Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How We Know What We Know

Life has slowed a tad from break-neck speed so I thought I'd take a few minutes to compose a post. I've missed being on this blog and have missed talking with everyone who comments here. I hope you will find your way back here again! I use to stay up til 1 am composing posts, but lately I haven't finished my work til that time and I'm just too exhausted to stay up any later.

In my last post I wrote about the book The Common Sense of Michael Polanyi. One concept he explored was that of tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is a way of "knowing more than we can say." It is an unconscious way of knowing that is often difficult to verbally express. We experience this when we learn to ride a bike. After a bit of practice, we just get it. We do without thinking. This is how experts operate. They create their art, sing their opera, perform the surgery, and bake the pie without deliberately thinking through every step. They adjust accordingly throughout their work without conscious awareness of doing so. If you've ever tried to get your grandma to write down a recipe for a dish she's made a hundred times, you know how difficult it is to get all the measurements quantified. The best you get is an approximation.

Polanyi believed that scientists relied on this tacit knowledge in the discovery process. The hunch, the intuition, the passion and curiosity are what drive the engine of science as opposed to the passionless, neat and orderly scientific method. He also believed that tacit knowledge plays a key role in our understanding of spiritual and religious matters.

Of Christian worship Polanyi stated, “(it) sustains, as it were an eternal, never to be consummated hunch, a heuristic vision which is accepted for the sake of its unresolvable tension. It is like an obsession with a problem known to be insoluable, which yet follows, against reason, unswervingly, the heuristic command: “Look at the unknown!”

Polanyi viewed “religious knowing” as a skill developed “by being brought up in a religion which is meaningful to the people we trust who are practicing it, just as we learn language, just as in science we learn by dwelling in a tradition, trusting it and sensing the meaning in it, so that we become able to go beyond it. By dwelling in the forms and rituals of one religion we can thus learn meanings which reach a more universal truth.”

This concept of tacit knowledge resonated with me and gave form to what I have been experiencing. My attraction to it may be partly due to the fact that I am an intuitive personality, and have leaned on my intuition in my work and personal life. For those more sensing types who learn about the world more through the material world around them, this discussion may make them squeamish. Certainly feel free to say so.

What I have found through my spiritual struggles is that though the facts of historical Christianity have been called into question for me, I haven't been left with a sense that the pursuit of spiritual matters is pointless. In fact, a part of me experiences a sense of renewal, a freedom to seek and "go beyond" my religious upbringing and to center on "a more universal truth" instead of "dwelling in the forms and rituals of one religion." However, I find that I am content to continue to let my children "dwell" in the tradition of our religion as it provides a framework to understand spiritual matters which they can then test, evaluate, and perhaps move beyond, in the sense of concerning themselves with the deeper meanings that may transcend religion.

There have been times when I've devalued my tacit knowledge and sought validation through facts and hard evidence. However, reading Polanyi has confirmed that hard evidence isn't the only means we have of knowing, nor is it necessarily the best. The fact that concepts like meaning and purpose and love and beauty matter to me and that I desire and seek depth and transcendence suggests that maybe I know more than I can tell about spiritual matters. Maybe religion is our best effort at explicitly stating that which can only be experienced as a "never to be consummated hunch."


  1. Thank you for this post. I wrote something a bit similar just from my own experience and observation recently. That some people are a bit more "romantic" or mystical in their thinking and some people are more pragmatic. Neither way is superior to the other. I find that I'm a mixed bag of both, leaning more the the side of pragmatic. I believe it takes both kinds of thinkers to turn the world. Maybe I'll pick this book up and read it myself.

    P.S. Welcome back, you've been missed!

  2. I've also touched upon this somewhere in my blog about how scientists just suddenly come up with an idea. Now that I feel I've been to atheism and back, I definitely feel there's something more to spirituality that you have to read between the lines to feel. When your trust is broken by fundamentalism, you loose that sense of intuition that needs to be rebuilt. I've been mulling over CS' Lewis quote "Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks improbable: but when I was an atheist [agnostic] I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable [quote altered]." – Mere Christianity, and I feel after years of being in the former camp, I'm now in the latter, and it feels good to appreciate Christianity as if I was starting over.

    On a sidenote, I did find a therapist recommended by an Emerging church pastor who specializes in church abuse. Without meds and after two sessions, I do feel better and I'm actually quite perplexed at this as a rational thinker. What has also been helpful is to find new friends that I don't feel like I need to hide the doubts, as well as the support now from my husband and from my parents, amazingly.

  3. D'Ma,
    I certainly recommend the book. It's good to be back. Thanks for your kind words. I've enjoyed all your posts. You've been really cranking them out! I'm so glad, because it seems like several of us have been fairly absent as of late.

    I'm so glad you've found a therapist you find helpful. I've been thinking of you and hoping that you'd found someone good. I'm doubly glad you've found some new friends as well.