Science in Christian Perspective



Realistic Faith Seeking Understanding.
A Structured Model of Human Knowing
W. Jim Neidhardt
Physics Department
New Jersey Institute of Technology
323 High Street
Newark, NJ 07102

From: JASA 36 (March 1984): 42-45.


It is mainly due to Michael Polanyi1 that modern thinkers have come to understand the basic soundness of St. Augustine's Biblically-based insight-" . . . Believe that you may understand, since except you believe, you will not understand."2 For Polanyi has convincingly argued that all knowledge is personal knowledge as all human knowing takes place through a framework of tacitly held, formally unprovable commitments (a faith-structure) that motivate and guide the knower in the acquisition of knowledge. These commitments are not open to formal proof for they are prior to logical reasoning and have to be employed as premises in any attempted proof. In all human knowing the commitment framework is tacitily assumed and then put to the test In this context faith is not non-logical but a-logical.

Lack of formal proof, contrary to popular opinion, does not mean that faith arises without being based upon evidence. It is here that a Biblical understanding of faith is particularly helpful. Biblically, faith of all degrees arises due to the encounter of a whole person with the totality of human experience, a whole person being a complex unity including spiritual, volitional, emotional, rational, and physical aspects. Such experience I would call whole-person experience or evidence. Accepting this Biblical notion of whole-person evidence enables one to see the faith-structure as a continuum of beliefs ranging from ultimate, metaphysical beliefs (the universe is orderly) to very mundane beliefs (the sun will rise tomorrow). The latter beliefs are based upon specific sensory evidence, the former are not. This continuum view of faith is a natural consequence of the Bible's inherent realism for it always assumes that the objects of human knowledge truly exist (being grounded in Creation) and act independently of knowledge of them. Note that such realism should be grounded in intelligibility and not sensibility or picturability if phenomena of the quantum world are to be comprehended. Biblical realism sees a continuum of varied intelligible experiences serving as a source for a continuum of beliefs tacitly held by the knower (his or her faith-structure). Such a continuum of intelligible experience is based upon the existence of a multiplicity of differing objects that act independently of the knower's knowledge or activity.3

With this in mind let us now define faith in a realist context, list its important characteristics, thereby clarifying the prior discussion, and by means of a model of human knowledge acquisition, examine the complexity and breadth of the faith-structure as it guides all human exploration, i.e. the human knowing process. This, hopefully will lead to a greater appreciation of Polanyi's and the Bible's basic insight that faith is the motivating, unifying, and integrative component in all human knowing.

A realist's perspective on faith is best understood by contrasting it to naive definitions which essentially define faith to be the attitude of holding certain propositions to be true without evidence for them, or even in disregard of contrary evidence. A realist, however, defines faith to be the attitude of holding certain propositions to be true based upon bold yet plausible extrapolations beyond existing evidence. Such an attitude is not strictly rational but it is not irrational either. Faith as bold extrapolation is ultimately always a personal response to the truth and goodness of God manifested in history and in the ongoing creation; whether acknowledged or not, such a response relies upon the truthfulness, consistency, and faithfulness of the Creator-God. Faith, in a realist context, has a number of important characteristics.

Characteristics of a Realistic Faith

1. Realistic faith is not a simple extrapolation from existing experience but a much bolder extrapolation that reinterprets such experience and formulates convictions that cannot be reduced to inductive summaries of data or deductions drawn from certain experiential facts. Examples of such bold reinterpretations are the conviction that the universe often chaotically perceived is ultimately orderly. Einstein expressed this conviction in the maxim-"God is deep (very subtle) but not devious."4 Likewise there is the conviction that a scientific theory must possess a rational beauty and symmetry in an artistic sense.

2. A realistic faith is always based on evidence if evidence is understood in a whole-person context. Beliefs, ranging in continuum fashion from down-to-earth extrapolations of observed regularities or meaningful, unique events to ultimate (metaphysical) convictions not tied to immediate sensory experience, come about as genuine personal responses to the totality and richness of the flow of all human experience. Such human experience includes knowledge of the events of history contained in the records of the whole culture (and often seen through the eyes of faith as God revealing Himself in specific historical acts), personal relationships with other human beings, and observations of physical reality that often reveal pattern or order either directly perceived or eventually discovered to be present at a "deeper" level as relationships between observables are studied. Christian realism sees faith, at all levels, to arise as a personal response to the totality and richness of human dialogue with God, other persons, and all else in God's creation-living and inanimate. As the three persons of the triune God are utterly faithful to one another, so human beings, made in God's image, have the capacity to enter into relationships based upon trust.

A concrete example is now given of how whole-person experience can be the basis for an ultimate conviction of use to science. I would argue that belief in an orderly universe can arise not only from direct contact with order that is perceived in non-human reality but it also can arise from one's experience of a personal relationship with a close friend who is trustworthy, dependable, and purposeful in all his activities. This personal relationship enables one to better understand and commit oneself to the Biblical description of a supremely personal God who purposefully acts in history and faithfully holds continually in being all His creation, His purposeful faithfulness manifesting itself in nature's regularity and order.

