Subjectivity, Uncertainty and Epistemological Limitations

no answer

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

questions not answers

Also see:

The Wisdom of Uncertainty

Geometrical dimensional analogy for inability to prove/disprove existence of God

What the Heaven is Hell?

hellThe modern concept of hell – an eschatological location where those who reject God experience the consequence of their choice for eternity – does not exist in the OT, nor did it exist in the Jews’ theological paradigms. Rather, it originated in pagan culture; it was brought back from Babylon by rabbis.

There are many words and phrases in the NT that many people think refer to our modern notion of hell, but each were references to well-known geographical locations or literary ideas. The following are brief explanations of each word or phrase.

The Hebrew word translated as “hell” is sheol. It’s meaning is simply the place where all dead people go, regardless of whether they are good or bad or what they believe.

A valley where child sacrifices were performed. It is an actual physical location on earth, not a spiritual destination in the afterlife.

“Where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched
This is an expression in Isaiah 66:24 about the dead corpses of men who were believed to have been judged in this life at Gehenna.

This originally referred to the Greek god of the underworld but eventually came to designate the abode of the dead. This Greek term parallels the Hebrew term sheol.

The lake of fire
This is an idiomatic reference to the Dead Sea.

The deep abyss that is used as a dungeon of torment and suffering for the wicked in ancient Greek mythology.

(If you’ve never studied these words before, I encourage you to look them up more deeply than I’ve presented them here.)

The Jews did not have our modern concept of hell. Hence, it makes no sense for us to assume that these words refer to our modern notions of hell when these words are used in bibles; since hell is never explicitly defined in the modern way, it would be impossible for the original hearers/readers to conceive of them in such a way.

“Hell” is therefore an inaccurate translation – it is a concept that did not even exist during the time of the writing of the scriptures. Any word translated as such only refers to the present and never to the immortal world (unless you want to believe in Greek mythology).

These words were translated in bibles into the English word “hell” (or, in the case of phrases, interpreted to refer to the modern conception of hell). Yet as we’ve seen, each word has a unique meaning and cannot be properly understood by grouping them into a single English word (that happens to not have the same definition as any of the words, and often has a very different meaning). This act of poor translation would be like uniformly translating the English words sky, space, and heaven into one other word in another language.

Hell is self-made. Hell is our own rejection of God, not God’s rejection of us. The consequences are experienced now in this life, and perhaps in the next life as well. However, there is no evidence in the scriptures whatsoever for the modern notion of hell.


Also see:

What the Hell is Heaven?

The Truth About Hell

What the Hell is Heaven?

heavenThe message Jesus went around preaching was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). When Jesus was questioned by Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst [or ‘is within you’]” (Luke 17:20-21).

Unfortunately, most christians have not taken his words to heart; they have not “repented” (i.e. change the way they think) but keep on believing that heaven is not “at hand” but rather is far off, reserved for some future time. “Heaven” has become an idea about a place we go after we die.

Nevertheless, Jesus consistently proclaimed that heaven is here! His message was that heaven is available now, and to all.

But what is heaven, anyways?

Most people, christian or not, picture it as a place in the clouds, or further out there, possibly in another dimension that is currently inaccessible, where there are people, angels, God, and everything is perfect. Furthermore, a variety of words in the scriptures are often thought to refer to the concept of heaven (or being accepted there). For example, the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3), the kingdom of the Father (Matthew 13:43), life (Matthew 7:14), life everlasting (Matthew 19:16), the joy of the Lord (Matthew 25:21), great reward (Matthew 5:12), the kingdom of God (Mark 9:45), the kingdom of Christ (Luke 22:30), the house of the Father (John 14:2), city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22), the holy place (Hebrews 9:12), paradise (2 Corinthians 12:4), incorruptible crown (1 Corinthians 9:25), crown of life (James 1:12), crown of justice (2 Timothy 4:8), and crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4).

Nowhere in the scriptures, however, is it explained what heaven is. Thus, our understanding of what it is should be that which the people who heard it at the time would have thought it to be when they heard it (since, besides Jesus proclaiming that heaven is here and now, no one tried to give an alternate explanation).

The Old Testament is silent on the topic of the afterlife, and the Jews were quite agnostic about what happened after death and did not have a firm belief in either (our modern conceptions of) heaven or hell.

In the Jewish Republic, both the rewards and punishments promised by heaven were temporal only: such as health, long life, peace, plenty, and dominion, etc.; diseases, premature death, war, famine, want, subjections, and captivity, etc. And in no one place of the Mosaic Institutes is there the least mention, or intelligible hint, of the rewards and punishments of another life. – Warburton

Since our modern concept of an eschatological heaven was nonexistent in the minds of the Jews to whom Jesus spoke, these terms cannot be taken to refer to our modern concept unless they are explicitly stated to. Our default interpretation should be the default interpretation of the Jews (since Jesus would have spoken to them with concepts they were familiar with so that they could understand), and their default interpretation would have been that these were references to their current lives on earth.

heaven now
You don’t need to die to experience heaven.

