Monday, May 19, 2014

Tacit Knowledge

Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) was a polymath and pioneer in his vision and proposal of tacit knowledge, sometimes known as intuition. This concept went beyond reliance on scientific empiricism in which knowledge is chiefly gained by sensory experiences and experimentation. Polanyi’s famous statement, “We know more than we can tell” indicates his recognition of the gift of intuition in which understanding is gained without conscious reasoning. In common terms, we sometimes say, “I just have a feeling…” Women’s intuition is an expression indicating female ability to know something is afoot without explicit physical clues. These mundane examples may aid our understanding of Polanyi’s fruitful idea.

Polanyi’s insights were valuable for broadening the scope of science philosophy. His ideas shifted away from a commitment to the belief that scientific methods yield truth mechanically. Within the church community many people become suspicious of science when they are criticized for not “getting on board with science,” particularly when pressure is brought upon them, for example, to endorse evolution or global warming. Polanyi may appeal to non-scientific laypeople. His proposals of tacit knowledge support the principle of “properly basic beliefs,” articulated by philosopher Alvin Plantinga: an inner certainty that God exists and can be known and experienced directly. Many experience an inner certainty about God’s actions in creating physical wonders and the beauty of life surrounding us.    

We will return to consider Polanyi in a later paragraph. We shift our attention to the beauty of northern latitude springtime to discover some personal intuition triggered by the wildlife sharing our neighborhood environment. What deeper certainty may we experience as we observe the wonders around us? 

During the winter just past, eleven bird species visited the modest suet feeder suspended from our deck. Now that our trees are bursting into full leaf out, we enthusiastically note the return of dozens of migrant bird species to our wooded wonderland from countries as distant as the West Indies and South America. It is easy to exult in changes manifest in living creatures when spring comes. Our northwest Illinois neighborhood is noted for its array of beautiful birds, living creatures providing wonder and enjoyment. Our avian friends manifest exquisite feather patterns to augment magnificent coloration. Body and wing shapes relate to their habits of flight. Food needs correspond with bill shapes from chisel shaped to short and very thick. Their feet are adapted for grasping prey, climbing trees, or paddling through water in search of food. Birds are objects of admiration for their diverse beauty and multidimensional physical adaptations, not to mention their behavior. Embrace of intelligent design in the avian world seems rational as is belief in the truth of Genesis 1:20: “So God created…every winged bird according to its kind.” 

We use birds in this post as one example to help us consider works of the Creator. The prophet Isaiah asks, “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” (Isaiah 66:1-2) These expressions expand our sense of worship. We are encouraged to contemplate the works God has produced. In so doing we extend our understanding of the essence of the Creator.

Michael Polanyi’s tacit knowledge, sometimes termed intuition, is an expression of understanding gained without conscious reasoning. We may not be able to articulate our understanding verbally. Philosopher K. S. Johannesen, commenting on Polanyi’s tacit knowledge proposal, states, “…propositional knowledge, i. e., knowledge expressible by some kind of linguistic means in a propositional form, is not the only type of knowledge that is scientifically relevant.” There is a dimension of knowledge, therefore, that some scientists recognize as scientific without the encumbrance of propositions, however logical they may appear. In preparation for this post I consulted a lengthy article on birds. The article was written by evolutionary scientists whose objective throughout was to reinforce propositions of evolutionary origins and relationships among bird species. The sense of wonder was hidden in a welter of evolutionary propositions. Evolutionary origins and relationships are sometimes obscure, the author conceded. 

Tacit knowledge that a Creator has acted may be scientifically relevant. If we were to give voice to this form of intuition, it is expressed in Isaiah 66:2: “Has not my hand made all these things?” Hundreds of phenomena from the physical and biological world bespeak the past and present action of the Creator. Tacit knowledge (intuition) is relevant science. It may be the inspiration for many other types of relevant science including empirical laboratory science. We give thanks to God who provides the gift of knowledge and truth discovery in diverse ways.