Maps and territories: the very abstract nature of the energy concept

Over the previous three posts I’ve sketched out a high-level map of a conceptual landscape. The terrain we’ve been looking at, and for which we now have a very broad overview suitable for orienting our inquiry, is comprised of a set of interrelated ideas that together make up the modern energy concept. In other words, we’ve created our map not by looking directly at the physical phenomena to which the energy concept relates but by looking at the conceptual structures that others have developed on the basis of their own immediate encounter with physical phenomena and the perceptions that arose for them with these experiences. This is not to say that our map is not based on direct encounters with the particular terrain we’ve depicted—it’s just that the encounters are of a very different nature. The direct encounters upon which our map is based, rather than being of a physical nature, have their origin in the social realm of language and culture. The map represents a set of ideas already in widespread social circulation—and so the landscape it deals with is one comprising concepts formed and expressed in language.

This is perhaps a good point at which to check in again with the epistemological footing—the view of knowledge—that grounds this inquiry. Given that I’m drawing on metaphors of maps and territories in situating the recent post series, the aphorism “the map is not the territory” might offer us some guidance here. According to Will Varey (writing at Icarusfalling) the popular dictum appears to be an edited fragment from a more comprehensive use of the map-territory metaphor by Alfred Korzybski to outline his Theory of General Semantics, central to which is the proposition that words and the objects to which they refer are not the same thing. With a little of the original context restored, Korzybski’s observations do indeed turn out to shed some light on our own situation. Varey identifies two original instances of the metaphor in Korzybski’s writing. In the second of these, he reports that Korzybski actually wrote the following:

Two important characteristics of maps should be noticed. A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness. …[1]

To appreciate the significance of this view though, it’s essential that we know something of Korzybski’s motivating interest. For it’s not just the practical benefits of having a structurally appropriate map that focuses his thinking: rather, it’s the serious consequences that arise if we try to navigate with a map that has a structure different to the territory in which we’re traveling. To better appreciate what Korzybski had in mind, we need to consider the wider context from which the popular aphorism is abstracted. As reported by Varey, Korzybski holds significant concerns about the consequences of adopting a map the structure of which is dissimilar to the territory it purports to represent:

“It would lead us astray, and we might waste a great deal of unnecessary effort. In some case, even, a map of wrong structure would bring actual suffering and disaster, as, for instance, in a war, or in the case of an urgent call for a physician.” [2]

With this warning in mind, let’s return to our own situation, and reflect for a moment on the value of our map: in Korzybskian terms, what might its strengths and limitations be? What might we use it for, and for which navigational purposes would it be unsuitable? Firstly, we can say that our map highlights only the most striking features of the social-cultural landscape of energy concepts, and while it provides us with a basis for orienting ourselves within that landscape, there’s a great deal of detail that it omits. We can see on our map the overall relationships between the most prominent landmarks, but the resolution is lower than would be needed to locate and explore many of its less familiar sites. This is exactly the right map though for our purposes: our primary aim at this stage is to get a sense of these main features. We want to make sure that our generalist overview is not inconsistent with the specialists’ fine-grained depictions of their particular areas of expertise, without expecting it to provide the kind of intimate familiarity that develops only through living for an extended period in direct connection with a place.

Secondly, we can say that in affording us such a high-level view—a satellite view, in a sense—based on concepts that are already in their own right generalisations of, or abstractions from, particular situations, our map depicts a set of generalisations about those generalisations. Ours is a “map of maps”, or a meta-map. Its utility is to be found in the depiction of how the various aspects of the energy concept fit together as a whole, rather than in allowing us to appreciate the particularities of the physical situations in relation to which those aspects emerged as the pioneering investigators strove to make sense of their own direct perceptions. Following from this, we should recall that energy “itself” is a conceptual object—to the extent that it’s useful to think of it as a thing that exists, its existence is in the psycho-social realm of language and culture, rather than in the physical realm of events happening. On this basis, if we’re to get a better sense of what it’s about, if we’re to get some insight into what the pioneering investigators found so significant and attempted to pin down in their conceptualisations, then it will be helpful to get some sense of what the various aspects of the energy concept have in common with one another.

