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

Are the Scriptures Authoritative?

God in bible

biblicalI want to challenge the idea that the scriptures are the final authority on matters of practice and faith. (So in this post I will mainly be referring to people who believe that.)

What’s your basis for truth?

Most christians will probably say “the bible!” (although what they really mean is their interpretation of the bible).

But why do you trust the scriptures in the first place? Because someone told you you should. But why did they? Because someone told them they should. We can trace this tradition all the way back to a limited group of “elite” early church fathers. So you value their opinion regarding their choice of scriptures and use those scriptures to determine your theology.

Ironically, however, the early church believers chose the writings that aligned well with the theology they already held. They didn’t, like is commonly done today, go to the scriptures to determine their theology. It was the complete opposite. (I’ve written about this in greater detail here.) Furthermore, as scribes made copies of the scriptures they changed what was written to match up with their own theology (see Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart Ehrman).

Most christians consider belief in a divinely authoritative bible a necessary belief to be considered an “insider.” But no biblical author claims that the scriptures are the source of truth, only Jesus, and the church as its pillar. It is not even included in any way in the creeds of the early church. The early church did, however, often refer to the scriptures. This tells us that the scriptures had value to the early church, but it wasn’t authoritative (until a few people said it was hundreds of years later).

The term “the scriptures” sounds very “holy”; in out time it definitely carries the connotation of embodying truth and being authoritative. In the Greek, however, it just means “writings.” So when 2 Peter 3:16 calls Paul’s epistles “other scriptures” it just means “other writings,” which doesn’t necessarily refer to sacred texts but writings that are read publicly in church gatherings. (The Jews did not consider all of their writings in their “scriptures” to be of equal value. In particular, they considered everything other than the Torah to be merely commentary on and subject to the Torah.)

GodInTheBoxThe scriptures have a lot to say about authority, but not once is authority ascribed to the scriptures themselves. Rather, it is consistently ascribed to Jesus.

Perhaps we can speak of Paul’s letters as being authoritative, but only in reference to the people to whom they were written; it was the “word of God” for those churches at those times. Paul didn’t claim authority over churches in which he hadn’t been the original sharer of the Gospel. There is no compelling reason to think that what God said through Paul to churches at that time was meant for all churches throughout the ages. God spoke to specific people in a specific situations, which is something he still does.

Therefore, we can learn from Paul’s writings, but they don’t have authority over us like they did for his original recipients. Yes, we can learn from what God did in the past, but God does different things in different situations at different times. The same is true today – God speaking through someone by the Holy Spirit is the word of God for the people it is intended for (while not neglecting to test the word by Holy Spirit).

The idea that the scriptures are the only authority stems from the mindset of the Reformation in which there was a major reaction against any kind of human authority in the church when it came to doctrine. Protestants wanted something more stable than fickle human beings, so they chose the scriptures.

When someone decides their basis for truth (for example, a combination of the scriptures, history, experience, and current community), it will merely be their opinion rather than something that can be argued to apply to all people. In other words, it will be a personal belief. Contrary to the hopes of Protestants in the Reformation, it is impossible to remove all subjectivity and have a common, fully objective basis for truth. Truth is a person (according to the scriptures, at least), and a person is experienced, which is necessarily subjective.

There’s a reason why Jesus (and not the scriptures) is called the “Word of God” in the scriptures; he (and not the scriptures) is the greatest revelation of who God is. When we instead deem the scriptures to be the “Word of God” (or even the “word of God”) we turn the scriptures into a puzzle-book of secret gnostic wisdom or a book of true answers to dogmatic and ethical questions. But that is backwards.

Bibles do not reveal truth about God; God reveals truth in bibles.

I find it funny when people claim that “anything God says will line up with the scriptures.” I used to say that all the time (and wholeheartedly believed it, too!), but I have become intellectually honest enough with myself to the point where I can ask, says who? The scriptures themselves don’t say that; therefore by the claim’s own logic God did not say that because it actually says to test things by Holy Spirit, not by “the Holy Bible.” This is merely a tradition of man that artificially limits what God can say (although only in people’s minds). The method for discerning truth that is demonstrated and taught throughout the New Testament is not to check if it says so in the scriptures, but communication with Holy Spirit and the handing down of the tradition of the apostles (of which adding canonical writings or sacred texts is not a part).

truth everywhereUltimately, bibles cannot escape subjectivity and be used in an “absolute” way as a basis for truth. You can choose to make the scriptures authoritative for yourself if you want to, and that’s fine. But to say that God has made it so for all humanity will forever remain an assumption.


