Christian Thinking in Science

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. (Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers)

We are indebted to the scientist Michael Polanyi for formulating an alternative paradigm for knowledge from which much can be applied to the integration of science and Christianity. A strength of Polanyi’s work is that it comes from within science itself. It was from here that he saw that the concept of scientific knowledge was being abused: "When any human thought can be discredited by branding it unscientific, inordinate power has passed over to science; hence science itself has become in its turn the greatest source of error". In response to this situation, Polanyi wrote the book Personal Knowledge so that science could again become attuned to the full range of human thought.

Revolutions in Thought

The history of science is a history of revolutions and new concepts of thought. In the sixteenth century Copernicus offered a new concept of the cosmos which went against the geocentrism of the day. Since then, Newtonian thought (the centreless universe), with its emphasis on observational objectivity and empirical knowledge, has come to dominate science. However, Polanyi sees that with Einstein’s discovery of relativity there is hope for scientific thinking that is not grounded purely in the empirical and the objective. For Polanyi this discovery is evidence, and hope, that a new paradigm for thinking - a personal dimension - can be developed and accepted. A purely objective and empirical idea of knowledge can therefore be rejected.

The concept of complete objectivity and therefore complete detachment is in reality a false ideal. An example of a personal element in knowledge is seen in the personal responsibility felt by a doctor deciding on a diagnosis in a difficult case or a juryman bringing in a guilty verdict in dubious circumstances. For Polanyi, the concept of connoisseurship also demonstrates the existence of a personal dimension in knowledge, since, like a skill, it can only be communicated by example and not by precept. For example, the large amount of time spent by students of biology, physics and chemistry in their practical courses shows how greatly these sciences actually rely on the transmission of skills from master to apprentice. Clearly then, these skills are communicated through some process of non-propositional knowing. Polanyi terms this the tacit dimension of knowledge.

The Tacit Dimension

Tacit knowing is the unaccountable, inarticulate component of knowledge where we always seem to know more than we can tell. It enables us to recognise the face of a loved one in a crowd without being able to describe why. It enables a child of ten to ride a bicycle without being able to state the rules governing turning, balance, speed and the angle of disequilibrium. Tacit knowing is the fundamental power of the mind which creates explicit knowing; it lends meaning to explicit knowing and therefore controls our use of explicit knowing. Put another way, the explicit formulations of a scientist rely upon a vast area of tacit knowledge which is shared to a greater or lesser degree with all human beings. It should be noted however, that any emphasis on the personal participation of the knower does not entail a retreat into irrational subjectivity. Rather, Polanyi’s proposition is that all knowledge is to do with orientation. The tacit dimension, and therefore personal knowledge, have a "from - to" orientation – from the tacit to the explicit, from me to outside of me (to the world).

For the Christian working in science, Polanyi’s concept of personal knowledge, in which the personal and the objective are fused together, provides clear evidence that spiritual and scientific elements can also be fused together. The same "from - to" orientation applies – from the tacit to the explicit, from that which is relied upon to that which is attended to, from the spiritual to the scientific. Polanyi’s reconstruction of the basis for knowledge in science has also created a path of knowledge which leads us toward God.

The Tacit Dimension: New Meaning in a Many-Levelled World

We live in an age where we have a dominant scientific world view, where nature is thought to exist merely as some closed mechanical system. This is a concept of our world where the vital experiences of mind, purpose and meaning are missing. Polanyi attacks this mechanistic approach, and its reductionism into mere chemistry and physics, and instead claims that what makes life distinctive are the principles by which those chemicals are put together in living organisms. He uses the example of a machine to emphasise his point here. An analysis of a machine as an object, by chemistry and physics, will tell us much about the machine’s molecular structure, but will leave us in complete ignorance as to what the machine actually is or does – this type of analysis will tell us nothing about the machine’s function. Polanyi claims that "the more detailed knowledge we acquire of such a thing, the more our attention is distracted from seeing what it really is". True meaning, true understanding cannot therefore be found in a downward spiral into reductionism.

When applied to the biological sciences, Polanyi’s argument allows us to view the DNA molecule in a different way. Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA and the subsequent analysis of its molecular structure has shown that DNA is composed of bases, sugars and phosphates. All these components are ordinary chemicals and all are reacting according to the laws of chemistry and physics. But these chemical laws are insufficient to explain the sequence of bases within DNA which spell out the genetic code. Clearly then, the code is independent of the physical and chemical forces within the DNA molecule itself, and it is precisely this indeterminacy that gives the DNA molecule the flexibility to appear in a huge variety of sequences, just like words on a page. Here again, physics and chemistry are insufficient to answer the question of how the rich information content of DNA arose. A central issue in biology today therefore is the question on the origins of complex organisation. Where are the other examples of information-rich structures being created by natural processes? Creationists may therefore say that DNA contains the marks of intelligent workmanship because reductionism has not provided the answers.

