Saturday, 16 January 2016

Omniscience and Big Data as New Religion

One of the persistent delusions of humanity (taken as the default, though not the inevitable, position of most people who think that they are thinking) is that the universe is not only knowable but that knowability is a necessary good. It might be better for us to draw a distinction between knowing all that we can know and all that there is in our world. The drive to know all that we can reasonably know is the progressive mentality that expands our horizons through science and philosophy but the illusion that that we can know all that is in the world is the basis of religion and absurdity. Where reasonable knowledge intersects with the belief that all can be known or that what is known actually accords with reality is the point that divides the useful from the useless, even counter-productive.

The ancient method of dealing with the problem of total knowledge - the necessity for omniscience - was to displace this knowledge on to an invention - God. God knew everything. We could partake of this knowing indirectly by knowing Him. We, of course, did not and could not know everything but we 'knew' that He knew everything for us and so we felt comforted. The comfort came from believing that Something knew everything and if Something knew everything, then we were relieved of the pressure of absolute knowing but could yet believe that absolute knowing was possible. Belief in an omniscient God would bind the world into a coherent and safe whole no matter what happened to us as individuals. Our priests would know enough to interpret - to stand between Omniscience and our limited knowledge of the world. We could remain relatively ignorant knowing that we only had to strive to know ourselves, know our neighbours or know God through our priests or direct revelation.

If God is dead (though this proposition presumes that there was something there in the first place 'to die'), the inherent human demand that Absolute Knowing be present does not easily die with God. So how does it survive? It survives in sets of belief that have the cover of secular rationalism but which are no less absurd than the belief in a Knowing Subject outside of ourselves of which we can become a part directly or indirectly. Today's grand absurdity is the belief that the totality of information in the world (with all of materiality being presented conceptually and imaginatively as information) might be computed and understood ultimately in mathematical terms. Instead of us individual humans entering into a relationship with the Omniscient God, we are to be able to access this new evolving omniscience through our relationship with the potential total knowledge of 'cyberia', not just the internet and the accumulated knowledge of our current priestly class (the scientific community) but perhaps the evolved mind that will emerge out of the internet and quantum computers. In fact, few scientists would make these claims easily but that will not stop those who are ideologically committed to science and technology.

There has emerged an hysterical tendency in contemporary culture for God not to have been removed but merely to have been displaced into speculative science and fiction. These neo-religious believers, with their own texts, are often highly intelligent but only in the sense that Augustine and Aquinas were intelligent - formally capable of manipulating ideas and facts to come up with creative models of reality that suit their needs not advanced intellectually very far from the medieval scholastic. Just as the medieval scholastic could not critique the base belief whose proven inadequacy would undermine all the rest of his system - the belief in God - so the modern neo-scholastic of technologism cannot critique his belief in the relevance and 'reality' (for really existing humans) of the technological potential for total information. The theoretical constructs of God and Total Information, not being provable, stand together alongside many other absurd human beliefs, telling us that our species (in the mass) finds it difficult not to believe in something even when it purports to rationality.

This is closely related to magical thinking about numbers. That numbers are in themselves containers of meaning beyond quantity and inherently logical calculation is another ancient inheritance, the world of gematria, correspondences and Bible codes. Of course, the use of numbers in association with logic and reason has created an immensely valuable tool for the investigation of reality but that is very different from saying that it is reality or that the radical extension of calculation to its limits necessarily has any relation to any reality meaningful to humanity. If it works and it makes things of use to the human, it has value and may contribute to the manipulation of material reality and the construction of social reality. But meanings constructed out of numbers that are not usable are of no greater status than meanings constructed out of belief. Belief in God may not have had much effect on material reality but they certainly did on social reality - does that alone make God existent? That people believe in Him. For some, then, Thor and the Jedi are real if that is so.

