Science in Christian Perspective



Possible Relationships Between Polanyi's Insights and Modern Findings in Psychology, Brain Research, and Theories of Science
W. Jim Neidhardt 
Department of Physics 
New Jersey Institute of Technology 
Newark, New Jersey 07102

From: JASA 31 (March 1979): 61-62.

To restate what I have argued before,1 what Michael Polanyi has done is to show that scientific knowledge is not completely objective, free of all personal involvement; rather scientific knowledge has its tacit, personal component whose structure it shares with other human activities. All knowing, whether the subject area be science, philosophy, art, religion, or everyday experience, shares a common structure; acts of discovery are embedded in matrices of personal commitments which the person indwells in order to explore reality, thereby bringing about new knowledge. In indwelling such a matrix of commitments we are only tacitly and subsidiarily aware of the details of the matrix, for we focus on the whole perspective which provides the meaning for details. Such a structure of from subsidiary to focal awareness is represented as a discovery cycle and is common to many types of perceptive acts. In any act of knowing we rely on subsidiary details which point to the greater whole of the focal target. By utilizing a structure of tacit, subsidiary awareness we actually know far more than we can tell.

It is interesting to note the similiarity between Polanyi's descrip tion of the discovery process and the perceptual and cognitive cycles of Ulrie Neisser.2 Neisser's cognitive cycle postulates that a cognitive map, an anticipatory structure of information, is required to prepare the observer to accept certain kinds of information rather than others and thus control the activity of discovery. This cognitive map directs exploration which now samples that part of reality under study; what is now learned about reality in turn modifies the original cognitive map. Polanyi's model of discovery would partially agree with Neisser's if the explorer; its contents, matrix of presuppositions, subsidiarily guiding the explorer in his search of reality. Finally note that the 1-2-3 discovery cycle of Polanyi, like the Directs-Samples-Modifies cycle of Neisser, repeats itself; each time it does so new understanding of reality is hopefully gained.

Modern brain research3 has found strong evidence to support the claim that the major and minor hemispheres of the brain play very different and complementary roles in their cognitive activities.

In most people the dominant hemisphere of the brain is the left hemisphere which controls the right side of the body. It is rightly called dominant because all higher functions of cognitive activity associated with speech and language originate there. The dominant hemisphere can be considered active, capable of initiating a response before and apart from what reality communicates to us. It is capable of acting in an analytic manner by breaking into parts, in this way abstracting, separating, distinguishing, and manipulating concepts. The dominant hemisphere is analytical and sequential; as a consequence it can add and subtract and tarry out other computer-like operations. Summing up, it is through the dominant hemisphere that we communicate by language to others and it is in this hemisphere that verbal concepts are formulated, broken down, analyzed, and used.

In most people the minor hemisphere is the right hemisphere which controls the left side of the body. Its inability to initiate almost any speech has resulted in its being called the minor hemisphere. The minor hemisphere can be receptive with respect to reality; it reacts and responds to what reality presents to us. This hemisphere is responsible for recognition of faces, sensations, spatial orientation, and geometric perception. It possesses a pictorial and pattern sense, it creates images which it forms in a holistic manner. By holistic I mean that it connects, holds things together, unifies by wiping out boundaries, integrates, and finally, enhances visual concepts. Table 1 (Adapted from Eccles') summarizes the main characteristics of the two sides of the brain.
Polanyi's central presupposition is that we know far more than we can tell; in gaining knowledge we work through and by meant of a tacit dimension of our existence. Is it not possible that one component of this tacit dimension originates in the difference

The Differing Roles of the Two Brain Hemispheres

Liaison to consciousness                                       No such Liaison
Linguistic description                                             Musical
Ideational                                                              Pictorial and pattern sense
Conceptual similarities                                           Visual similarities
Analysis over time                                                 Synthesis is over time 
(Time flows irreversibly in one direction)                (Timelessness-no distinction is made between
                                                                              past, present and future)
Analysis of Detail                                                    Holistic-images and patterns
Arithmetical and computer-like                                Geometrical and spatial
Abstract                                                                  Concrete

