Talking about Gender Roles and Biblical Interpretation

By Lee Karl Palo and Justin Smith

© 2016 Lee Karl Palo and Justin Smith


Jesus Facebook

The following is a conversation I recently had with Justin Smith via a mutual friend’s Facebook post on the recent transgender controversies. Our friend was asking a question about the possibility of a compromise rather than an either/or solution. The comments have not been edited except to add relevant hyperlinks and a book plug (a couple emoticons didn’t translate over as well). I think it shows a positive way to debate issues such as this.


Justin Smith There is no compromise with sin that’s good for everyone.

Lee Karl Palo Being transgender is not sin. There are no Bible verses that deal with the issue at all. There are verses that deal positively with folks who have had alterations to their body, like the Ethiopian Eunuch.

Justin Smith The verses that deal favorably with the eunuchs recognize that this was imposed upon them and that castration was a brutal act that “cut off” the man from having a heritage, but that if they keep God’s commandments they will receive a promise greater than sons and daughters (Isaiah 56:3-5). Those verses have nothing to do with the modern concept of “gender identity” argued by transgender advocates. A eunuch was a man who’s male organs had been removed, not a man who said he was a woman on the inside or a woman who said she was really a man trapped in a woman’s body. Even in the case of eunuchs though there is a realization that castration was mutilation and not normal or an acceptable act (Deuteronomy 23:1). Of course, there are numerous verses addressing cross-dressing and homosexuality which are repeatedly condemned along with all other sins such as fornication, lying, stealing, drunkenness, etc.

This is not to say that there are not extremely rare and horribly sad birth defects where children are born with both sets of genitals. These situations have been compounded by doctors in the last 70 years who simply chose one sex over another and then pumped a child full of hormones. In those situations there are clear medical and moral standards for kindly handling the situation (even going back before the New Testament). Those cases are truly rare and should be handled with gentleness, patience, and compassion.

What is being discussed in the current debate though is a man with clear genetic and chromosomal masculinity claiming to “really” be a woman or a woman claiming to “really” be a man. If we were really talking about sexual ambiguity due to chromosomal damage or other birth defects the discussion would have a much different tone and we could make an argument based on science. That’s not what this debate is about though. There is no argument based on science because it’s based on subjective feelings. In reality, those who are afflicted with these birth defects are being exploited by those who are not in order to claim that gender and anatomical sex are a distinction without a difference. That’s not only dishonest, it’s cruel.

Again, there is no compromise with sin that is good for everyone. Men who act as women, women who act as men, men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women are committing sin. There needs to be repentance, not accommodation which will further enslave them to their sin.

Lee Karl Palo I think your understanding of the verses related to genital mutilation are accurate. The trick, as always, is to figure out what that means for today’s world. That is not always an easy task. There is a scientific way of looking at it. In psychology there is the DSM-V. It is the gold standard for defining and treating disorders. Gender identity is not a disorder. Some people who are transgender go so far as to have surgery to physically align themselves with their gender identity. I am often afraid in some of the traditionalist rhetoric that there is a tacit view of the transsexual as beyond God’s forgiveness. A friend of mine who is in such a position has been called some pretty horrible names by folks who would self-identify as Christian.


Here is a shameless book plug for the friend I mentioned in the above comment. David Weekley’s book, In from the Wilderness: Sherman: She-r-man. You can get it on here.


Justin Smith I don’t think finding the underlying principles of these passages and others relating to gender is difficult. God ordained men and women to fulfill specific roles. Whether we like that or not is immaterial. It’s what God defined and it’s not based on worth or value, but instead on the divinely designed plan of salvation with the church being the bride and Christ the groom. The distinction between men and women is not only blatantly biological, it’s also blatantly theological. Saying that there is no distinction between men and women or that those distinctions are fluid or open to reinterpretation (a “distinction without a difference”) is tantamount to saying that there is no real difference between Christ and the church. It’s nonsensical.

I don’t put any credence in the DSM-V. It is not scientific. On one day (for the DSM-IV) they voted that homosexuality was a disorder and then two days later they voted that it was normal. That’s not science. It may be scientism, but it’s certainly not operational science. What’s more, physiological disorders do not define what is and is not sin. God does. It is immaterial whether the DSM says something is a disorder or not. If God says it’s sin then it’s sin no matter what the DSM says.

I agree on the rhetoric. It’s out of hand on both sides. However, that doesn’t obviate clear teaching from scripture. Homosexuals, transvestites, and transgenders are never beyond forgiveness. If they are then that negates 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. However, homosexuality, cross-dressing, fornication, and other perversions of gender and human sexuality are sin and should be dealt with as such – openly, directly, honestly, and always with a call to repent and salvation in Christ. Sin should never be dealt with through accommodation of the sin.

Those caught up in LGBTQIAPK…. movement are just as capable of being rescued by the blood of Christ as are those who are drunks, thieves, covetous, disobedient to parents, and all the rest. The people who argue that those caught up in sexual perversions are beyond salvation have no knowledge of the Bible and no desire to submit to it.

Lee Karl Palo God has never ordained men and women to fulfill specific roles. That is a misunderstanding of scripture that is occasionally perpetuated by scripture itself (i.e. there is no universal agreement in the Bible itself on that matter). According to some jerks like Mark Driscoll, my vocation as a stay-at-home dad makes me an effeminate man. Is that then a mild form of transgender?

Justin Smith I don’t agree with Mark Driscoll on much. His view of scripture is lacking. As for roles of men and women, do you disagree that a man is to take on the roll of leader within the home? As a picture of Christ and church, don’t the man and the woman fulfill roles that would be inappropriate for the other?

Lee Karl Palo I tend to prefer the authentic Paul of Galatians 3:28 to disputed letters of Paul like Ephesians or the very widely disputed Pastoral Epistles. I think traditions like the ones you refer to about headship are later pseudo-Pauline developments. Luke 10:38-42 presents a pretty strong case that Jesus thinks women can be Rabbis.

Justin Smith Ah, well there we are not going to be able to come to an agreement then. I reject higher criticism and what has arisen from it.

Lee Karl Palo That’s a pretty extreme reaction to reject all of it. That runs the risk of making the Bible say whatever you want it to say.

Justin Smith Ah, I think there’s a misunderstanding. My fault. Let me clarify…

I reject higher criticism as a discipline as it exists today in the primary halls of academia, I do not reject all techniques used by higher critics (nor the older version of higher criticism that was one of the chief works of early Protestantism). This may be where the misunderstanding exists. I was using the term in a more colloquial modern manner rather than as a purely technical term.

I subscribe to an interpretation of the Bible based on a grammatical historical interpretation of authorial intent. This is similar to the first (primary) goal of the historical critical method. However, what was originally higher criticism in the 18th century has been overtaken by lower (textual) criticism. It has also subjected the text of the Bible to external sources as being considered “superior” or “equal” historically or archaeologically.

The result of the overemphasis of textual criticism has fundamentally changed higher criticism in the modern era away from an historical grammatical interpretation and instead toward a “reconstructed” text in interpretation giving equal weight to the Bible and non-Biblical historical texts. This has inappropriately placed the Bible on equal footing with texts having far less historical attestation.

It has also resulted in a continuing effort to deny the historical validity of the historical text of the Bible as accepted by the church through history. It is this resulting “scholarship” that I reject and what I was referencing in my statement about “higher criticism”.

So, to be more clear, I reject the use of lower criticism as used by historical (higher) critics to “demythologize” the Bible in the manner of Rudolph Bultmann and his followers. In the same manner, I also reject a reconstructive textual (lower) criticism that denies the validity of the 66 books of the New Testament as divinely inspired scripture.

I apologize for the misunderstanding. It was not intentional. I should have said, “I reject modern so-called higher criticism that rejects the 66 books of the Bible as canonical.”

Lee Karl Palo I’m not fond of Bultmann myself. I like N. T. Wright, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine and Bart D. Ehrman, among others. I do accept the canon, but it is comprised of a variety of different voices who didn’t always agree with each other. So to resolve some of the issues (assuming anything can ever be truly resolved) higher criticism can be helpful. There is plenty of evidence that not all of the letters in the Bible that claim to be written by Paul were actually written by Paul. So in that case I place more emphasis on the undisputed letters of Paul to resolve discrepancies in theology and practice. I wouldn’t say the disputed letters are uninspired, but they are not on a par with the undisputed letters. As most Biblical interpretation classes will say, use the example of Jesus to interpret parts of the Bible that are difficult to discern. Practically speaking everyone has a “canon within the canon,” so we never treat all of the books of the Bible as equally authoritative. Most traditionalist folks don’t go around looking to enact Leviticus’ prescribed punishment for male homosexual intercourse, but instead use Paul’s phrase from Romans 1:27 that they have already received the punishment in their own bodies. That is a good example of how one part of the Bible is subordinated to another. And sure books like 1 Enoch and Jubilees can help us understand Jude, but I don’t know of anyone who puts 1 Enoch or Jubilees on a par with Jude in terms of authority. 1QpHab helps us to see that early Christians’ interpretation of the OT was not without precedent. 4QMMT shows us that there was a variety of views on how the Torah was to be observed so that it is not appropriate to say Jesus broke the Sabbath, but rather that he had a different view on how the Sabbath was to be observed. Dead Sea Scrolls works, like the two just cited above, help us to understand the Bible better, but they aren’t themselves scripture, or carry that kind of authority.

Justin Smith I understand what you’re saying Lee. Still, I hold to inerrancy in the 66 books. That includes the internal claims of authorship for the Pauline letters. Probably the simplest way to state it is that I am in agreement with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. I do agree that there is some historically useful information in other works considered apocryphal.

Lee Karl Palo Even there however it is usually stated: inerrant “in the original autographs.” That would seem to be an exhortation to textual criticism. There is, for example, evidence that indicates 1 Corinthians statement that “women should remain silent” was a later insertion into the text and does not go back to Paul himself (i.e. not in the autograph).

Justin Smith There is a small amount of room there for textual criticism as I indicated earlier. However, it is exceedingly small and in very limited passages. The statement regarding “original autographs” allows for the potential need for this limited textual criticism, but more importantly emphasizes the precedence of the original languages over any translation (Vulgate, KVJ, etc.). This is discussed in the accompanying exposition to the statement where it says, “Transmission and Translation

Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired and to maintain the need of textual criticism as a means of detecting any slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmission. The verdict of this science, however, is that the Hebrew and Greek text appear to be amazingly well preserved, so that we are amply justified in affirming, with the Westminster Confession, a singular providence of God in this matter and in declaring that the authority of Scripture is in no way jeopardized by the fact that the copies we possess are not entirely error-free.

Similarly, no translation is or can be perfect, and all translations are an additional step away from the autographa. Yet the verdict of linguistic science is that English-speaking Christians, at least, are exceedingly well served in these days with a host of excellent translations and have no cause for hesitating to conclude that the true Word of God is within their reach. Indeed, in view of the frequent repetition in Scripture of the main matters with which it deals and also of the Holy Spirit’s constant witness to and through the Word, no serious translation of Holy Scripture will so destroy its meaning as to render it unable to make its reader “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).”

Lee Karl Palo I’ve often found the use of 2 Timothy 3:16 as self-referential to be rather cheesy. Emphasizing 3:15 is kinda cool though, and at least emphasizes the point that scripture directs us to salvation in Christ, and not to a zillion different agendas (i.e. the Bible as a science text, the Bible as history, the Bible as literature, etc.). I have found that people who believe in inerrancy, and know what that means in terms of the Chicago statement, are generally pretty decent at Biblical interpretation. The problem is with many of the masses, where inerrancy functionally means the inerrancy of their interpretations. There have been times where talking to such folks is like talking to a brick wall (no negotiation or acknowledgement that one’s interpretations may not be accurate). I like to emphasize humility when approaching scripture. It is a large responsibility and should not be taken lightly.

Justin Smith On humility in interpretation we can definitely agree! I also completely agree that the primary focus as stated in 2 Tim. 3:15 should never be lost as it so often is these days.

Lee Karl Palo But in the end, I think you are right that our respective views on scripture would likely prevent us from a consensus on how to interpret some of the relevant passages. Still, the different voices are present in scripture, and I do find it perplexing at times when inerrantists choose to prioritize some verses over others. Like to me, Galatians 3:28 is the statement of a universal principle. 1 Timothy 2:12 is phrased “I do not allow a woman to teach,” implying some other early Christian leaders did allow women to teach. There is no hint that the author is giving more than his opinion as there is no phrasing that he has a “word of the LORD” on the subject, and he doesn’t say “no one should allow a woman to teach.” Romans 16:7 speaks of Junia (not Junias, a supposedly male name which is nowhere attested in any ancient sources), a woman Apostle. Jesus’ affirmation that Mary of Bethany can become a Rabbi, in the Luke passage already referred to, also lends credence to women in what were traditionally male leadership roles. But many inerrantists will take particulars and give them more authority in their interpretation than universal principles, like Galatians 3:28.

