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Theology and Science in the Postmodern World: The Poetic Imagination of Objectivity (Part 1)

III. Scientists Deconstructing Science: The Poetic Imagination of ‘Objectivity’ (Part 1)

It should now be apparent that any theological approach to science must attempt to move beyond the standard modernist account. The modernist account of science pictures it as an objective, universal discipline that operates impartially on the basis of the scientific method, which is a disinterested, non-ideological endeavor. Thus, scientific practice is the objective application of the scientific method and scientific discovery, the gradual progressive accumulation of scientific data.

It is this perspective of science as objective inquiry and steady accumulation of data that must be called into question. To engage in this question, I will enter into dialogue with two of the most prominent and influential philosophers of science of the twentieth century, Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn. Their work offers a serious challenge to modernist understanding of science which is parallel to a proper theological critique of the modernist conception of science.

1. Michael Polanyi: Personal Knowledge and Ecclesial Science

As early as the 1940’s philosophers of science have been calling into question the modern, objectivist understanding of science. Perhaps no one has been more influential in this challenge than the Jewish Hungarian chemist-turned philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi.[1] Polanyi’s work radically calls into question the modernist ideal of scientific objectivity. Polanyi rather argues that science is inescapably value-laden, with every scientific claim involving personal commitment. In scientific knowing, like all forms of knowing, the knower is intimately involved in at all points. This is a direct challenge to the objectivist conception of science where the knower was required to disengage from the act of knowing in order to be ‘objective.’[2] According to Polanyi, the modernist ideal of the objective knower is simply an illusion. There is no detached, disinterested standpoint from which to look at the world ‘objectively.’ Rather, all knowing is perspectival and subjective – that is to say, it requires a knowing subject. That all knowing involves subjectivity by no means requires complete relativism or subjectivism. While some have accused Polanyi of subjectivism, such criticisms miss the mark. For Polanyi, the fact of the subjective, personal dimension of knowledge does not entail antirealism or relativism, rather it simply recognizes the seemingly self-evident point that the knowing subject can never be dismissed. As Polanyi points out,

Such is the personal participation of the knowing in all acts of understanding.
But this does not make our understanding subjective. Comprehension is neither an
arbitrary act nor a passive experience, but a responsible act claiming universal
validity. Such knowing is indeed objective in the sense of establishing contact
with a hidden reality; a contact that is defined as the condition for
anticipating an independent range of yet unknown (and perhaps yet inconceivable)
true implications.[3]

Thus, Polanyi’s recognition of the personal and subjective does not entail relativism or antirealism, but rather simply chastens science (and indeed all modes of inquiry that claim objectivity), forcing it to recognize its proper and limited nature. All acts of knowing are inextricably value-laden, theory-laden and must to some extent rely on uncritical assumptions without which no form of understanding would be possible. The modern objectivist ideal of the detached knower is, Polanyi argues, simply a myth.

It goes without saying that no one – scientists included – looks at the universe
this way, whatever lip-service is given to ‘objectivity.’ Nor should this
surprise us. For, as human beings, we must inevitably see the universe from a
centre lying within ourselves and speak about it in terms of a human language
shaped by the exigencies of human intercourse. Any attempt rigorously to
eliminate our human perspective from our picture of the world must lead to

Polanyi goes on to engage in a rigorous examination of the actual practice and nature of science to determine a proper understanding. Science cannot be understood as a disinterested, value-free, objective form of detached reasoning. Rather it always involves the personal commitment of the knower to the object known. Thus, science has an inescapably moral dimension. This is based on the fact that in the end all scientific theorizing is subject to the personal interpretation of the scientist. “Viewed from the outside as we described him the scientist may appear as a mere truth-finding machine steered by intuitive sensitivity. But this view takes not account of the curious fact that he is himself the ultimate judge of what he accepts as true.”[5] Thus, the act of scientific knowing inescapably involves the conscience of the scientist. Therefore there is, “the presence of a moral element in the foundation of science.”[6]

What then, is this moral base that undergirds the practice of science and the scientific community’s adherence to scientific ideals? At this point, a proper understanding of tradition and community become indispensable for understanding the nature of science, as Polanyi argues. As Alasdair MacIntyre has demonstrated at great length, it is virtually irrefutable that communities and traditions are the carriers of ethics and rationality.[7] Polanyi would heartily approve this recommendation. The moral and rational basis for scientific reasoning is founded ultimately in the scientific community, the members of which are bound by a common tradition.[8] The fact of the role of community and tradition in the nature and practice of science is made explicitly clear in Polanyi’s work. No one is born a scientist. Rather, one becomes a scientist through a process of training in which the student submits uncritically and trustingly to the tutelage of the teacher. “The naturalistic view held by scientists and other modern men to-day has its origin in their primary education.”[9] Polanyi goes on to argue that,

this training can be supplemented by precept, but the imitative practice must
always remain its main principle. The same is true of the process by which the
elements of the higher arts are assimilated. Painting, music, etc., can be
learned, only by practice, guided by intelligent imagination. And this applies
to the art of scientific discovery.[10]

