The Dueling Cartographers: A Parable About Epistemology


Envision science and religion as cartographers huddled together in a dark room. Both can just barely make out a great map before them. It’s too dark to resolve any features, which frustrates them both. Religion pulls out a magnificent looking map of its own, which depicts a single great circular continent, and sea serpents prowling the waters around it.

He then proudly declares that ancient mystics had divined the contents of the great map before them in perfect detail many centuries ago, made a copy, and entrusted it to him. In that time, science had been busy building a crude spotlight with a variable aperture. , he says. Religion confidently agrees.

Initially the lamp has very low power, so the aperture is kept small so as to maximize illumination, casting only a small spot of light on the center of the map. science says, Religion perks up. Science shrugs and continues charging the battery. religion assures him, .

But science, persistent type that he is, cranks until the light’s intensity is sufficient to widen the aperture further. Religion rushes to his side and protests,

Science raises an eyebrow. As the charge increases, the spotlight widens again. Religion pulls at his collar and sweats.

Science shrugs.

For the first time, religion detects that things are not going his way. He takes on a somber, determined expression and begins inwardly considering which tactics he might use to turn the tables. As they wait for the aperture to widen a bit more, science copies down what it’s revealed up to that point, and dots in a few trees to extend the forest a bit past the edge of what the spotlight made visible.

Religion asks. A minute later the aperture widens. The forest terminates abruptly, with sandy plains just beyond.

Religion dances about feverishly, pointing at science;

, science urges, Religion quiets down, with a bit of grumbling, and then the two return to their seats and resume waiting.

The aperture widens again. Religion is becoming visibly stressed.

Science laughs, Religion, red in the face, storms off for a bit as science continues to crank up the battery. Finally, at full brightness, the lamp casts an enormous spotlight which covers nearly all of the map, leaving only the edges in shadow. The map depicts a handful of continents and smaller islands separated by ocean….but conspicuously, no sea serpents.

Religion sulks in the corner, and science tries to comfort him. , religion mumbles. , science says, Science reaches out a hand, but religion swats it away. Sensing that he’s not wanted, science takes his leave.

A few hours later, religion emerges with a curiously upbeat attitude. Science obliges. It’s speckled with eraser dust and smudged graphite, obviously having been erased and re-drawn. But more notably, it now looks nearly identical to science’s own copy of the great map.

Religion becomes deathly quiet, and frowns at science. Science becomes confused;

Religion snatches it away from science; By this point, science is feeling exasperated.

Years later Science is still tinkering away, increasing the lumens of his spotlight, as well as its radius. But even as he reaches the border of the map and all seems to have been revealed, religion remains unmoved. Perhaps, he suggests, the serpents are underwater, or on the back of the map. Perhaps the map does not depict the entire world, and the serpents are just outside the region it does depict? Wherever he believes science will never be able to investigate.

All the while he behaves as though unconvinced by his own arguments; petty, defensive, and feigning arrogance as if to heal his own wounded ego. Though he cannot ignore what science has revealed, his every attempt to claim credit for it has failed, and he is left only with excuses that he knows full well are hollow.

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