Science in Christian Perspective



Scientific Objectivity 
and the Word of God

Department of Chemistry
The University of Alberta
Edmonton, ALTA Canada

 From: JASA 36 (June 1984): 88-97.

The objectivity of scientific knowledge is currently a topic of critical philosophical debate, and there are even some authors who argue that science does not deal with any objective "truth." Polanyi's view, that objectivity must rest upon the practice of a continuing responsible commitment to a reality beyond ourselves and ultimately independent of ourselves, is defended against rationalist critiques from both medieval and positivist positions. It is argued that a biblical understanding of the meaning of faith as the means of knowledge-along with the Word of God as the ultimate source Of the objects for such faith-is also appropriate to the problem of objectivity in science.

In his pioneering contributions toward an epistemology of personal knowledge, Michael Polanyi1 showed convincingly that positivist and objectivist philosophies of science are inadequate, since they try to establish the objective validity of science on impersonal grounds, ignoring or suppressing the palpable fact that knowledge belongs to human knowers who participate personally in their knowledge in ways that are not fully specifiable. Of course Polanyi was not the first to identify this fact as a formal or logical issue. Wittgenstein, for example, emphasized the impossibility of ever escaping from the tacit commitments and presuppositions entailed in the use of any language, and showed that we can never use analytical statements to express fully what it is we actually know or mean, in stating something we know or believe about reality.

Uniqueness of Polanyi's Epistemology

The uniqueness of Polanyi's work consisted in three things. Firstly, as an experienced and creative physical and natural scientist, he used the actual subject matter and history of science itself to demonstrate the validity of his claim that scientific knowledge is inescapably personal. Secondly, it is clear from the outset that his intention in such a critique was not to destroy, but to affirm our belief in the objectivity of scientific knowledge and the validity of the scientific enterprise as one which discovers truth. (These two aspects of Polanyi's work are of course most attractive to scientists. As a group, we are passionate believers in the truth and value of science, and have little sympathy for philosophies which undercut that belief.)   

But thirdly, Polanyi's purpose in such a study of scientific knowledge transcended a concern only with science; it was really synthetic or holistic. Recognizing the central importance of science to Western culture since the 17th century, he sought neither to make a religious idol of it (as positivism had tried to do), nor on the other hand to deny its validity or its significance for human life, but to place it properly within the spectrum of a truly humari-and therefore necessarily personal-relation to all objective reality. As Polanyi clearly recognized, this relation also includes the possibility of valid religious knowledge, and Polanyi affirmed its potential objectivity as the ultimate expression of a human knower's responsible obligation to realities which he did not create, but of which be has become aware. Here Polanyi's concern was not only consistent philosophically, but also immensely practical, for he realized that among all possible religious or ideological views there are some which are inconsistent with, or even actively hostile to, the very things he sought to validate and uphold.

Responsible Commitment: The Essence of Objectivity

In this essay, I suggest that there are certain attitudes or -ultimate commitments" which are important for maintaining a healthy belief in the objectivity of scientific knowledge. These attitudes are not fundamentally ideological, that is, they are not primarily belief-statements, but I 'believings"; a theologian might speak of the distinction between statements and being. Such attitudes or commitments were vital and formative in the rise of science, and explain in part its historical link to the Reformation.2 Conversely, I suggest that at present there are signs of some loss of confidence in the objectivity of science, which may be traced to the erosion or loss of such attitudes in scientists themselves.

Polanyi's notion of personal knowledge, which acknowledges the necessity for "responsible commitment" as the framework for knowing, is relevant to this discussion. I have suggested elsewhere 3 that there are important congruences between such an epistemological view and biblical attitudes toward knowing, and I emphasized particularly the congruence between the notion of "responsible commitment" and the biblical meaning of the word "faith." While it is obvious that there are very substantial differences, some of critical importance, between religious and scientific knowing, an "epistemology of personal knowledge" recognizes the qualitative continuity between them rather than seeing them in terms of dichotomy. Both involve faith (or "responsible commitment") as an essential and dynamic element, and both affirm a reality which is objective, that is, not of our making and therefore in some sense "out There," not "in Here. "

Two Negative Critiques of Polanyi's Approach

Negative critics of Polanyi's epistemological approach, both those concerned with scientific knowledge and those concerned with religious knowledge, make the common claim that it is ultimately equivalent to "subjectivism." Since it is clear that Polanyi did not intend to proclaim the subjectivity" of all knowledge, but rather to argue grounds for belief in the objectivity of personal knowledge in both domains, such a criticism implies that these critics have a fundamentally different understanding of the epistemological problem-and its possible solution-than is implicit in Polanyi's approach. Both sets of critics assume that there are, or ought to be, different grounds for belief in objectivity than those proposed by Polanyi-grounds which are somehow less dependent upon the practice of "responsible commitment."

However, it is quite obvious that the two sets of critics would not agree on what those grounds might be, since the primary goals and assumptions behind their critiques are diametrically opposed. Those concerned to justify scientific objectivity are necessarily looking for an impersonal procedure to validate (or falsify) beliefs, a technical process which can be operated in logical, mechanical fashion. Ultimately their appeal is to the concept of the autonomous reason, which they believe can be made absolute by its formal detachment from personal commitment. On the other hand, those critics concerned with the establishment of religious knowledge believe that an external authority (based on divine revelation) may be taken rationally as an objective starting-point, from which a system of propositional truth can then be worked out in a purely logical-and impersonal fashion.4

Three Critical Issues in Epistemology

To understand why Polanyi's approach to epistemology is fundamentally different from that involved in either of the critical positions just outlined, we should note three crucial presuppositions or tendencies implicit in his work:

(1) Epistemology as a philosophical discourse must be concerned with necessary grounds for objective knowledge, but it is not necessarily obligated to determine sufficient grounds; the function of philosophy is to point beyond itself to life and being.

