Personal knowledge and the worldview of Personalism

Michael Polanyi was an internationally regarded Professor of Physical Chemistry at Manchester University when he was selected to deliver the 1951-52 Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen.

I start by rejecting the ideal of scientific detachment. In the exact sciences this false ideal is perhaps harmless, for it is in fact disregarded there by scientists. But we shall see that it exercises a destructive influence in biology, psychology and sociology, and falsifies our whole outlook far beyond the domain of science. – published as Personal Knowledge, U. Chicago, 1957, vii

The Manchester academic Senate and Council judged the invitation and resulting lectures important enough to allow Dr. Polanyi to exchange his Chair of Physical Chemistry for a Professorial appointment without lecturing duties; an arrangement lasting 9 years, which enabled him to both prepare the lectures and write the ensuing book

“The personal participation of the knower in all acts of understanding does not make our understanding subjective. Comprehension is neither an arbitrary act nor a passive experience, but a responsible act claiming universal validity. Such knowing is indeed objective in the sense of establishing contact with a hidden reality; a contact that is defined as the condition for anticipating an indeterminate range of yet unknown (and perhaps yet inconceivable) true implications. It seems reasonable to describe this fusion of the personal and the objective as Personal Knowledge.”

I’ve owned Polanyi’s books for years, and read a good deal of his writing years ago. I was glad to get back to it this week after a fresh jolt of inspiration from the blog of Swedish philosopher Jan Olof Bengtsson, who has been posting his notes on American philosopher and Personalist Borden Parker Bowne (1847-1910) – material not included in Bengtsson’s 2006 book, The Worldview of Personalism: origins and early development.

B. P. Bowne is another old interest of mine, and I own old used copies of nearly all of his books. Thanks to Jan Olof, I am currently re-reading Personalism (1908), containing the substance of the 1907 Harris Lectures at Northwestern University, Chicago.

From Bowne’s 1908 preface: “The aim of these lectures is to show that critical reflection brings us back again to the personal metaphysics which Comte rejected. We agree with him that abstract and impersonal metaphysics is a mirage of formal ideas, and even largely of words which begin, continue, and end in abstraction and confusion. … Causal explanation must always be in terms of personality, or it must vanish altogether.”

It was Bowne’s contention that the only formal setting of experience able to give a concrete knowledge of causation (after Hume’s destructive analysis) is derived from our personal experience as agents of stasis and change. Thus all knowledge of effects requires the primacy of what I would call the Form of the Personal.

Back to Polanyi: “Into every act of knowing there enters a passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known, and this coefficient is no mere imperfection but a vital component of his knowledge. And around this central fact I have tried to construct a system of correlative beliefs which I can sincerely hold, and to which I can see no acceptable alternatives.”

I think these two personalists would characterize today’s materialist schools in psychology and the humanities as monuments to intellectual cowardice; a surrender of moral insight and creative power to the human need for authority conceived as objective and detached – but not at all proper to the advance of knowledge in those particular fields.

Bowne: “Some harmless-looking doctrine is put forth in epistemology, and soon there is an agnostic chill in the air that is fatal to the highest spiritual faiths of the soul.”

Polanyi: “Personal Knowledge is an intellectual commitment, and as such inherently hazardous. Only affirmations that could be false can be said to convey objective knowledge of this kind.”

The Kantian philosophy as handmaid of religion and science

In my recent criticism of John Milbank’s frequent dissing of Immanuel Kant I forgot to say that I am completely sympathetic with the professor’s desire to embarrass the sloppy metaphysics of atheism.  I applaud Milbank’s aim to discomfit our current secular dogmatists who presume the model of ‘science’ is on the side of their own uncritical metaphysical materialisms.

But again, Kant has already shown – over 200 years ago – that the authority of the scientific method doesn’t carry over to the solution of the ‘hard problems’ of metaphysics.  True, the critical philosophy rejects apodictic certainty in theology’s intellectual determinations of its object .  But it also demolished the scientific basis of all claims that theology has no meaningful object.

