It's Maps All the Way Down
An attempt to tie together a bunch of disparate ideas about minds and reality
Hi! Please, tell me how I am wrong! I share this idea with the hopes that readers will poke holes it in and tell me where this idea is inconsistent with itself, or incompatible with the Territory. The official disclaimer applies: I’m not any expert, just someone trying to integrate as many different accurate-feeling partial maps as I can find. The kindest thing you can do for me is to politely tell me where I’m wrong. Thank you!
There is only one Territory.
The territory lives mostly outside of my mind, although the contents of my mind are also part of the territory, because there is only one territory.
A “map” is an element of the Territory which exhibits some amount of symmetry with some portion of the Territory.
All maps are partial
Perfect map-territory alignment is impossible to achieve for any single map, because no map can accurately, and completely, represent the gap between that map and the territory. Only the Territory contains itself in toto. A map can attempt to represent the gaps between itself and the Territory, but any attempt to do so will either be inconsistent or incomplete.
Human brainsare mapping mechanisms. Our senses add details to our internal maps continuously. Our brains attempt to construct stable, accurate maps of the Territory, which includes the world outside of our physiology, as well as the control structures within our physiology.
Emotions arise as our map attempts to converge to reality, as new information is added to the map. Conflict occurs when a map is inconsistent with itself.
Emotions have a valence: positive or negative. Our maps move towards positive feelings, and away from negative feelings.Conflict - inconsistencies in our maps - often feels unpleasant (i.e. has a negative valence).
Our brains attempt to move away from the negative feeling induced by conflict, either by changing the position of physiology (distracting ourselves, looking away, walking away, running away) or else by adding, removing, or modifying existing beliefs.
Our needs, wants and drives are encoded as expected properties of the territory, which is why we feel a sense of conflict when we perceive that our needs are not met. Sometimes, the conflict between expectations of the territory, and the territory itself is resolved by changing the territory. I suspect this is how most animals operate; a genetically hard-coded map of expectations controls their behavior, with, maps that encode effective strategies for surviving and thriving winning out over time.
Our maps are made of predictive symbols, or concepts, that encode expectations about the territory. These symbols are connected to each other by means of directed edges representing expectations. Abstract symbols generate more concrete expectations. The symbols are arranged in a web of belief, with tiny sensory details being at the very edges of the web, and abstract concepts towards the center.
This web of beliefs acts something like a spring-and-mass system, with concepts being masses, and springs being predictive beliefs that relate the concepts to each other by means of expected constraints on relationships. The level of tension in the springs corresponds to the rigidity of the expectations. Sensory signals flow from the outermost edges of the web, inwards, while expected constraint signals flow both form the center out (as extremely abstract concepts like ‘reality’, ‘truth’ generate broad-based predictions), and laterally along all the constraints encoded in the web of belief.
Humans have the unique property that we can also adjust our maps to better reflect the territory. One thing which separates us from animals is our capacity to represent, reason about, and modify our own maps. Our maps are recursive; they can represent themselves.
Adjusting the map to match the territory can require less total energy than changing the territory. Adjusting the map also allows for a kind of ‘cheaper, faster’ evolution whereby a single human being learns and grows and develops a more accurate map over time. Many philosophies encourage this sort of behavior.
However, because the maps in our brains are physical objects, they constantly follow their equation of motion and thus move along energy gradients toward their lowest energy state. If accurately representing some aspect of present reality increases the conflicts in the map, it might be a lower energy move to simply ignore the aspect of present reality, or to mis-represent it. Wishful thinking does add some conflict but it may reduce the global conflict in the belief network.
This kind of adjustment is impossible for maps which do not include some representation of their own likelihood of being flawed and incomplete. Adjusting the map to reflect the territory also has the risk of introducing inconsistencies in the map. This can be scary, because most (all?) of the time we are hurt or injured, an inaccurate map is responsible. Thus, changing our maps can be a risky operation, and we represent that risk as part of the map itself.
