Gathering and Discerning Information in the 21st Century
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“Each of us believes himself to live directly within the world that surrounds him, to sense its objects and events precisely, and to live in real and current time. I assert these are perceptual illusions. Sensation is an abstraction, not a replication of the real world.” Vernon Mountcastle

Quote from YouTube Video: Kavli Prize Laureate Lecture – The Restless Brain

Philosophy of the Information Age

The Information Age has caused a fundamental shift in the evolution of human beings, and one could argue it started thousands of years ago. Anthropologists have documented that early humans first started transferring information from one hominid to another in some kind of recorded form some 70-90,000 years ago. This evolutionary adaptation enabled one or more of the human species around that time to pass information on to the next generations, affecting brain development and leading us out of the Stone Age into more and more complex relationships, and to ultimately the earliest known forms of communities.

The transfer of information led us out of the dark ages and into enlightenment, and started the first Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century. Then came electricity, leading to the Internet and a digital revolution that may cause a new fundamental shift in our brains, our bodies, and the way we interact with life. It has been said that: “What the information age is posed to do can be equated with what fire did for our ancient ancestors.”

All having equal access to the worlds information creates a need to develop methods and processes for gathering, discerning, and organizing information. What information you gather and how you use that information may determine your future. You need to take your own lead on information management, and develop a good learning process that continually gets new input of validated, factual information to make and take wise decisions and actions.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) has been associated with the well-known Serenity Prayer that goes something like this: “O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.” These are nice words and we all need the courage to change, and of equal or more importance we need the “wisdom to know one from the other.” The key point here is to “know”, which requires something much more than prayer. This will require you to engage with the attributes that make you human: The ability to think critically.

The questions everyone must ask themselves, especially if you want to be good at discerning information, is: How can I believe the information and claims people make? How do I decide which of the claims to trust? More deeply and fundamentally, what is ‘truth’?

How we know what we know is the branch of philosophy called ‘epistemology’. Epistemology refers to the study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge. The field is sometimes referred to as ‘the theory of knowledge’. Epistemology (how we know things) is combined with ontology (what things exist) to constitute the branch of philosophy known as ‘metaphysics’, or the fundamentals of reality.

In principle, there are two extreme positions we can take about the nature of reality: Absolutism and relativism. The absolutists claim there is a real world out there and, with a bit of effort, we can gather real knowledge about that world. Relativists say we can never really know if something is true or not – we can’t even know whether or not to trust our own senses because they may be conveying inaccurate impressions about the ‘real’ world.

David Christian explains this well in his course [The Big History Project – Wikipedia]. These positions are great to discuss, but in the real world you can’t live with either of these extreme positions. Why extreme relativism is unacceptable is because, as you live your life, you must make choices and act, and to act you have to commit to ideas about the world you live in. Whenever you cross a road, you get a lot of information about cars moving toward and away from you, how fast the cars are going, and how far away they are. Eventually, you commit to the idea that there is enough space to cross without being run over. We have to do this all the time, day in and day out, and so we cannot dither forever: We must trust some information, whether real or false.

We also cannot tolerate extreme absolutism. We all know that some information we receive, including some of the information we receive from our senses, is unreliable. We can be deceived about the way the world appears to us. For example; it seems so obvious that the Earth doesn’t move: You throw a ball up in the air and it comes down to the same point from where you threw it. Apparently, the Earth isn’t moving, but in fact we have very good reason for thinking the Earth is moving around the sun at 66,000 miles per/hour. We can be very easily deceived. The real question is how we can negotiate a position between those two extremes of relativism and absolutism.

We know that our brain has its own way of interpreting information as it comes in through our senses, revealing a slightly different reality for everyone depending on possibly unlimited factors. In one of the better science documentary series on the brain, David Eagleman demonstrates this point clearly throughout the six-part series. In part 2, “What Makes Me”, Eagleman says: “You don’t see objects as they are, you see objects as you are.”

So, anyone with a basic understanding of our brain and how we understand it based on our current knowledge should realize that our experience, what we see and feel, does not necessarily reflect reality. Our experience is real to us but not necessarily “empirical reality”. Empirical reality gives us a foundation of knowledge outside our subjective experiences. For example: We can say that we “know” the Earth is not at the center of the universe based on our observations and “empirical” evidence. You could wish that this weren’t the case in order to support a particular belief, or just decide to hold some other view despite the facts, like the Church did in the 17th and 18th centuries, but denial doesn’t change reality as we understand it.

Empirical reality, as defined in Wikipedia [], is the reality that can be deduced from repeatable observations of the senses. While many thought experiments can be created that test the a priori assumptions that this is the “true” reality, epistemological methods that rely on the validity of an empirical reality are by far the most successful ever created. Reality, for the most part, varies from person to person, but there is a need to form some conclusions as to what you choose to believe. You cannot live in total absolutes as our knowledge is way too limited. You cannot live in total relativism as you have to make decisions in your day-to-day life. I certainly hope, especially for my daughter, that she makes decisions based on empirical reality and not some nice feel-good organization that is trying to live a delusion. Don’t get me wrong, we all live with a level of delusion as our senses are faulty data-collecting devices, so we need to think critically and make our best judgments based on empirical evidence and our goals, the things that are important to us.

