Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Steve Smith, Michael Polanyi, Benedict XVI, Scientific Naturalism and the Tacit Co-Efficient: Further Thoughts on the Oklahoma Conference
Like others, I wish to thank Michael Scaperlanda and Brian McCall for hosting this year’s installment of the Conference on Catholic Legal Thought. It was certainly a treat to be guided through the political writings of St. Augustine by Paul Griffiths and to benefit from Paul’s generous contributions to the conversation that took place on the ensuing days.
It was also a treat to have Steve Smith present to discuss his recent book, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. Like one of Steve’s commentators, John Inazu, I too believe that Steve is right to suggest that, in responding to the comprehensive claims of scientific naturalism made today, it is appropriate to ask the person making such claims what he or she truly believes. Relying on the work of Joseph Vining, Steve notes (p. 195) that:
Discovering what we believe – what we really, genuinely believe – involves not a simple introspection and report but a more serious and searching investigation of . . . well, of what we think we believe, yes, but also of how we live, what we desire, what we would and would not be willing to do. It may turn out, upon close examination, that people do not really believe some of what they casually thought they believed, and vice versa.
Steve also cites to the work of chemist turned philosopher Michael Polanyi. In his book Personal Knowledge, Polanyi argues that every “articulate assertion is composed of two parts: a sentence conveying the content of what is asserted and a tacit act by which this sentence is asserted” (p. 254). That is, behind every assertion is a “tacit coefficient,” an “I” who believes and asserts. As Polanyi says, “If an ultimate logical level is to be attained and made explicit, this must be a declaration of my personal beliefs” (p. 267) such that as he says in very next sentence, (quoted by Steve in his book, p. 197):
I believe that the function of philosophic reflection consists in bringing to light, and affirming as my own, the beliefs implied in such of my thoughts and practices as I believe to be valid; that I must aim at discovering what I truly believe in and at formulating the convictions which I find myself holding; that I must conquer my self-doubt, so as to retain a firm hold on this programme of self-identification.
As John Inazu pithily summarized at the conference “Our actions tell us more about what we believe than what we say.” That is to say, behind every human action and statement of belief is an “I,” a human person – an actor and believer whose beliefs are often more clearly reflected in how he or she behaves than in what he or she says. Thus, one might well ask whether those who champion a comprehensive scientific naturalism actually live their lives in a manner that reflects a sincere belief in the veracity of that world-view.
Lastly, I would note that there are connections to be drawn between Polanyi’s thought, and the thought of Pope Benedict XVI which I addressed in my presentation. At the conference I focused on Benedict’s 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg (here) where he set forth “a critique of modern reason from within” and argued for a “broadening of our concept of reason and its application” by “overcom[ing] the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable,” and his 2010 address to members of British civil society at Westminster Hall (here) in which Benedict argued that religion can “help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles” in public life. That is, just as Benedict concludes that “[m]odern scientific reason quite simply has to accept” that which it cannot prove, namely, “the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature,” likewise Polanyi concludes (p.286):
Objectivism has totally falsified our conception of truth, by exalting what we can know and prove, while covering up with ambiguous utterances all that we know and cannot prove, even though the latter knowledge underlies, and must ultimately set its seal to, all that we can prove.
To bring the conversation full circle, Polanyi argues that St. Augustine “brought the history of Greek philosophy to a close inaugurating for the first time a post-critical philosophy” (p. 266). That is, for Polanyi, St. Augustine recognized that behind every inquiry, behind every effort to discern what to believe is someone already engaged in the act of believing. “He taught that all knowledge was a gift of grace, for which we must strive under the guidance of antecedent belief: nisi credideritis, non intelligitis” (id.).