Polanyi's Epistemology and Sociology of Science
as Providing Common Ground for Science and Theology
Book in Progress by Professor Aaron Milavec
My first post-doctoral fellowship enabled me to study in Oxford with Michael Polanyi for a period of four months in 1974. Polanyi was then retired and collaborating with Harry Prosch on his final book, Meaning. Over and over again, Polanyi, with a passionate quiver in his voice, emphasized how the misleading position of scientific objectivism rooted in the Enlightenment had infiltrated Western culture and set up a fallacious ideal for human knowing which disrupted and crippled Western civilization. At that time, I made a promise to Polanyi that I would take his corrective analysis of the epistemology and sociology of science and to demonstrate that these selfsame processes had nearly exact counterparts within the religious enterprise. Over the years, I have partially fulfilled this promise (see section C below). The book I intend to write would bring my promise to completion.
A. The Importance of this Study
The ideal of arriving at the truth and committing oneself thereto plays itself out within every sector of societal life. How this truth is to be arrived at, however, is another matter. Following in the footsteps of the Enlightenment, the prevailing assumption has been that truth can only be arrived at when the inquiring mind is set free from the restraints of tradition so that an impartial examination of the evidence can sift out the enduring truths from among the confusing diversity of unexamined opinions and dogmatic illusions. Moreover, the development of the modern scientific method has been upheld as the paramount example of how objective and impartial truths can be arrived at and accredited within a community of inquirers without any application of coercion or authoritarian restraint. Denominations of religion, schools of philosophy, and varieties of political ideologies cannot claim comparable results. As a result, the scientific method has gained an exemplary status within modern culture. Accordingly, those in the humanities have made deliberate attempts to adapt the scientific method for themselves since they have been persuaded that "scientific knowledge rests on the bedrock of empirical testability" and that the scientific method provides "the most, if not the only, objective mode of pursuing knowledge" (Hunt 1991:197, 200).
Michael Polanyi has challenged the ideal of strict objectivism in science. In fact, Polanyi has demonstrated that the secure operation of science relies initially upon the authority of masters to transmit the tradition they embody to their students and understudies. Once apprenticed within a particular science, however, the powers of observing and the habits of judgment of a practicing scientist are so altered as to form a heuristic circle: "The rules of scientific procedure which we adapt, and the scientific beliefs and valuations which we hold, are mutually determined" (1964:161). After dismantling various prevailing accounts of the scientific method (as provided by Carnap, Feyerabend, Hemple, Kuhn, Popper, et. al.), Polanyi has been able to show that "the most inadequate and misleading formulation" can gain acceptance because a practicing scientist "automatically supplements it by his tacit knowledge of what science really is" (1964:169). In the end, therefore, Polanyi arrives at the position that science itself is "a system of beliefs to which we are committed" (1964:171):
Nobody has ever affirmed the presuppositions of science by themselves. The discoveries of science have been achieved by the passionately sustained efforts of succeeding generations of great men [and women] who overwhelmed the whole of modern humanity by the power of their convictions. Thus has our scientific outlook been molded, of which these logical rules [regarding method and procedure] give a highly attenuated summary. If we ask why we accept this summary, the answer lies in the body of knowledge of which they are the summary. We must reply by recalling the way each of us has come to accept that knowledge and the reasons for which we continue to do so. Science will appear then as a vast system of beliefs, deeply rooted in our history and cultivated today by a specially organized part of our society. . . . Such a system cannot be accounted for either from experience as seen within a different system [astrology, alchemy, magic] or by reason without any experience. Yet this does not signify that we are free to take it or leave it, but simply reflects the fact that it is a system of beliefs to which we are committed and which therefore cannot be represented in a non-committed terms (1964:171).
From this starting point, Polanyi not only separates himself from misleading formulations of the scientific method, he provides a fresh starting point for readdressing the huge gap which has traditionally been maintained between method in science and method in religion. Religious inquiry, for example, retains its appeals to authority and tradition since it is guided by the presupposition that the truths of religion are beyond human reason and can be accessed only through faith in a historically given and closed divine revelation. By identifying the essential role of authority and tradition for transmitting the heritage of science, Polanyi provides the first steps toward reassessing the gap between the two methodologies.
My task will be to complete this task and it to this pressing concern that I intend to devote my energies during the latter part of 2002. In so doing, I hope not only to fulfill the promise I made to Polanyi twenty-seven years ago but to provide a route whereby both scientists and theologians might become aware of their common ground and their common methods in arriving at their disparate truths.
B. The Book Envisioned by this Study
The Truths of Christianity & the Truths of Science
Polanyi's Joint Foundations for Reliable Knowing
Chapter 1: Religion and Science as Acquired Skills
Chapter 2: The Stubbornness of Religious and Scientific Beliefs
Chapter 3: The Necessary Circularity of Religious and Scientific Beliefs
Chapter 4: The History of Science and the Development of Doctrine
Chapter 5: The Phenomenology of Discovery -- How and Why our Commitments Change
Chapter 6: The Sociology of Affirmation -- How Private Discoveries Become Public Events
Chapter 7: How the Deeds of God and the Effects of Electrons Are Objectively Known
Chapter 8: Loss of Faith in Science; Loss of Faith in God -- Parallel Crises
Chapter 9: How Science and Faith Interact -- Three Case Studies
Chapter 10: How Science and Religion Account for the Origins of the Universe
Chapter 11: How Science and Religion Account for the Final Days
Chapter 12: Tentative Norms for the Dialogue Between Science and Religion
C. The Preparatory Studies already Undertaken
Up to this point, I have prepared a dozen preparatory studies directed toward realizing the book which needs to be written and which I am uniquely prepared to write (see section E). These preparatory studies demonstrate that I have already (a) explored many issues associated with the examination of Polanyi's work within the larger framework of the philosophy and sociology of science and (b) have applied Polanyi's insights toward spelling out the common ground shared by the pursuit of truth in science and in religion. These preparatory studies are as follows:
1974 A theology of Christian revelation based upon Michael Polanyi's interpretation
of scientific discovery. Berkeley CA. Graduate Theological Union, Ph.D. dissertation.
1976a "The Bible, the Holy Spirit, and human powers," Scottish Journal of Theology 29(3), pp. 215-35. [Uses Polanyi's accounts of "boundary control" and "apprenticeship" to analyze how trained human powers and the Holy Spirit can function concurrently in both routine and prophetic interpretations of the biblical texts]
1976b "The Bible as Inspiring and Authorizing Incompatible Doctrines and Practices," Eglise et théologie 7, pp. 189-218.
1978 "Modern Exegesis, Doctrinal Innovations, and the Dynamics of Discipleship," Anglican Theological Review 60, pp. 55-74. [Uses Polanyi's account of tacit skills, indwelling, and projection of meaning in order to make sense of the exegesis and hermeneutics of scripture]
1982 To empower as Jesus did: Acquiring spiritual power through apprenticeship. (Toronto Studies in Theology, 9). New York & Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press 1982, 345p. [Through careful analysis of the biblical texts, this study shows how the disciples of Jesus assimilated for themselves the tacit powers exhibited by Jesus. The role of an apprenticeship is shown as foundational for both the routine and the extraordinary range of religious experiences. Polanyi's analysis of the phenomenology of discovery is used to account for how fresh and prophetic experiences prompted by the Holy Spirit can emerge without doing violence to human nature. The function of prophetic experiences is examined as the normal mode whereby religious communities are purified and renewed in their calling.]
1986 "Polanyi's understanding of religion reconsidered," Convivium (Oxford) no. 22, pp. 4-14. [This study traces Polanyi's own religious upbringing and notes how Polanyi's description of the religious enterprise changed depending upon whom he was collaborating with at the time. Citations from his correspondence are used extensively.]
