breaking wisdom and tacit knowing

In the first book of that rightly renowned trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, the wizard Gandalf the Grey pays an urgent visit to his superior, Saruman the White. It soon becomes apparent that Saruman’s robes are no purer than his new dangerous allegiance with the power that rises in the east, for now he boasts, “I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-Maker, Saruman of Many Colours!” Gandalf continues the story:

‘I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.
‘ “I liked white better, “I said.
‘ “White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”
‘ “In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

In analysing information, one uses discernment to collect knowledge and then uses the knowledge to cultivate wisdom. At any rate, that is how one ought to practice analysis. And yet, thanks partly to the existential movement of modernity, the world’s finders of fact are more like Saruman the Breaker of Wisdom, for they pick up the beliefs of tradition and sanity and begin to dissect them, reversing the process of analysis, breaking everything into smaller and smaller segments, and breaking their own hearts in the process. Creation silently laments with Eliot, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

The notion of positivism was very prevalent in the scientific circles of Michael Polanyi’s day. A chemist-turned-philosopher born in Budapest a few years before the outbreak of World War I, Polanyi was one of the only dissenters in a world where science was winning and only verifiable reality was held reliable. His contemporaries scorned the thought of idealism or imagination corrupting their work, and kept philosophy and theology as far away from their sterile laboratories as possible. Science would be king of a metal earth, once all the fantasies of tradition were dissected and analysed part by part. But Polanyi saw the world as a whole, not in pieces on an operating table. After completing his scientific education, it wasn’t long before he began to be more interested in the philosophies surrounding the facts. He developed an immensely controversial theory, which maintains that far from being verifiable and stoic, all knowledge is tacit or rooted in tacit knowing. He explains:

“We cannot ultimately specify the grounds (either metaphorical or logical or empirical) upon which we hold that our knowledge is true. Being committed to such grounds, dwelling in them, we are projecting ourselves to what we believe to be true from or through these grounds. We cannot therefore see what they are. We cannot look at them because we are looking with them.”

Polanyi realized that there are certain truths, certain ideals, which can never be scientifically verified. An excellent pianist cannot explain the exact workings of his talent; if he plays a piece with more than a subsidiary awareness of the actual placement of his hands on the keys, he will lose his ability to make the instrument really sing. Bach claimed it was simple- that you just have to press the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself. In other words, musicians know what they’re doing, but they can’t tell you exactly how. Likewise, a person may know what he believes, but he will not ever be able to communicate exactly why he believes it because such understanding cannot be verbalized accurately. Words are magnificent tools, but they are not equal to our thoughts. We cannot express the why of our existence like a teacher explaining that 2 + 2 = 4. Einstein understood a little of this, for he said, “Things ought to be made as simple as possible. But not simpler.” Essential core beliefs like human dignity are not simple. They are indispensable concepts, but if the propagators of positivism have their way, those concepts will never be admitted to exist, because they do not fit into an equation. Logical positivists can never fit the world onto their measly operating table.

In fact, they cannot even adequately distance their science from their own humanity. As Polanyi believed, all knowledge is rooted in something inexplicable, and in that sense, science is an art as much as music is an art. Scientific discoveries begin with imagination- a hunch, a confusing desire to keep experimenting when you don’t know the outcome, a willingness to take risks. Personal participation and imagination are essentially involved in science as well as the humanities. Therefore, said Polanyi, “Meanings created in the sciences stand in no more favoured relation to reality than do meanings created in the arts, in moral judgments, and in religion.” Atheist scientists arrive at the drawing table with presuppositions just as Christians do. The Christian belief that God created the world is laughable to most scientists, because, they say, it cannot be proven. Christian scientists are condemned by their peers for refusing to part with their foolish presuppositions about the existence of God and so forth. But any Christian who has studied the so-called factuality of evolution knows that the pet theory of today’s scientists is not rooted in verifiable and unbiased fact at all. It’s full of contradictions and missing links. Darwin’s theory was never more than a theory- it was never a rule or the truth. And yet it is widely accepted because the only other explanation is antithetical to the scientists’ pre-held beliefs about the non-existence of God. All men base their most central beliefs on faith in some truth. For some reason, the presuppositions of logical positivists are just more respected than ours.

Although positivism cannot make perfect positivists, its dangerous undermining of humanity’s most dearly held traditions and ideals has been noted and fought against by everyone who throws its part-to-whole fallacies out the window only to realize that the only thing positive about it is a positively negative worldview. I recently read an article discussing new discoveries in the realm of human anatomy. Some scientists think that, along with the 10 trillion cells in the human body, there are also 100 trillion bacteria of several hundred species bearing millions of non-human genes. These tiny organisms supposedly work together as members of a community, and the human “host”, say the scientists, is merely one (if dominating) member. This discovery (if it is one) could solve many medical questions and even lead to important cures. But it could unearth problems as well. Pursuit of physical cures unlocks questions on a metaphysical level. If the human host is merely the ruling aristocrat of a microscopic population, will there be shouts for the emancipation of the captives? Will there be “biological Robespierres” who maintain that the human individual has no more inherent dignity than the microbes he houses? This theory about what’s inside a human could make him inhumane.

When one insists on breaking something whole (specifically one of those ancient ‘natural laws’ of humanity) to find out what it is, he has, like the wizard Saruman, abandoned the path of wisdom. The parts do not always explain the whole, and dissection is not the way to divine meaning. The entire concept of meaning is meaningless, if analysed from a positivist standpoint. At the end of “The Abolition of Man”, C.S. Lewis said,

“You cannot go on ‘explaining away’ forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ things is the same as not to see.”

There are some things that cannot be explained. The obvious solution will be to box them up and set them in the darkest corner of the basement, but anyone who tries it will find that the inexplicable is inseparable from reality. There are some mysteries that are woven into humanity like a thread in a tapestry, and he who tries to pull out the thread will find that he has unraveled the garment.



(^I have way too much fun with philosophy.)


2 responses

  1. Pingback: A Little Manual for Knowing by E.L. Meek | grace revealed.

  2. Pingback: The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard | grace revealed.

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