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I'm not quite sure how to begin looking for information about this question, which may have something to say about the question itself, but it essentially comes down to:

Has the availability of information and the rate of information exchange become an impediment to knowledge?

We tend to imagine that the more information we have, the better, but ask a question of a web browser, and there is often so much information available, so quickly (and so rapidly morphing/growing) that adequate investigation becomes onerous and/or impractical.

Most of us have a very limited time each week to invest in research; the exercise of knowledge accumulation. Many of the questions asked on this site deserve far more thoroughly-researched answers than they receive, largely for this very reason.

When responding to a question recently, I came across an article which went against the status quo, but it did so rather convincingly, providing statistics for each point made. But I was left wondering: am I reasonably expected to investigate the extent to which this article is cherry-picking data? If the answer is yes, then most of the answers this stack provokes are likely woefully inadequate, unless the average user has the inclination and time to put far more effort into the task than I imagine. How do I discern quality information from distracting misinformation? When it comes to complex issues, there is often so much data available that adequate research seems to require a professional, rather than amateur, level of effort. It seems fallacious to rely on certain journals or periodicals when there is no way of knowing how many journals and periodicals are actually of 'sufficient' quality, especially given that these publications must surely fall at times into the same problem of 'sorting the wheat from the chaff'.

With so much information accessible to us, how can we ever be confident that our investigations are sufficient? What persuades us that we have examined enough information in order to provide confident answers? Do we tend to stop when the information we find sufficiently supports the answers we anticipate and/or desire?; which we consciously and/or subconsciously wish to glean (see cognitive ease & cognitive strain? Do we stop when we're proven right as opposed to when we've actually learned something new?

Is there a kind of paradox between the information available to us and the extent to which we are then able to navigate it? Is there a realm of meta-philosophy which deals with the contemporary challenge of superabundance/excess of information, and which provides some kind of method via which we might struggle towards 'truth'?

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    Some say: "there are two ways to hide the truth: a) silence it, b) bury it in excess noise"
    – Nikos M.
    Mar 25, 2023 at 14:58
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    I was going to answer your question but... Squirrel!
    – BillOnne
    Mar 25, 2023 at 15:00
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    This is coincidentally one of the six impossible things I was thinking about before breakfast today... My question is more in the direction of: have we created systems too complex for our level of intelligence to deal with?
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 25, 2023 at 15:34
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    It's less about volume and more about quality. Misinformation and propaganda are the enemies. How is an average American expected to cast a vote regarding any important topic with a constant barrage of conflicting information and limited time for analysis? Much of it is propaganda. Global climate change is an excellent example.
    – user64314
    Mar 25, 2023 at 16:10
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    You may be interested in Why most published research findings are false
    – Nikos M.
    Mar 25, 2023 at 17:29

2 Answers 2

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I'm familiar with the terms information overload and cognitive load for psychological and sociological description of our lives in consuming information particularly in the age of the Internet, where one cannot possibly ingest everything there is to offer. Less than a couple of hundred years ago, most people had scant access to libraries of information on the planet, while today, anyone with a smartphone has access to an overwhelming array of sites offering access. The question is, how does this relate to philosophy?

I would offer some avenues:

First, certain Continental traditions examine humans as alienated from their existence. Clearly, the works of Karl Marx, Frederich Nietzsche, and Max Weber are apropos. Here's an introduction to Marx's theory of alienation:

The alienation from the self is a consequence of being a mechanistic part of a social class, the condition of which estranges a person from their humanity.

I think an argument can be made that machines are automating the billowing clouds of information and disenfranchising people from their relationship to society in the same way traditional machines affected labor.

The same might be said of information overload impacting a person's will to power. If one interprets it through the lens of the human drive to be in control psychologically, its arguable that being overloaded all of the time degrades that will and helps tear down a confidence in self. In this way, like postmodernist thinking, man has been thoroughly diminished and placed in a roughly absurd position that people are drowning in their own words and thoughts.

So too does such overload contribute to existentialist themes, or themes of anomie. If we are emerged in pluralism, it becomes easy to become homeless in terms of belief and value. Who should we believe? What things said should be trusted? How do we know wisdom? Less than 250 years ago, people could rely on the spoken word in their small communities, their churches, the local government for guidance. Today, one can immerse oneself in the full happenings in the world at a rather granular level, and use database resources to peer into the lives of cultures all around the world.

Lastly, this seems like a topic for the nascent philosophy of technology (SEP):

If philosophy is the attempt “to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term”, as Sellars (1962) put it, philosophy should not ignore technology. It is largely by technology that contemporary society hangs together. It is hugely important not only as an economic force but also as a cultural force. Indeed during the last two centuries, when it gradually emerged as a discipline, philosophy of technology has mostly been concerned with the meaning of technology for, and its impact on, society and culture, rather than with technology itself.

