epistemological thought for the day

The very idea of a database seems to me epistemologically questionable. For the idea rests on — or, perhaps, projects — a supposition of data as finite.  For if data is infinite, then the idea of a collection of some data, presumably, is useless and stochastic. It would be like having a collection of some numbers (assuming numbers to be infinite). What’s the point? You might as well have just one — the one you are working with, when you’re trying to work out some problem. For one in the number, compared to infinity, is all you can ever have.

Only if data (in the last analysis) is finite can the idea of a database make any sense. Only if data is finite can the idea of an ever-larger database make sense. Therefore, the more committed one is to the idea of a database, the more committed one becomes to the presupposition that data is finite. In this way, every database, from the Domesday Book to Google, enforces upon us an epistemological assumption. The “bigger” the database, the more powerfully enforced is the assumption.

Do we know this assumption to be correct? Can we? I don’t know (perhaps there is an answer in theoretical physics) but I doubt it. And if not, isn’t it kind of problematic for us as a culture and society to be increasingly committed to the idea of the database? Aren’t we begging the question of what knowledge, fundamentally, is, or might be?

Author: JD Fleming

I am Professor of English Literature at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. My work is in intellectual history of the early-modern period (1500-1700), with a special interest in epistemic issues around the emergence of modern natural science (the "Scientific Revolution"). In 2012, I initiated the international conference series "Scientiae: Disciplines of Knowing in the Early Modern World."

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