Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Breaking of the Atomic Book Club

I guess James was spot on a few years ago. The club lasted just about 2 weeks. I am continuing to read, so I might post something from time to time. I like the book quite a bit. These are incredibly intelligent and interesting people—scientists' scientists who, surprisingly, are very human. Many are extremely articulate—Polanyi, Bohr, and Heisenberg, so far. I've been fascinated by Polanyi. Here are a few things he said which are not in the book, at least not yet:
“In so far as a theory cannot be tested by experience—or appears not capable of being so tested—it ought to be revised so that its predictions are restricted to observable magnitudes.”

“as human beings, we must inevitably see the universe from a centre lying within ourselves and speak about it in terms of a human language shaped by the exigencies of human intercourse. Any attempt rigorously to eliminate our human perspective from our picture of the world must lead to absurdity.”

“Christianity sedulously fosters, and in a sense permanently satisfies, man's craving for mental dissatisfaction by offering him the comfort of a crucified God.”


Mike said...

I'm sorry to hear this. Polanyi's Great Transformation is on my reading list. I vote we take that up.

James R said...

Well, to be honest nothing's changed, except no one is posting on the book. James warned about the heavy lifting, and I've done that too much in the past. If there is no interest by others…well, no one much benefits from coddling. (Cuddling is a different matter.)

I'm still reading and enjoying it. Anyone want to discuss the Jewish story (Chapter 7: Exodus) in terms of the genetics vs. culture issues?

James R said...

By the way, your Polanyi, Karl (economist/sociologist) is different from Polanyi, Michael (chemist/philosoper) from the book. They are brothers. Nature? Nurture?

Mike said...

There are two Polanyis?? Michael P sounds interesting, so it's too bad they aren't the same person.

Big Myk said...

Your comments about Michael Polanyi in this post and earlier have prompted me to take a closer look at him, and he’s quite an interesting guy. I am especially interested in his thoughts on religion, although this was not really his focus.

He knew Paul Tillich and corresponded with him. At one point he met with Tillich – in 1963 at UC Berkeley (Mike take note). But, at least on the question of the relationship between science and religion, Polanyi and Tillich did not see eye to eye. For Tillich, science and religion occupied two different spheres. Science is the detached and controlled observation of reality through repeated experiments. Religion, however, is concerned with final meanings and ultimate concerns. For Tillich, science oversteps its bounds when it shifts from its examination of observable reality to making claims about ultimate matters. Religion oversteps its bounds when it makes assertions about matters that can be examined scientifically.

Polanyi completely disagreed. Polanyi said that science is not a detached observation of the world, and cannot be. Rather he argues that there is a tacit dimension to scientific inquiry – tradition, inherited practices, values and prejudgments of which the scientist is scarcely aware – that underlies his scientific study. One learns to be a scientist and practices as a scientist on the basis of the tacit beliefs that have been established within the scientific community. Without these tacit understandings, one cannot engage in scientific study. Polanyi cites St. Augustine: “Nisi credideritis, non intelligetis.” (Unless you will have believed, you will not understand.)

Thus, scientific knowledge is possible because of commitments and beliefs that can be neither fully articulated, nor fully defended. Polanyi: “No human mind can function without accepting authority, custom, and tradition: it must rely on them for the mere use of a language. Empirical induction, strictly applied, can yield no knowledge at all, and the mechanistic explanation of the universe is a meaningless ideal.” The limitations of language alone challenge the “objectivity” of science: “So long as we use a certain language, all questions that we can ask will have to be formulated in it and will thereby confirm the theory of the universe which is implied in the vocabulary and structure of the language.”

(see next comment)

Big Myk said...

Religious inquiry is like scientific inquiry in this way: religious inquiry has its own tacit understandings. And, just as the expressions of scientific knowledge are rooted in participation within the scientific community, the theological expressions of the church and religion must be understood as rooted in the forms of life of the church. As the scientist “indwells” in the scientific community, the worshipper “indwells” in the worshipping community.

There is, however, one major difference between religion and science. While both scientific and religious inquiry is fueled by the fundamental human desire to solve problems and puzzles, the outcome of the inquiry differs. In pursuit of a solution to a problem, the scientist experiences tension, which is resolved in satisfaction when a discovery is made. Humanity has the capacity to distinguish meaningful patterns in random aggregates. When a scientist achieves this, he experiences a profound sense of intellectual beauty in a problem solved. This sense of beauty is proof of the “truth” of the scientific assertion.

Religious worship, according to Polanyi, is a further example of this desire to solve problems, but it is unique in that it is "not enjoyed" like science. Religious inquiry, as a "search for God" is "an eternal, never to be consummated hunch: a heuristic vision which is accepted for the sake of its unresolvable tension." Indeed, worship is designed to sustain a state of anguish. It is "a framework of clues which are apt to induce a passionate search for God.” “It is like an obsession with a problem known to be insoluble, which yet follows, against reason, unswervingly, the heuristic command, ‘Look at the unknown!’”

