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Modern “objective” knowledge is a circular system: Why?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 08, 2016

I’ve already alluded to the groundbreaking work of Michael Polanyi in proving that a purely objective manner of knowing is impossible, for the simple reason that all knowledge is inherently personal. For background see Our mental prison: The myth of “objective” knowledge and Through a glass darkly: When science becomes a mirror. As I finish a slow and careful reading of Polanyi’s masterwork Personal Knowledge, I wish to offer a third glimpse into these same principles. Let us examine the circularity inherent in all knowledge systems.

Polanyi offers, as a telling example of this circularity, the knowledge system of a primitive African tribe, as illustrated by the Zande belief in the “poison-oracle”. The oracle answers questions based on the effect of a particular poison, gathered in a traditional way, on a fowl to which it is administered, after the fowl has been addressed through an appropriate ritual. While there is no coercive doctrine among the Zande, the belief in the oracle is firmly held because it is “embedded in an idiom which interprets all relevant facts in terms of witchcraft and oracular powers” [287]. Polanyi continues:

Suppose that the oracle in answer to a particular question says “Yes”, and immediately afterwards says “No” to the same question. In our eyes this would tend to discredit the oracle altogether, but Zande culture provides a number of ready explanations for such self-contradictions. Evans-Pritchard [who made a special study of this] lists no less than eight secondary elaborations of their beliefs by which Azande will account for the oracle’s failure. [287]

Polanyi’s point is that the Zande people believe everything is explained by witchcraft, and so they always explain apparent contradictions in terms of their commitment to this same system. His further point is that all of us tend to do the very same thing. In fact, interpreting things within a framework to which we are committed is an essential feature of human knowing.

It ought to be obvious that we face a similar problem in the modern world. Even those things which (to a more flexible mind) would seem to invalidate a material explanation for something are always explained in the material terms to which modern scientific culture has committed itself. Alternatively, of course, they are dismissed as aberrations or anomalies which we will understand better as we learn to apply our materialistic thought-system in a more sophisticated (convoluted?) way: Just like the Zande.

This is how moderns dismiss widespread experiences of the numinous, carefully-studied out-of-body experiences, well-reviewed claims of miracles, alleged instances of Divine Revelation, and many similar things, even things as self-evident as free will. Having committed themselves to materialism as the only source of “objective” knowledge, a great many thinkers insist that only material explanations can be valid—thus demonstrating the very opposite of objectivity, namely a strong prior personal commitment to their particular framework of interpretation.

Polanyi explains that all such efforts are inherently circular. They justify themselves only with reference to themselves.

Mental frameworks always represent a personal commitment

Near the end of the book, Polanyi offers another instance of both the reality and the necessity of personal commitment in the pursuit of knowledge. Discussing the classification of living things, he observes that there is a kind of “connoisseurship” in the creation of all useful systems of classification. Naturalists of consummate skill and broad knowledge of plants and animals have been able to discern which differences among them are most important, or at least most instructive, for a growing understanding of living things.

More ordinary observers—perhaps uninterested and certainly untrained—could classify things as well, but we would do so in a way that confuses rather than enhances our grasp of what we might call the tree of life. There is, then, a kind of personal genius at work in the adumbration of knowledge, and we find this genius at work in every field. To offer just one more example, we may consider diagnosis in medicine. Among men and women who have a similar array of “facts” at their disposal, some become brilliant diagnosticians. Others do not, even when the entire list of symptoms can be found on a website!

This problem has troubled scientists who are particularly committed to a purely “objective” view of knowledge. Returning to the classification of living things, several have tried to create what they consider to be a more “objective” basis for such systems. One of these is the proposal to base everything on DNA. But as Polanyi points out, the DNA data by itself tells us next to nothing. We cannot classify meaningful DNA patterns unless, in some sense, we have a prior notion of what we are looking for (a prior notion of the whole). Thus all efforts to classify by DNA (and several other mechanisms) have actually depended on using pre-existing classification systems to guide researchers to their discoveries.

Clearly even the vast majority of scientists continue to explain what they observe in terms of previously-established and widely accepted scientific theories, denying the validity of anomalies or dismissing them as irrelevant. This has happened again and again in science, until someone with superior perception and imagination intuits a modified or even a new theory which promises to provide a more comprehensive predictive power, a greater simplicity, a superior elegance, and of course a way of accounting for data which has heretofore been dismissed as anomalous.

Trusting how we know

The reader may now wonder how we can claim to know anything at all. But this wonderment is very far from Polanyi’s point. The problem he identifies is the mistaken attempt to somehow divorce knowledge from the admittedly fallible person who knows. No knowledge can be strictly “objective”. It is always the conception of a personal knower who is drawn toward truth—drawn to knowledge as a human (and therefore a personal) good. Knowledge is a kind of specification of the impress of reality on a personal mind. It is, in fact, precisely this inherently personal character that enables knowledge to be both acquired and shared, for to be a person is to possess the full capacity for relationship—with the thing known, and with other persons.

Moreover, the human person is so constituted as to see things “whole”, which is why (unless we are materialists who deny all meaning) we instinctively avoid reducing anything to a mere enumeration of its characteristics. Because no knowledge can exist without interpretation of what we observe and experience, we necessarily work within the interpretive framework generated by those who have come before. But we must also recognize that each new “piece” of knowledge subtly alters the framework, and that sometimes a major shift in the framework will create a more elegantly cohesive basis for interpretation and further study.

The recognition of our fallibility suggests that there is no substitute for a certain diligence and even reverence in our approach to reality. But the absolutely worst way to proceed is to seek to escape our fallibility by pretending that one small aspect of our knowledge is somehow impersonal and therefore “objective”. To deny the full range of human perception as dangerously “subjective” is to reject what is actually always and only a definitively personal opportunity. I mean the opportunity to know—that is, to really understand—anything at all.


Previous in series: Through a glass darkly: When science becomes a mirror

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Jan. 10, 2016 8:38 AM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus this trilogy of reviews is a primer.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jan. 09, 2016 5:14 PM ET USA

    The "consensus" joined with the "objective" seems to produce the ultimate tyranny.