Certainty and Doubt in the Age of Information

We live in the age of information, but what does that mean? We’re surrounded by data, and data can certainly lead us to feeling informed, but this is not always the case. Is an encyclopedia full of information, even if it’s written in a language you can’t read? Is white noise, like the type that appears on an old television, informative? What about all those zeros and ones floating through ethernet cables that make up the internet? When does data become information?

A moment’s thought on the last few questions should be enough to convince one of the relativity of information. Data is hard, solid, objective. The pages of letters filling an encyclopedia are there whether or not you can read them. Information, on the other hand, is what data looks like when seen through a particular lens. Information is soft, fluid, subjective.

The subjective nature of information is tied into the foundation of knowledge upon which a thinking thing, an epistemic agent (EA), stands in order to interpret the stream of experience that existence throws at them. To make things clear, let us first explore the notion of an EA. An EA is subjected to experience, and reacts to experience based upon the set of beliefs it has about the world. Don’t think of belief here as being binary: either I believe in something, or I don’t! Instead think of belief as a spectrum, ranging from ignorance (I know nothing about this so I believe that any result is possible) to certitude (I know everything about this so I believe that there will only be one result). In this context, saying that you don’t believe in something can be restated as I know enough about this to believe that this result will not happen.

When an EA experiences the world for a moment, its beliefs come to bear upon that moment. The moment is a hard and real thing, a slice of the present that the EA must process—an input datum that transforms the EA. Imagine seeing someone shuffling a deck of cards, and then drawing one. You gaze at it and see instead of a standard suit and value a painting of Rembrandt’s. You quickly revise your belief in the shuffled deck being of the standard 52 card variety. It is this meeting of belief with experience that transforms the EA, the process repeating at every moment giving birth to the dynamics of belief. In the parlance of analytical epistemology, the likelihood of the experience updates the prior beliefs of the EA into posterior beliefs.

So where is information in all of this? Consider the sun rising each morning. It wouldn’t be remiss to say that we all have a very strong belief in that particular event occurring at some point in every 24-hour period. There is a bit less certainty in a card revealed from a supposedly standard deck, or the result of a roll of the die. When the card is revealed, or the die is cast, that uncertainty fades away as possibility solidifies into actuality—into experience. Going back to the sunrise, how much uncertainty fades away when you see those first rays of morning light? Probably none at all because you knew that that was going to happen. Herein lies the essence of information, in the relationship between experience, belief, and uncertainty. Information is data that changes belief; the more belief is changed by experience, the more informative that experience.

By continuously experiencing the world, an EA is facilitating the dynamical evolution of its beliefs. The accelerations in certitude and uncertainty are reflections of the informativeness of those experiences. When I see an encyclopedia I believe that there is data in it, but it is only by opening it and reading a page that I can increase my certainty in what is written and thus feel informed. On the other hand if I am incapable of reading the encyclopedia, then I remain uncertain about its contents, and I am not informed.

What about the television screen filled with white noise? As a child I would sometimes stare at the static on my parents’ old television set, and see if I could predict what shapes would appear in the flurry of black and white pixels. This game would not last very long, however, as I became frustrated at the lack of rhyme or reason in the staticky snow, finally running off to play with legos instead. The unchanging uncertainty in my ability to predict what would happen is indicative of an uninformative experience. Similarly, without the information technology embedded in our day to day lives, how different would the building blocks of the internet, those zeros and ones, be from the static on my parents’ old television?

I may or may not be surrounded by information, but I most certainly am surrounded by data. As an epistemic agent, a thinking thing, the information content in that data depends on my beliefs—the former makes no sense without the latter. Should I shy away from data that challenges my beliefs, or embrace it—do I stay inside the echo chamber today? Where do my true beliefs end, and all the fake news begin—do I have to choose between NPR and FOX News? What exactly are my priors, my lens that allows me to glean the information I do from experience—do I recognize my privilege? Most importantly, what information do I miss because of that lens—how does my ignorance affect my well-being and that of others? This, at least to this lone epistemic agent, is what it means to be living in the age of information.

To read more about the dynamics of belief and epistemic agents, I invite you to look at an essay Marcelo Gleiser and I wrote, published in The Map and the Territory: Exploring the Foundations of Science, Thought, and Reality.

- Damian R. Sowinski