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I’ve Got a Map in My Head

Based on a talk given at the conference ‘Patterns in the Universe,’ Smithsonian Museum, Washington, October 1989.

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, Western civilization has been characterized by a desire to understand the universe. The early philosophers were concerned with that puzzling tension between The One and The Many, and between constant change and static being. Today, as we look for patterns within the universe, the spirit of that quest is still with us. We desire to celebrate the universe, to come to terms with the existential fact of our own being in the world and to deepen our relationship to nature and the whole of society. And this desire is not confined to science and philosophy alone, for has also been celebrated in art, music, literature, dance, drama, the rituals of religion and the great buildings of the past.

What is the deeper significance of the patterns around us? We are aware of the movements of the dance, of the architecture of buildings, the tensions of drama and the symmetries within the many natural forms that stretch from the elementary particles to the structure of the universe itself. We recognize that many of these patterns recur again and again, in different guises and in different scales and contexts. Science has focused on the patterns of nature in an attempt to reach towards their underlying order. According to this program, order is then expressed in terms of various laws. Through reason and experimentation, it is assumed, science will be able to touch the patterns of the universe and understand them.

Our present culture is based on this abiding faith in reason. The eye of the mind, it is believed, can move below the surface of nature’s patterns to uncover their underlying meaning. Reason too dictates that patterns and orders must ultimately be understood in terms of eternal laws of the universe. Reason, moving in harmony with experience, will one day reveal the soul of the universe and describe it in the formal language of mathematics.

But, one may ask, does the eye of the mind have its limits and are the patterns it perceives truly objective? Do they exist in an essentially intrinsic way within an independent reality? Or could it be that the essence of these patterns has been projected onto nature by the structure of our minds, the archetypes of the unconscious, the nature of the languages we use and by the whole context of our culture? But even this is to beg the question, for if the patterns of nature have their origin within our brains and culture, then where do these pattern-forming archetypes themselves come from? Does the internal mental ground have an objective existence and is it too subject to natural law?

A more satisfying possibility is that the patterns of nature originate within the dynamic exchange between observer and observed. They exist neither totally objectively nor totally subjectively but in the space between. By means of an example think of the way in which the painter Cézanne constantly moved between an external perceived reality, his inner vision, and the canvas itself. He was always creating, always experimenting, always testing the truth and coherence of his work yet never fully satisfied. His paintings have a true objective existence, yet one that arises in the space between inner and outer, in the complex interaction between the external scene and his whole life, experience and creativity. In an analogous way science is concerned with a landscape of meaning which has its origin both in thought and intuition as well as in its various instruments of investigation and experimentation—laboratory apparatus, the human sensory system, mathematics, computer models, ordinary language. The patterns of the universe, as revealed by science, are the result of this ongoing and dynamical interplay.

But, in the last analysis, does this landscape of science prove truly satisfying? Does it fulfill our desire for understanding and our search for meaning? Does the landscape of science cohere with the other internal landscapes we have created and does it lead to meaningful action within the world? The social and ecological problems which presently beset us suggest that something is missing, or badly at fault, within this scientific landscape of the world.

Serious problems exist in many sectors of modern life. They are usually addressed with the call for more effort, more research, more enquiry, more investigation, all leading to an eventual program of intervention and control. Yet, despite the many dramatic successes of science and technology, the major problems have never been resolved in any truly satisfying way. While a particular plan of action may result in the temporary amelioration of an especially troublesome issue the whole thing is likely to pop up again, in some other location, and often in a more virulent form.

The crises of the modern world have been discussed at length by many writers. The more penetrating of them agree that the origin of these problems lies in a common source, that our present fragmentary worldview is leading to conflicting action in the social, political and individual fields. Moreover, our present worldview fails to give us that deep sense of belonging that was characteristic of earlier cultures.

At this point an important qualification must be added. I do now wish to infer that all scientists are wedded to a mechanistic, objective view of the universe. There are many scientists active today, as there have always been, who see the universe as alive and pregnant with meaning and who are attempting to transform the current boundaries and paradigms of science. Nevertheless there does remain a rigid and confining view of what science is supposed to be and what it pretends to do. Such a view also holds wide currency outside science and influences the decisions and attitudes of legislators, educators and policy makers as well as ‘hard-nosed’ scientists themselves.

