Monday, May 4, 2009

Michael Polanyi

Jonathan Vanpopta asked for information about Michael Polanyi.

Michael Polanyi was a Hungarian chemist who became a philosopher after he fled to the UK in the early 1900s. He is the father of John Polanyi, the Nobel prize winning chemist of the University of Toronto. Together with Thomas Kuhn, Michael Polanyi has been responsible for introducing into the history and philosophy of science the role of background beliefs in the natural sciences. But Polanyi is by far the more profound thinker and he is not a relativist as Thomas Kuhn has been perceived to be. Polanyi has certainly has a great deal of influence on my own thinking about science from a Christian perspective. He puts meat on the claim that presuppositions have shaped the content of scientific knowledge. A good source on Polanyi's relevance for Christian faith is:
  • Torrance, Thomas F. Belief in Science and in Christian Life: The Relevance of Michael Polanyi's Thought for Christian Faith and Life. Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1980.
Also very helpful are two small works:
  • Polanyi, M. Science, Faith and Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1946.
  • Polanyi, M. The Tacit Dimension. Garden City, New York: Doubleday. 1966.
A source to avoid due to misinterpretation is:
  • Polanyi, M. and Prosch, H. Meaning. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1975.

Jitse M. van der Meer


Arnold Sikkema said...

Thanks for those resources, Jitse. In particular, Torrance, followed by Colin Gunton, are the two pre-eminent scientifically-informed Reformed theologians of the twentieth century to whom I frequently turn on topics as diverse as relativity theory and Biblical anthropology.

I too have found Polanyi very insightful. In addition to his concept of “tacit knowledge” which Polkinghorne describes by saying “we know more than we can tell”, he describes well the interplay between theory and belief. As I wrote in my paper, “Laws of Nature and God’s Word for Creation” (see “collected papers” in the sidebar), “The laws of physics are always provisional and tentative, but not dismissively so. Instead, as Polanyi says, the scientist must believe many theories, knowing that some are quite likely wrong --- but we don’t know which.” Here’s the line from Polanyi directly: “We may firmly believe what we might conceivably doubt; and may hold to be true what might conceivably be false.” [M. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), p. 312.]

Fritz said...

Hi Jitse;
I was wondering if you have read any books by Stanley Jaki.
Also, I was wondering if you've read any other books by Torrance? In particular, there are two other books by him that look interesting to me.
1. Divine & Contingent Order
2. Scientific & Natural Theology
The second book deals with a really intriguing guy, John Philoponus:
--- from "The Dream of Reason" by Antony Gottleib --
Alexandria's most remarkable philosopher of the next century, John Philoponus, (490AD - 530AD) was a Christian writer on physics and philosophy who was so ahead of his time that he tends to be left out of history in order to keep the story simple. He argued brilliantly against Aristotle's world picture upon several important matters in physics: he took up positions which are commonly thought not to have been espoused until Galileo's day.

For example, he attacked Aristotle's theory that the Earth and Heavens are separate relms which need radically different principles to explain them. He denied that the stars were eternal and unchangeable, and thus rejected the whole basis of what was to become standard medieval cosmology. He carefully demolished Aristotle's arguments, showing they did not make sense in themselves, and moreover, that they contradicted other things which Aristotle had said.

Most significantly, Philoponus made extensive use of personal observation and even experiment to support his own physical theories. Consider for example, what he had to say about Aristotle's assertion that unsupported bodies fall toward the earth with a speed that is proportional to their weight, that is, heavier things fall faster than light ones:
"But this is completely erroneous, and our view may be co-oberrated by actual observation more effectively than any sort of verbal argument. For if you let fall from the same height, two weights of which one is many times as heavy as the other, you will see that the ratios of the times required for the motion does not depend on the ratio of the weights, but that the difference in time is a very small one."

Philoponus's own theory of falling bodies was not quite right, but the experiment he describes here, which does at least refute Aristotle's view, was heralded as a momentus scientific breakthrough when it was repeated in the seventeenth century. Nowadays, the experiment is traditionally credited to Galileo who lived more than a thousand years later than Philoponus, and who knew his works well. Attributing it to Galileo is neater, because ...
--- end ---
--- Philoponus Concept of Nature: A Listmania! list by Didaskalex "Eusebius Alexandrinus" ---
from on Amazon ---
"John Philoponus, in the 6th century, was the first Christian dean of the Alexandrian Academy, he was the greatest philosopher of his time, appointed by the Emperor, as Arbiter, to settle the debate on the nature of the Christ. He has proven Aristotle's physics obsolete, and was read by Galileo and is widely regarded the greatest scientist before Newton, and together with Maxwell and Einstein the most influential three. His theory on motion (Impetus) and gravitation has changed the directions of physics a thousand years ahead, when discovered in the renaissance. As a theologian he defended Severus of Antioch's interpretation of Cyril's Christology. He criticized and proved the inconsistency of Leo's Tome."
--- end ---

--- First paragraph of an online article ---
John Philoponus, Sixth Century Alexandrian Grammarian, Christian Theologian and Scientific Philosopher
John Philoponus took seriously with the Church of Jesus Christ the Light of the Word of God not only as the source of the Gospel's proclamation to the world but also as the source for the rationality of the physics of the Cosmos. The Person of the Lord Jesus Christ shone in the Creation as the 'Light of the World', and as such provided the personal reality by which both the universe and its mankind might be realized for what they ought to be in God. [1] The Mind of Christ confessed by the Church was not only the Mind of the Redeemer of the People of God but also the Mind of the Creator of the heavens and the earth. The Incarnation of the Word of God and the Creation of the Speaking God in the Beginning were inseparably bound up with one another for any full explication of Christian Dogma and Theology and the physical explanation of the nature of the Cosmos. Because of the Anathema pronounced against him in 680 AD by the 6th Ecumenical Council of the Church, Philoponus' treatise on the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, the theological works of this great commentator on Aristotle have remained for the most part in obscurity for most of us. [2] The Grammarian has recently, however, begun to gain the kind of credit he deserves for his contribution to the history of science. [3] Professor Thomas F. Torrance of Edinburgh has championed the significance of the great Alexandrian for the debates about the relationship between theology and science. He argues that the way Philoponus understood the relationship would be instructive for our own time. It is through Torrance that I became acquainted with the works of Philoponus. [4]
--- end ---
The article is at:

Fritz Dewit

Jitse van der Meer said...

Dear Fritz,

Thank you for the information about Torrance and Philoponus. I have read the works by Jaki, Torrance and Philoponus that you mentioned. If you are interested, another excellent source is:

Sorabji, Richard: "Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian Science."

Philoponus' understanding of Christ as the light of the world is an excellent example of a Biblical presupposition that has shaped his presupposition of the study of nature, namely that nature is intelligible. It is not clear that he has shaped the history of science in this way because he was not influential at the time as you point out. I deal with that and similar topics in my History of Science course that I teach at RUC.

Jitse van der Meer