What Roles do Worldviews Play in Science? (Part 3)

michael_polanyi1The next scientist we’ll look at is Michael Polanyi. Much of Polanyi’s work is directed against a school of scientists that taught what’s called the fact/value split. He specifically argued against the fact/value split in postulating his theory of tacit knowledge. Science is not a value free field, but concerns the entirety of the scientist that is engaged his field. Once again, we Kuhn said in his own way, we’re not neutral observers taking in “brute facts.”

The tacit dimension, as he titled a later work of his, is a type of personal knowledge, a knowing from the inside. This bridges the subjective guesses, intuitions and imaginations of the scientists with the data presented him in the laboratory. His motto (if I correctly remember it) was, “You know more than you think.” Not all types of knowledge are subject to articulation, but known intuitively, subjectively; by experience, and not by formula. He example commonly used is that of riding a bicycle. We cannot deny that we “know” how to ride a bike simply because we cannot fully put into words the “body-sense” of our riding experience. Tacit knowledge is an experience of knowing acquired through a type of “life-apprentice-ship,” where knowing, feeling, and doing are joined. Empiricism is thus challenged (and to my mind, refuted), because it’s system demands that we verbally account for evidence and systemic coherence (reflecting a truncated internalist model of epistemic justification). But this, Polanyi argues, is simply not how true scientific discovery is made. Often we follow the lead of our tacit awareness before we really know what it is that we’re on to.

In discussing the progress of scientific knowing, Polanyi notes “knowing” is the process of integration, by which we focus on a pattern by and through the means of various clues, called subsidiaries, in the world, our body-sense, and  in our norms for thinking. We pick up on the clues in our experiments and tests. We think we’re on to something, but can’t quite say what it is (we get a glimpse of the whole, or the “focus” as Polanyi called it… but just a glimpse).  In time, the focus becomes clearer and we give more weight to the significance of the clues. We understand them better better because we begin to see the role they play in painting the entire picture. Thus scientific knowledge (and all knowledge, Polanyi would argue) is this toggling between the subsidiaries and the focus, with each clarifying and expanding out understanding of the other. The give and take of this spiral is what advances science, not the cool, rational, and linear thought of the dispassionate scientist.


Posted on March 13, 2008, in Science. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hey Joe, I’ll give a quick reply a go before I go and tackle Hume 🙂

    I would absolutely agree with this statement:

    “Science is not a value free field, but concerns the entirety of the scientist that is engaged his field. Once again, we Kuhn said in his own way, we’re not neutral observers taking in “brute facts.””

    What I would say though is that all biases, pre-conceived notions, convictions, beliefs, etc can be trumped or vindicated if the individual/scientist is capable of re-performing an experiment empirically.

    So a a crude and childish example could be someone absolutely is convicted that caffeine does not increase heart rate, they believe this with all their heart,soul, gut, etc. So the individual of course follows the basic experiment of recording their heart rate each morning via a stethoscope for a week, and then subsequently records the heart rate twenty minutes after consuming a cup of coffee for a week. All pre-conceived biases should be trumped by this experiment, if the person refuses to acknowledge the change the person can integrate a third party individual to conduct the measurements. And that is how Science moves forward, third party individuals re-testing results to confirm their end result. Of course one must then either trust the scientists results OR re-perform the experiment themselves. Placing trust though is a problem every individual has across every field of life from marriage to business to science etc(but it doesn’t or shouldn’t discredit the empirical process).

    I would further agree with your following sentences that we do have a tacit knowledge of things that we can’t always articulate, of course I would then say one, it doesn’t mean this knowledge can’t be articulated, and two it doesn’t mean this knowledge isn’t flawed. I knew a lot of things as a child that I now must admit were erroneous, ranging from the personal and emotional of my parents love for one another to of course silly things like how I knew the “tooth fairy” was going to leave me $.25 the day after I lost a tooth. Regardless I don’t think this line of knowledge trumps empiricism, since empiricism isn’t a knowledge but a process (to my understanding), or at least there is an empirical process. Where the ambiguity follows though is how an individual retains the information/knowledge he/she has received via an empirical process. Going back to the Coffee analogy, the majority of people placing a stethoscope to John Does heart would concur, yes there is an elevated heart rate twenty minutes after John consumed his coffee. John whose being myopic and refusing to accept the elevated heart rate is going to be hard pressed to present a reason why this isn’t the case. Now in his head and personal thoughts he may firmly believe what he’s saying, but empirically it doesn’t make it true, only to his flawed or myopic “knowledge.” (p.s. silly story: as a child I did test the tooth fairy the obvious way, I pretended to be asleep. I caught my Dad with the quarter in his hand, but that doesn’t change the empirical results of A. a lost tooth did lead to a quarter in my family haha and B. tooth fairy needed to be redefined as parent )

    So I’d still agree with you that yes verbally passing on knowledge a scientist deduced via an empirical process can be difficult and can lead to wrong conclusions by the person receiving the verbal information, but that doesn’t change the actual and physical empirical experiment and results. Stephen Hawking is a fine example of an abominable scientist when it comes to articulating his cosmological physics, but it doesn’t mean his physics are actually flawed.

    I’d also agree that yes Science does often begin with a “hunch.” Copernicus had a hunch that the world was not the center of the cosmos, but he didn’t vindicate his hunch, he only offered some mathematical credence to it. Of course as you know it took several hundred years for a scientist to truly come along and vindicate it mathematically and via observation with telescopes(galileo). Moreover it was observably vindicated for anyone with the motivation to look, via NASA and space missions, orbiting telescopes, hubble, etc.

    So overall I would agree with your article above except for one deviation, I don’t currently see a challenge to empiricism or if you’re defining empiricism as something I’m accidentally obfuscating, the empirical process, especially like the one I used as the crude coffee example.

    I hope this made sense. Talk to you later Joe.

  2. Oh dear.

    Can’t we just discuss the real world instead?


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