Also see:

What is the Bible?: Authority (by Rob Bell)

What is the basis of your faith? (by Andre Rabe)

The Jesus Lens: Can we question the New Testament?

Belief, Heresy, and Orthodoxy


Since there’s been some controversy over this blog concerning some particular doctrines, I felt like expressing some of my general thoughts on belief, heresy, and orthodoxy.

Beliefs can be categorized as dogma, doctrine, and opinion (there may be other ways of categorizing, but I think this categorization is fairly common). Dogma are nonnegotiable, essential beliefs, often considered to be the separating line between whether someone can be considered a believer or not. Doctrines are beliefs that are important and significantly affect how one lives, but variety is allowed, at least within certain boundaries. Opinions are beliefs that carry the least weight and for which the greatest variety is allowed.

The funny thing is, even among believers there is no consensus as to what should be considered dogma, doctrine, and opinion. So the distinctions aren’t useful, really – ultimately, it is subjective. People can determine certain criteria for what should be in what category, such as how often it is discussed in the scriptures, what early church fathers wrote about them, whether they exist in the early creeds, what church councils decided, if there has been a historical consensus, etc. But the criteria people choose and the weight they give to each (as well as their interpretations of them) are, again, subjective and there is no universal agreement.

“Orthodoxy” is a myth.

There is no single set of true and correctly articulated beliefs, even if it is limited to “essentials.” Evangelicals have their own orthodoxy and Catholics have theirs, to name just two major streams.

Nevertheless, some will claim that there is a general consensus. But if I ask what about me and others like me who don’t agree about some issue for which they claim there is consensus, I can think of two answers that might be given.

One response is that I am not counted among those whose opinions are taken into consideration. If I pressed further and asked why that is, I would probably get the answer that it is because I don’t believe the minimum requirement beliefs to be considered one of them. But then the “consensus” is really no consensus at all; it is just picking people who are in general agreement and saying, “among these people, there is a consensus.” Well sure! If you only choose people who agree, then of course there is a “consensus.”

The other response is that my position is too much of a minority to be able to illegitimize consensus. But this reduces the meaning of consensus to majority opinion. And when in the history of the Church, I would ask, has the majority opinion ever been a reliable guide to truth?

If we want to say that there is one set of true and correctly articulated beliefs, we have to assume that spiritual realities can in fact be articulated verbally, and perfectly at that. But what if stories, for example, more accurately communicated the spiritual realities they portray compared to philosophical discourse or systematic theology? What if they are so beyond words that they must be spoken of in analogy? I’m not saying that is necessarily the case. But can we really know that it’s not? I don’t think so. But even if a perfect set of beliefs existed, it’s linguistic formulation would have to continually change, because languages change. People’s understandings of the meaning of words do not remain the same over time, and languages are not independent of their surrounding cultures, which also change.

Am I saying that truth is itself subjective? Nope.

There is only one true reality. But our perceptions of it are necessarily subjective. Consequently, our verbal articulations of what reality is are also subjective. We have no sure-fire way of determining whether a belief is true or not. So although truth is objective, our experiences and explanations of it are inevitably and inescapably subjective.

Of course, some beliefs are true, and others are false.

Heresy is real.

And there is a time and a place to address heresy.

But inasmuch as heresy refers to a false belief, we are all heretics to some degree since no one has a perfect set of beliefs. And no matter what we believe, there will always be someone who will consider us to be a heretic. Shucks.

Some people judge a person’s heart by their beliefs or vice versa. The assumption is that the rightness of people’s hearts is directly correlated to the rightness of their beliefs. I understand that the two are not completely unrelated, but no fair conclusion can be drawn about one just by looking at the other. There are people who have good hearts and are genuinely convinced of some ideas that are false. There are also people whose beliefs are very accurate and yet have bad hearts.

Am I saying that your beliefs don’t matter so go ahead and believe whatever you feel like believing? Far from it!

