Archive for November, 2020

Knowns and Unknowns

November 6, 2020

Are we really better off now than we used to be? In the old days we knew what we knew, and we knew there were things we didn’t know.  Today with the growth of data, machine learning and artificial intelligence, there are many more things we know and even more that we know we don’t know.  There are even things we could know but don’t bother to know, mainly because we don’t need to know them.  Someone else, or increasingly something else knows them for us, thus saving us the bother of knowing them.

We even discover from time to time that there are things we know that we didn’t know that we knew.  We are beginning to suspect that, more than all the things we know and know we don’t know, there are even more things we don’t know that we don’t know.  But we don’t know for sure that we don’t know them. If we knew this for sure (if we knew them) then it would just add to the things that we know that we don’t know and would no longer be unknown unknowns.[i]

It is kind of like the names of things.  Sometimes there are multiple names given to the same thing, and sometimes multiple things have the same name.  Of the two suboptimal situations multiple things with the same name is always the more vexing.  This is usually an intra-language problem and not inter-language problem, which makes it even more troubling.  You would expect a person speaking a different language would have a different name for something, but you might expect (wrongly it seems) that people speaking the same language would have the same name or names for the same thing.  Worse, people of the same language often have different polymorphic descriptors referring to the same object. 

What is even worse, a monomorphic descriptor can refer to a set of objects that can either overlap (like a Venn diagram[ii]) or be totally discontinuous, often without people even knowing that they don’t know.


[i] Conceptualized by Donald Rumsfeld February 2002.  Things we are neither aware of nor understand.

[ii] Conceived around 1880 by John Venn, according to Wikipedia.