Norris’ "Epistemology" Ch.1, I

Book Discussion of Christopher Norris’ “Epistemology: Key Concepts in Philosophy”

Chapter 1: Staying for an Answer: Truth, Knowledge, and the Rumsfeld Creed –
Section I.

This section is pretty interesting and examines this quote from former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, spoken during a press conference on February 12, 2003 (section written December 23, 2004): “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 know.” I vaguely remember hearing that press conference, can hear Rumsfeld’s manner of speaking, but I don’t remember what the context is surrounding that statement. Norris makes reference many times to the questionable existence of the WMDs that sold the invasion of Iraq to the U.S. public and the world. Norris’ language makes it obvious he thinks poorly of Rumsfeld’s creed-that it did not reflect a realist position, rather that Rumsfeld weaseled out of answering a question straightforwardly, of admitting there might not have been the WMDs that justified the invasion (and so no longer any justification), of the implication that the ‘evidence’ of them was perhaps a misinformation campaign, by masking “it is impossible to know (if there were or were not WMDs)” (iow, “you will never be able to know if there was/is no justification for the invasion of Iraq”) (blatant skepticism) in seemingly realist language.

Norris brings this example to examine, because it clearly shows how the central issues of epistemological debate “can often have a close bearing on the conduct…of our moral and political lives as persons whose considered judgement in matters such as the supposed justification for invading Iraq must always involve the attempt to sift truth from falsehood, or knowledge from ignorance.”

known knowns – things that we know we know

Most people would accept this, perhaps with caveats, because we all have experienced the reality of coming to find out that what we “thought” we knew-wasn’t the way things really are (we didn’t “actually” know it-we only “thought” we knew it). Observation-based beliefs and supposedly a priori truths (“thought to obtain as a matter of jointly intuitive and logical necessity quite apart from any such putative evidence for or against”) can later be proved either false, or “only true relative to a certain (e.g., Euclidean) frame of reference.” … “Hence the wide-spread debate as to whether there exist any statements that can rightly be considered ‘synthetic a priori’ in Kant’s sense of the term, i.e., statements which are self-evident to reason yet which also articulate an item of knowledge concerning the physical world or our experience of it. Some would even extend this doubt to a priori truth-claims of whatever sort, or whittle them down to a point of purely logical (and trivial) self-confirmation where only one candidate survives, namely the sentence ‘Not every statement is both true and false’. …extreme forms of skepticism.”

Rumsfeld’s “known knowns” isn’t clear enough. We need to make clear the (“cardinal”) distinction between (if we don’t, we cannot make sense of scientific progress, and the WMD discussion would be pointless)…

1. Know: “believe without question to the best of our knowledge or powers of rational comprehension” – “first-person [I: internalist], ‘psychological’ state of mind (‘I simply know this or that to be the case’)” Knowledge about WMDs “has its truth-value fixed…by the strength of conviction (genuine or otherwise) expressed by partisans of either view.” William James. “‘Truth’ can appear only under this or that currently accepted or preferred description.” (descriptivist?) “Truth-values cannot (or should not) be thought of as exceeding the bounds of warranted assertibility.” “Justification is principally a matter of ‘what works’ in the sense of promoting our best psychological, social and ethico-political interests.” “truth just is whatever has gained credence”
2. Know: “correctly and justifiably believe on the best, most reliable or truth-conducive grounds” – “properly applies only to that subset of beliefs which meet the twofold requirement of truth and epistemic or justificatory warrant.” Knowledge about WMDs “has its truth-value fixed by the fact of their existence or non-existence.” Bertrand Russell. “Truth must be conceived (in realist terms) as always potentially transcending the limits of present-best, communally warranted, or socially desirable belief.” “[I: pragmatic justification] ‘works’ only in so far as it encourages an attitude of placid and unthinking acquiescence in taken-for-granted (hence reassuring) habits of thought and belief.” “wishing cannot make it so”