I’m saying that God is only concerned about our beliefs to the degree that they affect our Christ-likeness. First and foremost he wants right living, not right belief. He desires not that we have the perfect concept of love but rather that we become a perfect expression of love. If you had false beliefs but were loving everyone around you perfectly, would God really care?

Of course, our beliefs affect how we live and love and properly understanding love does help us express it. So I understand that the scenario I just gave isn’t realistic. I am simply illustrating that there is something that is infinitely more valuable than getting your beliefs right.

Correct beliefs are only a means to the end of correct action.

Have you ever noticed how getting your beliefs right is not emphasized in the scriptures? The focus of the scriptures is not “what do you believe in?” but “what is your faith in?” Further, it exhorts us to place our faith in the person of Jesus Christ, not in a book or a certain set of beliefs. In fact, a focus on correct belief borders on gnosticism. Our beliefs don’t save us; Jesus does.

If we equate our faith with our beliefs, then changing our beliefs will mean having to throw out our faith. Our beliefs will be continually changing throughout our lives, but our faith in Jesus can remain constant. We can continue to trust him while changing how and what we think.

Diana Butler-Bass points out that the word ‘doctrine’ comes from the word ‘doctor’ and that doctrines were meant to be healing. Doctrine isn’t something we’re supposed to try to “get right.” Rather, doctrine is a means of grace by which we come to change our minds about something (repentance), thereby gaining a new perspective followed by a new way of living. What it really comes down to is us knowing God for who he is through his perfect revelation, Jesus Christ. He crushes our illusions and false beliefs and gives us good doctrine, the truth about what he is like.

I like Frank Viola’s insight on heresy:

The popular understanding of heresy is that it refers to false doctrine. But this is not entirely correct. While heresy certainly includes the teaching of false doctrine, the Greek word translated “heresies” in the New Testament actually refers to creating a sect. That is, it’s the act of dividing a body of believers by persuading them to rally around a certain idea or practice . . . even if that idea or practice happens to be true. Consequently, a person can be a heretic with the truth.

Let’s not divide ourselves over beliefs. It is inevitable that there will always be disagreement. But what’s great about true love is that it is not hindered by disagreement.

Jesus said we would be known not by doctrinal positions or consensus but by our love for each other. Let’s commit ourselves to valuing our connections with one another above agreement. Let’s not rally around particular beliefs but around the living person of Jesus Christ.

The Irrelevancy of Inerrancy / Infallibility

Inerrancy is the doctrine that the scriptures, in their original manuscripts, are accurate and totally free from error of any kind and do not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.

Infallibility is the belief that what the scriptures say regarding matters of faith and practice is wholly useful and true and that the scriptures are completely trustworthy as a guide to salvation and the life of faith and will not fail to accomplish its purpose.

(Thanks, Wikipedia, for the definitions.)

Since people believe different varieties or combinations of inerrancy and infallibility regarding the scriptures, in this post I will collectively refer to these concepts as “inerribility.”

Inerribility has not always been something believers thought (or cared) about. There have been long periods (especially prior to the canonization of scripture) where the question of inerribility was insignificant. In fact, formal doctrines of inerribility have only appeared in the past two centuries. Their appearances are largely due to the veracity of biblical texts increasingly being questioned in the 18th and 19th centuries (for example the literal interpretation of the creation account and the worldwide flood). The scriptures themselves, however, never claim to be inerrible. Inerribility is a concept devised purely by man in reaction to criticism.

But even if the original writings were inerrible, it doesn’t matter to us because our transcriptions, translations, interpretations, and applications can err and are fallible. Its inerribility (if it indeed is) could never be extended to anything we could do or say about what is written. Ultimately, the scriptures cannot be used in an “absolute” way as an authoritative basis for truth because our use of it is necessarily subjective. Thus, such doctrine can serve no useful purpose.

But here’s a useful doctrine for ya: Jesus is inerrible. I don’t mean the things written about Jesus, but the person himself. And this idea, although not stated in the way I have, is supported historically as well as biblically, unlike biblical inerribility.

Sweet, inerrant, infallible Jesus. LOL!


Also see:

The Bible Isn’t Perfect And It Says So Itself

Christians have not been ‘reading the Bible this way for 2,000 years’

‘Inerrancy’ is not a victimless crime

Rob Bell on inerrancy