Confusing the Map for the Territory

by Jim Walker
Originated: 10 Feb. 2001
Additions made: 18 Dec. 2004

Homo sapiens spend more time thinking and doing violence to their own species than any other mammal species. Considering our capacity to do devastating worldwide damage, it might benefit us to understand its causes. There must occur prerequisite reasons why humans developed a desire to do harm to members of their own species, and one of these reasons must have stemmed from the very language from which we speak and write.

Regrettably, our attempt to understand our dangerous motives aims too high in the hierarchy of our culture and we continually miss the target. We look at political, religious, and ideological motives instead of the common bases for all of them-- the way we believe. The expression of beliefs comes as an emergent property from our spoken and written language. And if we ever wish to understand our errors, it appears impossible without understanding the mechanism of belief.

Unlike any other known life form, humans have evolved a capacity to create and manipulate symbols and to compare them with the outside word (by "outside world" I mean anything external to the human body). This capacity allowed the transference of symbols from the mind to symbols outside the body and mind. By creating unique vocal patterns or artful scratching designs on stone, wood, or papyrus, somehow we learned how to compare the sounds and designs to thoughts in the mind. By learning and teaching how to remember the symbols through the use of a common code, an alphabet, we gained the ability to communicate our ideas through space and time. With these linguistic tools emerges the spoken and written language.

Automatically, the invention of written language produced a special and exciting result. What an innovation to store thoughts on a physical object, giving it to a messenger, and transferring your thought to another human being that lives miles away, or at some future time. Writing allows the storage of ideas that one can recall after a day, a week, or years after. It must have seemed magical to those at the dawn of the invention of writing. Archeologists tell us that the first known writing came from Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets at only around 5,000 years ago, just a flash of an instant compared to evolutionary time. Not surprisingly, the first writings consisted of pictograms or drawings representing actual things. Through repeated use over time, they began to look simpler and more abstract.

Unfortunately, out of linguistic thought emerges a dangerous flaw that stems from a lack of understanding the difference between the symbols and the things they aim to represent. We sometimes confuse the two by believing in them even when their representations no longer exist. The originator of general semantics, Alfred Korzybski came up with the phrase, "A map is not the territory" meaning that a map can describe a territory in some similar structure that allows us to traverse the land, which gives us a useful tool, but that our perception of the map can never equal the territory, but only our version of it, our map. All symbolism acts in this manner. All information comes to us as second hand. Everything we perceive from the outside world comes delayed, even if by only a few milliseconds, and processed by our brains into linguistic symbols. We may live in the present, but our thoughts reflect the past. We only have maps to refer to and nothing else. So the determination of what terrains our maps reflect to can present difficulties since any information, even if imagined or dreamt, can seem just as real to us as those that come from the outside world.

For example, you can create a mental symbol to represent a cat. If your cat walks into view, you can think about it with your internal language. (If you don't have a cat, then get one. Everyone should live with a cat, and will make the following easier to understand.) This internal representation of your cat also allows you to remember and think about it even when your cat has walked away. Marvelously, the storage system of your brain allows the idea of the cat to outlive the cat itself. With the unfortunate eventual death of your cat, you will still have the capacity to remember for the simple reason that your brain continues to hold the symbols of your cat in the matrix of your neurons. In this sense, the cat appears to exist, but only as a set of symbols.

But in another capacity, our brains can also attach emotions to the symbols themselves. Remembering your cat at different times in your past can evoke different emotions depending on how you felt the first time you remembered them. So not only do your cat symbols exist, but an emotional trigger follows them as well even after the death of your pet. These cat thoughts and feelings seem identical to the thoughts you had of your cat while it lived. In this sense, it feels as if your cat still exists. And if you mistake the symbols for the thing, you can develop an error of believing in essences, spooks and all sorts of afterlifes.


Cat symbols such as the statue [left] represented Bast (or Bastet) the cat-goddess worshipped in ancient Egypt. Egyptians also mummified cats [right], as well as many other animals as votive offerings to their gods.


