Previous Fora / 2003

Be popper to information!

Be popper to information!

Nicholas Lobkowicz


 As, contrary to most speakers at this conference, I am neither a scientist nor a specialist for computers but - both by training and by interest - a philosopher or, to put it more modestly, a specialist in philosophy, I would like to begin my lecture by trying somewhat to clarify the three concepts. "knowledge", "information" and "information-based society" or, in any case, to say hoe I will use these words..

According to a classical definition, I know p if and only if I am convinced that p is true, p in fact is true, and I have solid arguments for my conviction. If I did not consider p true I would not claim that I know it; if it turns out not to be true one will point out to me that I cannot have known it after all; and if I cannot put forward any solid argument for p one would object: "But how can you then claim that you know it?". One may of course continue and ask what a "solid argument" is but I will not pursue this issue; it may be enough to say that, in one way or another, it has to support the claim that p is true in a convincing way.

It is somewhat more difficult to define the expression "information" but perhaps it will be enough to say that I will use it in the sense of everything that I can understand and that is news for me. If I cannot break the key, I have not received an information; neither does it inform me, if I already have known its content. By using such a vague definition, I of course skip all the complicated theories and problems of what is called "information theory" and use the expression in a completely non-technical way. In this sense, "information" is everything that, while I was not aware of it a few moments ago, I learn by reading a newspaper, by listening to the radio, by watching television or by calling it up in the internet. An information-based society, then, is a society in which such news are considered important. In a way, this is true of all societies, for, as Aristotle says at the beginning of his Metaphysics, "all men by nature desire to know". But if you continue to read what Aristotle has to say you immediately become aware of the difference between what he wants to tell us and what we experience today. The thinker of Stageira whom we owe the first version of logic, of theory of science and of ethics continues to speak of senses, memory, experience and so on. For him, what today we call "information" was nothing but an expression that, as far as I see, in all his writings he uses only once and which means "message", like the message which in 491 BC Pheidippides, the original Marathon runner, transported the 200 kilometres from Athens to Sparta within two days. Of course Aristotle, too, received one or another information from time to time; so and so had died and possibly the slave cook informed him (or rather his wife) that there was no good fish to buy on the market. But such information was of little interest to him as a philosopher, certainly not worth to think about.

Today, on the contrary, everybody constantly receives information. In the morning, she or he read their newspaper, in the evening they watch the news on TV and during the day he or she look for information in the internet. It is not easy to say, however, why they do it. Somehow, they feel, they would miss what is contemporary if they would not do it. If he or she is a scientist or a scholar, they perhaps feel that, if they do not do it, they would not be up-to-date in their field. If he/she is an "ordinary man or woman", they feel the same without really being able to explain why. In a way, the need to be informed is little else but the kind of curiosity which St. Augustin had described as a vice, the concupiscentia oculorum, and Martin Heidegger, obviously playing on the literal meaning of Neugier, "craving for the new", has called an "addiction to the diversion of the present". The only kind of curiosity that, at least since the times of Francis Bacon, has found a positive treatment is the purely theoretical inquisitiveness that is characteristic of science and scholarship and which is an implicit recognition of the fact that all our scientific or scholarly premises are hypothetical, that is, always in danger to have to be revised.

Still, it is not easy to say what exactly we want to claim when today we call our societies "information-based". One way to explain it would consist in asking oneself what would be different if this constant flow of information would collapse or disappear, due e.g. to a cosmic event sometimes mentioned in science fiction that would make computers, television sets, telephones and handies useless. Although many contemporary inventions and gadgets would continue to function, within a short time our societies would be thrown back to a state of affairs typical of about eighty years ago. Everything, including economic developments, would become significantly slower. However, at least after a period of consternation and confusion that of course might cost millions of people their jobs, and possibly many their lives, it would not amount to a collapse of our culture. The latter would be thrown back, certainly, everything would become slower, it is true, it may induce dangerous political changes, but it would not necessarily mean a relapse into barbarism of the kind that some novels and films have described as the consequence e.g. of an atomic war. In other words, the claim that our societies, contrary to those of the past, are information-based would seem to be a gross exaggeration. Information, as we use this word today, may have become important but it is not something our societies are based upon. Indeed one may suspect that the claim that we live in information-based societies is a slogan invented by those who produce and sell computers and serve us as information managers.

This, however, is not what I want to dwell upon. What I briefly want to pursue is the more fundamental question, namely, to what extent information in the sense mentioned may or does lead to and thus broadens the scope of, knowledge. Certainly, by reading newspapers, listening to the radio, watching TV and using the internet we become "better informed"; but this means no more than that we have more information. By itself it does not mean that we become more gebildet, in a positive sense educated, or that we know more in the strong sense of the term. One is tempted to contrast information and knowledge in analogy to the Greek distinction between, mere opinion and true knowledge. But there is an important difference: when e.g. Plato - think of his simile of the cave - opposed to each other he had in mind the fact that, on the one hand, sometimes we may know something that hitherto we had only an opinion about and that, on the other hand, there are subject matters about which only opinions are possible. In the case of information, however, the contrast between guessing and knowing is preceded by the one between a relevant and an irrelevant information. In the information flow each item is by itself as important or unimportant as the other; although an information may contain a claim stressing its importance, in most cases we do not know how important it really is. This is most visible in advertisements which, as we all know, make up the greatest part of information we can find in the internet. In order to promote the sale of its products a company will do almost everything to draw attention to the information it sends out. But the one who receives it has difficulties to decide which emphasis is true to the facts and which is nothing but sales promotion.

