Recently, I have increasingly come to terms with the subjectivity, uncertainty, and epistemological limitations that accompany being human.
Both the religion (christianity) and culture (Japan/U.S.) in which I was brought up in implicated and supported a worldview of perfect objectivity and an epistemological ascent culminating in absolute certainty.
Having lived much of my life as a quest to know without doubt and possess flawless logical reasons for supporting what I believe to be true, this transition has been difficult. It requires the willingness to admit not only that I don’t know, but also that I might never know.
Living with certain uncertainty can be scary. But if that’s what’s real, I’d rather learn to live with it than hide in the false comfort of a lie.
(I’m not saying nothing can be known, although that may be the case for some things.)
Here are some scientific findings/theories that began to open my eyes to this reality.
- Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (Also known as linguistic relativity – that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its respective speakers conceptualize their world, i.e. their worldview, or otherwise influences their cognitive processes)
- Godel’s incompleteness theorems (For any sufficiently complex logical system, there are statements that are true yet unprovable within the system, and it cannot demonstrate its own consistency)
- Chaos theory limitations (Sensitivity to initial conditions that cannot be precisely measured means chaotic systems such as weather can never be perfectly predicted)
- Relativity theory (The state of the universe is not absolute but relative to the observer)
- Quantum mechanics (An observed object is not independent of the observer, the uncertainty principle, etc.)
- Fallibilism (1. False beliefs may be rational, and 2. True beliefs may be irrational. An admission that, because empirical knowledge can be revised by further observation, any of the things we take as knowledge might possibly turn out to be false (and vice versa))
- Münchhausen trilemma (If we ask of any knowledge: “How do I know that it’s true?”, we may provide proof; yet that same question can be asked of the proof, and any subsequent proof)
And here’s some great quotes on the topic.
“Life is a subjective experience and that cannot be escaped. Every experience I have comes through my own, personal, unsharable viewpoint. There can be no peer reviews of my direct experience, no real corroboration. This has some major implications for how I live my life. The most immediate one is that I realize I must trust my own personal experience, because nobody else has this angle, and I only have this angle. Another is that I feel more wonder for the world around me, knowing that any “objective” understanding I claim to have of the world is built entirely from scratch, by me. What I do build depends on the books I’ve read, the people I’ve met, and the experiences I’ve had. It means I will never see the world quite like anyone else, which means I will never live in quite the same world as anyone else — and therefore I mustn’t let outside observers be the authority on who I am or what life is really like for me. Subjectivity is primary experience — it is real life, and objectivity is something each of us builds on top of it in our minds, privately, in order to explain it all. This truth has world-shattering implications for the roles of religion and science in the lives of those who grasp it.” – David Cain
“Reality is a unified whole, but thought cuts it up into fragments. This gives rise to fundamental misperceptions, for example, that there are separate things and events, or that this is the cause of that. Every thought implies a perspective, and every perspective, by its very nature, implies limitation, which ultimately means that it is not true, at least not absolutely. Only the whole is true, but the whole cannot be spoken or thought. Seen from beyond the limitations of thinking and therefore incomprehensible to the human mind, everything is happening now. All that ever has been or will be is now, outside of time, which is a mental construct.
As an illustration of relative and absolute truth, consider the sunrise and sunset. When we say the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening, that is true, but only relatively. In absolute terms, it is false. Only from the limited perspective of an observer on or near the planet’s surface does the sun rise and set. If you were far out in space, you would see that the sun neither rises nor sets, but that it shines continuously. And yet, even after realizing that, we can continue to speak of the sunrise or sunset, still see its beauty, paint it, write poems about it, even though we now know that it is a relative rather than an absolute truth.” – Eckhart Tolle
“When it comes to faith, achieving certainty does not help. If something remains clear all by itself without requiring of you any attempt to be certain, then it has properly found a long term stability. But when a person feels the need for certainty then without realizing it they merely paint themselves into a mental corner where they can no longer think honestly and openly.” – Bob Greaves
“We have lost touch with chaos because it is feared by the dominant archetype of our world, the ego. The ego’s existence is defined in terms of control. The endless modeling process that the ego carries out is an effort to fight the absence of closure. The ego wants closure. It wants a complete explanation. The beginning of wisdom, I believe, is our ability to accept an inherent messiness in our explanation of what’s going on. Nowhere is it written that human minds should be able to give a full accounting of creation in all dimensions and on all levels. Ludwig Wittgenstein had the idea that philosophy should be what he called “true enough.” I think that’s a great idea. True enough is as true as it can be gotten.” – Terrence McKenna
“Freedom within our faith, in my opinion, has a lot to do with letting go of the notion we can fully understand God. It is the embracing of the unknown ways of our cosmic-sized God, while also embracing the inner assurance of our connection with God and the joyful experience that we are, by some divinely wonderful grace, intimate with him. We appreciate the largeness of God without trying to define every part of him, nor try to stamp our ownership upon him. In contrast religion, all religions, try to own God, bringing him down to a size that is controllable, boxing God for themselves. In doing so they miss out on the freedom of accepting the unknown aspects of God, and so remain trapped in the addiction of wanting ownership of God.” – Mick Mooney
The Wisdom of Uncertainty
Geometrical dimensional analogy for inability to prove/disprove existence of God