The Bed of Procrustes and Hypostatisation

If I see one mistake cropping up repeatedly in social discourse and our personal lives its the belief that the world has to fit our beliefs and expectations.

What do I mean by this? Consider an everyday scenario: Caught in a traffic jam. We think, ‘It should not be happening like this!’ Our expectations are not met by the reality we face. So we get upset and look for someone to blame.

But what’s going on here? We all have ideas, expectations about how the world works or feel it should work. These are beliefs, ideas or values we hold to be important. They can be from small to great, from private opinions, like stereotypes to whole religions with ideas about life and the cosmos.

Yet we forget there’s a difference between reality and our ideas. We can’t understand or grasp complicated, complex ideas, so we simplify or abstract them, yet we seem to forget that’s what we’re doing.

The map is not the territory; there is a difference between theory and practice, of reality and our models and maps about reality. Forgetting that distinction is a step toward suffering and disappointment.

‘Within every conception, lies a misconception, that being the ideas is the reality.’

Richard Collison

Problems arise not due to the maps or other people, but because of our illogical attachment to the maps and the beleif they are true depictions of the world.

The Bed of Procrustes

‘If you take words too seriously, you are like someone that climbs a signpost instead of going where it points.’

Alan Watts

The issue arises in a situation where our theories or maps don’t match the reality. Instead of altering our theories to fit the facts, we twist the facts to fit the theory. The fiction of our thoughts, ideas and beliefs becomes more important than the facts of reality.

“I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts.

Sherlock Holmes, “A Scandal in Bohemia: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

In Greek mythology, there’s an innkeeper, Procrustes. His inn contains an iron bed (or perhaps two in some accounts). If a guest is too short, he will stretch them on the bed. If they’re too tall, he would cut off their legs. It’s a metaphor for our relationship with our ideas, our maps.

Our mind tries to squeeze an unruly and mysterious existence into something more manageable: our simple ideas, beliefs and assumptions. This twisting, stretching of reality to fit the map is called the Fallacy of Reification, also known as Concretism, and Hypostatization. Think of it as trying to stuff clothes into a box, or suitcase. The case is our beliefs and we try to fit reality inside them.

Another name for it comes from the Mathematician and Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

“There is an error, but it is merely the accidental error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete. It is an example of what might be called the ‘Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.’ It’s where abstract or hypothetical ideas are treated as concrete, even physical reality. (In other words, thinking the map or model is the terrain).

Take for an example, when we lose our car keys? We look where they should be and find they’re not there (reality not matching expectations). Then we look in some other places, then bizarrely, we go back and look again as if the keys would magically appear! However our expectations still need to be met; we need to find our car keys. So we get angry and flustered because we’re going to be late.

In this scenario our attitude is; reality is wrong, because we have to be in the right, our expectations for a smooth simple life have to be met.

Scenarios are not always so innocuous; sometimes, in the most extreme they involve the risk of death. Imagine finding yourself lost in an unfamiliar jungle after an air crash. Or stranded on a remote island or lost at sea in a lifeboat. Here the reality doesn’t fit our expectations in a big way. How you deal with this situation can determine whether you live or die. Do we try to live as before or adapt to our new situation?

Another example is over-investing in a narrative, such as our own story. We can become so attached to our story that we fail to see it’s just a story. If that story is we’re broken, worthless, we can fall into depression and desolation. (Something I’m familiar with in my life).

It shows that how we relate to our creations and ideas is significant. Over-attachment to them is why we make so many mistakes and why we suffer. Our maps and models become so sacred that we fall in love with them, like Pygmalion, who fell in love with a statue of a woman he created.

This is the danger of religion in particular, idolatry of ideas. We hold onto them long after their usefulness has faded. Such naïve trust in our ideas can get us into a lot of trouble and cause a lot of suffering.

It’s like we’re bashing square pegs into round holes, instead of blaming the idiot who doesn’t understand it can’t work, we blame the world, or others.

Back to Reality

‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

To move beyond this over-investment in ideas is a matter of self-awareness and taking our insecure ego out of the equation. We need to recognise our maps are not the territory and accept reality for what it is.

Our theories should be adjusted to fit the facts. Our ideas are about usefulness they’re not unassailable truths about the cosmos. We must try to notice when our egos jump in, desperately seeking certainty, clarity, safety. Here we desperately feel the need to be in the right, even if that means ignoring good evidence and advice to the contrary.

We need to do better at critically examine our beliefs and assumptions, to realise where and when we’re twisting, reifying reality because we can’t accept it.

No, the world doesn’t have to make sense, other people are not there to live up to your expectations. No this is not a fallen world and you are not broken, that’s just the narrative you cling to, the iron bed you, like Procrustes twist reality, even yourself to fit onto.

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