Live it now.


Also see:

What the Heaven is Hell?

What is “Eternal Life”?

NO ONE IS GOING TO HEAVEN! – The Fire House Chronicles



Universalism Related Links

threat jesusworship or torturesanta hellheaven welcomerethink hellFor anyone who wants good reason to not believe that some people will be eternally tormented and would like to believe that everyone will eventually experience salvation, but currently feel that doing so would be going against the testimony of the scriptures and historic christian teaching, I recommend the following links:

A simple argument for universalism – Thomas Talbott

Universalism, Calvinism, and Arminianism: Some preliminary reflections – Thomas Talbott

The Essential Role of Free Will in Universal Reconciliation – Thomas Talbott

A Case for Universal Restoration – Steve Jones

Articles by the Christian Universalist Association

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut (parts 1 & 2) – Brad Jersak on Beyond the Box Podcast

“Hellbound?” Official Teaser Trailer

What about Hell?

The story of Lazarus and the Rich man explained

Cleaning Out my Closet…

It’s been a while.

For those of you curious as to why I stopped posting about 5 months or so ago, I simply lost interest. I was also in the middle of witnessing my beliefs significantly shift, so I felt that the content I had kinda written up but not yet posted to be irrelevant. I can’t say that I feel very different from back then, but for some reason I find it difficult to just delete that which I have partially written…perhaps I am seeking some type of closure.

Anyways, although I don’t think I’m motivated enough to spend time polishing my posts like I used to, in the near future I might post my partially written up thoughts (that often read like notes) for those interested. In essence, this blog won’t be continued for long, and whatever posts that follow will be the last ones.

I am also considering starting a new blog in the future with a different focus (definitely not theology). If that ever materializes, I’ll let yalls know.

Interpreting the Scriptures (Part 5)

Privileged elite interpreters & self-perpetuating systems

The Reformation was about taking authority away from a man and giving it to a book. The Catholics could control their masses through the doctrine of papal infallibility, the Protestants through the doctrine of Bible inerrancy. – Glenn Steers

Church leaders in the 1500s (like many church leaders today) did not think the average christian was capable of  understanding the scriptures. They felt christians needed priests to explain to them what God demands of them.

Nowadays Christians are allowed to read bibles, but “leaders” think they need to be given “lenses” (basically doctrinal boundaries) through which to interpret the scriptures. This is the purpose of bible colleges and seminaries – not teaching people to ask questions and find their own answers, but rather teaching their own brand of theology.

As Christians, we are taught by our leaders to believe certain ideas and behave in certain ways. We are also encouraged to read our Bibles. But we are conditioned to read the Bible with the lens handed to us by the Christian tradition to which we belong. We are taught to obey our denomination (or movement) and never challenge what it teaches. – Frank Viola

To think that there are special people who are masters of discovering the “correct interpretation,” we have to assume that a “correct interpretation” exists. What if there is no correct interpretation? What if God only intends to dialog with us through our reading of bibles, not to reveal truth through correct interpretation?

But no scholars or seminarians say this kind of stuff!

Actually, there are plenty of them who do. But, yes, it’s kind of difficult for many to do so because it could mean that they lose their job! No more need for “bible teachers.” It is a circular and self-perpetuating system to validate their own profit-generating practices.

The sacredness of the bible is the basis for seminaries and bible colleges. It would be immensely difficult for people there to accept that the scriptures are not special in the way they think it is because it would make their life-long devotion to a book look silly.

In other words, they may have personal reasons for supporting the religious view of bibles.

Thus, support for the sacredness of bibles is also a circular; the scriptures validate seminaries, and seminaries validate the scriptures.

Ultimately, whether intentionally or not, doctrines about bibles (such as inerrancy, inspiration, and authority) have been used to give power to those with knowledge. They become the arbiters of truth, for through their knowledge of the scriptures, they have the power to rightly discern.

But my trust in the scripture’s authority is not only based on reason but on experience as well. I’ve experienced that what it says is true, therefore I know it’s true.

But remember, that’s what you’ve been told ever since you became a christian. You were told that God speaks to you through the scriptures, that it is God’s word, etc. So you believed that. And our beliefs affect our experiences. This is called confirmation bias.

God will speak to you through whatever. So if you spend a bunch of time reading bibles, then he will speak to you through that regardless of whether it really is inerrant, inspired, authoritative, etc. How do you know that if you had been told that some other books were sacred that you wouldn’t have had similar experiences with those books (and hence think they were sacred)? This is not to say that all books are equally valuable; I’m simply pointing out that anyone’s belief in anything is necessarily affected by subjective bias.

Ultimately, biblical interpretation is something not for qualified individuals but for communities.