Without the aid of a mirror, it is extremely difficult to examine one’s worldview and culture. By way of an exploration it may be useful to look at our science and culture from a different perspective. It is a characteristic of many of the Aboriginal and Indigenous peoples around the world, particularly those engaged in hunting and gathering, that they are able to carry out what seem to us prodigious feats of navigation, finding their way in what is often termed a ‘featureless landscape.’ The Indigenous people of Micronesia are able to navigate with accuracy far out of sight of land; the Naskapi of Labrador can find last year’s trails under many feet of snow. ‘But how are you able to get back to the same location a year later and with snow on the ground?’ a colleague of mine asked his Naskapi friend. ‘I have a map in my head,’ came the reply.

The Naskapi, the Blackfoot, the Cree and many other Indigenous American groups all have maps in their heads, while the Australian aborigines know the dreaming tracks of their remote ancestors. Thanks to these maps, groups are able to carry out a variety of practical tasks such as locating game, returning to the site of an earlier camp, or even traveling to a traditional trail that no member of the group has visited in his or her lifetime. But it seems to me that this map in the head is far more than this, for more than an AAA Guidebook to game tracks, for it involves the whole relationship between the land and the people.

The Indigenous map is learned in childhood. It is absorbed while sitting at the feet of elders and hearing their stories and songs. The map grows out of dance and ritual, out of the movements of the seasons and the ceremonies of the group. This map in the head is not simply a plan involving contours, vegetation and trails, for it expresses the group’s place of being and their sense of harmony within the landscape; it goes beyond the practical into the sacred, yet makes no sharp distinction between either, for every act of the Indigenous person has a sacramental quality. The map is the meaning of the group, it is what holds them together, what binds them to their land; it is an expression of the music of their language.

It should be clear that when the Naskapi man speaks of having ‘a map in my head’ he implies something far richer than what is today called a Cognitive Map. To borrow from another contemporary terminology, the Indigenous map exists in a complex enfolded or implicate order, for it contains not only topographical information but the passage of time and indeed very much more. It is a map in which each aspect, each landmark, has an associated value and meaning, it is a map dealing not only with the external but also the internal. When the map is used along the trail, it acts not only as a guide to location but expresses a whole tradition of relationship to each part of the land.

The Naskapi speaker may not have been totally accurate when referring to the map as being in his head, for this map is read with the eye of the heart, the wisdom of the bones as well as with the eye of the mind. It is enfolded within the rhythm of walking, dancing and sitting; it is found in the sound of the language and the pattern of the entire culture. And so the map binds together, as does religion; it nurtures knowledge, as does science, it expresses the joy and celebration of nature, as does art.

The essential point is, of course, that such maps or internal landscapes are not unique to Indigenous cultures but are possessed by each one of us. We too have our own maps in the head. But while they may have grown highly sophisticated in certain areas, they are impoverished in others. The maps we carry have become fragmentary and incoherent and no longer guide us on our journey through life. Our maps do not bind us together for they have become ambiguous and contradictory, they point us each in a different direction and the values they teach often come into conflict with the path we chose. And so we have become lost in a universe of our own making.

Moreover, we seem unable to rest content with the implicate landscape of the map but are constantly attempting to explicate its various forms, and in this process we fragment the map. We make a sharp distinction between consciousness and matter, mind and body, objective and subjective, the eternal and the contingent. Indigenous maps, however, move beyond such fixed distinctions into an order between.

Take, for example, the goal of objectivity in the practice of science. The laws of nature, it is said, must be value-free if they are to stand for all eternity. We pride ourselves upon the great program of objectivisation in science, for we desire to know reality as it really is. But contrast this desire for objectivity with the Indigenous map. Each member of the group, man and woman, is self-sufficient and able to carry out all the tasks necessary for survival. In this sense there can be no special privileged position, no specialized expert, for when everyone can take responsibility there is no one to defer to. (Of course elders have a special position in having seen and remembered more during their long lives.) For this reason, the Indigenous group does not place excessive value on individual rights. Indeed the thinking of the group tends towards the collective or, more accurately, the corporate. While individual rights are not emphasized on the other hand it is of key importance to sit together and talk things out.

