Awareness – Reality Modelling – Map And Territory

Friday, July 3rd, 2009 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

Last week, at the end of the bonus section on dreaming, it was noted that while you are dreaming (and indeed while you are awake) your actual experience is of a constructed tale, a virtual reality. Your experience is not of the individual firings of your neurons or the photons hitting your retina or of course of the object under observation itself.

We realised that the dream world and the waking world feel similar because in fact the experience is the same. While sleeping your senses aren’t constrained by interaction with the outside world, they are cut off and firing in apparently random patterns, but your experience is still only of the data itself, not of an actual physical object. A dream tomato is represented by the same pattern in your mind as a ‘real’ tomato. Your consciousness is only aware of the abstract data, not the thing itself

Indeed, not only are you not aware of the tomato, you are not even aware of the photons reflecting from it into your eye. You’re not aware of the energy or wavelengths of the photons which excite the rods and cones in your retina to varying degrees . You’re not aware of those rods and cones themselves pulsing with electro-chemical energy when firing. You’re not even aware of the patterns and combinations that these firing patterns produce. You’re just aware of ‘red’ and a shape and the mental concept ‘tomato’. It’s not just that you only see abstractions of sense data, but that even the raw sense data itself is merely correlated with an event, a coding of it, it is not the event itself.

Alfred Korzybski

Alfred Korzybski was a philosopher and scientist who’s theory of ‘general semantics’ produced the famous phrase “the map is not the territory“. This distinction is essentially what Korzybski was referring to. Your experience is never of the territory itself, but only ever of a map of that territory, an abstraction presented to your consciousness.

A map the size of the empire

Maps are useful things to have precisely because they summarize. They do not capture every element of the territory that they model, but only the salient parts. To show this is true we need only think about the size a map must be to show every detail of the reality it reflects. To show every molecule, every atom, a map must be the same size as those molecules and atoms. In order to map an empire to 100% percent accuracy, you need a map the size of the empire.

Such a map would obviously be of no use at all. We’re not interested in every molecule and every photon. With a typical map we’re only interested in the angles between the locations on that map, for navigational purposes, or the average political leanings of each parliamentary seat. Maps the size of empires are no more use for understanding the empire than the empire itself.

Korzybski’s ideas imply not only that we can’t know all of reality, but even that to do so wouldn’t be particularity helpful.

How does your map differ from reality?

The important thing to notice about this transcendental realisation, the knowledge that your every experience is a dream-like VR system partially constrained by your sense-data, is that the question “How does your map differ from reality?” makes sense, and that the answer is never “I have captured this event’s nature completely,” for such a thing is neither possible nor useful.


An essential part of transcendence is this realisation, that evolution has not given you the ability to see the world as it is, but just a VR system built to reflect some details of that world which have been important to your ancestors survival.

This realisation implies that there are differences between that model and reality, that there are common mistakes, biases, discontinuations between your perception and the reality of any given situation. We’ll examine some of these biases next week.

The week after we’ll look for ways in which you can improve your map, make your VR world more accurate, better reflect reality.

Finally, at the end of the month, we’ll present a meditation designed to use your dreams to encourage you to test, to check your ideas. Both in your dreams and in waking life. This will both increase your ability to tell when you’re dreaming, and improve the accuracy of the Virtual Reality in which you spend your waking time.