Faith in the Unseen Reality of Truth: The Work of Michael Polanyi.


I mentioned last week that Lesslie Newbigin was important to my development as a Christian thinker, and it was Newbigin who introduced me to one of the most important figures in 20th Century philosophy of science, Michael Polanyi. Polanyi was born in 1891 Eventually, he received doctoral degrees in medicine and science. He worked as a research chemist, making important discoveries as a practicing scientist. He later turned his attention to philosophical pursuits. With the Hitler’s rise to power, Polanyi emigrated to Britain and became Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Manchester (1933-1948). Because of his interest in and contribution to the literature of the social sciences and philosophy, Polanyi was made Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Manchester (1948-58). He also lectured as visiting professor or senior fellow at the universities of Chicago, Aberdeen, Virginia, Stanford and Merton College, Oxford. [1]

The overt politicization of science in Nazi Germany, and also in Communist Russia, made a deep impact on Polanyi. He observed first-hand the distortions of science that totalitarian regimes create. In his little book, Science Faith, and Society: A Searching Examination of the meaning and nature of Scientific Inquiry, [2] Polanyi outlines the problem of a politicized science and his proposal for the freedom of science from political manipulation. In so doing, he sets out the fundamentals of his ideal of a free society. Given the loss of belief in the truth in Western societies, which Polanyi experienced in Germany and Eastern Europe, his work is of contemporary relevance.

The Marxist Agenda

In the Soviet Union, all science was conducted in an atmosphere of what we would call, “Political Correctness.” It was an article of faith that Marxist dialectical materialism embodied the ultimate scientific explanation for, and guidance, to society. There was no such thing as “pure science,” for all scientific endeavor, indeed all endeavors, had to serve the state as the embodiment of the will of the people and of the revolution. Eventually most scientific endeavors were brought under the control of Communist ideology. In the process, the Soviet Union devastated their scientific community, and especially in the areas of biology and what we would call the “human sciences.” [3]

It is hard to overestimate the impact of Marx upon modern Western society, even among intellectuals who would disclaim that they are “Marxist.” Marxist ideology, based upon the world being governed by impersonal material forces, lies deep in the modern intellectual psyche. The notion that history is governed by such forces of inevitability comes out in political discussion when politicians right and left use the phrase, “the right side of history” to defend their views and motivate their followers. (I like to comment that, if we destroy ourselves in a nuclear holocaust, it will turn out the roaches and sharks were the ones on the right side of history.)

The notion that history has an inevitable, materially-determined conclusion is a remnant of Marx, even among those who have never read him. Such a view is destructive of both human reason and freedom. For Christians human beings are morally responsible for the societies they create, the decisions they make, and the future they bring about by their actions. One reason for these essays is to restore a human as opposed to materialistic vision of human society and political action.

What it Means to Say Something Real has been Discovered

In response to totalitarian and materialistic visions of human progress, Polanyi set as his goal the defense of human freedom, political, scientific, and religious. In so doing, he carefully walks a path between the objective pole of human knowledge and the inevitable subjective or personal elements in human knowing. He begins by examining what it means to “know the truth.” For Polanyi, human beings believe something to be true when we believe that an order we have discovered will manifest itself in future observations. The first thing to be noted about this definition is that it does not restrict itself to materialistic phenomena. Polanyi believes that we expect many unseen things to reveal themselves. Truth, Justice, Beauty, God, and all the values which make human life worth living, exhibit an immaterial reality that is expected to reveal itself in the future by those who have dedicated themselves to the search for truth.

The scientist in the laboratory, the painter in his studio, the moral philosopher at his computer screen, the physicist in his laboratory, the judge writing his decision, the priest praying at his alter, all these serve an invisible reality they believe will reveal itself to the seeker, Each one believes that new truth and new discovery will be revealed, and that discovery will lead to further discoveries and a further expansion of our experience and knowledge of Truth, Beauty, Justice and God. In this way, scientific knowledge is no different than, or superior to, other forms of knowledge. This ideal of a community dedicated to the search for truth can be applied to political communities as well. [4] These immaterial realities have the power to guide people, communities, nations and societies into a brighter future, and will continue to manifest themselves as emergent realities to those who diligently seek them. [5]

Seekers after Truth Beauty Goodness and Justice as Members of a Community.

