Uncertainty: A Critique

Luciano Floridi has recently written on uncertainty in a short editorial on conditions of ‘uncertainty’ within information theory in Philosophy & Technology (the article is currently available free here) with which I have a problem with.

Although I agree with the principles outlined in his piece, I believe there is an assumption explicit within its execution. This is the belief that somehow ‘information’ and its knowledge is able to predict the future. As I mentioned in my previous post, Louise Amoore’s work on probability (and indeed uncertainty) argues that the future is impossible to correctly predict. Thus, information due to its abstracted quality, the impossibility of recording everything and their associated variables ensure that we are always in a ‘block’ or “add some friction to the flow of information”. I am not here to critique the great explanation of uncertainty that Floridi provides, but to make a more nuanced point.

This point refers to the fact that Floridi alludes (whether intentionally or not) to a world where human agency alone provides uncertainty because we cannot somehow ask the right questions and gain their answers. In our world(s) it is not possible to ask all the right questions due to the interplay of the non-human with the human. This ensures that ‘questions’ are out of the bounds of ‘our’ language and we will never be able to generate these questions in their human form. Look to the work of Derrida on the deconstruction of language or différance as examples of how language cannot specify the true meaning of the world. Therefore I believe that information (as an abstracted form of the world which is given intrinsic human value) always provides blockages. Look at the below quote;

“In philosophy, it is time we learn the value of a low and stable degree of uncertainty. It is unhealthy to eradicate it completely, for a small dose of unanswered questions in the social system leads to increased degrees of liberalism, toleration and fairness, as well as more efficient flows of information. It seems that the value of information also lies in what it can teach us about its own equilibria.” (p.3)

This creates an impression that there is an ability to ‘eradicate’ uncertainty and claims we somehow the power to deny this. Plus, I question what Floridi means by “its own equilibria”. Can information ever have an equilibrium? If information is abstracted then it has human value in its process of becoming known. Hence this statement appears to give a somewhat ‘natural’ quality to information based on older western philosophical norms. There is fundamentally nothing ‘natural’ about information – it is a socially-constructed phenomenon. It is therefore interesting that this term is used. Uncertainty, then, is a condition of human existence – we can never comprehend the world in its entirety – yet Floridi’s call for it to be further recognised can be applauded even if its execution is somewhat questionable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *