilities that make it strictly more likely that we’re mistaken.

Aside: Why are we forced to assume our experiences are true? Some people have a notion of doubting their own experience, but all such doubting must happen due to evidence we collect from our experience unless you believe some form of dualism where our minds have direct, special access to truth outside experience (which, I would argue, is an unnecessary assumption, since we can come to believe we have such special access merely by experience). Thus any idea that our experience might not be reality is actually the result of creating models based on evidence collected from sense data and thus that idea already assumes that experience is in some way revealing truth. I think more often people are confounding direct sense experience with experience of one’s models of experience, for example confounding raw visual data for the shapes, patterns, etc. our brains automatically pull out for us, and thus often feel like one’s models are ground truth even though they are additional calculations performed by our brains atop raw sense data. If we strip all that away, all we are left with is the sensory input that comes into our minds, and even if we come to believe we’re psychotic, living in a simulation, or Boltzmann brains, it’s still the case that we know that via sense data we trusted enough to come to that conclusion, and so we must trust experience because it’s simply how our brains work.

Under this model, we can rehabilitate the map-territory metaphor. The map is predictions, the territory is experience, including experience of predictions, and truth is found in the ability of the map to predict what we find in the territory of experience. This rehabilitation is useful in that it helps us show that abandoning a correspondence theory of truth need not mean we abandon what we intuitively knew to be useful about the map-territory metaphor, but also points out that truth doesn’t work quite the way the metaphor naively implies.

But should we keep the map-territory metaphor around? It depends on what you want to do. I think the map-territory distinction is mostly useful for pointing out a class of epistemological errors that involve confusing thoughts for reality (cf. failures of high modernism, The Secret, and cognitive fusion). I don’t think it’s a great choice, though, for a model of how truth-making happens, because as we’ve seen it depends on making unnecessary, metaphysical assumptions. It also causes confusion because its metaphor suggests there’s some separation between map and territory (people sometimes try to correct this by saying something like “the map is not the territory, but the map is in the territory”).

In fact, despite my arguments above for why the map-territory model and a correspondence theory of truth are insufficiently parsimonious, I think the real reason you should not lean too hard on the map-territory model is because it can cause confusion in your own mind. By creating a separation between map and territory, we introduce dualism and imply a split between the machinery of our minds and the reality they predict. Although we’re clever enough not to regularly drop anvils on our heads (although given our willingness to deny reality when it’s painful, you might debate this claim), we’re not quite so clever as to never get wrapped up in all kinds of confusions because we start thinking our model of reality is more real than reality itself (cf. seeking truth too hard, generally Goodharting yourself, humans dissociating all the time, and confusion about causality).

Thus we’re better off using the map-territory distinction only as a way to point out a class of problems, not as a general model for how we reason about the truth. What we actually seem to do to find truth is more subtle and less satisfying an answer perhaps than “drawing maps”, but it also better reflects the embedded nature of our existence.

Thanks to Justis for useful feedback on an earlier draft of this essay via the LW feedback service.