The problem of belief, however, gets worse. Not only have we the capacity to believe in things that no longer exist, but we can also create symbols that point to nowhere but themselves and taken as fact outside one's body. Humans can think of themselves in the future doing all sorts of things before they actually do them. This of course produces desirable results such as creating tools, methods of gathering food, and art that allowed survival and a thirst for living. Generally these results outweigh the defects. As Victor S. Johnston put it, "The human brain did not evolve to accurately represent the world around us; it evolved only to enhance the survival of our genes." But if a thinking defect can result in a catastrophic violent event, we could let the defects of our thinking overrule the benefits. These defects emerge out of our ability to create images and symbols. We can create images of unique animals that don't exist, including monsters, serpents and gods. We can even think of them as all powerful and strong. One can create all sorts of characters: the little people-- leprechauns, and the big people-- giants, and distorted scary people like demons, ghosts and devils. And not only can we develop mental images of these monsters and gods, but we attach emotions to them as well. Productively we attach emotions to symbols of thought that reflect external reality (family members, friends, animals, and objects). According to Johnston, the combination of emotions with symbolic thought produces meaning. But with this capacity comes the ability to develop meanings for things that do not exist. Little girls develop the ability to attach emotional feelings to dolls, and pretend that their toys live. Little boys learn how to pretend to hunt and fight and attach emotions to them. We learn feelings of desire, fear, and wonder by wandering to the limits of our play. Imagination allows us to create technology, mathematics, and art, but with it can also come terrifying thoughts that could cause harm to us. We grow to learn the difference between most of our thoughts and what they represent, but most of us get fooled into believing the reality of some things that don't exist at all.

If we fail to understand the difference between what occurs in our minds and what occurs outside our minds, we can confuse the symbols for the things they represent; we have the capacity to act on things that exist only in our heads while believing they exist outside our heads. Now if only one person in a group believes in a non-external thing, we usually label him deluded, crazy or insane. But if most of the group believes in the same non-entity, then the majority can rule out the non-believing minority. Depending on the belief, this can result in a belief-system taken from superstitions, ideologies or fictions taken as facts and passed on from generation to generation.

Along with our ability to transmit thoughts to paper, we can communicate abstract logic, mathematics, rules, and fictions we call myths, and novels. Religious beliefs get transmitted through books we call scripture, bibles, liturgy and Holy writs. In the productive aspects of our language we continuously learn to interact with the things that our symbols represent. We observe, test, and with trial-and-error, we learn about the world. This continuous testing gives us feedback on what works and doesn't work. Humans have developed farming, government, predictive mathematics, science, engineering, medicine, and technology, etc. All of these useful tools of survival depend on an interaction between symbolic thought and the actual things they represent. Thus we learn the operation of physical, objects, including living and non-living things-- nature. Advanced learning leads toward an understanding of energy and the relation to matter. We have learned to build instruments that can see past the limitations of our own senses; with them we can detect and measure things that our physical bodies cannot (x-rays, galaxies, weather predictions, for example). The method of gaining knowledge about the world we call science (the word "science" derives from the Latin, scientia,-- to know). Although science does not pretend to know all the answers to questions, it serves as the only known workable method for understanding the world around us. As Carl Sagan put it, "Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It's just the best we have." For the scientific method to exist, it must interact with the physical world. Belief, especially religious faith, on the other hand, does not depend on the outside world. Religious knowledge revolves around the knowledge of symbols and a belief that they exist outside. And although both scientific and religious thinking can coexist within one brain, it does not require it. Science can survive without beliefs, religions based on faith cannot.

Unfortunately, the mingling of belief with science has created many falsehoods. For example, the "scientific" idea of racial theories such as proposed by Blumenbach's five groups of races or Herbert Spencer's fanaticism of social Darwinism have more to do with belief and reification fallacies than they do with science as knowledge of human nature. Do we have a scientific bases for race or does it live only as a classification of human genetics determined by human desires and emotions? Although genetic differences certainly exists within the physical body (out there), race only exists in the mind of the beholder. If one can classify the skin color or the disease fighting genes of a group of people as a race, then so also can one invent an infinite number of races: people with blue-eyes & red hair, short people, skinny people, or how about obese white people who have a propensity toward fundamentalist religion? Should we label this the "Right-Wing" race?

