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.’

Picasso

Our lives are guided by expectations and by our knowledge so it’s important look at our ideas and see how good they are.

Our idea come in many forms. From the thoughts in our head to those we capture in images, words. The codified knowledge we find in science, art, philosophy, religion. They are the maps and models that surround us.

It’s here, the relationship between our ideas and reality, and our relationship to our ideas that problems arise, and where we suffer.

It was a Polish-American Alfred Korzybski who popularised the term that the ‘map is not the territory’, the concept, the image is not the thing. But what does this mean?

This is not a pipe‘ by René Magritte

Like René Magritte and his painting, The Treachery of Images. ‘This is not a pipe’ is correct. It’s not a pipe, it’s a representation of a pipe. (Just as what you see on this screen is too).

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

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

Concepts label reality

Ideas and the things they point towards is related through the thought experiment of the ‘Ship of Theseus.’

Imagine a ship, then start to replace the parts one by one. After each replacement, is the ship still the 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.’

FROM WIKIPEDIA

If all the parts have been replaced is it still 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, one by one, when does it no longer constitute a heap?

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?

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 points is our ideas about reality are not reality but abstractions of reality. You might called it the Pixelation of reality. A pixelated image is simpler than the reality it depicts.

The issue is when you simplify reality, errors can creep in, like compression artefacts in a digital image.

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

A Grey Scale example

Greyscale- The subtle reality

Take a grey scale like above. A smooth gradient from black to white through all the shades of grey. The number of greys is infinite.

However an infinite amount can’t be of practical use. So artists chop it up into pieces, giving a label to each. To chop up, and define is to make boundaries. For example. 10 shades of grey as below. This is but one way, there are any number of other ways with more or fewer shades.

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.

The 1o scale image is a useful greyscale model. 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.

Language is not a set of things but instead a collection of boundaries. In language, words have definitions, and definitions are boundaries. We label a cat a cat because we can point out features that it’s not a dog. A closer examination shows where these boundaries are.

It gets complicated when you look closer as ask how these label relates to the complex reality. Is a cat still a cat if it loses one leg? Are you still you if you lose a leg?

We agree upon boundaries; they’re a consensus about what a cat is.

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.

Our Mistake

The problem arises when we start to think our ideas are not mere abstractions, but are thought to exist as just as we think them.

Naïve Realism is a type of realism that proposes our senses or ideas give us the objects as they truly are. A direct uninterrupted perception of objects. This idea is also called as direct realism, common sense realism, or perceptual realism. It holds to the idea there is an objective reality we have direct unaltered access too.

The cosmos then is just as simple, as the ideas we hold suggest.

Our minds have to cut corners and use heuristics. We mistake the simple ideas and models to represent reality itself even as the complex nuances of reality prove otherwise.

An excellent example of this in everyday life is those stereotypes of people. We have simple ideas about other people. When faced with a person that does not fit, there is still a tendency to cling to the stereotype. To ignore evidence in favour of the theory.

Twisting reality to fit inside a theory, model, or map is committing a Reification fallacy. Ideas become more important than the world we face.


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

Think of a cat, its shape or form, now think of its colour; now try to imagine every follicle of fur and muscle. It can’t be done; we can’t hold all that in our minds. The image/definition of a cat is a superficial concept of a real cat.

Think of timezones 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. This is Naïve realism. Our Maps are but a simplified abstraction of reality not reality itself. The maps point towards reality but doesn’t encompass or define it.

In Zen this is ‘the finger that points to the moon’. We get fixated on the finger tip, not the moon.

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.