Conditional Knowledge

I’m not going to sit here and say that I have a lot of time for Donald Rumsfeld, because I don’t. I do, however, have a serious amount of time for one of his most famous pronouncements, from 2002:

“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.

The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, or vice versa.”

There is a lot there to unpack, but it is a tremendous summation of our understanding of the human concept of knowledge: I know that I know things; I also know that there are some things I do not know. The danger is assuming that there are no further gaps which I have not taken in to account.

What then of the things we know, of which we are consciously unaware? Where does this one fit?

Example o‘clock: We are taking a drive, to a place which I have been to on the odd occasion in the past. I am asked which route we should be going; I am given two options. My answer is that I do not know, because I do not know where we are going. It is not an accurate response, and I am told so.

The problem is that I do not have the location of the place we are going to stored actively in my mind. Similarly, I do not have the way to get to it stored in my mind. I do not have an active link to these pieces of information in my mind, so it is almost as if I have never known the answer at all.

This is an unknown known piece of information. Yes, I am being told that I do know where we are on our way to, and every metre of the route is utterly familiar to me as we make our way there. The issue is that I have not had the chance to shift it from my passive memory to my active memory:

If I sat down and walked through the route in my mind, with the destination as the ultimate goal, I could navigate us there; I just haven’t spent the time preparing for that situation, like the driver of the car, who needs some form of plan before they turn the ignition key. The perks of a passenger.

Chatham House – The Royal Institute of International Affairs – stated in October 2017 that these unknown knowns are a straight jacket on our thinking. By limiting our thinking to the assumption that all of our knowledge is active we are robbing ourselves of the limitlessness of the unexplored: our thinking is held in place by our current modes of understanding, rather than by true reality.

Then again, who really has the time? Scavenge through our entire brains for every single unexplored angle on every singly quandary we are faced with, so that we may find that one-in-a-billion-ideas answer to a previous insoluble question. That’s going to take some skills in both time management and mind mapping. I’ll need a far more detailed plan of my mind palace for that, I suggest.

The problem I have is that every person has their own different content within their active mind, and that is the cause of conflict. I have raised issues with the notion of “Common Sense” in the past; this applies, instead, to the notion of “Common Knowledge”: not the incredible body of hearsay and gossip which swirls around the bored and the hungry; the essential knowledge needed to get by.

Someone without the same set of “Common Knowledge” as you may be maligned, or insulted, mocked or jeered. They may be left feeling less than whole because they were not gifted with the same set of ideas and assumptions as you were. You will tell them that they knew; you will be appalled that they didn’t; you will deny their right to protest. They are a non-person to you now.

We have all been in this situation ourselves, or at least I am prepared to assume that we have.

Knowledge, and the way in which we access it is a tricky thing: it is so personal, that no one else can ever see in to our ways of thinking, or of processing data. Yet, it is so hardwired in to our very minds from birth, that there is a tendency to assume that everyone – or at least everyone we identify with – thinks and processes knowledge in the same ways that we do. It is a shock when we do not.

When someone confronts us with the differences in our way of thinking it is a shock; a bucket of ice cold water to the face. And that can make us act differently to normal – more aggressively, or more defensively. This is an animal reaction, and it is perfectly understandable. It is not acceptable.

However, it is something to bear in mind during our interactions with people on a day-to-day basis. For instance, that youth on the bus, blaring out their tinny electronic music isn’t attempting to be a public nuisance, or be a source of anti-social behaviour: they don’t have the fact that we don’t act intrusively stored in their active memory. Remind them of this at the earliest opportune moment.

My eldest daughter blaring a screamed request for attention while her parents are trying for the fourteenth or fifteenth time that hour to get to the bottom of where they should plan a holiday for this year isn’t being a petulant little brat: she has not had the opportunity to transition the key understanding of conversational dynamics from her deeper memory in to her active understanding.

It could be taken that most transgressions or mis-speech we encounter is exemplar material for this concept of the unknown known: we all know these societal rules and regulations, but some people seem to forget them for a moment. Either that or they are horrible little fuckers who never chose to listen in the first place. Except for my daughter, of course: she is only six, so it can’t be helped.

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