In this way the Indigenous map comes to represent a different type of objectivity and one that is not associated with the loss of tribal values. It is a collective view of a landscape and one that is both internal and external. It is a map which moves between the subjective and objective without, at the same time, losing a sense of the personal connection to nature.

In terms of these connections and this corporate wisdom it should be noted that knowledge does not come through the eyes, ears and senses alone. Dreams are held to be of key importance in Indigenous cultures, as they are in other traditions such as the mystical path of the Sufis. The dream contains special knowledge to be passed on to the group and can illuminate a present situation or give new significance to a decision about to be made. In our culture dreams have a fashionable Freudian interpretation in terms of repressions. Jung may have gone beyond this by suggesting that special numinous dreams involve symbols from the collective unconscious and the archetypes. But the Indigenous way of the dream suggests yet another level—a direct connection or communion with a landscape that lies outside time and space. The dream may be of immediate practical significance, as when it gives information about the movement of game or the coming of strangers. But it may also stretch down deep into the earth or reach to the remote past of the group. So the dream is constantly reanimating the map and charging the landscape with its power.

Connection is also involved in that special sense of oneness that an Indigenous person, or indeed any other sensitive individual, feels in the presence of nature. The Indigenous person may talk to trees or rocks. Yet, as I understand it, this talking is something very different from our own notion of a conversation—which is our way of bridging the gap between persons. For the Indigenous person there may be no original separation, no distance to be bridged by interaction. Talking to a rock or tree reinforces a person’s sense of communion with all living things and becomes yet another aspect of the map.

As so the map in the head is of a profoundly different order than anything that would be recognizable within our orthodox scientific approach. Although it should be pointed out that physics today is admitting new sorts of connections, such as the quantum correlations discussed in Bell’s Theorem which lie outside conventional causal interactions. This at least opens the possibility of a different order of thinking about connections that may perhaps lie outside the accepted categories of space and time.

The map of science, as we have already pointed out, stresses objectivity and freedom from the values of a particular society or period. But, as the following example shows, it is at this very point that the map subverts itself. In the Middle Ages, a person had a place within guild and society. Space and time were highly structured. Instead of the relativistic space-time of today, space was as rich as the yoke of an egg for each part had its own unique value and function. Indeed this vision of space is reflected in pre-Renaissance paintings. The space and time they portray has an implicate quality about it, for many different orders of relationship are enfolded together. A single painting may encompass the whole life of a saint, from miracles to martyrdom with the holy figure appearing again and again in the same picture. Incidents, seemingly unconnected in space and time are nevertheless enfolded together and unified on the same fresco or panel. Likewise a particular occurrence is never seen from a single viewpoint but from many different locations. One may simultaneously look down on the distant landscape of Jerusalem, mingle with Mary and the disciples, gaze up at the cross, confront the face of Christ directly and float in heaven with God and the angels. A typical crucifixion scene integrates a whole series of different viewpoints or perspectives. It could be thought of as the artistic portrayal of one aspect of a corporate map in which many different points of view are contained without tension. It expresses the viewpoint of a society which has not learned self-consciousness and is still unified.

The psychologist Jean Piaget examined that shift in perspective which involves a move from the personal, or subjective, to the objective view of conventional maps and concluded that this involves mental processes of such a high degree of sophistication as to be beyond the intellectual capacities of children under eight years of age. Recent research, however, concludes that Piaget was wrong and that even three-year-olds are capable of understanding how the world looks from a different viewpoint not their own. From an early age, children are capable of using maps and simple models. All this suggests that the enfolded or implicate vision may be far from artificial and that the corporate viewpoint may be more universal than anyone had hitherto supposed.

Contrast this ability to move between perspectives and positions in time and space with a painting done in the High Renaissance and observe how society now dictates a single viewpoint, that of the privileged perspective of the human observer. The individual has moved away from the role of participator within nature and now adopts the solitary role of observer. A separation from nature has begun.