Symbols of belief that do not interact with outside objects, either though our bodies or artificial sensors, lead to no such understanding of the world. We cannot do anything with beliefs by themselves except believe in them or act out in defense of them. There occurs no feedback system, no testable way to confirm or deny the reality of the belief. So the only mechanism that justifies a non-real event can only come though other beliefs that give support to them and by believers themselves passing them to each other. This circular pattern creates a self-supporting cycle that occurs only in the minds of believers and in the language of fiction-taken-as-fact. Consider that the entire construct of religion occurs within the system of symbols and nowhere outside of it. Religion lives in the neurological pattern of the brain, word-of-mouth (gospel), scripture, statues, temples, and art; all occur as symbols. Nowhere can we find some of the things that religion makes claim to anywhere in the world or outside of it (gods, cherubims, demons, etc.). The existence of these ideas occur only by believing in them and through an act of faith. Faith represents a belief without evidence. Faith in these ideas do not depend on external matter or energy, they simply depend on belief itself, the language that communicates, the emotional satisfaction that one gets from the belief, and above all the storage system which hold these beliefs-- brains. If you remove the brains, so go the gods. We no longer have the brains that hold faith in the Aztec Quetzalcoati, the Greek Zeus, the Roman Jupiter, or the Nordic Odin. The brains that remain hold symbolic representations of Hindu gods, Judeo-Christian-Islamic gods and the plethora of other superstitious entities and all following an evolving religious culture, passed from parent to child, and from child to future children.

One of the most tragic outcomes of faithful belief comes out of its defense. Since a believer cannot defend a belief by testing it outside one's mind, the only defense comes out of language and emotion. While a scientist or an engineer can confirm or deny the reality of a theory by experimenting against matter and energy, a faithful believer must resort to experimenting with words and their meanings and the feelings they get from them. Unfortunately the symbols of language can collect various meanings for the same set of symbols that can lead to arguments about the meaning of verses, sentences, or entire plots. And I do not intend this just for religion but of any belief that has no validation with the outside world.

For example, I once knew a college student who attempted to defend a belief that Charley Parker played better jazz than Miles Davis. If you ever knew a music fanatic, you might know what I mean. The dialog resulted in anger and eventually led to a wrestling brawl. Of course they could not resolve the argument though external events or scientific methods, because there occurred no such thing as an external and testable value of music. The meaning and value of music resides only in the mind of the beholder. In this case the idea of "jazz" meant different things to each other. If your musical value hinges on a belief with an emotional attachment, then you can only attempt to defend it through language or physical action. If your arguer continues to disagree with you, you can only feel offended, angered and hurt. In this case the emotional stress relieved itself through mild violence.

Can you imagine the stakes of an argument where the belief consists of an infinite and all-powerful supernatural being that culture has passed on for millennia? Consider also that of the three most influencial superstitions in the world, their scriptures describes the main protagonist as vengeful, feared and who slaughters men, women and children (or orders it) for not obeying him. It also describes this entity as graceful, loving, good, and promising everlasting life for believers while other verses describe him as creating evil. Since words can have various meanings, the range of beliefs in them have created social tensions that have resulted in many denominational divisions and intolerances between other religions. How else can one defend a religious belief except though study of scripture, and argument? If another person does not accept your conclusion, what can you do? You can either: do nothing, continue arguing, or escalate your anger into force (by physical attack, passing laws, inquisitions, punishments, or wars).

Those believers who take the literal words of their scriptures as "truth" can ignore whatever contradicts external reality because the justification of their belief comes from faith and not from the world. The potential of belief can overwhelm reality. Those who take an allegorical approach to scripture allow for various meanings of the same word or phrase. Take the verse in Isaiah 45:7(KJV), for example: "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil." A believer can dismiss the literal meaning of "evil" into anything one wishes (most of the faithful do not believe that God created evil even though their Bibles says so). "Evil" can turn into the more complaisant "destruction" and destruction can lead to a search for its justification. Thus the Biblical slaughtering of people by God gets accepted by looking for justification in scripture. And once you accept Godly destruction, you stand only a step away from the next: human violence. Remember that the faithful believe that humans reflect God's image. Virtually all wars, slavery and pogroms come from some method of justification through belief (usually through religious, political, or ideological beliefs). If you don't like the idea of killing another human being, you can consult a military priest for a reason to engage in war. You can find verses in the Bible to calm your mind. You can consult history and the honor of wars past in the name of religious or ideological glory.

