An Objective Look at Personal Knowledge or Trust Me I Read This Book Using the Scientific Method

Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy: A Teaser Trailer of sorts

The Hungarian born, Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) was a polymath, nominated thrice (yes, I used thrice) for the Nobel Prize, once for his contribution in physics and twice in chemistry. While for much of his academic career, he was a professor of chemistry, he eventually took a chair in social studies.
With his turn to social studies, he began to write and lecture on knowledge (or epistemology), especially as it relates to the scientific disciplines. Wikipedia offers a helpful and concise summary of Polanyi’s concerns and the alternative for which he argues,

In his book Science, Faith and Society (1946), Polanyi set out his opposition to a positivist account of science, noting that it ignores the role personal commitments play in the practice of science. Polanyi was invited to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures in 1951-2 at Aberdeen. A revised version of his lectures were later published as Personal Knowledge (1958). In this book Polanyi claims that all knowledge claims (including those that derive from rules) rely on personal judgements. He denies that a scientific method can yield truth mechanically. All knowing, no matter how formalised, relies upon commitments. Polanyi argued that the assumptions that underlie critical philosophy are not only false, they undermine the commitments that motivate our highest achievements. He advocates a fiduciary post-critical approach, in which we recognise that we believe more than we can prove, and more than we can say. Wikipedia Michael Polanyi 12/01/2015 bold added

In my interdisciplinary, internet and, dare I say, interfaith conversations, I find that those who give the scientific method a special status in their epistemology and claim to know things objectively through the use of this method, rarely demonstrate any evidence that they have critically examined their own commitments to the method and their presuppositions about epistemology. So, I often mention Michael Polanyi who speaks from within the scientific community and yet challenges some of the common presuppositions.

In recent conversations with atheists, agnostics, and skeptics, as a theist, I am, not surprisingly, accused of being a fideist. As I ask what someone means by their use of this term or the suggestion that I rely in some unwholesome way on faith. Faith is usually defined as belief against reason or belief in the impossible. Now, it does not help that I am a Kierkegaard scholar because he is often accused, erroneously, I think, of defining faith in this way.

Yet, I usually respond that from my understanding and experience faith ought to be understood in a way similar to the way we use the word trust. Unfortunately, the typical response is to be told that it is not what faith means and that is not really what I think or practice.

For instance, when I offered my own definition of faith which I see as stemming from the Bible, good theology, and personal experience, to a Twitter-pal, I was promptly corrected:

@panth_ian Faith is not trust. Religious faith is all about maintaining a belief in face of evidence to the contrary.

I wonder how my Evangelistic Atheistic interlocutors have come to know what I think and how I understand and use words. Was it through the scientific method? Or was it that my theistic commitment suggests to them that I am an untrustworthy source even when it comes to defining what I mean.

So, I would describe faith or trust as taking action before all possible evidence is available. The action might be believing a person or in a god. The action may be like stepping out onto a road, as Frodo does in The Lord of the Rings. The action might be bleeding someone to cure a fever because one has read the latest research which says that is the best remedy.

Now, I also think that trust or faith is the natural human orientation to the world. We learn to mistrust or fear. In a sense, we live in faith the way a fish lives in water. The fish does not know it is wet until it experiences “not wet” or “dry” for the first time. Just as a fish needs to be in water, we must trust in order to live. For we never have all the evidence. We never have all the data.

When I suggested that trust is the natural human orientation in a Twitter exchange, in defining faith as akin to trust, I suggested that I was not using it of god in any special sense, as he assumed.

@non-Christian I am not referring to god exclusively. Most of the information we get comes from someone. We trust those sources or we don’t.

@non-Christian replies: @panth_ian Or, we take what they say on advisement and then double-check. Why just believe anything?

Do we really? Do we actually approach life so methodically and with such skepticism. If someone were to take all things “on advisement” and “double check”, would we not call that paranoia? My wife is at the grocery store. Should I call the store and have her paged?  Or OCD, did I really lock the door?

Why “just believe” some things, including ourselves?  Simply, because it is not possible for any one human being to investigate and know all things. As Polanyi suggests our personal commitments and interests drive our research.

[If we don’t trust at some level, then we end up with David Hume and his extreme skepticism.]

