The Map is not the Territory – Sorites Paradox

‘We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.’


Consider the Following work of Art.

This is not a pipe‘ by René Magritte

‘This is Not a Pipe…1?’ It makes no sense, it seems, because clearly, that is what this is. But the topic here is philosophy, so we need to look deeper to understand the meaning.

It’s an image of a painting by René Magritte, The Treachery of Images. ‘This is not a pipe’ is correct. It’s not a pipe, it’s a representation of a pipe. (Or a representation of a representation, because it on your screen).

Another example is the One and Three Chairs exhibit by the artist Joseph Kosuth. The exhibit had a real chair, a photo of a chair and a dictionary definition of a chair.

They’re the same yet different? Because the photo and the definition are about a chair, but they’re not the chair itself. It may seem trivial, but it’s a key point to understand.

What going on here are two different but related points or realities.


The above is related to a thought experiment in Philosophy, called the ‘Ship of Theseus.’ Imagine a ship, then start to replace the parts one by one. After each part is replaced, the question arises ‘is it still the same Ship of Theseus?

‘If it is supposed that the famous ship sailed by the hero Theseus in a great battle was kept in a harbour as a museum piece, and as the years went by some of the wooden parts began to rot and were replaced by new ones; then, after a century or so, every part had been replaced. The question then is if the “restored” ship is still the same object as the original.’


The difficulty lies in that the ship changes it parts, yet we still call it the same ship. What this shows is there’s a difference between the reality which changes, and the identity we give it, which often persists.

The Ship of Theseus is related to the Sorites Paradox or the Paradox of the heap. If you remove the grains of sand from a heap, one by one, when does it no longer constitute a heap?

It’s a field called Mereology and is about the relationship of parts to the whole. It is also about identity, what that means and how it works.

The key point is our ideas are about, abstractions of reality, but not reality itself. It was a Polish-American Alfred Korzybski who popularised the term that the ‘the map is not the territory’, the concept, the image is not the thing.

If you destroy the altimeter of a plane, does the plane fall out of the sky? If I burn a map of London, does London burn?

Two Modes, 1 conceptual labels, simple, the other messy and real.

Grey Scale

Another example is a grey scale, like below. A smooth gradient from black to white through all the shades of grey. The number of greys is infinite.

Greyscale- The subtle reality

Its a related idea the Continuum Paradox. But where does black and and white begin?

At no point looking the scale does black become white!

An infinite number can’t be of practical use so artists chop it up into pieces, giving a label to each.

Artist Grey Scale – Simpler, abstracted

The chopped version is an abstraction of reality. It doesn’t contain all the grey tones in reality. It’s therefore simpler. Pixelated images are them same. Compressing a digital image is to remove information, and make the file smaller. All of our ideas and knowledge are like this, abstractions of reality, but not reality itself.

Another example are shoe sizes, there is a UK system, a EU system, a US system. Taking the range of feet sizes, breaking it up into different categories each with a label. If I were to ask ‘which shoe size chart is true?’ would be a meaningless question. Each one chops the reality up into different a different way.

What this means is our ideas, our concepts are not reality, but about reality.

Language is not a set of objects, or things but instead a collection of agreed upon boundaries. But I’ll go more into boundaries in another post.

Dualism of Knowledge

What we have here are two realities at work.

  1. One is a ‘given’ reality of experiences, form, shape, colours, the world, and the senses. (The Territory.)
  2. We create the other reality of our ideas, maps, and models (The Map).
  1. One reality, mysterious, chaging, nuanced, complex
  2. The other of knowledge, invented by us

We have a discriminating mind; we use it to solve problems and create knowledge. A complex, the nuanced changing reality is impossible to work with, so we have to simplify it.

We chop the given reality into pieces and call things by their names its a how maps, models, hierarchies, and taxonomies come about.

This duality expresses the limits of our knowledge. We can have ideas about reality but can never grasp reality itself.

This duality in Buddhism is called the Two Truths.

  1. One Conventional reality of our ideas and Illusion
  2. The other Ultimate truth of Emptiness or Sunyata, Non-Self or Anatman.

Our representations, whether ideas, words or diagrams, point to real things, but they are not the things themselves or are not equal to them.

This last points take sus to the mistakes we make.

Mistake of Realism

Problems arise when we think our ideas are not mere abstractions but real things. The image of the Pipe is not just an image but represents reality.

Realism in philosophy is the attitude that our perceptions or ideas exist beyond our minds in some objective reality. Realism states that our ideas are a direct accurate representation of this objective reality.

The cosmos is just as simple as the ideas we hold – The Map is the Territory!

I stress it’s an attitude because there’s no way to determine if this is the case. After all, we can’t get beyond our ideas and perceptions; they’re all in our minds.

Our minds have to cut corners and use heuristics to make things easier. We mistake simple ideas and models to represent reality even as reality’s complex nuances prove otherwise.

Another problem we face is in how we know things. We can twist reality to fit inside a theory, model, or Map is, committing a Reification fallacy

Ideas have become more important than the world we face – The Map is more important than the Territory. What we have with twisting realty to fit the map, is pattern seeking with a prescribed end result the we desire.

An excellent example of this in everyday life is stereotypes of people. We have simple ideas about other people. Faced with a person that doesn’t fit, there’s a tendency to cling to the stereotype and ignore the individual- To ignore counter-evidence in favour of the theory.

Realism and Reification are mistakes we habitually make because we crave ideas, answers and knowledge with an abhorrence towards mystery and uncertainty.

This point may seem like some obscure philosophical theory, but the truth of the ‘Map is not the territory’; affects our lives in both minor and significant ways.

The critical point to take away here is our ideas, our thoughts are not reality but a mental images that’s simpler than reality, which make it useful.

If I were to change my shoes from UK sizes to USA, my feet haven’t changed only the system I use to define what shoes I wear. Think of time zones on an atlas, yet looking at the earth from orbit, where do you see these zones or political boundaries of countries? There is none.

We take this interconnected reality and chop it up into pieces. Then we mistakenly think the artificial chopped map is the original reality.

Our minds have limits, so we have to simplify. The big problem occurs when we forget this truth, when we forget our maps are not the territory. It can lead to the mistake of thinking our maps are reality, our ideas are accurate.

‘Reality is not bound or subordinate to our opinions or idea, it’s not obligated to make sense.’

There are two realities, the given and the fabricated. This duality has long been a part of philosophy dating back centuries.

In Zen, it is ‘the finger that points to the moon.’ The finger is not the moon but points towards it; this is our knowledge; we get fixated on the fingertip, not the moon.