Mapping the illusion of reality

Science, philosophy and cartography

In his new book, When Maps Become the World, University of California, Santa Cruz philosopher and humanist Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther shows how the scientific theories, models and concepts we use to intervene in the world function as maps. We increasingly understand the world around us in terms of models, to the extent that we often take the models for reality. Winther explains how our representations in science become dominant social narratives—they become reality, and they can remake the world.

This extract is taken from Chapter 9: Map Thinking Science and Philosophy

How do we understand the reality of the objects and processes postulated by science? Did Galen’s four humors exist in some sense, despite the fact they were disproven? Were atoms or electrons or genes ever not real? Do social classes or the unconscious exist, and in what sense? What role do researchers or the lay public or university science students play, if any, in establishing and stabilizing the existence and reality of such objects and processes?

Differing intuitions regarding what exists are deeply rooted in the philosophical traditions of diverse cultures. Do you or I exist, or are we a dream, an emergence, a fabrication? Are we and our thoughts an integral and essential part of reality, or does reality exist separately, whether as pure matter, or with its own soul(s), logic(s), or god(s)? If the apparatuses of human thought and sensation are indeed cleaved from reality, then is reality hidden behind a translucent— or, worse, opaque — veil of appearance? Are you and I free in our will and in our actions, and can our aspirations, imaginations, and activities significantly affect the world? Our attitude toward these questions impacts what we believe and imagine we can change with our knowledge and actions; how we imagine our role and place in the universe, and in society; and which sorts of futures we might consider possible and desirable.

Philosophers and other thinkers and doers have delved extensively into such questions and concerns. Consider three families of philosophical approach to questions about what exists, and how and why:

• Constructivism highlights the roles that humans play in co- determining the world via scientific interventions and representations.

• Empiricism is concerned with how inferences can be legitimately drawn from data, measurement, and observation.

• Realism interprets scientific theories as mirrors of a nature independent of human will, mind, and sense, and it interprets the theories as becoming increasingly certain and proven over history, through ongoing correction of error.

Drawing on the map analogy, each of these positions can be likened to a philosophical projection onto the actual, in vivo representational practices of science. Each of the three projections yearns for completeness, in the style of Mercator’s projection, and philosophically universalizes itself. Each comes with attendant fears, and asserts itself in dialectical opposition to the others. Each has a key cartographic counterpart, and each will be illustrated, briefly, with the question of the existence of genes.


The Mercator Projection became the standard map projection for navigation because of its unique property of representing any course of constant bearing as a straight segment. It inflates the size of objects away from the equator.

Constructivism finds ever more nuanced ways in which cognitive principles, communal actions, and technology can change the material world. The constructivist emphasizes human intervention and human agency. The constructivist is concerned that scientistic, neopositivist apologists— those who believe natural science can, eventually, explain everything— will downplay the historical contingency of scientific knowledge and progress. We saw Denis Wood’s cartographic constructivist suggestion that mapmakers are “extraordinarily selective creators of a world.” Bonnie Spanier, in her analysis of scientific journals and textbooks on molecular biology, finds that there is a close connection between the gendered language of sexual reproduction and the view that DNA is the master (male) molecule of life, controlling development, mind, and behavior within hierarchically organized life processes. It is through sexualized language that the molecular biologist and neuroscientist Francis Crick’s central dogma, describing a linear flow of genetic information, has been constructed— and even perniciously reified— as the single, dominant map of the causal agency of DNA across generations. Alternative maps such as “metabolism, energy- conversion, [and] autopoiesis (self- maintenance with or without reproduction)” are by and large ignored, thereby distorting knowledge, and— I would add— universalizing and narrowing dominant maps focused on genetic information. One must squint to see past the central dogma, just as it is hard to see the Peters or Robinson projection through the glare of Mercator’s.


The Gall–Peters projection maps all areas such that they have the correct sizes relative to each other.


Empiricism insists on the importance of data, whether historical or contemporary. Empiricism accepts that, because the evidence consists only of the best data available at any given historical moment, there will always be a very large number of representations (in fact, an infinite number) consistent with the evidence gathered.

The empiricist dreads that the limitations of data will be disrespected— perhaps by merry ontologists drawing strong, unwarranted inferences about unobservable entities. This map- thinking comment by Leslie Curry quoted in chapter 4 can be seen as empiricist: “Geographical studies are not descriptions of the real world but rather perceptions passed through the double filter of the author’s mind and his available tools of argument and representation.” The philosopher of science Kyle Stanford argues that the history of science has always contained “unconceived alternatives” to every extant representation. Drawing on Charles Darwin’s, Francis Galton’s, and August Weismann’s various influential nineteenth- century theories of heredity and development, he shows how the ontology of each was always limited, and that none of them imagined certain alternatives that would also have been consistent with the evidence available at the time.

Realism draws on sophisticated philosophical accounts of truth, reference, and natural kinds (classifications purported to correspond to the actual structure of nature) to appeal to the existence of an independent reality. The realist worries that the independence of the real and the progress of science (that they believe in) will be unfairly diminished, either by constructivists inappropriately supposing that human conceptual construction changes the very fabric of the universe or by empiricists unjustifiably hiding reality behind a veil of appearances.

