Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Friday, October 08, 2010

Unknowable unknowables

There's a quote from former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, from 2002, which gives an interesting insight into the subject of knowledge, although it was criticised at the time as an odd sounding statement:

"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."

Donald highlights here three categories of knowing:

1. 'Known known'. Basically, what we know. For example: we know that Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008.
2. 'Known unknown'. Stuff that we're aware we don't know. For example: we don't know how to build practically useful quantum computers and on what specific date some things happened in history.
3. 'Unknown unknown'. Stuff that we have no idea that we don't know. For example: suppose that tomorrow a long lost relative is going to give you one million dollars. It's not like, "I don't know when I'll get the million dollars," getting a million dollars isn't even on your radar. This category is completely 'out of left field' stuff.

The interesting thing about Donald's quote and the philosophy it refers to is that most of the time we usually think in terms of 'known knowns' and 'known unknowns'. We don't usually think in terms of 'unknown unknowns' because it takes away all our confidence about our predictions. For example, how can you make a prediction about what will happen in 2011 if you allow for the possibility that the world will end in December? You just can't factor 'unknown unknowns' into your predictions. After all, what, exactly, is the thing you don't know you don't know? And yet 'unknown unknowns' affect the world...

The Bible talks about another category of knowledge, which you could call the 'unknowable' category: something that we cannot even think of or conceive:

Psalm 139:1-6: "For the choir director: A psalm of David. O LORD, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I'm far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, LORD. You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand!"

Romans 11:33: "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!"

By adding an 'unknowable' category you get this:

1. 'Known unknowable'.
2. 'Unknown unknowable'.
3. 'Unknowable unknowable'.

A 'known unknowable' is a question or an issue that we know we can't ever figure out, no matter what. A famous 'known unknowable' comes from Matthew 24:36:

"However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows."

So we know that Jesus is coming back but we can never figure out exactly when it will happen.

In the secular world, the Continuum Hypothesis in mathematics may be a 'known unknowable' and, in the philosophy of mind, some secular philosophers have suggested that 'qualia' is as well (e.g. Colin McGinn).

An 'unknown unknowable' would include knowledge that God has that the Bible doesn't talk about and which is 'unknowable' to us. The Bible might not mention it because it's not relevant.

When Paul writes: "How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!" he must surely be including some things that we're not aware of that are completely beyond us.

In secular terms, this might include mathematics and scientific puzzles we have yet to discover and which we will be disappointed to find out are 'unknowable'.

An 'unknowable unknowable' would be a piece of knowledge that is not only incomprehensible to us, but we also cannot understand what sort of knowledge we're missing out on - and yet it is real knowledge. So, if we can ever identify what 'unknowable' piece of knowledge we don't have, then it is not 'unknowable unknowable' knowledge.

An example of this in the secular world might be what sort of mathematical truths you could find out if you somehow had a computer with infinite processing power that could answer all questions involving the infinite. Because that is impossible, the kinds of things we would find out in that situation are 'unknowable' as well as the answers themselves.

When it comes to God, there might be some things that God knows that are not only unknowable to us, but the sheer concept or idea of that particular bit of knowledge is also unknowable. So it's not like God can patiently explain to us all the things that are unknowable to us, actually God can't even articulate to us some of these unknowable things, even with God's presumably great ability to explain things.

If God's knowledge encompasses all of these categories, and the Bible says it does, then we can be encouraged because of that. We can be confident that God does know what's going on in our lives more than we do (for example, we don't need to worry about whether God is aware of a current problem we have). If these categories exist, then we can also be confident that there are some truths about God, or that God knows, which may not be able to be articulated to us, but which are nonetheless truths.

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