Daemon Maps - An Introduction
27 February 2024

He had bought a large map
Representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased
When they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s
North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry:
And the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!”

“Other maps are such shapes,
With their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain
to thank (So the crew would protest)
“that he’s bought us the best—
A perfect and absolute blank!”

From “Fit the Second - The Bellman’s Speech”
The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carroll, 1876

I begin with Carroll and his “nonsense poem” (which of course is never quite fully nonsense), a passage from his larger work, The Hunting of the Snark. It can be and has been read in a number of ways: perhaps existential angst, in its larger context an allegory of tuberculosis, or the death of an uncle. Perhaps it is about Carroll’s own sexual repression. In one letter, he agreed with a reading that it is a search for happiness.
The Bellman’s Map.
Illustration from Lewis Carroll - The Complete Illustrated Works. Gramercy Books, New York (1982). Page xxx.

It’s So Easy

Well, a search at any rate. In the larger Snark poem, the characters seek the titular and fantastical creature (which–spoiler–is never actually found or described) because, Carroll tells us, it is a Boojum (another equally absurd creature). As in the case of so many such tales, the allegory is left so open to interpretation that we might make either anything or nothing of it (thus fairly useless or absurdly useless to meaning).

The Bellman’s map that brought the adventurers to the mythical place of the hunt therefore seems apropos. Without “conventional sign”-ification, much less a single land mass, one need not worry overmuch about interpretation at all. 

And so too, with knowledge.

“Even so, as we smile at the blank map’s absurdity, we find ourselves sometimes accepting the very smallest of maps to justify our proudest claims: a meme, a fan video . . . .”
Just a bit of shorthand, really . . . .

What’s In a Metaphor

When I taught Theory of Knowledge (TOK) at a probationary IB school, we often used the famous adage, The Map is Not the Territory, a shorthand metaphor to remind us how, no matter what we might say or publish or claim or believe to “know” about any given subject (its representational map), this could never capture the complete reality of what we describe (the territory). Of necessity, maps and claims are reductions, static simplifications, of reality for the sake of a purpose such as expediency. 

We might, for instance, claim that Star Wars was originally the creation of George Lucas, and while such a statement is not wholly wrong, neither is it completely the truth. The terms “original” and “creation” would need to be tested, for instance, and the nature of authorial collaboration (such as the influence of the past), as well. Today, it is even more difficult to determine creative ownership of A Long Time Ago and Far Far Away. Similarly, we might claim that the U.S. government educates young people largely through an institution called public education, but this, too, is a simplified generalization of the agent of such an institution and its purpose. It’s also a statement specifically styled at this moment by me for a Waywords blog post, therefore fashioned for brevity and conciseness but without too much political or subjective rhetoric to solicit angry comment. In other words, the statement is not innocent of subjective intention or strategic crafting. 

The TOK course reminded us all that The Map Is Not the Territory, and we thereby remembered that the means to understanding the limits of our knowledge-making could and should be interrogated. If we did not, we might just accept whatever answer Google or an AI-bot offered us as “true.” It’s easy to understand why Carroll’s sailors throw their arms up in map-reading dismay.

It’s not that the warning buoy tells us precisely the nature and dimensions of the danger about it, but that, as navigators, it is enough to conventionally signal caution. And it is not that I need abandon my fundamental algebra and physics lessons to utter nihilism, but that I might wonder at the conditions and uses to which they are put. 

Even so, as we smile at the blank map’s absurdity, we find ourselves sometimes accepting the very smallest of maps to justify our proudest claims: a meme, a fan video, a single editorial, a witty clip from a rally, a discussion thread on a subReddit. And, worse, as we attempt to use such maps for still larger purposes–a claim to political solutions, a search for happiness, or the Answer to God–well, perhaps the sailors were better off. Our challenge here is not really “knowledge” at all, but our repugnant desire to demand simple answers for it. 

What I’m On About

I want these few ideas to serve as introduction to a series of explorations into these ideas: knowledge and maps and claims and interpretations and objectivity and education and the sciences, happiness and narrative and agency and religion and chaos and critical inquiry and politics. I imagine that they will not come all in a rush, but appear and expand across many months or more. 

They will be paralleled in other places on Waywords, as well, from the upcoming revised podcast to future educational materials. In part, I am writing to articulate it for myself, to situate and navigate other projects ahead. Along the way, however, I might touch upon some kind of pathway which helps someone else. I hope so.


Hence the Title

Before I close here, however, I want to offer a polar example to Carroll’s to anticipate our stakes a bit. It is from the near opposite source of a child fantasy writer, one of mechanical sciences, the Marquis Pierre Simon de Laplace writing in 1814:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past could be present before its eyes.


— Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities

This intellect, later called by others “LaPlace’s Demon,” suggests that any complete mapping of the entirety of the universe where the Map = Territory must by definition be absolutely deterministic. All science could be predicted just as all action, a grand Theory of Everything, in which any concept we might have of human agency or Free Will would be erased. 

And so . . . our scale of discussion is a trifling bit large. We’ll have to make a lot of tiny investigative excursions to test our thinking along the way. Keep it practical. LaPlace, on the other hand, is apparently signaling a potential intellect far superior to anything human; many have suggested that this is a description of God. 

So I’ll scale this back, to begin. We’ll call our exploration one of Daemon Maps, where any superior or superior inspiration guiding or discoverable by us (be it intentional, by D(d)esign, or by Law of Physics) is not necessarily ultimate, but graspable within our single local lifetimes. But more on this soon enough. 

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