Lee Karl Palo That there is an equality of men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, in Christ, is the goal to which the church should strive. Other texts on gender relations can be useful from time to time, but they aren’t necessarily the ideal of equality. I suppose that sums up my perspective and rationale for gender equality. I don’t do it lightly or recklessly, but put a lot of thought into it. It isn’t a capitulation to current popular cultural trends, but an honest searching of the scriptures.

Justin Smith Again, I think we’re going to disagree on these conclusions due to our differing views on scripture. For instance, within the context I see the Galatians passage as a universal statement of salvation, not of authority within the Church and therefore I need to look elsewhere for clarification on the roles of women in the church.

I do not believe the text supports your interpretation that Junia was a female apostle. It simply states that she and Andronicus were imprisoned for their faith, well known to the apostles (the dative case of “en” is important here), and Christians before Paul’s conversion. I do know tradition and history come into play here, but don’t find that conclusive either. I believe CARM’s discussion of the issue ( is correct on the question of Julia.

Regardless, I think we have probably come to an impasse on the initial discussion due to the issues stated. As always Lee, I appreciate your forthright discussion and willingness to honestly discuss issues.

Lee Karl Palo I appreciate the respectful tone of the conversation, and the honesty in discussing the issues. Thanks!


For more on my own view on the Junia debate, you can go here.

Many thanks to Justin Smith for agreeing to let me post our conversation here.

He blogs at

© 2016 Lee Karl Palo and Justin Smith

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Religion and Politics, or Who Would Jesus Vote For?

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2016 Lee Karl Palo


Jesus Talkin' - Render Unto Caesar

Building toward a U.S. Presidential election, political messages bombard us all the time. There are, of course, people of faith who assert the Bible’s support for the candidate they have chosen. What do we make of this? Can the Bible be used this way? It is a far more complicated matter than many people often suppose.

To be sure the Bible provides us with a lot of ethical guidelines, so we can look at the candidates’ expressed ethical values and see how they measure up. The issue can get rather cloudy however since the Bible is a rather large book that not everyone has a great deal of knowledge and experience with. Within that typically limited range, Christians are often much more familiar with the New Testament than they are the Old Testament, so more focus is often placed on what Jesus would do than what the Torah says.

What does a focus on the New Testament mean?

The New Testament was borne out of a context in which, in terms of politics, there was an oppressive occupying force (Rome). Living under a foreign power, who clearly did not share the same values as the various forms of emerging Judaism in the First Century, meant that you don’t get a positive view of government. Hence there is an ethos of personal responsibility outside of any government interference in the New Testament. Help to the poor and needy is something that individuals are to do. This comports well with a politically conservative American perspective that wishes to limit the government’s reach. Why should the government do something individuals or the Church are supposed to do?

There is more to the Bible than this. The Old Testament has its own perspectives, and part of that is how to order a society according to God’s values. Jesus was a Jew who was grounded in much of what we now know as the Old Testament, particularly the Torah (The Old Testament had not yet reached its final form by Jesus’ day, but much of it was already considered authoritative scripture, nothing more so than the Torah). So what did Jesus do with the Torah?

The Greatest Commandment

Jesus combined Deuteronomy 6:5 with Leviticus 19:18b when asked what the greatest commandment was (see Matthew 22:35–40 and Mark 12:28–34). This wasn’t a unique combination that Jesus made, rather it demonstrated to the questioner that Jesus knew and subscribed to what was considered the best contemporary Rabbinical opinion on the matter (see Luke 10:25-28). This focus on caring for one’s neighbor reinforces it as a personal, individual, mandate (see Luke 10:29-37).

But is that the only central message of Jesus? If so, it is hard to see how Jesus would have ended up being executed for preaching love and goodness to his fellow human beings. If Jesus was supposed to die on the cross for the sins of the world, did his opponents have to be either demon-possessed (or divinely-possessed) to get him executed? Or did Jesus’ opponents need little external provocation to crucify Jesus beyond his own message? Most scholars of the historical Jesus find ample cause for Jesus to end up on the cross that has nothing to do with spiritual forces, and everything to do with what Jesus proclaimed and what Jesus did.

Death by Politics

So what was it about Jesus’ message that was so controversial that he would be executed in a manner generally reserved for political revolutionaries? There were religious opponents of Jesus who tried to get Jesus to make some sort of public remark that could get him crucified. One of the most famous examples (found in Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, and Luke 20:20-26) prompted Jesus’ famous response “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  If “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1), then Jesus’ response implied that nothing really belongs to Caesar, and cleverly avoided a treasonable charge. Is Jesus opposed to paying taxes? I’m not sure this passage and its parallels provide a good answer one way or another, just that Jesus’ focus was on doing the will of God. But what about Jesus’ message could get the religious elites, particularly the wealthy religious elites of Jerusalem, so riled up they wanted Jesus dead? It would seem that they were looking for a political charge to level against Jesus in order to get him crucified. In the end though, the title above Jesus on the cross is one such treasonous statement, “the King of the Jews,” so it would seem that Jesus’ opponents eventually succeeded.

Jesus’ Sabbath?

Jesus made Isaiah 61:1-2, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, a centerpiece of his message and mission (see Matthew 11:5 and Luke 4:16-21). Jesus largely preached to rural communities, many of them poor. A message centering on that Isaiah passage would certainly have made him popular with that audience. What is the “good news to the poor” of which Isaiah spoke? The year of the Lord’s favor was part of the Sabbath laws: the Sabbath year and the Sabbath year of Sabbath years—the year of Jubilee.

At this point we are really digging into the Old Testament for its political values. Religion and politics in the ancient world were not separate. Given such an emphasis on separation of church and state in the U.S. today, it is easy for Americans to dismiss many passages as having only religious meaning when the original context also had political meaning. Thus it may be surprising to some that when the Gospel of Luke recorded people having asked Jesus whether he was “God’s Son” (Luke 22:70, and see also Matthew 26:63), that was as much a religious title as it was a political title. Caesar Augustus took the title “Son of God” (the name Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus, means “Commander Caesar, Son of the Divine, the Venerable”). So anyone besides the Roman Emperor using the title, “Son of God,” could be presumed to be claiming to be an alternative to the Roman Emperor, a clearly treasonous assertion.

The Law of the Land

Law codes like that of Hammurabi were incorporated into the Torah, so that the Torah was as much about politics as it was about religion—there was no separation. As such there are not only voluntary commands for individuals in the Bible (in the New Testament), but also legally binding material in the Bible (in the Old Testament). The Bible is not just about suggesting spiritual practices for individuals, but also about how a just society was to be ordered. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). As we have seen, there were open-ended exhortations like “you must love your neighbor as yourself.” There were also commands for the Israelites to set aside part of their livelihood (their “income” in a society where not everything was monetized) for the poor (see Leviticus 19:9-10 and 23:22). Such commands were not some type of discretionary giving, or “as you see fit” giving, they were the law of the land.

Extreme Sabbath!

Still, Old Testament laws like that are actually rather tame, and can perhaps remind one of government programs where income tax money is used to subsidize food stamps for the poor. There are also far and away more radical laws in the Old Testament. On the Sabbath Year all debts were to be forgiven (see Deuteronomy 15:1-3)! No matter how wealthy a person got buying up other people’s land, and often putting them to work farming the land they used to own, at the year of Jubilee the land would have to be given back to the people it was purchased from for free (see Leviticus 25:23-28)! These radical Sabbath laws were what Jesus made as a centerpiece of his message. No wonder the wealthy religious elites of Jerusalem were concerned.

Jesus, however, didn’t stop at proclaiming the year of Jubilee, he also did something so outrageous that it has echoed down through history as one of the greatest moments of Jesus’ final week before he was crucified! The Temple was where the financial records were kept, so at the cleansing of the Temple when Jesus declares it to be a “den of thieves,” he isn’t somehow implying that the thieving only occurred there, but that the “loot” is there. The thievery Jesus was referring to was the withholding of both debt forgiveness and the return of property to its ancestral ownership. In a sense Jesus was attempting to take on the role of Tyler Durden from the movie Fight Club in his judgment of the failure to release the debt records kept at the Temple. [For more on this aspect of the cleansing of the Temple, see for example pp. 134-135 of N.T. Wright’s book Simply Jesus] Jesus, in driving out the moneychangers, effectively shut down the Temple sacrifices and called God’s judgment upon on the whole system. Jesus not only threatened the wealth of the Jerusalem elites, but also their religious vocations.

Politics Today

What does all this have to do with contemporary politics in the U.S.? Claiming God for either political party is much more complicated that we might have thought at first. There is nothing in the Bible that absolves individuals of responsibility to the poor. Surely political conservatives are correct that wholly ceding assistance of the poor to the government is not warranted by scripture. However, political liberals can also point to many Old Testament passages as proof that society should be ordered in such a way that the poor receive assistance that citizens are legally bound to provide. One can question the efficacy of government programs to help the poor, as some political conservatives do, but such programs can nevertheless find Biblical warrant. This isn’t a matter of where help to the poor should come from, be it an individual’s voluntary giving or involuntary assistance, because the answer is pretty much by any means available.

So how do we determine who to vote for?

Is it possible to support a politically conservative candidate based on Christian values? Yes. Is it possible to support a politically liberal candidate based on Christian values? The answer is also yes. The strong identification of conservative evangelicalism with conservative politics has made the latter claim difficult for many Americans to conceive of. For my part, I find it sadly amusing that many of Bernie Sanders’ liberal “socialist” proposals have come under fire from many, predominantly conservative evangelical Christians, when the Bible itself promotes far more radical laws on which to order society. Wealth redistribution was not only a prominent feature of the larger concept of Sabbath, but a major component of Jesus’ message and mission, and it may have been a significant factor leading to his death. Wealth redistribution was, of course, done voluntarily in the early church (see Acts 2:44-46). There is absolutely no reason why Christians shouldn’t continue to voluntarily provide help to the poor. According to some studies, conservatives give more to charity than liberals. Is this perhaps because liberals believe in government assistance to the poor more strongly than conservatives? Perhaps for some. In any case, given the Old Testament’s ordering of society to include help to the poor, and given citizen’s say in government, there is absolutely no reason why Christians shouldn’t push for laws to provide the poor with assistance.

To be sure there are other factors that go into determining what candidate can receive support from Christians than just the issue of how the poor can best be helped. One thing should be clear, for most Christians this isn’t an issue of whether the poor should receive assistance, but how best to do so. There are a lot of Biblical values that can factor into determining which candidate to support, and there is no easy answer. That some of Bernie Sanders values can find Biblical support does not necessarily imply that all of them can. The same is true of any other candidate—that some of their values may find Biblical support and some may not.

If you are a Christian, what Biblical principles matter most to you? Here I have touched on economic justice, but there are a lot of other principles in the Bible beyond that. Does any candidate perfectly embody the Biblical values you hold most dear? Probably not. A flipside is that you can also ask which candidate least reflects Biblical values. How will you choose what candidate to support?

When the early Christians said, “Jesus is Lord,” they were making a political statement that Caesar was not. In any case, in the history of the Christian tradition, salvation is not to be found in whatever politician we like the best. No matter how our politicians try to position themselves as a savior, salvation is found only in Christ.


© 2016 Lee Karl Palo


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Biblical Interpretation and the “homosexuality” debate

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2016 Lee Karl Palo


Romans 1-26&27

The following is a brief handout I made for my Sunday-school class at Coupeville UMC after we discussed Romans 1:26-27 the previous Sunday as a part of my series on the authentic letters of Paul. There are differences of opinion on the topic in my class, so this was an attempt to help people understand where each side is coming from. I myself have been on both sides of the debate at one time or another (I would currently consider myself to be on the progressive side). I was never a Biblical literalist or fundamentalist when I considered myself a traditionalist on the issue. It wasn’t that I ever found the traditionalist position I developed to be wrong, so much as I eventually found the progressive position to be more persuasive and loving. As a result, I am very good at playing “Devil’s advocate” on either side of this issue. Hence I am fully aware of the best both sides of the debate have to offer, and since I like to encourage dialogue, I also try to discourage “ad hominems” and “straw men arguments” that are so often used by one side against the other.


          The United Methodist Church, being part of the Wesleyan tradition, holds scripture up as the primary spiritual authority (along with the rest of Protestantism). What can set the Wesleyan tradition apart is the acknowledgement that the Bible doesn’t interpret itself, but is interpreted through “tradition, reason, and experience.” Some mistake this as a “how-to” for interpreting scripture, but it is rather an honest acknowledgement of how everyone reads the Bible.

There are, of course, many differences of opinion as to how a given text from the Bible is to be interpreted. Sometimes this can lead to people concluding that if a text isn’t understood the way they think it should be understood, the people responsible for the supposed misinterpretation are assumed to either not hold scripture as authoritative, or be incompetent at interpretation. This is plainly false in many situations.