In other words, even before we may ask ourselves which information may contribute to our knowledge we are confronted with the task of selecting. How do we recognize an important information? Theoreticians specialized in communication suggest that usually we select information according to the frame of convictions, including interests, that we bring along. Their observations suggest that when we hear or read something that threatens to shatter or even only to contradict our convictions we switch off the radio, throw the newspaper away and disconnect the internet. We are, as it were, by nature anti-Popperians; or rather behave like Sir Karl Popper himself who, in spite of all his ideas on "trial and error", used to interrupt lecturers whenever they uttered something he disagreed with. We do not like to be confronted with ideas that contradict, or even only do not fit, what we are convinced about.

Accordingly, the first presupposition of a successful passage from information to knowledge is an attitude that one might call "a la Popper", that is, the awareness of two facts: first, that we cannot achieve knowledge without being at least in principle willing to consider an information that contradicts our assumptions and/or convictions; and, secondly, that error is not a shame but a possible step towards truth. One does not have to be an adherent of everything that Popper has claimed to admit that, if science (and scholarship) cannot achieve more than hypotheses that always remain subject to a possible revision, the claim that we know something cannot be corroborated except by showing that a conceivable falsification does in fact not falsify it. If it does falsify it, we at least know that our hypothesis was inadequate and we either have to revise it or look for another one.

In other words, although we constantly look for and receive information, their rush will lead to more knowledge only if we develop a sound scepticism towards them. Not only does too much information prevent us from distinguishing what is relevant from what we could and possibly should ignore; we constantly are in danger to consider bits of information as data of knowledge. During my studies in the 50s of the last century a student quoted in a seminar the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, already at that time certainly one of the best informed and most reliable dailies. The professor looked at him for a moment and the asked: "Sir, in which semester are you?". "In the fifth", the student replied. Whereupon Father Bocheński: "And you dare to quote in my seminar a newspaper?". That anything of this kind is most unlikely to happen today is an indication of a radical cultural change which, however, we hardly seem to notice.

It is well known that children learn the use of computers very quickly; and all elementary and secondary schools order computers whenever they have the money. But nobody teaches children how to use the information they thereby are enabled to acquire. The World Science Forum´s homepage on our session quotes Joan Majo, the former Spanish Minister of Industry and Energy, as saying that educational systems have to train students for the life-long study of the proper use of technology. If that means that young people have to know how to retrieve information from their computers, this claim is trivial; children learn how to use computers much more passionately and quickly than we adults do. But nobody trains them for what to do with the information they retrieve. What we urgently need are courses, and they should begin in elementary schools, dealing with the adequate use of information data. The young are expected intelligently to reflect upon texts by Shakespeare or Schiller or other classical national authors. But nobody teaches them how to critically read a newspaper, to listen to the radio or to watch TV or to evaluate what they find in the internet. Nobody tells them that each information they acquire has to be checked and rechecked and that even then it is not knowledge they have acquired but only information. We do much too little in our schools and at our universities to educate critical minds and thus, in a quite irresponsible way, we contribute to the spread of ideas that threaten solid knowledge instead of contributing to it.

Now you may object that if, as I said at the beginning, all knowledge is based upon assumptions that are revisable, all this does not matter too much; in the end, knowledge is as unreliable as information. This objection would not only be cynical but would overlook a basic fact, namely, that the correction or retraction of a hypothesis has nothing to do with relativism. If you look at the history of science and scholarship it is obvious that it is a history of a knowledge in progress.

During the last decades, it is true, we have witnessed a growing suspicion of science. Movement such as "New Age" have tried to undermine its spirit by combining it with claims reminding of fairy tales, environment-conscious people have reminded us of problems created by technology (which today is almost completely science-dependent), recent history has taught us that science can be used for criminal purposes, and recent genetic research has given raise to ethical problems that have deeply divided and still do divide the scientific community. But even if one would want to go as far as to suggest that the parameters with which today science operates are not defintive and therefore could change, this does not mean that knowledge (of which science is the most perfect instance) is as unreliable as any information.

It means, however, something else that we scientists and scholars tend to forget. Science and more generally human knowledge is embedded in a context that has to do with truth, is by many considered as certain as the best founded knowledge, and nevertheless does not operate with hypotheses. Examples are religious faith and more generally world-views. As the German philosopher Robert Spaemann once said, we cannot lead our lives on the basis of hypotheses alone; in order to know what kind of life to conduct we need convictions of which we believe that they should not and indeed cannot be subjected to revision. It is not easy to say what importance information has for such basic convictions. In general, a certain amount of reliable information that is incompatible with a hypothesis leads to a situation in which we give the hypothesis up. In a way, that applies to religious faith and world views as well; yet contrary to scientific hypotheses they have an enormous capacity to invalidate "counterfactual" accounts of facts by giving them a new interpretation. They are as it were immune against the onslaught of information, although certainly not completely so, the usual reason being that we humans do not like to give up the way of life we have decided for.

Let me try to conclude. Although as such it is unreliable, information has become important during the last decades. As such, it is not a contribution to knowledge; it may however be used as a datum either contributing to, or correcting, our knowledge. What we need most is a training, above all in the case of the young, in a critical and responsible use of information. In this sense, I would like to conclude by quoting Marjane Satrapi, a 34 years old Iranian author living in Paris of a cartoon recently published in the supplement of a German daily: "Too much information blocks our brain. To little information makes us ignorant. But the worst is one-sided information".

But does there exist information that is not one-sided?

Thank you for your attention.