Posted by: gcarkner | January 23, 2016

Confronting Caricatures of Modern Science with Michael Polanyi

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Michael Polanyi is one the best critics of scientific/logical positivism, a caricature of science and its cultural impact (aka Scientism as ideology). He is well-known for showing that science is not pure objectivism, but a personal knowledge, an invested knowledge. Stereotypes of both science and religion/theology are harmful to all concerned. They are a barrier to true dialogue, progressive thinking and good understanding. We long to recover the full heritage and context of science and not to dumb it down. Polanyi was one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, both a brilliant scientist and a brilliant philosopher, a polymath.

Scientism is the notion that natural science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or form of human knowledge, and that it is superior to all other interpretations of life. It assumes an immanent, Closed World System, which rejects the validity of any transcendent elements: there exists a strong attraction to the idea that we are in an order of nature and do not and cannot transcend it. In scientism, the study and methods of natural science have risen to the level of an ideology, and so have morphed into an oppressive and stifling methodological imperialism. Scientism also indicates the improper usage of science or scientific claims in contexts where science might not properly apply, such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry (e.g. to determine a worldview such as scientific humanism or final purpose of life). The stance of scientism thus may indicate in an overconfident fashion a scientific certainty in realms where this is actually impossible, overreaching its proper limits in a process which can thereby ironically discredit science itself. See my paper at the bottom of this post.

Polanyi’s story of science is about the role of unspecifiable, tacit knowledge in expertise. His elaboration of personal commitment at the core of intellectual inquiry is understood as a craft skill. He demonstrates that scientific competence is transmitted through apprenticeship to authoritative teachers (supervisors).  So it is not just about the grant money. In the university, the survival of our traditions of intellectual apprenticeship should not be taken for granted. According to Polanyi, a scientist relies on a lot of knowledge that can’t be rendered explicit, and an inherent feature of this kind of knowledge is that it is “personal.” One has to receive it through a person’s influence and mentorship. He also believed that faith is involved at every level of scientific discovery. I wrote a paper on this a few years ago and was absolutely amazed at his insight.

Scientific inquiry is above all about practice, best understood as a kind of craft. Polanyi writes, “I regard knowing as an active comprehension of things known, an action that requires skill.” Polanyi’s point is that to have science, you must have scientists. Scientists are formed and mentored. They cannot be conjured out of thin air. “To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust in his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyze and account in detail for its effectiveness.” Through submission to authority, in the context of the lab, one develops certain skills, the exercise of which constitutes a form of inquiry in which the element of personal involvement is ineliminable. This includes trust, which is a moral relationship between teacher and student, that is at the heart of the educational process. Scientific inquiry is a mode of personal knowledge that is socially incubated, beginning with imitation.

Bestselling  author Matthew Crawford applies the Polanyi critique of received modernity to modern agency and epistemology in The World Beyond Your Head: on becoming an individual in an age of distraction. See also Jens Zimmermann’s critique of positivism (employing Polanyi) in Hermeneutics: a very short introduction. (pp. 121-23)

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 5.29.31 AMMichael PolanyiFRS (11 March 1891 – 22 February 1976) was a Hungarian-British polymath, who made important theoretical contributions to physical chemistry, economics, and philosophy. He argued that positivism supplies a false account of knowing, which if taken seriously undermines our highest achievements as human beings.

His wide-ranging research in physical science included chemical kinetics, x-ray diffraction, and adsorption of gases. He pioneered the theory of fibre diffraction analysis in 1921, and the dislocation theory of plastic deformation of ductile metals and other materials in 1934. He emigrated to Germany, in 1926 becoming a chemistry professor at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, and then in 1933 to England, becoming first a chemistry professor, and then a social sciences professor at the University of Manchester. Two of his pupils Eugene Wigner and Melvin Calvin and his son John won Nobel Prizes in Chemistry. In 1944 Polanyi was elected to the Royal Society.

