Against Scientism

On Covid and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge

*Editor’s Note: This article is a follow-up to Andy Wilson’s August 2021 article on American Reformer entitled “Just Follow the Science: The Cult of Experts and COVID-19.”

Given the increased role that medical science has come to play in our society’s governance over the past couple of years, now is a good time to study the work of the Hungarian-born scientist turned philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891-1976). After seeing the harm being done by the Soviet regime’s ideological use of science, Polanyi contended that science can only maintain its credibility when it is pursued in the context of a political community that gives pride of place to laws, principles, and customs derived from the transcendent moral order.[1] Polanyi did not think that science deserves the place of primacy in society because he rejected the premise that scientific knowledge should be uniquely elevated above other forms of knowledge.

The claim that scientific knowledge transcends all other types of knowledge is based on the assumption that science relies only on the mechanisms of analytical reason and empirical verification. Polanyi refuted this by showing that, in reality, the scientist is not a disinterested observer but is involved in a quest in which he employs a variety of non-scientific sources of knowledge, including intuition, imagination, tradition, and faith. Scientists routinely make personal judgments as they carry out their work. They decide when and how scientific rules will be applied. They value some methodologically-derived data over other methodologically-derived data. The fact that all knowledge involves the personal participation of the knower makes a detached approach to science impossible.

Prior to his philosophical turn, Polanyi was himself distinguished enough to earn the attention of Einstein, and was seen by many as a potential Nobel Prize candidate. He turned to philosophy because of his recognition that the positivistic approach to science, in which supposedly unbiased observation alone determines the results of science, was in fact detrimental to true scientific discovery and advancement. His philosophical writings were not marked by a repudiation of science but by a critique of a particular approach to science. While his works are not easy to read, there have been a number of efforts to present his ideas in a more accessible manner. Among the first books of this nature to appear was Everyman Revived: The Common Sense of Michael Polanyi, written in 1985 by Drusilla Scott, who knew Polanyi personally. Two other works that are especially notable are Mark T. Mitchell’s Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing, and the Mars Hill Audio Journal report, “Tacit Knowing, Truthful Knowing: The Life and Thought of Michael Polanyi.”

The title of Drusilla Scott’s book refers to the late medieval morality play “Everyman,” which she uses as a device to stress that scientific knowledge is not superior to other forms of knowledge and therefore has no right to set itself up as the standard “by which all the rest of our knowing is to be tested and judged” (Scott, v). When a supposedly detached and objective science claims this mantle, science is conducted in isolation from the moral framework set forth in the light of nature. One only needs to look at the profoundly evil experiments funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in recent years to see where this leads.

As noted above, one of the key elements in Polanyi’s argument against the misuse of science was his observation that scientific discovery relies heavily upon non-scientific ways of knowing. Discovery involves much more than merely looking at facts and testing hypotheses. On the contrary, a collaboration of reason and intuition takes place in the context of the scientist’s overall outlook on reality. In other words, scientific discovery is a sort of art, or “the personal skill of seeing which facts are significant” (Scott, 33).

The concept that Polanyi employed to describe this is something he called tacit knowing, which Scott introduces as follows:

To account for discovery as it actually happens, we have to allow that there is another kind of knowledge besides the explicit, exact and testable kind; a sense by which we can be dimly aware of the direction in which we must seek for a solution, before we can formulate it… Polanyi calls [this sense] ‘tacit knowing’ and finds in it an essential element of his theory of knowledge (Scott, 46)

Polanyi often used the phrase “we can know more than we can tell” to explain what he meant when he spoke of tacit knowing. He also pointed out how the concept is evident in numerous aspects of everyday life, such as a mothers’s recognition of her child’s face, or a child’s ability to ride a bicycle. If the mother or child was asked how they possess this knowledge, they would not cite empirical data or rules. Such knowing is not explicit but is dependent on a subsidiary awareness of a wide array of factors.