If my dialogue partner above were in charge of education, then people would not study the Bible at all because it is all theistic agenda driven nonsense with no scientific value which makes me either mad for valuing it or lying because I really don’t believe it. For, he would not even grant it value as literature or Hebrew philosophy. Of course, if he were consistent in excluding theistic agenda driven “nonsense” with little scientifice value, then we ought to excluded most texts past and present. Welcome to Dragnet University. Justus facts, Mulier.

When faith is understood as being akin to trust, then, yes, it is possible to put our faith in the wrong things, the wrong people, the wrong ideas, the wrong gods, the wrong scientific theory, etc. Moreover, different people have different thresholds for what constitutes sufficient proof and our thresholds for what constitutes sufficient proof may be different in different circumstances. If I have loaned out money in the past and not been repaid, I may require more evidence about a person’s character and financial prospects in the future. Someone else may remain credulous in all circumstances. And as my Twitter-pal noted, “credulity is not a virtue.”

But faith is not general credulity which many of my atheist and skeptical interlocutors seem to think. If I believe in “the big sky fairy” as seems to b the preferred way to speak of a god, then I will believe in anything. Yet, I am far more skeptical as a Christian than I ever was as a non-Christian. I’m not even sure I believe in atheists. However, I can hardly blame them for making this mistake since many evangelical Christians seem to believe ridiculous things and engage in ridiculous practices simply because someone endorses them in the name of Christ, i.e. Ken Ham, Chuck Missler, or Hal Lindsay.

Kierkegaard is famous for “the leap of faith”. A phrase which he never actually uses like Captain Kirk’s “Beam me up, Scotty.” In my reading of Kierkegaard, all decisions involve a leap, an act of will. Given what I know and even given that I could know more but don’t, I choose to act. To wait, as he says, for the system to be completed would result in practical paralysis.

At some point, scientists need to publish their findings and subject them to public scrutiny. They cannot wait for all the data to be in. For the practical discipline of science itself is an ongoing conversation that is based in trust. That is why we get so upset when someone falsifies the data or, in some other way abuses our trust. That is why many Christians and non-Christians get so upset with people like Ken Ham. Ham manipulates the data or ignores the data. My Twitter-pal may be correctly describing the type of faith Ham promotes but that faith is not my faith nor the faith of most Christians, I should think.

When I suggest to my skeptical dialogue partners that they accept (or believe) more things based on faith than they are likely aware, the response is frequently defensive because what they believe “science has proved”. I do not know science but I do know many scientists and have read or watched many more. I trust many of them and take them at their word when they tell me about their findings and theories or those of other scientists. If I were depending on the scientific method alone, then I myself would have to check their sources, repeat their experiments, and get access to an electron microscope. I would never have time to do one of the things I really enjoy which is sitting in my recliner and reading a well-written book on recent scientific discoveries.

As the goal of this post is to get people, especially those who claim to hold science and the scientific method in high regard, to read Polanyi’s book Personal Knowledge (link to this book on Amazon), I shall leave you with his opening paragraph from the section on Objectivity:

In the Ptolemaic system, as in the cosmogony of the Bible, man was assigned a central position in the universe, from which position he was ousted by Copernicus. Ever since, writers eager to drive the lesson home have urged us, resolutely and repeatedly, to abandon all sentimental egoism, and to see ourselves objectively in the true perspective of time and space. What precisely does this mean? In a full ‘main feature’ film, recapitulating faithfully the complete history of the universe, the rise of human beings from the first beginnings of man to the achievements of the twentieth century would flash by in a single second. Alternatively, if we decided to examine the universe objectively in the sense of paying equal attention to portions of equal mass, this would result in a lifelong pre-occupation with interstellar dust, relieved only at brief intervals by a survey of incandescent masses of hydrogen — not in a thousand million lifetimes would the turn come to give man even a second’s notice. It goes without saying that no one — scientist included — looks at the universe this way, whatever lip-service is given to ‘objectivity’. Nor should this surprise us. For, as human beings, we must inevitably see the universe from a centre lying within ourselves and speak about it in terms of a human language shaped by the exigencies of human intercourse. Any attempt rigorously to eliminate our human perspective from our picture of the world must lead to absurdity. Personal Knowledge University of Chicago Press, 1974, 3.


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