between the dominant and minor hemispheres of the brain? The minor hemisphere with its capability for holistically seeing visual patterns and relationships is, as we have seen, basically speechless; it cannot "say" what it "sees." The dominant hemisphere can communicate by means of speech its analytic and abstractive analyses, but the minor hemisphere cannot communicate by speech most of its visual, holistic insights. So with respect to visual understanding Polanyi's insight is found to be correct: We always know far more than we can say. And visual concepts play a real role in most sciences; physics, for example, makes extensive use of vector polygons, graphs, drawing of apparatus, Minkowski geometries, Penrose diagrams, Kruskal-Szekeres diagrams, Hubert N-dimentional spaces (with analogies being made to two and three dimensional real spaces), Feynman diagrams (with applications in field theory and statistical mechanics), crystal structures, and Brillouin zones, to name a few visual concepts of physics. Or to consider another area of science the neuropathologist James H. Austin states:

''I have been especially interested in the psychological findings that investigators in the biological sciences rely heavily on their visual imagery, insist on rational controls and share with artists many of the same styles of thinking. I usually think, at times exclusively, in visual terms. Sometimes the image is clear, sometimes murky; either may seem loosely attached to words as I talk, or to a tumble of vague thoughts. When the internal images-the thought visionsare especially clear, they preempt my conscious awareness of objects in the external world. External vision no longer registers, seems almost to be disconnected, and fades from my memory of the moment.5"

It should be pointed out that Polanyi's concept of a tacit dimension to human existence is far more encompassing that just visual awareness, for Polanyi observes that the person seeking knowledge is immersed in a matrix of presuppositions of the culture (both the presuppositions of his profession and the general culture). The person is only tacitly aware of these presuppositions as he thinks and acts by means of them.
The assumption that science is dependent upon presuppositions from outside its narrow culture is upheld in a recent article by Victor F. Weisskopf. He states:

"... that science itself has its roots and origins outside its own rational realm of thinking. In essence, there seems to exist a 'Goedel Theorem of Science,' which holds that science itself is only possible within a larger framework of nonscientific issues and concerns. The mathematician Goedel proved that a system of axioms can never be based on itself: in order to decide upon its validity, statements from outside the system mutt be used. In a similar manner, the activity of science is necessarily embedded in a much wider realm of human experience."6

The methodologies, tactics and presuppositions of science cannot be based entirely upon themselves: in order to decide upon their validity resources from outside science must be used. As an example, science often uses the criterion of some type of ''simplicity'' in evaluating theories; does not the justification come from the tacitly held belief that the universe is harmonious and beautiful, a view long held to be true by philosophers, religious prophets and artists? Other such beliefs that are tacitly accepted by the scientific community and come from society as a whole are:

1. "Truth can be obtained by free discussion and free inquiry."7
2. "Humans can recognize and share a rational and universal standard."8
3. If you seek the truth it will indeed set you free.
4. "The conviction of every scientist and of society as a whole that scientific truth is relevant and essential.''9


1J. Neidhardt, "Personal Knowledge: An Epistemology of Discovery," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 29, No. 3, September 1977, pp. 118-123.
J. Neidhardt, "Faith, the Unrecognized Partner of Science and Religion," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 26, No. 3, 1974, pp. 89-96.
2Ulric Neisscr, Cognition and Reality, W.H. Freeman and Company, San Francisco, 1976.
3John C. Eccles, "Evolution of the Brain in Relation to the Development of the Self-Conscious Mind," Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 299, 1977. 
Robert E. Ornstein, The Pyschology of Consciousness, Viking, New York, 1972.
MC. Wittrock and others; The Human Brain; Prentice-Hall, Inc; Englewood Cliffs; New Jersey; 1977.
4Eccles, Ibid, p. 175
5James H. Austin; chase, chance and creativity; Columbia University Press; 1978; p. 109.
6Victor M. Weisskopf, "The Frontiers and Limits of Science," American Scientist, Vol. 65, No. 4, 1977, p.411.
W. Jim Neidhardt, "Science and the Cultural Meta System," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 30, No. 2, June 1978, p.94.
7Richard Gelwick, The Way of Discovery, Oxford University Press, New York, 1977, pp. 45-46.
8Gelwick, Ibid. pp. 45-46.
9Weisskopf, Op. cit., p. 41.