In tacit knowing we are “attending from [the parts] to something else which is their joint meaning. We integrate the parts into the whole, not by a reasoning process but by a sort of bodily skill, a skill which is so much part of our make-up that we are usually not aware of it” (Scott, 51). Tacit knowing can also be illustrated by how a language or tool can become an extension of the self. When a man is fluent in more than one language, he can absorb the meaning of a letter written in one of those languages without paying explicit attention to the particular language in which it was written. Similarly, when a skilled carpenter uses a tool, his focus is not upon the tool but on what he is creating with it. If, as Polanyi argues, tacit knowing is operative in all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, then science is not the detached and objective pursuit that it is often alleged to be and scientific knowledge stands on the same epistemological footing as other forms of knowledge. The pursuit of scientific knowledge always has a personal, and hence subjective, component. 

The assertion that all knowledge involves the personal participation of the knower does not mean that we should embrace a relativistic subjectivism that denies the existence of objective truth. On the contrary, Polanyi affirmed the independent existence of an external reality, a reality “that attracts our attention by clues which harass and beguile our minds into getting ever closer to it, and that… can always manifest itself in still unexpected ways”  (Scott, 68). The existence of this reality puts the scientist in a position of personal responsibility as he carries out his work. That is, the scientist is always obligated to pursue a better understanding of reality, even if doing so leads him to alter or discard some of his prior assumptions. This is why scientists should avoid hubristic statements like “The science is settled” and “I represent science.” While we can obtain true knowledge of the natural world, we should always remember that our understanding of it will never be perfect or complete.[2]

Another important theme in Polanyi’s writings is the relationship between science and liberty. While he was deeply committed to the notion of scientific freedom, he did not conceive of this in terms of sheer autonomy but in a manner that respects “the authority of the scientific community in its pursuit of truth” (Scott, 80). Of course, science is always subject to the law, but there is a particular kind of authority that resides in the scientific community itself, not in the state.

This relates to the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty, which says that God has given different institutions sovereignty over different spheres of life. For example, while the state has God-given authority to administer justice, it does not have authority over ecclesiastical matters, or the rearing of children, or many other aspects of life.[3] The reason why science cannot be free when it is made subject to political or economic interests is because of the way science needs to exercise authority within its sphere. While the professional standards of science are essential for proper scientific practice, there must also be an openness that allows for the testing and consideration of competing insights in the ongoing pursuit of a better understanding of reality. Such openness is squelched when science is politicized or made subject to other interests.

Polanyi propounded a helpful theory to explain the rise of the tyranny that afflicted Europe in the twentieth century, arguing that when man’s moral aspirations were turned away from their Christian channel, they “poured like a destructive torrent through the channels of rationalism”  (Scott, 99). As a result, “the combination of a ruthless contempt for moral values such as truth, compassion and justice, with an unbounded moral passion for Utopian perfection” resulted in disaster (Scott, 99). On the one hand, the objectivist approach to science sets aside the truth claims of the Christian religion. On the other hand, the lingering cultural memory of Christianity:

produces a passionate urge to pursue righteousness, even though objectivism has denied the very reality of moral truth… But whereas moral perfectionism within a Christian context is moderated by the doctrine of original sin and the deferral of perfection to the end of history, the perfectionism of a post-Christian world provides no such moderating counterbalances… [This] allows individuals and societies to commit appallingly immoral acts — acts which, according to the skeptic, are not really immoral since morality is an empty category… Thus, the ideal of moral perfection, which in Christianity was rooted in the transcendent, was immanentized or materialized by objectivism. This immanentization allowed scientific methods to be brought to bear on what were heretofore moral and religious affairs (Mitchell, 54-56.

We can see the effects of this ironic combination of moral relativism and moral zeal in our society today, especially in things like political correctness, virtue signaling, cancel culture, censorship, and the media’s deceitful propagandizing and moral posturing.