As such, religion is not concerned with “facts.” “God cannot be observed, any more than truth or beauty can be observed. He exists in the sense that He is to be worshipped and obeyed, but not otherwise; not as a fact—any more than truth, beauty or justice exist as facts. All these, like God, are things which can be apprehended only in serving them." Accordingly, for Polanyi, religious worship can say nothing that is true or false.

Polanyi recognizes that religions make assertions and express beliefs, but he claims that these assertions are not really intended to convey information and are subsidiary to the religious experience itself. Says Polanyi, "Religion, considered as an act of worship, is an indwelling rather than an affirmation."

Here, we see thought very close to that of James Carse. In his The Religious Case Against Belief, Carse contrasts religion with what he calls “belief systems.” While belief systems make assertions, “[o]dd as it may seem, as richly verbal as religions are, like poetry they say nothing. There is no point to any of them.” Again, Carse says, “Far from providing false or unverified answers, the religions provide no answers at all.” Religions, rather, are communities that “have a collective focus on the mysteries that lie at their core, mysteries they are neither able to resolve nor to abandon.”

(see next comment)

Big Myk said...

In his rejection of William James’ ostensibly reasonable suggestion that people should try believing in God or otherwise embrace religion to see if they are better off as the religious hypothesis predicted it would be, Polanyi further explains religion:

“The truth of the matter is that we may not feel better, or be ‘better off,’ if we embrace religion. We may instead reap suffering, struggle and sacrifice. Anyway, we do not accept a religion because it offers us certain rewards. The only thing that a religion can offer us is to be just what it, in itself, is: a greater meaning in ourselves, in our lives, and in our grasp of the nature of things. James’s conditionally undertaken belief cannot be a genuine belief, since we entertain it with our fingers crossed. In reality, as we have seen, a religion exists for us only if, like a piece of poetry, it carries us away. It is not in any sense a ‘hypothesis.’”

Here, we get to the point that Polanyi that was trying to make to Tillich. The scientific knowledge is not qualitatively different from religious knowledge. Both involve tacit understandings and grow out of an “indwelling” in a larger community. And, perhaps, more importantly, the proof of scientific knowledge is no different than the proof of “religious” knowledge – and that is, whether it “carries us away” in that it provides us with greater meanings.

Rather than being some higher form of knowledge because it is detached and objective, as someone like Sam Harris claims, scientific truth “share[s] the insecurity of moral truth.” Polanyi believes that “an adequate theory of scientific knowledge may hope to restore the common ground which, in this view, science shares, with moral convictions, and beyond that, with religious beliefs.”

Polanyi does not wish to convert us to any particular religion. Indeed, he confirms St. Augustine’s observation that religious belief is a gift from God and cannot be achieved by our deliberate efforts and choice. Rather he asks only that we abandon the notion that truth can only come from science, that we “unstop[ ] our ears so that we may hear the liturgical summons should it ever come our way.”

In particular, Polanyi wants us to unstop our ears on the question of whether the world is without meaning:

“[O]ur modern science cannot properly be understood to tell us that the world is meaningless and pointless, that it is absurd. The supposition that it is absurd is a modern myth, created imaginatively from the clues produced by a profound misunderstanding of what science and knowledge are and what they require, a misunderstanding spawned by positivistic leftovers in our thinking and by allegiance to the false ideal of objectivity from which we have been unable to shake ourselves quite free.”

Instead, “the religious hypothesis, if it does indeed hold that the world is meaningful rather than absurd, is … a viable hypothesis for us. There is no scientific reason why we cannot believe it.”

“These are the stoppages in our ears that we must pull out if we are ever once more to experience the full range of meanings possible to man.”

James R said...

Amazing synopsis! Very impressive, both your comments and Polanyi's.

"For what on earth could science ever say
To prove God's worth or rule God's role away?
For God, like science, fails when measured by
Shy Truth, but how, in life, each does apply."

Big Myk said...

Wow. You were able to concisely and accurately summarize almost all of Polanyi's thinking in two rhyming couplets.

James R said...

Perhaps, but I see it exactly opposite. Those lines begin a section of "An Enigma on Man" which I have written, rewritten, trashed, and rewritten ad infinitum. Yes, perhaps those are fine, but the rest has been a proper disaster. Polanyi's prose is more lyrical than what my long efforts have been.

James R said...

Another note on the remarkable Polanyi's: Michael (brother of Karl) Polanyi, the one I've quoted here, had a son, John, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1986. He is still alive.