Michael Polanyi on Science as Personal Knowledge

Conventional wisdom would like us to believe that science has triumphed over Christianity because science relies on objective knowledge while Christianity relies on blind faith based on ecclesiastical authority. In solving the recalcitrant problems of life, educated people should rely on the cool and dispassionate judgment of the scientist based on careful research in the laboratory instead of the authoritative pontification of the priest from the pulpit. As Bertrand Russell wrote, “The triumphs of science are due to the substitution of observance and inference for authority. Every attempt to revive authority in intellectual matters is a retrograde step.”

According to critics, Christianity relies on myths without factual foundations to impress emotionally vulnerable believers who accept myths according to the shifting impulses of the heart. In contrast, science relies on rigorous and detached analysis to offer reliable and objective knowledge of reality. The proponents of “strong scientism” argue that something is true, rationally justified, or known if and only if it is a scientific claim that has been successfully tested with a proper application of scientific methodology. To be sure, the confidence of scientism has recently become more tempered as a result of scientists themselves failing to gain consensus on the fundamental theories of physics and cosmology. What has emerged is a more modest “weak scientism” which acknowledges that there could be truths known through other means. Nevertheless, “weak scientism” continues to insist that knowledge gained outside of science is certainly less robust and that science remains the ultimate authority in the quest for knowledge.

Michael Polanyi, whose competence as a research scientist is well regarded, having personally mentored several students who later became Nobel Prize winners, has mounted a forceful critique of the conventional wisdom about science being an impersonal and fully objective enterprise. Drawing from his life-long experience in the laboratory, he maintains that a proper description of science must go beyond abstract epistemological concepts and take into account the true processes of scientific research which have proven reliable in yielding new scientific truths.

Polanyi knew fully well that science is intensely personal. Scientific research is sustained by a personal passion and commitment to discover reality as it really is. Science is also a social enterprise where researchers share their discoveries with fellow researchers. Science thrives when a spirit of conviviality pervades the research community where there is shared interests, trust and mutual accountability in the collaborative project of inquiry. The scientist strives to excel in objective analysis, but the priorities of his research are guided by an ongoing tradition of scientific inquiry. He submits the results of his inquiry to the judgement of the community of fellow researchers.

Undisciplined individual freedom and disinterested inquiry can dissipate science into petty and pedestrian research. Famous scientists can testify about how arduous scientific research can often be, but their quest finally succeeds because their endeavour is sustained by a faith that assures them that their struggle is worthwhile as investigation will yield genuine knowledge. It is the common life and shared optimism of fellow scientists which both inspire and discipline free inquiry. In contrast, an authoritarian community exemplified by Marxist regimes demands that science should be fully utilitarian and be harnessed to build an ideological society. Personal moral values are rejected since they serve as a cover-up of class interest. Scientific truth is reduced to mathematicised quantities to be applied in projects of social engineering. In either case of undisciplined freedom or authoritarianism, human creativity is sterilized. It is imperative that the scientific enterprise holds in balance both the personal and communal dimensions of science in order to avoid these deformations of science. Science is vibrant and fruitful when it is guided by a research community which exercises its authoritative tradition of inquiry help to cultivate individual originality.

What is the shape of a Polanyian epistemology of science? First, scientific knowledge is participatory. We rely on “tacit knowledge” as we know more than we can express. We inherit tacit knowledge through experience, acquired tradition and professional training. Cognition involves both an interplay between “subsidiary awareness” and “focal awareness”. “Subsidiary awareness” is a reliance on background information which includes past experiences, preconceived notions, linguistic and scientific frameworks, and foundational beliefs and values. “Focal awareness” lies beyond subsidiary awareness and helps to integrate the related subsidiaries into a pattern of meaning. Together they enable us to perceive reality as a whole.

The key towards the integration of subsidiary and focal awareness is “indwelling,” that is, submission to and participation in the epistemological process and personal engagement with reality that can lead to genuine knowledge. Take, for example, the act of riding a bicycle. We have learnt to “indwell” the bicycle so that we are able to balance ourselves effortlessly without having to replay all the mathematics of motion. The bicycle effectively becomes an extension of our body. Cycling is illustrative of a participative epistemology which entails personal involvement with all its risks and mistakes. We accept painful falls from the bicycle during the early stages of learning since this is essential to the process of acquiring skills and competent knowledge. Likewise, setbacks in the laboratory or even malfunctions in rocket launches are accepted as essential to any process of discovery or advancement toward knowledge. Tacit knowledge provides us with hunches and intuitions to guide our probing into reality.

