Data, Information, Knowledge

As an initiate in La Regla de Ocha Lukumi (a.k.a. Santeria), I’m trying to wrap my head around all the different things we do and the proper way to do them.  The most straightforward method for this is to simply show up to ceremonies, watch what’s done, listen to what’s said or sung, and follow along; in this manner, I learn the things we do, how to do them, and why we do them.  I learn primarily from my godfather when I’m in a one-on-one situation, and under his watch and guidance more generally when I’m in the broader community.  This is the simplest way for me to learn, but even then, there are so many complications in this alone.  For one, since we’re all learning, there are things my elders will occasionally shift when they find a better or more proper way to do things, so occasionally the things they show or tell me can change over time, which isn’t even bringing up the matter of things that I can’t formally know yet, based on my own experience or initiations within the religion, without which I formally can’t know about certain things without having undergone the mysteries thereof.  For another, there’s the issue of different houses within a lineage with their small variances, and different lineages within the religion with their larger ones, which becomes more evident when we have people from other communities visiting and participating in our ceremonies or vice versa.  There’s also the issue of the “stuff out there”, books and blogs and personal notes of other people in the religion, which really should be vetted thoroughly before even being given an ounce of credence since some of it may not apply to us and some of which may just be outright wrong.

Trying to take all that in and form a useful body of knowledge that I can use is…daunting, to say the least.  Thank God and the gods for my godfather, but even by his own admission, it can be bewildering and confusing even at the best of times.

The situation is a little different in Western occulture, but many of the same issues still apply.  Consider all the grimoires we have available to us nowadays from the medieval and Renaissance Solomonic traditions; heck, just consider the books Gordon over at Rune Soup goes over in in his grimoire course.  Each book, while still belonging more-or-less to the same overall tradition of magical study, has its own variations of practice, theory, and internal logic; some things are clear inventions that start with one grimoire and continue forward form there, while other things that were present from the beginning slowly fade out over time.  Then, based on all those texts, consider our modern (largely derivative) texts and how those vary both in philosophy and praxis due to the time and location wherein they were written.  Then, for an additional twist, throw in everybody’s UPG that they love to make dogmatic Truth far more often than is good for them (or us).  If one were to study magic, then, how would you go about reconciling all these differences?  Between all the details and variations, between all the similarities and commonalities, where does one even begin to make coherence out of the mess?

Let’s talk about how we come across such facts and tidbits in the world we live in.  I like to draw a threefold distinction here: data, information, and knowledge.  All have their role to play, but all are slightly different in terms of delivery and scope:

  • Data is a Latin word literally meaning “things that are given” (where, yes, the singular of data is datum, but I won’t fault you for using data as a singular noun in English).  Literally anything that exists or that is said, witnessed, or perceived is data.  The world is full of data, but much of it doesn’t make sense or even matter.  Literally the entire world, if you’re receptive to it all, is full of data.  Data is, in many ways, boring and meaningless without some sort of structure or methodology to process it by.  If data is a set of raw materials, then the form of raw materials produces information.
  • Information is, in the words of one of my old computer science professors that stuck with me, “data that makes a difference”.  Differences can only be shown when you have some sort of rule, method, structure, or form to pit two pieces of data against each other with.  Information is another Latin derivative meaning “to educate”, but more literally meaning “to give form to”.  Information is a structure of data that literally informs (builds within) a body of knowledge.
  • Knowledge is synthesized, coherent structures of information.  When we “know” something, we have a context to put information within, and we can link it to other bodies of information to see even bigger trends that connect both within and outside a single system of information.

To use an organic metaphor, consider an animal body, which is composed of organs, which are composed of cells, which are composed of chemicals.  Those individual chemicals at the lowest level are data, and they can occur anywhere both within an animal body and outside them.  When arranged in certain structures (such as nucleotides in a strand of DNA), you start to get cells.  When the cells are organized together according to function and purpose, you get organs.  When your organs are put together in a coherent, symbiotic way, you get a complete animal.  Similarly, our minds are composed of different bodies of knowledge, which are themselves composed of structures of information, which are themselves composed of data.  The data are arranged in certain ways to form information; the information are arranged and structured in certain ways to form knowledge; different bodies of knowledge are linked together to form our intelligible minds.

