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We're on Information Overload. Here's One Solution

One forgotten ancient suggests what we might do with all of today's information

Photo by Jeroen den Otter / Unsplash

When reading, I numb. When surfing the Internet, my eyes glaze. When thinking about all the things to be thought, all the books to be read, all the websites to frequent, I freeze.

Not always of course, but occasionally.

Everyone knows about the mammoth caverns of information at everyone's door: two billion websites; thousands of must-read new books every year; piles of magazines and newspapers; cable television; streaming services and their docuseries; AM, FM, and satellite radio; podcasts; entire libraries digitalized and online.

It's gotten so bad that a group at Kings College in London studied the effects of "informational overload" and concluded that it harms concentration more than marijuana.

And that was about ten years ago, when we had only 100 million websites to choose from.

We now speak of "information literacy," a branch of knowledge dedicated to searching and deciphering information. Efforts to increase information literacy are spearheaded by the American Library Association and funded with federal and private grants.

Everyone calls it the "Information Age," but that doesn't do just to the endless proliferation of data.

It's better called the "Too Much Information Age."

Enter a Pagan Saint

If the TMI Age has a pagan saint, it might be Pyrrho of Ellis.

Historians of philosophy refer to this younger contemporary of Aristotle as an early skeptic, but he wasn't. The skeptic claims there's nothing to know. Pyrrho was more radical. He said we can't even know if we can't know. He was skeptical about skepticism. He was neither dogmatic like Aristotle nor a debating skeptic like the later Carneades.

He was rather like the agnostic who stands between dogmatic believers and atheists, refuting neither but agreeing with neither. Pyrrho didn't assert that truth is knowable or unknowable. He just shrugged, adopting what Austrian philosopher Eric Voegelin called "an existential suspense of judgment."

What prompted it? It's impossible to know for sure. Consistent with his existential suspension, he neither wrote nor founded a school or religion. He left few pupils. His words have come down to us in mere fragments.

But we know this: He lived in the age of Alexander the Great, whose conquests in the Middle East and Asia swept the Greek polis into nearly every corner of the known civilized world and brought a rush of new phenomena back across the Aegean.

Before Alexander, the Greek wielded a formidable mind, inquiring and open, but steady and sure. With Alexander's conquests, new cultures and information flooded the Greek mental landscape, knocking over many shrubs and trees.

Some grew anxious or excited.

But not Pyrrho.

He had accompanied Alexander on his expedition to India, where he met "naked wise men" (yogis). When he returned to Greece, he wasn't agitated by all the new things people were talking about. He had seen it all first-hand.

And he was calm. Diogenes Laertius tells us that Pyrrho "withdrew from the world and lived in solitude, rarely showing himself even to his relatives." His disciple Timon wrote that he was "unconceited and unbroken by all the pressures" that attack most people, and that he wasn't weighed down "with passions and opinion."

Pyrrho's was a serene mind, untroubled by searching, questioning, opinions, and judgments. He had attained ataraxia (a means "not" and taraktos "disturbed"), the ideal state of mind according to Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius.

Pyrrho and Three Fundamental Modern Truths

I suspect Pyrrho would've smirked at the whole idea of "information literacy." He knew the mind's limits.

But what' s really interesting is that millions of people today are Pyrrho-like perceiving the mind's limits.

The mainstream media's army of trolling reporters, the Internet's orc-like hordes of web pages, and the dragon of online libraries have helped people intuitively realize a few fundamental truths about knowledge and information that many people just 25 years ago didn't appreciate:

(1) You never have all the facts.

(2) Whenever you trust a source of information, you are undertaking a leap of faith in the source's authority.

(3) No authority on factual matters is definitive.

As a younger man, I once wrote, "The redneck substitutes blanket skepticism for wisdom." Now that I'm getting older, I'm beginning to think the redneck ain't so dumb. In fact, the real wise man understands that he knows very little when contrasted with everything there is to know.

I suspect today's suffocating avalanche of information makes every person a bit wiser in this respect, a bit more like Pyrrho.

But is that all Pyrrho has to offer? An "existential suspense of judgment"?

The Skeptic Meets the Dogmatist

Toward the end of his life, Thomas Aquinas became silent. It was 1273 and he had just returned from Mass. He put aside his unfinished Summa Theologica, right in the middle of his treatment of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and stopped writing. His friend Reginald asked him why. Aquinas simply said, "I can write no more. All that I have hitherto written seems to me nothing but straw."

Straw? Aquinas? A man consistently ranked in the top ten of history's best thinkers?

What happened? Nobody knows for sure, but most think he had a mystical experience. The German philosopher Josef Pieper said it was because Aquinas had been "allowed a glimpse into the inexpressible depths of that mystery that is not reached by any human thought or speech." After that awesome glimpse, Aquinas figured there was nothing to say.

Sometimes I fancy that the overwhelming glut of information and potential knowledge gives all of us a glimpse of whatever Aquinas saw: What's the point of trying to capture all, or even some, of it? I realize it's ridiculous to compare one's zombie trance after hours of Internet surfing to Aquinas' mystical calm. Still, I think there's something there.

Aquinas had overloaded with Too Much Information, albeit of the divine radiance kind.

Switch back to Pyrrho.

To Timon's question: "Why is it that you alone among men stand forth in the manner of a God?" Pyrrho responded, "For the right rule of truth do I have in this saying: That the nature of God as of Good exists in eternity, and from there proceeds for man the most just and equitable."

God and the Good, not all the statistics and assertions and opinions and dogmas and Indian yogis that swirl around American or Achaean society. But God. That, Voegelin said, was the "enigmatic force that let Pyrrho appear as a saintly, semidivine figure to his contemporaries." Pyrrho's, like Aquinas', was the silence of the mystic.

Information literacy or God? A federal grant to learn whether Wikipedia is reliable or Pyrrho and Aquinas? A textbook on efficient web surfing or mystic calm?

Are those our only options?

I'm not willing to say.

And you can read into that whatever you want.

(A previous version of this essay appeared in Philosophy Now.)