His Career

In October 1918, Mihály Károlyi established the Hungarian Democratic Republic, and Polanyi became Secretary to the Minister of Health. When Communists seized power in March 1919 he returned to medicine. When the Hungarian Soviet Republic was overthrown, Polanyi emigrated to Karlsruhe in Germany, and was invited by Fritz Haber to join the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut für Faserstoffchemie in Berlin. In 1923 he converted to Christianity, and in a Roman Catholic ceremony married Magda Elizabeth Kemeny. In 1926 he became the professorial head of department of the Institut für Physikalische Chemie und Elektrochemie. In 1929, Magda gave birth to their son John, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1986. Their other son, George Polanyi became a well-known economist.

His experience of runaway inflation and high unemployment in Weimar Germany led Polanyi to become interested in economics. With the coming to power in 1933 of the Nazi party, he accepted a chair in physical chemistry at the University of Manchester. Two of his pupils, Eugene Wigner and Melvin Calvin went on to win a Nobel Prize. Because of his increasing interest in the social sciences, Manchester University created a new chair in Social Science (1948–58) for him.

In 1944 Polanyi was elected a member of the Royal Society, and on his retirement from the University of Manchester in 1958 he was elected a Senior Research Fellow at Merton College, Oxford. In 1962 he was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

His Contribution

a. Physical Chemistry

Polanyi’s scientific interests were extremely diverse, including work in chemical kineticsx-ray diffraction, and the adsorption of gases at solid surfaces. He is also well known for his potential adsorption theory, which was disputed for quite some time. In 1921, he laid the mathematical foundation of fibre diffraction analysis. In 1934, Polanyi, at about the same time as G. I. Taylor and Egon Orowan, realised that the plastic deformation of ductile materials could be explained in terms of the theory of dislocations developed by Vito Volterra in 1905. The insight was critical in developing the field of solid mechanics.

b. Freedom and Community

In 1936, as a consequence of an invitation to give lectures for the Ministry of Heavy Industry in the USSR, Polanyi met Bukharin, who told him that in socialist societies all scientific research is directed to accord with the needs of the latest Five Year Plan. Polanyi noted what had happened to the study of genetics in the Soviet Union once the doctrines of Trofim Lysenko had gained the backing of the State. Demands in Britain, for example by the Marxist John Desmond Bernal, for centrally planned scientific research led Polanyi to defend the claim that science requires free debate. Together with John Baker, he founded the influential Society for Freedom in Science.

In a series of articles, re-published in The Contempt of Freedom (1940) and The Logic of Liberty (1951), Polanyi claimed that co-operation amongst scientists is analogous to the way agents co-ordinate themselves within a free market. Just as consumers in a free market determine the value of products, science is a spontaneous order that arises as a consequence of open debate amongst specialists. Science (contrary to the claims of Bukharin) flourishes when scientists have the liberty to pursue truth as an end in itself:

“[S]cientists, freely making their own choice of problems and pursuing them in the light of their own personal judgment, are in fact co-operating as members of a closely knit organization.”

“Such self-co-ordination of independent initiatives leads to a joint result which is unpremeditated by any of those who bring it about.”

“Any attempt to organize the group … under a single authority would eliminate their independent initiatives, and thus reduce their joint effectiveness to that of the single person directing them from the centre. It would, in effect, paralyse their co-operation.”

He derived the phrase spontaneous order from Gestalt psychology, and it was adopted by the classical liberal economist Frederick Hayek, although the concept can be traced back to at least Adam Smith. Polanyi (unlike Hayek) argued that there are higher and lower forms of spontaneous order, and he asserted that defending scientific inquiry on utilitarian or sceptical grounds undermined the practice of science. He extends this into a general claim about free societies. Polanyi defends a free society not on the negative grounds that we ought to respect “private liberties”, but on the positive grounds that “public liberties” facilitate our pursuit of objective ideals.