I’m guessing Prof. Milbank has rejected Kant’s help against scientific materialism because he desires to do metaphysics himself in the grand style of Aquinas, which he knows is also disallowed by Kant.

But a part of Kant’s great service to philosophy makes it also a service to truth in science and religion – he never made the mistake of equating the method of philosophy with the method of science.  His ‘charter of autonomy’ for philosophy gave it independence from both science and religion, and this dual independence actually suits the role of ancilla (handmaiden) required by any theology worthy of a living faith – and by any science worthy of its name and methodology.

The impression I got from reading Milbank last year is that his criticism of Kant cites the Religion book much more than the Critiques.  This I think is the source of his negativity – and I will say I have never been satisfied with the grasp of religion shown by Kant in Religion within the Limits of Pure Reason (although I saw more than I had seen before in a recent reading of that book, remarked last month).

I don’t blame Milbank for seeing Kant’s specifically religious writing as too much akin to the old failed Natural Theology.  But Kant’s criticism of religion’s clerical and popular superstitions and fanaticisms is more cogent and cleansing than any that can be raised by the atheist.

I think a philosophy inspired by the three Critiques can certainly offer an ancillary role in the exploration of the relations of the object of faith to the real world – particularly its moral relations.  But again the one condition – perhaps hardest for Milbank to accept – is that the theologian who makes Kant his handmaiden must give up the attempt to construct a final metaphysics.

What more can the theologian say to the secular materialist?

I found not one but two good theologically-minded writers last week, who are I think taking theology’s case against materialist ideology to the next level.  By that I do not mean to call the approach wholly new or to forget those who, in the spirit of Plato, Berkeley, and Kant, have contributed at a level quite above the hubris we often find today on both sides of the online discussion between religion and science.

In my last post I mentioned the interesting views of essence and existence recently published by Jason Michael McCann over at homophilosophicusThe second writer, Matthew David Segall is the mind and soul behind Footnotes to Plato, a blog which includes an interesting use of video, and has been running at least a couple years.  When I encountered Segall he was offering a defense of the essential ontological status of human consciousness against the usual bad philosophy utilized by today’s materialist neuro-metaphysicians when imagining themselves heirs to all the authority of science.  Matthew writes:

In the end, what concerns me most is the practice of deepening consciousness, which means not only striving to learn the truth, but to feel the beautiful and to will the good. Is neuroscience relevant to these pursuits? Of course! Do its own methods, paradigms, and data have some sort of a priori authority over other ways of knowing? Of course not!  (Which is not to say that there may not be a posteriori reasons for altering a philosophical perspective because of a neuroscientific discovery–it is only to say that critical appraisal is always warranted of supposedly scientific claims that border on the metaphysical).

I think it is obviously very good for the physical sciences that the scientist, qua scientist, be a strict materialist.  It is good even that any truth-seeker, qua scientist, be a strict materialist.  But no truth seeker – not even the scientist 24/7 –  has some kind of professional duty to be a strict materialist in all of their approaches to all of reality.

I keep looking for help in the so-called theological ‘dialogue’ with materialism because materialism is an ideology which today appears to inform the thinking of most of the brilliant minds in our culture.  Not many of them appear to understand truth as an objective extending outside the grasp of their ideology, but I think they would be superbly furnished for truth-seeking of a higher kind if only they could be disabused of this fatal misunderstanding.  I see great things coming for our society if our scientific-minded persons could only be persuaded of the folly of applying materialistic theories and methods wholesale to psychology, abiogenesis, philosophy, and theology.

The inadequacy of the materialist’s concept of existence

I found a theologically-minded blogger this week who is concerned with the state of the religious dialogue with materialism, and sees no harm in ending the logjam by making what at first seems to be a drastic concession.

The strategy may be seen in a nutshell in this definition of existence, which concedes to the materialist the point that – in strictly materialist terms – God does not exist, meanwhile returning to theologians the task of elaborating the meaningful essence of a being more fully worthy of living faith – the spiritual God-who-is.

