Why unknown unknowns may save us yet


Donald Rumsfeld, when he was US Secretary of State for Defence, once famously stated: ‘There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know’ (2002, US Department of Defence Briefing).

Well yes, of course, you may say - but it may surprise you that the phenomena that are the closest to us all, and the most inescapable, are still beyond scientific, philosophical and experiential grasp. That is, the human mind/consciousness and human self fall into all of those categories listed by Rumsfeld.

I say this after a lifetime spent looking for definitive things to say about myself. In no way have any of my various researches come anyway near accounting for the enormity of the self-society-cosmos complex. Chemical or electrical processes in the brain can never substitute for the experience of being. The individual in society is a network within which if we think we know who we are, we cannot know where we are. The cosmos is vast and rapidly becoming so vast that we can never hope to see it all.

To think otherwise seems to me to involve serious philosophical errors. For example, the experience of mind is not equivalent to anything empirically material. The experience of self is not reducible to structures, molecules or electricity. Further, even if the experience of reality is an illusion (as claimed by Buddhists), the continuity of personal identity through time will always be the routinely paramount experience for all individuals. So, being in the world may be illusory, but that’s as good as it gets. Human existence is elusive and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

There are at least two major research fronts worth considering. First, the work of cognitive scientists on the subject of mind/consciousness with respect to artificial intelligence, and second the work of social and human scientists (including psychologists) on the self and related subjects. Despite great advances in cognitive science and the increasingly developing ability to map neural processes in the brain with thoughts and feelings, the project of developing an artificially intelligent machine that might be indistinguishable from living humans is still a far distant goal – despite the contrary hype from Google, Apple and all those other high-tech firms with a direct interest in artificial intelligence (see, for example, ‘Cognitive Science’, Wikipedia). This is fortunate for all those who fear identity theft; imagine a society where unknown numbers of human like machines or mechanical clones of oneself ran rampant. . . As Stephen Hawking put it, ‘[t]he development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it will take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.’ (BBC News, 30 October, 2015)

Definitive statements (eg. scientific laws, or empirically proven principles) about self and personality are, given the many centuries of dedicated research across many disciplines, even less impressive. And that also might be a fortunate turn of events: for example, if we consider the many and complex issues of human privacy it seems clear that if those who rule us (ie. politicians, lawyers and corporate moguls) could be more certain about what it is that deserves privacy, life would immediately become much more difficult. The law, to consider just one aspect of this, might legislate in favour of ‘the common good’, and decide that a small concrete kernel of human essence that we consider ours, and ours alone, is too important to leave to blind chance. If the self could be confined conceptually to a single place and space in time it might be thought relatively easy to watch and perhaps even control - in its best interests. In pursuit of the common good it might be considered that only an enlightened state apparatus, or benign dictator, could possibly protect us from malicious others. All that, and potentially much worse, might follow because of confidence in knowing absolutely that where and what the core entity of self is. If self could be located and measured it might even be insurable. Thank goodness the law is forced to protect us in a piecemeal fashion, individual harm by individual harm, body part by body part, and so on. Thank goodness that we understand that self is a narrative unfolding through time, and not limited to a material body or a pineal gland, or some other particular thing. The alternative is definitely far worse. Imagine a society where all desirable traits could be engineered into foetuses . . .

So it turns out that not knowing can afford us great protection against those who would exploit positive knowledge about what it is that we are. That, by the way is not a ringing endorsement of ignorance, which, in the case of lack of knowledge about climate science, for example, is just as catastrophic.

Tom Jagtenberg

1 September, 2018

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