Many maps, Lightly held

Origi­nal post: http://​​bear­​​many-maps-lightly-held/​​

Many maps, lightly held.

As de­scribed in The fox and the hedge­hog, among other places (munger, sys­tems think­ing). This post holds the the­ory state­ment above quite “strong”, to try to clar­ify the need for it. It does not ap­ply in some places. For ex­am­ple grav­ity. It would be difficult to hold grav­ity lightly al­though it’s a neat thought ex­per­i­ment to won­der how brains and think­ing might de­velop differ­ently in a place that didn’t have (al­most perfectly) uniform grav­ity.

I wish I could say the con­cept of many maps, lightly held was men­tioned in Lens that sees it’s flaws– but it was not. I be­lieve many maps would fit that post if it were around at the time.


A group of blind men heard that a strange an­i­mal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of cu­ri­os­ity, they said: “We must in­spect and know it by touch, of which we are ca­pa­ble”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first per­son, whose hand landed on the trunk, said “This be­ing is like a thick snake”. For an­other one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for an­other per­son, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, de­scribed it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stat­ing the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.

If I was a blind man feel­ing at an elephant, I’d need the prin­ci­ple of many maps to make sense of the world and the in­for­ma­tion it pre­sented. How can the elephant be both a rope and a spear and a wall? Many maps. Lightly held.


When the platy­pus was first en­coun­tered by Euro­peans in 1798, a pelt and sketch were sent back to Great Bri­tain by Cap­tain John Hunter, the sec­ond Gover­nor of New South Wales. Bri­tish sci­en­tists’ ini­tial hunch was that the at­tributes were a hoax. Ge­orge Shaw, who pro­duced the first de­scrip­tion of the an­i­mal in the Nat­u­ral­ist’s Mis­cel­lany in 1799, stated it was im­pos­si­ble not to en­ter­tain doubts as to its gen­uine na­ture, and Robert Knox be­lieved it might have been pro­duced by some Asian taxi­der­mist. It was thought that some­body had sewn a duck’s beak onto the body of a beaver-like an­i­mal. Shaw even took a pair of scis­sors to the dried skin to check for stitches.– Wikipe­dia page for platy­pus.


Iden­tity, Archetypes, Roles (mother, teacher, boss). A per­son can hold many masks in the cat­e­gories of iden­tities, archetypes or roles. This is an im­por­tant and valuable fea­ture: to be able to sub­scribe to a cat­e­gory. The phrase, “I am a ra­tio­nal­ist”, offers a lot of in­for­ma­tion. Paul gra­ham­sug­gests, “peo­ple can never have a fruit­ful ar­gu­ment about some­thing that’s part of their iden­tity. By defi­ni­tion they’re par­ti­san”.


In philo­soph­i­cal re­al­ism, there is a prob­lem be­tween the split of the in­for­ma­tion that can be found in­side the brain and the in­for­ma­tion out­side the brain. If we rely only on in­for­ma­tion out­side the brain, then we are propos­ing that the in­for­ma­tion in­side the brain is en­tirely use­less. We should col­lect ex­ter­nal in­for­ma­tion and ig­nore in­ter­nal in­for­ma­tion. This feels like a dan­ger­ous trap, there are far too many de­pressed peo­ple to fol­low ex­ter­nal-only rea­son­ing. If we imag­ine we live in a chi­nese room, we can’t pos­si­bly know if re­al­ity is true – through our cam­era eye­balls and other sen­sory de­vices, for all we know we could be liv­ing in a simu­la­tion. But this doesn’t feel like a com­plete pic­ture ei­ther.


A short ex­per­i­ment in mys­ti­cism. Hold your breath. For as long as you can. While you do that, watch your per­cep­tion of the world. Watch as it gets heav­ier, denser, feel the red­ness in the face, feel the ten­sion of the pres­sure on the chest. Feel the sense of re­al­ity clos­ing in. And whichever other per­cep­tions you no­ticed by test­ing out this state of ex­pe­rience. Science would hap­pily talk about the (up­per right quad­rant) phe­nom­ena of the body. The car­bon diox­ide build up, the oxy­gen de­ple­tion, the heart rate change, the body tem­per­a­ture change. Oh sci­ence! Beau­tiful sci­ence! I love sci­ence. Science is hid­ing some­thing in­ter­est­ing here be­hind known maps. Yes, I know the ob­jec­tive maps of what hap­pens when I hold my breath. But do I know the sub­jec­tive map? What hap­pens to my in­te­rior sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience when I hold my breath, when I med­i­tate, when I am un­der stress, when I have an un­healthy diet? How do I know and deal with the sub­jec­tive with­out know­ing the sub­jec­tive in great de­tail? (and I don’t get the knowl­edge of the sub­jec­tive from only try­ing out hold­ing my breath, al­though it is a neat ex­per­i­ment).


The fable of the ra­tio­nal vam­pire. (I wish I had a link to credit the au­thor). The ra­tio­nal vam­pire ca­su­ally goes through life ra­tio­nal­is­ing away the symp­toms – “I’m aller­gic to gar­lic”, “I just don’t like the sun”. “It’s im­po­lite to go into some­one’s home un­in­vited, I’d be mor­tified if I did that”. “I don’t take self­ies” and on it goes. Con­stant ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tion.

Each of these prob­lems NEEDS many maps. To es­cape the trap of the flawed lens, I need to be rest­ing in a world of many pos­si­ble lenses. I need to be will­ing to hy­poth­e­sise and en­ter­tain that I am a vam­pire, ex­plain­ing away my symp­toms as if they were aller­gies and prefer­ences, As well as the con­cept of be­ing aller­gic to gar­lic. The ter­ri­tory only has one ex­pla­na­tion but there are many pos­si­ble maps.

I need to be will­ing to con­sider that I am a brain in a box some­where – and all the sig­nals of the real world are ir­rele­vant. And! Still eat healthy be­cause in the case that I do live in the re­al­ism world, I need to be pre­pared for that too.

I need to be will­ing to pet the elephant ear, and the elephant trunk and be­lieve it’s one an­i­mal if the ev­i­dence says so.

I need to live in the world where I am skep­ti­cal of the ex­is­tence of platy­puses and will­ing to check for stitches but also live in a world where it’s pos­si­ble to be­lieve in their ex­is­tence at the same time.

If I want to ex­ist above iden­tities, I need to be will­ing to be not just my iden­tity, but ev­ery other iden­tity too. I need to be able to safely go to the places of un­com­fortable iden­tities and won­der why peo­ple oc­cupy them. I need to know that I can never take off some of these masks but at least I can know that I am wear­ing them.

How many maps, lightly held, do I use ev­ery day…