Thirdly and perhaps most significantly, it’s important to note that while the approach this inquiry is taking is not a common one at present, and at first glance may appear antithetical to responding in a timely, action-oriented way to global dilemmas, it in fact has a highly practical motivation (and one towards which, from my limited knowledge of Korzybski’s work, I suspect he might have felt some sympathy). The ultimate value of the map should be in representing energy concepts in ways that don’t distort them with respect to their use in scientifically rigorous technical domains, while at the same time making transparent the consequences of taking the views adopted in such technical applications too seriously. In the foundational phase of the inquiry at Beyond this Brief Anomaly, we’re methodically working our way towards seeing what this second criterion of ultimate value entails in practice. For now though, what would taking such views too seriously entail? Surely, in refining our knowledge about the world we experience, we can’t ever go too far? This matter is not nearly as straightforward as it at first appears. By way of orienting ourselves in relation to such non-orthodox thinking, another aphorism well known to those who work with “meta-maps” might be helpful. The statistician George Edward Pelham Box is credited with the observation, roughly paraphrased, that

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

The key to connecting this with our inquiry is to recognise that all concepts are, in effect, models of the reality to which they apparently relate as true characterisations, and as such, do not capture that reality in terms of an essential nature that it possesses—and as we’ll see in a moment, all are in an important sense mistaken. While such a view continues to sit outside the mainstream of Western culture more generally, it is taken increasingly seriously within the contemporary mind sciences (key influences and inspirations here include [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [11] and [12]). Moreover, the view, far from being a matter of idiosyncrasy on the part of a few isolated individuals, has a very long and distinguished history in relation to the philosophy of mind and knowledge. For instance, it sits at the heart of Buddhist epistemology, as articulated by the Indian philosopher Dharmakīrti (c. 600 CE). Dharmakīrti’s perspective provides a particularly clear basis for coming to terms with the idea, hinted at above, that there is in fact an important sense in which we can go “too far” in refining our knowledge. In order to illustrate what this means, I’ll present some of Dharmakīrti’s views here, via a contemporary interpretation. The source from which these are drawn is Georges Dreyfus and Evan Thompson’s chapter in The Handbook of Consciousness titled ‘Asian Perspectives: Indian Theories of Mind’.[13] Courtesy of a range of related influences, the overarching approach that I’ve adopted for our own inquiry is strongly consistent with Dharmakīrti’s view of knowledge; the particular elements of this view that I’ll introduce below are sufficiently consistent that they can be regarded as pointers to the view of knowledge that will carry the inquiry forward. In due course, I’ll show how this is part-and-parcel also with the inquiry’s systemic character—that is, how it fits with a systems way of thinking.

In relation to Dharmakīrti’s theory of perception, Dreyfus and Thompson highlight

his sharp separation between perception and conception, a separation enshrined in his definition of perception as the cognition that is unmistaken… and free from conceptions…Because perception is unmistaken and conception is mistaken, perception must be free from conception. (p.105)

This stands in strong opposition to the commonsense view in which, through perception, we literally take in external reality, and on the basis of this make conceptual judgments that constitute true reflections of this external reality. According to Dreyfus and Thompson

The commonsensical view of perception is not acceptable to Dharmakīrti, for it leads to an unenviable choice: either accept the reality of the abstract entities necessary for the articulation of the content of perception or reject the possibility of an unmistaken cognition. Because neither possibility is acceptable for Dharmakīrti, he holds that perception can only be non-conceptual. There is no determinate perception, for the judgments induced by perception are not perceptual, but are just conceptual superimpositions. They do not reflect the individual reality of phenomena, but instead address their general characteristics. Because those are only constructs, the cognitions that conceive them cannot be true reflections of reality. Hence for perception to be undistorted in a universe of particulars, it must be totally free from conceptual elaborations. This position implies a radical separation between perception, which merely holds the object as it is in the perceptual ken, and interpretation of this object, which introduces conceptual constructs into the cognitive process. (p. 106)

