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Michael Polanyi: Unintentional Christian Apologist and Theologian

An Introduction: Polanyi and Payne

 

Ed Payne

 

Introduction

Biography

“Science” and scientitia

Tacit Integration

Generic Faith

Emergence and Anti-reductionism

Polanyi, as apologist

Polanyi’s Incompleteness

Summary

Summary notes and directives

 

Somehow,  the Christian world of the Middle Ages (not the Dark Ages, as some would have us believe), has become the Secular and Scientific Age of the 20th and 21st centuries.  The transition began with the Reformation, Enlightenment, and the Renaissance—very powerful forces within Western thinking that have now become the dominant intellectualism of the entire world.

 

How we got here is far beyond the scope of this paper, and likely, each person in this room would have differing opinions.  However, the thinking of Michael Polanyi addresses several themes of Western thinking that have at least contributed to, if not being major causes, of this Secular and Scientific Age.  Polanyi is a champion against the Enlightenment principles of rationalism over faith, reason over tradition, and objectivism over subjectivism. He could be a valuable ally in Christian apologetics and perhaps even assist in our development and understanding of theology.

 

What follows here is not pure Polanyi.  It is a mixture of his thinking and mine where they are parallel and similar.  I hope that with the Scriptures and a regenerate mind that I am able to apply his thinking more concretely and Biblically.

 

Biography

Born 1891, died 1976.[1]  Born in Budapest, Hungary, to a “secular” Jewish family.  The name “Polanyi” was changed from Pollacsek early in his life.  His father constructed much of the railroad system in Hungary until misfortune led to bankruptcy in 1899.  And, Michael should not be confused with his older brother, Karl, who is a world-renown political economist and anthropologist.

 

Polanyi first studied medicine, graduating in 1914.  His interest, however, shifted to physical chemistry.  At the age of twenty-one, he wrote a paper on the Third Law of Thermo-Dynamics which his professor sent to none-other-than Albert Einstein.  “Bang-I was created a scientist,” Polanyi said.

 

While serving as a physician in the Austro-Hungarian Army  in 1916, he wrote a paper on the adsorption of gases as a Ph.D. thesis which was “over the head” of his supervising professor, but was still awarded his degree.

 

He moved to Berlin in 1920, working for the Fiber Chemistry Institute, and later at the Physical and Electrical Institute.  During this time Adolf Hitler was assimilating his power and  Jewish professors were being ostracized and worse.  Polanyi resigned in protest and in 1933 accepted the Chair of Physical Chemistry at Manchester in England.

“He quickly established a world-famous school of physical chemistry, forward looking and most stimulating for those in it.”  But, here in 13 years of teaching and research… he found himself less and less able to live in an ivory tower of scientific study, ever more deeply concerned about the way science relates to the rest of life, how a free society and a true practice of science depend upon each other, and the immense evils springing from a false scientific outlook. “I believe,” he said, “that the doctrines derived from our erroneous scientific worldview have in our days shattered our culture, casting much of the world into mindless servitude, while afflicting the rest with mindless servitude.”[2]

In 1946, he published the small book, Science, Faith, and Society, and with its recognition, Manchester established a new Chair in philosophy for him without obligation to teach.  By way of historical note, C. S. Lewis who is a common mention in the work of ISCA and Don Williams, even as I speak, published That Hideous Strength in 1945.  That was 70 years ago… how far we have “progressed” in that time, failing to heed these prophets of our modern degradation.

 

Polanyi went on to give the Gifford Lectures in 1951 which became his major work, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (as in the “critiques” of Kant).  He continued to lecture and write, travelling the world, spending many of his last years in the United States, and writing a number of books until his death in 1976.  In 1972, The Polanyi Society was formed and began publishing Tradition and Discovery, through which international scholars continued to develop his work, along with periodic conferences.

 

Many Christians have been attracted to his work, but most have not been evangelical or Reformed, and would not claim inerrancy.  In fact, I may be the only overtly and historically Reformed person who is active in that group.  I would like to change that, as I think Polanyi has much to offer, as I have said.

 

While there are numerous Christians in apologetics today, I am not convinced that we are offering our best challenges to the secular world.  One blatant example is that we allow designations, such as “faith-group” in the public square without protest.  If I am a person of faith, with whom am I debating?  With the two-category limitation of “faith” and “reason,” the opposition is a “person of reason.”  By those designations, I have lost the argument before it begins.