Currently the biggest challenge the church faces with regard to Biblical interpretation is the issue of homosexuality. The reality many people face is when those they know who self-identify as LGBTQ (friends, family, or themselves) do not conform to the “sinner” archetype. If the most central ethical claim of the Bible is to be found in Leviticus 19:18b, then its corollary is that sin is what does not love one’s neighbor. In the past, the Bible has been understood to condemn homosexual practice. However, this causes many to question if they are reading the Bible correctly when they do not see LGBTQ persons as exhibiting sin by virtue of being LGBTQ. In a similar fashion in the past, the development of science has called into question how parts of the Bible should be understood. We don’t assume that we live in a tiered universe where God’s realm of Heaven is just above the clouds, or that there are waters both above the dome of the sky and below the earth. We today read these texts authoritatively, but not scientifically.

The basic traditionalist position on homosexuality is that there is no contemporaneous evidence that warrants questioning the validity of what is assumed to be the Bible’s condemnation of homosexual practice. The progressive position is that the Bible does not condemn the contemporaneous reality of LGBTQ person’s self-experience as LGBTQ, but that it may have had validity at the time it was written (it is assumed the context in which homosexual practice took place was not the same as it is today, and the work of French philosopher and historian of sexuality, Michel Foucault, is instructive here). To be sure there are some traditionalist folks who toss around texts like the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as if they are relevant to the condemnation of homosexual practice while being ignorant of the Bible’s explicit statement on the reason for the destruction given in Ezekiel 16:49. There are also progressive folks who, seeing that LGBTQ persons don’t appear to be sinners for just being LGBTQ, dismiss the Bible’s authority on the subject altogether. In any case there is a considerable diversity of opinion within either side of the debate. People see what they want to see all the time regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

The hard work of Biblical interpretation doesn’t ignore contemporary realities, but tries to be self-reflective through the lens of tradition, reason, and experience. In any case it is unavoidable to read the Bible that way, even if one is not consciously aware of this. But the more one is aware of how interpretation is done, the better one can get at doing it.


© 2016 Lee Karl Palo

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Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern – Chapter 5

Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern

By Lee Karl Palo, © 2005 Lee Karl Palo



[Back to Introduction with the Table of Contents]

[Back to Chapter 4]


Chapter 5

God and Knowing

I. Polanyi’s View of Theology

To begin an integration of Michael Polanyi’s thought with theology, I had the idea to prove the existence of God. If one accepts Michael Polanyi’s theory of personal knowledge as valid as I believe it to be, there are many implications which Polanyi himself was not aware when he developed his theory. Polanyi makes it a point to demonstrate how the development of a new scientific theory quite often entails implications that the developer of the theory could not foresee at the time of the theory’s initial development. Polanyi states: “The mark of discovery is not its fruitfulness but the intimation of its fruitfulness.”1 Polanyi goes on to state how in the formulation of Louis de Broglie’s theory of ascribing “wave nature to ponderable particles” no one could foresee at the time that this theory would imply “that electronic beams would give diffraction patterns similar to X-rays.”2 Thomas S. Kuhn calls such major discoveries “paradigms” in which further research is still to be done, and Polanyi states that there is a necessity to now go back and analyze much of science that can have new implications due to his theory of personal knowledge. The point here is that God’s existence could very well be an implication of Polanyi’s theory of which he himself was unaware.

Firstly when one understands the nature of the universe as comprising ontologically hierarchical levels why would one stop with the level of the human? Of course one can argue that we, as human beings, cannot know beyond the level of the human, else we would cease to be human. Nevertheless that fact has not stopped some from attempting it. Anselm of Canterbury said God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” I would say, along with many others in the Christian tradition, that God is greater than that which can be conceived. This fact does not make it impossible for us to talk meaningfully about something wholly other and beyond the realm of the human. The fact to the theologian is that God has condescended to the level of humanity in the form of, what we as theologians call, revelation. In this case revelation comes through messages given to prophets, or supremely in God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ. However this does not mean that we understand God as God is in God’s self. We would say that revelation is watered down into a form palatable to us human beings.3 Thus Theology approximates the true nature of what God reveals to us in its metaphor and analogy. To bring in an analogy: I do not expect my dog to be able to understand me as I really am. During the time of the writing of this thesis my dog Nelson died; he has lived and died without ever understanding why it is that I am (sorry, I mean “was”) so far from him in Kansas City going to Nazarene Theological Seminary. And yet because Nelson did not really understand me does not make me non-existent.

One can now postulate that God is an emergence from reality as we perceive it, over and above it, operating by different principles than the rest of it. As our concept of God implies that there is nothing greater than God, God must therefore be the greatest emergence of a clearly stratified reality. Stop and think about this for awhile…

If you find this conception of God convincing in the slightest I believe it is safe to say you understand Polanyi’s theory. The early part of this thesis has been set up knowing that the Polanyian theory of personal knowledge is radically foreign to most people. So how does one proceed with an integration of Polanyi’s thought with theology in a polemic addressed to everyone? Everyone knows what it is I am reacting against as it is part and parcel of how we think at present (at least on a tacit level). In order to proceed I had to explicate the Polanyian worldview a bit at a time and hope that I could lure the reader out of some of the old ways of conceiving of knowledge. Knowledge and conceptions of knowledge are so basic to who we humans are that it can be said that everyone has a conception of knowledge (to employ Polanyi once more: they are most often tacit). Thinking about knowledge is something few people do (the ones who do are philosophers concerned with epistemology, i.e. epistemologists).

In order to proceed with my polemic I had to provide Polanyi’s theory subtly. Polanyi’s theory, being a radical departure from most other concepts of what knowledge is, could very easily create conflict within someone well versed in those other concepts of knowledge. Conflict in this case could lead to a rejection of Polanyian based epistemology in favor of the status quo. However, by using subtlety I could demonstrate the clear intelligibility of Polanyi’s philosophical theories of knowledge. Hopefully the reader has taken enough time for the theory of personal knowledge to take root. Once this happens I could begin to show some of the inadequacies with some other current epistemologies. When the “two theories” are brought to the surface I could bring them into conflict with each other. If I have done my job the obviousness, the simplicity, the beauty, and the overwhelming superiority of Polanyian epistemology would be the clear choice given the inadequacies of more popular conceptions of knowledge. Now perhaps it can be seen why I created a new conception of God’s existence. This conception of God is a litmus test (i.e. if it makes sense or not) to determine if the reader has come to accept Polanyian theories of knowledge.

If you, the reader, do not buy this conception of God’s existence (which is really more of an argument for the possibility of God’s existence) that is fine. I was hoping for the reader to gain an understanding of this conception of God, and not necessarily to be persuaded by it. If the reader were to find this conception of God even the slightest bit alluring then I am vindicated. I do not buy this conception of God myself, but when I first thought of it I found it quite amusing. Basically the argument, to my mind, is the reverse, in a sense, of the Cosmological argument. St. Thomas Aquinas uses the epistemologically paradigmatic cause-and-effect line of thinking to prove God. I used the Polanyian concept of the emergence of levels to ascend to God. Thomas goes backward to the “first-cause,” while I ascend levels of reality to the greatest level (God). I would say that both arguments suffer the same problems, which I do not wish to go into here in exhaustive detail.

Firstly, Thomas’ “cosmological God” could logically have created the world and then moved away, which is not a Christian affirmation. With my “emergent God” God is wholly dependent on the world, which is not a Christian affirmation (it is pantheism in a sense). In point of fact the closest religious concept to my “emergent God” is the Hindu concept of Brahman, though with a Buddhistmaterialistic bent to it. And, as I already mentioned, this conception of God is really only a possible way of conceiving of God. This entire conception of God’s existence disappears outside a Polanyian framework, unless the reader is a Hindu perhaps. This is why it made such a good test to see if you, the reader, were catching on to Polanyi’s theory of personal knowledge. The more convincing it was, the more likely the reader has come to indwell Polanyi’s conception of epistemology.

Earlier in my thesis I mentioned that I would later defend Polanyi’s theory of the ontological structure of the universe as stratified levels of reality against the claim that it is only that we human beings read that into the universe. It is certainly one thing to assert how human beings come to know things in the Polanyian from-to structure of tacit knowing, but something else entirely to the take this from-to structure and apply it to reality working out its implications for reality (as Polanyi does). One can say that it is mere anthropomorphism, and not really the way reality is. Like my statement defending the from-to structure of tacit knowing, I find that Polanyi’s concept of reality as stratified best makes sense of things. But that argument just sounds weak. Even Polanyi states that the beauty of a scientific theory is a good indicator of its accuracy to reality. I certainly find Polanyi’s theory beautiful in its own way. Basically it comes down to whether or not you, the reader, accept Polanyi’s epistemological paradigm. Truth cannot be coerced, and rabid skepticism will not be denied, much less idiotic stubbornness. In the end one has to choose out of one’s own participation in the philosophical-scientific programme. Even Polanyi says that to declare something to be true is merely to declare that it ought to be accepted by all. One thing that should be clear by now, regarding a Polanyian epistemology, is that knowing is inseparable from doing.4 That how we know what we know (epistemology) is fundamentally linked with the process of learning is also an integral, one might say basic, component in a Polanyian epistemology. Thus, as we shall see in later chapters, factors affecting the learning process are quite relevant to epistemology from within a Polanyian framework.

To begin with an integration of Polanyi’s thought with theology it might be prudent to discuss what it is Polanyi himself has to say about theology. Obviously Polanyi’s theory of knowledge extends to all forms of knowledge, but not all knowledge is of the same type. To utilize Wittgenstein’s concept of “language games,” there are different rules for different games. Different types of knowledge often have unique rules by which they operate. If for Polanyi knowledge is indwelt and can be said to come about from a particular skill, then one wonders what type of skills are employed in the different areas of science and theology. These skills that are developed in a specific area of knowledge comprise the rules that are designed to fit the object of the game/area of knowledge. The scientist theorizes, investigates, and experiments. To Polanyi the theologian worships.5 Obviously the theologian and, to broaden the discussion, the Christian in general does not worship without an object of worship. The object of worship is, of course, the focus of the game. To Polanyi the theologian formulates theology with regards to a given body of revelation accepted by the community of faith as such. However Polanyi follows noted Protestant theologian Paul Tillich’s existential theology for which knowledge of revelation is not open to critical analysis by scientific and historical means. To my way of thinking this opens up a weakness in Polanyi’s thought as regards religious knowledge. It should be noted that I am not the only one to see this as a weakness. Harry Prosch in his book Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition notes, “It appears to me from conversations with other theologians generally friendly to Polanyi’s views that there are many who find the distinction he introduces [between the realities dealt with in science and those in the arts and in religion] questionable.”6 Polanyi, it should be remembered, was a scientist and philosopher, and not a theologian. While following and adopting the thought of a major religious thinker as Paul Tillich demonstrates wisdom for not recklessly jumping into another “language game,” in this case there are many who do not agree with Paul Tillich as to the “rules of the game.”

Polanyi does say that “…tacit knowing is in fact the dominant principle of all knowledge, and that its rejection would, therefore, automatically involve the rejection of any knowledge whatever.”7 This clearly means both scientific and religious knowledge. However religious knowledge is meaningful in a way that scientific knowledge never can be. Polanyi even uses the Genesis creation accounts to help illustrate this point.8 Polanyi would not say that the Genesis creation accounts are factual in the scientific manner of being empirically testable or verifiable, and yet they provide meaning for the creation that science is utterly impotent to provide. To help illustrate the problem Prosch states: “…to reject Polanyi’s distinction because of an assumption that nothing can count as real unless it can be thought to be something existing independent of our thought, and that all human articulations must aim at such realities, is to place the arts, myth, and religion in a most awkward position.”9

The problem, as has been alluded to, can be said to stem from the fact that Michael Polanyi was a scientist first and foremost. Sure there are differences but to draw such sharp distinctions is to forget who it is that made the distinctions in the first place. We human beings, by virtue of the ability to focus our attention, can draw distinctions between things and thus not leave them to a continuous flux of experience (i.e. Buddhist meditation strategy). Surely the emergence of this ability in its higher forms through language in humankind comes even prior to science and religion. My argument for the reconciliation between what Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch have called “tacit knowing” and “tacit meaning” is to put the search for meaning prior to the search for scientific truth. The drive for meaning10 is what brings knowledge into existence. Phrased differently: without a focus of a “game” the “rules” for that game would never come to be. In the act of focusing attention we attempt to ascribe meaning to that which we attend to focally. The drive for meaning is thus tacit. Knowledge itself is a concept that has become meaningful to us, and came about when we reflect on its tacit nature. The problem is when one takes tacit knowledge to be on the same level as tacit meaning. To phrase it another way: science is not at the same level as meaning. Science germinates out of meaning, as does religion, thus one need not say that religious knowledge must never purport to describe something existing independent of our thought. As Nietzsche would say scientific method (scientific epistemology) itself does not exist independent of our thought.11 When we reflect on the tacit knowledge used in the performance of a skill we are not reflecting on something that is independent of our thought, in point of fact it is our thought. That which we focus on through science can be said to have existence independent of our thought. Science, as many would say, has nothing to do with that which exists only in our thought. That which exists only in thought is not by definition empirical. This is also why many scientists do not like psychology for example.

