November 28th, 2020

‘Unknown unknowns’


By Submitted Article on October 31, 2020.

Limited knowledge

First of three parts

Jacob M. Van Zyl

Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, was ridiculed for his 2002 statement about “unknown unknowns” – although he was not the first to use this phrase. Later, his insight became widely accepted; he included it in his memoirs.

In any project, there are known unknowns: foreseeable but unlikely problems that might occur. There are also unknown unknowns: totally unexpected and unforeseen problems, outside of former experience.

For example: The makers of vinyl records, typewriters and film cameras could not have foreseen the replacement of their products by CD’, memory cards, electronic devices and digital photography, because these had not existed before.

Some pointed to “unknown knowns.” These are facts some know about but deny or cover up – like family secrets and scandals.

The Bible acknowledges that God did not reveal everything to humanity. Moses said, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children forever, that we may follow all the words of the law” (Deut. 29:29). The apostle Paul concurred, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Man’s knowledge is partial, incomplete. The mere fact that sciences make progress continually confirms that today’s knowledge is not complete – next year we will know more.

After Israel was freed from slavery in Egypt, they camped at the Red Sea. They had no boats; therefore, they had to go around the northern tip of the gulf.

While they pondered this move, they could have wondered about a known unknown: would the Egyptians try to recapture them? The unimaginable possibility (an unknown unknown for them) was God’s far-fetched plan to rescue them from the approaching Egyptian army by splitting the sea. Nobody would have anticipated that.

God revealed his plans step by step to Israel and the world. By the 10 plagues, he showed Israel that he was in control of nature, the Egyptian gods were not (Ex. 12:12).

By the Passover, he showed Israel that he would pass over them if he saw the blood of the lambs on the doorposts – a metaphor of the salvation Christ, the Lamb of God, would prepare by his own blood. At the time of the Exodus, this metaphor was still unknown.

When Pharaoh’s army of more than 600 chariots and many horsemen (Ex. 14:7-10), thundered towards the panic-stricken Israelites, pressed against the sea, God revealed the next step to them.

The impossible and unimaginable happened: the water parted, and they crossed on dry land. When the enemy tried that, the wheels of their chariots fell off, and the waters engulfed them (Ex. 14:25-31).

Jacob Van Zyl of Lethbridge is a retired counsellor and the author of several faith-based books.

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