This of course perks up my ears because it is relevant to my paper-where I talk about living as if we “know” there is moral truth, when we are offended when others violate our expectations, etcetera. Will keep it in mind.

known unknowns – things we do not know

At face value, says Norris, a realist, a defender of objective-truth values, would accept this. It seems to say “truth cannot ever in principle be reduced to the limits of present-best belief or officially authorized opinion.” The WMDs exist or they don’t-we know that we don’t know whether or not they exist. Norris thinks Rumsfeld actually means we will never be able to know (even when the search is concluded without finding WMDs, even if there is evidence of a misinformation campaign)-which is a skeptical, not a realist, position.

unknown unknowns – things we don’t know we don’t know

At this point I am reminded of the Venn diagram of self-knowledge. There are things we know about ourselves that others don’t know, there are things others know about us, that we don’t know about ourselves, there are things that others know about us that we also know, and there are things about ourselves that we don’t know and nobody else knows, either. The things we or others don’t know could either be known unknowns, or unknown unknowns. They are known unknowns if we can conceive of the question, but don’t know the answer. They are unknown unknowns if the question has never even occurred to us. Norris thinks Rumsfeld is not saying “There are perhaps objective answers that we haven’t even asked questions about,” – he thinks Rumsfeld is saying “you can’t prove a negative, so remain epistemically humble” so as to avoid “accusations of fraudulence, mendacity, faked ‘evidence’ and so forth”.

Brutal! Still no WMDs, though. Iraq is without a dictator, the U.S. is turning things over to the Iraqi people–steps in the right direction, methinks, unless it leaves Iraq vulnerable, of course, and a worse power than Hussein gains control over them.


I am discussing my poll with RaspK over at Dawkins’ forum, and it occurred to me that without minds, there is no morality, so without an eternal mind, there is no moral truth, so–moral truth is not independent of minds (and, yet, it is). That sounds like anti-realism (except not). Ack?
Professor Norris’ position:

Well, there is no ‘eternal mind’ (or nothing we can make any sense of under that name), so we’ll have to make do with human minds (collectively) as the source of whatever ethical truths we can come up with. Those truths will have to do with human (and I think non-human animal or other sentient) life-forms, and had better be based on some version of the consequentialist argument, i.e., maximizing welfare/flourishing and minimizing pain/misery. You can be a realist about those things without going platonist about moral values or landing yourself with all the classic problems about our (somehow, inexplicably) having epistemic/intuitive access to recognition-transcendent, hence inherently unknowable truths. Anyway that’s my best shot at an answer.

I was thinkin’ about it and–of course we can’t expect (moral) truth to “transcend” an omniscient mind. Sort of parallel to the idea that only an omniscient mind is capable of certainty, and all other knowledge is varying degrees of faith. But would you call that sort of truth (which does not transcend divine mind) mind-dependent? I don’t really think so…it sounds an awful lot like divine voluntarism. God does not create good/truth–He “is” good/truth. He creates what passes away–but all things eternal are what He is. But I will keep Professor Norris’ thoughts in mind.


On the other hand, some of us know certainty is impossible for all but the omniscient and are satisfied with certitude. Also, if we know that we are attracted to some beliefs because we need a “feeling” of certitude, and if we value “truth” rather than that “feeling”–we can stop ourselves from believing on the basis of “feeling”. I think that feeling is maybe the initial spark that attracts us to the truth (route reconnaissance, as they say in the military)–and that reason can take the wheel from there. The underlying feeling can either be one of fear (to avoid existential nightmare) or curiosity (to go where no man has gone before)–or both. The “Why?!” is in us like webs are in spiders and nests are in birds.

I’ve been so busy and haven’t had time to progress through the book, but did review some epistemology/truth stuff out of Geisler and Feinberg’s “Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective” while waiting for jury selection to start yesterday (had jury duty). Hope to get back into this soon, but right now life is just zippin’ past.


To me, (based on his reply about moral truth), Professor Norris sounds ontologically realist, epistemologically anti-realist–but I’ll wait until I make up my mind about that.

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