This provides us with most of what we’ll need in order to proceed today. It will, however, also be useful at this point to elaborate a little further by including Dharmakīrti’s views on the relationship between thought and language. This will provide a valuable platform for us as our inquiry gathers pace, and will also establish a handy reference guide to Beyond this Brief Anomaly’s epistemological basis. The following excerpts from Dreyfus and Thompson capture the essential features:

Dharmakīrti’s philosophy…emphasizes the constitutive and constructive nature of language…[whereby] experiences give rise to mental representations, which are transformed into concepts by association with a linguistic sign. The formation of a concept consists of the assumption that mental representations stand for an agreed-upon imagined commonality. Thus concepts come to be through the conjunction of the experience of real objects and the social process of language acquisition. Concept formation is connected to reality, albeit in a mediated and highly indirect way.

            But concept formation is also mistaken, according to this view. A concept is based on the association of a mental representation with a term that enables the representation to stand for a property assumed to be shared by various individuals. In Dharmakīrti’s nominalist world of individuals, however, things do not share a common property; rather, the property is projected onto them. The property is manufactured when a representation is made to stand for an assumed commonality, which a variety of individuals are mistakenly taken to instantiate. Hence this property is not real; it is merely a pseudo-entity superimposed…on individual realities. (pp. 107-108)

There is nothing over and above particulars, which are categorized on the basis of their being excluded from what they are not. The concept that has been formed in an essentially negative way is projected onto real things. In the process of making judgments such as ‘this is a tree’, the real differences that exist between different trees come to be ignored and the similarities are reified into a common universal property, which is nothing but a socially agreed-upon fiction. (p. 109)

Given my declaration of intent in Beyond this Brief Anomaly’s opening post, and subsequent pre-emption of the route that the inquiry would take, it doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable to simply let this introduction to Dharmakīrti’s view of knowledge rest in its raw form. Even so, there’s much to grapple with here, and some further interpretive remarks may help with clarifying the significant points.

At the centre of this view lies the insight that all knowledge expressed in language is necessarily of a conceptual nature, and as such is fundamentally differentiated from what we perceive directly. Our direct perceptions are a consequence or function of interaction between our whole “perceptual apparatus” and objects and events we encounter in our environment—we don’t perceive things as they are, but as they are available to us via the means we have for encountering them. There’s a tight causal relationship between things we perceive and our perceptions, but it is aspects of the objects that arise as perceptions, rather than the objects themselves. So while we have immediate experience of the objects we encounter, we don’t have un-mediated access to our environment, to the world of things and events in which we’re immersed. This is not to say though that our perceptions are mistaken or distorted—they simply are as they are; for each of us, the world in which we’re immersed consists of “things and events perceived”, as our perceptions arise.

The process by which we form concepts is of a different nature. Where perception is a matter of direct encounter with objects and events, conceptualising involves generalisation—or abstraction—from the particulars of the situations in which we find ourselves, as we attempt to identify commonalities across changing contexts. Conceptualisation is the process of isolating and describing relatively invariant features across the flow of objects and events experienced through perception. As such, it involves the transformation of the perceptual stream into a set of relatively fixed or concrete conceptual entities. Whenever we name or describe some entity within our field of awareness, or categorise it as belonging to a particular class of things, we make the leap from perceiving to conceptualising. Language is thus fundamental to conceptual knowledge and its formation—or expressed in terms better aligned with the active nature of what we’re doing when we know, language is fundamental to conceptual knowing. Language is not simply the mechanism by which concepts are formed though—it’s the basis for the utility of conceptual knowledge, and in a sense therefore the point of forming concepts in the first place. Language and conceptual knowledge allow us to organise and cooperate socially with one another. Conceptual knowledge is thus oriented towards the practical business of coordinating our action together.

As a set of constructs—tacit social agreements about the what, why and how of phenomena—laid over the top of our perceptions, the conceptual realm does not capture or represent the nature of things and events in a positive sense i.e. by grasping what they really are beyond the particular ways they present in this or that situation—despite this being the commonsense view, or what seems on the surface to be going on. Rather, what we’re dealing with when we construct concepts is, in the  language of systems, a series of boundary judgements about the relative similarities that we perceive between contextually distinct mental experiences. While the establishment of a boundary appears to involve a positive determination about what something is, consider for a moment the inverse perspective: establishing a boundary can also be regarded as making a negative determination about what something is not.