Polanyi proposes an alternative way for science to describe the natural world – as a hierarchy of levels (see Figure 1). When pictured like this, and when the tacit dimension is incorporated into our knowing, Polanyi demonstrates that we can fully know something at a lower level only by the tacit information that we already carry from the other, higher levels. True knowing therefore comes when our focal awareness at any level is integrated with our subsidiary awareness of the higher levels. When examined in this way, the higher level of organisation imposes conditions on the lower level particulars. For example, the function of cells are only properly understood when they are examined with reference to the tissues and organs in which they arise, and DNA molecules can only be understood by the genes that they encode and the function of these genes in the cells in which they are contained. And therefore, the genetic code can only be understood as coming from intelligent design – under the influence of God, at the top of the hierarchy.

Figure 1: Polanyi's Rejection of Reductionism

Scientific World view


function and purpose







chemistry and physics

Tacit Dimension: Personal Knowledge

Since Polanyi was not a Christian when he wrote Personal Knowledge it is unlikely that his intention in reconstructing the scientific basis of knowledge was to create a path of knowledge leading toward God, but with the direction of his arguments, exactly this has occurred. Another writer, T.F. Torrance, claims that Polanyi has helped to "restore science to its true purpose, where man’s natural knowledge expands continually into the knowledge of the supernatural". It is perhaps significant to note that Polanyi came to profess Christianity later in his life.

We live in a world where the purely objective and detached analysis of science has failed to provide answers for our ultimate questions. However, by apprehending Polanyi’s concept of personal knowledge, our investigations can lead us in the direction of answers about function and purpose. By acknowledging the operation of the tacit dimension, when our focal attention is directed toward science, we are also carrying with us a subsidiary awareness of the higher levels – of who we are as persons, living in the natural world that God has created. Only with the objective and the personal fused together can we understand the true function of science, and our true function and purpose as persons (see Figure 2). The study of science and theology can again become integrated – both part of the same continuum of knowing.

The Tacit Dimension: Scientists as Full Persons

A complete chemical and physical topography of a human being, or even the complete sequence of every gene in the human genome will tell us nothing about what it is to be a person – the fullness of personhood is missing and instead we are merely considered to be things. This example describes the inadequacy of the mode of analysis of our science today, however the disease of objectivist science also extends to those practising science – since it renders persons to an existence as subpersons. Polanyi claims that "the rules of scientific detachment require that we limit ourselves only to physical and chemical observations, however in doing this we remain unaware of the true and complete nature of living things and their achievements".

Figure 2: Science and Personal Knowledge

Scientific World view


function and purpose





chemistry and physics

Personal Knowledge

 Tacit Dimension

By adopting a purely objectivist position we are not able to participate personally in science. It is to right a wrong such as this that Polanyi’s concept of personal knowledge has come to be viewed as so important. Polanyi saw that any scientific research pursued in a detached, impersonal, materialistic way isolates itself from a human’s higher faculties and thereby restricts its power of discernment and understanding. However, a science which incorporates a personal component, which encourages a focal awareness on science while allowing for subsidiary clues coming from the higher levels of creation and Creator (Figure 2), will be able to overcome what Polanyi saw as a damaging split between: subject and object, mind and matter, thought and experience, and therefore, ultimately also the split between faith and reason, and between personhood and thinghood. Since we are human persons, made in the image of God, we should no longer be merely described as things or objects which are the result of molecular interactions. Without an integrative way of thinking, where the personal component is absent, Christians in science will never be able to recover the natural unity between knowing and being, and will therefore also never be able to operate as full persons.

A crucial first step for the Christian in science is to realise that objectivist science always leaves out a complete set of categories of knowledge, and therefore this mode of science should not be viewed as the only way ahead. Polanyi’s critique of thinking in science has shown that there is also an essential personal component in scientific thought. This alternative mode of thinking provides fertile grounds for Christians, for not only does personal knowledge enable a Christian in science to operate as a full person; there is also a new way for science to proceed. The integration of a personal component into science will again enable us to see the image of God in this world, and in doing this, Polanyi claims that we will "restore science to the great family of human aspirations, by which men hope to fulfil the purpose of their existence as thinking beings".

Christopher Downs


Recommended Reading

Grene, M. (Editor) Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1969)

Pearcey, N., Thaxton, C. The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Crossway Books, Wheaton Il, 1994)

Polanyi, M. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Routledge & Keegan Paul, London, 1958)

Polanyi, M. Scientific Outlook: Its Sickness and Cure (in Science, Vol 125)

Scott, D. Everyman Revived: The Common Sense of Michael Polanyi ( The Book Guild Limited, Sussex, 1985)

Torrance, TF. Belief in Science and in the Christian Life (The Handsel Press, Edinburgh, 1980)

© 1999 Christopher Downs, Palmerston North, New Zealand