As a case of map thinking in realism, consider the geographer Michael Goodchild’s matter-of-fact differentiation of “other spaces, such as the space of the cosmos, of the human body, of the human brain, or of the genome” from “the geographic world,” which is “defined by its extent, its geometry, and its range of useful resolutions.”

In The Advancement of Science, the philosopher of science Philip Kitcher defends realism by employing a complex conceptual apparatus making a two-pronged appeal. First, Kitcher argues that certain natural kinds remain stable across historically changing scientific practices. Second, he declares that particular theory- dependent explanations are prevalent and important. Specifically, Kitcher insists that the best suggestion for the predictive and explanatory success of genetics is simply “that there are genes.” These nuanced discussions in the philosophy of science regarding what exists have an intricate conceptual history, which has been recounted elsewhere.

Turn again to map thinking. Cartographic objects simultaneously require:

(1) processes of social and cognitive construction,

(2) empirical information, and

(3) reference to a world.

These three requirements align with the three philosophical families just discussed. Why, then, do philosophers so bluntly contrast constructivism, empiricism, and realism, as if they were mutually exclusive and competing in a zero- sum intellectual game? Why do we seem obligated to take sides and defend just one of these families? Perhaps it is because masculinist hierarchies continue to triumph. Furthermore, although their arguments differ significantly, their ongoing work seems to suggest that cartographers Wood and Good-child would resist the simplistic distinctions and positionings associated with the mutual exclusivity of the three views above.

I believe that one reason these families of philosophical views have been interpreted as mutually exclusive is the use of the term antirealism. Following my abstraction-ontologizing account[1], this is a kind of gross conceptual simplification and exaggeration, a pernicious philosophical averaging of many diverse and astute points of view. All arguments that do not have a putatively mind- independent reality as the bedrock of the world, and of our knowledge and actions, are lumped into a single cate-gory. But the descriptor antirealism covers too many disparate positions, including those of philosophers of science Arthur Fine, Larry Laudan, Kyle Stanford, and Bas van Fraassen, and various types of constructivism analyzed by Ian Hacking. Force-fitting these views into a single category seems intellectually dishonest, because it ignores many important conceptual differences. It also makes realism the default philosophical projection, similar to the Mercator projection, subsuming every alternative to it into an “anti- ” category.

I resist this strategy of classification. Realism should not be regarded as the default for framing the questions with which we began this section, let alone as the only game in town. Rather, by imagining each of the three families as a partial, purposive, and even political philosophical map projection, we can use assumption archaeology[2] to identify the assumptions they share, and use integration platforms[3] to negotiate tensions among them.

Undeniably, map thinking invites us to entertain a plurality of philosophical projections. When we try to understand the underlying assumptions of an opposing view, we might empathize with the other perspective. Doing so could even illuminate our own perspective. Constructivism, empiricism, and realism are partial, fallible, and abstract philosophical maps (or, more accurately, each is a family of maps). Each opens a window from a particular set of assumptions through which we could intentionally ontologize pluralistically— unmapping and remapping— answers to the above philosophical questions.

For instance, imagine simultaneously taking seriously Spanier’s, Stanford’s, and Kitcher’s respective suggestions about the existence of genes. Interestingly, each itself seems a call for an integration platform: Spanier undermines centralized control by relating and contrasting it with alternative modes of imagining life; Stanford explicitly appeals to the importance of a slew of unconceived alternatives, and of finding ways of identifying these, even when we might seem blind to these alternatives; and Kitcher’s analysis implies comparing the successes of many kinds of science, including the success of various parts of genetics. Now envisage placing all of these within a single philosophical integration platform.

Continuing with the map analogy and tools of map thinking, I suggest that there is no complete description of science. There is no ultimate, single whole of scientific practice on which we shine philosophical spotlights from multiple perspectives. Empirical and theoretical scientific inquiry is too complex a set of social and cognitive processes to permit absolute and un revisable articulation. Only perhaps as a Kantian regulative ideal— that is, an ideal state toward which we aim and move, but which we never attain— may we posit that the different philosophical perspectives on scientific practice are together getting at a monistic whole, a description and explanation for the single thing that science at its very heart and core is. My position about the open- endedness of science does not imply a rejection of realism but instead is compatible with multiple philosophical views on the status of the reality that science describes.



When Maps Become the World was published in June 2020 by The University of Chicago Press.

[1] The Abstraction-Ontologizing Account: The map analogy illuminates scientific representational practices. To begin, abstraction and ontologizing link map and world. Abstraction moves from the world, via measurement and conceptualization, to a representation. Ontologizing means deploying a representation to do work in the world, whether to change it, or to imagine the world to be a certain way and plan and act accordingly. Although feedback effects occur them, abstraction and ontologizing can be separated analytically as two distinct processes. Both often involve theory with spatialized knowledges. (p. 60, footnote suppressed)

[2] Assumption Archaeology: pinpoints contingencies and logical dependencies among assumptions [under or behind theoretical representations], illuminating the procedures and heuristics of representational practices. (p. 52)

[3] Integration Platforms: representation emerges from a sequential series of abstraction practices. We normally see the world from one perspective at a time, but we can also integrate multiple vantage points into a larger worldview. We understand the world more completely through such an integration. This pluralistic view lies at the heart of an integration platform. (p. 108)


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