(2) The primary concern of epistemology is not with the formal, explicit and logical structure which is the "crystalline deposit" of knowledge, but with the actual process of discovery, learning and validation (or falsification). The discussion of the explicit, formal structure is a legitimate but secondary concern.

(3) Our rationality is human rationality, and therefore epistemological theories cannot be based purely on logical abstractions, but must be consistent with the roots of our rational powers in the tacit domain of our creaturely existence; in this sense, epistemology must be empirically consistent, as well as logically so.

It is consistent with these implicit tendencies in his thought that Polanyi should have considered "the epistemology of personal knowledge" as something more in the nature of an open-ended project, rather than a completed or closed system of dogmatic statements. The spirit in which "Personal Knowledge" was written is that of a man who points out to us what he can see clearly, but who is ready to say "I don't know" in response to questions we may ask about boundary areas; and we ourselves are invited to contribute as well, in the same exploratory spirit. For those who conceive of philosophy as the building of complete systems-whether "Summa Theologica" or "Principia Mathematica" are their prototypesthis incompleteness is itself perhaps the greatest difficulty with Polanyi's epistemology. But to admit that we do not yet fully understand is not the same thing as saying that we may not be responsibly committed to that which we do know. Thus the epistemology of personal knowledge is itself a consistent illustration of its own view of knowing.

The presuppositions involved in much of traditional philosophy, both medieval and modern, are incompatible with some-or even all three-of the presuppositions in Polanyi's approach.

Necessary vs. Sufficient Grounds for Truth

Is it the proper task of epistemology to determine sufficient grounds for objective knowledge ("truth")? In most modern philosophy it seems to be so understood. For Descartes, objective reality is the object of cognition by the autonomous reason; the claim to know anything at all then requires sufficient evidence that such knowledge is not subjective," i.e. self-created. One of Kant's main epistemological concerns was the attempt to prove that sufficient conditions exist for objective knowledge to be possible for a Cartesian knower. The essential theme in the positivist/ objectivist tradition is the notion that an impersonal procedure, the 'scientific method,' could be demonstrated to be a sufficient machine for generating objective knowledge (Popper's view, 5 that a scientific theory may never be verified, but only survive falsification, can be regarded as a formal step away from the idea of sufficiency as a goal). While of course it is much too naive to describe the tradition of modern epistemology entirely in terms of this search for sufficient grounds for truth, it does seem to me to be an underlying attitude, an obligation which has been tacitly assumed by most philosophers since Descartes.

Given that attitude, the critique of positivism/objectivism given by Polanyi in "Personal Knowledge" necessarily appears to be purely negative, for Polanyi shows convincingly that acts of personal judgement and personal affirmation are inextricably involved in all knowing, and therefore we can never remove the element of risk-risk that we might be mistaken-from any of our knowledge. From the perspective of those who, like Descartes, accept the obligation of an autonomous reason- to determine the sufficient grounds for truth, Polanyi's conclusions really are equivalent to "subjectivism:- we determine what is "objectively real" by our commitments. Yet I think it is evident that this is not how Polanyi perceived the situation, and it is relevant to our discussion to understand why.

In the tradition of medieval philosophy, the issue of sufficient grounds for truth appears in an entirely different setting. Divine authority is the basis for sufficiency, so that medieval philosophy is not fundamentally troubled by the question; in that sense, "there is no epistemological problem. "' Note, however, that the actual meaning of such a claim is really that this divine truth is also evident or manifest in some directly accessible way to creaturely intelligence. In medieval philosophy the form the argument usually took is that the created order-including human reason-is a fixed expression of, or is in fixed correspondence to, the eternal mind and will of God. Our knowledge of God (and indeed of all reality) is objective because God has Himself given it rational form, and this rational form (expressed ultimately in a set of propositions, such as Aquinas tried to formulate) is itself eternal truth, crystallized in a set of statements. Some major problems of medieval philosophy grow out of this view of the relation between God and creation; it is not my purpose to discuss them. What is significant about the medieval idea of truth is that it encouraged the establishment of a rigidly fixed and closed rational system which was unable to accommodate itself to the demands of truly objective reality as these became more and more pressing. We can see this, both in the refusal of the system to respond to the dynamic reality of the Word of God as it broke in upon the Reformers, and in refusal to acknowledge the possibility of a undiscovered truth" open to the seeker in a contingent created world. The historical collapse of the medieval s of thought-including its closed rationalist epistemology clear proof of its inadequacy; it ought to warn us not to adopt

We may well believe that a divine reality and a divine self-revelation a in some way a sufficient ground for our confidence in the possibility of an objective knowledge; we should not trivialize and discredit that claim by reducing it to a closed rational system which we have created ourselves.

the same arguments in relation to religious and scientific truth today, as some evangelicals unfortunately are trying to do. We may well believe (as in fact I am trying to argue in this essay) that a divine reality and a divine self-relevation are in some way a sufficient ground for our confidence in the possibility of objective knowledge; we should not trivialize and discredit that claim by reducing it to a closed rational system which we have created ourselves.

