“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.”
– Donald Rumsfeld
When I say that I know something, am I telling you that I know that thing, or that I know that I know it?
Something about this has been bugging me for a while. It started with a simple trick I learned in the bush, and pops up often when I am driving.
Years ago I was in a small army, where there was some bush warfare going on. As part of our training we learned a useful trick, which anyone can do. The trick is to see behind bushes.
The way you do the trick is very simple, and the way the trick works is also very simple, but these are not the same thing.
The way you do the trick is to focus your eyes on the place behind the bushes where you want to see, and make sure you are moving about a bit. The way it’s learned is like a kind of knack: you focus your eyes as though you could see behind the bush, and it turns out you can see behind the bush. You just have to accept that you can see behind the bush in order to focus your eyes there in the first place.
The way it works is also very simple: by focusing both eyes on a place behind the bush and keeping on the move (or moving your head a bit) your brain is able to take each of the small bits of picture that filter through between the leaves and build them up into a coherent picture. Provided of course your eyes are physically focused on that place behind the bush and not on the near side of the bush.
So there is no mystery to why it works; no unscientific woo. But two things are worth noting: that you don’t need to be told that explanation in order to be able to do the trick; and that in order to do the trick at all you have to accept that you can do the trick.
This seems at variance with everything that my scientifically trained mind thinks of as knowledge. It seems that what we think of as knowledge is really stuff that we know, but which we can also back up – at least unless we are predator or prey in the world of anti-scientific woo.
But being able to know things without first having to know that we know also has a role – not when telling others that we know something they can rely on, but in our own internal dealings with the world.
When I am driving and I’m waiting for a traffic light to change from red to green, I often put the car into gear just before it changes. How I know the light is about to change is a combination of inbuilt timing, cues from other lights, people hurrying, reflections in windows and who knows what else. If I try and think about it, I end up putting the car into gear too soon or too late. If I try to think about it I would be using only knowledge that is also knowledge about knowledge. There is not so much of this as there is of the other sort. I would need to be aware of a number of things I had not noticed consciously, as well as be simultaneously conscious of each of those things that I had. The unconscious timing thing seems to run fast or slow if I try and watch it with my mind. But as long as I am prepared to listen to all the different impulses and signals that are there somewhere in the unconscious, and as long as I am prepared to simply accept that I know, then I am often (but not always) correct about when the light changes. Sometimes I put the car into gear just as the cars in another lane all start to move. And if I am driving in another country where the timings are different it doesn’t work at all.
I suggest that most of us do this all the time, but sometimes we let ourselves only act upon facts that we know that we know. If there is a lot at risk in getting it wrong, then that’s the safest idea. And of course we should not hold out our internal, without-metaknowledge ideas to other people as being true. But there’s a kind of “being in the groove” as some people call it, where we can live our day to day movements while being open to unconscious prompts; by accepting that we might know.
The modern, scientific approach to knowledge is a wonderful thing. When we say we know something, we are expected to be able to back it up. If you cannot back your assertions with good hard facts, or if you cannot point to something someone else has said which has been proven to stand up, then there is nothing to distinguish what you are saying from nonsense.
This is a Good Thing. Nonsense withers on the vine, superstition and other specious woo can be safely ignored, and all manner of bunk can be debunked. Progress owes a lot to the fact that when we hold out something as being knowledge, what is really there is not simply knowledge but knowledge accompanied by the way in which we came by that knowledge. When we say we know something we are really saying that we know we know something.
Because of some linguistic accident, what we call knowledge is really this knowledge that comes with its own knowledge of how it got there. Metaknowledge, if you like. But if knowing is the word we use when we say that we know that we know a thing, then what about those things that we merely know?
Let’s call our usual kind of knowledge “knowingly knowing”, and the other sort “merely knowing”.
I talked to some epistemologists. Epistemologists are people who study how we know things, so that seemed a good place to start. I went to one of Daniel Fincke’s Google Hangouts based philosophy courses – see http://danielfincke.com/dr-daniel-finckes-philosophy-classes-welcome-page-a/
It turns out that when you start to study how knowledge happens, things get very messy very quickly. The epistemologists describe knowledge in terms of how we acquire beliefs. For instance if you believe something, it might be based on something else you are pretty sure of, along with a reliable mechanism for getting from there to the new belief. So then it’s a matter of how you became sure of that other thing in the first place. You can chase some of these down to basic sensory inputs, but even those can be notoriously slippery at times. In the end, belief formation comes down to a couple of things at the ground level: things you believe which have proven to be reliable in your day to day experience, and things you believe which you can justify. These are called reliable true beliefs and justified true beliefs.
So now our “merely knowing” can be thought of as reliable belief, and our “knowingly knowing” is justifiable belief.
In terms of justifiable beliefs it is right that in making assertions to other people, we stick to what we can defend; what we know we know. There are plenty of charlatans who prey on the epistemologically unwary, and it is good to be clear about facts. So let’s agree that what we call knowledge in our dealings with other people should be this kind of knowing knowledge. But what about the rest?
Even if we only accept justified true beliefs for ourselves, this is not true of everyone and everything else that forms beliefs, so it’s worth understanding how others can merely know. So this kind of merely knowing is important for two reasons: in living to ourselves and in understanding others.
Consider knowledge in others. “How can they know that?” we might ask, for example about animals, about ancient civilizations and so on. What we think we mean when we ask that question, is “How can they know that in the way we think of knowing things” or in other words, “How can they knowingly know that?” But animals don’t knowingly know anything. At the same time, it’s clear they know stuff. All the things which an animal knows, they “merely know”. Similarly most ancient civilizations were on pretty shaky ground epistemologically but they obviously knew stuff.
Of course like any mere knowledge, like my traffic light routine, what the animal merely knows is sometimes wrong. This was shown to me by a cat I met once. I was borrowing a flat for a few days and one day as I got out of my car in the large car park, this cat came bounding up to me like a long-lost friend. Just before the cat reached me, another chap pulled up nearby in an almost identical car, whereupon both cat and man shot me a dirty look and went on their way. The cat “knew” that the person pulling up in this car at this time was his long-departed owner, as was the case every other day. But on this day he or she was wrong. Even for us humans, many of the things we regard as facts are really what you might call factoids – they are made from the same stuff as facts but they are not necessarily true. Knowledge is not always truth, but we work to make sure it usually is.
As for ourselves, we can live so as to make the most of what we merely know, rather than limiting all our actions to be informed only by what we know we know. This is liberating.
For the things we merely know, we must accept that while they are likely, they are not necessarily true. If your life depends on it, don’t rely on something that you merely know. But conversely, a lot of the time your life is not at stake. What might be at stake is, are you really living? Are you making use of the full potential of the things you merely know, or are holding yourself back through a misplaced desire to always and only be right?
So here’s a thing. I had been teasing at this idea of what we know versus what we know we know for a long time, without really having the language for it. It was kind of just a hunch; I could not explain or justify it. Now, thanks to those epistemologists, it turns out I was onto something, and there are words for it. I can justify my belief that there is more to what we know than just what we know we know.