How Do We Know What We Don’t Know?

Even the most learned among us is ignorant. There is so much to know about our world that it is impossible to know it all. How, then, do we categorize what we don’t know? If we don’t know something, how do we realize that there is a gap in our knowledge? When we examine ourselves, how can we tell if there is a lack or some learning that needs to be done?

How do we know what we don’t know?

Related questions: How do we grow? What does it mean to learn? How do we organize knowledge?

3 thoughts on “How Do We Know What We Don’t Know?”

  1. On an individual level, libraries and bookstores are great places to understand a bit of how much you don’t know. And they often categorize things in interesting ways for you to gravitate to an interest you may want to know more about.

    Within a discipline, professors and PhD students often devote a huge part of their life trying to understand or figure out the answers to a sliver of an area of study. All of this with the hope of getting published as they explain some discrete thing from a new angle or unearth something unknown before.

    On the largest scale possible, we as humanity don’t know more than what is to be known. And here I am referring to astronomy. Did you know that only 5% of the universe is observable space, planets (including the ground beneath your feet and the sky above), stars, galaxies, etc. We suspect that 68% of the rest of “space” is something called dark energy — something I believe is a repellent, making the universe expand faster than it “should.” The last 27% is something we call dark matter– something that has a gravitational pull, but doesn’t completely interact with light — it bends it somewhat, but we can’t see it. These last two categories of stuff — dark energy an dark matter — we know less about them than we know about them. That means we only know about 5% of the universe … the rest is hypotheses. And of that 5%, there is still so much we don’t know — about what exists on other planets; about how to cure certain diseases; about why some medications work for some people, but not others; etc.

    1. One of the more interesting questions a person can pose to oneself is: what is it that I don’t *like* to know, or, simply don’t *want* to know? What am I consciously closing my mind to? From here, one can then begin to map out the difficult examination of lacunae in our knowledge referred to in this week’s IR question.

      That the world makes sense, that things hang together in the broadest possible way, that we can mentally form a perceptually coherent frame of reality (borrowing the sociological concept of “framing”) seems to require passing over enormous amounts of information that may directly contradict deeply-held beliefs (or, if you ask some, what they think they really *do* know, end of discussion). Challenges to our sense of a coherent self, or a coherent world (after all, most of us would claim that we have a fairly accurate picture of reality, would we not?) can be threatening.

      This is the case with some forms of knowledge as well. It is rare to meet a true Bayesian who is open to new information and the lifelong project of continually adjusting their own cognitive biases to accommodate new, pertinent data. Sure, we may tinker here and there with a particular belief, typically on a global scale (i.e., something we see or hear on the news but with which we have no direct engagement, making it relatively easy to turn a mental 180 given that it has little bearing on our everyday life), but the cognitive and behavioral foundations that serve as our underlying operating systems, so to speak, are sedimented and beyond our reach without long, systematic, and painful effort. There we may discover what we may *not* know, but merely believe on the basis of scant evidence. The shock of facing the flimsiness of those beliefs can be enormously damaging to one’s sense of self, which, after all, has been constructed upon those foundations.

      Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a wonderful book, always a good primer for discussions premised upon questions such as the one here on IR. As is Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method (and keep in mind the etymology of the word “science” as you read this):

      “For is it not possible that science as we know it today, or a ‘search for the truth’ in the style of traditional philosophy, will create a monster? Is it not possible that an objective approach that frowns upon personal connections between the entities examined will harm people, turn them into miserable, unfriendly, self-righteous mechanisms without charm or humor? ‘Is it not possible,’ asks Kierkegaard, ‘that my activity as an objective [or critico-rational] observer of nature will weaken my strength as a human being?’ I suspect the answer to many of these questions is affirmative and I believe that a reform of the sciences that makes them more anarchic and more subjective (in Kierkegaard’s sense) is urgently needed.”

      His phrase — “miserable, unfriendly, self-righteous mechanisms without charm or humor” — should strike a chord in these times. A return to a rigorous examination of one’s own beliefs, a stress test of sorts of what we claim to know to see how it all holds up under scrutiny may be therapeutic, and open the door to a greater capacity to satisfy our innate desire to know. Or, even better, to learn what we have not yet learned.

  2. Every day I find something I know nothing about. Question is, do I want to learn more about that topic?
    Do I have the time to invest in learning? Am I interested in learning more? Do I have the energy?
    As an individual, Someone is always more knowledgable than I am. However, in some areas I may be more knowledgable than another.
    I guess with experience comes knowledge. But with desire comes more.

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