To give a more concrete example, consider a school of students.  At testing time, each test score of each student gives us a single point of data.  We can point and say that we know that Tom’s score is 74 and Abby’s score is 95, which is nice and all, but individual points of data don’t really mean anything.  We can see that 95 is a higher score than 74, but more than that, we can’t say anything unless we start looking at a broader picture, a structure to fit these data points within.  Consider Tom’s trends of scores across the school year; while 74 may not seem like a particularly great score, if we see that that’s his highest score across the entire year, then we can say that Tom is getting better, while Abby might be having an off day with 95 being her lowest score across the whole year.  We can evaluate how well Tom and Abby are doing amongst their peers by taking the average or median scores of their class, or the whole school, to see whether Tom’s situation is common compared to his classmates or whether he’s underperforming.  We can split the types of test up by subject and see whether these scores are indicative of Tom or Abby excelling in certain subjects but not others.  All these methods to analyze data produce information, which is “data that makes a difference”.  Going one step further, we can take how this given school performs on tests to our bodies of information about education methods generally that we might’ve picked up from our own classes, the psychology of children and adults in learning and performing on evaluations, how obscure the material is on the tests compared to both what is commonly known and what is specialized expertise in a given field, and other things that we’re informed of to come up with a general, broad-view understanding of the performance of the school and the context in which it takes place.  From that knowledge, we can make further judgments that we might not be able to make reliably when we’re focused only on one system of information, because we lack sufficient context or experience in order to extrapolate.

We need to understand two things about data, the things we encounter in the world:

  1. Any given data point is a fact on its own terms.  This doesn’t mean that every bit of data we have is true, but it is a fact in and of itself.  Consider this book on Santeria I have before me; it is a fact that the book says such-and-such about a particular orisha.  That is a data point, and it is a fact that the book says so.  Whether such a fact is true depends on other factors that cannot be validated on its own terms; if I have other bits of data that say the opposite of what the book says (such as what other santeros say, what my godfather says, what my own experience has validated, etc.), then I can consider the data in the book to be false, but the book still says it all the same.
  2. Any given data point may or may not be meaningful.  Consider a generator that produces random numbers or words.  No matter how you pick them, any given item from that random set is just that: random.  Nothing in it makes a particularly big difference either way, since any comparison you use between one item and another will be meaningless.  It’s only when data are structured together and compared can a trend be (possibly) produced; the data that produce that trend are meaningful, and the data that don’t may or may not be meaningful, depending on whether it’s an “exception that proves the rule”, a once-off exception that can be explained contextually, or another random result that doesn’t have any bearing one way or another on the trend.  When we talk about people having “bullshit thresholds”, this is what we mean: it’s a boundary above which we can accept data as meaningful, and below which we can consider it to be no better than random noise.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to amass a large set of data, but it’s correlating that data into information that’s difficult.  In order to produce information, we need some sort of guidance to arrange, compare, and distinguish the data we have available to us.  For this, we use models, structures of data, sets of axioms or rules, and reliable methods of comparisons.  While this sounds numerical and mathematical, it doesn’t necessarily have to be.  For me in my education in Santeria, I have the religious, philosophical, and practical models imparted to my godfather which he’s expanded on in his own way, which he has passed down onto me.  For instance, if a particular santero says X and Y (two pieces of data), and the model my godfather has established allows for X and not Y, then I can accept X into my information model but not Y.  By understanding the model, I can often see why X is allowed and not Y, and if I can’t understand the model’s rules well enough to account for those, then there’s something my godfather hasn’t yet told me or there’s some other limitation that hasn’t yet been conceived of yet in the model, whether it’s arbitrary or not.  For a run-of-the-mill Solomonic magician, those models might be produced by a combination of analyzing the commonalities between grimoires over the centuries and the accounts of their uses from other magicians, forming a set of rules of “here’s what’s essential, here’s the expected results, here’s what can be added to good effect, here’s what can be removed without harming the overall results, etc.”; based on this understanding of the grimoires, one can perform a ritual and see how the methods of the ritual impacted the result, what the result was, whether the result can be trusted, and so forth.

