Not knowing what you don’t know

This topic has occasionally fascinated me. Not knowing you don’t know something is how your incompetence is used to hide your incompetence (amounting to being too incompetent to know you are incompetent). It was used about a decade ago by Donald Rumsfeld to incriminate Saddam (remember all that about the “known knowns”, the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns”?). It was a sham to hide the fact that even though he had no evidence of WMDs, that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Guilty until proven innocent. Let’s spend billions on an invasion.

But, yes, the underlying idea is a real one that goes back to theories of learning and of knowing. And ironically, I have it on some authority that it has roots in Arab culture. There is an old Arab saw that goes:

"He that knows not,
    and knows not that he knows not
        is a fool.
            Shun him
He that knows not,
    and knows  that he knows not
        is a pupil.
            Teach him.
He that knows,
    and knows not that he knows
        is asleep
            Wake him.
He that knows,
    and knows that he knows
        is a teacher.
            Follow him."

Our particular interest is in the first stanza. Shunning one who doesn’t notice his/her own incompetence might be a bit harsh, because really, not knowing you are incompetent about something is a normal part of the human condition.

We are all biased, we are all unaware of whole worlds of knowledge lying outside our doorstep; yet, we work, play, pay our taxes, make decisions, go to school, get promoted, have relationships, resolve our conflicts despite not knowing everything, and not being all that conscious about what we don’t know. Our brains are wired to make sense of the world with limited knowledge, and to make judgements and to act. Normally things work out, and that’s all that matters to us. We don’t need the data gathering skills of NASA’s Mission Control to resolve even relatively difficult dilemmas. Some of us make judgements on truly degenerate knowledge of the world around us, and life goes on.

But what if we were worried about the things we do not know that we do not know? It might be marginally helpful, but I suspect that most of the time, we would be paralyzed with indecision, until we gather all of the facts. And in some situations, that is just impossible, thereby paralyzing us forever. You can’t know everything in interpersonal situations; you are not expected to have the wisdom of Confucius, the moral reasoning skills of Martin Luther King, the clairvoyance of Kreskin, and what would it have helped? You still need to work through the reasoning skills of the other person, who has a similar degenerate knowledge found in everyone else.

If you think that’s the other person’s problem, then remember that the tragedy of the crucifixion happened because Jesus suffered from a mortal flaw: he was flawed because he was perfect (he only knew that he knew), and the crowd judged him, because they didn’t know what they didn’t know. As Jesus dies on the cross, he prayed for forgiveness of this essential flaw in their humanity. In other words, being perfect is not a guarantee that you will live your life in any kind of perfect happiness, since you will live in a world where everyone around you will not know what they don’t know. And to try to attain that kind of perfection with the purpose of becoming “more knowing” or more effective in your environment is grossly un-necessary nearly all of the time. We already have within our imperfect selves the power to change our lives in a positive way.

Knowing more is, of course always better. But trying to know everything is an invitation to personal, moral and professional paralysis. We would normally accuse such people of not being able to deal with ambiguous situations, which let’s face it, covers just about all situations.