Knowing Without Understanding: Our Crisis of Meaning?

In the off chance that David Weinberger had stumbled upon my slightly snarky remarks on an interview he gave at Salon, he might very well have been justified in concluding that I missed his point. In my defense, that point didn’t exactly get across in the interview which, taken alone, is still decidedly underwhelming. But the excerpt from Weinberger’s book that I subsequently came across at The Atlantic did address the very point I took issue with in my initial post — the question of meaning.

In the interview, Weinberger commented on the inadequacy of a view of knowledge that conceived of the work of knowing as a series of successively reductive steps moving from data to information to understanding and finally to wisdom. As he described it, the progression was understood as a process of filtering the useful from superfluous, or finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Earlier in the interview he had referred to our current filter problem, i.e., our filters in the digital age do not filter anything out.

At the time this reminded me of Nicholas Carr’s comments some while ago on Clay Shirky’s approach to the problem of information overload. Shirky argued that our problem is not information overload but, rather, filter failure. We just haven’t developed adequate filters for the new digital information environment. Carr, rightly I believe, argued that our problem is not that our filters are inadequate, it’s that they are too good. We don’t have a needle in a haystack problem, we have a stack of needles.

This is analogous to the point Weinberger makes about filters: “Digital filters don’t remove anything; they only reduce the number of clicks that it takes to get to something.”

All of this comes across more coherently and compellingly in the book excerpt. There Weinberger deals directly with the significance of the book’s title, Too Big to Know. Science now operates with data sets that do not yield to human understanding. Computers are able to process the data and produce workable models that make the data useful, but we don’t necessarily understand why. We have models, but not theories; hence the title of the excerpt in The Atlantic, “To Know, but Not Understand.”

Returning to my initial post, I criticized the manner in which Weinberger framed the movement from information to wisdom on the grounds that it took no account of meaning. In my estimation, moving from information to wisdom was not merely a matter of reducing a sea of information to a manageable set of knowledge that can be applied; it was also a matter of deriving meaning from the information and the construction of meaning cannot be abstract from individual human beings and their lived experience.

Now, let me provide Weinberger’s rejoinder for him: The question of creating meaning at the level of the individual is moot. When dealing with the amount of data under consideration, meaning is no longer an option. We are in the position of being able to act without understanding; we can do what we cannot understand.

The problem, if indeed we can agree that it is a problem, of doing without understanding is not a unique consequence of the digital age and the power of supercomputers to amass and crunch immense amounts of data. As I wrote in the first of a still unfinished triptych of posts, Hannah Arendt expressed similar concerns over half a century ago:

Writing near the midpoint of the last century, Hannah Arendt worried that we were losing the ability “to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do.” The advances of science were such that representing what we knew about the world could be done only in the language of mathematics, and efforts to represent this knowledge in a publicly meaningful and accessible manner would become increasingly difficult, if not altogether impossible.  Under such circumstances speech and thought would part company and political life, premised as it is on the possibility of meaningful speech, would be undone.  Consequently, “it would be as though our brain, which constitutes the physical, material condition of our thoughts, were unable to follow what we do, so that from now on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking.”

But the situation was not identical. In Arendt’s scenario, there were still a privileged few that could meaningfully understand the science. It was a problem posed by complexity and some few brilliant minds could still grasp what the vast majority of us could not. What Weinberger describes is a situation in which no human mind is able to meaningfully understand the phenomenon. It is a matter of complexity, yes, but it is irredeemably aggravated by the magnitude and scale of the data involved.

I’ve long thought that many of our discontents stem from analogous problems of scale. Joseph Stalin allegedly claimed that, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” Whether Stalin in fact said this or not, the line captures a certain truth. There is a threshold of scale at which we pass from that which we can meaningfully comprehend to that which blurs into the undistinguishable. The gap, for example, between public debt of $1 trillion and $3 trillion dollars is immense, but I suspect that for most of us the difference at this scale is no longer meaningful. It might as well be $20 trillion, it is all the same, which is to say it is equally unfathomable. And this is to say nothing of the byzantine quality of the computerized global financial industry as a whole.

In a recent post about the opacity of the banking system, Steve Waldman concluded as follows:

“This is the business of banking. Opacity is not something that can be reformed away, because it is essential to banks’ economic function of mobilizing the risk-bearing capacity of people who, if fully informed, wouldn’t bear the risk. Societies that lack opaque, faintly fraudulent, financial systems fail to develop and prosper. Insufficient economic risks are taken to sustain growth and development. You can have opacity and an industrial economy, or you can have transparency and herd goats . . . .