 

What does Polanyi say?  He says that science, even the so-called “hard” sciences are based in personal faith, thus his major work, Personal Knowledge, and his book already mentioned, Science, Faith, and Society.  As C. S. Lewis has done, Polanyi’s work is a clarion call that positive science is a “hideous strength” against the culture and worldview of Western Civilization and its foundations in  Biblical doctrine and tradition.  Thus, the necessity of our conference, “Apologetics in An Increasingly Hostile World.”  How has this “hideous strength” been allowed to progress to the point that evangelical Christians are threatened physically and legally by the civil government itself?  Darkness is extinguishing the light.  Satan appears to winning… or, has God just withdrawn His favor and “given us over to our wants and desires?”

 

Well, as Pogo said,  “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  I won’t repeat what I hope has been said many times at this conference, but I will say a few things about the current state of evangelicalism.  (1) I was recently reading Bart Ehrman, who opposes much of what we believe, but he made the observation from his many speaking engagements that Christians were thoroughly familiar with the Harry Potter series, yet quite superficial in their knowledge of Scripture and theology.  (2) I saw a recent study that a large percentage of evangelical pastors were afraid to preach on subjects that he thought that his congregants did not want to hear?  I suspect that they did want to hear; that his fears (for the most part) were unfounded.  (3)  One estimate by Christians in philosophy is that one-third of all philosophers in both secular and Christian colleges and universities identify themselves as Christian.  I ask, where are their voices?  (4) As a physician, I have been involved in the study of psychology and psychiatry for 45 years.  Most “counseling” (psychotherapy) today by Christians is mixed with secular thinking, in spite of Biblical counseling having been established for almost 50 years.  If you examine the degrees on most Christian campuses, you will find the faculty who teach their courses have mostly secular degrees and little Bible-theological training.  I could go on and on with such denials of our faith, but that is enough for now.  Studying Polanyi could strengthen each of these areas and more, if we choose to think through all that he has sais.

 

Science: the Power of Words

 

(1) The word, “science.” Modern discussions demonstrate the bias that has been  given to current discussions, both common and academic.  We say “science” as short-hand for “natural science.”  While this shortening seems innocent, it masks significant issues in epistemology.  An earlier name for natural science was natural philosophy, even well into the 19th century.  It was a branch of philosophy, carrying all the vagaries, speculations, and substantial disagreements of philosophy that are well known today.  One must enter the community of philosophers of science to see these substantial falsehoods and disagreement.  For example, The End of Science by John Horgan is a of notable philosophers and scientists across a broad spectrum of beliefs in natural science and philosophy today.

 

History of scientitia. Further, the word, “science” is short for the Latin, scientia, which has a long and more general background.  For example, the “sciences” among the Middle Age Scholastics were medicine, law, and theology.[3]   And, theology was “queen of the sciences!”  Further back, Augustine of Hippo used the term scientitia, as he discussed his considerations of epistemology.  By an historical and grammatical reduction and sleight of hand, natural science has replaced this broader concept of science which had been defined as a serious and systematic study of any subject.  By this, perhaps unintentional but nevertheless misleading, misdirection, natural science has gained a independent claim to knowledge and truth that is entirely and completely unwarranted either in its philology or its definition within a history of language and epistemology.

 

Episteme.  Initially, there was episteme of the Greek philosophers, obviously the root of “epistemology.”  Plato described in his divided line, a process whereby opinion (doxa) could be advanced to faith (pistis), then to understanding (dianoia), and finally to truth or knowledge (episteme).[4]  Episteme (Greek) became Latin scientitia with the change of the universal language of the West from Greek to Latin.  Thus, from the beginning of Western scholarship, “science” had a much broader usage and claim to true knowledge than is present today.  This broader application has been lost with the reduction of “natural philosophy” to “natural science” to simply “science.”  This change has given additional false credence to natural science in today’s world.  This reduction hurts the idea of Biblical Christianity, as knowledge and truth.  This elevation of science as the only source of knowledge is one for Christians in scholarly pursuits to challenge and overcome.  Polanyi’s system can be of great help in this regard.

 

Polanyi “Christian” terms.  Quotes unexpectedly mentions God, Augustine often, authority, belief (faith, fideistic), tradition, beauty, calling, community, conversion, conviviality (fellowship), conscience, commitment, doubt, hermeneutics, indwelling (tabernacling), passions, meaning, understanding, mind, language and communication, centrality of the person, foreknowledge, religion, Christianity (only “religion” that he discusses), truth, knowledge, and transcendence.

