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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The map makers dilemma

The map makers dilemma is how closely they want to represent reality on their map. To have a perfect representation of reality requires one to have an exact replica. If you wanted an exact replica of the countryside you would have to draw it perfectly to scale, and the map would literally be as large as the countryside that it represented. However, an exact replica would be impractical and unusable. In fact, they might as well not use the exact replica - reality, itself, would do just as well. Hence, rather than using the exact replica of reality you would use the countryside itself - the countryside becomes its own map.

Yet on the other hand, if the map makers decide that they want a scaled-down map they must sacrifice representation. The map becomes less and less a true representation the more that it is scaled down. The scaled down map is useful, even if it is less true. So, we use something that helps us navigate through the countryside, even if we must sacrifice correspondence. But the more we use something that is un-real the more we have a tendency to make the un-real into the real. That is, simply by using the un-real we are pragmatically finding it more useful and hence more real than the real itself.

In this sense we create a map that is un-real, and then by virtue of repetitive use and reliance we make the un-real into that which is more real.

When I am cruising around Chicago I use a very scaled down map to navigate through the streets. But I cannot rely solely on the map. If all that I looked at was the map I would soon find myself in a nasty car wreck! So, my eyes are bobbing up and down between the map and the streets. The map is the un-real simulacra. The street is the reality.

When I am lost and trying to navigate through Chicago I find myself in a state of anxiety. I am caught somewhere between the real and the unreal. The simulacra and reality. I desperately want to arrive somewhere that is real, but I depend upon the unreal (the map) because it is more easy to understand - it is scaled down so that I can understand and use it.

Realists and Idealists believe that the real is all we need. Reality is what we should strive to attain. Others contend that the unreal is all we need or desire, or at least that the unreal is all we really have to work with. These folks might say that all we really have in life are simulations and unreal things. We just fool ourselves when we think that these things are real or that these things are the actual truth.

This is somewhat mirrored by the Modern philosophical projects: Do we know "the things in themselves"? Kant said that we don't necessarily know "the things in themselves" - the nouma. Rather, our minds organize it's perceptions and leaves us with the "phenomena". The difference between nouma and phemoumena is, as I understand it, the difference between "the thing in itself" and how we perceive and categorize "the thing in itself." Hence Kant was consumed with how our minds categorize "the reality." But for me Kant leaves the question of our connection with reality hanging, and in this sense I see Kant as a sort of bridge between Modern and Post-modern philosophical thought, if I can use these terms in a very broad and general sense.

Let's return to my navigation through Chicago....

Perhaps life is more like a navigation through Chicago. We find ourselves in a state of anxiety. Consulting the map (things like Scripture, tradition, philosophy, psychology, or creeds) to find direction and trying to match it up with the real world in which we live. A mix of making right turns and wrong turns. Our "eyes" are bobbing up and down between the map and the streets - between the real and the unreal. This produces, for the most of us, a kind of anxiety. We are caught somewhere between the real and various representations of the real.

On this analogy, we are presented with four dilemmas.

First dilemma: "Which maps are the best?" We are saturated with viewpoints, worldviews, and various other "maps" that purport to represent reality. Yes some of them conflict, and some of them show agreement. But sometimes even if all the maps agree they still seem to be off. But are the maps wrong or are we just not seeing things right? That brings us to our second dilemma.

Second dilemma: "Are we correctly perceiving reality?" Maybe between all the bobbing of our eyes between map and streets we haven't quite seen the streets in the right way. Maybe our vision is bad, and we just don't know it. According to Scripture our view of things is skewed and warped by original sin. According to much contemporary thought we have conceded that we tend to have certain predispositions and presuppositions that warp our ability to see clearly. Our cultural backgrounds, family influences, and genetic dispositions are like glasses that cloud and fog our ability to see clearly.

This is a very real dilemma. Not only are we trying to juggle a bunch of maps to figure out which one is right, but we don't even have a good handle on whether or not we are seeing things clearly.

Third dilemma: "Where are we?" We can never rise above the frey and take a bird's eye view of things. Our perspective is limited to where we are right now. We start in a certain situation. Problem: We don't really know where we are at in relation to the whole. None of the maps have friendly arrows that say "You Are Here." Or wait, maybe they do. The Bible says we are all starting out in the same boat: Total Depravity. And that we all need to go the same direction for salvation: Through Jesus Christ. Ok, but all the other maps are giving us different arrows and saying that we are starting at different spots. How do we know where we are starting from?

Fourth dilemma: "Where the heck are we even going?" This is, perhaps the question that causes the most anxiety. This is, perhaps the least intellectual and the most existential question. But much of how we will answer the first three dilemmas turns on where we want to go in life. But then where we want to go will be determined by where we start and which map we accept as more credible and reliable. And it will also depend on how we perceive reality (second dilemma).

Exasperating!

The contemporary pop culture in the States says: "Make your own darn map!" On this view all dilemmas are eliminated because we all just throw away the maps and drive. Feel like slamming the peddle to the metal? Cool. Drive fast. Feel like taking it easy? Maybe smoke a little weed and relax. Fine. Soak in life and relax. The only qualification is that you can't hit anybody else who is driving around. For pop culture, then, we are our own map makers. We make the rules as we go! Use the maps only as it suits your taste - choosing maps are like choosing a coffee or tea - just go with the one that pleases your palate.

(This post is a replica, though not an exact replica, of a comment that I made over at ktismatics on a very interesting post, The Desert of the Real Itself. I altered it a bit so as to make it more useful to this blog and to the readers of this blog.)

1 comment:

ktismatics said...

Interesting post. I think your dilemmas are good orientations for navigating your way through life. Conflicting maps, reality versus perception, where we are versus where we're going -- a lot of gaps to be traversed. You hope that a map is going to show you how to cross the gaps, that the map is sufficiently accurate and detailed that you can go from point A to point B with a minimum of wrong turns. But what if the maps have gaps because nobody's ever been where you are before? You're moving into the unexplored territory where there are no maps. Maybe the road is taking shape under your wheels as you drive along.

The Christian life presumably tells you where point A and point B are located. You've also got a GPS and a navigation system -- It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. To what extent is the Christian life supposed to be a simulation of Jesus's life, a pilgrimage through familiar territory that only appears different but really isn't? Or to what extent is life an "emerging phenomenon" that requires improvisation and trailblazing skills?