Monday, April 20, 2015

The Making of the Atomic Bomb - Polanyi

I couldn’t let Chapters 1 and 2 slip by without mentioning Michael Polanyi’s view of science as an almost Adam Smith-like system where free thinking scientists pursue their interests, guided by the invisible hand of the larger scientific community. He mentions an orthodoxy within science and the necessity for belief and “profound commitment in the scientific system and scientific world view.”

Then Polanyi makes the statement “Any account of science which does not explicitly describe it as something we believe in is essentially incomplete and a false pretense. It amounts to a claim that science is essentially different from and superior to all human beliefs that are not scientific statements—and that is untrue.”

What determines orthodoxy is "every member of the group, as in a Quaker meeting."

Finally, what pushes science forward, he says, are small rebellions within the scientific orthodoxy. Because of the apprentice system where science is learned from master scientists, the rebellions must be guided by plausibility, value, and originality.


james said...

The section on Polanyi went over my head. Polanyi says “Any account of science which does not explicitly describe it as something we believe in is essentially incomplete and a false pretense.” Does “believe in” mean “take on faith?”.

The second sentence confuses me further. He says “It amounts to a claim that science is essentially different from and superior to all human beliefs that are not scientific statements—and that is untrue.” I wish Rhodes had gone further here. Why did Polanyi think it untrue? This is a huge, huge statement. I wonder if Rhodes leaves it hanging as a sort of foreshadowing.

Is Polanyi saying that choosing to “believe in” science is no different from believing in, say, the Virgin Mary or 9/11 conspiracy theories? It seems to me that science, the only belief structure that created the atomic bomb, makes it quite different indeed from other beliefs.

James R said...

It is a huge, huge statement. I was a bit surprised myself. First, you must realize Rhodes is a Yalie. Who knows if he every set foot in Cambridge? Bill believes (he's further along than we) that, although the book was published in 1987, and won the Pulitzer in 1988, Rhodes is heavily influenced with the ideas of the '60's. (I guess you could see that in the Foreward.) So, it is Rhodes who is editing in these statements of Polanyi. But still, Polanyi said them.

My current interpretation is no, not "believing in, say, the Virgin Mary, or 9/11 conspiracy theories", but as in believing in logic or trust, or language, or anything that is not solipsism. I think, like Feynman, he is saying we are working with limited resources, our minds. Science affords us a special technique which has served us much better than gods, or magic, but who knows if it is "understanding".

Everything, in a sense, falls under the umbrella of epistemology. We can never get outside our 'system'.

I agree with you that in this day and age there may not be a majority of scientists who would agree with that statement, and less non-scientists. It is an interesting thought. I'm still trying to understand it better also.

James R said...

I fear I may be adding nothing but cloudiness here, but, after rereading the part about Polanyi, I couldn't help but think of Heidegger. It is almost never useful for me to think of Heidegger, but, curiously, others on the web have also seen connections. There are more.

Science, perhaps, can be seen as a continuation of ancient Greek thinking that there are ideas and forms that exist independently of our existence. Heidegger objected to a reality "standing in reserve." Polanyi, also, seems to be taking an approach that one can't separate knowledge from being. There is no higher realm—in science, or anywhere else, apart from our relationship with it. At a minimum Polanyi apparently is saying science is not practiced in the abstract. All knowledge is personal.

I think James may have hit upon something with his comment that Rhodes may have put this in as something we will return to.

james said...

These comments are great Jim, thanks.

As I read about Polanyi, it seems he was working during a time period when academia was becoming more marxist and anti-religious. His comments make more sense when you think he must've been reacting to revolutionary-minded professors talking about a new, better way of organizing society, science, and knowledge.

However, I must admit that the few brief things I've read about his philosophy writing make my eyes glaze over. A lot of jargon like "tacit knowing" and "post-critical". And even though I find epistemology interesting, I quickly get lost in the weeds when I read the meaty stuff.

However, I think you've distilled the theme of Polanyi's overall view. So thanks.

Ted said...

First comment from me is on the length of the book. Who has time to read this whole thing?! (Obviously I will try).
I've been want to have a discussion on the length of books, particularly your popular/prize-winning history tomes. I am in the middle of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Bully Pulpit and while I recommend it highly, it is another on of these immense volumes. Of course it fits nicely on my bookshelf next to Robert Caro's opus The Power Broker (at 1000+) and William Manchester's The Last Lion (another 1000+).

I guess for me it is not really the length that gets my, it's the weight - these are not really "curl-up-in-your-bed-and-get-comfy" fare.

James R said...

A Polanyi quote: "To sum up: Science is the result of an integration, similar to that of common perception. It establishes hitherto unknown coherences in nature. Our recognition of these coherences is largely based, as perception is, on clues of which we are not focally aware and which are indeed often unidentifiable. Current conceptions of science about the nature of things always affect our recognition of coherence in nature. From the sighting of a problem to the ultimate decision of rejecting still conceivable doubts, factors of plausibility are ever in our minds. This is what is meant by saying that, strictly speaking, all natural science is an expression of personal judgment."

A story told by Polanyi: Werner Heisenberg says he once told Einstein that "he [Heisenberg] proposed to go back from Nils Bohr's theory to quantities that could really be observed." Einstein, Heisenberg relates, responded that "the truth lay the other way round. He said: 'Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed.'"

Big Myk said...

I think that the comparison of Polanyi and Heidegger is apt. I think that Polanyi also anticipated Thomas Kuhn. Science is not the examination of objects by a detached subject. Rather, science reflects the experience of the universe by people who are part of that universe and cannot be separate from it.

James R said...

You're quite perceptive, however, "anticipated" may be the wrong word. Per Wikipedia, "Polanyi lectured on this topic for decades before Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Supporters of Polanyi charged Kuhn with plagiarism, as it was known that Kuhn attended several of Polanyi's lectures, and that the two men had debated endlessly over epistemology before either had achieved fame. The charge of plagiarism is peculiar, for Kuhn had generously acknowledged Polanyi in the first edition…."