Monday, May 5, 2008

the unknown unknown


One of the most compelling things I ever heard said at a work event was that we don't know what's possible.

Within the range of what we see, hear, sense, and experience, we form a field of what is known within ourselves. That is to say, there is an agglomeration of observations, conventions, contentions, and agreements--both "inside" us and "outside" of ourselves--that conforms to a picture of what is possible. For example, we know a,b,c through x,y,z, and we call that an alphabet.

We might say that the experience of life is formulaic in a mathematical sense, because it builds on a set of axioms, forms hypotheses, and tests them. This is how every child learns. We may not generally understand it as being nearly identical to the scientific process, because it is so inherent and organic, but it is.

Within the range of what we know, we establish an identified range outside of what we know. This is extrapolated from where we are. Based on where we are, we can guess what is out there that we haven't encountered yet. We could call this the "known unknown."

Men usually live their whole lives predicated on the idea that most of what falls within the category of "unknown" lies in this territory of the "known unknown." We fail to take into account that there is a vast area of territory -- perhaps so much larger than a fragment of what we know that it staggers the imagination -- which is an unknown unknown. It is so far outside the range of the known that we can't even know what it is that we don't know. We don't know we don't know it.

Above all, we do not suspect that there is anything within us that falls into this category. Religious and spiritual forms all have a nasty habit of convincing us that the knowledge we seek and experience we wish for lies within what one might call the known unknown. This takes place because all of the information that such forms give us is born directly out of the known.

Sometimes, in a man's life, he may encounter a moment where he is confronted by the fact that if he wishes to go further, he must step into the unknown unknown.

This is a moment of sheer terror.

The known unknown is not so difficult to step into. It may be unknown, but we have some idea of where we are going because it starts here where we are. We can see a connection between here and there. It is the same as x,y,z following a,b,c. The situation contains a predictability we can live with.

The unknown unknown carries no such guarantees. What it contains is rather the suggestion that it will obliterate everything that is known. We can see the weakness of the known and the known unknown when we are confronted with the unknown unknown. It is the gnat facing the elephant, and wondering whether it is worth the risk of taking a bite.

The demands we face and the tasks we set ourselves within the known and known unknown are easy enough to live with. In these conditions, we set the agenda; they all fall within the range of the possible.

To step into the unknown unknown is to express a willingness to let the impossible set the agenda for us. That implies a level of surrender that transcends any testable hypothesis. We are asked to pull the switch before we know what will happen after the switch is pulled.

It's no wonder that we have to be driven, in many cases, into a corner from which there is no way out in order to take such an action. Only a situation where all conceivable outcomes have been exhausted can drive a man to attempt the impossible. Until then, he can attempt all he wants to. All he is ever able to attempt is what he thinks is possible, and everything he discovers using that method will look like what he already knows.

It's what we don't know we don't know that we seek; and no matter how much we ever know, it may always remain that way.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

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