Polanyi’s thinking on how skepticism and secularization led to tyranny in twentieth century Europe is especially pertinent for our present day context. When the transcendent is set aside in favor of a materialist understanding of reality, there is no objective criterion of truth or framework for ethics. Questions of morality cannot be determined by empirical verification. In the materialist model the true and the good become whatever is deemed politically expedient by those who wield power. In such a scenario, even a lie can be put in service of “truth.”  

A study of Polanyi’s thought helps us to see that the things that have been so controversial amid the COVID-19 pandemic are due to a basic category error. Moral and political judgments have been mandated by public officials (with the enthusiastic support of a propagandistic, panic-inducing media) as if they were matters of scientific fact, when in reality science has neither the ability nor the authority to make determinations about such things.

The architects of the pandemic response have employed science in an ideological manner, using political power to impose their agenda and silence their critics. They have refused to engage in cost-benefit analysis of the policies they have implemented. They have misled people about the risks posed by this virus (and the relative risks of the virus versus the vaccines) for different demographics. They have coerced unwilling subjects into receiving experimental medicines. They have suppressed early outpatient treatments that have shown promise at preventing hospitalization and death. They have ignored and defamed the many scientists and health care professionals who have put forth reasonable arguments against the things being mandated. And they have encouraged the scapegoating and dehumanizing of those who dissent from their assumptions and edicts, disparaging such people as “science-deniers,” “anti-maskers,” “the unvaccinated,” etc.

Data indicate that virus mitigation measures (e.g. lockdowns, mask mandates, vaccine mandates, etc.) that governments and other institutions have imposed on the basis of “the science” have not significantly lessened the spread of the disease, while the costs of these efforts have been immense. Many of the things imposed during this pandemic have been nothing short of cruel. It is no wonder that people have lost trust in the government, the public health establishment, and the media.

Nevertheless, many have accepted our society’s turn toward authoritarianism, collectivism, and safetyism.[4] This attests to the effectiveness of the narrative of relentless fear-mongering promoted by public officials and the media, a narrative that goes against longstanding public health principles that say that societies fare best during a pandemic when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted.

COVID-19 has shown that when a society’s dominant institutions abandon a transcendent approach to ethics and invoke science as the basis for ethical decisions, the door is opened to capriciousness and tyranny. The standard of what is good and right and true is not raw power, but the moral order that God has inscribed in his world, from which we derive the ideals upon which society is based.[5] This is made clear in Romans 13, where the command “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” is expounded as a matter of doing what is good and not doing what is bad. Good and bad are defined by God, not by an arbitrary exercise of the civil magistrate’s power, one which overrides the necessary principles upon which a political community is founded and flourishes.

[1] It is true that fallen man’s grasp of the light of nature has been impaired by the noetic effect of sin. Nevertheless, Scripture makes it clear that even unbelievers can make correct moral judgments (see Gen. 20:9; 1 Cor. 5:1). This means societies can establish laws and founding principles that are in relative conformity to God’s moral order. While no society does this perfectly, some do it better than others.

[2] This parallels the distinction in theology between archetypal and ectypal knowledge of God. God alone possesses the former, which is perfect. We can only possess the latter, which, while true and accurate, falls far short of perfection. See Franciscus Junius, A Treatise on True Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2014).

[3] Of course, the spheres are not perfectly sealed off from each other. The authority vested in one sphere can extend to certain aspects of other spheres. For example, the state has a responsibility to protect children against parents who harm or exploit them.

[4] The writers who coined the term ‘safetyism’ define it as “a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people are unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.” ~ Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, (New York: Penguin, 2018), 30.

[5] In our American context, these would be principles that are set forth in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

*Image Credit: Wunderstock

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Andy Wilson

Andy Wilson Andy Wilson is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Laconia, New Hampshire. He is the author of The Marrow of The Marrow of Modern Divinity: A Simplified Version of Edward Fisher's 17th Century Classic.

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