The Problem of Incomplete Information - Some Personal Thoughts

The Problem of Incomplete Information

In my research into worldviews and their power over the human mind (see my book here), I have run into what I think is the fundamental problem that philosophy centers around. I have seen this point explicitly made in Kant's work, Jose Ortega y Gasset, and Jordan Peterson though it is implicit in all philosophies. Well not just philosophy, it is implicit in all human day to day life. The Pragmatists also did a good job of identifying this point (though I do not agree with much of their philosophy). That point, is that as human beings were are very limited in our knowledge of reality. If the knowledge of the universe is an ocean, would the knowledge we currently have even make up a drop of water? I'm not sure. But certainly the 20th century has revealed many more layers to the reality around us, both incredibly small and large. 

And so the problem of incomplete information is something that we face everyday. Let's say that in our field of study, or domain of life, we are confident in "point 1" and "point 10," but we don't understand the gap between those points, 2 - 9. So how do we function within this domain when most of our knowledge of it is unknown? The lack of knowledge is paralyzing because to make a decision we have to push ourselves from doubt into some type of confidence enough to act. And so we have incomplete information. How then are we able to act in the world? It would seem that we should be immobile over most things. 

This is where worldviews/belief systems/ideologies all come in. They are preliminary sets of data that fill in the missing points for us. In providing a pathway from point 1 to 10 we can then understand that domain well enough to act properly. These tools provide a "grand narrative" that is needed by the human person, an overarching story which ties all the points together into a meaningful whole. What was disparate information or data is now meaningful in relation to me as a person. The incompleteness that I feel as a person, the longing for a better state of being, is a striving that pushes us towards finding this meaningful whole. The interesting thing about these narratives, though, is that the information that it provides must be accepted on the basis of faith. Again, we don't know points 2 - 9, and so in giving a preliminary answer to them we are acting in faith that we have the right pathway between the points. This is just as true for science as it is for religion. The Methodological Naturalist scientist makes certain assumptions about the universe which help him interpret his data that are not proven, such as "all that exists is matter and energy." As one might guess, not all preliminary answers are equal. Some narratives provide a more successful way between points 1 and 10 than others. Ideologies are usually incomplete narratives that provide a skewed path. This is not a relativistic endeavor, but rather one in which we push out into the unknown trying to discover the best understanding of reality that we can. 

It may also be clear now why it can be difficult, or even impossible, to talk to other people about such questions, let alone change their mind. For those who have been fully colonized by an ideology which rejects personal experience, no evidence or dialogue may be able to be had. They will explain all counter evidence away by filling in the missing details of the evidence with applications of their first principles. For those who have firm beliefs, but are open to novel data, dialogue may be able to take place but there may not be much immediate changing of minds or positions. And this can be for good reason. One of the issues with the problem of incomplete information is that most of the time one person cannot vouch for a whole field of data. For example, if I am open to changing my mind about where life on earth came from, or to at least dialogue about it, and there is only one person giving me new evidence, I am not sure if that person is themselves representing the whole of the evidence correctly, or is possibly stricken with ignorance themselves to some part of it. And so, in conversations, people may be reluctant to accept new data, or the conclusions of new data because they themselves do not know enough to verify if that data is true. If they encounter many people telling them the same thing, it will become more likely to change their views. For those who are agnostic to universal truths, they may be the most open to talking and changing their mind, but they also have a problem in that their life will be very chaotic, potentially. If there is no guiding narrative to their life, or if it can change completely through one conversation, then there is going to be an instability to the day to day. 

Recognizing the problem of incomplete information in our conversations with people is an invaluable tool. It allows us to to identify their axiomatic assumptions applied to a given set of data, challenge our own worldviews assumptions, and have a discussion at a deeper level ideas, which in the end is going to be more fruitful. 


  1. Some very good points are made in this selection. For those who choose to enter into dialog it doesn’t take too long to discern the other’s “2-9” assumptions. At that point one can evaluate if the conversation is going anywhere. As for those with no “ovbvious. “2-9” worldview, the writer is correct they are likely more open to ideas, and it could be very fruitful. If successful, they will not be completely “blank” and will have some worldview ideas to weigh new information against.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I think that when people are aware of these assumptions they can be easy to spot. But for those who are not aware, it can be very frustrating grappling with why people will not listen or understand you.


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