I can't think of anything more fundamentally impactful than machines that can handle more an more of people's thinking for them. ChatGPT by OpenAI is the latest in a series of tools developed over the 75 years that show that there is no domain of competency that seems safe from thought-automation. What are the ethics of having computers drive cars, approved credit cards, and manage our healthcare for us? How does access to almost all of the world's cultures and prominent languages shape our worldview? How much exposure to events in the world is healthy? There are a host of philosophical questions at play as more and more machines fill the roles that thinking people used to fill.

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  • AI Bots are fascinating. They were designed to deal with the topic of this post. They provide answers instantly through access to an incredibly large database and through sheer brute force assemble the data into a human like response.
    – user64314
    Mar 28, 2023 at 18:37
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    @StevanV.Saban And they are only going to get more sophisticated. The underlying technology of LLMs is only starting to be ramped up, and there are cheap knock offs and APIs on the way. I just read a tweet where a guy was training the voice of his model to sound like his recently departed father based on sound clips from videos. Gates just posted an article about another model that scored a near perfect on the Biology AP exam. And it's only a matter of time that voice recognition gets married to the latest generation of models and you can talk, and they'll talk back...
    – J D
    Mar 28, 2023 at 19:19
  • it's sort of scary to guess where we'll be in 10 years. They don't have to understand. They just have to work.
    – J D
    Mar 28, 2023 at 19:20
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    @StevanV.Saban Great question. techcrunch.com/2023/01/27/…
    – J D
    Mar 28, 2023 at 20:44
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    Many thanks for the link! A great article.
    – user64314
    Mar 29, 2023 at 0:10
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Imagine trying to predict how another person will act, from the quantum states of their molecules. That would be a huge amount of information, and very difficult to make a predictive model from, right. Yet, we do predict the behaviour of other humans.

I like the framing of 'salience landscapes', discussed here Convergence To Relevance Realization by Vervaeke in his lecture series, with a transcript. That is, that arranging information in useful ways to support acting in the world enables us to have 'cognitive grip' on the information available, like identifying where the handles are on things so we can maneuvre them.

For predicting other humans, I like the way of thinking 'supervenient explanatory layers', drawn from how Aristotle pictured the soul as having three layers: vegetative, sensitive, & intellective; each layer able to act downwards to the previous layer, and in regard to causes in the same layer. This can be understood as a Comoatibilist view, that things like 'character' that we use to predict other humans are in principle reducible to atoms, but form useful 'lumps' to group reliably connected phenomena, which makes predictions from it more tractable. For more details see: Is the idea of a causal chain physical (or even scientific)?

Another useful tool is Hofstadter's framing of 'tangled hierarchies', like the way we use different methodologies to interrogate and justify each other, not in a Foundationalist way, or a purely Circular way, but more like a woven structure that has loops of self-reference.

The process of forming these landscapes, these tangled hierarchies, has as Wittgenstein identified to be based on use, we have to look at lived practiced ways of relating what we know to what we do, idealised models fail and mislead. We can use the word 'game' even without being able to adequately define it.

The human brain is thought to be the most complex object we know of in the universe. You have more brain cells than there are stars in the galaxy, each with up to 10,000 connections. Yet we consider each other knowable. I would argue this points to no situation being beyond our power to make sense of, given time to identify order within, and generate heuristic rules-of-thumb, that give our models computational tractability. It is not scale of complexity, but rapidity of change that is the issue, and time and creativity spent on processing experiences.

Political scientist James C Scott has this nice idea in his book 'Seeing Like a State', of metis or the practical crafts we develop through skill, and of intergenerational legibility. See discussion here. We can see how rapid change like a new technology, or substantial difference in way of living like major wars, gives rise to generation gaps, and challenges the cultural metis that had previously been successful.

We have filters to choose what sources to trust. Commitment to scientific principles and standards, and to Socratic Dialogue of mutual concern for improving knowledge, over Sophist rhetoric aimed only at pursuasion and exercise of power, are core values. Decidingvin an age of Tobacco Science who is really committed to them, is an ongoing challenge. But think how journals and scientific societies arose in response to the rise of printing presses and pamphleteers. Now we have open source journals, and places like Stack Exchange and Wikipedia that foster the sharing of well-referenced information.

Making sense of the world has always been time and energy consuming. But knowledge itself is power, as Francis Bacon observed ("ipsa scientia potestas est" in 'Meditationes Sacrae'). An accurate useful model of the world, allows us to act accurately and effectively on it. It is a collaborative process, so look to networks that share you values, to draw on.

I make the case for a recovery of wisdom, in which information is consolidated into understanding the centre of our concerns, in reference to ourselves and our capacities to act, here: Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises? Wisdom means knowing we don't have to know everything, only enough to know what we can change, what we cannot, and how to tell the difference.

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