Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Our mental prison: The myth of “objective” knowledge

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 05, 2015

One of the most powerful myths of modern times is the belief that “scientific” knowledge is purely “objective” or “impersonal”, whereas everything else is “subjective” or “personal”, that is, a matter of opinion. But as every epistemologist knows (epistemology being the study of how we know), there is no form of knowledge that is not intensely personal. Subjectivity can never be completely removed from knowledge, because the knower is never an object—never a machine—but a subject.

The myth of scientific objectivity was actually thoroughly exposed in 1958 by a brilliant chemist and philosopher, Michael Polanyi, who wrote the definitive work on the subject, entitled Personal Knowledge. The cover blurb explained: “A chemist and philosopher attempts to bridge the gap between fact and value, science and humanity.” And indeed he did such a thorough and irrefutable job that, even if you do not grasp all the issues clearly yourself, you can cite Polanyi’s impressive work and challenge anyone—and I mean anyone—to think about “objectivity” in the same way again.

But why should we want to dismiss objectivity? Well, we don’t really. The problem is not with trying to be “objective” in the ordinary sense, by which we ought to mean recognizing and allowing as much as possible for our prejudices, our potential misconceptions, our tendency to prefer explanations which fit well with our other ideas, and so on. This deliberate effort to reduce bias is quite necessary for a genuine mental conformity to reality (i.e., truth). It is a critical part of authentic human knowing, a means by which the human subject learns the truth about the objects with which he is confronted, to which he makes a mental connection in what we might call the process of objectivity.

But the one mistake which inescapably ruins this effort at authentic objectivity is the facile assumption that we have found a foolproof method for taking our passions, prejudices and pre-existing mental constructs completely out of the act of knowing—the claim that the knowledge produced by one particular technique is impersonal, and therefore it alone is reliable. This myth of inherent objectivity actually encourages us to abandon the care with which we ought to acquire knowledge, including the personal habit of objectivity itself.

Polanyi’s arguments on this point take up about 400 pages of fairly fine print. The book is not for the faint-hearted. Step by step, he draws on everything from the nature of scientific discoveries to how animals, babies and even adults learn. He explores the question of how we interpret evidence (always partially in light of previous patterns that we have wisely or unwisely accepted as true), how we make breakthroughs in understanding, how we acquire skills, how advances invariably come through intuitive leaps, how we are led to assent, and a dozen other factors which are, to one degree or another, rooted in a combination of received notions, intellectual conformity, constant practice, burning desire, and flashes of insight.

All knowledge is intensely personal, Polanyi demonstrates, and the truth of this statement is witnessed in the passions which animate every debate, including every scientific debate, as one conception of the state of things is challenged by another.

Gaps in the Modern Paradigm of Objectivity

A major flaw in our contemporary ideological scientism is its tendency to trivialize knowledge. Because science generally concerns itself with observable phenomena which can be somehow measured, we pretend that our intuition (for that is what it is) about the nature, meaning and purpose of this observable phenomena must possess the stark clarity of the measurements themselves. Of course, the Uncertainty Principle in physics has actually undermined this stark clarity, but even supposing measurements are as clear and complete as we often think, limiting ourselves to “observable facts” does not take us very far. Nor does the attempt to reduce observed reality to restrictive and inescapably partial forms of measurement.

Ultimately, the accepted canons of even scientific thought must bow before the need for human intuition in order to reach any sort of understanding. The intuitive faculty is clearly imaginative and essentially spiritual in character. Intuition is what separates the man or woman who will push theoretical understanding forward from all those who will simply color within the inherited lines. Every time the conceptual boundaries change for the better, they are enlarged or shifted by a personal leap to a theory which is at once simpler and more beautiful, offering a more universal application, and with greater explanatory power. But this comes only through a passionate battle between two or more schools of thought, underlining the highly personal commitment involved in all knowledge.

Unfortunately, a catastrophic trivialization of knowledge occurs when the myth of objectivity leads thinkers to ignore all paths to knowledge that, according to their mistaken theory, are incapable of generating anything but useless opinions. By now everyone is aware that the materialistic assumptions of scientism (but hardly of all scientists) arise not from a superior grasp of reality but from the decision to exclude as a source of understanding anything which is not amenable to the prescribed method. That which is not endorsed by science and technology (that is, most of what we really do know) is regarded as ephemeral or chimerical.

For example, scientism cannot deal with imagination, philosophy, morality or Divine Revelation. And so it denies either the existence or the relevance of the imaginative, the philosophical, the moral and the supernatural—simply because it chooses not to look in those directions. Having put on a particular type of blinders, modern savants have apparently decided that what they no longer see must therefore not exist. But even this underlines the intensely personal commitments which inescapably affect all that we claim to know.

Our Conceptual Frameworks

Every culture is in some ways assisted and in other ways retarded by its conceptual frameworks. Consider, for example, a passage from Polanyi which touches on the “conviviality” or social nature of any intellectual enterprise, exposing a paradox:

I have spoken before of heuristic intimations in problem-solving and shown their kinship with the learner’s anticipation that what he tries to understand is in fact reasonable. The learner, like the discoverer, must believe before he can know But while the problem-solver’s foreknowledge expresses confidence in himself, the intimations followed by the learner are based predominantly on his confidence in others; and this is an acceptance of authority. (208)

Consider too his comments on how we experience reality as scientists, as compared with another form of experience:

As observers or manipulators of experience we are guided by experience and pass through experience without experiencing it in itself. The conceptual framework by which we observe and manipulate things being present as a screen between ourselves and these things, their sights and sounds, and the smell and touch of them transpire but tenuously through this screen, which keeps us aloof from them. (197)

But as Polanyi points out in the next sentence: “Contemplation dissolves the screen, stops our movement through experience and pours us straight into experience; we cease to handle things and become immersed in them.” This too is knowledge.

Our conceptual frameworks always play a huge role in determining what we notice, what we investigate, what we consider important, and how we interpret the experiences we acquire in both ordinary life and formal study. Unfortunately, a conceptual framework which artificially distinguishes some kinds of conclusions as purely “objective”, while dismissing all others as essentially “subjective” (and so a waste of time), is based on a serious misunderstanding of human knowing. Such a conceptual framework severs us from vast spheres of reality about which the human person passionately yearns to know.

Next 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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 08, 2015 9:29 AM ET USA

    tcflanagan: I agree that Barr is one of the best writers on this topic. I have read his article in First Things over the years with profound appreciation.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 07, 2015 5:48 AM ET USA

    If you want to consider how non-objective and personal scientific knowledge can be, look no further than the current global climate change paradigm. If this political hot potato is not a personal crusade for politicians and consensus academics alike, I don't know what is. A few days ago I was asked by the head of a religion department to co-teach a new course on bioethics and one on science and religion. When I asked for the moral object in the matter of abortion, he was at a loss for words.

  • Posted by: tcflanagan - Nov. 06, 2015 8:27 PM ET USA

    This was a good article. Have you ever read "Modern Physics and Ancient Faith" by Stephen Barr? The author is a physics professor and an orthodox Catholic, and his book does a great job of separating science, properly understood, from scientific materialism, which, he points out, is no less dogmatic than any religion. Full disclosure: I took a few classes with him as an undergrad, and now that I'm in grad school elsewhere, he's a friend. (But I did find and value the book before I met him.)

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Nov. 05, 2015 7:09 PM ET USA

    Great stuff.