 

 

Tacit Knowledge and Tacit Integration

We must now recognize belief once more as the source of all knowledge.  Tacit assent and intellectual passions, the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural heritage, affiliation to a like-minded community; such are the impulses which shape the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of things. No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside a fiduciary framework.[5]

Man is made in the image of God, imago Dei.  We say that God is three persons in one essence.  Thus, man is person created in the image of the persons of God.  Polanyi’s system—I think that he would cringe to hear it called that—but system is shorter than personal epistemological method, so I will use system.  Perhaps, examples are the best introduction, rather than a description.  This system is called tacit knowledge and the process, tacit integration.  It is sometimes described as “from” “to,” as in from particulars to wholistic understanding.

 

Subconscious problem solving.  Who of us has not tried to understand or solve a problem, only to leave its direct consideration, and as we fall asleep, or wake up during the night, or are otherwise distracted, suddenly find the solution?  Have you worked on a crossword puzzle, not finding a particular word, taken a break, and when you come back, “Voila!,” it comes to mind? 

What is going on?  How can we solve problems without a direct focus on them?  What is this independence of mind that allows such a phenomenon? 

 

Magic Eye.  Computer generated images are now presented by which one presses his nose to the picture, and as an image begins to form, can pull the picture away and see in varying degrees of clarity, an image that can be studied in some detail, even while roving one’s eyes over it.  There is no conscious effort to form the image. In fact, a conscious effort may hinder the unconscious effort for the image to appear.  It is not really magic, but it is surely a fascinating phenomenon.  Again, it is not a conscious process, other than setting boundary conditions.

 

Physiognomy.  Probably at this very meeting, you have met someone and said, “I recognize you, but do not remember your name?  If I asked you how you remembered that face, I doubt that you could tell me.  How is it that our “subconscious” mind can remember the intricate details of a face, but not remember a simple name.  My name is two short syllables, but my face is quite complicated, as is yours.  Yet, we recognize faces far more readily than we remember names.

 

Subliminal advertising.  Everyone is familiar with the subliminal nature of advertising.  Do you know that women have never been shown drinking alcohol or smoking a cigarette.? 

 

Music.  If one plays a musical instrument, one isolated note at a time, no music is forthcoming.  In fact, there is only noise, even if pitched precisely to the vibratory frequency of the notes.  Even when notes are struck, they must have a rhythm, cadence, volume, etc., or there is still only noise.  The human mind without working at it hears ‘music” in all parameters within which it must exist to be called and heard as “music.”

 

Communication.  In speaking, listening, writing, or reading, there is no conscious focus on particular words, only on the meaning of the words.  In fact, one may hear a formerly unknown word, get its meaning in context, without interruption of the flow of words and meaning.  As Polanyi illustrates, if we focus on individual words, meaning is lost, and what the one person is saying loses meaning.

 

Riding a bicycle.  Have you ever thought about the intricate physics of riding a bicycle?  As a four-year old, I learned to ride a bike that I could hardly hold up when stationary.  I had had no physics classes or lessons on the vestibular system and the brain that controls balance.  What is this complex system within a person that allows learning intricate and complex skills.  Throwing and hitting a baseball, hitting a golf ball, driving a car, becoming an accomplished pianist, etc. 

 

Shock experiments.  Experiments have been done in which varying symbols are presented to subjects and after one in particular, they would be shocked.  They would anticipate the shock after the particular symbol, but consciously they could not identify the symbols which caused them to anticipate the shocks.

 

Generative language.  Noam Chomsky has shown that a child advances beyond his experience in the nuance of language.  In other words, the child begins to use language in syntax, grammar,

etc. in ways which he has not experienced.  Thus, he is able to advance beyond his “learning.”  He does not “go to school for this learning; it is an innate ability.

 

A whole sentence.  Truth, way, life, free, I, man, me, Father, comes, but… “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no man comes to the Father but by me.”  We do not read words, we read meaning.

 

But, we go through this process with language.  We all know John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…”  We say that but what does it communicate?  Who, what is God?  “Love?” “World.”  Every time that we read those there words, we do not stop and analyze them.  Their focal, tip of the iceberg, understanding hides a lifetime of study and reflection.  We carry on casual, and sometimes scholarly, conversations without reviewing all the words that we use.