It turns out that this latter characterisation is in fact a better fit with what we actually do when we draw a boundary. You can test this very easily by applying it to things in your own environment right now. By way of an example, on my desk, I have the water bottle introduced to illustrate the energy laws three weeks ago. I also happen to have another bottle of the same brand and design in a larger size sitting right next to the original. In identifying the original bottle—in effect, putting it inside the boundary of “bottles used in our example system the other week”—I’ve had to differentiate it from the larger bottle (as well as all the other paraphernalia on my desk). The term differentiate provides us with a clue here, for to differentiate is “to determine or identify differences”. When we differentiate, we don’t capture the essential and invariant feature or characteristics of some thing—we don’t “grasp its essence”. What we do in such situations is to separate the thing in which we’re interested from what, in our judgment, it is not. In recognising similarities between distinct mental experiences—preparing the way for conceptually associating the experiences with a common constructed category—we decide, in effect, not that those mental experiences are the same, in the sense of possessing common real and essential properties, but that they are insufficiently different to exclude them from a conceptual boundary that we create. Incidentally, this offers an effective demonstration of how the systems way of thinking has significant benefits not only for describing situations of interest to us, but can also be used to shine a light on our thinking itself—it can help us to investigate the way things appear to our commonsense view, in order to get a better sense of what might be going on beneath the surface.

To regard conceptual knowledge as in an important sense mistaken doesn’t imply that it’s invalid, or that its value is compromised—it just means that its status is different to that which we tend to afford it by default. Recognition of this holds the potential to reinvigorate our sense of responsibility for our conceptual capital, for it is very much a product of and hence subject to the vagaries of collective human institutions and our individual tendencies. By appreciating that it is basically mistaken—to the extent that we shouldn’t expect it ever to be complete or free of uncertainties—is grounds for treating the conceptual domain with greater rather than lesser care. Moreover, that our conceptual knowledge is mistaken doesn’t simply mean that “anything goes”: our conceptual world is not merely arbitrary. Conceptual constructs, in order to be both meaningful and socially legitimate must be both coherent and integrated with the established set of tacit social agreements through which we organise and coordinate activity in any given situation. In this sense, concepts can be judged more or less valid than one another. This is a matter though of establishing the relative or conventional rather than the ultimate or absolute truth of a given concept.

With this background now under our belts, let’s return to the question I posed earlier: can we really go too far in refining our knowledge about the world we experience? Our excursion through Dharmakīrti’s view of knowledge and my subsequent review affords us an alternative way of thinking about this. Rather than questioning whether we should ever cease questioning the adequacy of the particular conceptualisations that we hold in relation to our world, we can ask instead what consequences might attend a failure to recognise what it is we are actually doing when we strive for increasingly refined conceptual models of a given situation. If we assume that what we’re doing is converging on the ultimate truth of the situation—closing in on its essential nature—then the view from Dharmakīrti (and Beyond this Brief Anomaly) is very clearly that we would be deluding ourselves. For if all conceptions are, by definition, ultimately mistaken, attempting to address the challenges with which this presents us by fortifying our conceptions alone would be a clear error of logic—in the simplest of terms, we’d be barking up the wrong tree. A failure to recognise what we’re doing in such circumstances could lead us on a wild goose chase of epic proportions.

On the other hand, living well in the day-to-day realm of practical action requires that our concepts be integrated sufficiently well with the conceptual schemes of those with whom we’re socially engaged. And on this basis, even though chasing after ultimately or absolutely true concepts entails an error of logical type, there is much merit in striving to bolster the practical or conventional validity of our conceptual models. Ensuring such practical validity is in fact a prerequisite for effective social action, and hence for finding ways to live well together.