As a modern, Polanyi, of course, was not trying to respond to medieval ideas of truth; I have introduced them here because of their contemporary relevance. The key point with respect to the question of sufficient grounds for truth is that the medievals thought they could determine these grounds as a matter of philosophical argument (in their case, by the doctrine that human reason is the mirror of the divine). But, precisely at the point where one might have expected arguments for sufficiency, Polanyi ended his discussion of epistemology with the notion of "responsible commitment" (which I earlier suggested is epistemologically congruent to the biblical usage of the word "faith"). By doing so, I think he implied firstly, that a determination of sufficient grounds for truth in rational, philosophical terms is simply not possible, and secondly, that in any case this is not the effectual means by which we acquire and hold a grasp on reality. Philosophy must always point beyond itself, on the one hand to responsible actions' expressing our commitment, and on the other hand to the objective reality which necessarily transcends our best efforts at explicit statement.

Emphasis on Process of Learning and Discovery

Polanyi's view that the processes of discovery and learning ought to be the primary focus of epistemological concern is also at odds with most philosophical tradition. Modern philosophers distinguish sharply between the processes of discovery and learning (where they may be willing to grant the fact of personal participation), and the logical justification  or defense of the "crystalline deposit" of explicit, formal knowledge, once it has been acquired; and they would mostly argue that epistemology proper should concern itself with the latter (this view is evident, for example, in the philosophical writing of Karl Popper5). Here we can recognize the influence of mathematics as a tradition. In mathematics, the means by which a hypothesis or insight (later formalized as a theorem) is acquired may be quite irrelevant to the formal proof or argument for the validity of the theorem. But mathematics is a discourse which is itself concerned only with formal, logical relations, and therefore to say that epistemology should be patterned after it is to beg the question about the real nature of knowing.

It should be emphasized that "a primary epistemological concern with the processes of discovery and learning" does not mean that the logical, explicit, formal structure of our knowledge is of no concern. Polanyi described his work on a philosophy of personal knowledge as "an attempt to demythologize positivism"; that is, he recognized the value and importance of its critique of scientific methodology as a formal technique. There is evident utility in the formal and logical procedures which have been proposed as tools for logical analysis of our ideas and for their comparison to reality. (For example, Popper's emphasis on falsification, rather than verification, as the formal test actually applied to a scientific theory, is a useful modification in our description of the apparatus of the scientific method). It is an important task of any enterprise concerned with knowledge to try to formulate what is known explicitly and logically, and to aim at further extension of the explicit domain by careful and critical discussion.8 But such formal procedures are tools, and as such may not be impersonally detached from the acts of personal judgment exercised by knowers in using (or electing not to use) them in any specific context.

It seems to me that Polanyi's discussion of personal knowledge is most brilliant and convincing in connection with this issue. By painstaking discussion both of everyday work in science and of the history of past scientific discovery, he shows how acts of personal judgment and commitment are involved whenever we acquire knowledge-or even re-express what we already know in a new way. If we really ask whether a given claim to knowledge is objectively valid, we place all the technical apparatus before us, and then exercise personal judgment as to whether each tool is apposite and each piece of evidence convincing. It does not matter that such judgments may be, and indeed often are, mistaken. What matters is that everything we do acknowledge to be objectively true has passed through such a grid of personal judgments. Whatever we mean by "objectivity," therefore, cannot be defined or determined in a manner independent of, or inconsistent with, that process.

Epistemological emphasis on the processes of discovery and learning also leads us to recognize that a knowledge of reality is not normally static and fixed, but growing and dynamic-a perspective consistent with biblical thinking. Polanyi noted that learning involves irreversible changes in our understanding of reality, while the logical and explicit formulations we later create to describe and retain that understanding are reversible, i.e. they are static logical relations, which we can reconstruct at will.9 If attention is focussed exclusively on the explicit and logical aspects of knowing, the resulting epistemology tends to emphasize the static (and ultimately closed) system of logical relations as a governing ideal of objective knowledge. Yet this ideal is incompatible with actual knowing at its most vital, which really involves irreversible growth of knowledge in an open context.

(Here again is an aspect of positivism which needs not to be repudiated but "demythologized," for what made positivism " positive" was its emphasis on scientific knowledge as cumulative and growing-something occurring irreversibly in time in an open system. What is mythical is the idea that the process is a purely impersonal "evolution of knowledge from the machine" [the 'scientific method]).

We may even suggest that the tendency of most modern philosophy to restrict epistemology to a concern with the explicit logical formulations of knowledge shows that-unlike science itself-philosophy has never fully escaped from a medieval conception of its task. T. F. Torrance10 has argued convincingly that classical and medieval conceptions of the universe as a necessary expression of unchanging and eternal Divine Reason presented a fundamental block to the development of science, since they posited that the natural world had as its true explanation a fixed logical system of "final causes" directly expressive of the mind and will of God; appeals to experience were irrelevant, since the most they could do would be to devise hypotheses to "save the phenomena." This block was not effectually removed until the Reformation's

