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A Critique of Science (continued). 22. August, 2013, Blogging my thoughts

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A Critique of Science (continued). 22. August, 2013

I’ve been reading Polanyi on religion and science this morning and that is giving me more thoughts about the piece I just wrote yesterday about the MD’s setting up that health outpost in the jungle under a shaman. The question becomes how could the shaman have understood things that the medical doctor only learned in medical school?

I think it has to do with his living in and understanding his world as densely populated by spirits, to use Dr. Herndon’s description of their cultural thought world. Thinking in terms of spirits is a way of thinking in terms of faith and thus thinking in terms of God, because “God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24)

It is problematic when faith is replaced by one way of understanding, because, as a base,  a genuine faith is open to many paths on the way to understanding. As St. Anselm said, “I believe in order to understand.”[1] If we substitute one way of understanding for faith then a reductionism becomes involved that disregards the totality of the picture that a faith cognizant of the whole can provide. Faith, an open faith, that is, should not be marginalized for the sake of one way of understanding. It is rather foolish for some scientists of today to argue for the non-existence of God, as if science could replace faith. And it is as foolish for representatives of a faith to reduce their faith to one way of understanding.

Polanyi argues that the reductionism of science is problematic for human beings.

Modern science and scientific philosophy cannot analyze the human person without reducing it to a machine. This flows from assuming that all mental processes are to be explained in terms of neurology, which in their turn must be represented as a chart of physical and chemical processes. The damage wrought by the modern scientific outlook is actually even more extensive. It tends toward replacing everywhere the personal I-Thou by the impersonal I-It.[2]

To continue quoting Polanyi:

We can go farther. Evidently any attempt to identify the particulars of an entity would involve a shift of attention from the entity to the particulars. We would have to relax the intention given to the whole for the sake of the discovering its particulars which we had noticed until now only by being aware of them as part of the whole. So that once we have succeeded in fully identifying these particulars, and are in fact attending to them now directly in themselves, we clearly shall not be relying any more on our awareness of them as particulars of the whole and therefore will inevitably have lost sight of the whole altogether.[3]

The emphasis on ecology in science is now trying to correct this historical defect. Polanyi continues:

This fact is abundantly borne out by half a century of Gestalt psychology. We may put it as follows. It is not possible to be aware of a particular in terms of its contribution to a whole and at the same time to focus our attention on it in itself. Or again, since it is not possible to be aware of anything at the same time subsidiarily and focally, we necessarily tend to lose sight of an entity by attending focally to its particulars.[4]

That “entity” Polanyi is referring to is a person or spirit that even understands nature in an I-Thou relationship, let alone in relation to human beings. On the other hand, science has the tendency to make even human beings into objects in an I-It relationship.

The long citation from Polanyi above explains what Dr. Herndon described as “the narrow lens of science looking through a tunnel, becoming limited by what the scientist chooses to see.” Suddenly, the story about looking for a lost ring, that could have been lost anywhere, only under the street lamp of science, is the metaphor that came to my mind.

Dr. Herndon claimed that the missionary and the government officials destroyed the “shell of spirit” in marginalizing the shaman and the tribal world of knowledge, their treasury of wisdom, making the tribe completely dependent upon them. [5] (Teilhard de Chardin would speak of the particular self-generated envelope of thought as their “noosphere.”) Evidently tribal members think not in terms of concepts, or with an experimental scientific method, but through experiencing and thinking in terms of spirits, which is their path to understanding.

In his world of thought, the shaman claimed that an evil spirit was in a forest, because that was his way of thinking and understanding in terms of spirits. He did not know the scientific particulars, in terms of rodents in the forest spreading a microbial disease, but he was grappling with the fact that tribal members who went into that forest died and he could not cure them, thus an evil spirit was at work.

In conclusion, science is of course a very important and crucial pathway to understanding and impacting our lives and environment, but it is not the only pathway, and it still has to make way for faith, for an open faith, not one that distorts it or tries to replace it, but a faith that checks our totalitarian attitude about its being the only way to reliable knowledge. Did our false, dominating spirit of monotheism somehow get into scientists? Christ showed us the way and it’s a humble, suffering helpfulness, even in epistemology.


[1] Compare St. Anselm with Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.” This philosophical conviction is certainly a reductionism of living, acting, and experience to thought. These can all be thought but not be reduced to thought, for example, a relationship is more than the analysis of it.

[2] Michael Polanyi, “The Scientific Revolution,” in Hugh C. White, ed., Christians in a Technological Era, (New York: Seabury Press, 1964), p. 28.

[3]Ibid., Page 30.

[4] Ibid.

[5] From notes that I took at Dr. Christopher Herndon’s power point presentation. See my previous blog.

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