Imagine you read a book a day, 365 books a year, 3,650 books a decade. We’ll even grant that you have perfect recall; every iota of information in these books enters your brain and is fully accessible at all times. Over the course of a 65-year adulthood, you will read 23,725 books, fiction and nonfiction, cutting through all subject areas, a rich cross-section of human existence conveyed in print form.
In the United States alone, in 2015 alone, more than 700,000 titles were published.
So that lifetime of reading barely scratches the surface. And of course, it comes at an opportunity cost. If you spend that time reading, it’s time you’re not spending watching movies (both dramatic and documentary), listening to music, or playing video games.
The book-a-day scholar learns a great deal of information, but, in comparison to the total amount of information available, doesn’t learn much at all.
Let’s take this to a more empirical stage.
Today I am scanning the shelves dedicated to New Books at the public library in Medford, Massachusetts–a decent, but by no means huge facility in a mid-sized city. In this section, each shelf holds a rough average of 20 books. There are 4 vertical shelving racks, each holding an average of five shelves apiece, for a total of 400 books. Right here in New Nonfiction alone, we have more than a year’s reading for our book-a-day scholar. If that person wishes to add fiction to their reading diet, the New Fiction racks hold another 200 books, so it’s going to be almost two years.
But that’s just in New Books. Looking at the open stacks of the library, we find an average of 25 books per shelf, 125 per rack, 5 racks per row, for a total of 525 books in a row. Strolling the aisles, we count about 44 nonfiction rows and 20 fiction. A rough total of 33,600 books. That excludes the Children’s and YA sections, the Reference Section, as well as the collections of periodicals, videos, and compact disks, and doesn’t even consider the Internet.
In this unremarkable mid-sized city library is enough information to occupy—to overwhelm–our book-a-day scholar for their entire lifetime. Enough information to make anyone’s head swim. But let us look up from these book spines, to the building around them. Let us consider the information which represents the Medford, Massachusetts, Public Library.
- Physical: What is the building made of? What condition is it in? At what rate is it decaying? In what specific ways is it decaying? What access does the building have to transport and logistics? How does it affect traffic flow in the city, both vehicle and pedestrian?
- Architectural: What is the architectural style of the building? How did that style evolve? In what ways does the building exemplify or defy the norms of the style? How does the style, interior and exterior, affect the use of the building?
- Educational: What effect does the library have on the average level of knowledge of the community? What percentage of the community use the facility? What connections does the library have with the local educational establishment?
- Political: What effect does the library have upon the power structure of the community? Is the library a voting site? How does that effect voting patterns? Are the employees appointed by political patronage? How do they operate in the community power structure? What range of political ideas appears in the materials acquired by the library?
- Legal: Under what legal status does the library operate? What sort of entity is it under the law, which laws effect it, and what are the library’s right and duties under those laws? What is the library’s relationship with the police and the judicial system?
- Economic: What is the budget of the library? What financial effect does it have upon the immediate area? What are the costs and benefits of the tax drain on the city? What amount of taxes are not collected due to the institution’s tax exemption? What donations does it require? How are those donations raised and used? What vendors does it support by its purchases?
- Technological: What technologies are used by the library? Are the technologies used by the library ahead of or behind the general technological level of the town? What resources does it take to purchase and maintain the tech infrastructure? How secure is that infrastructure to technological attack?
- Sociological: How does the library embody and reinforce the cultural mechanisms of its place and era? What does it represent in the concepts of the community? How are the personnel expected to act, among themselves and in conjunction with the community, and how do their actions exemplify or undermine the community’s norms? What range of social norms appears in the materials acquired by the library?
- Medical: What disease vectors does the library’s usage patterns and physical layout aid or block? What chronic physical problems does the structure and its contents promote or ease? How do the working conditions affect the physical well-being of the staff?
- Military: What is the defensive strength of the library walls? What are the advantages and disadvantages of its position in both line and guerrilla warfare? Does its height or lack thereof provide opportunity, or obstacle, to military conflict in the vicinity? How would it contribute to an all-society “total war” effort?
- Religious/Philosophical: What worldviews does the library, both as an institution and in the form of its personnel, support, either implicitly or explicitly? Which does it discourage? What range of religious and philosophical ideas appear in it the materials acquired by the library?
- And finally Personal: What has happened to human beings within the library walls? What life moments, what teenage love affairs and heartbreaks, what midlife crises among the volunteer staff, what youthful aspirations among the librarians, what intellectual epiphanies in the stacks?
All these categories are vast enough, but in addition we must consider that each exists in a historical dimension (that to truly understand, we must know not only the information as it is, but as it has been through time) and a comparative dimension (that to truly understand, we must know also sufficient background information to compare and contrast it within the discipline).
