A model is a map, and a map can serve a function, but no model can ever become the territory

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

Can any of us ever think like reality? I assume the answer is “no”. I am surprised that some very smart people seem to disagree with me on this. Reality is the territory we traverse and we all try to build a model of reality in our heads, and the model is our map, but I think we all understand, on some level, that the map is not the territory. As soon as we accept that, I would think that we would give up all hope of ever having a model that is absolutely true. Any yet, Eliezer Yudkowsky writes something that strikes me as both brilliant and stupid at the same time:

Reality has been around since long before you showed up. Don’t go calling it nasty names like “bizarre” or “incredible”. The universe was propagating complex amplitudes through configuration space for ten billion years before life ever emerged on Earth. Quantum physics is not “weird”. You are weird. You have the absolutely bizarre idea that reality ought to consist of little billiard balls bopping around, when in fact reality is a perfectly normal cloud of complex amplitude in configuration space. This is your problem, not reality’s, and you are the one who needs to change.

Human intuitions were produced by evolution and evolution is a hack. The same optimization process that built your retina backward and then routed the optic cable through your field of vision, also designed your visual system to process persistent objects bouncing around in 3 spatial dimensions because that’s what it took to chase down tigers. But “tigers” are leaky surface generalizations – tigers came into existence gradually over evolutionary time, and they are not all absolutely similar to each other. When you go down to the fundamental level, the level on which the laws are stable, global, and exception-free, there aren’t any tigers. In fact there aren’t any persistent objects bouncing around in 3 spatial dimensions. Deal with it.

Calling reality “weird” keeps you inside a viewpoint already proven erroneous. Probability theory tells us that surprise is the measure of a poor hypothesis; if a model is consistently stupid – consistently hits on events the model assigns tiny probabilities – then it’s time to discard that model.

He also writes:

Surprise exists in the map, not in the territory. There are no surprising facts, only models that are surprised by facts.

I’d prefer to write “Surprise arises from the map, not in the territory” but I realize I’m just splitting hairs.

I am curious how someone can seem to clearly understand the difference between the map and the territory yet still believe that is possible to “go down to the fundamental level, the level on which the laws are stable, global, and exception-free”. Possibly this was written with the understanding that it was an ideal outside of anything that can be achieved by humans. Clicking through the links on that page we find:

Human beings live in a world of surface phenomena, and surface phenomena are divided into leaky categories with plenty of exceptions.

Sometimes – very rarely – we observe an apparent violation of our models of the fundamental laws. Though our scientific models may last for a generation or two, they are not stable over the course of centuries… but do not fancy that this makes the universe itself whimsical.

The universe may or may not be whimsical, but clearly our models are, to the extent that they change over time. What strikes me most about modern physics is how little it has explained. When I was in high school, back in the 1980s, my teacher pointed to the table of elements and told us that every single thing in the universe was made of one of the 118 elements on the chart. But nowadays physicists suggest that an unknown dark matter/energy may account for 96% of the universe. The edge cases have overwhelmed the model. The model that was dominant as recently as the 1980s is now, itself, the edge case, accounting for only 4% of the universe. How can anyone trust a narrative that is on such shaky ground?

Imagine I tried to tell you story and I started like this:

A woman is sitting in a cafe sipping tea. She is wearing a red hat with pink flowers. Her gray skirt comes down just below her knee. She is reading a letter, and her face is full of alarm. Just then a man bursts into the cafe. He is covered in some kind of black oil, which gives off a horrible stench. The other patrons look at him in alarm. He pulls out a gun and aims it at the woman. Just then she… No wait, let me start over. There is a woman in a cafe sipping tea. She is with her 4 year old daughter. Her daughter is trying to describe the first day at pre-school. Just then a man bursts in. He is soaking wet from the rain storm outside. He has a cut on his face and is bleeding. The other patrons look at him in alarm. He pulls out a long butchers knife and advances toward the woman. Just then she… No wait, let me start over again. A woman is sitting in a park. She is drinking an energy drink since she just got done jogging. The park is nearly empty, save for an elderly couple, and an athletic man who is still far off, but running at great speed. The woman turns and, seeing the man advancing toward her, and realizing who it is, she gives a scream. Just then the man pulls out a… no wait, let me start over. A woman is riding a horse through a beautiful countryside….

I find it tiresome to try to follow a story that needs to constantly restart. Yet this has been my experience, trying to follow the development of physics over the last 20 years. As a reliable reader of Scientific American, I have developed the sense that physics has fallen into the worst crisis that any branch of science has faced since the emergence of modern science in the 1500s. The story has changed almost every year: “Imagine a woman in a cafe. She is made up of atoms. No wait, she is made up of collapsed probability waves. No wait, she is made up of solid quarks. No wait, the quarks are made of 1 dimensional strings. No wait, the strings are looped. No wait, the universe has an ether that is linked with small loops of gravity. No wait, she is made up of normal matter that is held together by the dark energy in the cafe around her. No wait…”

Despite this crisis, physics is still delivering products that I find useful: computers that get more powerful, cell phones that work, hard drives that carry more and more information. The crisis at the theoretical level hasn’t yet stopped the invention of new, useful things. This is important – the models might be broken, but the old models still function enough to allow useful work to be done.

I believe this is the most we can ever hope for: models that allow us to do useful work. Maps that let us navigate from point A to point B. Along the route, we see surprising things: a lion, a tiger, a bear, none of which were marked on the map. No matter how many details we add to the map, the map never becomes the territory. The territory remains a surprise, always. Above, Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote “surprise is the measure of a poor hypothesis”, so of course, we should work to reduce the surprise we face along the route we travel, but we can never eliminate it altogether.

Mind you, I’m not engaging in the kind of relativism that some people accused Thomas Kuhn of promoting. I am not saying that one model is as good as another or that we are drawn to models for purely subjective reasons. I am saying that the models we live by can not be valued for being true. Rather, they need to be valued only for the extent that they allow us to get useful work done. “Useful” can only be evaluated in terms of some goal, so it will contain some subjective criterion. For any given goal, you could evaluate a model using objective means, but deciding on the goal involves subjective criterion – desires, needs, differing understandings of welfare.

As a practical matter, we all accept this, even if some people feel the need to fight against this. Most of us have had the experience of having a long running argument with someone whose intelligence we respect, an argument that goes on for months or years, that never seems to resolve – in the end, we sort of accept that they have some model that seems to work for whatever goals they are pursuing, just as we have a different model that, hopefully, is useful for the goals we are pursuing. We have different goals, so we find different models useful. The models are like tools – hammers, saws, drills – and we would not use a hammer to cut wood, nor would we use a saw to pound a nail.

Given this is my model of human knowledge, you can imagine that I would have trouble asserting a model of the universe with anything like the confidence that Eliezer Yudkowsky demonstrates above. When so many attempted narratives have been abandoned in a relatively short amount of time, I think it is time for humility regarding the limits of our models. They are fragile, they never explain everything, and there is a good chance they will be mostly supplanted in 50 years.