I think this last part is critical and poorly understood. I think if we want people to be more rational, they have to feel safe, loved, and valued for who they are, independent of what they believe or what groups they are part of. If people don’t feel safe in a conversation or situation, they are unlikely to change their beliefs about that conversation or situation, because changing beliefs is often a risky thing to do.
I’ve got far more I want to say about this. But the theory, at this point, seems to have enough meat to it that I’m hoping readers can poke holes in it, tell me where I’m wrong and what I don’t understand. Thank you!
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Call it whatever you want. Some call it physical reality, some call it truth, some call it the multiverse, some call it God. Call it whatever you want, but there is only one territory. The territory includes all mathematical truths, either because you take Platonism as a given, or because the portion of the territory corresponding to the behavior of the physical objects called computers can only be accurately in toto understood by constructing a complete map of all mathematical truth.
This is true by definition: a map is anything which reflects the territory.
Beliefs are partial maps - fragmented representations of portions of the Territory. Belief systems are merely assemblages of beliefs, i.e. big partial maps made from smaller partial maps.
See Godel’s Incompleteness theorems. See also the notion of ‘sin.’ If we believe that our maps are totally accurate reflections of reality, this will feel true to us, but it won’t actually be true. Only maps that include accurate representations of their limits and gaps can avoid inconsistency with the territory.
Remember, i’m not a neuroscientist or anything of the sort. I’m just reading a bunch of different descriptions of brains from various plausible sources, and attempting to combine those partial maps with the partial map including my own experience.
They likely arise elsewhere, but at the very least they arise when new information is written into the maps in our brains.
Or, when a map is inconsistent with reality. The map-territory mismatch causes conflict when the map is unable to coverage stably with the stream of new information being written to the map by means of the senses. But a mind can avoid this sense of conflict simply by never moving its person towards parts of the territory that would cause their senses to generate signals that conflict with their map. We call this ‘wishful thinking.’
My own experience is that is also a natural base emotion, something like ‘present, peaceful happiness’ which arises when I manage to sit still long enough that all the striving towards good things and away from bad things settles down. This feels very much like watching a spring-and-mass system settle down, or watching a model converge.
This is a pure hypothesis on my part, based upon extrapolating from what I’ve read here.
Desire is a kind of conflict that feels good, (i.e. positive valence), with the good causing us to move towards a perceived external reward.
Really enjoyed this! Thanks for writing it up. I'd love to see some more links out to sources (e.g. was surprised to see an article on map vs territory that doesn't mention https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Korzybski)
A few things stood out:
> There is only one Territory
You could call this true by definition, but it's interesting to consider ways it might be untrue. Could there be several, causally-disconnected territories out there? Could reality be composed of many disparate but overlapping subjective realities, as Schrödinger thought ?
> no map can accurately, and completely, represent the gap between that map and the territory
There's a great Borges story about a map that completely covers its territory. Fantasy, obviously, but worth a read! I think you'd like Borges in general.
> However, because the maps in our brains are physical objects, they constantly follow their equation of motion and thus move along energy gradients toward their lowest energy state
Is this true? People are open systems (we literally ingest energy), and most physical laws are stated in ways that assume closed systems. We certainly don't just follow the energy gradient--we're able to kick ourselves out of local minimal pretty easily. Otherwise I'd never get off this couch!
If you wanted to model a person as a (closed) physical system moving through a phase space, you'd probably have to include the Sun.
> Emotions have a valence: positive or negative. Our maps move towards positive feelings, and away from negative feelings. Conflict - inconsistencies in our maps - often feels unpleasant (i.e. has a negative valence).
> Our brains attempt to move away from the negative feeling induced by conflict, either by changing the position of physiology (distracting ourselves, looking away, walking away, running away) or else by adding, removing, or modifying existing beliefs.
I assume you're getting at something like Predictive Coding here. I disagree that we avoid conflict--we actually seek it out! We actively look for information that rests on the edge of predictability. We _really_ like surprise that can be integrated into our maps, the bigger the surprise the better (e.g. misdirection in humor, horror movies, doom scrolling...pretty much all media).
See also: https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/jhanas-and-the-dark-room-problem
As above, so below. As within, so without. All is mind.