Map Errors: The Good, The Bad, and The Territory

What hap­pens when your map doesn’t match the ter­ri­tory?

There’s one as­pect of this that’s po­ten­tially very helpful to be­com­ing a ra­tio­nal­ist, and one as­pect that’s very dan­ger­ous. The good out­come is that you could un­der­stand map er­rors more deeply; the dan­ger­ous out­come is that you could wind up stuck some­where awful, with no easy way out.

The first ver­sion, where you no­tice that the map is wrong, comes when the map is un­de­ni­ably lo­cally wrong. The map says the path con­tinues here, but in­stead there’s a cliff. (Your be­liefs strongly pre­dict some­thing, and the op­po­site hap­pens.)

The or­di­nary re­sult is that you scratch out and re­draw that part of the map – or dis­card it and pick up an en­tirely differ­ent map – and con­tinue along the new path that looks best. (You de­cide you were wrong on that one point with­out ques­tion­ing any re­lated be­liefs, or you con­vert to a com­pletely differ­ent be­lief sys­tem which was cor­rect on that point.)

The re­ally valuable pos­si­bil­ity is that you re­al­ize that there are prob­a­bly other er­rors be­sides the one you’ve seen, and prob­a­bly un­seen er­rors on the other available maps as well; you start to be­come more care­ful about trust­ing your maps so com­pletely, and you pay a bit more at­ten­tion to the ter­ri­tory around you.

This is a re­ally im­por­tant for­ma­tive ex­pe­rience for many ra­tio­nal­ists:

  • Take ideas se­ri­ously enough to no­tice and care if they fail

  • Get smacked in the face with an Ob­vi­ous But False Belief: your past self couldn’t have imag­ined you were wrong about this, and yet here we are.

  • Deeply in­ter­nal­ize that one’s sense of ob­vi­ous­ness can­not be trusted, and that one has to find ways of be­ing way more re­li­able where it mat­ters.

(For me the Ob­vi­ous But False Belief was about re­li­gion; for oth­ers it was poli­tics, or an aca­demic field, or even their own iden­tity.)


Now, the dan­ger­ous out­come – get­ting trapped in a dis­mal swamp, with es­cape very difficult – comes when you’ve not seen an un­de­ni­able lo­cal map failure, so that you never no­tice (or never have to ad­mit) that the map isn’t match­ing up very well with the ter­ri­tory, un­til it’s too late.

(I’m think­ing of mak­ing ma­jor life de­ci­sions badly, where you don’t no­tice or ad­mit the prob­lem un­til you’re trapped in a situ­a­tion where ev­ery op­tion is a dis­aster of some sort.)

Some­times you re­ally do need to make bold plans based on your be­liefs; how can you do so with­out tak­ing a big risk of end­ing up in a swamp?

I sug­gest that you should en­sure things look at least de­cent, ac­cord­ing to a more “nor­mal” map, while try­ing to do very well on yours. That is, make sure that your bold plan fails grace­fully if the more nor­mal wor­ld­view around you is cor­rect. (Set up your can’t-miss startup such that you’re back to the grind if it fails, not in debt to the Mob if it fails.)

And get ad­vice. Always get ad­vice from peo­ple you trust and re­spect, be­fore do­ing some­thing very un­com­mon. I could try and fit this into the map frame­work, but it’s just com­mon sense, and way too many good peo­ple fail to do it re­gard­less.

Best of luck ad­ven­tur­ing out there!