Knowledge, possession of information, mostly seems an entirely good thing, certainly if it concerns useful knowledge. Knowing how to do things, understanding nature causes technological change and makes life easier and allows more individuals to exist at any one time.
Progress, increase in useful knowlege gained, has been rapidly increasing at an accelerating pace. It has been suggested that technological change grows exponentially with time (Solow).
If the growth of kowledge continues, future individuals will know next to everything about us. Wouldn't that be motivation to ensure they flourish?
Limits to growth of information?
The question whether the gathering of information, the accumulation of knowledge, is an intrinsically limited process is intriguing. It would be, however, much more important to find creative solutions that offer different perspectives.
The assymetry of offensive versus defensive capability and the difficulty to predict complex systems make the prospect that with continued progress it is only a question of time until anyone can create pathogens or weapons of mass destruction a serious concern and a leading contender for the solution to Fermi's paradox, i.e. the question why there do not seem to be any civilizations able to colonize other solar systems than the one where they emerged. The dangerous sides of increasing knowledge might be impossible to contain. But then, it might be possible, too. This site starts with the assumption that it is possible.
Is information available in infinite quantity? Can knowledge grow indefinitely?
- In science, demonstrating the identity of a theory (representation) with reality, i.e., its truth, is impossible. While knowledge thus could grow for as long as there are conscious observers, reality would pose a boundary beyond which knowledge could not increase if the amount of information contained in the universe/reality is finite.
- On another hand, assuming exponential growth in knowledge: 20.000 years of growth at 1% p.a. results in more of whatever one measures than there are elementary particles in the visible universe.
- Heisenberg's uncertainty principle seems to describe a characteristic of reality. Does this characteristic limit the amount of information that can be gained? Or does it rather describe that the uncertain information does not exist?
- If processing information requires the utilization of useful energy (if the second law of thermodynamics describes reality correctly in this, it must) then the amount of information that can be processed is limited by the amount of useful energy available (in the universe or wherever one happens to be), which seems to be finite. Conciousness would seem to require the processing of information and happiness conciousness, so the amount of possible happiness is finite. Fermi's paradox then is solved by the notion that intelligent beings would rather use energy for the experience of existence than for interstellar travel.
- 1952 Robert Heinlein suggested progress would grow exponentially in "Where to? Life in 2000 A.D." (Galaxy Magazine, Februry 1952, pp.13-22). Actual predictions he made in the article attest to the difficulty of making predictions.
- 1957 Robert Solow argued that progress would grow exponentially. He suggested the A(t) function ("Solow's Residual" or "Total Factor Productivity"), which measures how technological improvements lead to gains in productivity. A(t) grows at 1-2% p.a. "Technical Change and the Aggregate Production Function". Review of Economics and Statistics 39:312–320 doi:10.2307/1926047.
- In 1976 Richard Dawkins in the book The Selfish Gene introduced meme as a term for a piece of cultural innovation, a unit of information passed between individuals.
- In 2004 Bill Joy's influential call to contain dangerous technologies (robotic, genetic, nanotechnology) "Why the future doesn't need us" (re-)started many discussions on the risks of progress and what to do about it.