A number that builds a spacecraft or calculates radiation levels in star systems has at least some potential use but a number that postulates an untestable belief about the death of the universe that relies solely on the logic of mathematics does not. Reality elides from Newton's dropping apple to the world of speculative science, the partner of speculative fiction. Exactly where the buck stops and the useful becomes the poetic or magical is always a matter for debate but it is important to know that the elision is taking place. Just because facts at one end of the scale are 'true' (useful and testable), this does not mean that the 'facts' (useless and untestable) at the other end should ever be accorded the same status. There are thus things ('facts') that are actually not formally knowable not only by us but by any total thinking machine since the very idea of a total thinking machine falls into the category of radical speculative science and the totality of all things is not knowable by a part of the whole unless it becomes the whole (the totality of knowledge).  Religion enters by the back door because this final postulated omniscient thing is ... God. God has become (as Tipler suggests) a thing of total information encompassing all things in all time.

But let us come down to earth since the social sciences are also chasing the ghost of total information, albeit not within the universe but within society. We have to ask now whether this particular Emperor has been naked for a very long time. The beginnings of social science are to be found in relatively simpler industrial societies working on data within fairly closed conservative societies that were also within bounded nation states. They told us things we did not before - or rather they revealed ourselves to ourselves in terms of simple narratives that might not tell us all but told us something more than no information would have given us. Today the social sciences continue to tell us something about ourselves but less and less with time because we have become more self-reflexive as subjects of research, societies have lost their conservative character and boundaries have collapsed. The volume of data required to make even simple statements has increased, is highly complex and its components will become redundant quite quickly in time. Yet the number of social scientists and their implicit claims on public policy have grown in proportion to the degree that they can no longer tell us anything decisive about ourselves.

What does the research into British working class life in the 1950s tell us now that is useful for public policy? What actually did it tell us then that was useful to society in the long run? Is working class life better today than it was in the 1950s because of social science research or are working people living in an entirely different world unpredicted by the academics and with unintended negative as well as intended positive consequences of their influence on public policy? Economics is notoriously slippery in telling us anything useful about reality as Paul Ormerod has repeatedly shown us. This is not to say that it is not useful only that it is contingently useful in a restricted way.

Policy that relies on the findings of social science is likely to be intrinsically flawed because it cannot aspire to total information (unless Big Data really does work), is quickly outdated by events, cannot take account of the many things that are going on outside the research and because the research itself is a factor affecting the actions of people themselves as well as those acting on people. Perhaps we can know some big things (more from observing history than from scientific method) and lots of little things (like the sub culture of Goths in Milwaukee over three years). Perhaps we can surmise something useful from meta-analysing lots of little things or contextualising our lives within the big things but the idea that we can know (rather than model inadequately) our actually existing social reality along any lines that are not closer to the traditional humanities rather than 'science' is becoming increasingly threadbare.

The massive interest in 'Big Data' as driver for social policy decisions strikes me as based on a belief system (that internet-based knowledge can provide a good and useful approximation of reality) that is no more reliable than any other belief system (that is, it sort of works when everyone believes nonsense but collapses when even a relatively few question the belief). And there is the self interest of those who propose it and of the social scientists, basically the interest in the system of those who expect to profit from it or, more negatively, fear that they will lose livelihoods and resources if they do not believe in the prevailing wisdom. In this, they will be true heirs to the Churchmen of the Late Middle Ages.

One suspects that we are about to go into another cycle where a plausible belief system has an apparent coherence because no one will critique the core assumptions (like a belief in God or the inevitable withering away other State or the inevitability of a struggle for survival between races). It will create the sea in which the fish of society can swim but which does not accord with reality and which must eventually collapse on its own internal contradictions. Above all, it must collapse eventually on the fact that the claims derived from the ostensible central fact (the core assumption) must collapse because the core assumptions are wrong, in this case that the accumulation of big data can be a true reflection of social reality and that the big data can be successfully analysed to provide meaning that is useful and not part of the problem that it is trying to resolve. This is not to say that Big Data may not have some use but we have to be careful to be critical of it and how it is used and especially how it is used by the new priests of technology - the political class, the academy, the security and policy bureaucracies and the marketeers and accountants - to dictate reality to us. Just because the numbers say the world is thus will not mean it is thus - we alone decide our own reality as self-reflexive humans. If we want to be sheep, we just have to sit back and allow ourselves to be defined as sheep. 

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