22/6/2023 ☼ not-knowing
Warning: Ideas and analysis in this post are still being baked. This is the reading for the 22/6/2023 discussion that’s part of my monthly Interintellect series on not-knowing. The next discussion will be on 20/7/2023 and will focus on not-knowing about causation.
Actions are physical or intellectual things agents can do, and outcomes are the results of actions agents take. Much complexity lies within this apparently simple pair of definitions.
Both actions and outcomes have properties. These five properties seem most relevant, and each is a continuum
To think clearly about actions and outcomes requires this vocabulary for describing their properties. In turn, thinking about not-knowing of actions or outcomes is much easier when we can think and refer clearly to them.
Actions can range from the very small and trivial (“let go of the banana“) to the large and consequential (“fund an expedition of explorer ships to discover sea routes to Asia“ or “invest in R&D.”)
To illustrate some of the properties of actions, consider this set of three linked examples:
When actions seem independent, it’s because we aren’t aware of unintended effects of an action on both outcomes and on other actions. Any broad, general action will probably produce a swathe of apparent and non-apparent results and affect other actions in apparent and non-apparent ways.
Like actions, outcomes can range from results which are small and trivial (the banana falls to the ground) to large and consequential (the accidental discovery of Cuba and the Americas by the Europeans, the development of a new approach to data storage and querying).
When outcomes seem isolated it is because we don’t yet understand them, and particularly how they are enchained. Take, for instance, the outcome of the broad, explicit actions to bring about the Green Revolution in the mid-20th century — globally widespread deployment of process and chemical technologies intended to increase crop yields by massively intensifying agriculture. The immediate and explicit outcome at the time was massively increased food production. (Norman Borlaug, a chemist whose work was foundational to the Green Revolution, received the Nobel peace prize for his contributions to reducing hunger.)
Over time, however further outcomes of the Green Revolution became apparent, such as declining soil fertility, changes in what people ate leading to poor health, loss of indigenous adapted crop varieties, illness in farming communities from occupational exposure to agrochemicals, and broader issues of pollution (e.g. agrochemical runoff), and environmental degradation (e.g. groundwater depletion). In a sense, these outcomes existed but remained implicit and not-yet-understood until recently. Though they were not initially overt, they nonetheless were a part of the chain of outcomes resulting from the actions associated with the Green Revolution.
Another way to say it: when we interpret a specific outcome as overtly well-understood and isolated, it is likely to instead be an outcome that is more complex. Any given interpretable outcome is connected to other outcomes in more complex ways than are immediately apparent or understandable. These outcomes and interconnections gradually become visible and understood over time.
To exist in the world means taking actions and experiencing outcomes big and small, from the general to the specific, isolated or part of a sequence, apparent or not, and more or less well-understood. Everything we do and experience is unavoidably part of this soup of actions and outcomes; life both happens in and produces this environment of actions and outcomes.
In other words, we’re used to thinking of actions and outcomes as being simpler, less textured, and more legible than they are in reality. It’s from this gap between habit and reality that not-knowing about actions and outcomes arises.
Not-knowing about actions is when things you can do (i.e. actions you can take to achieve particular outcomes) are only partially known. The concepts of existing technology (things that let us do stuff, including both physical objects and manipulations of ideas and objects) and affordances (possibilities for action the agent can perceive) help in unpacking this type of not-knowing. When not-knowing about actions is resolved, the result is new action possibilities. There seem to be three sources of not-knowing about actions:
Each of these forms of not-knowing about actions implies a different set of strategies and tactics for resolution.
Not-knowing about outcomes is when results (i.e, states of the world you might achieve through actions you take) are only partially known. This type of not-knowing seems to largely be about the intersection of imagination (can such an outcome be conceived of at all) and feasibility (can that outcome be achieved with present technology). There seem to be four sources of not-knowing about outcomes:
Each of these forms of not-knowing about outcomes implies a different set of strategies and tactics for investigation and resolution. More to come on this, but to give an example: the first type might be investigated/resolved with surveys of existing outcomes (e.g., a “fact-finding trip” to a country which has figured out some desirable outcome, like a highly effective math education system) while the second type might be investigated with empirically grounded speculation involving researchers and engineers (e.g. of the sort design research companies ostensibly do a lot of).
Not-knowing about actions creates possibilities for new actions that achieve existing or new outcomes, while not-knowing about outcomes creates possibilities for new outcomes that existing or new actions can be aimed at achieving. New actions and outcomes emerge from resolving not-knowing — and the different sources of not-knowing about actions and outcomes suggest different strategies and tactics for their resolution.