Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Map and the Territory

One way of looking at the world is that there is this thing out there, called reality, that is not directly accessible but that we can suss out with the help of our senses.  Things like persistence and predictability are indicators of reality.  This is how we know a dream isn't real:  it doesn't follow the ordinary rules and it doesn't persist.  As fallible humans we may only deal in models that approximate reality, but there is something out there that we are (one hopes) asymptotically approaching.

Another way of looking at things is that "reality" is a kind of tag that we put on things when they are persistent, predictable, etc.  These are not indicators of reality, they constitute reality.  A dream that is persistent is not a dream.  (We are inclined to think that dreams don't matter, and so a persistent dream would still be just a dream.  But I think that is only because they rarely matter instrumentally—we can't navigate them, and we wake up soon.  But dreams do matter to us directly.  They can terrify us, they can give us orgasms.  We would have no reason to discount a persistent, rule-bound dream the way we do our ordinary dreams.)  Our models are "imperfect," but that is because of our limited resources, not because they are "only" models.  A perfect model wouldn't be a reflection of reality, it would be reality.  By way of analogy:  A life-size, fully-functioning model of the United States is not a model.  It is the United States.

(I want to emphasize that none of this is remotely original.)

I think the stakes are only metaphysical.  But it strikes me that my preferences, my values, my desires...  these things are not real in any sense.  They are not persistent, and they resist prediction.  They might as well be dreams.  Of course this is true to some degree for everyone.  But it feels as though I especially don't have a center, anything that grounds my identity and makes me human.  Moment to moment, it's like walking through a dream.  What desires should I try to satisfy?  What plans should I make?  It barely seems to matter.  Everything will have changed anyway.  "All changed, changed utterly."  It's as if we could only build bridges at a geological pace—the river will be gone by the time we are done, or it will have swept us away.


Anonymous Colin McGinn said...

Here’s a question I’d like to see discussed: Can there be a theory of everything? I don’t just mean it in the physicist’s sense, where it concerns unifying quantum theory and relativity. I mean a single theory of the physical world, the biological world, the psychological world, and whatever other worlds you might think exist (mathematical, ethical, esthetic, social, and so on). Could all these domains be brought under a unitary empirical theory? The idea sounds very dubious to me. But why exactly?

3:13 PM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

One subtlety is that the division between map and territory is contextual for us. My memories are part of my map of the world -- they are representations. But they can also be the object of (meta-, if you like) representation.

Your skull is a boundary of convenience rather than one of principle. The map-territory distinction carves both sides.

The thought extends to the flavors of external world skepticism. Just as you can always worry that your external world perceptions are dreams, you(r prefrontal cortex or whatever) can always worry that your vivid experiences are not even experiences in the usual sense, but something similar to confabulations.

9:26 PM  
Blogger James said...

I don't know, Colin, you're really holding my feet to the fire!

I'm not fully following you, Grobstein, but I'll think about it.

10:08 PM  

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