Mapping Reality

Planisphere made by Rumold Mercator, 1587

Nature can never be completely described, for such a description of Nature would have to duplicate Nature.

~ Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, (translated by Archie J. Bahm, 1958)

As a youngster I loved maps. I would spend hours poring over the details of faraway places, intrepidly crossing rivers, hacking my way through remote rainforests and visiting vast metropolises in the distant corners of the globe and still be safely home in time for dinner. Of course the map is no substitute for actually being there, clambering up the slippery stones or feeling the dank humidity of the jungle. Nevertheless, maps are wonderfully useful things. But they can also be frustratingly difficult to interpret. A square inch on the map might translate to a full square mile with a myriad confusing and complex features on the ground. Sometimes a larger scale, more detailed map might help. But there are limits. In Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, a character talks of a map that had been made at a scale of  “a mile to the mile”. Being so large, the map had never been spread out and the people had reverted to using the country itself as its own map and found it did “nearly as well”.

A similar tale is related by Jorge Luis Borges in Of Exactitude in Science. The cartographers of a certain empire had produced a map on the same scale as the empire, which coincided with it “point for point”. This extensive map was found too cumbersome and was abandoned to the “rigours of the sun and rain”.

These fictional stories suggest a limit to how detailed a map could be before it ceases to be useful. Imagine, for instance, a perfect three-dimensional representation of a maze at a scale of one-to-one. Would it not be just as easy to get lost in the map as it would in the real maze?

Then there is the problem of a map contained within the territory. Suppose a perfectly detailed small scale representation of a country were drawn on the ground somewhere within the country. Then the map would also have to include the map itself. And that map would have to include a representation of the map of the map, and so on ad infinitum.

Our models of reality are like maps. The more detailed we make them, the more unwieldy and esoteric they become. The boundary between chart and terrain becomes blurred and we confuse the metaphysical model for physical reality. We have to remind ourselves, as Alfred Korzybski put it: “a map is not the territory”[1] There is an underlying fundamental reality that cannot be fully assimilated into our models. But then again, as Gregory Bateson posed the question, “what is the territory?” Our understanding of the universe depends completely on our maps and models – our perceptions and interpretations. All we have is “maps of maps”. [2] Even what we see with our own eyes is a map, a mere representation of the reality – an image formed on our retina and interpreted mentally. Moreover, it seems that whenever we take even just a little peek, we also interfere. When I raise my eyes to view the scene outside my window, I immediately intercept a stream of photons that would otherwise have passed over my head and bounced off the white wall behind me to continue in an apparently random path to who knows where. It changes me and it changes the world. How could we possibly build all of this into a coherent, multi-dimensional map of reality that would bear any resemblance to the underlying, fundamental reality?

But surely, we might protest, God must have such a map – an ideal representation of our reality that serves (or at least served) as the blueprint for creation? But does that idea stand up to the test of logic? French philosopher, Henri Bergson thought not. In his Creative Evolution, Bergson drew the following illustration:

The finished portrait is explained by the features of the model, by the nature of the artist, by the colors spread out on the palette; but, even with the knowledge of what explains it, no one, not even the artist, could have foreseen exactly what the portrait would be, for to predict it would have been to produce it before it was produced – an absurd hypothesis which is its own refutation.[3]

I agree with Bergson on this. I can see no logical reason to assume that God would have created two identical copies of the same reality. For God, it seems to me, the map must be the territory. And that conclusion has profound implications for understanding the nature of God.

Duke University Professor Robert G. Brown has written a logical, mathematical essay regarding the plausibility of the existence of a pandeist God. I am not competent to judge the math, so I cannot comment on whether his “pandeist theorem” genuinely qualifies as a mathematical theorem, but his “statement of conditional pandeism” seems logical enough. Brown states his theorem in these words:

If God exists, then God is identical to the Universe. [4]

It is important to note that “the Universe” intended here signifies everything that exists i.e. “the set of all things that have objective, existential reality”. It does not signify a subset of that reality such as “the known physical universe” or what people sometimes refer to as “the cosmos”. Brown’s conclusion follows from the idea that God, if there is one, must have the property of omniscience – a God without this property would not qualify for the title. To really know everything about everything in the entire Universe it would be necessary for God to exist AS the entire Universe. That seems to be the only way God’s knowledge could be both direct and complete.

Any ultimate map of reality or Theory of Everything would have to account for the existence of God, if there is one. Any omniscient God would have to account for the existence of such a map. To escape this interminable loop and avoid an infinite regress of maps within maps, the only logical possibility is that God exists as the entire Universe – or not at all.

Originally posted in my Members’ Perspectives blog at Reason and Spirit


[1] Alfred Korzybski coined this expression in “A Non-Aristotelian System and its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics,” a paper presented before the American Mathematical Society at the New Orleans, Louisiana, meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, December 28, 1931. Reprinted in Science and Sanity, 1933, p. 747–61.

[2] Gregory Bateson,  “Form, Substance and Difference” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1972 and 2000

[3] Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, 1907 (translated by Arthur Mitchell, 1911)

[4] Robert G. Brown, A Theorem Concerning God,  2009, accessed on February 23, 2011


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s