God does not exist. This statement is both philosophically and theologically valid. Existence is that which we are aware of through our senses, and which continues to exist independent of them. In philosophical categories one must be careful to distinguish between existence and essence; a common confusion. Materialism limits existence to matter, and therefore whatever lacks matter lacks also existence. Theology, in order to share a common language with modern materialism, must adopt these definitions. Thus a theology which accepts the reality of God must also affirm the reality that God is not subject to existence and therefore does not materially exist.

I  think I get it.  The materialist’s categories of existence by definition equate material substance with the essence of all evidential things.  Meaningful discussion cannot take place unless the theist can analyze and resolve this fallacy of the identity of material substance with essence.  Until then he has no valid grounds for engaging the materialist in an argument for the ‘existence’ of a God who is clearly non-evident and therefore non-existent under material categories of essence and existence.

So we are not talking about a trite ‘whatever’ and a polite end to head-butting.  Because the real argument with the materialist has not gone away but may now shift to the logical and moral necessity of his recognizing the possible being of non-evident non-existents – initially, the commonly held ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty.  Not because these values are to be set up instead-of-God, but because their claim to acknowledgment as real rests on an understanding of essence which is not equated with physical substance alone.

The establishment of the possibility that real essence is not necessarily dependent upon material substance reopens the discussion on the transcendental level, where the accessibility of values such as truth, goodness, and beauty allow for consideration of concepts of a God who similarly cannot be equated, in essence, with the material substance of mere existence.

Hawking’s idealism – it’s in the math

I think Mary Daly over at Notice the Universe rightly says Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, is oddly titled for a work claiming (as she says) “…that the universe will create itself, out of nothing, in an infinite variety of forms; and that, given an infinite variety of forms, a segment or sub-universe friendly to mankind is bound to develop,” which is the same as to say, as Mary points out, that there is “no design needed, grand or not.”

“Even supposing that Hawking is correct and that gravity and quantum physics suffice, that’s a pretty large “given”a little like the old joke in which a scientist challenges God to a creation-of-life competition and then, like God, picks up some dirt to start his work. ‘No, no,’ says God. ‘Go get your own dirt.’

“It seems as if the physicists have started saying that the math is the physics. But math is only a pattern; it is not a reality. Even such a simple mathematical entity as “two” is not real. There is no “two” in the world. There are two apples, two waves, two stars, two electrons, but no “two.”  Believing that the patterns are “real” and the physical things just odd shadows of those patterns has a name in philosophy: idealism.  Reducing the study of physical reality to mathematics is a philosophical decision, not a scientific one; it is philosophical idealism.

Agreed.  It’s one thing when a physicist, with an assist from the mathematician (identified by Daly as “the physicist’s alter-ego”) is able to construct a mathematical system that seems perfectly parallel to the patterns he’s seeing in the universe.  The problem arises when the system starts to imply things that are not even potentially observable and do not resemble either the visible universe or the original pattern that was seen in it – and yet the physicist has so much faith in the math that he finds such oddities to be real as well.

Daly:  “As every detective knows, having a solution that accounts for the facts is not the same as having the right answer.”

The new East Window

image by Tom Lowe, NMM 2010

It is an ancient practice to lay out a church building so that altars and great-windows are oriented to the east.  The original meaning of the word ‘orientation’ is derived I think from the architectural fact of this preference for an east-facing on the ‘business end’ of temples and churches.  There’s an obvious attempt to make the most of the morning sunlight, but there are other, more ancient associations which imply that east is the direction of divine presence and power.

Today, a higher cosmological perspective suggests (to me anyway) the need for a galactic rather than geographic orientation to divine presence and power.  The photograph above of the massive starry plane of our home galaxy shot from the White Mountains of California, might be called a view through the new East Window.  It makes no difference that the subject of the above photo may be lying to the west – the new ‘East Window’ always opens up in the direction of the galactic center.

I don’t think it idolatrous to view the galactic plane as a kind of focus for the localized universe presence of God.  Because it’s not easy to imagine how God’s existence could mean anything at all to the galaxy if no framework for sovereignty, ministry, mercy, or justice were stretched out upon it.  Moderns love to deny that God can actually be ‘out there’ somewhere – Sorry, for me this photographer captures, among the fingers of the ancient bristlecone pine, the starry path to the center of Light and Life and the eternal mansions of the God of love.

