Humans have always wanted to know what the future holds.
Soothsayers have been doing their best for centuries. But for all the efforts of many, predicting what’s going to happen is tricky.
You might start by thinking of it as a simple game of chance, which you play by weighing up what’s likely to happen on the basis of what you know. But you quickly come to realise there’s more to it than that. In fact to play this game you have to allow for four different things:
the known knowns,
the known unknowns,
the unknown unknowns,
and the unknown knowns.
While that can seem confusing, when you pause to think about it all it’s clearer than it might first appear. To take the four aspects in turn:
One: The Known Knowns
We know what we know. That’s fair enough.
Two: The Known Unknowns
We’re not daft. We know there are holes in our knowledge – holes concerning all sorts and any number of things.
Three: The Unknown Unknowns
These are those things that, if they actually arise, will be completely and totally unexpected because they are things we’ve no knowledge of at all. Remember – no knowledge of at all means precisely that. You can’t predict these things, you can’t plan for them and you can’t even know where or when to look for them. When you keep all that in mind the idea of ‘the unknown unknowns’ becomes a clear enough concept.
Four: The Unknown Knowns
This can be a difficult one to take into account although in essence all unknown knowns are, are things we don’t know that we know.
These might be relatively neutral things. How you form sentences is an example. Most of us learn what to do as we are growing up without any formal instruction. We will be following ‘the rules’ but we don’t know what they are and we don’t know that that’s what we’re doing. What we will have done is unconsciously absorbed what to do. And that kind of thing can be fine, neutral, no big deal.
But unknown knowns might have far greater significance. As with learning to form sentences, there are ways of thinking and behaving that we accept and follow without any conscious awareness that that’s what we’re doing. We believe something or do something simply because ‘we always have’, and our beliefs and ways of behaving are just normal to us. This can be a very dangerous state of affairs.
Who is checking that our beliefs and behaviours are right? Valid? Decent? Humane? How are those judgements being arrived at, on what basis? It’s not you, because you’re not aware of the beliefs and ways of behaving that you’ve absorbed. Remember – these are ‘unknown knowns’.
It’s hard to face-up to the fact that we’re not easily able to check-up on ourselves. And it’s also hard to realize and understand that there are beliefs and behaviours followed by other people, people very alien to you, which are wholly normal for them and which they have just ‘absorbed’, in the same way as you have just absorbed your own normality. Other people can have very different ‘unknown knowns’ than yours.
That ‘unknown knowns’ can exist is true for all beliefs and all behaviours within all contexts. And inevitably, the seriousness of this reality and its potential dangers are amplified when it applies not just to individuals but to groups of people or even to entire societies.
And this is all muddied and complicated still further by our ability to lie – to ourselves as well as to others. There are any number of things we know but we actively pretend we don’t, things that have an impact on all aspects of life. If you like, we deliberately manufacture some of our own ‘ignorance’, some of our own unknown knowns, because self-manufactured ‘ignorance’ can be easier than action.
It is because of its potentially large scale applicability that this fourth aspect is the most sobering and daunting. But it’s only when you have all the four aspects in mind that you can consider yourself well prepared to play the game of trying to predict the future.