Re: Polanyi on science (was Re: [asa] C.S. Lewis on ID)

From: Don Winterstein <>
Date: Mon Dec 01 2008 - 01:28:37 EST

If I may speak for all scientists on this: As scientists the only thing we're really concerned about is whether or not our results are consistent with theory or others' results. We don't talk about either truth or proof--except in math. Nor do we talk about confirmation, because we realize that an experimental result no matter how impressive never confirms a theory. Consistency is where it's at. If we're not consistent with others, then either we screwed up or they did or we need new theory.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: D. F. Siemens, Jr.<>
  Cc:<> ;<>
  Sent: Sunday, November 30, 2008 6:52 PM
  Subject: Re: Polanyi on science (was Re: [asa] C.S. Lewis on ID)

  There are two aspects to this, I believe. One is the common postmodern philosophy that claims that there is no truth. Since verification is composed of /verus/, true. and /ficio/, to make, the outlook excludes truth. I put little stock in this form of skepticism.

  The other outlook is that experiment confirms results but does not prove them. This is true, but gets pedantic, since we generally refer to truth as that for which we have strong evidence. Writing a philosophy paper for a demanding journal, I'd watch this. But it doesn't seem necessary in every day informal writing and speaking.
  Dave (ASA)

  On Sat, 29 Nov 2008 22:49:35 -0800 "Don Winterstein" <<>> writes:
    it turns out that the concept of verification in the sciences is a grand fiction.

    I don't know how it is for everybody else, but in my experience this doesn't ring true. I was involved with a new kind of investigation in seismology. Once we published our data, every lab of consequence in our field conducted experiments to check out our results. Another case that everyone knows about is the Pons & Fleischmann cold fusion result: Once they publicized their findings, many groups checked on them. Scientists are extremely competitive, and if someone comes up with a new result, lots of groups will check it out. In fact, my PhD thesis work involved checking out an Aussie's claim that he'd detected free quarks in cosmic ray air showers. Got everyone excited there for a bit.

    Maybe what you say is true in a limited sense, but I can only guess what that might be. Scientists are forever checking up on one another, often secretly hoping to find that someone has screwed up. (Pointing out someone's error is an easier way of making a name for oneself than making an original contribution!) Another motive is to get competent fast in a new kind of investigation in hopes of finding something worth patenting.


      ----- Original Message -----
      From: Murray Hogg<>
      To: ASA<>
      Sent: Saturday, November 29, 2008 12:26 PM
      Subject: Re: Polanyi on science (was Re: [asa] C.S. Lewis on ID)

      Thanks for this, David.

      I wasn't aware that Newbiggin had engaged with Polanyi. This, however, doesn't surprise me given Newbiggin's high calibre of reflection - with which I'm familiar from some of his other works. Given my post-grad work is in religious epistemology, I shall have to chase up this reference.

      Thomas Torrance makes a very important appropriation of Polanyi in the context of a dialogue between Christian theology and the natural sciences - "Christian Theology and Scientific Culture" (Christian Journals Limited, Belfast, 1980) comes to mind. I was curious, incidentally, that McGrath, given his admiration for Torrance, doesn't make more of Polanyi's decisive refutation of positivism in his engagement with contemporary uber-positivist Richard Dawkins. So when I once had the opportunity to query McGrath on this point, his response was "we've moved on since then." I can only suggest that "we" doesn't seem to include Dawkins! I was, by the way, impressed by McGrath's understanding of Polanyi's work and consequently even more befuddled by his lack of appropriation of same. I put it down to McGrath's having other fish to fry.

      As for your other references, I'll put them on my reading list (although Dooyeweerd is already on same - only time has prevented me from getting to him).

      You mention types of evidence and the weight we place upon it. Well a large part of my post-grad study has been in the area of epistemology of testimony and it's interesting how reductionist epistemology of testimony (the idea that I can believe someone's say so only if I can go outside it to verify it for myself) is now seen as implausible in the extreme. At the risk of raising the ire of the assembled masses, I think it incontrovertible that the vast majority of scientists necessarily rely on little more than someones' say so as respects the scientific theory and data upon which they base their own investigations. And when one considers what is broadly involved in the idea of checking the evidence for one's self, it turns out that the concept of verification in the sciences is a grand fiction. Except in the most mundane of instances (and perhaps not even then) NO person has access to ALL the evidence nor do they have the ability to obtain it but must ALWAYS rely on the aut
      hority of others. The point is NOT that science is weakened by appeal to testimony or authority, but that science's success shows that appeal to testimony and authority is actually far more credible than has been allowed since around the time of Descarte.

      What's so very nice about Polanyi is that he managed to acknowledge such inherently human aspects of the scientific enterprise WITHOUT jumping to the silly conclusion beloved of post-modern anti-scientific types that science therefore is an irrational activity with no more epistemological credibility than reading tea-leaves. It's a very nice way of acknowledging the limitations of science as a human activity AND of acknowledging the fact that science works. Turns out that we humans can do remarkable things despite our many glaring limitations.

      Actually, I think that by STARTING with the observation that science DOES work, that it DOES get reliable results, Polanyi was free to study how science is actually done - in contrast to some approaches to philosophy of science which start with an epistemological theory and then try to force scientific method into THAT Procrustean Bed. In that respect Polanyi was (and remains) one of the most SCIENTIFIC of all philosophers of science.

      You're right to infer that I like his insights very much!


      David Opderbeck wrote:
> A fellow Polanyi-ite!! This is an excellent summary of Polanyi, Murray,
> and Polanyi was exactly what I was thinking of when I first pushed back
> on the "ALL the evidence" statement.
> Leslie Newbiggin did some outstanding work appropriating Polanyi for
> Christian theology -- see his "Proper Confidence," which I think is one
> of the best non-technical books on religious epistemology out there.
> Also, see Esther Meeks Lightcap, "Longing to Know." In addition, Roy
> Clouser's "Knowing With the Heart" and "The Myth of Religious
> Neutrality" are Polanyi-esq and bring in Hermann Dooyeweerd as well.
> Dooyeweerd is another Christian philosopher anyone dealing with
> religious epistemology should know.
> I think a grounding in religious epistemology is essential in light of
> the common assertion that we should "follow the evidence wherever it
> leads." We should indeed try to do that, but at the same time we need
> to be clear about what we mean by "evidence" and about the relative
> values we place on different types of evidence. Too often, "follow the
> evidence wherever it leads" is code for positivism.
> David W. Opderbeck
> Associate Professor of Law
> Seton Hall University Law School
> Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology

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Received on Mon Dec 1 01:29:46 2008

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