 

Self-surprise.  Have you ever been surprised as some personal action?  A driver cuts you off in traffic?  A child breaks your concentration?  A waiter is slow in her service?  You meet someone quite familiar, and forget his name?  Or, worse, some sin just seems to spontaneously occur.  Do not you know yourself after decades of experience?. 

 

Subconscious skills and conscious ones.  Knowing a physiognomy is subconscious.  Learning an intricate skill is at first conscious, and then subconscious.  Perhaps, then, the latter can help us understand Polanyi’s idea of knowledge.

 

Irritating noise.  We “screen out” unwanted noise by focusing on task at hand, not by focusing on the noise.

 

Conservation, communication, talking to another.  Not attending to words, but to meaning.  If focus on a word, lose meaning.

 

Using a probe (blind person) which has no feeling.  Attending from the feeling to the meaning.

 

Anticipation of solving a problem.  Augustine asked, “Does the teacher teach or the student learn?”  If the student does not already know, how can he learn?  How can the scientist investigate without knowing where he is going?  In the 19th century, scientists investigated the problem of spontaneous generation.  How can a pile of hay and manure generate maggots, worms, and other forms of life?  Were they already there or did the chemical nature of that mixture generate living organisms?  How does not find out?  To investigate, one has to formulate possibilities.  (1) If life is already present, one has to find the smaller forms that become larger forms.  (2) If spontaneous, one has to determine what are the numerous conditions that allows this spontaneity.  But, the problem cannot be solved without knowing at least one of the answers.  One cannot know unless he can predict the outcome.  The problem does not solve itself, the persons gathers data, formulates a question, formulates the possibilities, and formulates who to study it.   Who, what is this person that recognizes a problem and goes about solving it.  Why is he even interested.  Hundreds and thousands of farmer never went even thought about the situation.  What is it about the person that would make him a scientist? 

 

Tacit integration.  Polanyi’s solution is in what he calls tacit integration—what C. S. Peirce might call abduction.   Polanyi often uses “imagination.”

 

 

The Idea of Generic Faith

 

Every action that you have ever taken was done in faith.  You set your alarm clock believing that you set it correctly, that the electricity would still work in the morning, that you would hear it and get up, that the clock would keep accurate time, etc.  Most of you have experienced failure set the clock correctly, not heard it go off, had the battery fail, etc. 

 

You had faith that I would be here, that I would speak on the subject announced, that I could talk, that it might be interesting, etc.  All the while, the opposite might be true.  How many have had faith in a friend, male or female, that ended in disaster, whereas at one time you thought that the relationship would last your lifetimes.

 

We think and we act hundreds of times a day, assuming certain events will happen and that people and things are dependable.  We never know for sure.  That is one definition of faith; it is a gift of God to be able to act without being omniscient.

 

Faith is the ability to make a decision and act upon it with being omniscient.  That is one of my definitions.  Or, from another perspective, faith is the means by which knowledge becomes action.  That is, one is sufficiently “sure” or “certain” to the extent that he or she is willing to act, to commit oneself to the ontology of his world.  Faith transforms what is in the mind into action.  On a practical basis, one only has to know enough to act—to make a decision in the situation.

 

But, let’s look more closely at the process.  (1) I make a “decision.”  (2) That decision is based upon knowledge which may be immediate or studied, as we have seen.  (3) I have a certain expectation from that decision.  I expect my alarm clock to go off.  (4)  Reality determines whether my expectation comes true.  Yes!  My alarm clock goes off. 

 

More seriously, I decide to get married.  I have a certain knowledge of my future spouse.  But, there is the reality that happens.  Sometimes, the couple are “happily married” for life with only a few bumps along the way.  Sometimes, disagreements shortly end in divorce.  Decision based upon knowledge, action, Reality.

 

Even more seriously.  I hear knowledge that Jesus Christ offers me salvation.  I decide that his offer is not for me.  I go to Hell.  Decision based upon false knowledge with horrendous Reality. Or, I decide for Jesus Christ and go to Heaven.  Decision, knowledge reality.

 

Thus, an alternative definition of faith is to act according to immediate or studied knowledge with a certain expectation that will be proven true by the Reality of future events. 