Knowledge is a little more difficult to sift through, because it’s more abstract than a single structure of information.  Information structures, moreover, tend to be coherent and consistent within themselves; they each have their own sets of rules that permit some data but not others.  However, when you have more than one structure of information, it can happen that they each have a set of rules that can conflict with other systems of information.  One example I can pick out in my own experience is the role of the planets in my life.  In the system of information I have regarding astrology and Western magic, the planets (and the objects of the celestial world generally) are paramount in effecting certain things in this world.  In Santeria, on the other hand, so far as I can discern (and that’s a big disclaimer!), there’s no such corollary to that; I haven’t yet found any astrological component to the religion, besides some associations of the Sun and the Moon and a few star-based images, but there’s no role for the planets, aspects, houses, signs, and so forth.  Astrology, simply put, doesn’t matter or even have a place in Santeria.  So, then, if in one system of information I can say that Mercury retrograde is a poor time to do ritual, but in another it’s a moot point because “wtf even is Mercury or a retrograde”, what should I do?  This is an example of a conflict between different systems of information within an overall broader body of knowledge.

According to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, you can have a system of understanding based on rules that can be either consistent (anything that is provable by the system is true) or complete (anything that is true is provable by the system), but not both.  If you’re consistent, then you must be incomplete, where whatever you can prove is true, but there are true things that cannot be proved by the system itself.  If, on the other hand, you’re complete, then you must therefore be inconsistent, where the system can prove everything that is true, but will also necessarily prove things that are not true.  I find this a useful model for understanding how things work.  Any given system of information, for us, is almost always going to be consistent, and therefore incomplete.  Thus, we rely on other systems of information that are likewise consistent and incomplete to fill in the gaps left by any one system.  By linking them together by means of context, comparison, metaphor, and allusion, we can have an overall more-or-less (we hope) complete system of knowledge that is based on multiple systems of information.  Just like we have to pick and choose the data we use to create information, we have to sometimes limit ourselves to what information we choose to link together in order to form knowledge.

Eventually, our end goal should be having knowledge.  Data is easy to get, and information is almost as easy, but neither are entirely usable by a complete being such as ourselves.  It is knowledge that declares and defines the contexts of information, but how do we go about getting knowledge?  It’s a lifelong process and largely automatic for human beings, and different traditions and philosophies have written endlessly about this, so it’s probably best for me to not wade into that set of eternal debates here.  Still, there are a few questions that you might want to consider:

  • What are my models for understanding data as information?
  • From where do my information models come from?
  • How do my experiences relate to what I already know, both as information and as knowledge?
  • How do I evaluate data as meaningful for a given system of information?
  • How can I explain data that do not fit a system of information?
  • How can I refine my models of information to weed out more untrue pieces of data while permitting more true pieces?
  • How can I link one system of information to another?
  • What sort of knowledge can I get by linking one system of information to another?
  • In what context should I analyze a system of information as a whole?
  • What system of information is best to take in new data to produce useful knowledge?

I’ve never been one for the whole “nothing is true, everything is permitted” thing.  There are indeed things that are true, if not generally for all people than specifically for individual people or contexts, and those are useful in and of themselves.  It’s the problem of determining the false chaff from the true wheat that’s the problem, and the rules for that can fluctuate at any given moment depending on what system of information is most useful at that moment.  Plus, when dealing with a number of occultists, it’s hard to keep track of who’s reliably honest and useful in their results, who’s good but crazy, and who just exaggerates for the sake of self-aggrandizement; I know I’ve had that problem in figuring out where to set my bullshit thresholds with certain people, and I’m pretty certain most of my readers have, as well.  We filter data through our bullshit thresholds all the time, but it’s always worthwhile to recalibrate that threshold once in a while and analyze why it’s set where it is for us, and whether it’s too high or too low for our own needs.

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