Monday, May 25, 2009

Michael Polanyi on Humble Realism

Phillip Broussard’s work on scientific knowing (see Arnold’s post) is enlightening, as is his belief that the truth of our being created in the image of God “has something to do with how we can be stewards of this creation” and with our ability to achieve a limited understanding of God’s faithfulness in creation. His articles, and especially his description of “humble realism,” contain antidotes not only to naïve-realist and anti-realist interpretations in science but are applicable in a wider area. They shed light, for example, on the conflict between modernist objectivism (naïve realism) on the one hand and postmodernist subjective relativism (anti-realism) on the other. I focus on that wider context.

Among the philosophers who have dealt at some length with the errors of an anti-realist position is Michael Polanyi (1891-1976). Of interest in this connection are his arguments against “cultural conditioning” – the doctrine that we hold our beliefs and convictions merely because of the culture in which we live, and that therefore they are altogether relative. Polanyi does not deny the role of cultural influences but argues that, rather than interfering with the accumulation of knowledge, they are in fact essential for our mental development. “An entirely untutored maturing of the mind would…result in a state of imbecility” (Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 295). We can function as intelligent human beings only because we are part of the community, historical epoch, and civilization wherein we find ourselves. “Tacit assent and intellectual passions,” he writes, “the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural heritage, affiliation to a like-minded community: such are the impulses which shape our vision of the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of things. No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside such a fiduciary framework” (Ibid., p. 266).

Polanyi at the same time warns that our cultural rootedness does not deprive us of our personal responsibility. Not only are we obliged to test the traditions we inherit, we are also able to do so. Although influenced by our culture, we do not have to be its passive recipients; everyone has “some measure of direct access to the standards of truth and rightness” (Polanyi, The Study of Man, p. 30). It is true that that access is limited. The criteria by which we test the traditions of our culture depend on that same culture, so that a truly objective view of things is denied us. But does this not mean that we are the helpless victims of our environment after all? Polanyi rejects that conclusion while stressing our human limitations, which he sees as imposed by our finitude. We have no choice but to accept these limitations, since it is impossible to hold ourselves responsible beyond them. Asking how we would think if we had been raised outside a particular society is as meaningless as asking how we would think if we had been born in no particular body. “I believe, therefore,” he concludes, “that as I am called upon to live and die in this body, struggling to satisfy its desires, recording my impressions by aid of such sense organs as it is equipped with, and acting through the puny machinery of my brain, my nerves and my muscles, so I am called upon also to acquire the instruments of intelligence from my early surroundings and to use these particular instruments to fulfill the universal obligations to which I am subject” (Pers. Knowl., p. 323). Epistemic humility is required, but postmodernist agnosticism is out of the question.

Polanyi does not say it is God who called us, placed us in a particular time and culture, and assigned to us our cultural tasks. He also does not he speak of our being created in the image of God, nor does he say in so many words that our (limited) knowledge of reality is God’s gift of grace – although he seems to admit, at least by implication, human dependence. Even so, Christian believers can take to heart his “humble realism” together with his argued rejection of the doctrine of absolute social conditioning. Polanyi was not a Christian. But perhaps we may see in his philosophy the influence of what Broussard calls God’s common grace.

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