Known Unknowns

Much mocked at the time, Donald Rumsfeld’s response to a press question is a largely accurate assessment of the murky evidence on which we attempt to make decisions. Sometimes we know that we don’t have the data about something. Equally, we know that there will be things that blindside us – key pieces of information that come out of the blue. These are the unknown unknowns. Realising that this is the reality in which we work, we need a wise humility about the scope of information that is available to us. One of the dangers inherent in the decision making process is the temptation to only see the information our data tools are designed to collect. This appears to make perfect sense, as we have proven and validated methods to acquire certain kinds of evidence. However, it may also mean that we give scant regard to the unknown unknowns – the inevitable and significant factors that are not amenable to the measurements we can use. These exist, but operate outside our frame of reference.

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.

“Defense.gov News Transcript: DoD News Briefing – Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers, United States Department of Defense (defense.gov)”. February 12, 2002. Archived from the original on March 20, 2018.

There are useful philosophical approaches to the basis of our knowledge. Often there is a distinction made between analytical (or Anglo-Saxon) philosophy and continental philosophy. The former is very much focused on the known knowns; the latter is more concerned with lived experience and the role of language in the nature of our perception. It follows that continental philosophy has a healthy regard for the scale of information that isn’t amenable to our existing forms of analysis and measurement. Many years ago I was involved in the delivery of a learning module for medical students at a Russell Group university. At one point I asked the 30 or so students to imagine everything they could ever conceive might be known about human physiology and clinical care. The I asked them to tell me how much of that they felt we knew today. With commendable insight and honesty one student responded: ‘sweet FA’. We tend to place great confidence on our current knowledge, which his understandable, but the story of science is that what we knew in 1922 is largely inferior, wrong or misguided, compared with what we know today. The corollary of this is that what we know today is likely to be seen in the future as clumsy, partial or lacking critical information.

It is encouraging that the Templeton Foundation has awarded funding to the University of St Andrews for a project entitled “Widening Horizons in Philosophical Theology”. This work has led to a host of international research studies co-ordinated to inform the development of a renewed philosophical theology, drawing on insights from the approaches of continental philosophy. This is intended to generate an “holistic approach to exploring questions of spiritual discovery and growth”. All this involves close attention to the lived experience of people as we share in relationships and learn more about ourselves and those around us.

In attempting to understand hospital chaplaincy and my place within its practice, I spent time exploring the work of Michel Foucault, one of the continental philosophers. In reading Foucault’s work I felt a strong affinity with his attention to shifting regimes of power and what knowledge this permits or suppresses. As a chaplain I was aware of the authority of medical and managerial discourses and the ebbing regard given to religious and spiritual ways of knowing. As prevailing power relations often seem inevitable and invisible, my formation as a priest and a chaplain frequently seemed to jar with a view of knowledge that most people regarded as self-evident. There was certainly a counter-narrative of patient experience, but this was usually accommodated within, rather than allowed to alter, the terms of what counted as actionable information.


https://templetonreligiontrust.org/explore/new-directions-in-philosophical-theology/

Without doubt approaches aligned with analytical philosophy have delivered a huge amount for many people. It is equally true that a vast amount of knowable information lies outside the systems we use to gather data. These are often aspects of the complex and multi-faceted experience of living that we find difficult to disaggregate into measurable and reportable data. Researchers have designed approaches that attempt to translate this complexity into useful information, but it remains a challenge.

It presents continental philosophy as an open, discovery-oriented discipline whose questions, approaches and methods make it an important partner for a theology.

https://philosophical-theology.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/vision/

Given the scope and nature of theology, the recognition of inter-connection and open enquiry offered by continental philosophy has considerable potential to inform methods of theological research. Theology has no illusions about how little we know, and the enormity of potential knowledge that surrounds us. Understanding how to act in this context of partial information, in which lived experience is critical but often unamenable to study, is something a theology informed by continental philosophy could make more visible and help us live creatively within all that remains unknown.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s