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
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.
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
Polanyi shows that over and over again,
scientists commit themselves to theories “long before (their)
verifications” of them experimentally.
In non-Euclidean geometry, there was “accomplished work
in pure mathematics,
before any empirical investigation of these results could
ever be imagined.”
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
No account of Polanyi would be complete
without mentioning his ideas of subsidiary and focal knowledge.
He illustrates these dimensions in our ability to
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
we do not immediately remember “who” is the person demonstrates
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”
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
“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
Chicago, IL: The
University of Chicago Press, 1958.
I will say more
about “authority” below.
Emphasis is his.