1989 "The Heuristic Circularity of Commitment and the Experience of Discovery: A Polanyian Critique of Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions" Tradition and Discovery 16/2, pp. 4-19.
1993 "'If I Join Forces with Mr. Kuhn. . .': Polanyi and Kuhn as Mutually Supportive and Corrective," Polanyiana (Budapest) 3/1, pp. 56-74. Reprinted in Richard Gelwick, ed., From Polanyi to the 21st Century (Proceedings of a Centennial Conference, Kent State University, The Polanyi Society, 1997) 224-259.
1996 "Religious Pedagogy From Tender to Twilight Years: Parenting, Mentoring, and Pioneering Discoveries by Religious Masters as Viewed from within Polanyi's Sociology and Epistemology of Science," Tradition and Discovery 23:2 (1996-97), pp. 15-36.
2001 The Didache: Faith, hope, and life of Christians 50-70 C.E.. New York: Paulist. 1100 pp. [This extensive study uses Polanyi to define the methodology undergirding this study and to provide guidelines for adjudicating different interpretations of the primary text.]
In addition, I have been an active member of the Polanyi Society for the last twenty years. At the forthcoming conference scheduled to honor Michael Polanyi 25 years after his death, I have been invited to present a paper entitled, "An Analysis of the Christian Expectation of God's Coming at the End of Time based upon Polanyi's Epistemology of Knowing in the Physical Sciences," Polanyi's Post-Critical Thought and the Rebirth of Meaning (Chicago, IL: 08 June 2001).
D. Why Polanyi and I Share a Common Mission
My first passion was for physics and chemistry. In the summer of 1960, while doing research at the University of Dayton Research Institute in flash x-rays under the direction of Dr. Rambausky, I accidentally came across an article in the American Journal of Physics entitled, "Truth in Physics." At this point in my scientific career, I was persuaded that the theories in physics provided an absolutely certain description of the secrets of nature. I was deeply disturbed, therefore, that the author of this article posited the notion that theories were merely mental constructs designed by the human mind that had no verifiable relation to the extramental world. My romantic faith in the supreme importance and sure knowledge of the physical sciences was called into question. The suspicion that the claims of this article might be true thus unsettled my naive realism and set me off to determine just what was the nature and limits of physics.
In the years that followed, I collected and brooded over dozens of books which endeavored to sort out the ontological status of scientific theories. More especially, I was captivated by the writings of Pierre Duhem, Thomas S. Kuhn, and Michael Polanyi:
1. Duhem (1861-1916) was a practicing physicist who formulated a highly sophisticated analysis of the growth, development, and the validification of physical theories. Written in the year that Einstein introduced the notion of the "photon of light" and Bohr introduced his controversial notion of "quantum jumps" in his revised model of the atom, Duhem was able to demonstrate that scientific theories were discovered and accepted by physicists due to the character of their research which had no bearing upon metaphysical claims (1906) or religious doctrines (1905).
2. Kuhn (1922-1996), working a half century later, combined his expertise in the history of science with the sociology of knowledge to work out, like Duhem before him, a sophisticated notion of how scientists, while never having any unmediated contact with reality as such, succeed in making discoveries which, in the course of time, change the paradigms whereby successive generations come to habitually know and examine their universe. In the 60s, the popularity of Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was so widespread (having sold over a million copies) that nearly every academic discipline was fond of reexamining its own historic development in order to identify "paradigm shifts" (1962, 1970).