Thus, Polanyi argues, the practice and survival of science depends on the scientific community and students who can be persuaded to enter into that community, apprenticing themselves to scientific practitioners so as to learn the doctrines and practice of the scientific tradition. In a very real sense, then the continued existence of science is predicated on s
tudents of science who do not commit themselves to thinking ‘objectively.’ The students of science must simply submit to the process of indoctrination in scientific doctrine and practice in faith that their teachers are not deceiving them. If they were to ‘question everything’ as the objective knower must, then no learning could actually take place and the scientific tradition would cease to exist.

Therefore, science must be understood in the Augustinian sense of “faith in search of understanding.”[11] Moreover, it is not simply the students of science that must participate in the scientific tradition on the basis of faith, but all scientists. The continuation of science is predicated upon the scientific community’s continued assent of faith to unproven and unprovable assumptions about the nature of reality that legitimate the scientific agenda. As Polanyi states,

It would thus appear that when the premisses [sic] of science are held in common
by the scientific community each must subscribe to them by an act of devotion.
These premisses [sic] from not merely a guide to intuition, but also a guide to
conscience; they are not merely indicative, but also normative. The tradition of
science, it would seem, must be upheld as an unconditional demand if it is to be
upheld at all. It can be made use of by scientists only if they place themselves
at its service. It is a spiritual reality which stands over them and compels
their allegiance.[12]

Polanyi elsewhere argues,

We must now recognize belief once more as the source of all knowledge. Tacit
assent and intellectual passions, the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural
heritage, affiliation to a like-minded community: such are the impulses which
shape our vision of the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of
things. No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside such
a fiduciary framework.[13]

Thus, science is not in fact an objective, value-free discipline, but is rather a tradition embodied in a community that is bound by a common faith in certain doctrines and ideals. The propagation of science is dependent on the conversion of persons to the scientific tradition of the basis of its attractiveness as a means of understanding and interpreting the world. Such a conversion to the scientific tradition is strikingly similar to the reception of a person into the Christian community. Polanyi describes the process of conversion to science (which he calls “emotional and moral surrender”[14]) in terms that are strikingly similar to Christian discipleship.

The first approach of the youthful mind to science is prompted by a love of science and a faith in its great significance which precedes any real understanding of it. This primary surrender to the intellectual authority of science is indispensable to any serious effort of assimilating science. As a next step the youth aspiring to become a scientist will have to accept the examples of great scientists, some living and many dead, and seek to derive from it an inspiration for his own future career. In many cases he will join a master and give him freely his admiration and trust.[15]

This understanding of conversion to science bear a striking resemblance to Christian discipleship in which the convert is drawn to Christianity through a love of God and Christ having great faith in their reality, prior to an in-depth understanding of those concepts. Moreover, the idea of exemplars to guide the new convert is certainly a very Christian idea, with its emphasis on the examples of the saints (Heb. 11). And of course the seeking out of a master in the faith to guide the new convert is also a distinct component of Christian discipleship.[16]

Moreover, ecclesial language seems to pervade Polanyi’s articulation of the nature of science. Science must ultimately be seen as a tradition embodied in a community of committed practitioners bound by a common faith. The scientific tradition is, on Polanyi’s reading inescapably ecclesial in nature. This should give us pause when we begin to examine how theology should engage science. If science and scientific inquiry is best understood, not as an objective disinterested discipline undertaken by enlightened individuals, but rather the commitment of a particular community to a specific faith and practice, then the form of dialogue between theology and science should look much different that the standard evangelical responses to science which have simply sought to make theology and science amenable bedfellows. Given the moral, fiduciary, ecclesial and ultimately spiritual and religious elements of the nature and practice of science, I would propose that dialogue between theology and science should be seen and practiced in much the same way as inter-traditional dialogue rather than inter-disciplinary dialogue. This distinction will prove crucial later. The common assumption in regard to the question of ‘science and theology’ has been that the nature of the relationship is one between different abstract, disembodied disciplines, rather than between different embodied traditions.[17]

The implications of this proposal are many, but prior to spelling out such implications, it is necessary to further deconstruct the modern objectivist conception of science. Polanyi’s work has gone a long way toward refuting the notion that science is a disinterested, objective application of the scientific method. However, another central element to the modernist conception of science is that science is the continual, gradual accumulation of data through the implementation of scientific methodology. This idea of gradual scientific progress is another key element of the modernist conception of science that needs to be deconstructed prior to articulating a proper theological perspective on science. Thomas Kuhn’s groundbreaking work on the nature of scientific revolutions offers extensive resources toward just such a construction of a proper understanding of the scientific tradition. It is his work that will occupy us in the next section.