Walter R. Thorson is Professor of Theoretical Chemistry at the University Of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. His professional interests are in quantum mechanics, especially its application to problems in the theory of atomic collisions and molecular dynamics. He is a member of the American Physical Society, Canadian Association of Physicists, and the American Scientific Affiliation, and has published about 50 professional papers. He is actively interested as a layman in theology and Christian apologetics, especially in topics bearing on the epistemology of science and its relation to religious knowledge. He is a frequent lecturer at Regent College, Vancouver, B.C., where he is Adjunct Professor of the Philosophy of Science. Dr. and Mrs. Thorson and their family reside in Edmonton.
emphasis on biblical teaching changed the understanding of the relation between God and nature. The Reformation view that a sovereign and transcendent God freely created a contingent creation and sustains it by grace, had as some of its effects (i) a heightened distinction between God and nature, (ii) a greater sense of the intrinsic worth of creation as a distinct realm, (iii) a new awareness that creation as a contingent order is open to human discovery, and (iv) a sense of the dynamic (rather than the static) in man's relation to creation as his proper sphere. Torrance has shown how these shifts of attitude were effective for the rise of science. My point here is that they also imply that there is a proper epistemological concern with the processes of learning and discovery, by which we come to know objective reality; yet as a whole the tradition of modern philosophy has not taken that implicit direction.

Ignoring modern philosophical presuppositions for the moment, it is appropriate here to consider once more a serious objection which will be raised from the perspective of Christian beliefs: It is clear that the approach to epistemology advocated here is concerned with the human knower, and with the actual processes of personal judgment and commitment which are involved in the dynamic and irreversible process of coming to know. Similarly, the notion of "objective knowledge" being discussed is concerned with our grasp on reality-not reality as it is from an absolute point of view. But surely, it will be argued, the possibility of "an absolute point of view" is guaranteed to us by the existence of divine revelation? I have already referred to one form of this argument in connection with the possibility of sufficient conditions for truth, namely the view that a sharply defined revelation in the form of logical propositions provides us just such an absolute ground."

To answer this objection fully will bring us to the central concerns of this essay. The answer may be summarized briefly in advance by saying that such an "absolute ground for the objectivity of our knowledge" does indeed exist, in God Himself and by His free grace; but it is manifested or discovered dynamically, through the practice of what Polanyi calls "responsible commitment," and the Bible calls "faith." I recognize that for a variety of viewpoints (both medieval and modern) this answer is no answer at all; but I am concerned in this essay with underlying attitudes or ultimate commitments, and it is the attitudes or commitments behind these dissident viewpoints which are really the issue.

Human Reason Is a "Creaturely Rationality"

A different understanding of epistemology is lastly also implied in Polanyi's emphasis on a functional link between our rational, articulate powers and their roots in inarticulate powers of knowing and learning, such as are manifested in skills of manipulation and perception, and which to some extent animals share with us. The essential point is that our rationality is a "creaturely rationality." It arises out of our creaturely, bodily existence--out of the dust of the earth," to use the language of the second chapter of Genesis.

This has important implications with respect to medieval philosophy, since there it is assumed that human rationality is patterned after a Divine Reason, and the forms of our and thought are in some way eternal and unchanging necessarily connected with the mind of God. indeed, medieval theology that is the interpretation given to biblical teaching that man is made in God's image; 'image' is a fixed copy of the divine nature, inherent in as creature and primarily exhibited in his reason and intelligence. This notion is a part of the "locked-in" system

Objectivity is effectually available to us in the decision on our part to be responsibly committed ... in thoughts, words and actions, to the reality which is the object of our knowledge.

medieval philosophical assumptions which effectively blocked the development of science, and to which I referred earlier. Here again it has been ably shown by T. F. Torrance how Reformation emphasis on biblical teachings produced important shifts in thinking about God and nature. Calvin's understanding of the imago Dei is especially significant; for Calvin, the "image of God" is not a necessary link between human reason and the mind of God in some static form, but rather refers to the destiny and purpose of humankind as called into being by God, and given life and grace by Him. As such it is displayed and expressed not in independence of God but in relationship to Him, and it requires to be renewed and maintained by His grace. In relation to the creation, this means that man, while equipped by the Creator with all the gifts needed to fulfill his high calling and responsibility, is nevertheless still a creature, "out of the dust of the earth," and there is a link between him and the rest of the natural order. His gifts, including his reason, are creaturely gifts. This view is completely consistent with the biblical account of man's creation and his place in nature, and as Torrance has shown it provided the relational context within which the rise of modern science could take place. For an example, in an earlier essay12 I showed how the story of man naming the creatures [Gen. 2:191 provides an important paradigm for science as a valid creaturely activity.

Polanyi's understanding of the link between our rationality and our creaturely existence, and his willingness to explore that link to the fullest in order to understand its epistemological consequences, is consistent with this biblical view of man as a creature of God sustained by His grace. It accepts implicitly the Reformation view that we have no necessary hold on truth (as over against the medieval notion of human reason as a copy of the Divine).

But this emphasis also implies an even more radical critique of the tradition of modern objectivist philosophy. I argued earlier that that tradition assumes the complete autonomy of the human mind in determining what is objectively true. We can see this explicitly in Descartes; the entire tradition continues implicitly in the same assumption, and culminates in the (unsuccessful) attempts of logical positivism and its continuations in analytic philosophy to absolutize rationality by vesting its function in a machine-like, impersonal, formal apparatus. By showing that even our reason is an extension of the groping of all creatures to comprehend and adapt to their environments, Polanyi shows how completely uncritical the assumption of such autonomy is. Our reason is no less anthropocentric than our senses are, even if it is more ambitious in its claims.