Consider that the scientific knowledge of the world has outgrown the knowledge of ourselves; our morals and beliefs still derive from Bronze-Age-like thinking. What do you suppose could result from applying the beliefs derived from the ancient Middle East to a culture that has the ability to send an atomic weapon to another continent within an hour, or to develop a deadly strain of bacteria that could wipe out millions of people within days?

If you think for one moment that your brand of faith has it worked out, that you do not subscribe to violence and that love will cure the world, then what do you say to those who do not agree with you? Will you argue your beliefs to them? Do you actually think that your faith in any way will sway their strongly held beliefs any more than theirs will sway you? On what ground of reality will you present to them except from your faith in symbols that have no testable foundation to the outside world?

The most revered text in the world, the Bible, prophesies the destruction of the world for an alleged "paradise restored." Unfulfilled prophecy can just as easily turn into a self-fulfilled prophesy for one or a group of people that have the capability to carry it out.

People get their superstitions, religions, and creeds almost always while young, usually from parents or schools and passed on to their progeny in later life. This gives reason why Hindu's get their beliefs from other Hindus, Christians from their parents, Islamics from their parents, etc. After years of religious transmission, the beliefs take on an additional conviction: that so many people throughout history could not have made such a grand mistake. History and tradition reinforces the faith while at the same time allows condemnation of the recent "cults." This results in orthodoxy and all the intolerances that go with it. But unseen and untaught goes the fallacy behind this kind of thinking, commonly called the bandwagon fallacy; the number of people who believe or the length of time believed says nothing about the truth of that belief. This cycle can only break if the method of transmission stops.

Imagine that if, instead of teaching school children what to believe, we taught them first about the mechanism of thinking. Instead of instilling them with untestable superstitions, teach them the difference between abstract symbols that reflect the outside world and symbols that don't. Only after a thorough understanding of the mechanism of thinking and the fallacies that thinking can produce, would we teach them about the history of religion, politics, and superstition. As far as I know, no society has ever attempted this.

If anyone of faith who reads this as plea to atheism, then consider the weakness of your argument. If, indeed, that truth and progress can come from the items of your faith, then that faith should prove itself even after demonstrating the errors of thinking. That to deny a knowledge of the thinking process only demonstrates an intransigence that can come from faith. To know the world inside and out requires an avenue of exploration with no limits, including the ability to examine any set of beliefs.

Would this avenue of education lead to the absolution of religion? Not necessarily. For whatever reason, religion gives meaning and a reason for living for millions of people. Many people like the ideas that religion provides them. Emotion coupled with an idea gives meaning, but meaning can also derive out of stories, fictions, and myths without the belief in them at all. For example, science fiction has provided meaning for many people including the inspiration for many a productive scientist. There exist people who derive morality from Star-Trek lore (the Prime Directive, for example), lessons for living from the Burning Man cult, Bob Dobbs, and many others. None of these participants (that I know of) actually believes in them; they simply love the idea behind them. And so can the same hold for any religion or myth. One does not need to believe in the superstitions of religion to gain insights to what one desires. As Joseph Campbell has taught us, myths can inform us about ourselves, about our emotions and passions and about our grand illusions. Even a disbeliever can take from religious scripture what he wants while excising the supernatural and unworkable morality. Thomas Jefferson did just that with his version of the gospels. The fundamental faithful cannot so easily dismiss what one wants because of the immobility of sacredness, and with it they must grapple with its contradictions and consequences.

Taking myths as fact without examining them can lead us to the very errors we wish to avoid. We can use maps without believing they equal the territory; we can use fiction to inspire us to make the stories into reality, and we can also use myths as a way of symbolizing our morals and desires that live in our brains, but nowhere else.

A photo of the author's cat