We need to be in the know or, said another way, to be educated and not living in a filter bubble, driven by group think and our tribal mentalities. A.C. Grayling, a distinguished professor of philosophy and author of some 30 books, provides an elegant answer to the question; “What is education for?” At the Festival of Dangerous Ideas [AC Graying – Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sidney 2015 – YouTube ], Grayling says education is to equip people to participate in society and to understand the nature of the world around them. He goes on to say that many philosophers and educators believe the health of the world and our future very much depends on education.

Then, we are left with the questions about how education should be taught, who should be educated, how the government should be involved, and so on. He says the standard answer to “why” people should be educated is “so they can go out and get a good job and be successful, and be useful to the economy”, which means basically fitting in or confirming to the corporate infrastructure. He says “this is not only the least important and the wrong answer”, the correct answer is for “life”: Education is for making you a good human being, for helping you make a good life, for helping you be able to care for not only yourself, but your environment and this world as a whole. It is learning life skills and, even more importantly, “how to learn” so you can continue to learn, especially in this world of constant and fast-paced change.

What we are experiencing today is the world’s collective awareness rising higher and higher. It is leading to new issues never experienced before. People having access to vast amount of information is changing everything. Governments are being toppled, religions are being challenged, and literally everything you do is being transformed as a direct result of an increased amount of information flowing into your mind. In previous generations, information was passed on to the masses primarily through media edited for their purpose and we hoped for high standards and truth. In my opinion, the media is a terrible source of information for many reasons. Also, the Internet is not filtered at all, so inevitably it gets filled with junk, false information, which can be very destructive if internalized as truth. Some education systems and societies simply teach you to conform, as if we were raising sheep, not people. The herd mentality describes how people are influenced by their peers to adopt certain behaviors, follow trends, and/or purchase items. Examples of the herd mentality include stock market trends, superstition, and home décor. Social psychologists study the related topics of group intelligence, crowd wisdom, and decentralized decision-making.

Understanding how you work and how the mind works is crucial to taking full advantage of the age we live in. Science has led us to a greater understanding of what we are made of and how all those elements are formed. It can get quite confusing, but with a little effort and an open mind, you can get the basic understanding of most big questions and know the boundaries of knowledge. You don’t have to be a physicist or rocket scientist to understand the basics of our universe, our world, life forms, and where it all came from.

This is an age of “precision”, and with the advancements in machines and technology, the volume of data and collaboration of people and processes, we can be very precise in our models, theories, and accuracy of information leading us to facts and realities. It is simply amazing and unprecedented the precision of knowledge we have available to those who know how to get it. We will need to develop new skills and learn to think like a scientist, to ponder, compare, observe, and even challenge all our knowledge. We need to learn to discern and evaluate information, sorting out what is valuable and what is not, and to have knowledge based on empirical reality and not ancient beliefs and superstitions. We will need to learn to have clarity on our goals and passions to follow through on what is important, leaving the unimportant aside and to not be distracted by the myriad of potentially harmful information.

It is to this end that I have documented practical applications and strategies for managing the information age. It is really starting from a position of identifying one’s major life’s goals, deciding on what is important to you. Then, when you know what information to gather, you can then apply critical thinking and make decisions that lead to actions. Keep track of your information and progress, constantly monitoring and getting feedback, being aware, and observing how those actions are affecting you and your environment.

  1. Being information literate. A heightened level of awareness/reality. Having a good working knowledge of the boundaries on 5-10 key subjects in life. (STEM subjects, The Periodic Table, The Standard Model of Particles and Forces, Evolution of Life, basically David Christian’s Big History with the latest on the Digital Revolution)
  2. Discernment: Being able to think critically like a scientist or a person getting their doctorate. Being objective and looking at the facts, data, and known knowledge.
  3. Knowing what you want: At the end of the day, you have got to have priorities on what is important to you, you have got to have goals, direction, and a good map with accountability and feedback.
  4. Be resourceful: Learn how to research, source information, and ask valuable questions that lead to more valuable questions, solutions, and actions. Know how to discern and validate that information so you’re not buying into or absorbing a bunch of junk or false facts.
  5. Be precise: Don’t be so vague that there is no meaning. Don’t abuse language, it is our best description of what we see and know, so let’s be more precise and fine-tune our definitions.
  6. Journaling: This is an effective information organization method in raising awareness and solving problems. Steven Covey said, “You can solve any problem in life by journaling,” and fundamentally this is the basic scientific process.
  7. Personal profiling: “Know thy self”, as one philosopher said. Be aware of your own biases, perceptions, and yourself. Know how you, your past experiences in life, and your environment have affected your ability to interpret reality. Know how your 5 faulty data-sensing organs may influence your perceptions.
  8. Organization: Setting up a creative, effective environment and keeping an organized file system.
  9. Collaboration: There is no “one person” who can answer our personal or global questions, there is no “one scientist” who can explain how and why something works, and there is no “one country” that can lead the world to where it needs to go.
  10. Personal development: Being more aware of yourself, being more real with your strengths and weaknesses and developing the “soft” skills of communication, attitude, and listening. Try to listen to people: Be open-minded and really try to understand what others are saying when they describe the world, science, or their understanding.
  11. Baselines: I now believe that it is critical for us humans to form some conclusions and form a mental foundation, a world view to guide and grow from. We cannot function in relativism or absolutism, so we do need to make decisions or draw baselines, as I promote, to grow from.

The above is a summary of the best steps I know to take in gathering, discerning, and managing information. In the article [New-Collar-Skills-Development-2017-05-03], I get into more detail of what the future might hold for work and the skills needed for that work.


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