Lastly note that faith's origin in whole-person experience most fruitfully arises in a community setting. In scientific and Christian communities one learns from and shares experiences of all types, sensory and non-sensory, with one's fellow explorers. Common convictions are thus tested, clarified, and deepened through the community's mutual criticism and conjoint verification. Furthermore the supporting community with its traditions provides the continuity necessary for convictions to be transmitted from generation to generation so that power and thrust is maintained in the community's search for deeper and ever-widening comprehension of reality.

3. Faith is an attitude of trust that is active, not passive, for it leads to specific actions being taken. A realistic model of faith is always in resonance with the Biblical injunction to be a doer of the Word and not just a hearer. Faith may be looked upon as an integration of volitional and cognitive insights and urges which precede all knowledge acquisition but guide and motivate all aspects of the knowledge acquisition process. Faith consists not in what can be proved by results. Faith precedes results; faith motivates toward results. Faith always without exception precedes logic, intellect, judgment, reason, and the seeking of experimental data; faith, as an act of the will, commits us to the soundness of these activities and then leads the knower beyond them to ever widening understanding and action.

4. Lastly, from a realist perspective, faith is an active, purposeful trust in an aspect of reality independent of the self so that, contrary to popular opinion, it is objectively, not subjectively, orientated. To be actively committed to a framework of beliefs concerning a reality independent of the self is a responsible activity implying universal intent, for as these beliefs guide one's participatory exploration of such reality they are continually evaluated and assessed. Thomas F. Torrance puts it well as he interprets Michael Polanyi on the responsible nature of faith in scientific knowing:

". . . Our fundamental beliefs are certainly personal convictions bound up with the elemental interaction between persons and realities other than themselves, but they are basic acts of acknowledgement in response to some intelligibility inherent in the nature of things, that is, to some meaningful order or message-laden pattern. As such they pivot upon the objective pole of the knowing relationship, and they cannot be reduced to merely subjective states of consciousness. That is to say, beliefs arise in us because they are forced upon us by the nature of the reality with which we are in experiential contact, as we allow our minds to fall under the constraint of its inherent intelligibility which we cannot rationally or in good conscience resist. Thus belief has to be understood strictly within the context of rational recognition of and willing submission to the claims of objective reality upon us and of obligation towards the truth laid upon us by the truth itself. It is this ontological anchoring of belief in reality transcendent to ourselves which prevents it from being subjective or arbitrary for it binds belief to what is independently and universally true.... Polanyi points out that truth is the external pole of belief and belief, far from being a merely subjective or private concern, is to be regarded as the obedience of the mind to the truth in recognition of its universal claims and normative authority. However while belief pivots upon the objective pole of the knowing relation, the subjective pole must be given its proper if subordinate place, i.e. the role of the person as rational agent in believing, and believing as be is convinced he ought to believe in fidelity to the truth. As Polanyi expresses it: 'The freedom of the subjective person to do as he pleases is overruled by the freedom of the responsible person to do as he must.' That is what is so distinctive about scientific belief, the combination of personal and compulsive elements in it. Polanyi brings these two elements together in his notion of 'tment in which freedom and obligation, conscience and obe dience, are bound inseparably together under the overarching authority of truth."5

To summarize, realistic faith of all degrees is objectively, not subjectively, grounded in that it represents responsible commitments to a reality independent of the self. Therefore a realistic faith is not an ungrounded persuasion of the mind or a subjective feeling without evidential justification.

A Structured Model of the Human Knowing Process

Figure I summarizes the definition and characteristics of a realistic faith by schematically representing its structure as a key component in all human knowing. The person as knower is seen to be actively engaged in exploratory activity with respect to reality, responding to and asking questions of reality and perceiving responses and answers from reality (arrows up and down). This exploratory activity is motivated and guided by (downward arrow) a framework of ultimate commitments tacitly held by the person. Polanyi says that a person indivells such a framework of commitments in order to gain greater understanding of reality. Biblically this framework of ultimate commitments is called in the Old Testament the "Heart"5 and is thought of as the center from which springs the deepest motivations that guide us as human beings in continual dialogue with God and all His created reality. From the "Heart" springs one's deepest personal commitments concerning the ultimate rationality of all reality, one's standards of intellectual and moral integrity, and, finally one's criteria for intellectual beauty to list but a few key commitments; all the commitments of the "Heart" play a central role in guiding the exploration of reality. As Joldersma' has shown this commitment framework consists of a hierarchy of three basic categories of commitments. Ontological commitments provide the guidance (downward arrow) for epistemological commitmerits which, in turn, guide (downward arrow) commitments concerning specific methodologies for exploring reality. Ontological commitments include beliefs concerning the origin of the universe, the universe's orderedness, and the nature of the entities that populate it including man; epistemological commitments include beliefs on how man can get to know external reality, as well as beliefs about criteria used to judge the resultant knowledge.