 

** Doubt and skepticism are not privileged.  Polanyi has 20 pages in his book, Personal Knowledge, demonstrating that any doubt to one’s current belief system is merely the authority and faith-knowledge for a differing system.  Doubt and skepticism are given a privileged status in the public square, and even in academia, but it is not more and no less a differing opinion to one’s own.  Oftentimes, the credulity of what presents itself as doubt comes from a weaker position of authority and knowledge that the position that it challenges.

 

Emergence and Anti-reductionism

 

“A whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” A machine is not the sum of its parts, but transcendent of their particulars.  The same is more so with living cells, tissues, organs, and the whole organism.  What is an atom without its constituent parts in relationship?  A molecule.  If atoms are mostly space, how does one get hardness?  How do poisons of sodium and chloride become the taste-enhancer of the world?  How does a cell communicate and mediate all its parts?  How does a Swiss watch with all its little wheels “tell time?”  Who could predict the power of a three-part wheelbarrow?

 

God hidden in plain sight.  Emergence is the Spirit of God at work.  How is it that great powers exist in lesser particulars?  While emergence would not rank in the category of miracles, it would rank in the area of common supernatural phenomenon.  Christians have adopted the mechanistic worldview too easily.  We need to allow the supernatural work of God back into our world.
Beyond physical and chemical properties.  A Swiss watch has a property that is not dependent upon its material properties.  One could examine the working parts of such a watch and not discover what its purpose is.  The same for any machine.  Even more so for living cells, tissues, organs, and organism.  At the pinnacle of this emergence is self-consciousness and thought.
Persons.  You are sitting in a café, having a meal with a friend.  An acquaintance joins you.  The whole atmosphere, and in particular, the conversations has changed.  Why?  The same is true of situation.  I change with my environment: admiration of a view from a mountaintop; reading in my cozy chair; talking with my wife; etc., etc.  There is really no such thing as an individual—it is always a person in relationship.
Desert island.  You were brought up by persons and educated by them.  They still affect who you are.  Then, there are those persons that you left behind.  You still influence them; they may even be looking for you!  In addition, there is your relationship with the things on the island with you: tools, shelter, food sources, weather, etc., etc.
Team sports.  How is it that some teams “jell” and others do not?  Some championship teams have not had super-stars.  And, you change one player, and the whole team dynamic changes.
Noosphere.  Coined by Teilhard de Chardin, it is the idea of a collective mind of the entire human race from the first thinking man to every person who will ever live on planet earth. 

Polanyi as Apologist: Unregenerate and Poor Theologian

 

His work is anti-Enlightenment, a rare stance in academic discussions today.  In fact, the sub-title of his major work, Personal Knowledge, is Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, the “critical” being indentified with Kant’s several critiques.  As Kant tried to make room for faith (which ultimately he did not accomplish), Polanyi’s philosophy was centrally and fully faith-based.  For Polanyi, the person is his own faith-based system, even in the so-called “hard sciences.”

 

This position seems to contradict what we have all heard about the “scientific method,” which if not infallible, certainly the way to obtain knowledge.  Well, quite simply personal decisions are made throughout the entire process: the person proposes an hypothesis, the person determines how he will study it, the person determines how he will study it, the person determine what he will measure, etc. etc.  The person or persons make decisions at every point in the process, including conclusions and application.  Certainly, an area of science has certain parameters to follow, but persons choose within those parameters.  They are acting on their faith in themselves and their scientific methods.  Polanyi even discusses the “calling” that scientists have.  Their work flows out of who they are as “persons with intellectual passions” for their work.

 

Here is one example that Polanyi gives.[6]  In the study of crystals his former area of expertise, physical scientists began to see regular patterns and structures.  So, they would throw out those that did not fit their theories.  Finally, they came to a beautiful description of 230 “distinctive rhythms.”  But, if they look to the side, there is this pile of crystals that only partially fit their descriptions.  What they have done is ignore realities in favor of personal theories—personal choices, personal beliefs, and personal faith.

 

Science as faith-based can be seen throughout the scientific spectrum.  The logical positivists of the 20th century claimed that the empirical or scientific knowledge was the only knowledge worth pursuing.  However, this proposition itself is not provable by the scientific methods.  Kurt Gödel demonstrated with his incompleteness theorems that “proofs” were limited to their own systems even in mathematics, the most “objective” of sciences. 