3. Polanyi (1891-1976) was a practicing physical chemist for twenty-five years. In 1933, he resigned from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in protest against the Nazis and emigrated to England. He taught physical chemistry at the University of Manchester until 1948 when he switched over to teaching the philosophy of science. Polanyi's interest in the epistemology and sociology of science emerged gradually. During the 30s, he was unsettled by the fact that Western scientists were incapable of addressing the claim of Soviet scientists that Western science was suspect because it was unconsciously guided by capitalist prejudices. In England as well, Polanyi was aware that government funded research both before and after the war promoted the widespread understanding that scientific development was justified on the basis of its technological and economic advantages. In response, Polanyi wrote and lectured widely. He is especially known for his Gifford Lectures (1951-1952), Gunning Lectures (1960), Merton Lectures (1960-1961), and his Terry Lectures (1962). His major work is Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (1958). Philip Reif summarized the achievement of this book as follows:
Professor Polanyi has written the best book yet in the continuing effort of modern methodologists to rid the scientific tradition of its dogmatic cult of objectivity. That cult has exercised a specially destructive influence, as he rightly says, on the social sciences, where the methods of the exact sciences still are mistaken too often for impersonal and uncommitted modes of relationship between the observed and the phenomena observed (back cover, 1964 ed.).
In 1965, I attended lectures in the philosophy of science at Ohio State University. During this period, I underwent a religious crisis. For the first time I recognized that I had endowed the dogmas of Christianity with the same naive realism with which I had formerly endowed theories in physics. Slowly I began to apply to my religious beliefs the same critical reflections that I was routinely applying to my scientific beliefs. Michael Polanyi was my most significant anchor and guide in this process.
The upshot of this whole quest is that I passionately threw myself into the study of theology after passing through the study of physics and the philosophy of science. For twenty-five years I taught theology to future lay and ordained ministers. Needless to say, I taught theology with an eye toward the discovery method which characterized my own early upbringing in science. The two enclosed book reviews confirm this orientation.
E. Why I Am Uniquely Prepared to Accomplish this Work
I have entered into an untroubled and reflective period of my life. Last year, I finished a 1200 page analytical translation and commentary on the Didache--the culmination of fourteen years of research. Currently, I am putting the finishing touches upon two other books slated for publication later this year. Then, my slate is free. I can then pass my entire attention to fulfilling the promise I made to Michael Polanyi in 1974.
I will not be the first theologian to make use of Polanyi. To date, however, I have been quite unsatisfied with the way that theologians have made use of Polanyi because, for the most part, they have no adequate grasp of how the scientific tradition is passed on and no grounding within the history of science. As a result, theologians (such as Torrence and Gunter) tend to use Polanyi's analysis superficially and tend to find no significant religious counterpart for the phenomenology and sociology of discovery (Dulles being a notable exception).
Philosophers, for their part, have been fond of showing how Polanyi compares and contrasts with other philosophers; yet, philosophers dedicated to Polanyi ordinarily do not give much attention to his analysis of religion. When they do, they invariably take sides based upon the divergent views found in the various writings of Polanyi. In this regard, I have been the first person to note that Polanyi himself was hampered by his own ill-informed and marginal participation in both Judaism (the nominal religion of his parents) and Christianity (the religion of his hero, Dostoevsky, and the nominal religion of his later years). Accordingly, even Polanyi had to rely upon second-hand assessments of how Christianity functioned and was dependent upon enforcing the views of those with whom he was collaborating at the moment (see Milavec 1986). Furthermore, Polanyi demonstrates a complete unawareness of the development of doctrine and shows only a rudimentary understanding of the interplay of religious belief, religious ritual, and religious experience. All in all, I appear to be the first person who has turned Polanyi's analysis back upon himself. Being aware of the fragmentary character of Polanyi's religious analysis in his writings, I am prepared to correct and enlarge it. My book, therefore, will present what Polanyi might have said about the religious enterprise had he received a Christian upbringing and undergone a theological formation.
In sum, I am one of the rare persons who has undergone a personal apprenticeship in science (physics), in the philosophy of science, and in theology. Moreover, I have been a practicing research scientist and am currently a practicing believer. Finally, I am someone who has been personally touched and shaped by Polanyi. Hence, I am a fit candidate to speak of him and to speak for him by way of expanding his legacy and of fulfilling the promise I made to him.