Thursday, 17 December 2015

Old and New Maps

The map is not the terrain.

But, the map is essential to negotiate the terrain. Given that no map can include everything, or it wouldn't be a map, some judgement would have to be made about what should go on it and what should be left off.

That judgement can often be to a large extent determined by the largely unconscious attitudes of the culture within which it is made.

F E Schumacher, in A Guide for the Perplexed, recounts the experience when in Leningrad, of looking for churches which he could see in front of him, but were not on his map. The authorities did not include 'living churches' on the map, only ones which had become museums. He likens this to the maps of life and knowledge given him at school and university which had virtually nothing on them of the things that seemed to him of the greatest importance to the conduct of his life. He began to suspect the soundness of the maps. 

The claim (is it even that? More an assumption) that all the maps made post-1968, or 1917, or 1789 are better by virtue of being more complete, or more faithful representations of reality, or having fewer errors than the old maps, is so widespread and accepted as to be a truism. But this could only be true if it were possible for maps to completely correspond to reality at some future point. But this is never possible; we have already seen that every map relies on a judgement of what should and should not be included. 

So no map just is the terrain, all maps are a symbolic way of describing the terrain, which will vary depending on what you want to achieve in that terrain. If you just want to get across it in as quick a time as possible, then your map is going to look very different from someone who wanted to spend time walking and enjoying scenic spots in it.

It is possible here to say: Yes, these maps do rely on judgements, but our judgements are more rational, they have greater warrant than the judgements that created the old maps. At this point we have come to a metaphysical claim, because such judgements can never be based solely on empirical observation. They are obviously prior to such observation.

If this point can be admitted by the modern 'secular' mind (which I have found it very rarely able to do), then usually the move is made to point to the peculiarly effective predictive power and usefulness of the modern map. And there is little doubt that many of the advances in material conditions of life for millions around the world, in medicine and in fairer conditions of living can fairly be said to be based on the effectiveness of the modern map.

But actually this tells us nothing about whether the judgement, the frame of reference within which the facts are embedded, is coherent or superior to the older frame of reference. All it tells us is that we have devised a map which, by narrowing its focus, and excluding many things which once were thought necessary to be included, and by a general process of flattening, has brought a kind of intense ability to predict and alter material conditions.

Indeed, the key feature of such a map is that its very effectiveness in this material direction creates a kind of inability on the part of the map-reader to perceive that they are actually using a map, and a belief that they are just negotiating reality 'as it is', neutrally, with no need for anything else.  

Actually, that 'neutral' map-that-is-no-map is aimed at getting us to some fairly specific places quickly. As such, it can say with Laplace: "God? We have no need of that hypothesis." 

Which brings me to the story told in Roger Buck's book, The Gentle Traditionalist. The book is a dialogue between two people with different maps, and as such is an excellent imaginative exposition of what I have been trying to say here, as well as so much more. 

In the book, we are shown the poverty and incoherence of much of the 'Enlightenment' map, and given a tour of the richness of the traditional map. We are treated to some great moments, one of my favourites being a visit from Rigid Dorkins, and his encounter with the Gentle Traditionalist, who ends up reciting 'St. Patrick's Breastplate' (a prayer for spiritual protection) to heal a 'breach' resulting from the visit!

It really is through stories like this that justice can be done to the truth of the old maps. Tolkien, Belloc and Chesterton knew this, so does Roger Buck!

I'll finish with a quick story of my own - I am teaching the topic Myth and Symbol to my A Level class and I was trying to explain that whilst myth did not necessarily convey facts, it still conveyed 'truths' at some level. I explained that poetry and prose did something similar, and that great truths could be learnt about human nature through the study of literature. I had thought this uncontroversial, but some students thought I was wrong, and that no 'truth' could be conveyed in this way. They were not to be persuaded through much argument. This alone should be evidence enough of the power of the modern map-that-is-no-map.

Edit: I perhaps should say that the student thought that stories, myths and poetry could be meaningful, but unless they contained facts they could not convey truths! I could say many things to this but I think this image is eloquent:

No comments:

Post a Comment