 

Science has undergone dramatic and unpredictable changes.  There was Euclidean geometry, now non-Euclidean geometry.  There was the orderly universe of Newton and Kessler, but now the disorder of force fields, Einstein’s relativity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, chaos theory, and the observer effect in quantum physics—to mention only a few.  What is dark matter?  Black holes?  Into what does the universe expand?  What is the nature of quantum entanglement?

 

Psychology.  One area in which modern science has hurt Christians and the Church severely is psychology.  Polanyi has warned that while the “hard sciences” are faith-based, biology and other “soft sciences” are much more so.  He saw how easily psychiatry could be made an instrument of the state.  In American, we are close to that, but we already have psychologists and psychiatrists as our “modern priests,” who are called in to “help” in disasters and tragedies.  This very place where we are meeting faced a tragedy in 1977 when a dam, high up in the hills, broke and flooded the campus.  “The government sent psychologists to help the survivors” but they found that those who had suffered loss of loved ones… “were in better mental health than the other communities we studied, who, for the most part were not hit as hard.”[7]

 

But, influence of secular psychology among Christians and churches goes way beyond grief counseling.  Almost every Bible college, university, and seminary campus today has psychologists with far greater training in psychology than in Biblical counseling.  This invasion has taken place because Christians have swallowed two lies.  First, they have swallowed the lie of science as truth, and second, they have swallowed the lie that the “soft sciences” have the same scientific base as the “hard” sciences.

 

Polanyi’s system is an equalizer.  As a philosophy of science, it destroys any “objective truth claims” that science may make.  Second, it levels the playing field in demonstrating that all knowledge in based in personal bias and prejudice.  That knowledge is not subjective and relativistic because it must be challenged by a community of judges and the real world about which that knowledge speaks.

 

Community.  In the intellectual world, the high standard is “peer-review.”  While Polanyi does not discuss this term directly, possible because it is a later term of the 20th century, but this idea of “peer-review” for him is community review or community standard.  Which carries more prestige, “peer-reviewed” or “community-approved?”  Of course the former, but the agreement within this group is hardly monolithic?  We Christians are aware of the myriad of believing communities, should we expect the scientific world to be so?  We are not battling the whole scientific world as Christians, but only a vocal few who control their world and the media that represents them.

 

Pro-freedom.  Polanyi believes that his system provides a basis for politics that allows the freedom of individuals, and particular scientists, to pursue their calling with responsibility and risk.  I believe that he overstates his case and his is a weak argument, but nevertheless any ally in politics that allows maximum freedom of all peoples under its sway is to be welcomed.

 

Polanyi’s Own Incompleteness

 

Wrong ideas.  (1) Idea of revelation of God’s Word.  (2) Religion, as worship only.  (3) Origin of mind (“organizing principle”).  (4) Heaven and hell.  (5) Transcendent, supernatural being?  (6) Conversion vs. regeneration.  (7) Superficial knowledge of theologies.  (8) (Perhaps) the explicit over implicit in Christian faith.  (8) Personal universe, created by God.  (9) Certainty of Biblical faith.  (10) (Perhaps) have more “reason” to understand faith.

Anyone reading Polanyi will easily recognize his genius, and that to call him a polymath, is truly accurate.  However, his own theological understanding remains a mystery.  Polanyi’s worldview is limited to a physical, material world.  For example, he dearly denied that evolution can explain the highly organized structures and emergent properties that are found in the higher animals and man.  He uses the term “organizing principle” to designate how higher forms or life could have achieved their complex levels.  However, other than some vague references to “God,” he never speculates on any supernatural elements.  The physical universe is sufficient to explain all that there is.

There has been much speculation about his personal beliefs about God, salvation, and theological matters.  I will not go into those, as others have more insight and knowledge about Polanyi’s thinking here.  Curiously, his discussions about religion were always limited to Christianity, never mentioning other possible religions.  He had a certain fondness for Christian worship, almost seeming (to me) to limit Christianity to that formal practice only. 

Having grounded his epistemology in a material person, he could not allow supernatural explanations or miracles.  His epistemology would not allow God speaking in special revelation.  It would not allow the Bible as we know and defend it. 

Because the Bible was not received as knowledge, special knowledge from God, Polanyi was weak in understanding the nature of evil.  Repeatedly, he advocated freedom in scientific pursuits and in society in general, but he did not recognize that the freedom of the West which allowed the development of science was grounded in freedom from sin in the individual and the restraint that (more or less) Christian governments had on evil.