Meaning and Objectivity Grow Out of Commitments, Not Out of Formal Statements As Such

This radical critique can be given two quite different interpretations; the interpretation adopted by a given individual will depend upon fundamental attitudes or commitments of that individual concerning ultimate reality, and not upon any particular logical arguments which can be made. As I suggested earlier, if one really stands within the set of attitudes and commitments expressed in the Cartesian claim that the human mind is autonomous to determine what is objectively real, then Polanyi's critique will be understood as a final declaration that all claims to know are really subjectively based, and amount to no more than expressions of individual or collective self-confidence. The evident fact that Polanyi himself did not intend to be understood in this way will be dismissed as wishful thinking, and his reference to the notion of responsible commitment will appear as meaningless nonsense.

The alternative interpretation-and the one which I believe is latent, though not clearly implied, in Polanyi's epistemology-is the context provided by the biblical understanding of human beings as creatures of God, sustained by his grace, to which I referred above. Although it is true that our rational powers, like our senses, are "creaturely"-"out of the ground," and limited-we nevertheless stand in the possibility of a responsible and objective relation, both to God himself and to the creation in which he has placed us and sustains us. The Reformers taught that while we may have a saving knowledge of God and his ultimate spiritual purpose only through the revelation of his saving grace in Christ, we are also sustained by him in creation, in spite of the Fall, by " common grace," the continuing expression of his love and faithfulness as Creator. On the one hand, this recognizes the transcendence of God with respect to creation, and denies that there is either an organic relation between God and nature (as is supposed in paganism and pantheism), or a necessary, rational relation (as is supposed in Platonism or in medieval thought); on the other hand, it affirms God's continuing relationship to us (and indeed to the whole creation) as the faithful Creator, so that man does not really stand alone in the universe but continues to be sustained by God, to whom he is finally responsible personally.

The latent presuppositions of the epistemology of personal knowledge seem to be compatible with this doctrine of "common grace." In pointing to the notion of responsible commitment, Polanyi indicates that:

(a) There is a real ground for the objectivity of knowledge, but it necessarily lies beyond philosophical grasp.

(b) This ground can only be in the 'Other,' the objective reality itself to which our knowledge and beliefs point, however imperfectly.

(c) Objectivity is effectually available to us in the decision on our part to be responsibly committed, in a sense of personal obligation expressed in thoughts, words and actions, to the reality which is the object of our knowledge. This is true whether we conceive of that other as truth, or ultimate reality, or more personally as God himself. (Note also that the obligation and responsibility is not to our ideas or beliefs as such, but that to which they point; there are times in both scientific and theological thinking when it is crucial to keep this in mind).

(d) An important part of "responsible commitment" is paying attention" to what is there, what can be observed, what calls itself to our attention. The empiricist emphasis of the early scientists expresses their belief in the critical importance of this attitude.

Now, above all, what is intended in all these statements is an attitude, an inner belief, or believing-not a set of formal claims. It requires not to be debated, but rather to be practiced, in the process of knowing and learning. It was Polanyi's view, which I share, that it is in this practice that all the learning of science, and indeed all our real knowledge, has come into our grasp.13

From a theological standpoint, the doctrine of "common grace" affirms that such an attitude toward the knowledge of created things is in fact justified by God's faithfulness in sustaining creation as an objective reality; thus, belief in "truth" or "ultimate reality" is appropriate because God has made himself the guarantor of such things. [The error in the medieval view then lay not in affirming this, but in assuming that it could be exhibited or determined rationally-as though a system of logical propositions could take the place of trust in God himself. Thus it really was a confusion of statements with being].

Scientific Objectivity and the Word of God

In the title of this article I have suggested that there is a link between scientific objectivity and the word of God.

In the first place, it is evident that an attitude of faith or responsible commitment" cannot be exercised in a complete vacuum. Faith is necessarily set in a background context of some sort of hypotheses or expectations about the reality toward which it is directed. Now, it has been recognized widely that for the beginnings of modern science this context was explicitly provided by the matrix of Christian beliefs about God, man, creation and relations among them. In this essay I have given a lot of emphasis to the misconceptions in the medieval view, and the way in which shifts resulting from the Reformation made science possible, but this does not mean that the entire matrix of medieval beliefs was incompatible with science (in the way that some forms of Eastern mysticism are, for example). The notions that the creation should be orderly, that there are governing principles or laws which are unchanging in character, and that human intelligence is in some way intended to find this creation comprehensible, etc., are all expectations essentially created by the word of God. once the shifts occurring in the Reformation made it clear that we cannot reason from such expectations directly to the manifestation of "final causes" in nature, these general expectations became instead the motivation for an exploratory mode of thinking capable of being educated in its understanding through experience.  

Let us take the expectation of order or rational excellence in nature as an illustration. Kepler for example believed that the orbits of the planets would reveal rationality or order behind their creation in a geometrical, almost Pythagorean way. With the rise of Newtonian physics, this sort of "geometrical" paradigm was replaced by a conception of order in the form of controlling principles (equations of motion) which could account for even the apparently disordered behavior of complex model systems. Thus for men like Leverrier or Adams (the discoverers of Neptune), the details of planetary motion, which in fact are not as simple as Kepler thought, are still "orderly" because the laws which govern them are simple and rational. With Einstein's theory of relativity and the advent of modern physics, the concept of order and elegance entailed in the mechanical model paradigm of the Newtonian period has been replaced (in physics) by an emphasis on requirements of symmetry and invariance in the controlling equations-so much so, that we are even prepared to override the obvious notions of Euclidean space-time in which our senses have always told us we live. [One of the present difficulties in modern theoretical physics is that these conceptions of order are so complex, and their relation to the relatively few significant experimental results is so tenuous, that currently there is some hesitation about the adequacy of the "symmetry/ invariance" paradigm.] But for the entire tradition-extending over four centuries and many generations-the same expectation has persisted that "order" and rational excellence" will characterize objective reality, even though, in the course of discovery, our conceptions of order and rational excellence have become increasingly subtle and sophisticated.