It can seem as if biblical scholars are the privileged interpreters of scripture. They alone can determine what the Bible means. But the Bible was written for believing communities, not critics, and real biblical interpretation happens when scripture does something to such a community. When the church places special emphasis on an academic and critical approach to scripture, it easily sets up a new type of priestly control of the Christian community by a guild of experts whose work is authoritarian, not in the sense that it cannot be questioned, but in the sense that it is the privileged responsibility of an elite. – John Goldingay

We rely on the witness of the church through time (with the hermeneutical trajectory set by the apostles as a central component), as well as the wisdom of the church in our time – both narrowly considered as a congregation, denomination, or larger tradition and more broadly considered as a global reality, all of which involves the direct involvement of the Spirit of God. Biblical interpretation is not merely a task that individuals perform: it is something that grows out of our participation in the family of God in the broadest sense possible. – Peter Enns

Interpreting the Scriptures (Part 4)

Linguistic difficulties in biblical interpretation

A linguistically detailed approach to biblical scholarship is not only compatible with, but also essential to, modern Christianity. Analyzing the Bible as an inspired piece of literature without taking into account the scientific constraints of human language is misguided. A deeper understanding of universal grammar and semantic roles of lexemes, morphemes and contextual clues are needed to ensure that biblical language is conceptualized in the same mind frame as language today.

And to make matters more difficult the speaker may be either unaware of the real message he was encoding, or unwilling to admit to the message, so that he can disown the message if it seems politic to do so. In the same way the listener, possibly because of his relationship to the speaker, may ‘perceive’ a message that cannot be detected by anyone else. If he claims to perceive it, on what grounds can anyone else deny that it is there? Certainly not by analyzing the offending utterance as though it were a cold sentence.

There is, in fact, an ultimate imprecision in utterances that is likely to discourage the linguist looking for objectivity in his theories of language. – Peter Cotterell

The techniques used to translate a text should determine to a degree the way in which we interpret that text (you can see an explanation of various translation techniques at the link at the bottom).

Yet most people remain ignorant of the various possibilities, or if they are aware their knowledge is usually significantly limited and thus largely unhelpful for interpretive purposes (e.g. some people merely use the broad translation categories of literal and paraphrastic).

Most of us (including myself) do not have any more than a basic understanding (if any at all) of the linguistic elements that are relevant in interpreting biblical texts, such as morphemes, lexemes, and opaque and transparent meaning, differences between the connotation and denotation of words, etymology, idioms, homonymy and polysemy, literary and cultural context, and genre.

I once heard someone say that, for certain modern biblical notions (e.g. hell), there are no syntagmatic or paradigmatic analyses of the scriptures that can account for them. I wasn’t sure what this meant, so I asked a Greek scholar. This was the response I received:

A well formed sentence and a badly formed sentence is easy for a native speaker to spot, but difficult for a non native speaker to spot. Sometimes an author can deliberately use a “bad form” as a way of mockery, emphasis or for other purposes. There are also ways in which a native speaker can see how one phrase points to a certain social strata whereas another phrase points to a different social strata. But the non native speaker would not spot such a thing easily.

If I were to say something that used a typically Jewish phrase followed by a typically Irish phrase, English speaking people could easily pick up on my use of sub culture code-switching. They could then better understand why I did such a thing and be able to infer what might motivate me to say such a thing.

But when reading Koine Greek, do we really know enough about that language to pick up on such nuances and then appreciate what such things might say about what is being implied, or inserted. Paul’s apparent statement about women in 1 Corinthians 14 for example contains what appears to be a syntactical anomaly that brings doubt to its genuineness and the likelihood that it is an insertion into the context.

But we do not have enough syntagmatic knowledge about Koine or Hebrew to identify and then interpret every occurrence. So we cannot identify certain nuances that could have a radical impact on how we read the text.

As to the paradigmatic problems, we find that certain elements of a language get combined in a manner that creates a very specific meaning that might be unrelated to the elements as they exist separately. The word butterfly has little to do with butter or flies nor is it something that looks like butter flying. We do not have the paradigmatic information that would allow us to pick up on many of these phrases and some of them that we have picked up on are not easy to prove.

For example. The fear of the Lord” is a phrase that has nothing to do with fear or even with the Lord. But proving this is not easy. It is likely that the phrase was used to refer to a respect for nature. That is, you cannot jump off a 100 foot cliff with jagged rocks below and expect you won’t get hurt. Nature just does not work that way and so if you want to live to a natural age you best not run into the dangers of nature. Respect the world as it works as the Lord created it and you will live happier and longer. This is what “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” actually means. But proving that is not easy especially when there are those who want you to be shaking in your knees at the thought of what God can do to you if you displease him.

The languages of the biblical text are dead languages. No one speaks them today in the exact same way they were used back in the day. As a result, we are somewhat in the dark in identifying such structures and then interpreting them once identified. – Bob Greaves


Also see:

Translation Techniques