Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Maps and Knowledge

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about maps and about how difficult it is to make a map that's entirely accurate. I realize that the post is a bit different from what I normally write.

I wrote that post because I find that map making is a helpful analogy. The process of making a map is similar to the more general process of gathering and organizing knowledge about the world.

As I mentioned last week, any attempt to make the perfect map is ultimately doomed to failure. You can't make a map that's a perfect representation of, for example, the California coastline. Even the best maps are plagued with flaws and subtle distortions.

A similar thing happens when we form an understanding of the world. We study, we make observations, we put the pieces together and we accumulate knowledge. Then we take that knowledge and bring it together to form a coherent picture of the world we live in.

As we do this we run into the same problem we have with maps. The idea we have about the world in our head is never the same as the world itself.

The world is complex, intricate and full of detail. We can't possibly fit all of that information into our heads, just like we can't fit all the detail and complexity of the earth onto a globe or a piece of paper.

Maps are a helpful tool. They help us to navigate the world we live in, but we must never confuse the map with the world. We must never confuse our understanding of a thing with the thing itself. If we do, then we will inevitably deceive ourselves.


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