We don’t know what we don’t know


Consider This Rob Swindell


Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said in response to a question about the lack of evidence regarding weapons of mass destruction linking Iraq to terrorists:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

While there might be some political avoidance in his answer, the answer itself actually provides valuable insight into the role knowledge plays in not only political decisions, but also risk assessment in economics, project management, and other fields.

I also think these ideas apply philosophically to the wonders of the universe.

For me, as an agnostic, my known knowns would be that which is either inherent in life or that which science has proven. For example, we inherently know that we will all eventually die. However, in the bigger picture, science has offered with certainly the Big Bang universe creation principle and that life changes over time through evolution. Though many of the details, especially those in astrophysics, are still being tested, the known knowns offer an explanation of life from moments after the Big Bang through our current existence. Evolution, through biological and geological study, particularly the fossil record, makes this natural phenomenon a known.

Moving beyond the known knowns to the known unknowns, we consider those things that we are familiar with but are yet unknown due to a lack of evidence or perhaps indistinguishable probabilities. In my philosophical consideration, there is both the time before the Big Bang, of which all I know is a possibility (unless something is created from nothing) and the time after we die. Regarding the latter, there are many known unknowns, such as religion, spirituality, and a host of other belief systems.

It is unknown to me who gets it right. Are Christians right? What about Islam and the other major religions? Do we go to heaven, hell, or are we reincarnated? Do we survive spiritually in some form of energy? Or maybe, nothing happens. So while I know there are many possibilities, I cannot assign probabilities—making them unknowns.

The unknown unknowns are of course the most difficult. It’s also referenced as, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” For example, I cannot comprehend the idea that something is created from nothing— which makes the time before the Big Bang mystifying. Even if there is a god, he or she (or it) also had to be created from nothing. With unknown unknowns, nearly anything is possible.

I’ve often explained that that our whole universe may be just some experiment of an advanced population, like a child’s ant farm. “God” may actually be some middle school kid who one day might get bored with us and end our existence. As for the end of time, most believe that the universe is expanding, but into what? Will it eventually contract and repeat the entire process? Are there multiple universes? The scope of the conversation is bigger than we are and subject to those things we have not even conceived — truly unknown unknowns.

Obviously my observations may not resonate well with others. Those who believe in monotheism have moved the scope of the conversation considerably. They have put the god of their particular religion into the position of a known known. I am not quite sure how, but doing so for many also means moving science out of the discussion. Though there is a spectrum of convoluted beliefs mixing science and religion, for some, the Big Bang and evolution are not only not known knowns, they are scientific lies. It’s hard to debate those who are sure they know all there is to know.

The idea isn’t original to Rumsfeld. In fact, in his memoirs, Rumsfeld credits NASA administrator William Graham. It seems appropriate that unknown unknowns might have been derived from an entity charged with exploring our universe.

Rob Swindell is a lifelong Lorain County resident offering his opinions on politics, science, and social issues. He can be reached at robswindell@roadrunner.com.

Consider This Rob Swindell
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