Most of this information will never be formally compiled. Some of it could not be compiled; it is known only to God, if there is one. Yet it is real. It exists and has effect. But we cannot know it all. The totality of the Medford, Massachusetts Public Library is beyond our grasp.
Similar lists could be made for all places, all objects, all things surrounding the library. The cars on the streets, the animals in the yards and parks, companies in the storefronts, down to each individual human. An encyclopedia could be written about each entity in Medford, in Massachusetts, in the United States, in the world. But no resources could be found to undertake compiling all that information, and if it were compiled, no human being would have the time or capacity to absorb it all.
Certainly, humans can absorb a great deal of information, according to their intelligence. But even the most intelligent cannot absorb it all, or even a large percentage of all. For those who delve the deepest into one subject, their delving precludes proportional delving into others. A person might take the time to acquire doctorates in more than one field, but eventually time will run out. In addition, time that could spent absorbing information is spent practicing information. A lawyer might study law, might know more about the law than anyone else, will then go and practice law—thereby preventing them from learning as much about art or physics or language.
Therefore all information we have is limited. The hypothetical book-a-day reader wouldn’t be able to do much else, even assuming their genius-level comprehension and recall. At some point, if one wishes to act, one must proceed with limited information. In fact, all actions ever taken have been on that basis.
When the time comes for decisions to be made, they are made on the basis of information. But no one could possibly know all possible information. The decisions will be made on the basis of whatever limited information the actor feels is important, to the extent of their power to act. We trust—we hope—that the great ocean of information we do not know will not swamp the tiny oil slick of information we do know. Sometimes that hope is off.
Most of us concentrate, in our daily lives, on that information which is useful to us. This includes the information which maintains our relationships with our family and friends, the information which allows to us to maintain our livelihood, the information which allows to participate in our community, both local and larger. All of this information is limited, and we make the best decisions we can with the information we can absorb. As those who amass greater responsibilities, the CEOs and congresspeople, move up the chain, their need for information grows—but their time and ability to absorb information does not grow in turn.
If I may phrase this somewhat sensationally: all of us live in our own fantasyland. You, me, President Trump, former President Obama, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, everybody. No matter how much we know, the total range of information is outside our grasp, and we proceed in a relative fog. Yes, some people know more than others. Some people know a great deal. But the difference is not “one person knows 10% of reality and another knows 90%,” the difference is “one person knows 2% of reality and another knows 4%.” In this way, intelligent and knowledgeable people make mistakes—often larger, more consequential mistakes than the stupid and ignorant.
This is not a call for reform, to suggest some way in which humans could overcome this limitation. We can’t. Any technology that would allow a human to grasp a larger proportion of the totality of existence would change that human to the extent that they would no longer seem human. Any non-human form—electronic, for instance—that was able to grasp a large proportion of the totality of reality would be difficult to communicate with, perhaps so different as to prevent communication.
Every new human being brings more information into the world, every new economic activity brings more ideas that represent more information. Since 1970, roughly my lifetime, world population has increased from 3.6 billion to 7.6 billion, and the world economy has increased by 12.1 trillion to more than 77.8 trillion. The amount of information has swelled, yet the people at the top cannot know any more than they did. It seems an uncertain situation to me, but I may be wrong. After all, I am working with limited information.
Addendum: “This is ridiculous! You’re saying that we can’t know anything unless we know everything!”
I most certainly not saying we can’t know anything unless we know everything. Every airplane that lifts off is proof its designers knew something. I personally have known many of great intelligence and memory; I have read the lives of many more. Always have I respected knowledge and those who can use knowledge for action.
But in such acquaintance, I have consistently observed that such people did not know everything. In fact, a prominent sign of intelligence is the awareness of what one does not know. That is the first step. The intelligent person will try to rectify that lack of knowledge, but that rectification is not always possible. The information may not be available, because it is not accessible, because it could not be accessible, or because it might be accessible only with a superhuman amount of effort. In times of great decision, even the most intelligent person finds themselves groping through the unknown, clinging to whatever information they can get, not the information they need, and hoping there is nothing hidden to undo their purposes.
“Say what you want, but it sounds like you’re trying to destroy epistemology.”
I am doing no such thing. The problem of information does not invalidate epistemology. What it does is rope off a perimeter around epistemology. It means that even if you had a 100% valid epistemology, capable of invariably identifying truth, you still couldn’t know all the complete body of truth in the universe (or even a substantial percentage of it) due to time and physical restraints. But epistemology is still valuable to extent that it can judge the validity of whatever set of information an individual is able to absorb.