Show me the Puppets!

A Philosophical Blog

Unknown Unknowns

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The phrase “unknown unknowns” was made famous by Donald Rumsfeld in a speech on Weapons of Mass Destruction.   Rumsfeld used it to feed paranoia about WMDs and Iraq, with the logic that even if something does not appear to be problematic, it might be dramatically worse than you imagine.   In his Opinionator blog for the NYT, philosophical filmmaker Errol Morris references the phrase to consider more general and personal cases of ignorance such as the case of the bank robber who thought spraying lemon juice on his face rendered him invisible to security cameras.  As Morris puts it, there are the things you know (e.g. that you exist) and there are the things you know that you don’t know (e.g. such as the melting point of Beryllium in his case).   With regard to the things that you know that you don’t know, you could look up the answer.   However for the things you don’t know, you don’t know, there isn’t much you can do about it.   Morris considers some fascinating cases of anosognosia, a condition where a person may be partially paralyzed yet seem to be unaware that this is the case.   In the concluding piece Morris wonders to what extent we might all suffer this kind of self-delusion about the nature of reality.

I first encountered the phrase in the Landmark Forum (long before Rumsfeld’s press conference) and have no idea where they got it.  Despite its deserved reputation for the hard sell and jargon, the Forum does (or did 10 years ago) genuinely concern itself with helping people see the dirty water we swim in.  In The Forum they used the phrase to refer to those parts of your personality that automatically run your life and affect the quality of your experience.   For example, you think you’re unhappy because your coworker is a jerk, but what you don’t know (and you don’t know that you don’t know it) is that it’s the complaint that it is sucking the life out of you.

The catchy phrase of “Unknown Unknowns” is a modern invention, but Plato describes the predicament in his allegory of the cave.   Plato thought that for most of us, the closest we get to reality is as prisoners watching shadows of puppets.  I mean, we don’t even get to see the puppets!

If the domain of the unknown unknowns was completely impenetrable it might make for some interesting thought experiments but it wouldn’t change much.   Yes, many of us have been intrigued by the prospect that we might just be “brains in a vat” but at the end of the month I still pay my phone bill.  What makes unknown unknowns intriguing is the possibility that perhaps they can be known.

In his piece, Morris seems rather despondent about our ability to come to know the UKUKs.  However we have plenty of historical examples of peoples and cultures coming to know things they didn’t know they didn’t know.  We’ve learned that earth is not flat, that people are not property, that germs cause diseases, and that we can discernibly impact the climate of our planet.

While the phrase “unknown unknowns” suggests a mystery as to how we might ever discover these truths since presumably we wouldn’t be looking for them, it doesn’t give us any reason to think that we couldn’t.   At least one well proven method for discovering the unknown unknowns is to reject false beliefs.  In some cases the truth may be right in front of us, but a belief or assumption may keep us from recognizing it.

Even the brightest people of an era can be guilty of believing some fundamentally incorrect things.  Descartes (a pretty smart dude) for example, believed that animals did not experience pain.  Descartes believed that there were fundamentally two kinds of “stuff” in the universe, soul stuff and material stuff.  Only humans had the soul stuff (as evidenced by our reason) and the rest of the universe (including animals) is just extended matter.  He argued that only the soul stuff could experience pain and so despite the horrendous cries of animals when subject to painful actions, it’s just an automatic response.  Descartes’ view seems absurd to any pre-schooler with a pet today (sadly still credible to many professional philosophers), but made sense given Descartes’ generally well reasoned arguments for why consciousness must be distinct from material stuff.  Since I’m not as smart as Descartes I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some important truths in front of my face too.

So one point of this blog is to question some of the fundamental beliefs of our age and your comments are welcome.   Of course questioning basic beliefs is not as ambitious as laying out an alternative picture, but if we don’t “see the puppets” at least we’ll know we’re looking at shadows.


Written by sturgis

September 27, 2010 at 6:26 pm

One Response

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  1. I agree. Although i subscribe to the notion that the phrase ‘Unknown Unknowns’ is just a misnomer set out to open a pathway for people to be manipulated.

    I was first introduced to this phrase by some close friends who were undergoing the unscrupulous mind altering milieu of the ‘Landmark Forum’. I have thought long and hard about this particular phrase and have come to the conclusion that it’s complete and utter rubbish!

    If one is not aware that they dont actually know some, or a lot of things, then they are not completely conscious. ‘Unknown Unknowns’ sets out to deliver a underlying message that there is something more sinister going on that the conscience is unaware of. This may be true about the unconscious to a degree, but we are aware of that, for example – Although we dont know exactly know what our unconscious is doing, we are well aware that it plays a huge part in our conscience… we know that! We are also well aware of the fact that all of us dont know everything there is to know about absolutely everything possible…we know that too! So as far as the entire phrase goes, it begs to be reckoned with that ‘There are known unknowns’ is as far as you can take the entire phrase, period.

    The ‘Landmark Forum’ is a faction of the old mind manipulation EST programs developed in the 70’s. EST had it’s ties with ‘Scientology’ and after a report on the abuse of his daughter, the founder of EST, Werner Erhard, lost all credibility and sold off his mind manipulation scheme to his siblings who re-packaged it into today’s multi-million dollar ‘Landmark Forum’.

    I believe this phrase is used in conjunction with the old psychological trait of ‘Anchoring’ which is a method used to set a particular belief system or idea in someones mind, firstly by consciously confusing them, then ‘Anchoring’ that particular idea. Like a lot of psychological manipulation, it works on some, not on others.



    May 14, 2011 at 8:31 pm

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