There are two primary theological orientations of ‘the eye of faith’, and this post is about only one of them – the outward, universe-oriented direction.  Augustine wrote of the other orientation in a well-known soliloquy which I will not here repeat.  And of course that second theological orientation tracks to an inward center rather than an outward center.

Various frightful and utterly spiritless depictions of the great outer centers (and the inner centers)  have been suggested by different human minds.  This is to be expected, since the measurable energies proceeding from the unseen center of our galaxy register (by definition) only a monstrous quantitative value – the instruments of choice are not made for the task of elaborating the strictly qualitative mystery of religious consciousness.

If some of our great scientific men suppose ‘a monstrous black hole’ or some other shocking thing at the center of their home galaxy, it is only their personal best in response to the quantities which dominate their analysis.  I would only expect that the theory by which they explain the numbers might sometimes resemble the featureless nightmare of a homeless child.

NOTE:  The photograph, “Blazing Bristlecone” is by Tom Lowe, the winner of the British National Maritime Museum’s 2010 competition for Astronomy Photograph of the Year in the Earth and Space category (the photo also gained him the award for best overall).  Thanks to Deskarati for the link.

Below:  The East Window of Glasgow Cathedral (for comparison)

What I wish I’d said about Stephen Hawking

I’ve been keenly aware of my lack of commentary on current events around here.  Honestly, I feel hopelessly tongue-tied by the stunning idiocy which resides at the heart of so much that is in the public eye these days.  With little surplus of time, I have been unable to raise the level of my response above ad hominem,  so I’ve taken the silent route.

Here I will at least try to compensate for my lack of prophetic power by featuring another writer’s recent post on the reductionist swagger of our contemporary physicists:

“Philosophy is dead”  – What, again? Apparently Stephen Hawking is unaware of the fact that this rhetorical strategy for winning philosophical arguments has been tried before, without notable success. It is not only a classic ploy for physicalists, who hold that reality consists entirely of whatever physicists can talk about in their professional capacity, and who hold that we know this to be true primarily because physicists tell us this, in their professional capacity. It was tried by the old Vienna Circle boys, who made the philosophical assertion that philosophical assertions are nonsense, and therefore ought not to be made, excepting, of course, this last one, which should. It has been tried by Hegel and Heidegger, who both claimed that because one could discern a kind of narrative arc in the history of philosophy thus far, that therefore the story must be over (confusing the lights coming up in a movie theater for enlightenment itself). In a different way it was tried by Russell, who suggested that philosophers continue to do philosophy, but to act like scientists in doing so, dividing the problems up and parceling them out to teams like chemists—in this case, there’s no pretense that philosophy as such is dead, …

read more at: among the Poseidonians

The author’s reference is to a recent review of Hawking’s book, The Grand Design,  in The Economist :

“The authors [Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow] rather fancy themselves as philosophers, though they would presumably balk at the description, since they confidently assert on their first page that “philosophy is dead.” It is, allegedly, now the exclusive right of scientists to answer the three fundamental why-questions with which the authors purport to deal in their book. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? And why this particular set of laws and not some other?”

I only discovered the blogger today, and haven’t asked his permission to put up his material here.  But the post is quite up to my taste in terms of depth of material – my only criticism is that it’s long, and so a little uneven in spots.  But overall I’m glad to find another writer saying things I’m feeling about the lack of decent public criticism of Hawking’s magesterial pose as metaphilosopher of popular cosmology.

I know that a daily rant (tastefully done) is an important fixture in blog protocol, and a good way to build a congenial readership.  I’m sure it ought to be tried in particular by a bloke who mostly presumes to write theology without a license (which certainly nobody is obliged to care about).   For now I am content to feature a blogger like the Poseidonian, who has more of what I lack – a cool head and a taste for the words I wish I could command in regard to Hawking, Park51, Koran burners, etc. etc.   Check him out.