According to Polanyi, a free society that strives to be value-neutral undermines its own justification. But it is not enough for the members of a free society to believe that ideals such as truth, justice, and beauty, are objective, they also have to accept that they transcend our ability to wholly capture them. The objectivity of values must be combined with acceptance that all knowing is fallible. He calls into question the whole fact-value split in modernity.

In Full Employment and Free Trade (1948) Polanyi analyses the way money circulates around an economy, and in a monetarist analysis that, according to Paul Craig Roberts, was thirty years ahead of its time, he argues that a free market economy should not be left to be wholly self-adjusting. A central bank should attempt to moderate economic booms/busts via a strict/loose monetary policy.

c. All Knowing is Personal

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 know more than we can say.

A knower does not stand apart from the universe, but participates personally within it. Our intellectual skills are driven by passionate commitments that motivate discovery and validation. According to Polanyi, a great scientist not only identifies patterns, but also chooses significant questions likely to lead to a successful resolution. Innovators risk their reputation by committing to a hypothesis. Polanyi cites the example of Copernicus, who declared that the Earth revolves around the Sun. He claims that Copernicus arrived at the Earth’s true relation to the Sun not as a consequence of following a method, but via “the greater intellectual satisfaction he derived from the celestial panorama as seen from the Sun instead of the Earth.” His writings on the practice of science influenced Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend.

Polanyi rejected the claim by British Empiricists that experience can be reduced into sense data (empiricism), but he also rejects the notion that “indwelling” within (sometimes incompatible) interpretative frameworks traps us within them. Our tacit awareness connects us, albeit fallibly, with reality. It supplies us with the context within which our articulations have meaning. So the scientist must pay attention to reality in order to proceed successfully. Contrary to the views of his colleague and friend Alan Turing, whose work at The University of Manchester prepared the way for the first modern computer, he denied that minds are reducible to collections of rules. His work influenced the critique by Hubert Dreyfus of “First Generation” Artificial Intelligence.

It was while writing Personal Knowledge that he identified the “structure of tacit knowing“. He viewed it as his most important discovery. He claimed that we experience the world by integrating our subsidiary awareness into a focal awareness, as when a surgeon is using a scalpel or a probe. In his later work, for example his Terry Lectures, later published as The Tacit Dimension (1966) he distinguishes between the phenomenological, instrumental, semantic, and ontological aspects of tacit knowing, as discussed (but not necessarily identified as such) in his previous writing.

d. Critique of Reductionism

In “Life’s irreducible structure” (1968), Polanyi argues that the information contained in the DNA molecule is not reducible to the laws of physics and chemistry. Although a DNA molecule cannot exist without physical properties, these properties are constrained by higher-level ordering principles. In “Transcendence and Self-transcendence” (1970), Polanyi criticises the mechanistic worldview that modern science inherited from Galileo.

Polanyi advocates emergence i.e. the claim that there are several levels of reality and of causality. He relies on the assumption that boundary conditions supply degrees of freedom that, instead of being random, are determined by higher-level realities, whose properties are dependent on but distinct from the lower level from which they emerge. An example of a higher-level reality functioning as a downward causal force is consciousness – intentionality – generating meanings. This agrees with E. F. Schumacher in A Guide for the Perplexed. Mind would then have influence over brain, as we see in neuronal plasticity.

Mind is a higher-level expression of the capacity of living organisms for discrimination. Our pursuit of self-set ideals such as truth and justice transforms our understanding of the world. The reductionistic attempt to reduce higher-level realities into lower-level realities generates what Polanyi calls a moral inversion, in which the higher is rejected with moral passion. Polanyi identifies it as a pathology of the modern mind and traces its origins to a false conception of knowledge; although it is relatively harmless in the formal sciences, that pathology generates nihilism in the humanities. This is riddled with consequences. Polanyi considered Marxism an example of moral inversion. The State, on the grounds of an appeal to the logic of history, uses its coercive powers in ways that disregard any appeals to morality.

