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Michael Polanyi, Karl Popper and the philosophy of science (with an eye to blockchain)

October 9, 2021 - 17:30 -- Admin

Michael Polanyi (L) and Karl Popper (R)

I’ve been working on a joint paper with someone else about blockchain. One way the paper might develop would be to argue that the discussion of DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) using blockchain technology should now be cognisant of the chasm between two approaches to the philosophy of science in the 20th-century — that between Popper and Polanyi. Popper focuses on science as a form of discipline of the mind which produces more and more objective knowledge. He’s also a disciplinarian in the normal sense of that word, or an intellectual authoritarian. He thinks the challenge is to codify what the scientific method is so that it can be insisted upon. This will then produce sanctioned scientific knowledge which will converge closer and closer to the objective truth. At the same time discourses that don’t measure up to such a standard are marginalised as ‘unscientific’ in their endeavours to uncover the truth. The idea is that those who think that blockchain will now automate governance should understand why Popper’s quest failed, because they’re making the same mistake all over again — which is the idea that things that actually depend on a great deal of tacit knowledge, judgement and acculturation.   

Polanyi didn’t believe Popper’s quest would work — which appears to have been proven right. Many very serious people who comment on science haven’t got the memo, but there you go. These questions are hard and it’s easy to think you understand things when you don’t. As Haack puts it, Popper’s criterion sounded simple enough. 

But in fact it never became entirely clear what, exactly, Popper’s criterion was, nor what, exactly, it was intended to rule out … nor – besides the honorific use of “science” – the motivation was for wanting a criterion of demarcation in the first place. … With the benefit of hindsight, it looks as if Popper’s criterion of demarcation proved so attractive to so many in part because it was amorphous – or rather, polymorphous — enough to seem to serve a whole variety of agendas.

Polanyi’s concerns were different. He had been an outstanding practicing scientist. And like Einstein with whom he’d worked in Berlin before moving to England on Hitler’s accession to power, he was interested in the things that united science with other grand intellectual and spiritual quests. And, having pondered the question deeply, he felt that science was an intellectual system which, like the magic of a native tribe, was a self-supporting system of faith. True enough the protocols it embraced clearly generated increasingly useful knowledge where other systems did not, but one couldn’t demonstrate why one had greater faith in it over other systems, from within the system, except circularly. 

Anyway, all that is by way of introduction to the table below that I thought I’d share for comment. And if anyone wants more on Polanyi v Popper, email me and I can send them to a larger piece I’ve written about here previously.


Scientific method is not ‘instinctive’, nor the possession of all societies

However, like markets, it is a social formation which, once forged has a certain sense of ‘naturalness’ to it with a power that tends to be self-reinforcing in the absence of excessive arbitrary power and social iconoclasm.
Science is one of the principal vehicles by which man’s spiritual nature is expressed. 

  • As law is the quest for justice,
  • the arts are the quest for beauty,
  • religion is the quest for God,
  • Science is the quest for truth

Development in the natural and human worlds proceeds by more sophisticated orders being built on more basic orders. Thus as the universe proceeds from the big bang;

  • Chemistry emerges from physics,
  • biology from chemistry,
  • sentience and tacit knowledge from biology. 

In the human world;

  • Explicit knowledge emerges from tacit knowledge
  • science emerges from explicit knowledge.

In each case the higher layer is more sophisticated, but more fragile than the layer upon which it is built.  

Scientific method is the engine of science
The engine of science is scientists expressing their spiritual nature having been acculturated into the hard-won norms and values of the scientific tradition — which itself is the product of a cultural labour going back centuries.  

The enemies of science are those within or outside of it who, through malice or ignorance, traduce and violate the scientific method. Particularly:

  • those peddling pseudo-science as science

The enemies of science are all those who interfere with it living in its own “internal necessities”. Particularly:

  • those who would dictate to science from the outside — such as governments or even university administrators.
  • those on the inside, putative scientists who fail to live up to science’s exacting standards either for lack of competence (‘bunglers’) or honesty (‘swindlers’)  

To promote science and defend it against its enemies:

  • The scientific method must be codified from without (by philosopy)
  • Friends of science should then defend it by policing the boundaries between it and pseudo-science  

To promote science and defend it against its enemies:

  • Science’s norms and values must be nurtured from within and protected from interference from without, particularly by those seeking to direct science from above
  • Polanyi’s principal concern was government interference with science, but there is also intolerance towards managerialist ideas of promoting science by optimising scientist’s worldly incentives 

Science can be thought of as reason applied to experience (including the artificial experience generated by experiments) in such a way that reason comes progressively closer to reality or the truth.  
No system of thought functions without belief in its foundations, or in the words of 

St Augustine, “unless you believe, you shall not understand”. However, those foundations then become subject to immanent critique.

The scientific method, applied at any point is the best guarantee we have of the validity of scientific knowledge. 
Science is a fiduciary order in the sense implied in the above words. In addition, the whole body of science is vouchsafed not fundamentally, by the use of the scientific method, which cannot be codified, but by the best endeavours of scientists to honour their fiduciary duty to each other, to science and to society. They do this both in making their own contributions to the tapestry of scientific knowledge but also by challenging and cross checking each others’ work. One of the most difficult tasks in science is that of validating science across disciplines. This task is performed by scientists participating in science in neighbourhoods that overlap with their own professional expertise. This process is fragile and particularly vulnerable. 

As a system of knowing, science is superior to systems of magic practiced by pre-modern tribes. As a product of reason, its superiority to these systems can be demonstrated according to reason. To this extent these two systems are commensurable.  
We may have confidence in science’s superiority to systems of pre-modern magic, but claimed demonstrations of this fact cannot do so without somehow assuming the validity of what they claim to be proving. Science and pre-modern systems of magic are not commensurable systems.