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

From: D. F. Siemens, Jr. <>
Date: Mon Dec 01 2008 - 13:03:45 EST

To nitpick, it is possible to have consistent confusion, though that is
not the way you want to use the term. Consistency is a good term, but I
understand that strict consistency is not to be found in experiment.
Measurements are normally given with error bars or standard deviations,
though consistency should be unitary. I have found it common to find a
note something like that Smith has confirmed Jones' results.

The strict use of consistency is found in logical and mathematical
proofs. It is the only strictly test in philosophy. But it is also used
more widely, as classifying someone as consistently moral or consistently
cheating. Language is remarkably flexible except in rigorously technical
Dave (ASA)

On Sun, 30 Nov 2008 22:28:37 -0800 "Don Winterstein"
<> writes:
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

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
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

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,
> 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 13:08:25 2008

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