Nick Rowe memorably described finance as magic. The analogy I would choose is finance as placebo. Financial systems are sugar pills by which we collectively embolden ourselves to bear economic risk. As with any good placebo, we must never understand that it is just a bit of sugar. We must believe the concoction we are taking to be the product of brilliant science, the details of which we could never understand. The financial placebo peddlers make it so.”

In a brief update, Waldman added,

“I have presented an overly flattering case for the status quo here. The (real!) benefits to opacity that I’ve described must be weighed against the profound, even apocalyptic social costs that obtain when the placebo fails, especially given the likelihood that placebo peddlars will continue their con long after good opportunities for investment at scale have been exhausted.”

Needless to say, this is a less than comforting set of circumstances. Yet, “apocalyptic social costs” are not my main concern at the moment. Rather it is what we might, perhaps hyperbolically, call the apocalyptic psychic costs incurred by living in a time during which substantial swaths of experience are rendered unintelligible.

I appreciate Waldman’s placebo analogy, it gets at an important dimension of the situation, but Rowe’s analogy to magic is worth retaining. If you’ve been reading here for awhile, you’ll remember a handful of posts along the way that draw an analogy between magic and technology. It is an observation registered by C. S. Lewis, Lewis Mumford, and Jacque Ellul among others, and it is considered at book length by Richard Stivers. The analogy is taken in various directions, but what strikes me is the manner in which it troubles our historical narratives.

We often think of the whole of the pre-modern era as an age dominated by magical, which is to say unscientific thinking. Beginning with the Renaissance and continuing through the complex historical developments we gloss as the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, we escape the realm of magic into the arena of science. And yet, it would seem that at the far end of that trajectory, taking it uncritically at face value, there is a reversion to magical thinking. It is, of course, true that there is a substantial difference — our magic “works.” But at the phenomenological level, the difference may be inconsequential. Our thinking may not be magical in the same way, but much of our doing proceeds as if by magic, without our understanding.

I suspect this is initially wondrous and enchanting, but over time it is finally unsettling and alienating.

We are all of us, even the brightest among us, embedded in systems we understand vaguely and partially at best. Certain few individuals understand certain few aspects of the whole, but no one understands the whole. And, it would seem, that the more we are able to know the less we are capable of understanding. Consider the much discussed essay by MIT physicist Alan Lightman in Harper’s. Take time to read the whole, but here is the conclusion:

“That same uncertainty disturbs many physicists who are adjusting to the idea of the multiverse. Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable. In addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.

Sound familiar? Theologians are accustomed to taking some beliefs on faith. Scientists are not. All we can do is hope that the same theories that predict the multiverse also produce many other predictions that we can test here in our own universe. But the other universes themselves will almost certainly remain a conjecture.

‘We had a lot more confidence in our intuition before the discovery of dark energy and the multiverse idea,’ says Guth. There will still be a lot for us to understand, but we will miss out on the fun of figuring everything out from first principles.'”

Faith? “All we can do is hope…”?

We have traveled from magic to magic and from faith to faith through an interval of understanding. Of course, it is possible to conclude that we’ve always failed to understand, it is just that now we know we don’t understand. Having banked heavily on a specific type of understanding and the mastery it could yield, we appear now to have come up at the far end against barriers to understanding and meaningful action. And in this sense we may be, from a certain perspective, worse off. The acknowledged limits of our knowing and understanding in premodern setting took their place within a context of intelligibility; the lack of understanding was itself rendered meaningful within the larger metaphysical picture of reality. The unfolding awareness of the limits of our knowing takes place within a context in which intelligibility was staked on knowing and understanding, in which there was no metaphysical space for mystery as it were. They acted meaningfully in the context of what appears from our perspective as a deep ignorance; it now seems that we are consigned to act without meaning in the context of a surfeit of knowledge.

I’m tempted to conclude by suggesting that the last metaphysical shock to arise from the Promethean enterprise may then be the startled recognition of the Hephaestean chains. But that may be too glib and these are serious matters. Too serious, certainly, to tie up neatly at the end of an off the cuff morning blog post. This was all, as they say, shot from the hip. I welcome any thoughts you might have on any of this.

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