This commitment framework is not a direct result of empirical evidence; it comes prior to the gathering of such evidence and is necessary for that exploratory activity. The origin and maintenance of this structure of beliefs is due to feedbacks' (upward arrows) based upon whole-person experience; these feedbacks originate from the exploratory activity, itself grounded in the interactive dialogue with reality, and from the lower categories of belief in the hierarchy as the figure shows. Lastly note that a person always lives in a culture and the culture's tacitly-held framework of commitments may play a role in formulating the person's commitment framework. The beliefs of the culture can thus provide guidance (downward arrow) to the specific knower's tacitly-held personal beliefs and these personal beliefs may, in turn, through feedback influence the beliefs tacitly held by the entire culture.


In summary this model sees all human knowing as originating in the exploratory activity of a person, such activity being guided by his or her tacitly held framework of commitments. This commitment framework of the person is, in turn, guided by the basic commitments of the whole culture. Feedback at all levels in this model keeps the entire exploratory-commitment structure viable and healthy. It should be noted that the exploratory activity is, in general, not limited to one approach but may be religious, scientific, or artistic to name but a few ways to encounter reality. Thus the model is intended to apply to all forms of knowing. The specific processes of such differing exploratory activities as religion, science, or art will differ, but some of the processes of each particular activity will be embedded in personal judgments and commitments as a consequence of guidance received from the person's commitment framework. In an earlier paper an Einsteinian schema for scientific discovery illus-

trates this point, taking science to be the particular exploratory activity.9 To conclude, this model. based upon Polanyi's work, partially indicates the rich structure inherent in "faith seeking understanding" with its Pascalian corollary (freely paraphrased) faith indeed tells what the senses (or logical processes) do not tell, but not the contrary of what they see. It is above them and not contrary to them.10

I would like to dedicate this communication to Richard H. Bube in honor of his outstanding years of service as editor of JASA and as an expression of thanks for the long-term encouragement he has given me to probe the riches contained in the Biblical understanding of faith. Any misunderstandings in this essay are, of course, my sole responsibility and not his.


1Michael Polanyi,
Personal Knowledge. The University of Chicago Press, Illinois, 1958.

2M. Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society, The University of Chicago Press, 1964, pp. 15 and 45.

3I believe that the basic validity of the orthodox definition of realism will remain even as modified by the richness and openness of all reality which, at the quantum level, appears to have a participatory aspect (WheelerBohr interpretation of quantum mechanics). I base my conviction upon its resonance with the Judaic-Christian doctrine of creation.

'The open-endedness of scientific truth. The current interpretation of quantum reality is a partial understanding, always open to further correction, Accepting the validity of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle the question can still be asked: Is it really philosophically sound to argue that what cannot be measured exactly, cannot exist and take place exactly (Stanley L. Jaki, Cosmos and Creator, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1980, pp. 96-97)?

'The willingness of the on-going scientific community to acknowledge realism as a fruitful scientific presupposition. To quote a recent editorial in Science concerning methodology in the social sciences: "It is not subjective, of course, but it is apparently very difficult, even for the scientifically sophisticated, to keep in mind that there is an external social and cultural world independent of the perceiving subject, a belief which, as Einstein said, is the basis of all natural science (Nancie L. Gonzalez, Science, 28 January 1983, vol. 219, number 4583, p. 345)"

4Thomas F. Torrance, The Ground and Grammar of Theology, University Press of Virginia, Virginia, 1980, pp. 127-132.

5T.F. Torrance, Christian Theology and Scientific Culture, Oxford University Press, 1981, pp. 67-69.

6James M. Houston, Meaning of 'Truth' in the Old Testament, an audio cassette available from the C.S. Lewis Institute, 1800 N. Kent St., Arlington, Virginia 22209.

7CIarence W. Joldersma, Beliefs and the Scientific Enterprise: A Framework Model Based on Kuhn's Paradigms, Polanyi's Commitment Framework, and Radnitzky's Internal Steering Fields, Master's thesis, Institute for Christian Studies, 229 College Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada MSTIR4, 1983. 1 gladly acknowledge the great spiritual and intellectual stimulation I have received from Joldersma's thesis although I differ considerably from him in my understanding of the nature of faith and how it arises in a perso n.

8As has so well been documented by engineers and physiologists, feedback is essential for the healthy growth and stability of all living organisms; I would extend this concept to mental structures. I believe that Joldersma's framework model w ould be greatly strengthened if he explicitly incorporated feedback into the model's belief structure .

9W . Jim Neidhardt, The Participatory Nature of Modern Science and Judaic-Christian Theism. to be published in Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation. See figure 3 for a representation of exploratory activity in science.

10Blaise Pascal, Pensees and the Provincial Letters, The Modern Library, New York, 1941, p. 93.