Returning then to the question of our energy map’s value: we could say that what it should do, if it is indeed to be judged as valuable, is seek a harmonious fit with existing specialist and technical energy views—i.e. free of distortions and without undermining those views in their own domains of application—but without a) taking those established views too seriously in terms of their sufficiency for dealing with the practical social challenges that we face; and without b) taking the established views—or its own for that matter—too  seriously in terms of either their completeness or their certainty.

I’ll round out this post by returning to the map itself and asking what its contents reveal about the energy concept more generally. Recall from last week’s summary that the three laws, roughly stated, are as follows:

Energy law 1: In an isolated system, the total energy is conserved;

Energy law 2: Energy tends to disperse from being more concentrated to more spread out in space, unless there are no physical pathways for doing so; and

Energy law 3: As a system transitions between states, the action for the path that it takes—what happens physically as the energy spreads out—is minimised.

Let’s note for now that the three laws relate to the most general observations that we can make about the physical nature of any situation that we experience. As conceptual constructs, they are created by adopting an imagined set of descriptors (linguistic signs) that together offer a coherent, general account of physical behaviour experienced across all situations with which we’re familiar. In other words, we’ve assumed an interrelated set of descriptors to account for different situations in common terms. When we construct concepts, we’re creatively describing what we perceive as relatively invariant across the many unique situations to which the concept is relevant. This goes to the core of the whole matter: having identified some relatively discrete thing or entity through a process of negation—discussed above in terms of boundary judgments—we then can say something positive about it, by creatively attributing to it characteristics and affordances that allow the entity to fit with our existing conceptual domain. Affording the three generalisations above the status of laws (really a matter of attribution, but I suspect it’s unlikely to be regarded as controversial for present purposes) reflects an extreme degree of perceived invariance in relation to the behaviour they describe—they’re sufficiently general that we can treat them as absolute, while keeping in mind that this is a useful fiction. In other words, these are concepts on which we can reasonably rely.

We’re now well positioned to look at the laws far more critically, not merely as statements about the physical world, but as reflections of the ways that we experience our existence as cognisant beings immersed in a physical reality. We can approach this by examining the nature of the perceived invariance that each law reflects. This leads to the following observations:

For all processes involving changes to the physical configuration of a system of material components:

Energy law 1 recognises an associated conserving tendency;

Energy law 2 recognises an associated maximising tendency; and

Energy law 3 recognises an associated minimising tendency.

In overall summary then, the energy concept reflects the experience that in any physical change process—changes to the relative positions or physical form of a system’s material components—simultaneous conserving, maximising and minimising tendencies unfold in consistent ways across different system contexts. In short, despite everything of which we’re aware being subject to impermanence—coming into some degree of coherent existence, remaining a while (from moments to millennia) and then falling away, losing its former coherence, there are certain regularities or invariants associated with this continual flux of events from one moment and its associated state to the next. The state of a system in one moment forms the causes and conditions from which the next moment arises. Of course, this is in a sense trivial: it’s the only way that things could actually be. In the absence of such causal connection, existence could constitute only random noise, with no possibility of establishing continuity between states; on the other hand, if existence was characterised only by a conserving tendency—if everything remained permanently as it is at a given moment—then there would be no possibility of interaction and hence of the awareness arising that anything exists at all. So the experience of there being anything at all seems to depend on this causal continuity.

This is now the appropriate time to make a critically important distinction—a distinction on which the underlying point of these very detailed and epistemologically attentive foundational posts hinges. The distinction is essential to the whole case for developing energy literacy of the nature that Beyond this Brief Anomaly advocates. Throughout this post, we’ve been discussing the nature of conceptual knowledge in general. Everything that we’ve discussed relates similarly to all conceptual knowledge, regardless of the ontological status of the phenomena to which it pertains. The particular phenomena to which the energy concept relates are distinct though from physical phenomena as they are commonly understood. It is typical to equate physical phenomena with the objective world, or the world of physical objects—the world of things that we can touch and feel, or contact directly with the senses. The energy concept, though, relates not directly to objects that can be touched and felt, but to changes associated with such objects. The regularities it’s constructed to deal with are those associated with the processes by which things—systems and their components—change from one form to another. Coming to terms with the energy concept requires that we shift our gaze from regarding situations principally in terms of fixed entities, to focusing on the flow of events, as things happen. In fact, the energy view doesn’t require that we assume fixed entities at all—it allows us to think in terms of continuous change processes, in terms of an ongoing flow between states. The mental experiences that the energy concept deals with are perceptions specifically of the relations between things. With reference to the summary at the end of the previous post, the idea that energy is a specific entailment of a systems view will hopefully be apparent here. This doesn’t mark the energy concept as unique, but it does entail a particularly high level of abstraction—for instance, compared with other physical concepts such as force and mass. And more importantly, this sets the scene for a great deal of potential confusion to arise.

