Map and Territory: Navigating Language

Three philosophy grad students were stranded on an abandoned island. They started wandering around exploring, making a map of the territory. To make it easier to talk about, they labeled the northern part of the island “Section A” and the southern part “Section B”, writing it in big letters on the top and bottom of the map.

After exploring a bit, Chris called out excitedly. “I found a radio in Section A! Check it out, we’re saved!” His friends came running.

“This is in Section B, not Section A,” said Bruce. “It’s south of the tree line, which is the obvious division between north and south.”
“Of course it’s Section A,” replied Alice. “This is north of the river, which is the way to divide the island.”

Chris shrugged. “I guess we never decided exactly what the border was; I just assumed we were using the river. It’s not like the radio moves based on what section we call this. We agree that it’s north of the river and south of the trees. It’s Section A if we use the river, Section B if we use the forest. Let’s just decide to use one or the other. Neither way is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; we’re making them up.”

Alice and Bruce weren’t buying it.

“What do you mean, we’re just making it up? The forest is real and the river is real. One of them makes the real boundary between Section A and Section B!”

Chris sat down to use the radio to call for help, leaving his two friends to their bickering.


Alice and Bruce were experiencing the “map and territory” confusion. A map is a mind-made categorization of real things in the territory. It doesn’t make sense to say that the decision to divide the territory in one way or another is “right” or “wrong”, only more or less useful in different contexts.

This comes up all too often in language. Like sections on a map, words are societal tools we use to categorize and communicate the real things we experience. Our society has some well-defined words like ‘hydrogen’ – we have a good shared understanding of exactly which conditions must be met to determine whether or not we should call something ‘hydrogen’.

But the boundaries around other words are hazier. People argue over whether to call something ‘love’, whether to call it ‘art’, and (one of the most contentious) whether to call it ‘moral’. By some definitions, a urinal on a pedestal qualifies as art, by other definitions it doesn’t. Society hasn’t agreed upon clear-cut boundaries for which feelings, objects, or actions fit into those categories. But the arguments are not about reality itself – they’re over the labels, the language map.

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A philosopher of religion calls it quits

My latest article, for Religion Dispatches, examines the controversy generated last fall when philosopher of religion Keith Parsons quit the field and declared the theistic arguments to be hopelessly fallacious. The article also delves into the different approaches to philosophy of religion — are we trying to answer questions of the form “Is X true?” or of the form “If X were true, what would follow from that?”

Keith Parsons himself now has a blog post up about my piece, and responds to some comments readers left at RD. There’s also a comment thread about the article going at Jerry Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution is True.

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