The Map, the Terrain, and the Nature of Reality

By Adam Frank | March 24, 2008 11:29 am

Adam FrankSo the dialog between Eliezer Yudkowsky and myself is now online. I haven’t watched it (too weird) but I am told it was a steel cage death match of discussion, an octagon of oratory, and a smack-down of debate.

Ok, ok—it was none of those things. Still, it was great fun, and I really enjoyed participating, and learned a great deal. It’s possible that we might do it again. There were so many topics left on the table.

One point we raised that I think could use more discussion is the persistent metaphor of the Map and Terrain. It came it up during our dialog, and Eliezer has made use of the image in some of his writings. Remarkably, and for entirely different reasons, I employed the same image in my book. Not surprisingly, we have very different ideas of what composes the Map, the Terrain, and their proper relationship. The idea we share is that the terrain is reality—what is out there. What we don’t share are assumptions about what we can assume about that reality, what kind of access we have to it, and what one should include in it.

My first reason for thinking about the map and the terrain with a more expanded sensibility is the activity of science itself. The coolest thing about science is that, in its essence, it’s an open exploration—an honest appraisal of what we know and what we do not know. If you have already assumed the terrain has a certain form, then there’s a good chance you will blind yourself to what you did not expect. I am suspicious of any attempt to box up the fruit of scientific exploration with preconceived ideas of reductionism or anything else. Nature is invariably more creative than we are.

My second reason for taking a different tack on the map and the terrain is that I take the questions quantum mechanics raises seriously. It’s been 100 years since the invention of this remarkable, and powerful, theory of the microworld, and we still do not have a common interpretation for its ontology. We don’t know what it tells us about what is, actually, out there. There remain a variety of ways of interpreting the foundational equations (the wave function, etc.) and they range from the semi-mundane (GRW) to the wacky-sounding (many-worlds) to the very wacky-sounding (John Wheeler’s “It from Bit“). As an example, tomorrow Christopher Fuchs will be speaking here at the University of Rochester, advocating a “Bayesian” view. In this perspective, quantum mechanics tells us just as much about what we can know about the world as what actually exists independent of us.

In light of all these interpretations, making grand a priori assumptions about the nature of the terrain seems more than unwarranted—it seems like an act of faith. The world is out there kicking back for sure, but what kind of access we get to it remains an issue of contentious debate.

Finally, I believe we are worth including in the terrain. I like the idea of a fully objective, fully accessible reality as much as the next guy, and as a practicing scientist I strive towards articulating its shape every day in my research. The truth is, I have never had a direct experience of it, and most likely never will. I am trapped behind these two eyes. I am trapped with a perspective, trapped in time with all the joy and sorrow that entails. I don’t have a God’s eye view of Space and Time, and neither does anyone else. We can believe, for example, in a platonic realm of pure mathematical form and beauty, but we don’t experience it directly. We only argue philosophically over its existence. That is why human experience is worth including in the terrain.

Thinking broadly, I take seriously our response to the world as it is revealed by scientific practice, poetry, art, music, and finally by the domains of experience embracing the sense of what we have always called sacred. For me, these are all part of our terrain.

The world will always surprise us with its ceaseless creativity, and it seems like a bad idea to limit it, or us. The terrain always gets the last word, and it can only be known by exploration.

Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

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Comments (19)

  1. Quantum mechanics lacks rigorous mathematical derivation. QM is wholly incompatible with classical gravitation; quantized gravitations are useless for prediction. QM cannot avoid conservation of angular momentum. Demonstrate the vacuum is anisotropic in the massed sector. Noether’s theorem no longer enforces conservation of angular momentum.

    Noether’s theorem snuggles smooth Lie groups. A symmetry must be continuous or approximated so by a summation of infinitesimals to couple to a conserved current. A fully discontinuous external symmetry outside Noether’s theorem could falsify conservation of angular momentum: parity.

    Given: two chemically and macroscopically identical, self-similar atomic mass distributions whose mirror images in all directions maximally do not superpose. Do they non-zero differentially interact with the vacuum? Nature offers crystallographic enantiomorphic space groups P3(1)21 and P3(2)21. All atoms therein form homochiral 3-fold helices, right- and left-handed respectively, with no added racemic or conflicting screw axes. It is no big whoop to grow large, pure, quality crystals of quartz, cinnabar, berlinite and analogues, tellurium, selenium… and look.

    I don’t have a God’s eye view of Space and Time, and neither does anyone else. Theory predicts what observation tells it to predict. God agrees ex post facto.

  2. PeterS

    The Map-Terrain metaphor is appealing to the radically rational reductionist. Its beguiling simplicity hides some important questions. If you ask the question – can the map exist if there was no map maker, or, can the map exist if there was no terrain, or if there was no map maker and no terrain, – the obvious answer is no. But the answer is a property of the metaphor and not a property of the world inhabited by the terrain.

