T.F.Torrance, Michael Polanyi and Ultimate Beliefs

In his book ‘Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge’, T.F. Torrance devotes an essay to examining what he calls ‘ultimate beliefs’ and their effect on the natural sciences. Here’s a few relevant sections with some of my comments:

‘…the controlling statements with which we operate in science are both unfalsifiable and unverifiable. They are statements which express what we have called ultimate beliefs, beliefs without which there would be no science at all, beliefs which play a normative role in the gaining and developing of knowledge. Yet these ultimate beliefs are by their very nature irrefutable and unprovable. They are irrefutable and unprovable on two grounds: (1) because they have to be assumed in any attempt at rational proof or disproof; and (2) because they involve a relation of thought to being which cannot be put into logical or demonstrable form. Ultimate beliefs, then, are to be understood as expressing the fundamental commitment of the mind to reality, which rational knowledge presupposes and on which the reason relies in any authentic thrust towards truth.’ (p. 194) 

The fundamental commitment is important here – Torrance took from Polanyi the idea that trust, commitment and obligation are key aspects of our knowledge in the natural sciences, and I’ll come back to it here. The basic point to be taken here is that ultimate beliefs operate at a level which formal logic and proofs don’t apply because of their tacit nature. Continuing on:

‘Far from being irrational or non-rational, these beliefs have to do with the ontological reference of the reason to the nature and structure of things, which all explicit forms of reasoning are intended to serve, and without which they are blind and impotent. It is indeed not finally through formal reasoning that knowledge is advanced, but through the responsible commitment to reality in which are minds fall under the normative insights or ultimate beliefs which prompt and guide our inquiries, which enable us to interpret our experiences and observations, and which direct the reasoning operations of our inquiries to their true ends.’ (p. 194)

This goes back to the fundamental commitment – the commitment is essential for knowledge to be  and for reasoning itself to function. This commitment, where the mind falls under the ultimate beliefs, is what Polanyi called the ‘fiduciary framework’, which also includes a rational obligation for us to think in accordance with the revealed structures of reality – thinkng after the nature of things, to use Torrance’s maxim. This, for Torrance as well as the classical Christian tradition, is more or less the definition of faith. Continuing:

‘Since this is the case, it is irrational to contrast faith and reason, for faith is the very mode of rationality adopted by the reason in its fidelity to what it seeks to understand, and as such faith constitutes the most basic form of knowledge upon which all subsequent rational inquiry proceeds. There could be no rational inquiry, no reflective thought without prior, informal knowledge grounded in experience and formed through the adaption of our minds faithfully to the nature of things, in the course of which our basic beliefs arise.’ (194)

We could map out Torrance’s idea out roughly like this thus far:

Reality —–> experience of reality —–> ultimate beliefs

The act of fundamental commitment arises when our mind falls under the normative ultimate beliefs – there is an obligation to think after the nature of things which one has to personally commit to so as to not fall into irrationality:

‘The ultimate beliefs…are objectively grounded in, and ontologically derived from, the intelligibility of the real world so independent of our understanding that it reaches out in an objective depth far beyond what we can bring within the range of any masterful comprehending on our part. Beliefs of this kind, calling us to personal commitment, differ from the natural beliefs of David Hume, which he spoke of as causally induced determinations of the mind, and not as free acts resting on grounds or reason. According to Polanyi,’Every belief is both a free gift and a payment of a tribute exacted from us. It is held on the personal responsibility of the believer, yet in the clear assumption that he cannot do otherwise.’ In other words, belif is at once a free and obligatory act, an act which we cannot rationally resist: it is thrust upon us from the given.’ (p. 197)

Here our map can be extended:

Reality —–> experience of reality —–> ultimate beliefs —–> rational obligation —–> personal commitment 

What both Torrance and Polanyi both stress, as can be seen here, is the element of trust, commitment and obligation in the gaining of scientific knowledge. Ultimate beliefs forms the fiduciary framework within which we can commit to reality and so inquire more deeply into reality.


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