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Unknown knowns: Why did you choose to be monogamous?

47 WrongBot 26 June 2010 02:50AM

Many of us are familiar with Donald Rumsfeld's famous (and surprisingly useful) taxonomy of knowledge:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.

But this taxonomy (as originally described) omits an important fourth category: unknown knowns, the things we don't know that we know. This category encompasses the knowledge of many of our own personal beliefs, what I call unquestioned defaults. For example, most modern Americans possess the unquestioned default belief that they have some moral responsibility for their own freely-chosen actions. In the twelfth century, most Europeans possessed the unquestioned default belief that the Christian god existed. And so on. These unknown knowns are largely the products of a particular culture; they require homogeneity of belief to remain unknown.

By definition, we are each completely ignorant of our own unknown knowns. So even when our culture gives us a fairly accurate map of the territory, we'll never notice the Mercator projection's effect. Unless it's pointed out to us or we find contradictory evidence, that is. A single observation can be all it takes, if you're paying attention and asking questions. The answers might not change your mind, but you'll still come out of the process with more knowledge than you went in with.

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