Three "Perceptual" Modes of Thinking

However, there is an even more profound influence of the word of God on the attitude we have toward objective reality, which underlies and sustains the more specific expectations just discussed. That influence comes in the idea of "Word of God" itself: the notion, fundamental to biblical thought, that learning to know objective reality involves an epistemological mode more akin to hearing and listening than to seeing and grasping.

Torrance14 has suggested that science owes something in its basic habits of thought to Greek, Roman and Hebrew cultural traditions:

(a) For the Greek mentality, thinking is ultimately a kind of seeing; recognition is dominated by the visual, truth primarily characterized in terms of form and pattern. One has only to think of Greek art and poetry with their em on visual imagery to see this, and the reader may reflect himself how dominantly the paradigm of vision affects all language about knowledge and thought.

(b) Characteristic of Roman culture is the notion of or grasp of reality; this expresses itself in their direct  interest in architecture, engineering, political and social organization, law, etc., and in their ideological admiration for mastery practical control of events and things. Again it is not hard see how this habit of thought manifests itself in science, in terms of its execution methodologically and in terms of idea of mastery over nature.

(c) If Greeks thought in terms of seeing, and Romans terms of grasping reality, it is evident that in 'he He culture the dominant epistemological motif is that of hearing and listening. For example take Psalm 19, where ex attention is given to the celestial spectacle:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

Above and beyond all such specific illustrations

continually emphasizes the relation between God and man one mediated by speaking. "Thus says the Lord. . ." Does mentality have an important part to play in scientific tr tion? Torrance argues that indeed it has crucial import for it places epistemological stress on our being receptive responsive to what comes to us from the Other, and indicates how this attitude appears in the rise of science:
This is a way of learning that the modern world even in its natural science has learned largely through the Reformation, with its emphasis upon hearing the word of God, and letting it speak to us out of itself, and upon the obedience of the mind in response to it... Nature is to be understood only by humble learning, by serving it, following the clues it gives us of its own secrets without attempting to force our own patterns upon it.15

Professor Torrance then goes on to very relevant remarks about the way in which loss of attitude is leading to distorted conceptions of the nature of science.

Polanyi's emphasis on a functional link between our abstract, rational, articulate powers of knowing, and inarticulate powers more directly related to sense perception and manipulation, makes it evident that this question of hearing (as contrasted with seeing and grasping) is far from trivial, but actually relates in a fundamental way to our behavior as knowers.

It is, firstly, an important notion if we consider what happens in the processes of discovery and learning. Polanyi has striven to describe the "general alertness" which characterizes an intelligent creature, aware in some latent sense of a problem to be solved, but not yet in possession of the essential clues to the solution.' At a certain stage, what is of critical importance is really more like "listening" than "seeing." "Seeing" is certainly an important epistemological mode, but it seems to describe more closely a different, later stage in knowing, the act of integration of recognized particulars into a meaningful whole, when we have responded to what has been "heard." [It is interesting that Polanyi's account of knowing and learning drew mainly upon visual and tactile

Listening as an epistemological mode ... places the maximum emphasis not upon my activities as knower but upon that objective Other toward which my knowing is directed.

language for its descriptive terminology; it might be valuable to review it for the relevance of the hearing mode at certain points].

However, as I have already suggested, the real importance of "listening" as an epistemological mode is the fundamental attitude it creates, for it places the maximum emphasis not upon my activities as knower but upon that objective Other toward which my knowing is directed. Seeing is selfcentered, and it may become purely passive, a "spectator sport"; grasping and manipulating is indeed active, but may degenerate into mere self-expression. [We are all too familiar in the practice of science with cases where such self -centeredness and self-expressiveness have become the dominant motivations for a piece of scientific work]. In an attitude of listening, I am trying to "stand under" what is there and to allow it to shape my knowing as a response to it. Implicit in this attitude is the conviction that objective reality will 11 speak" to those who listen.

The Listening Attitude and Science

This believing about objective reality, which manifests itself in the epistemological attitude of listening for reality to "speak' to us, is just that underlying attitude or believing, which is pointed to by Polanyi's notion of responsible commitment as the effectual means by which our knowledge is grounded in reality itself. For such a responsible commitment, even though it entails at any point a specific view of reality as its vehicle, nevertheless is a commitment not to that view itself but to the reality; it also entails a sense of personal obligation or obedience to what reality is in itself -and that is the 'listening' attitude. It is clear to me that the reason Polanyi believed "responsible commitment" to be a valid ground for the objectivity of knowledge is that he possessed this underlying attitude or believing about reality, the attitude which expresses itself in the listening mode. It is equally clear that those who identify such a notion as equivalent to "subjectivity" do not have such a believing (and hence cannot conceive of listening as meaningful) [or do not credit Polanyi with it].