There are many aspects of the arts and religion that do not deal with that which has independent existence from our thought. Psychology, in order to explain behavior, rightly looks to that which has existence only in thought.12 To utilize Polanyi’s theory: the level of thought at which we human beings operate cannot be fully understood in terms of the levels below it. It relies on them for its operation, which is why we can have biological psychology. Biological psychology has noticed that damage to “Broca’s area” of the brain leads to a breakdown in higher language functioning. Thus higher language functioning relies on the biological “gray-matter” for its operation. The line between that which exists only in our thought and that which has existence independent of our thought becomes blurry.

Polanyi, due to his scientific background, sees the arts and religion as not dealing with things that have independent existence from our thought.13 This characterization of religion by Polanyi is not helped by Polanyi’s reliance on Tillich’s existential theology that emphasizes the immanent subjective aspect with little regard for any claim to existence independent from our thought. After all, the importance of religion for Tillich lies not primarily in any claim to realities independent of our existence, but to what religion does in us.

With my placement of the emergence of meaning prior to science and religion, which I believe to be in fundamental agreement with Polanyi’s basic thought, I open up the possibility for religion to be able to talk meaningfully about reality external to our existence. God exists independently of us. Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. These two claims do purport to go beyond the thought life of human beings, although their existential reality in us is also very important. The Apostle Paul spends more time on things that do not have existence independent of our thought, and yet he also makes a very significant assertion that if Christ has not been bodily raised from the dead in then the believer’s faith in Christ is vain.14 N. T. (Tom) Wright says, “(Not long ago there was a survey among bishops in my part of the church; most of them said they did believe in Jesus’ resurrection, but some said that whether or not this was a bodily event didn’t really matter—you could believe it or not as you chose. That is a total misunderstanding of what Paul is talking about—and Paul is our earliest witness for the gospel itself.)”15 It is extremely important to note that to many theologians, including the Apostle Paul, much of religious knowledge is predicated on realities independent of human existence. In early Judaism historical events were imbued with meaning that went beyond the events themselves seen empirically, but were inseparable to those historical events. Thus to attack the reality of historical events is to undermine the level upon which the meaning of the supposed event relies for its successful operation. It is true however for some, that historical reality of events that have meaning ascribed to them is not necessary for the maintenance of the said meaning.16 The meaning of said event can then find a foundation from within one’s higher thought life. One could say that the meaning of an event is far more important than the event itself in many instances. The reason (some would say) that Christ’s crucifixion and subsequent resurrection were actualized in history is for the meaning intended by the author of the events.

In any case, while I think Polanyi may have drawn too sharp a distinction between science and other aspects of culture he does have a point that there are some differences. The Bible is a source of revelation whose underlying authority is not to be fundamentally (pun intended) questioned, thus setting it well apart from science. How this authority is to be defined and issues as to what the Bible really says are hotly debated in the Church. The Bible is paradigmatic for the Christian in a way that a scientific paradigm is not for the scientist. But as one may well recall, there are some defining “dogmas” in scientific investigation that cannot be questioned without putting into jeopardy one’s status as a scientist.

In the end, Polanyi’s view of theology can be seen to be too closely linked to Paul Tillich’s view of theology. While Tillich does have some important things to say to the discipline of theology his views are hardly representative of all partakers of the discipline. Thus in order to relate Polanyian philosophy to theology other perspectives are clearly called for. The work of T. F. Torrance is a good example of a theologian who takes seriously Polanyi’s philosophical views, but who has been influenced by the other great twentieth century Protestant theologian, Karl Barth. I do not intend to merely replicate Torrance’s use of Polanyian philosophy, rather I intend on presenting my own creative use of Polanyian philosophy. I have found elements of both Paul Tillich and Karl Barth (the twentieth century “prophets” of immanent and transcendent theology respectively) to be very significant.

II. Polanyian Investigations into Theology

There have been other philosophical systems that have attempted to describe God’s relationship to the world, and two of them in particular will be of help with the following Polanyian investigations into theology. These two philosophical systems are Neo-Platonism and Process Philosophy/Theology. While there will be some elements in common with a Polanyian theological-ontology of God there will be some differences.

A very important claim to all three of the great monotheistic faiths is God’s transcendence. God is other than, as well as over and above, the universe. The importance of God’s transcending creation cannot be overemphasized (a point of Karl Barth’s). A significant aspect of process philosophy and theology is that God is related to creation in an integral and inseparable way, and still other than creation (Hartshorne’s concept of panentheism). One of my frustrations with how some of my fellow students have appropriated process thought is that God’s activity with relation to the world is exhaustively described. God is greater than that which can be described (as I stated at the beginning of this chapter). Many theologians acknowledge that whatever language is applied to God can only be metaphorical or analogical; that there can never be a one to one correspondence of language to reality in theology.17 To exhaustively describe God puts God, intellectually, wholly within the realm of the human (thus God no longer transcends the intellect). I find many of the concepts of process thought to be useful, especially how God’s activity with relation to the world is described. Thus my annoyance has to do, not with the description of God’s activity with relation to the world, but with a lack of, what I refer to as, “epistemological humility.”18 As I stated earlier God is beyond human understanding, and my own conception of God’s existence (at the beginning of this chapter) could (if misappropriated) have the very same problem. The fact, to the believer, is that God has condescended to the level of the human in order to actually communicate with us, part of God’s creation. Even then, however, God is still seen as quite beyond the level of the human.

There is some use for a Polanyian conception of reality applied to theology. It is important to make clear to the reader, if the reader has not already figured out, that to me theology is wholly contingent to what God has revealed to us. I would make it a principle for all theologies, not necessarily to restrict themselves to God’s revelations in history, but to take revelation as the starting point for theology. While God is over and above creation, it is a similar claim to say that God also understands reality at a level greater than human beings. Process theology has a concept called “panentheism” (already alluded to) which means that God permeates the universe, all of creation, and yet God is somehow other than the universe. This does indeed imply a dualism of sorts that God and the universe are mutually exclusive. I find it necessary to make this relationship of God to the universe clear. I would apply Michael Polanyi’s concept of the stratification of reality here, though not at all in the same sense as my earlier conception of God’s existence did. In this case I would not say that the level at which God exists is an emergence from lower levels of creation. Understood in this light, God’s existence over and above creation makes more sense. God does understand creation at a level far above that of the human.

That God does understand the universe at a level far above that of the human creates a problem for us human beings that obviously are incapable of fully grasping the level at which God exists. How could human beings ever hope to bridge the gap from finite existence to infinite being? Neo-Platonists understood their “god” (in this case “the One”) to exist at a level far above the level of the human. This created a problem in that the nature of God’s existence precluded God from ever coming into contact with the universe. The level at which God exists in Neo-Platonic thought has eternal unchangeable qualities to it, and as the universe is anything but unchangeable, there would be no way for God to interact with the universe. Obviously if one holds to some idea that revelation is from God’s being in contact with the universe one can immediately see the problem. But is there another way to understand how God interacts with the universe?

It should be noted that the problem of God’s interaction with the universe in Neo-Platonic thought is mostly due to the fact that the universe is an emanation from God. As I mentioned, it is important to remember that God is other than the universe, and to say that God is at a level above and beyond the universe is not to attach God to the universe through successive emanations or emergences. The idea that God is at a level above and beyond the universe is a tool to aid our understanding of God, so it is subject to the same restrictions as metaphor. The process concept of panentheism, while not necessary to theology, is useful in theology to emphasize God’s omnipresence without equating that omnipresence with the universe itself, as I already stated.

Aside from the concept “panentheism” in process theology there is a Polanyian concept that might help us to understand how God can interact with the universe. That Polanyian concept is “indwelling.” As we learn a skill we come to indwell the knowledge of that skill over time. God can, in a sense, be said to indwell the universe in terms of being literally present everywhere. This “indwelling of the universe by God” is kind of the reverse of human learning of a skill leading to indwelling of that skill. When we learn to drive a car in a sense the car becomes an extension of our body. The sense data being provided us by the car in the car’s interaction with the environment is indwelt. As Polanyi says we feel the vibrations and the velocity of the car, not as immediate sensations, but as those sensations relate to the position of the car. At first in the learning of a skill the sensations are novel, in that we do not know how they relate to the task of driving. Later on when we indwell the task of driving, in the performance of turning the car to another street, we can gauge the distance from where we are at the speed we are going, to where the next street is. We know tacitly what all that sense data means for how much we will have to slow down and how far we will have to turn. We know the sense data, from the position of driving the car to the point that we can say we feel the car’s relationship to the environment. In reality we are separate from the car so the sense data can be said to be presented just to us, not to the car. Yet we do not understand the sense data as it is presented to us, but by how it is presented to us in relationship to the task of driving. The feeling of turning as immediate sensation can be received by hopping into a centrifuge, which can create the same sensation of turning, but it does not mean the same thing.

In a way God can be said to indwell all of reality, all levels of reality simultaneously, otherwise God would not be said to be omniscient. God, being over and above creation, understands at a level beyond the highest emergence of creation. Indwelling as applied to God would mean that God, being already present everywhere, understands things individually and corporately as they relate to each other at all different levels. Just as we can be said to indwell the car and perceive things as they relate to the car and yet remain ontologically other than the car, so too can God. The necessity to emphasize also that God understands things and exists at a level over and above the universe brings into being the idea of divine will or providence. It is not enough for God to understand things at all of the levels below God, God must also be able to assimilate all of God’s lower level knowledge into a higher level in order to be able to act upon it as the Bible clearly indicates that God does.

Process thought locates God’s ability to assimilate all of God’s lower level knowledge into a higher level in order to act upon it in terms of individual occasions conceived in the smallest constituent elements. God’s ideal result for an actual occasion works on an atomic scale, thus it is beyond human perception. We as human beings can bring lower level knowledge into a higher level in order to act upon it. We humans, by contrast work in much larger terms (Gestalten) we have formed (by virtue of from-to knowing), while God can work at a microscopic level and beyond. The very nature of Polanyian from-to knowing is the taking of tacit lower-level knowledge and proceeding from that to the level at which it can mean something comprehensively and can thus be acted upon. Process thought talks about God’s interaction with the universe in terms of atomic-moment-to-moment “initial aims” of God. Here we see that God not only understands reality in the way described by process thought, but God also understands reality in terms of all higher levels as well.

Perhaps it would be beneficial for the reader to have some of what has just been said restated. God is ontologically present everywhere in the universe, and yet God is other than the universe. There is also evidence in scripture that God knows the universe at multiple levels of reality. God is said to know the number of hairs on our head, as well as things like when a bird falls to the ground. Jesus uses this to point out how much more significant we human beings are to God than how flowers are clothed.

“For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? “And which of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to his life’s span? “And why are you anxious about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these. “But if God so arrays the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more do so for you, O men of little faith? “Do not be anxious then, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘With what shall we clothe ourselves?’ “For all these things the Gentiles eagerly seek; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious for tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:25-34 NAS)

Clearly there is at least a tacit understanding that there are indeed multiple levels of reality with regard to the level of significance. The Genesis creation account clearly places the creation of human beings as the most significant part of creation, and yet human beings are an emergence from the dust of the ground through a very personal act of creation by God. While the Bible seems to hint of multiple levels of reality it is not unequivocal. But Michael Polanyi’s theory of the stratification of reality would seem to make sense of much of scripture along these lines. The point I am driving at is that God understands and interacts with God’s creation in very personal ways, and that the thought of Michael Polanyi can provide a useful model for how this can be. It must still be remembered that any model is still a human invention, or God’s condescending to our level of reality in revelations construed as some kind of model for understanding some aspect of the universe.

The choice for what might seem to be an excursus into ontological-metaphysical implicatons of Polanyian thought in Christian theology is helpful in a number of ways. One obviously is that even the word theology implies something about God. With concepts like passion and the conscious attending to particular aspects of reality, presupposing as they do some idea of freedom, the realm of the ethical quickly comes into play. Once one recognizes that it is a very small step from focally attending to something, to acting based on what is being focally attended to, and thus the realm of the ethical enters play. The relationship of knowledge to ethics is the goal to which my thesis has been driving toward. The relationship between epistemology and ethics is closer than anyone has imagined previously. That is the topic for the remainder of this thesis: the relationship of epistemology to ethics, specifically theological-epistemology and ethics.


1 Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 148.

2 Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 148-149.

3 This being a point John Calvin makes that has been subsequently termed as Calvin’s doctrine of “accommodation.” This will be discussed further in a later chapter.

