Many Maps, Lightly held

Many maps, lightly held.

As described in The fox and the hedgehog, among other places (munger, systems thinking).  This post holds the theory statement above quite “strong”, to try to clarify the need for it.  It does not apply in some places. For example gravity.  It would be difficult to hold gravity lightly although it’s a neat thought experiment to wonder how brains and thinking might develop differently in a place that didn’t have (almost perfectly) uniform gravity.

I wish I could say the concept of many maps, lightly held was mentioned in Lens that sees it’s flaws – but it was not.  I believe many maps would fit that post if it were around at the time.


A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.

If I was a blind man feeling at an elephant, I’d need the principle of many maps to make sense of the world and the information it presented.  How can the elephant be both a rope and a spear and a wall? Many maps. Lightly held.


When the platypus was first encountered by Europeans in 1798, a pelt and sketch were sent back to Great Britain by Captain John Hunter, the second Governor of New South Wales.  British scientists’ initial hunch was that the attributes were a hoax. George Shaw, who produced the first description of the animal in the Naturalist’s Miscellany in 1799, stated it was impossible not to entertain doubts as to its genuine nature, and Robert Knox believed it might have been produced by some Asian taxidermist. It was thought that somebody had sewn a duck’s beak onto the body of a beaver-like animal. Shaw even took a pair of scissors to the dried skin to check for stitches.– Wikipedia page for platypus.


Identity, Archetypes, Roles (mother, teacher, boss).  A person can hold many masks in the categories of identities, archetypes or roles.  This is an important and valuable feature: to be able to subscribe to a category. The phrase, “I am a rationalist”, offers a lot of information.  Paul graham suggests, “people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan”.


In philosophical realism, there is a problem between the split of the information that can be found inside the brain and the information outside the brain.  If we rely only on information outside the brain, then we are proposing that the information inside the brain is entirely useless. We should collect external information and ignore internal information.  This feels like a dangerous trap, there are far too many depressed people to follow external-only reasoning. If we imagine we live in a chinese room, we can’t possibly know if reality is true – through our camera eyeballs and other sensory devices, for all we know we could be living in a simulation.  But this doesn’t feel like a complete picture either.


A short experiment in mysticism.  Hold your breath. For as long as you can.  While you do that, watch your perception of the world.  Watch as it gets heavier, denser, feel the redness in the face, feel the tension of the pressure on the chest.  Feel the sense of reality closing in. And whichever other perceptions you noticed by testing out this state of experience.  Science would happily talk about the (upper right quadrant) phenomena of the body.  The carbon dioxide build up, the oxygen depletion, the heart rate change, the body temperature change.  Oh science! Beautiful science! I love science. Science is hiding something interesting here behind known maps.  Yes, I know the objective maps of what happens when I hold my breath. But do I know the subjective map? What happens to my interior subjective experience when I hold my breath, when I meditate, when I am under stress, when I have an unhealthy diet?  How do I know and deal with the subjective without knowing the subjective in great detail? (and I don’t get the knowledge of the subjective from only trying out holding my breath, although it is a neat experiment).


The fable of the rational vampire.  (I wish I had a link to credit the author).  The rational vampire casually goes through life rationalising away the symptoms – “I’m allergic to garlic”, “I just don’t like the sun”.  “It’s impolite to go into someone’s home uninvited, I’d be mortified if I did that”. “I don’t take selfies” and on it goes. Constant rationalisation.

Each of these problems NEEDS many maps.  To escape the trap of the flawed lens, I need to be resting in a world of many possible lenses.  I need to be willing to hypothesise and entertain that I am a vampire, explaining away my symptoms as if they were allergies and preferences, As well as the concept of being allergic to garlic.  The territory only has one explanation but there are many possible maps.

I need to be willing to consider that I am a brain in a box somewhere – and all the signals of the real world are irrelevant.  And! Still eat healthy because in the case that I do live in the realism world, I need to be prepared for that too.

I need to be willing to pet the elephant ear, and the elephant trunk and believe it’s one animal if the evidence says so.  

I need to live in the world where I am skeptical of the existence of platypuses and willing to check for stitches but also live in a world where it’s possible to believe in their existence at the same time.  

If I want to exist above identities, I need to be willing to be not just my identity, but every other identity too.  I need to be able to safely go to the places of uncomfortable identities and wonder why people occupy them.  I need to know that I can never take off some of these masks but at least I can know that I am wearing them.

How many maps, lightly held, do I use every day…

Cross posted to Lesswrong:

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One Response to Many Maps, Lightly held

  1. Pingback: Rational Newsletter | Issue #57

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