The story goes that perspective, that privileged and lonely viewpoint, was invented by the architect Brunelleschi. This same Brunelleschi left the workshop of the craftsman and guild and transformed himself into the supreme individual, a great artist. From now on paintings would be created by artists, by individuals who believed that their own individual viewpoint on nature and the sacred was of supreme significance. The corporate and divine viewpoints were exchanged for those of the individual. Brunelleschi viewing the world from his single, objective, position becomes Beethoven shaking his fist at fate. Objectivity subverts itself into supreme subjectivity and the map becomes laden with a new set of values.

Of course there are additional steps in this story. Brunelleschi’s perspective becomes Durer’s grid—an arrangement of crossed strings through which the world was viewed and drawn by the artist. Thanks to perspective all nature can now be stretched and projected onto this Procrustean grid. From Durer’s grid to Descartes’ system of coordinates is but a short step and suddenly the privileged view of the individual, along with his particular set of values, becomes enfolded into the heart of science as space is now described in terms of coordinate systems and differential equations. It is ironic that this particular mathematicization of space has persisted despite the revolutions of relativity and quantum theory. Only recently, with the curious non-local implications of Bell’s Theorem, the new emphasis upon cohomology and algebraic topology in string theory, has physics begun the struggle to free itself from the values enfolded into that particular map of the world.

The map we carry in our heads is particularly complex, for the world presented by science represents only a small aspect of that map. I have suggested that the mental landscape essentially exists in an implicate or enfolded order. Rather than using the metaphor of relativity to express space, in which a non-Euclidean space-time is created by stitching together a series of small regular patches, the map in the head is closer to a series of different colored transparencies laid one upon the other, or to a scene as represented by a holograph. Many different forms of representation are present simultaneously so that when we speak of our Newtonian or Cartesian worldview this is only to mention one aspect of a public, orthodox map. We all relate to nature, society, and our bodies in other, far more subtle ways. In a sense we all still possess an Indigenous map enfolded deep within each one of us, yet this map has become overshadowed by the power and authority of the map of science.

Of course, I may be somewhat overstating the case. Great scientists have always seen beyond appearance and a purely material reality. Newton, for example, viewed matter as something alive and moving through the power of dialectic. The founders of quantum theory were also sensitive to the mystical side of nature. Today physicists are becoming increasingly aware of a new depth to their scientific maps. Yet it is certainly true that we tend to live in contradiction, wearing one hat to work and the other at weekends, one hat in the laboratory and the other with our family. Our more subtle Indigenous maps do not seem to command the same respect as does the public map of science.

Indeed few serious thinkers have attempted to unfold and explore the richness of our maps. The writer Marcel Proust was one such thinker who made a deep investigation of aspects of the map we carry in our minds. The result of his study is presented in the series of novels À la recherche du temps perdu. In the first of these the narrator describes a transition period between sleep and awakening. He feels the room forming around him and taking substance. Then, as he shifts his position in the bed, his limbs take on another attitude and, associated with this, there comes into his mind another bedroom and another time. Each time he moves a new bedroom begins to take form, each associated in his memory with some particular position of his arms, legs and head. So, within his resting body, are enfolded many rooms, many times, and many spaces, all equally real, all equally potential. Is the whole world like this, the narrator muses?

Certainly the map we carry in our heads, our body, our language and our society contains this aspect of enfolding and creating a world with rich and complex orders of space and time. Yet as we wake into full consciousness, or slip into the deeper dream, the landscape of science floods in on us and as the rising sun blots out the stars it drowns out those subtle hints and promptings of the other world. We believe that we are acting in the light of reason and knowledge, that our decisions are carefully weighed and measured. Yet those other aspects of the greater map are never far away and so we act out of a variety of motives, some explicit, other implicit and hidden from us. Our values conflict and the results do not cohere.

It is said that ‘the map is not the territory’ and ‘the symbol is not the object.’ But we are now able to move beyond this truism and see that maps are not simply passive representations of an external, independent, objective reality. The map conditions perception and influences the whole ground of our actions. Our values, responses and intention are intimately tied to our perception and flow directly from the map in the head. In a very real way, the map acts to transform the landscape and society, the map and the territory are so intimately woven together that if this map is fragmented or contains conflicting values then the world in which we find ourselves will be in a confused, fragmented and endangered stage.