4 As we have seen in the previous chapter this would include the Hebraic conception of knowing as well.

5 See Harry Prosch’s discussion of Michael Polanyi’s views of theology in the aptly titled book Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition.

Prosch, Harry. Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition. Albany: State University of New York, 1986.

6 Prosch, Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition, 257.

7 Michael Polanyi, The Study of Man. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1959), 13.

8 cf. Prosch, Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition, ch. 12.

9 Prosch, Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition, 261.

10 A succinct definition of my understanding of meaning would be: The drive to understand the significance of human life.

11 In Nietzsche’s notes gathered together to form “The Will to Power” he says “Man projects his drive to truth, his “goal” in a certain sense, outside himself as a world that has being, as a metaphysical world, as a “thing-in-itself,” as a world already in existence. (p. 299) The majority of the notes in book 3 of The Will to Power speak to this point.

12 Except notably B. F. Skinner.

13 cf. Harry Prosch’s discussion of Polanyi’s views on religion in Michael Polanyi: A Critical Exposition.

14 For example 1st Corinthians 15:12-19. For a thorough defense of a literal bodily resurrection see N. T. Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

For an alternative view see chapter 5 of Marcus Borg’s book The Heart of Christianity, in which Borg emphasizes an existential understanding of the resurrection without reference to an historical event.

Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2003.

15 Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians. (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge [SPCK], 2003), 210-211.

16 See for example the difference drawn between the “Pre-Easter Jesus” and the “Post-Easter Jesus” in much of contemporary “Historical Jesus” scholarship.

17 Most if not all of the theologians I have encountered during the course of my education hold to a position like this, though I am told there are those who do not.

18 Epistemological humility is understanding that as finite human beings, with finite intellects, no one can ever exhaustively describe the infinite.


[To Chapter 5]




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Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern – Chapter 4

Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern

By Lee Karl Palo, © 2005 Lee Karl Palo



[Back to Introduction with the Table of Contents]

[Back to Chapter 3]


Chapter 4

The Hebraic Conception of Knowledge

The idea of knowledge in scripture (Yadah)

A. Yadah in the Old Testament

As the main focus of this thesis is on theological epistemology with wide reaching implications for other areas of thought, it would be prudent to give some attention to the concept of knowledge in scripture. The word for knowing in Hebrew is yadah. As we shall see, yadah bears more resemblance to Polanyi’s conception of knowledge than most of what is thought today to be knowledge.

Yadah knowing comes through personal participation. Like Polanyi, yadah often refers to the skill a person has in a particular field. As one would guess, yadah knowing comes by one’s direct experience with the thing known. One interesting famous example is when Adam “knew” Eve. In this case yadah is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Another example, related to the Adam and Eve story in Genesis, is that of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Given the mythological character of the creation and fall accounts it is likely that many of the things described therein took on a much more symbolical character. As knowledge was seen to come through personal participation, it is likely that the tree represents activity which leads to knowledge of good and evil.

The phrase “that you may know that I am YHWH,” used in reference to God’s acts in history, has the idea of personal participation. Ezekiel often uses it as a threat, and Moses uses it in reference to many of the plagues of Egypt in a similar fashion. Thus revelation from God takes on a very personal witness-like character. It is interesting to note that the Feast of Booths like other Hebrew religious observances has as its function to bring the people back, in a sense, to relive God’s acts in history. More striking than this is the Passover Haggadah, the wording of which puts the historical saving act of God in the first person. It is not said that God saved our ancestors, but God saved us from slavery in Egypt! Ever after a grand act of God in history the way the people come to know God is to relive, in a ceremonial celebratory manner, those revelatory events.

On the negative side, the book of Hosea has God condemning Israel because “there is no faithfulness or kindness or knowledge of God in the land” (Hosea 4:1 NAS). In Hosea’s context God is angry with Israel for “prostituting” itself to other “gods,” presumably by participation in religious ceremonies of Baal. Hosea 2:13 puts it thus: “And I will punish [Israel] for the days of the Baals when she used to offer sacrifices to them” (NAS). In consequence God says “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge…” (Hosea 4:6 NAS). As can clearly be seen by the aforementioned examples a good way to state what yadah means (by one of the more helpful books1 in describing yadah):

Knowledge for the Hebrews was not knowledge of abstract principles, or of a reality conceived of as beyond phenomena. Reality was what happens, and knowledge meant apprehension of that. Knowledge of God meant, not thought about an eternal Being or Principle transcending man and the world, but recognition of, and obedience to, one who acted purposefully in the world…2

B. Yadah in the New Testament

As A Theological Word Book of the Bible states knowing the truth in the New Testament sense, based on the Old Testament yadah, “…has in view conduct rather than theory…”3 In the New Testament the Old Testament yadah is conserved when the New Testament speaks of one who comes to know the truth being synonymous with one who becomes a Christian. In light of what has been said about Jewish religious practices one wonders what this might mean for the Christian sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.

As we have seen William James emphasizes faith as an integral part of knowing, and the Apostle Paul also has this in mind. To the Apostle Paul faith, being related to knowing, issues in Christian behavior. A popular phrase puts it thus: “Good works do not make a Christian, but a Christian does good works.”4 The epistle of James further drives home this point. Because one knows Christ one lives like Christ in one’s life.

C. Yadah and Polanyi today

One may wonder how it is that an understanding of knowledge through personal participation, as has been evidenced by the Hebrew Scriptures, could be so different and removed from many contemporary concepts of knowing? Much of our educational system is designed for learning through books and lectures, and later testing based upon the data disseminated through those books and lectures. Prior to college the vast majority of learning I did was through this method. Interestingly it is through sports and art classes that personal participation in the learning process is most actively utilized prior to college. Once in college this method of learning through books and lectures was still utilized, but it was also much more actively supplemented by personal participation through writing papers, performing experiments, limited internships, volunteering in the field being studied, etc. The gap between the different types of learning was not always bridged, either prior to college or after. Polanyi laments the current educational system when he states that schools teach the data and theories of science, but do not always teach how to formulate new data and theories. Basically the educational system teaches people what is known, rather than how to know.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides an explanation for how this state of affairs has come to pass. Maslow’s hierarchy is a hierarchy similar to Polanyi’s hierarchical stratification of reality. There are important differences between the two hierarchies. The book A Guide to Psychologists and Their Concepts describes Maslow’s hierarchy thus:

Maslow’s theory of motivation contains two major concepts, basic needs and metaneeds. Basic needs are those of hunger, affection, security, self-esteem, and the like. … Metaneed is a distinctive concept [to Maslow’s thought]. Maslow argues that man needs beauty, justice, goodness, wholeness, and order in his life just as much as he needs food, air, sex, and security.5

Those who have already satisfied their basic needs undertake the fulfillment of metaneeds. Maslow calls the people who undertake the satisfaction of metaneeds self-actualizing persons. In a Polanyian sense, fulfillment of metaneeds relies on the proper fulfillment of the need levels below them. However the higher level needs (metaneeds) can operate once they have first been actualized even at the expense of improper actualization of lower level needs (basic needs.) A good example of this would be martyrs who permanently forsake the actualization of lower needs in favor of some principle held to that originated at a higher level. Maslow notes that once people reach the levels of metaneeds they prefer to stay there. In the case of many (including the example of martyrs) the lower level needs can be ignored or sublimated should they come into conflict with the higher level needs.

As already referred to in the previous chapter, Nietzsche’s doctrine of the “will to power” is not unrelated to Maslow’s self-actualization. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, in the correspondence between the will to power and self-actualization that I postulate,6 Nietzsche is considerably more pessimistic than Maslow about the average person’s ability to actualize the higher impulses in humankind. I tend to agree with Nietzsche, though I think it could be possible for things to get better. In any case Nietzsche has much more respect for the moral dimension running through his theory than Maslow has of his own theory. I would say that sin in the world must be dealt with in order for people to become greater than they are. That I see Jesus Christ as having something to do with this problem of sin inhibiting people from becoming actualized persons is why I am more optimistic than Nietzsche is. Nietzsche has no doctrine of salvation, as he acknowledges no God that could aid in our salvation.

To get back to the task at hand, Maslow’s theory of self-actualization requires that some time be available to actualize the higher level needs. In a mostly agrarian society people spend most of their time in the satisfaction of basic needs. It follows that the way knowledge was understood by the Israelites would be tied to the satisfaction of basic needs and the skills required for the satisfaction of those needs. Thus knowledge would have a first-hand practical value to someone living in an agrarian society.

One can begin to see how a Polanyian framework can apply to knowledge. Knowledge has a lower level that is very personal and concrete. Knowledge also has a higher level where knowledge becomes more abstract, and because its basis in personal life becomes tacit it then appears as though knowledge is more objective and transcendent. Interestingly, yadah knowing is what is personal and knowledge of God too is personal. It was not knowledge that was transcendent to the Hebrews, but God who was transcendent. The Hebrews personally understood God through God’s acts in their history.

The famous child-psychologist Jean Piaget demonstrates that the way children know things changes over time as children get older. Like the Polanyian general rule that lower levels must operate properly in order for the higher levels to function, Piaget indicates a clear line of succession in the stages of a child’s intellectual development. The intellectual level of concrete operations must be achieved in order for formal operations to develop (which allows more abstract thinking to develop.) Piaget has ages roughly defined when children are at certain stages of intellectual development. Much research has been done on Piaget’s theory to determine if the ages at which Piaget says children go through the different intellectual stages of development are the same cross-culturally. Interestingly, research would indicate that children in third-world countries take longer to get through the stages of intellectual development. This would seem to corroborate my postulation, relying on Maslow’s hierarchy7 of needs, that knowing is related to the fulfillment of needs.

D. Implications of yadah and Polanyian “knowledge” for some of today’s conceptions of knowledge

With these important ideas having been explicated I can now move to another criticism of some current theories of epistemology. When one faces the reality that knowledge is not all on the same intellectual level there are important and absolutely crucial implications for any theory of epistemology. Many other theories of epistemology assume that all knowledge is on the same plane (level). Consequently only a one-plane conception of knowledge is necessary. Polanyi’s theory of the stratification of reality has intrinsic to it a multi-planar concept. The different planes in Polanyi’s theory are related to each other, but, as we have seen, they look very different from each other, even to the point of having radically different rules apply to each successive level. This leads to an understanding of knowledge where there is knowledge that is more personal (like yadah) and knowledge that is more abstract. Separated from each other these types of knowledge appear to have different properties that would lead one to different definitions. The knowledge that comes from the scientific method as well as much, if not all, of knowledge that comes through philosophical thinking are on higher levels than what one would consider every-day personal knowledge (like driving a car).

It should not be a surprise to discover that philosophers and scientists have more time (beyond what is necessary to fulfill their basic needs) to devote to their respective intellectual pursuits, which comprise part of higher level metaneeds. All it would take is self-esteem gone too far into pride for the philosopher/scientist to attribute superiority to their knowledge, being abstract and above the knowledge of most people. Consequently we have some philosophers echoing the famous saying of Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In the end knowledge becomes defined chiefly by more abstract concepts, whereas Polanyi’s theory of knowledge applies equally well to mundane knowledge (driving a car). This superiority of more abstracted knowledge in the contemporary world is reminiscent (to my mind) of Gnosticism. Abstract, or in Gnostic terms “secret,” knowledge is the primary value that leads to salvation, while mundane knowledge, and much of life, is denigrated. The naturally wise soul is entrapped in the mundane world and loses its identification with reality (reality in this case is the secret, abstract, knowledge).  This phenomenon of the valuation of abstracted knowledge over all mundane knowledge is also a theme uniting all of the various forms of Neo-Platonism from Plotinus and Porphyry to the various religious Neo-Platonisms,8 and it is most overt in the religious movements variously called Gnosticism. As it may be surmised by now this generalization can also be seen in philosophy today. This generalization is most overt in the Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism of the ancient world, which is why I use them in this thesis. Today theories of knowledge like Polanyi’s and James’ stand out due to their ability to incorporate lower, less abstract, forms of knowledge. It has already been demonstrated how Polanyi’s theory relates to that which is not normally considered knowledge, and James defended a right of a person to believe in many things despite higher intellectual criticism.9 It seems to me that Neoplatonism’s valuation of spirit and soul with its denigration of the material realm corresponds to the contemporary prolific valuation of abstract knowledge10 over that of mundane knowledge (much of which is not given the title of knowledge properly so-called). Abstract “high” knowledge has forgotten that it has the “low” as its root,11 which can be understood in a Polanyian “from-to” sense. The naturally wise immortal soul being entrapped in the material, mundane, world sets up a very sharp dichotomy between abstract knowledge and tacit mundane knowledge (that is generally unreflective).