    To see this we need another common metaphor, science as model maker. Now there are two points of view here. One is the view that the model exists only in our minds to describe our observations and experience. See this article for a thoughtful description of this point of view, where laws of nature are described as an elaborate orrery,
    Indeed this is a very common point of view and corresponds in its essentials to the ‘Map’ metaphor.

    The other point of view is that the models describe something that has an some kind of independent existence, something that does not need a model maker, something that goes beyond describing the world and is something that fundamentally requires the world to be the way it is. Wigner’s famous article ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences’ points to this view. In other words we have capital Laws of Nature rather than ordinary lower case laws of nature.

    My point here is the ‘Model’ metaphor allows this alternative interpretation while the ‘Map’ metaphor does not. A ‘Model’ allows the incorporation of behaviour, state, history and experience while a map does not.

    So we have a metaphor that constrains the world described by the metaphor. And that cannot be, so I discard it as a useful metaphor. It is, if you pardon the pun, an example of flat world thinking.

  3. This point is particularly relevant because of the philosophical questions that quantum mechanics raises. In these cases and in this kind of thinking the metaphors are critical because they shape the questions.

  4. jayne

    Adam, your ideas about phenomenology particularly appealed to me in that “smack-down” 😉

    Coming from a completely different field, I can only pretend a (sadly elementary) basic knowledge of physics – although I am happy to be one of the many fascinated observers of it all. And I do admit to intermittently counting myself among the ranks of the “Silly”, per my Buddhist bent (she confesses, laying all cards on the table).

    In the field of psychology this kind of debate has also raged for a good couple of centuries now – as you are more than likely aware, if you’re familiar with William James. The point you made in your dialog with Yudkowsky, about the fact that we do not (yet) have a theory of consciousness, is a crucial one with regard to the map/terrain metaphor. Phenomenology, given its focus on lived experience, has the capacity to add tremendous depth to both scientific and spiritual endeavor – and contribute to a greater understanding of consciousness itself. I am admittedly biased here (in my own field, following the works of Amedeo Giorgi on this topic has given me a deep appreciation for the “humanizing of science” in this regard). But reductionism can sometimes frustrate me to no end, and I couldn’t help rooting for a phenomenological “TKO” (gleefully mixing my boxing/wrestling metaphors) on your part, during my watching of that bloggingheads spot! 🙂

  5. Hello Adam, your discussion was terrific. You may be interested in the work of Alan Wallace — in particular, his intriguing arguments and research studies, building on William James, that subjectivity must be brought into science, via the “technology” of rigorous contemplative inquiry, in order to crack open our understanding of consciousness, and its relationship to the nature of reality:
    * (see Hidden Dimensions, in particular)

  6. I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone that I am probably the least knowledgeable and least experienced of all of you here but I am fascinated with this discussion as I have always been with this subject. So I wade in despite being a bit short for this water. My first thought on Adam’s comment “The coolest thing about science is that, in its essence, it’s an open exploration—an honest appraisal of what we know and what we do not know.” was “yes, if the scientist is honest.” I thought it should also apply to one’s “religion” if that is one’s subjective experience or relationship with the whole cannot it also be an honest appraisal? “That is why human experience is worth including in the terrain.” I agree the map metaphor doesn’t work well, it is mono dimensional. One could integrate a couple more viewpoints and give it some perspective but it is still flat. The ‘Model’ on the other hand, thank you Peter, is an excellent metaphor as it integrates the many viewpoints. Phenomenology, seems to me, to approach a scientific word for religion but a bit too ogy for me. The structures we call “religions” are in general more political than spiritual so I tend to want to reclaim the word in the name of the human experience. If we are intent on getting beyond the debate science and religion need to marry and seek the blessing of everyone. After all, they are already living together in each of us.

  7. Ha, I just went to see the bloggingheads clip and all I can think is “sankofa,” the Ghanian word meaning “returning to the past in order to move forward.” As you say Adam the stories have been told and I think we need to go back and look at those stories, the ones accepted and the ones rejected, and chose one that works with our understanding of the universe today. Of course we will ad our own spin of some sort to make it work better. I think we will find this to be the case not just with religion but with every aspect of human experience, the way we relate to the earth, how we organize ourselves, how we travel, how we educate and my preferred example as an architect, how we build our buildings. The beauty of uncompromising sustainable building is that it has already been developed for us. All we had to do was “return to the past in order to move forward.” What puts us up on the spiral perhaps is a better understanding of the dynamics of a building, insulation, regional climatic design etc., that is our spin. I expect the resolution to “the debate” is in the story and I think there is considerable irony that the story science needs to go back to is the same one that religion needs to go back to, that is that we live in a living, self creating, universe and not a mechanistic dead one that someone created for us a few friends to live on.

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