We are often in the habit of forgetting that the map we drew of reality is not itself reality. Maps are always imperfect, and the territory keeps changing after we finish the map. When we say “the map is not the territory,” we mean to cultivate a kind of humility about the data we are evaluating, and an understanding that whatever information we may have could be out of date or in some ways, incomplete or even inaccurate.
For one thing, a map is always smaller than the actual territory it represents. It’s an abstraction and a reduction of reality, and it cannot contain all the actual detail the real territory will possess. Plus, maps require some amount of interpretation to understand, which is another layer ultimately of abstraction, potential misinterpretation, and probable disagreement.
The metaphor of the map and territory highlights the difference between the world as we think it is, and the world as it really is. We should always be careful to understand that our picture of the universe is flawed and incomplete, and to adjust our expectations of it accordingly. We need to understand the limitations of our maps, and factor that in to our problem-solving and decision making processes.