SpaceLogo Sciences Participating with Arts & Culture in Education

By Mai-Thi Ho March 21, 2023

The Model and The Reality

When we learn what something is, we also form an idea of what it is not. Over time, a model of reality––what it is and isn’t ––takes shape in our mind, gaining so much credibility that the model could be mistaken for reality itself. 

Yet the nature of reality beyond our conceptions of it remains largely a mystery. At best, our words describe only a facet.  The map is not the territory. This principle––that the model is not the reality––may be a useful guiding philosophy in navigating the unknown world.

Reality is filled with complexity. One entity can seem to possess contradictory qualities.  I am special and I am like everyone else. I am on my own and I am dependent on others. I am rigid and flexible, young and old, selfish and selfless. Science, often imagined to be clear and objective, carries its own contradictions when scrutinized. Electrons, for so long thought to be discrete particles, were later discovered to exhibit wave-like properties – a form of matter or energy or both that at once occupies a particular point in space and propagates through space. A label, like a particle or wave, conveniently narrows reality into a box. Yet so often, a closer examination of anything reveals the presence of something more, something that seems to be not-itself. 

To take an example from ordinary life: we assume that an object’s mass does not change as it moves. Walking with the grocery bag along the sidewalk or on a flying airplane should not change the mass of the bag. Yet curiously, as the speed approaches the speed of light (or relativistic speed), the bag increases in mass. This mass gained at relativistic speed comes from kinetic energy getting converted into a type of mass – relativistic mass, in the infamous E=mc2 equation. In other words, when we closely study the nature of “mass”, we learn that it is not a constant property of a particular object, but another form of energy which seems unchanging enough to our eyes that it earns the label “constant”. 

Like science, language also strives to capture reality but fails to do so fully. Take as an example a simple statement about a group I’ll call Group X: "Group X like chocolate ice cream." From this sentence, we might be tempted to infer that Group X are not vanilla ice-cream fans, since they tend to reach for chocolate at the store. Yet this statement only reveals once facet of reality, and could mis-lead us in interpreting other aspects, since liking chocolate ice cream does not in fact negate liking other flavors. In addition, the word "they" in the sentence adds another level of complexity. Though their preference is generalized as a group, each individual has a particular idea of what kind of chocolate ice cream they like. Dark chocolate? Milk chocolate? Another variety? Furthermore, do they always prefer chocolate or only mostly? And is their preference truly based on taste? What if the group were situated in a world where chocolate ice cream is half the price of every other ice cream and had simply become the best buy for this group and most of them learned to like it? In short, what appears to be a clear description of reality disintegrates, when scrutinized, into a field of endless possibilities.

Still, we try our best to express what we experience and think, then to rationally communicate it in the form of words. Of course, we still struggle to express ourselves: we cannot fully encapsulate our thoughts even through a myriad of words; we taunt reality with a string of words only to discover later that is not quite how we truly feel and think. Yet forced to contend with reality, to communicating about reality with others, we are tasked with expressing what we don’t even know. 

Moving beyond the comfort of the familiar into the unknown often feels unnerving. Objects from our immediate experience are gone, and we find ourselves swimming in a sea of uncertainty. Our own defined personal world collides and momentarily coexists with that of strangers. For some, this is a sign of growing up and leaving the cradle for a broader society. To others, this is the daily experience of conversing with another mind and noticing the oddities in that process. Regardless, this feeling is not alien to anyone. So, surrounded by the very destabilizing fog of the unknown, what do we do?   

Recognizing that we are viewing the world through a model in the first place is perhaps a key stepping stone to interacting with reality and making breakthroughs. Models, even at their best, are lower resolution versions of reality. Without them, we would be overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the world. However, as we venture further into unknown territory – in depth and breadth–the initially constructed model may no longer suffice. The closer we analyze, the more incongruencies appear in the models. One common model is that matter falls into exclusive, dualistic categories – for example, good or bad, male or female, particle or wave. At the mention of electrons, we might conjure up a cartoonish mental representation of a ball, even though  electron-as-particle is yet another model, the complete nature of an electron’s reality still a mystery. It takes courage to face the unusual data indicating a simultaneous existence of particles and waves, but there is a reward: acknowledging the extent to which the model fails is also how the field of quantum dynamics was conceived.

At times, the models we hold and view the world through are unconscious. Our chain of thoughts and feelings are connected to a deeper belief system beyond our own awareness. Postmodern literature explores this idea, dissolving the notion of an objective, unbiased reality, or at least our capacity to know that reality directly, giving in to the subjective reality experienced by particular characters with their conscious and unconscious thoughts. As readers, we enjoy the observing the patterns of their thoughts, their feelings, their actions, which reveal not reality itself but how they perceive it – i.e. showing us their models. In these characters, we see our own unstable reflections.

Burdened with daily demands and pressure, it is natural to hold on to the safe sets of what we know, to the labels we like and to safe ways of being, and to forget that these are not the only ways of perceiving the world. Values such as success, status, beauty, happiness, and the paths to achieve “them” (however we define those values) are ever shifting. One might insist that pure hard work is the only way to success and that emotional independence is necessary for a serene life. In many cases, however, our concepts prove woefully insufficient and we are left to navigate the unknown for ourselves when the waves of disappointment come.  

Yet this idea––that the map is not the territory––can become liberating when incongruencies in what we take to be reality arise, encouraging us to notice reality more closely instead of falling into denial. In our own lives, this means recognizing the models we unconsciously uphold or unknowingly internalize, freeing us from the shackles of what can and cannot be. Reality is muddled and complex, still. Muttering under our breath the what ifs, hesitantly stepping out of the known territory, is where excitement entangled with nervousness intensifies. The adventure begins.


Eliezer Yudkowsky's Map and Territory was my first exposure to the world in our head versus the world out there. This, along with weird and mind-blowing physics stories from Chris Whittaker's Waves & Optics class, eventually compelled me to sit down and reflect on this topic.


Photograph by D koi licensed under Unsplash.

About the author

Mai-Thi Ho is a student in Enriched Pure & Applied Science. She attempts to bring the self along into her formal studies. "To see a world in a grain of sand" is a view she cherishes.

Share This


No comments posted yet.

You have to be registered and logged in in order to post comments!