Here we get to a second feature of knowledge: all knowing is dependent upon a prior communal act of faith. Scientists, lawyers, artists, philosophers, pastors, and the like are a part of communities of people who believe in scientific truth, justice, beauty, God, wisdom, and other values. In each case, members of their community undergo preparation by which they become a part of a community of those who believe in its values, are skilled in its techniques and disciplines, and who act as role models for newer members. Whether we are speaking of Isaac Newton (Science), Oliver Wendell Holmes (Law), Picasso (Art), Pope John Paul II (Religion), Michael Polanyi (Philosophy), or others in various fields, there is always a community seeking the kind of knowledge the community exists to further. In each case, there is a process by which a person who wishes to become part of the community gains the skills needed to make contributions to it.

Well-formed communities of inquiry are self-policing. They do not require any external governance. [6] For example, in science, theology, law, and other areas of inquiry there are respected journals. Not everyone is able to write for them. There is a process of gaining credibility. In addition, in controversial areas, it is quite likely that those journals will print articles exposing readers to more than one view. For example, in quantum physics there are several possible interpretations that have very well-known backers. While most scientists support something like the Copenhagen Interpretation, there are those who think that the Bohm (Hidden Variable) Interpretation is the better explanation. Both receive space in well-respected journals and are the subject of articles, seminars, discussions and the like.

In all cases, traditions can take steps down what turns out to be blind alleys. In law, some decisions breed more and better decisions in an area, while others breed inconsistencies, unforeseen injustices, and incoherencies. When a precedent is overturned it is because judges become convinced that there must be a better or different rule that would promote justice to parties and society as a whole. Frequently, this occurs after a long period of discussion in journals, seminars, educational events, political writings, etc. In other areas, research projects may change as certain avenues of research turn out to be less fruitful than others.

Personal Responsibility for the True, Beautiful, Good, or Just.

Having spoken of the communal nature of the search for Truth, Beauty, Goodness and Justice, there is also a personal aspect. Every discovery, every new work of art, every new moral intuition is the product of a human person. Over and over again in science, men and women have struggled in an area to remove some inconsistency or problem in a theory, only to await the insight of a single mind. Such was the case with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the discoveries of modern quantum physics. In each case, after a long period of struggle with conflicting data that could not be easily reconciled with the current theory, a new discovery was made through an act of personal insight. [7] When this insight was reached, the scientist, in this case Albert Einstein, published his results to the rest of the community, expecting both criticism and support.

When a scientist publishes his results, he is making a public declaration to his or her community of inquiry of what he or she has come to believe is true about the world. In a similar way, when a lawyer finishes a brief, when a painter finishes a painting, when a writer finishes a novel, when pastor finishes a sermon, he or she publishes to the world their work—for which they will be held personally accountable. If progress has been made, if some aspect of truth, justice, beauty, goodness or God has been revealed, he or she receives praise. If a mistake has been made, it will be pointed out. It is in the publishing of a work in any area that a person submits his or her work to the critical judgement of the community as a whole and takes personal responsibility for it.

The Body Politic as a Self-Policing Community

As mentioned earlier, Polanyi was concerned about the way in which Western intellectuals had become seduced by various totalitarian ideologies, left and right, and the descent into nihilism, so evident in our politics and so prevalent among intellectuals. His goal was to provide an intellectual foundation not just for scientific freedom, but for political freedom as well. [8] Polanyi believes a free society requires that a community practice free speech (discussion and dialogue) with a common faith that (i) there is such a thing as truth; (ii) the members of the community love the truth and are committed to search for it; (iii) the members have internalized a personal obligation to pursue the truth; and (iv) that the members of the community have the ability needed to undertake the search. [9]

In the search for the truth, the members of the community must practice two virtues: Fairness and Tolerance. Fairness is the ability to listen to the opinions of the members of the community with an open mind, attempting to be objective in judging the merits of the argument. Tolerance is the ability to hear sympathetically other, and even hostile, views and to grant those views the respect they deserve. No free society can endure without dedication to the pursuit of truth, justice and the other ideals of the human heart—a pursuit that engages the best qualities of its citizens, who have been prepared by their upbringing and education to have the character needed to be free citizens of a free society.