Now it is evident that such a "believing" is ultimately religious in nature; listening implies that there is speaking, not just white noise. Seen within the context of the Reformation concept of common grace, it is ultimately understandable as faith in the character of God himself, and I think that in the beginnings of science it was thus theologically understood, by the scientists themselves. However, such a believing does not have to be theologically understood to be effectual. It could be spoken of in other, perhaps philosophically naive, terms, e.g., I a respect for truth,' or 'a sense of wonder and awe about nature,' etc. That God nevertheless grants, to man in Adam, such an effectual relation to objective reality in creation, is consistent with the notion of common grace.

The scientific tradition has flourished to the present time because such a believing, and the attitude of listening it encourages epistemologically, has formed a core of basic, if naive belief for most practicing scientists-in many cases acquired tacitly in the period of their apprenticeship to the craft. However, as I have indicated earlier, the dominant traditions in the philosophy of science, and the mentality expressed in an atheistic humanism, have attributed the amazing success of the enterprise to the autonomous human reason. This attitude necessarily dismisses the notion of listening as inappropriate in relation to knowing, and places all its epistemological emphasis on the egocentric modes, seeing and grasping. Torrance has described the emergence of the idea of the 'active reason' as the earliest philosophical expression of this attitude, which has now come to almost complete domination of modern thinking:

From the realm of nature, however, modern man has carried this inordinate sense of his own creativeness into the universe of knowledge until it has become almost axiomatic for him that he only understands what he fashions and shapes and controls with the powers of his active reason.16

Some Disastrous Alternatives

It appears that we may now be approaching a point at which this error has become so ingrained in the culture that the vitality of science itself is in danger, because the scientists themselves cease to be like little children, and no longer believe in Truth. There are two different forms which such a denial takes, one active and one passive:

(1) Torrance has already drawn attention to the idea now becoming more and more prevalent that, since it is we who by controlling nature force it to answer the questions we determine, we therefore also control or determine the answers obtained. Thus the shapes and patterns we "see" in nature are really determined by ourselves, the "order" we have already determined in advance should be there; it is "there" only as the expression or realization of our own active will and reason. This amounts to the apotheosis of science as the expression of our own will to power, asserting our complete mastery and dominion over nature. Here we evidently have the ascendancy of grasping as a dominant epistemological motif. Such an attitude also produces an understandable counter-reaction to its hellish human and environmental consequences, in a repudiation of all value in science or the idea of an objective reality in nature which spawned science-as we find, for example, in the writing of Theodore Roszak.17 The kind of affirmation given to science as the will to power is really an announcement of theological signif icance, for it asserts man's salvation and self-fulfillment without grace, i.e. what is properly called damnation by the Christian.18

(2) In "The Dancing Wu-Li Masters,"19 a much publicized popular book about Eastern religion and some aspects of modern physics, Gary Zukav tries to persuade us that the main ideas emerging in modern physics are really most compatible with Eastern religious and metaphysical ideas. Similar arguments are advanced (in more moderate, if mystical fashion) by Fridjof Capra in "The Tao of Physics." (Of the two books, I personally find Zukav's much the more distasteful. He constantly interpolates specious bits of metaphysical claptrap borrowed from Eastern mysticism beside particular interpretations he puts on physical theory-and in the process plays fast and loose with both language and logic. There is some interesting discussion of conceptual problems in modern physics which might be worth reading-if the book were first carefully expurgated of all the excess Eastern religious stuff the author really is trying to push on us.)

Epistemologically, Zukav's major theme is that in science we do not have objective knowledge of reality, but only a reflection of our own thinking-or, alternatively, the universe really is whatever we think it to be (remember that in pantheist religion the two conclusions really are the same). Again the key to this sort of epistemology, if it can be called that, is the ingrained assumption that there is no "Other" who speaks to us from his Reality. Since the non-biblical religions do not originate in the Word of God, they have no notion of a transcendent God, and this also profoundly alters their notion of that which we have learned to call the "creation." Here is a key passage near the end of Zukav's book:

Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends upon what we look for. What we look for depends upon what we think. What we think depends upon what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality. (p. 313).

This has nothing to do with what Polanyi or I understand by responsible commitment"-as I have tried to make clear in this essay. Here are two other passages from Zukav as well:

The Wu Li Masters know that 'science' and 'religion' are only dances, and that those who follow them are dancers. The dancers may claim to follow 'truth' or claim to seek 'reality,' but the Wu Li Masters know better. They know that the true love of all dancers is dancing. (p. 88).

The answer comes full circle. We are actualizing the universe, that makes the universe (and us) self-actualizing (p. 79).

I refrain from any attempt at correcting the many misrepresentations of the philosophical or epistemological implications of physical theories which Zukav's book glibly presents. 20 If this sort of thinking really starts to influence many scientists at the levels of their motivation and their daily work, it will mean the death of the scientific tradition.

It is true, as J. M. Houston21 has said, that "the world we see is the mirror image of our hearts." However, some A the world are true, and some are certainly false. The which sustains us in relation to all reality, and can keep vision and our grasp from degenerating into the kaleidoscope illusions I have just been describing, is the Word of spoken to us by his free grace; this creates for us the of hearing and listening with obedient hearts. In the analysis, even our idea of truth, and of an objective reality nature, comes not from ourselves, but is created-and maintained-by the Word of God.

" so Faith comes by hearing-and hearing by the Word God."


1Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Phi Routledge & Kegan Paul, London (1958); paperback ed., Harper Torchlight Books, New York (1966).

