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The Insights of Michael Polanyi: Strengthening Christian Faith Through a Proper Understanding of Faith in Science


There is no greater need in the Church today than for Christians to understand the nature of faith, as it applies to their own worldview, how to strengthen personal faith in practical ways, and how their faith relates to the arena of ideas in every area of life.  The latter is especially true relative to science, the scientific method, and scientism.  Paul Tillich gives some insight into the all inclusiveness of faith with his definition of faith as “ultimate concern.”  However, Michael Polanyi has gone further than most to demonstrate clearly and forcefully that faith is at least as much the foundation of natural science, as faith is the foundation of Christianity.  His Gifford Lectures (1951-1952) became the tome that is the foundation of  his work: Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy.[1]  This “post-critical” work argues strongly and thoroughly against the fanciful “objectivity” that has been sought by the Enlightenment, especially in the natural sciences, and directed against Immanuel Kant’s “critiques.”  (Thus, “post-critical” philosophy.)


Polanyi was a world-renown physical chemist on a professional level to have personal interaction with Albert Einstein.  He was an expert in one of the “hard” sciences himself, yet he recoiled at the increasing notion about the “objectivity” of science.  In his own area of the study of crystals, he reveals how the process of classifying crystals tossed aside specimens that did not fall into the nice, neat designs that crystallographers had expected in their early work.  If their work had been totally objective, these other specimens would have been implemented into their work, making it much more complicated than their preconceived notions had forecasted!


Polanyi shows that over and over again, scientists commit themselves to theories “long before (their) verifications” of them experimentally.[2]  In non-Euclidean geometry, there was “accomplished work in pure mathematics, before any empirical investigation of these results could ever be imagined.”[3]  In the empirical method, the person abstracts a theory, a person proposes how the design might verify the theory, the person decides the actual design of the experiment, a person decides parameters and degrees of measurement, persons perform the actual experiment, a person decides what measurements of the experiment to include or reject, and a person draws conclusions from the results.  If a person is so intimately involved at all these stages, where is the supposed objectivity?  This understanding does not negate the value of natural science, but only places it in proper perspective to other sources of knowledge.


Polanyi’s thinking is consistent with that of many philosophers of science, such as, Paul Davies, Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, Alexandre Koyré, Daniel Dennett, Noam Chomsky, Roger Penrose, Thomas Kuhn, and Nancey Murphy.  However, he distinguished his work from them in at least two ways.  (1) His epistemology is faith-based, “personal” as he calls it.  For Christians and other religious believers, this approach gives them confidence that science is not another category of knowledge that can supersede their own.  (2) His detailed discussion of the “person” in science, as a faith-based paradigm, illustrates and helps to define their own understanding of faith.  Indeed, one of Polanyi’s common references is Augustine’s approach of “faith seeking understanding.”


Polanyi uses other terms, such as, “faith,” “tautology,” “authority,” “calling,” “tacit knowledge,” “belief,” “conversion,” “personal commitment,” “community,” conviviality,” “hermeneutics,” “intuition,” “randomness,” and “tradition,” that are usually identified with liberal studies, social sciences, and religions, rather than the “objectivity” of natural science.  All these can be developed in a broader understanding of a personal, heuristic faith.


His revelation concerning doubt is spectacular  “The doubting of any explicit statement merely implies an attempt to deny the belief expressed by the statement, in favor of other beliefs which are not doubted for the time being.”[4]  Faith and doubt, then, are just opposing beliefs according to personal commitment!  The Christian, then, when faced with doubts of various kinds, should attempt to sort out what are these various “other” beliefs, and what are their claims to truth that would challenge Christian beliefs?  What could be more practical to the doubts that believers have?


A misunderstanding of faith is clearly illustrated in the waxing and waning of faith-healing.  Is the lack of healing due to a lack of faith, or are there other elements to be considered.  Medical science can provide mechanisms of healing; Scripture can provide its perspective; and personal experiences provides other perspectives.  A better understanding of faith by all these perspectives can give more accurate expectations to those who might seek faith-healing.


Polanyi was not overtly Christian.  There are occasional and sometimes surprising references to Christian themes, but certainly no case can be made that he is advancing any religious agenda.  Far from it.  His Christian theology, in contrast to his scientific and philosophical expertise, is superficial, inconsistent, and minimally related to his epistemology.  But Christians can make great use of his ideas.  First, his thinking can illuminate Scriptural and personal beliefs and how they function in practical applications.  Second, he virtually destroys science as a monolithic, objective, and certain source of truth or knowledge, making it instead into a “personal calling” of “discovery.”  Christians need not fear any scientific pronouncements that would affect their theology, as science is only another authority whose evidence is to be weighed along with other important authorities.[5] 


The following is particularly illustrative of the tenuous beginnings of scientific knowledge.

“Scientific discovery reveals new knowledge, but the new vision which accompanies it is not knowledge.  It is less than knowledge, for it is a guess; but it is more than knowledge, for it is foreknowledge of things yet unknown and at present perhaps inconceivable.  Our vision of the general nature of things is our guide for the interpretation of all future experience.  Such guidance is indispensable.  Theories of the scientific method which try to explain the establishment of scientific truth by purely objective formal procedure are doomed to failure.  Any process of enquiry unguided by intellectual passions would inevitably spread out into a desert of trivialities.  Our vision of reality, to which our sense of scientific beauty responds, must suggest to us the kind of questions that it should be reasonable and interesting to explore.  It should recommend the kind of conceptions and empirical relations that are intrinsically plausible and which should therefore by upheld, even when some evidence seems to contradict them, and tell us also, on the other hand, what empirical connections to reject as specious, even though there is evidence for them—evidence that we may as yet be unable to account for on any other assumptions.  In fact, without a scale of interest and plausibility based on a vision of reality, nothing can be discovered that is of value to science; and only our grasp of scientific beauty, responding to the evidence of our senses, can evoke this vision.”[6]

No account of Polanyi would be complete without mentioning his ideas of subsidiary and focal knowledge.  He illustrates these dimensions in our ability to recognize faces.  Almost instantly, we recognize faces.  Sometimes, we “know” a face—that we have seen it before somewhere and sometime in the past—but we do not remember exactly where.  The recognition of the face is subsidiary—virtually or almost subconscious.  That we do not immediately remember “who” is the person demonstrates focal knowledge.  Even, if that person is familiar, that is, we easily recognize them, their identity is focal, but we would be hard pressed to say exactly what is about their physiognomy that “identifies” them. 


This subsidiary aspect of knowledge relates directly to faith.  Oftentimes, maybe most times, we “know” without “knowing.” To have faith in God in general is considerably subsidiary.  In fact, the incomprehensibility of God is a major tenet in systematic theology.  Classical theists have posited the omnipotence, omniscience, eternity, invisible, aseity, goodness, and many other attributes of God from what?  It is not only focal knowledge by which these propositions of God are known, but a subsidiary awareness of the necessity of such a Person in the cosmos.  The simple faith of Christians is no different in process.  They “know” much more about God than they can “focally” identify.  Very often, they act on this subsidiary knowledge which is “acting on faith.”  But, revelation also gives them focal knowledge.  Then, there is this continual and lifelong interaction of the subsidiary and focal as they practice their faith. 


There is much more to Polanyi and how his thinking would be helpful for the Christian, and these theme can be explored by the reader in Polanyi's books.  What has been presented is illustrative of Polanyi’s fideistic enterprise.



[1] Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1958.

[2] Ibid, 14.

[3] Ibid, 15.

[4] Ibid, 272.

[5] I will say more about “authority” below.

[6] Polanyi, 135.  Emphasis is his.


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