In summary, energy is a fictitious entity, the creation of which allows for a coherent account of the physical world’s conditional nature in which we perceive one moment as caused by and hence an effect of the former moment. It provides us with our most mature, comprehensive, flexible and, above all, instrumentally powerful means of understanding and hence bringing within our control causal relations amongst physical phenomena. There’s a trade-off though: its utility entails affording it an entity- or substance-like existence with an apparently physical status, obscuring its actual existence as an entirely conceptual object, a constructed property of the physical world. Not only does energy not exist inherently—a status it shares even with the most literally concrete physical objects—its conventional existence is of a different order to that pertaining to our everyday experience of stable physical entities i.e. there is no apparently concrete physical presence to which we can attach the label “energy”. The object-like thing to which the energy concept relates is itself conceptual rather than physical in origin—it arises only as perceived regularities in the relationships between other external things perceived directly.

In order to deal practically with situations in energetic terms in day-to-day discourse though, we metaphorically afford energy the status of an entity-like substance or thing. For instance, we speak of energy flowing from one place to another; we talk about the energy contained in a quantity of fuel; as shorthand for discussing energy sources, we talk about producing and consuming energy. As a consequence, for most of us energy effectively becomes such a substance-like thing. And this establishes the opportunity for a great deal of confusion—our map, taking on a structure dissimilar to the territory it purports to represent, creates the potential for the full range of consequences against which Korzybski warned.

A little further on, we’ll take a look at some specific examples of this confusion playing out and what this entails in practice. Over the next three weeks though, I’ll round out the foundational posts by considering the question of what energy is all about from a slightly different perspective—by considering the challenges faced by the pioneering explorers themselves in bringing us this concept. Today, given its ubiquity and explanatory power, it’s easy to take the energy concept for granted. It has only been with us in its contemporary form, though, for a little over a century and a half. An alternative way to come to terms with it might be to imagine grappling with the phenomena it points to without the convenience of the modern conceptual object itself.


[1] Korzybski, A. (1933) Science and Sanity (4th ed.) The Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, Conn, p.58.

[2] Ibid.
[3] Maturana, Humberto R. & Varela, Francisco J. (1988). Tree of Knowledge: the Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: New Science Library.
[4] Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark. (2003). Metaphors We Live By (second ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
[5] Varela, Francisco J., Thompson, Evan & Rosch, Elanor. (1993). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge: MIT Press.
[6] Bruner, Jerome. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
[7] Brown, Theodore L. (2003). Making truth: Metaphor in science. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
[8] Thompson, Evan. (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
[9] Bruner, Jerome. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge: Harvard Universtity Press.
[10] Lakoff, George & Núñez, Rafael E. (2000). Where mathematics comes from: How the embodied mind brings mathematics into being. New York: Basic Books.
[11] Maturana, Humberto R. & Varela, Francisco J. (1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. In Boston Series in the Philosophy of Science (Vol. 42). Dordrecht: D. Reidel.
[12] Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.
[13] Dreyfus, G and Thompson, E. (2007). ‘Asian perspectives: Indian theories of mind’. In The Handbook of Consciousness, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (pp. 89-114).

One thought on “Maps and territories: the very abstract nature of the energy concept

  1. Thanks Josh. I am learning a lot about several things as well as your way of presenting the concept of energy. I will enjoy continuing your lessons and at this stage I have a better perception of where we are heading. My earlier question is now left behind for me and I do not have any new ones yet. But I feel sure that I will!

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