To the Hebrews there really was no concept of an immortal soul, which might help one to understand why the Hebraic concept of yadah was so grounded in the real world. It was the ground out of which human beings were created. To Nietzsche, who had a profoundly great amount of respect for the Jews, belief in the soul was a child’s belief.12

The religious pluralism prevalent during Israel’s ancient history would also impinge on any concept of knowledge that had universal implications. If Israel knew its God, so too did other cultures “know” their gods. To acquire knowledge that would lead to a way that would guarantee that the crops one planted would survive until it was time to harvest them was dependent on what society one lived in. The Philistines, in their worship of Baal, thought, in their acts of worship, they were doing something that would guarantee their harvest. Other cultures had their rites designed for this effect. But, as I mentioned earlier in the chapter, some of the Israelites aside from acknowledging YHWH as God also offered sacrifices to Baal designed to guarantee their harvest. What one will gather is that worship of one’s god was understood to be part of knowing how to raise crops. In this case the Israelites that had offered sacrifices to Baal were only trying to “hedge their bets.” There was no universally understood truth about how one went about raising crops. YHWH God, the ONLY God, the UNIVERSAL God, demanded that the Israelites should have NO other gods except YHWH. Without this claim to universality, truth in philosophy could never have any far-reaching implications. Can it truly be said given what I have just articulated, that it would be surprising that one of the things Socrates and the early Christians were accused of was atheism? A denial of the gods (plural) would be necessary to any claim to universality. There can be only one God, one reality, and one truth.

The problem that we today are back to is that while there may be only one God, one reality, and one truth there are many subjective understandings of that one God, one reality, and one truth. This is precisely what William James meant by “a pluralistic universe.”13 Today we may have given up on the belief that a subjective knower can ever truly know that he or she knows the (universal) truth, but now we have concepts like intersubjective agreement within a specialized knowledge discipline. We also have talk of ‘verifiability,’ etc. To my way of thinking this makes it all the more important that we pay attention to those who develop epistemology through a recognition of the role of the personal, subjective, element in the formulation of knowledge. Some of those developing epistemology along these lines would include Polanyi, James, Nietzsche, and Thomas S. Kuhn. Of course, the Biblical concept of yadah would be useful in the aforementioned regard.

It is ironic that the world would start out understanding truth itself pluralistically, and end up understanding truth through the pluralism of different people. In any case it has been and continues to be the goal of philosophy to understand the universal truth to the best of its ability.

To both Polanyi and the ancient Hebrews knowledge is emergent from reality. To put it succinctly: Knowledge emerges from reality. Philosophical knowledge is an emergence from human existence. Knowledge is an emergence from the corporeal and is not inherently incorporeal, despite what abstraction may make you think it is. Now that there is a sufficient foundation for it, The next chapter will begin with a synthesis of Polanyian epistemology with theology.


1 Alan Richardson ed. A Theological Word Book of the Bible. (London: Camelot Press Ltd., 1950)

I found it ironic that one of the most concise works on Biblical word concepts would be the most helpful. Many of the other works said a lot, but took a lot more time and effort to wade through.

2 Alan Richardson ed. A Theological Word Book of the Bible. (London: Camelot Press Ltd., 1950), 121.

3 Alan Richardson ed. A Theological Word Book of the Bible. (London: Camelot Press Ltd., 1950), 122.

4 I have heard this phrase often, but unfortunately I do not know its source. Perhaps it is just a contemporary Christian colloquialism.

5 Vernon J. Nordby and Calvin S. Hall, A Guide to Psychologists and Their Concepts. (New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1974), 117.

6 And I was affirmed by Walter Kaufmann after reading his book Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist that I had understood Nietzsche’s doctrine of the will to power properly.

7 Maslow himself relied on Polanyi’s concept of the stratification of reality.

8 i.e. Jamblichus, Proclus, etc.

9 James defended religious belief despite empirical or philosophical criticisms, and in Pragmatism James emphasizes that all different types of people can employ the pragmatic method, from intellectuals to non-intellectuals.

10 i.e. math, science, philosophy.

11 cf. the Tao Te Ching, especially ch.39 “The high has the low for its foundation.”

12 cf. Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche [Thus Spoke Zarathustra], 146.


[To Chapter 5]



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Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern – Chapter 3

Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern

By Lee Karl Palo, © 2005 Lee Karl Palo



[Back to Introduction with the Table of Contents]

[Back to Chapter 2]


Chapter 3

Passionate vs. “Objective” Knowledge

The Thought of Michael Polanyi Part 3

The Personal Element

In this chapter it will become very obvious just how different Polanyi’s theory of knowledge is, as we will investigate some other ideas of knowledge. First, however, one last major aspect of Michael Polanyi’s theory must be explicated. Thus far I have dealt with more of the “knowledge” part of Polanyi’s theory of “personal knowledge.” Now it is time for an examination of more of the personal dimension of Polanyi’s theory.

A. The involvement of the body in the production of knowledge

There was a time in the history of philosophy when the material-corporeal was routinely denigrated, or seen to be de-facto evil. For the most part, the particular ideas to be discussed are from Neo-Platonism, specifically the ideas of Plotinus, though other related ideas and themes will be considered. The Good (In Plotinus’ case “The One”) was what was eternal, unchangeable, and far removed from this world. The relationship of this physical world to “The One” is a little complicated. The One, being so far transcendent to this corporeal world cannot be readily described in words (any words used to describe the One would be inadequate to the reality of the One, and if taken too literally could be misleading, so please bear this in mind). Even postulating “existence” to the One is misleading as the word “existence” implies a subsistence to something, thus Plotinus asserts that the One is beyond being as such. In its “natural state” it contemplates only itself, but out of its superabundance the One emanates (generates / creates) nous (often translated as “Spirit” or “mind” or “Intellectual-Principle”).1 Nous, being lesser than the One, in turn emanates the “world-soul.” The world-soul, having a double “nature,” in part contemplates nous, and when it forgets to contemplate nous it emanates the material-corporeal world of our mundane experience. A good way of describing it is to use Polanyi’s concept of the stratification of reality. But in this case, instead of beginning with the level of atoms emerging into higher levels,2 it begins with the eternal realm and emanates the lower levels ending with matter.

This conception of reality in Neo-Platonism, and a contemporary religious movement Gnosticism, understood the human being to be mostly comprised of matter, but there also was a soul that all human beings possessed (the world-soul). The soul was of a higher emanation than matter, and thus closer to the realm of the eternal (the One). When the human being reasoned it involved the soul very heavily, but the soul was entrapped in the material emanation. The material emanation corrupted the reasoning capacity of the soul by virtue of its entrapment of the soul. Thus any participation of the body in knowledge would not seem to be good. One example of the body’s interference with the reasoning of the soul would be “fleshly” desires. As a male it can be difficult to think when a beautiful woman walks by, as is illustrated countless times by popular media (movies and television). For Plotinus the goal of reasoning is a mystical contemplation of the One. Surprisingly, unlike Gnosticism, Plotinus does not see the material world as evil, even though it is the lowest emanation, rather he sees it as the expression of the world-soul. As the world-soul is not evil, its expression (the material world emanation) would also not be evil, just lesser than that from which it came. Philip Merlan notes in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Ethics the tensions in Plotinus’ philosophy, one of which is this tension between the material world not being evil and yet its hindering the task of contemplating the One.3 A concise way to phrase this tension in Plotinus’ philosophy would be to say that the material world is aesthetically good, but ethically evil in its hindrance of contemplation.  To take the point further Julian Baggini and Peter S. Fosl note that to Nietzsche a Platonic worldview with its emphasis on that which is otherworldly (the theory of forms for example) necessarily denigrates that which is “this-worldly.”4 Bertrand Russell has an amusing way of putting this when he says “He [Plotinus] turned aside from the spectacle of ruin and misery in the actual world, to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty.”5

With the theory of Michael Polanyi, with its heavy emphasis on indwelling and embodied knowledge we get a very different view on whether the participation of the body corrupts knowledge. I would contend that even though we today no longer view the world in the terms of Neo-Platonism or Gnosticism (at least most of us) much of philosophy has never been able to shake this idea that the body corrupts knowledge.6 While many would not state it quite so bluntly that the body corrupts knowledge it is, in many cases, a tacitly held belief. Under the heading “’Reason’ in Philosophy” Nietzsche puts words in the mouths of those who believe that the body corrupts knowledge:

“…there must be some deception which prevents us from perceiving that which has being: where is the deceiver?”

“We have found him,” they cry ecstatically; “it is the senses! These senses, which are so immoral in other ways too, deceive us concerning the true world. Moral: let us free ourselves from the deception of the senses, from becoming, from history, from lies; history is nothing but faith in the senses, faith in lies. Moral: let us say No to all who have faith in the senses, to all the rest of mankind; they are all ‘mob.’ Let us be philosophers! Let us be mummies! …And above all, away with the body, … it is impudent enough to behave as if it were real!”7

In the words of William James: “There is an over-powering desire at moments to escape personality, to revel in actions that have no respect for our ego, to let the tides flow, even though they flow over us.”8 In context, James is referring to those who, upon encountering people who involve their “personal temperament” in the formulation of knowledge, jump to the opposite pole in reaction. Many of us have seen someone who “woke up on the wrong side of the bed” react to others in illogical, irrational, and inappropriate ways.

Today in popular culture this belief that the body corrupts knowledge is often overtly expressed as the need for objectivity. What is objectivity if not the stepping outside of oneself in order to evaluate something? And why would one need to step outside oneself if there is nothing intrinsic to oneself that could corrupt an accurate analysis of something? But, as Polanyi’s theory shows, one cannot escape the body’s involvement in the formulation and use of knowledge. Polanyi is one of very few to truly provide a comprehensive model of knowledge that does not emphasize the participation of the knower in the formulation of knowledge as necessarily a bad thing (Nietzsche and James also saw the human element in knowledge as not necessarily a bad thing.) In Polanyi’s case it is quite often the other way around—the participation of the knower in the formulation of knowledge is a very good thing. William James states, “For a philosophy to succeed on a universal scale it must define the future congruously with our spontaneous powers.”9

Like Kant, Polanyi emphasizes an active participation of the person in the person’s attempt to comprehend the environment. Polanyi would extend this to the animal world as well as to human beings. The major difference between the animal and the human is language. To Polanyi the emergence of language in human beings brings into being new and more complex levels of understanding far above that of the animal kingdom. Thus the animal has a far more limited ability to comprehend its environment. Polanyi has used the example of chimpanzees that, upon the invention of a tool for a practical task, repeat the use of the tool, outside of the tool’s invented purpose, appearing to derive some kind of joy from the invention of the tool.

This has not been the only idea of how the person is able to interact with the environment. To Plato the recognition of something we encounter is more the recognition, by the soul, of the object’s imperfect reflection of the eternal forms. Plato’s understanding has more of the character of remembering, than an active assimilation of the environment by tacit thought forms of the individual.10 The assimilation of the environment by the individual is a skill that we indwell, most often in tacit form, according to the theory of Michael Polanyi. Mistakes understood through Neo-Platonism are quite often the result of the imperfect material world’s emanation from the higher realm of the forms.

Polanyi’s theory presupposes the emergence of some concept of freedom, though, as an emergence, it relies on the levels below it for its proper function. The concept of “freedom” is a very ambiguous concept in many circles. The point in bringing up freedom is to say that skills that are indwelt are still employed by the person through that person’s ability to choose given the options perceived at the level at which the person is operating at (i.e. the person’s freedom). Thus a mistake one could make, according to a Polanyian model, could creep in at many levels. One such mistake could be at the conscious level of a task (where we are most conscious of our freedom). Other mistakes could be in the indwelling of a potentially faulty way of performing a skill, or if the brain no longer performed its usual physiological function. The reason Polanyi’s theory is better than Neo-Platonism is that it makes better sense of our experience.

The body, being a hindrance to truth through its many needs and desires, has been a problem for many to deal with in their philosophies as evidenced by Neo-Platonism. Polanyi’s theory of knowledge begins with lower levels emerging, bringing into being, successively higher levels that transcend the principles governing the levels below it. Human beings have mental faculties that transcend those of the animal kingdom. Language is seen as a chief facilitator of the human transcendence of the animal kingdom. However human beings still have many of the same bodily needs as animals. Given Polanyi’s concept of emergence and the stratification of reality would it be any surprise that human beings have needs that transcend animal needs? Psychologist Abraham H. Maslow has a theory that deals precisely with this issue, it is referred to as the “hierarchy of needs.”  Maslow’s theory bears some resemblance to Polanyi’s concept of emergence and the stratification of reality (not surprisingly Polanyi is cited more than once in Maslow’s bibliography in Motivation and Personality where he gives the hierarchy of needs its classical expression.)11 Maslow’s level termed as “the need for self-actualization” is the highest level and is not found in the animal kingdom. One need not rely on Maslow for the idea that there is something intrinsic to humanity that is not present in the animal kingdom that drives us toward its transcendence. Nietzsche’s doctrine of the “will to power,” Tillich’s concept of “ultimate concern,” the Christian concept of sanctification, the religious impetus, the thirst for knowledge, and some kind of grand becoming, all speak of some kind of transcendence. Polanyi’s concept of intellectual passions is likewise transcendent and he identifies the scientific expression of it with “…art, religion, morality, law and other constituents of culture.”12 Polanyi does not feel obligated to explain how the pursuit of scientific truth came about in its transcendent manner; rather it is a given fact. This is why I bring up Abraham Maslow who does have a theory (the aforementioned hierarchy of needs) to explain how the pursuit of scientific truth came about in its transcendent manner (as a function of the need for self-actualization.) Maslow’s theory bears no small amount of resemblance to Polanyi’s theory as has already been stated; in fact it can be seen to be a possible implication of Polanyi’s theory. Given the fact that Polanyi does not draw sharp dichotomies between different ways of pursuing truth it can be said that Polanyi’s conception of scientific method can be readily applicable to other fields, such as theology and in psychology as illustrated by T. F. Torrance13 and A. H. Maslow respectively.