Why Religion is a Part of the Search for Justice

I must conclude this post, which is already too long. However, I cannot do so without making a point concerning why religious people and religious views are important to public debate and why these views should be tolerated heard in the public arena. There is more to the search for God and for religious truth than the search for justice.  However, the search for God inevitably involves the search for justice. The transcendent search for the One who is the ultimate source of Truth, Goodness, Beauty, and Justice cannot but impact the search for justice by a society.

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other people of religious conviction are on a search for the ultimate ground of justice and other values in a society. Like all searchers, they may be wrong. There are times, such as the defenses of slavery, when some religious people have gone in a wrong direction. Nevertheless, there are times, and the elimination of slavery is one of them, when religious people were among the first and more ardent spokespersons for the end of a social evil. To silence them, is to silence our society’s movement towards a more just, true, beautiful, good, and humane social order.

Near the end of Science, Faith, and Society, Polanyi makes the following observation, which is terrifying in its application to early 21st Century America:

[If] the citizens are dedicated to certain transcendent obligations and particularly to such general ideals as truth, justice, charity, and these are in embodied in the tradition of the community to which allegiance is maintained, a great many issues between citizens, and all to some extent, can be left—and are necessarily left—for the individual consciences to decide. The moment, however, a community ceases to be dedicated, through its members to transcendent ideals, it can continue to exist undisrupted only by submission to a single center of unlimited power. Nor can citizens who have radically abandoned belief in spiritual realities—on the obligations to which their consciences would have been entitled and in duty bound to take a stand—raise any objection to being totally directed by the state. In fact, their love of truth and justice turn then automatically, as I have shown, to a love of state power. [10]

It is my belief that we see signs of this very phenomenon in our contemporary politics.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] There are many good articles on the internet about Polanyi and his life. See for example, Michael Polanyi and Tacit Knowledge at (downloaded May 27, 2020). For those wanting the best introduction to his thinking, see, Drucilla Scott, Everyman Revisited: The Common Sense of Michael Polanyi (Sussex, ENG: The Book Guild Limited, 1985). His major work is Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

[2] Science Faith and Society: A Searching Examination of the Meaning and Nature of Scientific Inquiry (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1946)

[3] It is impossible to overestimate the moral and intellectual damage Marxism does to a society. I traveled to Russia in 1995 and saw personally the moral, political and economic devastation that 70 years of socialism wreaked on Russian society. One reason for the current regime is the moral and political consequences of this period and the lack of the moral, spiritual, intellectual, and political foundations for democracy.

[4] Science Faith and Society, 17.

[5] Thus, Polanyi subscribes to the Aristotelian notion that the real is that which has power. Goodness, truth, beauty, and other immaterial values have an unseen reality, in that they fruitfully guide action and continue to reveal themselves to those who seek them.

[6] Science, Faith and Society, at 47ff. The subject of self-governance is very broad. A host of policing measures exist in any discipline. The competition for academic posts is normally intense; and, in every institution, faculty look for the best possible candidate for openings. Academic societies are prevalent, and entrance at the highest level is not automatic. Journals have boards to advise them on which articles should be published. Of course, all of these safeguards are subject to failure and even corruption, which is why some disciplines can go into long periods of decline.

[7] Of course, the fact that many minds have examined a problem before singular acts of insight indicates the importance of the community to the success of even the most singular genius.

[8] In a later post, I intend to review his work, The Logic of Liberty (Indianapolis Indiana, Liberty Fund, 1998). In this book, Polanyi outlined his views on a free social order.

[9] Science, Faith and Society, 71.

[10] Science Faith and Society, 78-79.

3 thoughts on “Faith in the Unseen Reality of Truth: The Work of Michael Polanyi.”

  1. You did not know how prophetic you would be in this posting! I just found out that Antifa was at work in the Weimar Republic. The Bolsheviks destabilized Germany. Now Antifa is destabilizing the US!

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