Relevant Bibliography

  • 1946. Science, Faith, and Society. Oxford Univ. Press. ISBN 0-226-67290-5. Reprinted by the University of Chicago Press, 1964.
  • 1951. The Logic of Liberty. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-67296-4
  • 1958. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-67288-3
  • 1959. The Study of Man. University of Chicago Press.
  • 1966. The Tacit Dimension. London, Routledge. (University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-67298-4. 2009 reprint)
  • 1969. Knowing and Being. Edited with an introduction by Marjorie Grene. University of Chicago Press and (UK) Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • 1975 (with Prosch, Harry). Meaning. Univ. of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-67294-8
  • 1997. Society, Economics and Philosophy: Selected Papers of Michael Polanyi. Edited with an introduction by R.T. Allen. New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Publishers. Includes an annotated bibliography of Polanyi’s publications.

Afterthought on Personal Knowledge in Polanyi. From the time of Francis Bacon to the early twentieth century, the popular cultural picture of a scientist was as follows: The scientist was a researcher, detached and unemotional, methodically solving scientific problems and making discoveries through cool logic and observation. This person would begin by collecting data by some purely objective manner free of all prejudices and biases (disinterested in the outcome of experiments). There are no prior preferences, no religious or philosophical presuppositions, no subjective constraints. By means of pure induction, the correct generalizations and explanatory principles emerge out of the assembled and organized data: the results are objective, the process empirical. Patiently, facts were added to facts, laying out brick upon brick of knowledge. This is often the mythological concept of a scientist today (the image which dominates public media) but it is false to what most scientists actually do at their benches and observatories. The myth is called objectivism, the belief that science is a strictly objective exercise, which is independent of the observing scientist. This is out of touch with the latest insights of quantum physics and general relativity theory discovered by Albert Einstein. It is a false narrative of science.

Biochemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi tells a different story that is closer to actual practice and recent notions of Einsteinian physics; it is a story about a scientist’s personal involvement in scientific knowledge. Here are some of the key points that he makes in his important book Personal Knowledge. The scientist is the ultimate judge of what is accepted as true. Far from being neutral at heart, the expert is passionately interested in the outcome of the procedure.[1]

  1. Data is theory-laden: the choice of relevant data is affected by the scientist’s theoretical glasses or postulation.
  2. Theories are imaginative human creations and not a mere summary of data. They always need to be continually improved (critical realism). This implies that there is an art to science, an aesthetic or architectural dimension.
  3. New discoveries involve value judgments at every stage from conception of a problem to scientific conclusion. Interpretation of findings is a vital part of science.
  4. Quantum physics shows that the outcome of an experiment is partly dependent on the approach of the observer and the questions that she is asking. (John Polkinghorne)
  5. The scientific community holds certain corporate values and operates as an adjudicator as to what is and is not acceptable science (e.g. major scientific journals and boards); discoveries are presented to the scrutiny of peers with universal intent. The community also mentors young scientists in these skills and values, including appropriate decorum. Sometimes the integrity of this process  is challenged by the obsession to publish and universities’ search for prestige.

Thus, science itself, behind the curtain of public viewing, is much more complex than simple objective induction. There is more subjective and imaginative involvement than was once thought to be the case. It turns out that scientific knowledge is personal knowledge, claims Polanyi, brokered by persons with a serious investment in the integrity of science and the theoretical proposals they put forward.

[1] Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society. (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 38. See also Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge: towards a post-critical philosophy for a fuller articulation of this point. It is also important to note that scientism is based in a Newtonian cosmology, which to some extent has been replaced by Einstein’s relativity.

See also blog posts on marks of scientism; modern self.

Dr. Gordon Carkner’s Paper Monopolizing Knowledge: Scientism and the Search for an Integrated Reality     SCIENTISM 2016

See also Gordon E. Carkner, The Great Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our passion in late modernity (2016)

Gordon Carkner on Scientism and the Quest for Meaning Part One

Gordon Carkner on Scientism and the Quest for Meaning Part Two


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