Books: Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin (Part 2)

In my first post on Lesslie Newbigin’s book Proper Confidence, I described Newbigin’s analysis of how skepticism captured the American mind and came to dominate in 2011. But, as the book title demonstrates, Newbigin is also trying to show how to have “proper confidence” even in the face of such pressure to trust nothing.

The heart of the book is chapter 3, which presents the ideas of Michael Polanyi (1891–1976) about “personal knowledge.” Polanyi, a Hungarian, was a kind of universal genius who made contributions to many fields including physical chemistry and the theory of knowledge. Polanyi rejected the idea of scientific objectivity because he believed that “all knowing of reality involves the personal commitment of the knower as a whole person.”[1]

As a research scientist, Polanyi had asked himself how scientific discoveries are made, and he concluded — as described by Newbigin — the following factors were involved:

1. “Learning is a skill which, like any other skill, cannot be acquired by the unaided mental processes of the student. It is acquired by working with and under the direction of those who are already skilled.”[2] [This sounds very much like attaining Christian maturity. BA]

2. “Scientists work by ‘indwelling’ this tradition. The assumptions, the assured findings of the past, and the methods of science become part of their own equipment on which they rely….Likewise when we have come to use a language freely, we indwell the language….By indwelling it we are able to make contact with the world around us.”[3] By indwelling the tradition and using the language of the field of knowledge, the scientist trusts the ‘fiduciary framework’ he has received and uses it to make further advances in knowledge. [The more biblical knowledge and outlook we absorb, the better we can follow the Holy Spirit into deeper understanding. BA]

3. “Recognition of a problem is an awareness, an intuition that there is something — a pattern or a harmony waiting to be found — hidden in the apparent haphazardness of empirical reality. This cannot be more than an intuition. And it may prove to have been an illusion….At every point along this course, there is need of personal judgment in deciding whether a pattern is significant or merely random.”[4] All of this relies so heavily on personal judgment and imagination that it is absurd to pretend it is all objective.

4. “In the work of the scientist, the focal point of attention has around it a vast area of what Polanyi calls ‘tacit knowledge.’ There is a vast amount which we know, which in fact guides our thinking, but which we do not explicitly formulate.”[5] [All we have previously learned about God contributes to what we are trying to learn. BA]

5. “That science will eventually enable us to understand everything in the visible world through the discovery of mass and energy laws governing the behavior of the smallest particles of matter, and that science will therefore enable us to eventually predict and control all events is an illusion….So also, to come to a well-known example, the laws of mechanics set limits on what any machine can do, but they do not explain the purpose for which the machine was constructed….We have to be informed either by the designer of the machine or by someone who is accustomed to using it for its proper purpose….For an explanation of the purpose of the machine we depend upon a personal communication accepted in faith.”[6] [This has wonderful applicability to man. Only the creator can tell us why man was created and what he should do to accomplish his purpose. We have to accept that information by faith, because we have no other way to learn it. BA]

6. “Although all claims to know involve a personal commitment, the scientist makes them ‘with universal intent.’ He claims that they are true not just for himself but for everyone….Knowing always involves the personal commitments of the knowers, for which they are prepared to risk their careers as scientists.”[7] [Christians learn by testing their ideas against those of other believers as well as through obedience to Christ in their behavior. BA]

Concluding Thoughts

“It follows (and this is Polanyi’s point) that there can be no knowing without personal commitment. We must believe in order to know. Polanyi emphasizes the fact that knowing is a form of activity. Like all activity it involves the interaction of a person with a word beyond him or her. It is an activity which (as we have seen) involves the whole person in a passionate commitment to make contact with reality.”[8]

I accept Polanyi’s view of personal knowledge. It is the most convincing I have ever read, and it conforms to what I both knew and saw in the laboratory while earning my master’s degree in engineering. The public has little grasp of the degree to which faith is part of the fabric of science, just as Polanyi says. This has been reported many times before.

The fact that we cannot achieve certainty — even certainty about God — through reasoning alone should not trouble us as Christians. God’s revelation in the Bible regularly calls on us to commit ourselves to Christ, his commands and his statements about the future with our faith. Committing to Christ and his Word — without being able to prove certainty — is what faith is all about. We believe in order to know, and the more we believe what our Lord has said, the more we will learn. The Bible makes plain that those who passionately seek God will surely find him.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995) 39.

[2] Ibid., p. 40.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 41.

[5] Ibid., pp. 41–42.

[6] Ibid., pp. 42–43.

[7] Ibid., p. 43.

[8] Ibid., p. 50.