Awareness – Reality Modelling – Common Mistakes

Friday, July 10th, 2009 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

Last week we used Korzybski’s phrase “The map is not the territory” to underline the fact that your experience of a thing is not the thing itself, that many levels of abstraction, simplification, encoding and representation exist between your impression of the world and the actual events in timespace. Between your thinking and reality.

A failure to recognise this simple fact can cause many common cognitive errors, basic mistakes which most humans tend to make often, which are often exploited (in various degrees of explicit intention) to manipulate people, especially through advertising, politics, and religion. These mistakes are, in aggregate, the cause of much self deception, and even war.

Linguistic Mistakes

The words we use to communicate with each other shape the minds we use to think about the world. Languages have each evolved to be learned easily by human children, to fit the needs of our communication. Our languages do not properly reflect the structure of the world. Indeed, as we discussed earlier, they cannot both reflect every aspect of the world and be different from it. Our languages are by nature symbolic. They are biased and warped by the need to be learned easily by children, to be quick and efficient at transmission.

However, listening to a good story well told, hearing dirty talk, or being told off can excite the nervous system and start an emotional response just as easily as the world itself can. Our emotions, our hearts, see little distinction between that good story and having that thing actually happen.

The confusion between language and reality comes in many types.

Confusing a symbol with it’s object

When not aware of the difference between the map and territory we can easily confuse a word with the thing in reality which it stands for. We can confuse the symbol ‘world’ with the actual world.

Plato took this mistake to an extreme, influencing much of history after him. In his theory of forms Plato noticed that each, for example, ‘rabbit’ in the world was different. No two rabbits are the same, yet we use the same world for each of them. What, therefore, can the world ‘rabbit’ mean? Plato suggested a heavenly Platonic ideal. A kind of perfect rabbit to which all earthly rabbits are only an approximation. He had taken his map’s representation of a rabbit, and taken it to be more real than the observed rabbits running around breeding in the fields.

We would insist these days that there are in fact no heavenly Platonic rabbits. All our words group and classify things according to more or less arbitrary criteria. There are no wheels, only things which will serve the function of a wheel. This pointy stick may be a pointing device, or it may be a spear.

Confusing your own interpretation of a symbol with other’s interpretation

Without baring in mind that events experienced are in fact a model, not the thing which that model represents, people can become confused about the fact that one word can mean different things to different people. In fact very few words exact implications are the same for everybody. Pretty much nothing outside pure maths. The ultimate source of much argument and disagreement can be traced to a difference of opinion about the meanings of words. Since no words have a meaning at all without a context in which to mean it, these types of argument need not represent true disagreement at all.

Confusing facts with inferences and beliefs

The capital of England is London“. Is this a fact, or a belief?

It’s widely accepted, of course, but it is a belief. You have not observed the capital of England being London, only observed others treating it as though it were so. Even if there were some way to actually observe a city ‘being’ a capital, and you observed it, it would only in ‘fact’ be demonstrably true that you had had the observation, not that your observation was not an hallucination or illusion.

Outside pure mathematics there are very few actual ‘facts’, yet we tend to live our lives with many inferences and assumptions which we treat as though they were as true as the purely self-referential tautologies of pure maths.

Confusing separation and singularity

Our languages are evolved to classify, to divide our experience into discrete units. When we talk about the world we use symbols which are well defined and discontinuous. We talk of “Mind” and “Body” as though they are totally separate. We even think this way. Descartes didn’t invent the ‘dualism’ which bears his name but he made explicit a bias which is built into the very way our brains work. We talk of space and time as though they too are separate entities, but modern physics shows us that the two are just different ways of looking at the same thing.

Confusing individuals with classes

Not all instances of a class are the same. One cat is not like another. Not all trees are the same, though our language uses but one word for each. This confusion is over-generalisation. Bigotry and racism are examples of this kind of overgeneralising. Even if it’s true that most dogs have four legs, this does not rule out a three legged dog. If you’re asked how many legs a dog has, you may give the wrong answer. If you accept a bet on how many legs some unseen dog has, it may not pay to rule out even a mutant with five.

Confusing something now with the same thing then

Our symbolic minds tend to treat things as if they are immutable, unchanging, when in fact just about everything in the world is constantly in a state of flux. “You” now are not the same thing as “You” when you were six years old. We argue against this confusion quite a lot a the Transcendence Institute. People tend to think of themselves as set, unchanging. “I am not good at X”, “I don’t like Y”. To make these statements more accurate you need to append “yet” or “so far as I know.”

Cognitive Mistakes

Even before language, our minds had certain cognitive biases built from the way the neurology of all mammals work. Evolution has built us with certain cognative short-cuts, which are very useful, but which can also mislead. The three major ones noted by General Semantics are:


Our minds tend to think in boolean, in black and white, because our maps tend to be black and white. As we discussed in the section on intuition, the neural systems we use to represent the world tend to want to settle into stable forms. To consider which class something is in rather than how much it reflects a whole range of classes.

General Semantics calls this ‘black and white’ tendency “Aristotelian” (though some take issue, claiming it’s not what Aristotle ever claimed. An example of confusing one person’s meaning of a word with another person’s meaning). It stresses that Aristotelian logic can not adequately represent the actual world, pointing out that despite our tendency to think otherwise the world is “Null-Aristotelian” or “Null-A“.


Likewise, General Semantics points out that no two phenomena are identical. At the very least they differ in their location in space or time. It is literally impossible to have two things existing which are the same as each other. If they were the same, they would just be one thing. If two phenomena were identical, we could not tell which was which. G.S. calls this “Null-Identity” or “Null-I“. People often act as though two things are the same, even when they are not, failing to spot this difference.


Euclid was a Greek mathematician who invented (or discovered) much of the stuff you learned in Trigonometry class. Things like “the angles in a triangle add up to 180 degrees“. Was he right? Well, yeah. Of course everything he said is is perfectly true on a flat plane.

But do we live on a flat plane? No. If you draw a triangle on the surface of the earth, with one point at the north pole and two on the equator each angle would in fact be a right angle, Three 90 degree angles for a total of 270 degrees. It’s lines are not straight, but curve in three dimensional space around the surface of the globe.

General Semantics emphasises that we do not live on a flat plane, that even four dimensional space-time is in fact curved just as the two dimential surface of the earth we live on is curved. It calls this fact “Null Euclideanism” or “Null-I“. Being aware that the map you live in is not reality helps you to correct your innate mistaken tendency to assume you do live in Euclidean space.

These mistakes, and many others, have lead to misunderstanding and even escalated to war. Full understanding requires you see these biases in your perception, even in your thinking. Next week we’ll look at ways to try and limit these mistakes, or at least spot their influence.

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