As we have seen, the idea of a mathematical coordinate system as a way of describing space and time carries with it a range of metaphysical baggage that is never really made explicitly. It represents one particular set of values that have become enfolded within the scientific map and which are carried from one revolution to another. In our own time these particular values have tended to act as a barrier to progress, for it looks as if only a new vision of space and time, and with it new mathematical formalisms, will be capable of unifying relativity and quantum theory. So it turns out that the very formal language we adopt in physics is by no means value free but has tended to subvert the whole program of abstraction and objectification.

Mathematics in general has had a profound influence on the development of the physical sciences and its maps. But the great scientists of the past were as much concerned with philosophical and metaphysical matters as with the formal details of physical law. Today, however, mathematics is taking an increasingly important role. ‘God is a mathematician,’ declared the physicist Sir James Jeans half a century ago and since that time the God of science has not looked back. Physics has become highly abstract and dependent on mathematics. Its highest degree of sophistication has been reached in the current superstring theories in which mathematical arguments are now being used to guide the physics itself.

Physicists seem to be divided upon the significance of the elevated position of mathematics. On one hand it represents a full marriage between physics and mathematics so that all the power and intuition of modern mathematics are at the service of physics. On the other, physics is becoming removed from a more philosophical ground to the point where Michael Green, one of the inventors of modern superstring theory, in a conversation with me felt that while relativity had produced an inevitable way out of Einstein’s physical and philosophical thought the same deep foundation was not the case with superstrings.

In the cases of superstring theory and quantum cosmology physicists are moving into what has been called a post-modern era. Theories are becoming increasingly abstracted from direct experience for that they can no longer be tested experimentally but must be checked against other theories, or even against theories that are about theories. The new criterion in physics is becoming the overall consistency and coherence between theories rather than contact with experience. In a sense, scientific theories are moving closer to a sort of abstract play—a mathematical painting of the universe as it were. Values again surface from the deep levels of the scientific map.

In another essay I have asked if a symphony or other piece of music could be considered as a theory of the universe. After all, music is highly ordered and structured, it is governed by generative laws and moves in a regular way and, at the same time, music is highly creative. Music has been called, by the composer Edgar Varese, ‘the corporealisation of thought.’ Why then can the realization of structured thought directly in sound not represent a theory or portrayal of nature, just as abstract symbolization in mathematics purports to be? A number of societies would indeed regard music in this light. A song of an American Indigenous group or a raga of India has a sacramental quality that both binds together as well as representing and celebrating the unfolding of creation itself. Within such worldviews, sacred music would certainly express the meaning and nature of the universe. In the culture of Indonesia, the universe is portrayed in another way, through the ritual of the shadow-puppet play. Music, drama, dance, and art all become ways of formally relating to the universe and pointing to its deepest secrets.

But, from the perspective of Western science, one can immediately see the objection to music as having a serious role to play in understanding the universe. Music lacks a quantitative side—it cannot be used to predict and compare with scientific measurement. But, as we have also seen, some of the more important and highly abstract theories of modern physics, while they may make some limited quantitative predictions, are also remote from empirical verification. If the modern theories of physics are now being guided by the aesthetics and intuition of mathematics as well as by their overall coherence, then are they really so remote from the internal orders of music? Is it possible that the boundary between music and mathematics will one day become permeable?

While music may lack a quantitative measure it certainly has a powerful aesthetic side. Music acts to bind together at a social level, it both calms and stimulates the mind, bringing it to order, induces a sense of oneness with nature and is an image of creation. Music deals in feelings, emotions, and sensations. Mathematics, in the main, does not. Is it necessary therefore that our current map of the world should maintain such a sharp boundary between mathematics as a language of science, and music, art, dance and drama as both artistic expressions and celebrations of understanding? While music cannot and never should replace mathematics as the major language of science it is possible that a less fragmentary map in the future may find a special place for music’s social, cosmic and individual functions so that the scientific map merges into and complements the artistic and the religious.