[1]For a brief introduction to Polanyi, see David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 188ff.

[2] See Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), vii-viii, 3-6.

[3] Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, vii-viii.

[4] Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 3.

[5] Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946), 38.

[6] Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society, 41.

[7] See MacIntyre, After Virtue, 218-225. In many ways the theological analogue of MacIntyre has been Stanley Hauerwas.

[8] See Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society, 52.

[9] Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society, 42.

[10] Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society, 43.

[11] See Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society, 45; Personal Knowledge, 264-268.

[12] Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society, 54.

[13] Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 266.

[14] Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society, 55.

[15] Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society, 55.

[16] For such an account of discipleship, see Stanley Hauerwas, After Christendom?: How the Church is to Behave if Freedom, Justice and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991), 93-111.

[17] See for example J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, The Shaping of Rationality: Toward Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Science (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). Notwithstanding a many helpful observations, van Huyssteen consistently assumes that ‘theology’ and ‘science’ designate disciplines which must be harmonized rather than different socially embodied traditions that may or may not be entirely commensurate with one another. Van Huyssteen rightly notes that science should not occupy a place of epistemic privilege in relation to theology, but he does not adequately account for the embodied character of both the scientific and Christian traditions.


  1. Anonymous wrote:


    Thanks for this interesting and informative post. I find mildly intriguing that T.F. Torrance did not make it into this post, especially in light of his deep engagement with Polyani’s work. Perhaps you can look into TFT and include him in a later post, if you don’t already intend to.

    In any case, there is an interesting discussion of theology, the knowledge of God, and theological science going on over at my blog. I would be very interested in having you involved in the conversation, so check it out. I’m going to set up a link in the comments thread of my post to send people over here as well.

    Tuesday, December 12, 2006 at 11:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Matt Wiebe wrote:

    Surely there must be some scientists who have accepted this notion of science being a tradition embodied in community. Do you know of any non-Christian scientists who have grappled and accepted this notion?

    And does this mean syncretism for Christians who engage in science?

    Wednesday, December 13, 2006 at 8:17 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:


    Thanks for the link. As the the matter of Torrance, at the time I wrote the original draft of this article, I had not yet immersed myself in his work, and honestly even since doing that I still have barely touched his stuff on theological science. It would indeed be interesting to see how he might play into this account. In upcoming sections I interact with Walter Brueggemann, Lesslie Newbigin and Stanley Grenz. If I were to do this whole project again, I think Torrance would definately be another one of those interlocutors.


    Surprisingly there is little acknowledgement of this among the scientific community and certainly not in the way in which science and technology are percieved and practices in contemporary culture. For the most part there we are all still modernists who are optimistic about technology to solve our problems.

    And it is interesting to note how marginalized and unread Polanyi is among mainstream scientists and even philosophers of science.

    As for syncretism, I address the matter of what Christian participation in science looks like somewhat in my later posts, so I’ll demur until then. However, I do want to open the door to recognizes that such syncretism is possible and deeply problematic. That may sound a bit fundamentalisty, but I think that it’s a true and important point. What must be denied is that the scientific tradtion has autonomy as a source knowledge that can police theology’s claims. That, I think could indeed be syncretistic.

    Wednesday, December 13, 2006 at 10:17 pm | Permalink
  4. Anonymous wrote:

    I’m not sure I buy the idea that scientists, on the whole, reject the idea of science being a tradition embodied in community. My gut feel is that most would more likely take it as a statement of the obvious. They would, however, argue for a corresponence of the tradition to reality. They would say, that is, that the tradition “works.”

    Scientists are, I think, keenly aware that what they offer are merely models of the physical world. But they’re not arbitrary models. As such, I think you need to be careful how far you push the “science as indoctrination” idea. If my mentor tells me that F=ma, I can verify this. That is, I can verify that within the bounds specified by the model, the model works the way my mentor claims it does. Granted, this is somewhat more limited than many students recognize.

    The case of Newtonian physics is very instructive, because scientists universally know that it isn’t “ultimately” true. But it is still used because it still works within defined bounds. It is recognized as an approximation, but a good working model — a useful way of thinking about the world, even if it is ultimately wrong.

    This gets us into the question of science and technology, which I think in your above comments you are still failing to give proper distance from one another. Technology, as the practical application of scientific models, is typically concerned only with the math. Do the numbers work out in a consistent and predictable way? They do. Science, as distinguished from technology, seeks to interpret the model to say what’s behind the math.

    Thursday, December 14, 2006 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

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