As I mentioned, Polanyi does not feel obligated to explain how the pursuit of scientific truth came about in its transcendent manner.  Polanyi does criticize the theory of evolution from his unique theory, and he is not the only one. Nietzsche also criticizes the theory of evolution for many of the same reasons Polanyi does. Walter Kaufmann, a leading authority on Nietzsche, states: “Nietzsche agrees with the Christian tradition and such thinkers as Kant and Hegel that the worth of man must consist in a feature he does not share with any other animal.”14 Through Polanyi’s concept of emergence one can see how humanity could transcend the animal kingdom. Nietzsche was quite pessimistic in that he did not see many people rise above the level of animals, thus his concept of the “will to power.” However evolution, when examined through philosophical-atomism,15 does not provide for a concept of emergence. Evolutionary innovations understood atomistically are due to random mutations at the level of genetics. The trouble, as can be seen, is that life is not lived at the genetic level according to Polanyi’s theory. Our everyday lives do not make sense when interpreted at the genetic level. The purposive aspect to evolutionary innovations cannot be wholly explained at the genetic level with its rules of operation. If one were to move evolutionary theory away from philosophical-atomism and place it into a Polanyian framework it would make a lot more sense. It would then become easier for evolutionary theory to deal with freedom. Instead of mere random gene mutations that happen (accidentally as it were) to be advantageous to the comprehensive entity, one can postulate a more directed change in the comprehensive entity toward an external phenomenon that impinges on said entity’s ability to cope with it.16 Indeed evolutionary theory already can talk about directed change, but a Polanyian framework could make it easier.

B. Objectivity and passion in science

Science has traditionally prided itself on having principles of operation that are not subject to the whims of feeling. In addition, the methods of science have been thought of as guaranteeing results (be it verification or falsification). However to scientists like Michael Polanyi, philosophers of science like Thomas S. Kuhn, and others, science does not work that way. Polanyi states:

Science is regarded as objectively established in spite of its passionate origins.  It should be clear by now that I dissent from that belief… I want to show that scientific passions are no mere psychological by-product, but have a logical function which contributes an indispensable element to science.17

A dominant belief among scientists is that science is supposed to be impartial. From this claim there is no reason why one line of experimentation ought to be pursued over another. But there are so many possibilities for experimentation how could one possibly choose what to explore first? Or ought the scientist to practice meditation of the Buddhist type and be open to the continuous flux of experience without choosing one moment of space and time to direct one’s focal awareness? Sir Francis Bacon, a pioneer of the scientific method, would perform all sorts of experiments just to see what the result would be.18 In his final experiment he was stuffing chickens with snow to see what would happen, but unfortunately what did happen was he became ill and died.19 Today scientists emphasize the need for a hypothesis, and research that is a bit more directed. With regard to the scientific method, Nietzsche states in the Gay Science:

In science convictions have no rights of citizenship, as is said with good reason. Only when they decide to descend to the modesty of a hypothesis, of a provisional experimental point of view, of a regulative fiction, may they be granted admission and even a certain value within the realm of knowledge—though always with the restriction that they remain under police supervision, under the police of mistrust. But does this not mean, more precisely considered, that a conviction may obtain admission to science only when it ceases to be a conviction? …one must still ask whether it is not the case that, in order that this discipline could begin, a conviction must have been there already… But one will gather what I am driving at, namely, that it always remains a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests…20

Michael Polanyi puts it thus in Personal Knowledge:

Science is a system of beliefs to which we are committed. Such a system cannot be accounted for either from experience. Yet this does not signify that we are free to take it or leave it, but simply reflects the fact that it is a system of beliefs to which we are committed and which therefore cannot be represented in non-committal terms.21

From the previous two quotes it would seem that prior to the choice of what kind of experiment to perform there is a choice-commitment to science.22 To Michael Polanyi the art of practicing science is a skill indwelt like any other. Thus in the performance of scientific pursuits there are definitely tacit components. In this case to perform scientific pursuits is an act of shifting one’s awareness to the task of science. At first one shifts one’s focal awareness to the pursuit of science in order to learn the skill. As time goes on one no longer has to preoccupy one’s focal awareness with the shift to scientific pursuits, rather scientific pursuits are now indwelt. The initial choice-commitment to science is now contained in one’s subsidiary awareness and can be said to be a tacit commitment to science. From this point the scientist can, and indeed must, choose by the use of the scientists’s focal awareness a line of scientific investigation.

Why is it that some scientists pursue physics over chemistry or biology? As has been shown, objectivity and impartiality at this level incapacitate the scientist from making any kind of commitment. There are no external criteria with which to determine one line of investigation over another out of infinite possibilities for investigation. William James says, “We cannot live or think at all without some degree of faith. Faith is synonymous with working hypothesis.”23 To apply Polanyian terminology to the Jamesian concept of faith: faith is the indwelling of a commitment. In the task at hand, the scientist (having already indwelt a commitment to science) through the indwelling of the skill of scientific investigation chooses an area to investigate and pursues it.

As scientific skills are indwelt in the same manner as many other aspects of life one is not guaranteed to be free from passion and desire in the application of the indwelt skill of science. William James discusses W. K. Clifford’s idea that for the scientist, as well as for anyone else “…It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”24 In response to Clifford’s maxim William James replies:

I myself find it impossible to go with Clifford. We must remember that these feelings of our duty about either truth or error are in any case only expressions of our passional life. Biologically considered, our minds are as ready to grind out falsehood as veracity, and he who says, “Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!” merely shows his own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe. … For my own part, I have also a horror of being duped; but I can believe that worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world: so Clifford’s exhortation has to my ears a thoroughly fantastic sound.25

Based on what James has said, it is clear that in the realm of science when the scientist seems to be least passionately involved and most objective and impartial, it can be said to be a screen masking faith commitments that are quite passional. Not all scientists hold to some ideal of objectivity out of fear, as Clifford would seem to, though perhaps that is the root cause of holding to the ideal of objectivity. Rather, to use Polanyi’s idea of how one learns a skill, the ideal of objectivity is an unconscious tacit commitment passed from the teacher to the student quite possibly without any overt knowledge of why objectivity is a good thing.

It is important to note that for Polanyi, James, and Nietzsche passion is not always a negative thing. The origin of the word “passion” is not unrelated to the idea of suffering, and Friedrich Nietzsche is well known for his emphasis on potential benefits of suffering.26 For James and Polanyi the passion of the seeker of truth propels the seeker toward the goal.27 The Scientist’s infatuation with the pursuit of science and admiration for the beauty of nature are positive aspects of passion. James says, “What we enjoy most in a Huxley or a Clifford is not the professor with his learning, but the human personality ready to go in for what it feels to be right, in spite of appearances.”28

While passion is an unavoidable and necessary component of scientific investigation, all three men are more than willing to admit than it can go too far and hinder the gaining of truth. Nietzsche is an avid, one might even say rabid, proponent of questioning one’s own hypotheses. William James advocates a little skepticism to offset commitments that are passionately held in order to aid objectivity. All three men (Polanyi, James, and Nietzsche) do see value in objectivity for the purpose of avoiding fatal leaps/lapses into error. But none of them would say that complete objectivity is possible, much less desired. Objectivity for them has more to do with being able to “step back” from oneself and critique oneself. Without the commitment to a hypothesis it would be impossible for the scientist to see it validated, but without the ability to “step back” the scientist might never see potential problems with his or her hypothesis. This function (of an objective viewpoint) can be, and often is, performed by the scientific community at large. Basically the pursuit of science from within a Polanyian framework contains more facets of the personal than can be exhaustively articulated.29

“We know more than we can tell.”

C. Polanyi vs. the “Laplacian Mind”

We have seen how Neo-Platonism and another contemporary religious movement (Gnosticism), have viewed the body as a hindrance to the pursuit of truth. Objectivity has been and continues to be of very high value in the pursuit of truth, especially in science. Obviously total objectivity is not possible, but the ideal of total objectivity to this day still exerts a powerful influence in science.

A good question to ask that really has not been asked enough is what the purpose/end/eschatological fulfillment of science is?  What does the pursuit of scientific truth aim toward? Polanyi identifies the philosophy of science of Laplace as the one which best gives expression to the goal of what most people have understood to be that of science. Philosophical atomism or materialistic reductionism (whatever you want to call it) is predicated on the idea that if you pursue the way things are constructed back to their most constituent parts (the “atoms” in atomism) you will understand everything. One could thus predict everything that occurs in the entire universe. This is the goal and what Polanyi refers to as the “Laplacian mind.” It is important to note that Polanyi would not necessarily say that the ideal of the “Laplacian mind” began with Laplace in the nineteenth century. Prior to Laplace it was more of a vague, tacit goal of philosophy and science. For that matter asking the question, “What is the purpose of science?” is not a scientific question. That unscientific question, however, would seem to exert a powerful influence on science.

The next chapter will deal with the ancient Hebraic concept of knowledge (yadah). We will see how this Biblical concept of knowing is indeed consonant with Polanyi’s concept of knowing. We will also examine how these concepts relate to how some see knowledge today. The next chapter will thus continue the critique of  some philosophical and scientific concepts of knowing such as Neo-Platonism begun in this chapter.


1 See Bertrand Russell’s explanation of the difficulty of translating nous on pages 288 & 289 of his History of Western Philosophy.  Following Bertrand Russell I too will leave it untranslated.

Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945.

2 For want of a better beginning point I choose “atoms” while recognizing that there are subatomic particles.  The idea of the atom can be traced back to Greek philosophy, where it meant “not divisible,” so given the context of my thesis it seems the most appropriate choice.

3 See the article on Plotinus on pages 834-844 in Philosophy and Ethics: Selections from The Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Supplement.

Borchert, Donald ed. Philosophy and Ethics: Selections from The Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Supplement. (New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1999).

4 Julian Baggini and Peter S. Fosl, The Philosopher’s Toolkit. (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 189-190

5 Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945), 284

6 The main reason I chose Neo-Platonism as an antagonist is that Plato has had an incalculable influence on the history of philosophy (illustrated by A. N. Whitehead’s famous quote in which all philosophy since Plato is merely a footnote to Plato), and the further exploration of Plato’s themes in Neo-Platonism provides the most blunt expression of what I am attacking in the history of philosophy.

7 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche. ed. & trans. Walter Kaufmann. (New York: Penguin, 1954), 480.

8 William James, Essays in Pragmatism. (New York: Hafner Publishing, 1948), 22.

9 William James, Essays in Pragmatism. (New York: Hafner Publishing, 1948), 16.

10 Plato’s doctrine of recollection is first expounded in the Meno and reappears in the Phaedo alongside the Theory of Forms, and is touched on in the Phaedrus.

11 Abraham H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality, Second Edition. (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 347

Maslow first refers to Polanyi on page xi, which is the third page of text in the book (in the preface)!

12 Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 133.

13 Torrance went so far as to edit a book with the subtitle “The Relevance of Michael Polanyi’s Thought for Christian Faith and Life”

Torrance, T. F. ed. Belief in Science and in Christian Life: The Relevance of Michael Polanyi’s Thought for Christian Faith and Life. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998.

14 Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 4th edition. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 151.

15 Philosophical-atomism is the reductive analysis of a given topic to its most constitutive elements.

16 Presumably the evolutionary innovations would be directed by the entity (or its class as a whole) in response to its environment.  One could also cite perhaps God’s intervention, though this would be outside the purview of science.

17 Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 134.

18 See: Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945), 544.

Russell states, “Bacon’s inductive method is faulty through insufficient emphasis on hypothesis.”

19 This is one of the fun facts to be found in the book Philosophy for Beginners.

Richard Osborne, Philosophy for Beginners. (New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1992), 68.

20 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche. ed. & trans. Walter Kaufmann. (New York: Penguin, 1954), 448-450.

21 Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 171.

22 James also emphasized this: See James’ essay “The Sentiment of Rationality” in Essays in Pragmatism.

William James, Essays in Pragmatism. (New York: Hafner Publishing, 1948), 3-36.