Music speaks of the cosmic and the eternal. So too do the great laws of physics. But again as we compare the Indigenous with the scientific maps we discover an apparent paradox. For, while the scientific map, which strives for the eternal is ever changing, that of the Indigenous, which deals directly with time, has a timeless nature.

The Indigenous map enfolds both time and space. It deals in the cycles of the seasons, the movement of game, the time of planting and the time of gathering. It sets aside time of ritual and time for dance, times of birth, time of naming and times of death and passing away. If the hunter-gatherer lives so fully in time this may perhaps explain why he or she has no desire to step outside the timeful in order to make predictions and contemplate a future that does not yet exist. A complaint sometimes voiced is that the Indigenous person neglects to plan ahead, refuses to gather and store more than is needed for the present, does not predict and forecast. It may not be so much that such people are unable to perform such an act of abstraction and intent but that its meaning lacks a deeper significance to them.

So, paradoxically, by living in time, the map within the head is eternal and constantly renewed. It is a map untarnished by time.

Contrast this with the scientific map that seeks, through eternal laws, a place to stand in the universe that is unassailable for all time. Paradoxically such a map is subject to the vagaries of time, constantly being replaced, always becoming out of date. By seeking to occupy a place outside time science has become engaged in time’s movement in which its laws are always being subverted.

From the days of the early Greeks, we have been seeking the certainty that lies in what could be called closure. Closure implies that final world that brings discussion to its conclusion, it is a wrapping up, a resolution of the great questions of the universe, an ending of time. But this is also the sort of ending beloved of Victorian novelists in which all conflicts are finally resolved, warring parties united, loving couples married and the wrong doers punished. Although life may go on after the novel’s ending, it is a life without conflict or tension. While post-modern stories can no longer afford this luxury some scientists still believe that the story told by science can reach an ultimate conclusion through its laws, a conclusion in which time is finally blotted out. Truth, however, may be of a very different order from timeless stasis for it may require a search for what is straight rather than what is static.

At present the scientific story is required to have both a beginning and an end. The universe is pictured as emerging through a process of symmetry breaking in which the forces of nature and the masses of the elementary particles are differentiated. The world begins in a highly symmetric, ideal state and moves towards complexity through broken symmetries and timeless laws.

But is there another possibility in all this? Is it possible that the ground of the universe is not a single master symmetry at the origin of time but a complex flux out of which forms and structures are emerging and, within a particular range of times, distances and energies, have a relatively permanent subsistence? Is it possible that the eternal laws that we seek are contingent, thrown up by a deeper ground? Possibly the truth may lie somewhere between the two, between the eternal and the contingent.

As we have seen, our culture lives with a map that is enfolded in highly complex ways and, to a great extent, dominated by the map of science. Other levels exist within this map, as do other forms of knowing and feeing, yet for our modern world this whole landscape has begun to lose its meaning and coherence. The map in our heads has become fragmented so that, although we may have lost the power to talk to trees and rocks, we now want to talk to the stars. Yet if the stars are dead what would be the point? What sense of connection could there be in a vast, dead and meaningless universe?

Today we are beginning to experience a desire for a more holistic relationship to nature and within society. People are beginning to sense the universe as a living organism, they are concerned with ecology and the state of the planet, they are calling for a new order to society, and end to conflicts that separate us. And so, sensing the fragmentation of our present map, we feel the need for new landscapes: but where are they to be found? Maps cannot be translated from other cultures, nor can they be bartered, borrowed or stolen. Neither can we return to some imagined Golden Age of our past. What seems to be required is a re-creation of our map and with it an act of healing. We must look into the endless folds of our contemporary map and sense its fragmentation, the separation it maintains between mind and body, head and heart, individual and society, society and nature. We must come to terms with its conflicts. We must acknowledge our pain, grief and sense of loss. We may need a period of morning and a period of letting go. We must accept that act of dying which allows the creative to flourish. And so we may eventually return to the patterns of universe, but this time they will be patterns redolent of meaning.


I would like to thank Pam Colorado, Leroy Little Bear, Alan Ford, Woody Morrison, Marilyn Shirt and Anna Sofia for invaluable discussions.