Scientists’ worldview.  “The premises of science on which all scientific teaching and research rest are the beliefs held by scientists on the general nature of things”[8]  Note carefully “premises,” “beliefs,” and “nature.”  Cornelius Van Til has said that natural revelation must be studied though the lens of special revelation.

Summary

Knowledge, then, “flows” out of who and what a person is.  It is conditioned by his being and his cultural tradition.  He finds community with those of a like mind.  In fact, he is a member of a number or traditions and communities.  Can he change?  Is he programmed or predestined to be what he is?  Polanyi never addresses this issue directly.  He is profound in his advocacy of the freedom of the person, but this freedom seems to be more consistent with the kind of freedom that is described in the Westminster Confession of Faith in the Chapter on “Free Will.”  While the Confession is only concerned with the will as it concerns salvation, as we have seen, the process  of faith is the same for all actions, whether religious or not.

For me, as a person of Reformed faith, Polanyi’s account of the person’s being determines who he is and what he does, as God has predestined him.  Those not Reformed can find “freedom” within Polanyi, but I think that that understanding would not be consistent with Polanyi’s ideas of vocation, foreknowledge, intellectual passions, talents, and education in a language idiom and cultural tradition.

Imago Dei.  Also, I think Polanyi’s concept of the person and his relationship to reality illustrate mean being created imago Dei.  God predicated the cosmos.  By our being, passions, vocation, education, etc., we predicate a cosmos.  All that we do as persons brings us closer or further away from God’s cosmos.  In fact, the unregenerate person cannot predicate the real universe.  The scientist cannot predicate a universe of both random events and evolution and the orderliness that he finds in his investigations. 

 

Summary Notes and (perhaps) directions for study

1.  All knowledge is faith-based, that is “personal” or from a “fiduciary framework” (in Polanyi terms) through the “power of tacit integration.” This understanding prevents a privileged epistemological status for (natural) science.

AA.  The person as a predicatory center.  Every person predicates a cosmos—a worldview.  To the extent that our worldview corresponds to the real cosmos, especially as specified by God’s Word, we know Him and His cosmos.  We are “metamorphosed” (transformed, transfigured) by “the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2) or “indwelling” (Polanyi.)

A. “Faith-groups” – not!  Christians, especially those in scholarly pursuits, should not allow the designation of “faith-group” to go unchallenged.

B.  Generic faith.  The mystery should be taken out of the process of faith.  We live by faith in every action that we take.  Christian need to study other Biblical words, “love,” “truth,” “hope,” etc.  Christian faith is living by Biblical knowledge.

C.  The Bible is the only “objective” source of truth.  All other knowledge is personal and/or belonging to a community.  There is every evidence that Christians do not study their Bible and their theology.  Thus, a sound hermeneutics is needed.

D.  “Provability is weaker than the notion of truth.”  Kurt Gödel  Proof is always within a system.  Classical foundationalism has been soundly repudiated.

E.  Tradition in science.  Tradition is as important in (natural) science, as much as in other authority or epistemology.  There are no universal laws that govern it.

F.  Imago Dei and “person.” The person is the central thinking and acting agent.  He acts according to his being and within his communities.  He is both free to act as an individual, but within the boundary conditions of his communities.  Implications for the Trinity are beyond the scope of this paper, but many ideas could be derived from Polanyi with application towards the Trinity. 

G.  Objectivity does not exist.  Knowledge is only held and believed by persons.  Subjectivity is avoided by community and knowing the real and the Real.

H.  Only one absolute: God Himself.  Neither the Scriptures, nor the Ten Commandments are absolute, as they must be interpreted.  For example, being “pro-life” is consistent with the death penalty for certain crimes.

I.  Regeneration (“born of the Spirit,” John 3) divides the world into “faith-groups.”  Those who claim light over darkness. 

J.  Empiricism (induction, scientific method) is a logical fallacy by its limitation of a fraction of the universe.  Look up in any textbook.

K.  Doubt and skepticism not epistemologically privileged.  Doubt is merely another expression of another’s faith against one’s own present or established faith.

L.  Ideals of science: beauty, symmetry, rationality, aha!, excellence, appreciation, simplicity, harmony, predictability, discovery, knowing the real world, etc.

M.  No absolute standard in science.  There is no fixed rule whereby new challenges are acceptable to the scientific community.

