i need to become stronger

maps are wrong

mapmaking 2015-04-25

if you have ever used a geographical map to help you navigate roads or the wilds or the ocean, you have inevitably encountered disagreement between the map and the territory you are in: the road you are looking for isn't there, a boulder is blocking your way, or the water is much shallower than reported. in these ways maps can be wrong, and yet we wouldn't say the map is all wrong: if nothing else it was right enough that you made it as far as finding the map's errors. when we say 'the map is wrong' what we really mean is 'it has errors'. unsurprisingly, this is also true of our metaphorical maps of the territory of reality.

because the map is not the territory, it must contain errors. this is supported by our knowledge of thermodynamics and its mathematical abstraction, information theory, with assistance from special relativity to prevent anything happening instantaneously. and don't try any quantum trickery: at most it just shows we can move bits around before creating them. so if we cannot have an error-free map, we should consider how to live with those errors.

although i like to talk about maps, in everyday language people talk about beliefs, i.e. thoughts about the state of the world. and the naive model of belief common in the occident is that beliefs are either true (perfectly predict reality) or false. this leads some folks to talk of rejecting all beliefs, especially because 'belief' is often a word associated with religion. while this position is understandable given a true or false model of belief, from a technical standpoint, belief is the right term, so what we need is a better theory of belief.

that is to say, we need a more useful map of the map.

the best model i know of is to treat beliefs as subjective and probabilistic. if you think of a belief as a point on the map, each belief is made up of at least two parts: a statement about reality and a likelihood of correctness. this expands the notion of correctness assumed by the naive model of belief by adding a mechanism for assessing the maybe-ness of a belief. with this richer model of belief, we can understand the map as something that may be mostly right, but not in the sense of mostly made up of true things, but in the sense of mostly made up of things that are mostly likely to be true. the burden of truth shifts from the map to the territory, where it belongs, and leaves the map with the responsibility of assessing its likelihood of reflecting reality.