Contemplation: Unknown Unknowns (pt. 1)

I always get excited when I see that Errol Morris has written a new Op-Ed piece for The New York Times.  Part of this stems from the fact that Mr. Morris is a more than proficient writer, and part of it is the continually interesting subject matters which he chooses to write about.  But I think the most appealing factor is that, regardless of the subject of his pieces, Mr. Morris is continually examining a broader epistemological idea of the world, namely “what is truth?”  Mr. Morris does not go so far as to say that he has an answer to all of the questions his writings raise, but he certainly does not shy away from asking them.  It is the making of the very best kind of philosophical discourse.

As such I’d like to point you to the first part in a new series that Mr. Morris is providing to the NYT, titled “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll never Know What It Is.”  This piece examines what is known in psychology as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  Essentially, the core of the effect is that our personal incompetencies shadow us from knowing that we are incompetent and acting incompetently.  Basically meaning that we often may grossly over evaluate our own abilities and degrees of knowledge because our lack of ability and knowledge completely blinds us to it.

Mr. Morris goes on to evoke Donald Rumsfelds well-known (and much criticized) “unknown unknowns.”  For Mr. Morris, these “unknown unknowns” are at the core of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  This is an idea that life is filled with a degree of knowledge that we either experience or do not experience.  There are “known knowns” which we deal with on a daily basis and form the foundation of our personal knowledge.  There are “known unknowns” which are those things that we know we don’t know, but that we could easily pursue knowledge of (Mr. Morris uses the example of the “melting point of beryllium” as a personal “known unknown.”).  And then there are those completely unseen “unknown unknowns,” those things that we are entirely unaware of not knowing.

The baffling, almost frustrating aspect, of the “unknown unknowns” is that by their very nature we are not able to know them.  We can be conscious that there is a probability of some sort of “unknown” to us, but beyond that point, this simple infuriating admittance, knowledge decays.  I am made to think to some degree of an event horizon of knowledge.  Before the event horizon we have “known knowns” and “known unknowns,” essentially available knowledge (where the “known unknowns” require us to do some work to acquire the knowledge and create a “known known”).  But cross the event horizon and there are the “unknown unknowns.”  The problem here would be that, in the nature of an event horizon (and the assumed ensuing singularity) knowledge breaks down and cannot escape back out.  basically I see it as forming an impenetrable boundery of knowledge and non-knowledge.

But historically people have learned things that were previously unknown.  This is at the core of human discovery.  It is essentially what the sciences are constantly striving at, to learn new knowledge that was not previously had.  Mr. Morris makes a distinction between “unknown unknowns” and “unknowable unknowns.”  Basically, as I see it, and “unknown unknown” could become known at some point through a matter of discovery, moving the unknown into the realm of the known.  An “unknowable unknown” is that thing that is beyond our ability of discovery or even imagination.  It is unconditionally denied to our realm of knowledge (at best is like talking about “nothing,” a kind of paradoxical existence that is bound to the limitations of our language and yet entirely inaccessible to our conceptual minds).

Part of the ramifications of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is that we may often be acting with a perception that either greatly inflates our actual ability or, if we really happen to be very competent, greatly diminishes our confidence.  Such”unknown unknown” may play a very important role in the function of our society (and species as a whole).  How do these “unknown unknowns” cause us to act on a daily basis and what ar the consequences of these actions?  On one hand it might mean that there are general idiots like McArthur Wheeler, mentioned in Mr. Morris’ article, who get themselves arrested due to the complete lack of competence.  On the other hand there may be a whole swath of potential Einstein’s who grossly underestimate their actual worth and thus never make the great discoveries or contributions that our world is desiring.

I wonder about the world prior or conscious life.  Is it safe to assume, that at that time, all knowledge was in the realm of the “unknown unknowns?”  We of course have developed sciences that seek to know the unknown from those times (see paleontology and geology) but at the moments of them do we think that the little lizard like critter knew anything of the implications of tectonic motion or that the dinosaurs suspected that that burning ball of light fastly approach spelt a cataclysmic asteroid event?  The haze of knowledge is perhaps limited to the presence of consciousness.

This is the proverbial tree in the forest isn’t it? In scientific terms it can be argued that a tree falling in the forest will certainly cause a vibration that could be perceived as sound if an observer is present.  But lacking the observer the noise is restricted to the realm of theoretical.  Thus, then, it may be assumed that knowledge requires and observer.  An “unknown unknown” is such until it can be made known through observation.  The heavens may be populated with all sorts of planets and stars and such, but it is all naught to us until our astronomical devices can aid us in their observation.  Likewise, the extent of our personal abilities may not be fully known until we try to either succeed or fail.  Insight is thus almost entirely in the aftermath.  Logic can only assist so far, but once it is up against the “unknown unknowns” is falls apart (the singularity of knowledge).

Mr. Morris’ piece is a five-part Op-Ed and so I greatly look forward to reading the next four pieces of the series.  I think it offers a wonderful and confounding contemplation about the very nature of knowledge and truth.  I’d love to hear other perspectives on the matter.  I hope to follow-up, myself, on each subsequent piece by Mr. Morris.


~ by Nathaniel on June 21, 2010.

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