2See T.F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction, especially Chapter 4, Influence of Reformed Theology on the Development of Scientific Method. " SCM Press, London (1965); paperback ed., W. B. Eerdmans Publ. Grand Rapids, Mich. (1975).

3W.R. Thorson, "The Biblical Insights of Michael Polanyi," Journal of American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 129-138 (Sept. 1991

4While many moderns may find this second position outlandish or absurd, should realize that this impression results largely from unquesti - acceptance of the conventional modern assumptions, i.e. (1) the aut of human intelligence, (2) the absence de facto of such a thing as " i - authority." However, the second position is the one which underlies in of medieval thought, and it is not trivial. I think it does involve a in' but it is a subtle one, a confusion of statements with being. Actually it is first (positivist) position which is the weaker of the two, and moreover believe it is functionally incompatible with a sustained belief in objectivity of our knowledge.

5Karl R. Popper, Objective Knowledge. Oxford University Press (1972).

6this is precisely the position taken by the evangelical apologist Franck Schaeffer [F. A. Schaeffer, He is There and He is not Silent. Tyndab House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois (1972)1 Schaeffer argues tbot Scripture (as a revelation of God in rational form, qua logical propositio04 is the sufficient ground for a true knowledge of God, and, moreover, that it is also the sufficient ground for a true knowledge of the created order. It is not clear whether Schaeffer would also argue (as the medievals did) that we can understand nature as a direct embodiment of final causes. Howevm that is certainly the view of the natural world implicit in the so-caw "creation science" advocated by some evangelicals as an opposing alternative to the theory of biological evolution.

7A valuable philosophical study of philosophy (i.e. thought) as always secondary to agency is given by John MacMurray, The Self as Agent. Faber & Faber Ltd., London (1957).

8This point is as important for theology as it is for science. Although the revelation given us in the Word of God is not simply equivalent to some set of rational, logical propositions, it is essential for theology to formulate sucb propositions as carefully as possible, and to evaluate critically their form and content as based on the Word of God. Thus, theology functions in some respects as scientific theories do, This point is the crucial question at issue with all forms of existentialist theology, which deny the validity or even the possibility of valid propositional statements about God.

9The shift from an irreversible learning to a reversible statement of what is known was discussed from several standpoints by Polanyi [Ref. 1, pp. 75-78; 124-131; 142-145]. It is well illustrated by the act of solving any puzzle of the type solved by a single insight. For example: Given a chessboard whose 64 squares are exactly covered by 32 dominoes two squares long and one square wide, is it possible by removing one domino and rearranging the rest, to cover the board completely except for the two squares at opposite ends of a board diagonal?

10T.F. Torrance, op. cit., Ref. 2 above; see esp. Chapter 5, "Knowledge of God According to Calvin."

11A "halfway-house" version of the same argument would claim that revelation provides an absolute ground for the objective truth of Christianity, but that no such ground is provided for our creaturely knowledge of the world. Such a view would necessarily divide epistemology into two quite different enterprises, according as the subject matter is knowledge of truth about God or knowledge of the creation. Professor G. H. Clark has advanced this sort of epistemology: see "The Limits and Uses of Science," in Horizons of Science: Christian Scholars Speak Out, C. F. H. Henry, Ed. Harper & Row, New York (1978). See also G. H. Clark, The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God, Craig Press, Nutley, N.J. (1964). [For a short critique of this view, see W. R. Thorson, Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 3-11 (March 1981); Ref. 12 below; and Ref. 3 above.]

12W.R. Thorson, "Science as the Natural Philosophy of a Christian," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 65-73 (June 1981).

13Although we are more directly concerned in this essay with scientific knowledge, i.e. valid knowledge of creation, than with the knowledge we may have of God by revelation of his saving grace in Christ (and we should recognize that there is a distinction between them), nevertheless we can readily observe how Scripture emphasizes the same practice of responsible commitment, that is, faith, as essential to a saving knowledge of God.

14T.F. Torrance, op. cit., Ref. 2 above, Prologue; see also Chapters 4, 5.

15T.F. Torrance, op. cit., Ref. 2 above, pp. 14-15 (1975 Paperback Ed.).

16T.F. Torrance, op. cit., Ref. 2 above, p, 67. (1975 Paperback Ed.).

17Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends. Anchor Books, Doubleday Co., Carden City, N.J. (1972).

18in one of the undergraduate dining halls at M.I.T., there is an archaic mural typical of the early decades of this century: A mysterious-looking gent in a tab coat stands like a magician in front of a steaming cauldron, while ranged about him are the scientific muses-Mathematics, Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, etc. At the bottom is inscribed in Latin the words "and you shall be as gods, knowing good from evil"-the words of Satan to Eve. The sense of the quotation is to affirm that this is indeed the goal. I have often thought that the remains might make a fitting memorial to our culture after the next world war.

19Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu-Li Masters. Bantam Books, Inc. (Wm. Morrow & Co., New York, 1979).

20To anyone who has been reading this book in an effort to understand what modern physics is like, I make the following (somewhat polemical) recommendation: (a) Put the book away with the incense sticks; (b) get a good night's sleep to remove logical fumes from the mind; (c) read instead R. P. Feynman's sensible, logical little book, The Character of Physical Law (M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1965).

21J.M. Houston, I Believe in the Creator. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., Grand Rapids, Mich. (1980); p. 15.