Since scientific knowledge is participatory knowledge, the inquirer is not required to distance himself from reality, but he must engage and indwell the subject under investigation. Polanyi gives an illustration of a blind man learning to use a cane. The blind man does not distance himself from his environment, but extends his involvement with it. The probing of his cane enables him to indwell and ascertain the environment around him.

Tacit knowledge is inherited through scientific training and tradition. Throughout their training, doctors “indwell” the fuzzy patches of X-ray images until they can mentally grasp and diagnose the health condition of the internal organs of their patients. The idea of tacit knowledge is not to encourage arbitrariness or sloppiness in the quest for and articulation of knowledge, but to encourage modest and systematic probing into nature with the expectation of the discovery of new knowledge. The scientific enterprise is premised on the fact that knowledge is not explicit. If it were so, there would be no learning, no discovery, and thus no new scientific knowledge.

Second, science is a way of discovery, a heuristic philosophy with two distinctive features:
1) Imagination is more fundamental and indeed guides reason to discover new “insights” into reality. Intuition is fundamental to the process of integration of discrete data that is acquired through sensory perception or measuring instruments. Polanyi draws this insight from Gestalt psychology.
2) The scientist is motivated by faith and hope as he initiates forays into investigating reality with all its uncertainties or indeterminateness, with the expectation that nature will yield its truth to the investigator who systematically probes nature even as he relies on his primordial hunches (imagination) and intuitive guesses.

Polanyi shares from his laboratory experience that scientific research is not a dispassionate routine, but an intensely personal engagement. The whole person is engaged with his whole being—logical reasoning, artistic imagination, disciplined inquiry and the poetic quest for beauty and truth. For Polanyi, these processes confirm that science is “personal knowledge,” a term which journalistic writings on science studiously avoid as it connotes subjectivity, relativism, or experientialism and belies the claim of dispassionate, objective science. Polanyi therefore feels compelled to highlight these crucial aspects of the process of scientific discovery that have been ignored. However, for Polanyi the process need not descend into unbridled subjectivism as personal subjectivity is circumscribed by epistemological and ontological realism, the view that reality exists independent of the knower and that it is knowable. Science enables us to gain contact with reality or indwell reality to experience and behold its multi-faceted manifestations.

Third, personal subjectivity is also disciplined when it is held accountable to fellow-researchers in the community of scientists. The scientist learns his research skills from the training which inducted him into the habitus of scientific inquiry. The goal for knowledge is not private insight but universally accessible knowledge as the researcher subjects his findings to the inter-subjective verification of his peers. In truth, the scientific enterprise is nurtured by a balance between personal knowledge and scientific conviviality. The ethos of inter-personal verification in the community of researchers may be characterized as “covenant epistemology,” that is to say, scientific inquiry is fundamentally an expression of authentic humanism in community.

Finally, all too often, scientific knowledge seems to be piecemeal. Problem-based approaches to science that narrowly focus on isolated topics of inquiry can lead one to miss the forest for the trees. Adopting an impersonal perspective can also result in a sense of alienation from nature. In contrast, Polanyi sets forth a vision of science that is both integrated and personal, where the personal indwelling of the scientist should help the scientist feel at home with the world around him. To be sure, reality is inexhaustible and partially hidden from our finite minds, but it is open to rational inquiry and will yield insights to the persistent investigations of the scientist. The purposeful and persevering process of inquiry that leads to scientific discovery echoes the famous affirmation first expressed by Augustine and Anselm, “Credo ut intelligam” (“I believe so that I may understand”).

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*This post was published at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity website:
Michael Polanyi on Science as Personal Knowledge

One thought on “Michael Polanyi on Science as Personal Knowledge”

  1. A least one key takeaway from Polyani is the concept of participatory knowledge.

    Newbigen argues well that Christianity is also a distinctive, participatory form of knowing that should be taken as seriously as science in its own domain.

    But the real issue from the standpoint of evangelism is which form of participatory knowledge is more accessible to those who are neither scientists nor religious. One of the problems of contemporary Christianity is that it hasn’t been as broadly participatory as the scientific community. Unlike the first apostles, who assumed that they shared with Jews and Greeks a common set of human experiences within which all could participate in the knowledge of the risen Christ if they chose, the contemporary church has largely assumed that it must teach the pagans to understand their own experience, and only if and when the pagan accept this Christian teaching can they begin to participate in the knowledge of the risen Christ. In short, the church assumes that you must become a kind of porto-christian before you can begin to seriously engage Christian knowledge. Christianity might grow more readily if we took the approach of the apostle Paul in Acts 14.

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