N.  Faith and reason parts of a whole.  A statement of faith or belief must be grammatically structured and reasoned.  Reason assists faith to be coherent and not irrational.

O.  Individuality of belief.  As unique as fingerprints, although not as easily discerned. 

P.  Predestination.  How do Polanyi’s ideas of ‘intellectual passions,” “calling,” and personal responsibility cohere with a Biblical idea of total predestination, as presented in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapters 3 and 5? 

Q.  Unity within diversity?  To what extent does Polanyi’s concept of personal knowledge bring unity and diversity within evangelicalism?  At minimum, it should caution us about our theological differences.  Can we get outside our idioms, e.g., the Azande of South America.  The answer seems doubtful, but we should perhaps at least try.

R.  Truth.  Is truth objective?  Not according to Polanyi.  Jesus, as person, said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life….”  Do a Biblical concordance study of the word, “truth.”  Identify “truth” with the “knowledge” of epistemology.

S.  Frame, Poythress, and others.  Frame’s triad and Poythress’ “Symphonic Theology.”  Are they onto something? 

T.  Sermons on the Person or Persons of God!  Who, what do we worship?  Are Christians soaked in “milk,”             without going on to meat?

U.  Theodicy.  God is a Person; “All things work together for good…”  Even Hell, as Don Williams is presenting at this very moment!

V.  We should not separate “doctrine” and “practice.”  As Calvin said, our faith is dependent upon whom we think God is, and who we think that we are.  “Ideas have consequences,” said Richard Weaver.

 

2.  “Science” has been abbreviated from “natural science.”  The etymology of “science” and episteme are one and the same.  “Science” is the detailed study of any subject, thus, the “science of theology.”

A.  Personal universe.  We should see the Person of God in every detail of the cosmos.  God created everything as personal, speech acts. He spoke and it was!!  E.g., the universe is not a frigid, dangerous place but we are “underneath His sheltering wings.”  Creation expresses passion, “It groans” (Romans 8).

B. Free society.  Polanyi’s writings may be used to argue in this direction.  The freedom of scholars to fulfill their calling and be responsible to their foreknowledge.  To become “society of explorers.”

C. Restore a Biblical idiom of language.  Methodological supernaturalism, instead of methodological supernaturalism.[1]

3.  Synonymy.  More or less equivalence in words is confusing in scholarly and intellectual discussions, unless they are recognized as synonyms.  E.g., truth and knowledge, faith and reason, love and good works, faith and works, etc.

4.  Stronger arguments in Christian apologetics.  Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, Polanyi’s faith-system, Kuhn’s paradigms, etc. See my list here:

http://biblicalphilosophy.org/Science/Student_Refutations_Papers.asp

5.  Read Augustine’s Confessions on “memory.”  Everything that a person is is because of his or her memory.  Also, “do this in remembrance of Him.”

6.  The Bible, as revelation, is foreign to Polanyi’s system.  For him, all knowledge is based in tacit integration of the person.  The Bible would be a source external to the person and more authoritative than personal knowledge.

7.  Psychology of the mind.  I would like to see more interest among evangelicals and the Reformed investigating how the mind functions.  This area has been left to the secularists for too long.  Calvin’s starting point was knowledge of God and knowledge of man.  It seems that Bible-believers have far out-paced their knowledge of God over that of man, but both can be further advanced.

 

 



[1] Alvin Plantinga has written a delightful two-part paper on “Methodological Naturalism’ on the Calvin College website.



[1] Alvin Plantinga has written a delightful two-part paper on “Methodological Naturalism’ on the Calvin College website.

 

 


 



[1] I used several biographical sources here.

[2] Drusilla Scott, Everyman Revived, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985, 2-3. 

[3] Arvin Vos, Aquinas, Calvin, and Protestant Thought, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 168.

[4] Most clearly presented in his Divided Line in The Republic.

[5] PK: 266

[6] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 43-48.

[7] ”Psychologists Baffled by Toccoa Survivors,” Macon (GA) Telegraph and News, November 5, 1978, cited in Jay Adams, More Than Redemption, Phillispburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1979, 154-156.

[8] Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith, and Society, Chicago, IL:L University of Chicago Press, 1946, 11.

[9] Alvin Plantinga has written a delightful two-part paper on “Methodological Naturalism’ on the Calvin College website.

 


 

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