23 William James, Essays in Pragmatism. (New York: Hafner Publishing, 1948), 25.

24 W. K. Clifford as quoted by William James in his famous essay “The Will to Believe”

William James, Essays in Pragmatism. (New York: Hafner Publishing, 1948), 93.

25 From James’ famous essay “The Will To Believe”

William James, Essays in Pragmatism. (New York: Hafner Publishing, 1948), 100.

26 Nietzsche himself suffered more than a few ailments in his lifetime. See Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist.

Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 4th edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

27 With these two thinkers the importance of passion for the pursuit of truth cannot be overstated.

28 William James, Essays in Pragmatism. (New York: Hafner Publishing, 1948), 24.

29 The Scientist’s commitment, a desire for objectivity, the scientist’s enjoyment of science, the scientist’s emotional state while doing science, are but a few examples.  Exhaustively cataloging all the potential personal factors affecting science is not practically helpful, much less possible, but general factors such as those already mentioned are helpful.


[To Chapter 4]



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Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern – Chapter 2

Toward a New Epistemology Beyond the Postmodern

By Lee Karl Palo, © 2005 Lee Karl Palo



[Back to Introduction with the Table of Contents]

[Back to Chapter 1]


Chapter 2

An Ontology of Knowledge

The Thought of Michael Polanyi Part 2

The stratification of reality

In the last chapter we saw how knowledge acts in the knower in the performing of a skill. We saw how knowing has a from-to structure. In addition much of our knowledge is tacit in the sense that we are aware of it only as it relates to the task at hand. The concepts of focal awareness and subsidiary awareness, the concept of indwelling knowledge, and the differentiation between tacit and overt knowledge are crucial to the further concepts to be delineated in this chapter. In this chapter we will investigate implications of these preliminary concepts far beyond what may seem visible at first glance. The two Polanyian concepts that are the implications of the concepts of the previous chapter are emergence and the stratification of reality. Why, one may ask, do I choose to devote a chapter to just two more concepts? The answer is simple: the previous concepts of personal knowledge are used by people all the time every day, while the concepts of emergence and the stratification of reality are far more abstract. Thus the concepts of emergence and the stratification of reality require more space to be dealt with in such a manner so as to facilitate understanding.

These two concepts allow the different “games” discussed in the introduction to be reconciled to each other in one comprehensive system of thought. By the end of the chapter it will be seen how physics and ethics can co-exist without contradiction! Physics and ethics co-existing without contradiction is a feat Kant could only accomplish by keeping them separate and positing God to bridge the, otherwise unbridgeable, gap between them. The concepts of emergence and the stratification of reality are not unrelated to each other. Emergence brings about the stratification of reality. The stratification of reality is like a noun (stratified reality), while emergence is a verb bringing the stratification of reality into being.

To illustrate the concept of emergence it will be helpful to recall the analogy used in the previous chapter of the computer program.

Line 1: Have the letter [X] be equal to the value of 1.

Line 2: Print the current value of the letter [X] in the middle of the screen.

Line 3: If the value of the letter [X] equals 100 then end the program.

Line 4: Have the value of the letter [X] increased by 1.

Line 5: Go to the program [Line 2]

The computer program comprises one level of understanding.  The manipulation of variables (such as X), if-then statements, and other command lines make up the program. There are rules as to how programs can be written. In a programming language many different types of command lines have been devised, that, when combined, can perform a myriad of functions. The word-processor that I am writing this on is a good example of a complex computer program. But the word-processor, when used to write a thesis, has its own set of rules that I obey in order to write this thesis. Indeed, while I am writing I am not thinking about different lines of code and the rules as to how they operate. To do so is counterproductive to writing. If you get the impression that focal awareness is somehow involved in this you are on the right track.

But it is important to note that a computer has no focal or subsidiary awareness. A computer just works. A computer has multiple levels of operation, each with their own set of rules. To us looking at the operation of the computer we can only focus our awareness on one level at a time. As in the previous chapter when driving a car we focus our attention on making the turn as a whole and not on the increments necessary in turning a steering wheel so far. So, in a sense, focal awareness is something we do when looking at the operation of the computer. But, one may wonder, how is it that a computer can be said to contain multiple levels if it is we that can only understand the computer in terms of those levels? Here we hearken back to the Kantian distinction between objects-in-themselves and how those objects appear to us. Kant said that we cannot know objects-in-themselves, but only appearances.

It should be noted that in everyday life we usually do not go around questioning whether or not the objects we encounter are as they appear to us to be. This process of encountering objects during the course of a day is a tacit one, and does not usually become overt unless one of the objects we rely on in the performance of a task does not work in the way it should. Then we quite often question whether or not the object is as it appears to be. Another way of putting it is that when we drive a car we do not focus our attention on whether or not the steering wheel is as it appears to be. If, however, when we are making a turn the steering wheel does not turn like it should then that fact jumps into our focal awareness. We may examine many possibilities such as whether our power steering is out due to some mechanical difficulty etc.

To bring the topic back to the example of the computer’s operation: when I am writing I am concentrating on that task and not concerned with whether the program is operating like it should. Writing philosophy is a very abstract task, and thus requires more conscious attention. Thus to worry about whether or not the word processor is functioning properly is not conducive to writing philosophy. I do have cause to question the program’s operation when something happens that I had not anticipated. This can be very frustrating, especially if I have a great train of philosophical thought going. Usually the unanticipated event comes in the form of a message on my monitor stating that there is a program error.  In my case the message displayed on the monitor is accompanied by the auditory message of Susan Ivanova (a fictional character on the television show Babylon 5) who says “Ah Hell” when a program error occurs, thus shooting the question of the program’s proper operation into my focal awareness. And much to my annoyance when the message is broadcast it disturbs my train of thought.

One can begin to see the different levels of operation at work simultaneously in the example of a computer or car’s operation. The task of driving a car relies on the proper function of the mechanical elements of the car. The level of the word processor with its own rules of operation relies on the level of the computer program with its rules of operation, which, in turn, relies on what is referred to as machine language with its rules of operation. The level of machine language relies on the binary code for its operation. The hardware of the computer and its rules of operation gave rise to the binary code. Each level has its own rules of operation, and when successfully operated, gives rise to the next level of operation. Each level with its own rules is quite different and distinct from each other level, and yet each higher level cannot work without the level below it working. Failure of one of the levels can prove disastrous for the successive levels above it. If the cooling fan over the central processing unit (CPU) in my computer fails to function the CPU will not operate, thus terminating all of the successive levels above it, which rely on it for their operation. The concept of one level with its own distinct rules of operation when combined in certain ways giving rise to a new level above it with its own distinct rules of operation is the Polanyian concept of emergence. The different levels operating in succession illustrate the stratification of reality. One can thus see how the stratification of levels appear to be a part of reality itself, and not merely how we perceive reality. More on the issue of the ontological nature of the stratification of reality as opposed to the subjective perception of reality as stratified will be dealt with in the next chapter.

In larger terms, atoms and their rules of operation comprise one level. When atoms are combined in certain ways they form compounds that have elements (pun intended) in them that were not in the previous level. Each successive level increases in complexity and brings about something new that cannot be found in the previous level. Michael Polanyi himself is quite adamant that to attempt to understand one level of reality by applying the rules of a lower level to the current level that is the focus of attention is ludicrous! Polanyi is severely critical of what can be called philosophical atomism. Philosophical atomism is the belief that truth lies in the breaking down of things into their component parts as far back as it can go. This too will be discussed in more detail in the next chapter. Things are only understood in terms of wholes (Gestalten). When we drive a car we are concentrating on the task as a whole. Thus to shift our focus from the task of driving as a whole to understanding the driving of a car in terms of the constituent parts of the car and their functions, usually contained in one’s subsidiary awareness, is generally disastrous if one is trying to drive somewhere. This should help to illustrate the point that each level has its own rules in some sense independent of other levels and yet wholly reliant on the proper function of all levels below any given level.

The importance of understanding these concepts cannot be overemphasized. Language itself is an interesting phenomenon to look at. It will be helpful to look at language as a further example to help drive home the understanding of emergence and successive levels of reality. Language, in this case written, operates by certain rules. We have letters that, when combined, form words. Words combine to form sentences, and in turn, in proper form, can convey meaning. But rules of the level of sentence structure do not guarantee meaning. I can write, “The translucent dog is a happy ethereal substance.” While the sentence abides by the rules of sentence structure it is technically gibberish. Can language really be understood by an analysis of the rules of sentence structure, or is there something more? Or, worse yet, can a sentence be understood by a careful analysis of the formation of shapes of letters in a sentence? Language is used to channel one’s focal awareness in certain ways. Thus the mind passes through the sentences to image something focally. This can be focally attending to something existing independently of the mind, or it can be attending to something existing only in the noosphere (e.g. a religious experience). Language points to wholes beyond itself and breaks down when one shifts focal awareness from the whole to a careful analysis of sentence structure, spelling, etc.

Derrida’s work illustrates that, like Kant who said one cannot know objects-in-themselves, one cannot know the text-in-itself and requires the active participation of a knower to perceive meaning through the text. Language at the beginning and middle of the twentieth century seemed to be the last bastion of objective reality, especially in light of logical positivism’s effort to know objects-in-themselves as best as humanly possible. The last tool for knowing was language, which was thought to be supremely reliable. That is until a wizened-with-age Wittgenstein and the French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida did their analyses of language. If anything they help to illustrate that the use of language is a skill employed by people, which brings the topic back into Polanyi’s court.

One uses language to play certain “games.” One does not focus on the structure of language for truth, but one focuses on the (proposed view of) reality and is only subsidiarily aware of the sentence structure. Polanyi says that meaning is always pushed away from us. Another way to put it is that the meaning of a sentence is emergent from the level of sentence structure. Wittgenstein would say that the meaning of the sentence structure is determined by the “language game.” The language game represents the task the words are put to. Words are in the service of the game, but the game breaks down if the rules of sentence structure are broken. Wittgenstein has shown some interesting examples, one being two construction workers working together to build a wall. One worker says “brick” which is short for, “Hand me a brick please.” In Polanyian terms the rest of the sentence that “brick” is short for is a tacit understanding between the two workers in the performance of their task (their “game.”)

Hopefully, by now, the concept of emergence is becoming clear, as well as its implication, the stratification of reality. Polanyi applies the concept of emergence to knowing as well as reality. Polanyi sees the concept of emergence in knowing and, by extension, being itself.  There is some ambiguity as to whether the stratification of reality is something that we humans impose on reality or whether the stratification of reality actually is an intrinsic part of reality. One thing that should be clear by now is that knowledge involves the person to a point that is hard to grasp a hold of, which is to say it is tacit or unconscious.1 Thus we have Polanyi’s theory of knowledge being referred to as “personal knowledge.” The ultimate origins of knowledge are tacit to a point that it seems inconceivable that it can ever be made truly overt.2 Accepting Polanyi’s theory of personal knowledge one would say that one can get to a point where knowledge would seem to emerge from levels where one cannot see how knowledge can exist with the rules of the given level under examination. Can biology explain how I know how to drive a car or write philosophy? And yet the destruction of certain parts of my brain could prevent me from knowing how to drive a car or write philosophy.

As I alluded to in the beginning of the chapter, we would eventually see how physics and ethics can co-exist without contradiction. That time has come. With a level of reality governed by the study of physics issuing in the emergence of successively higher levels of reality one can conceive that eventually a level will be complex enough to allow for what we call freedom. Once freedom has emerged one can then discuss how freedom works out in terms of the lower levels supporting it as well as still higher levels emerging from it. One of these levels is what we call ethics. It is quite amazing to ponder how a computer programming language with its rules of variable manipulation and if-then statements can be used to bring about something as complex as a word processor with its own rules of operation quite incomprehensible in terms of X’s. And yet here I am writing a thesis concentrating on everything to do with explicating Polanyi’s philosophy quite oblivious to the rules of either the word processor or of the program code comprising it. It amazes me too that the study of physics can do what it does, and yet I can decide pros and cons of a way of relating to another person.

The next chapter will deal with more of the “personal” in “personal knowledge” as I have spent a good deal of time explaining the “knowledge” part of “personal knowledge” in this chapter and the previous chapter. In addition, as I have already mentioned, I will begin to tackle other theories of knowing that are competitors with Michael Polanyi’s theory of “personal knowledge.” As should already be clear I find other theories of knowledge wanting, especially in light of Michael Polanyi’s theory. It is my intention to demonstrate how Michael Polanyi’s theory of personal knowledge is superior. This will include a more scrutinized examination of the ontological dimension of the stratification of reality as not being merely an anthropomorphism (an imposing on reality of how it is that we humans know something.) No holds will be barred and I do not intend on pulling any punches in my criticisms.


1 I here use “unconscious” in terms of not being aware, rather than not being awake.

2 This fact makes me rather leery of philosophers and psychologists that attempt to delineate exactly how our mind works, as I believe that it can not be wholly accomplished.


[To Chapter 3]


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