Personal Knowledge: Science and Objectivity

In reading Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, he begins with a critique of the notion of objectivity in science. To examples are instructive although he provides some others. I’ll try to summarize briefly. The first concerns the Copernican notion of solar vs geo centrism as a view that this is “more objective” and therefore that is the reason for its predominance. The second example is the account of Einstein and his development of Special Relativity and its relationship to the Michelson-Morely experiments on motion and ether (below the dreaded fold).

The argument given often in favor of the Copernican vs Ptolemaic view of the solar system is that the Copernican is more objective, more universal and less anthropocentric. This is false. And in the following I don’t quote, but paraphrase Mr Polanyi’s first paragraph.

Mr Polanyi asks (and answers what) an objective view of the universe would look like. Would this in regards a “full feature film” in which all epochs of the history of the universe were given equal weight, in which which the human era and the beginnings of history to now would are an insignificant fraction. Would it be by “mass”, paying equal attention to equal masses, in which again man and our terrestrial sphere would be again insignificant. Volume? again insignificant. So by what measure is can our science be thought to be looking at the univese objectively? How do we view our preference for the Copernican vs Ptolemaic views?

The only justification for the preference for the Copernican view to the Ptolemaic is that we delight, our aesthetic preference, for the theory describing the motions is more prefered vs the constant and possibly irresistable notion that every day the sun and stars rotate from east to west traversing across the sky. In Polanyi’s words:

In a literal sense, therefore, the new Copernican system was as anthropocentric as the Ptolemaic view, the difference being merely that it preferred to satisfy a different human affection.


Thus when we claim greater objectivity for the Copernican theory, we do imply that its excellence is, not a matter of personal taste on our part, but an inherent quality deserving universal acceptance by rational creatures. We abandon the cruder anthropocentrism of our senses — only in favor or our more ambitious anthropocentrism of our reason. [emphasis mine]

This theory of Copernicus in tern spoke to Kepler who then 66 years later discovered the second and third laws of planetary motion and then another 68 years before Newton and his calculus found these an expression of underlying gravitational theory. These further discoveries were obtained by embracing and believing the Copernican system, committing themselves to an expectation of possible predictions and confirmations of that theory.

This it not, however, what we are taught today. To say that the discovery of objective truth in science consists in the apprehension of a rationality which commands our respect and arouses our contemplative admiration, that such a discovery, while using the experience of our senses as clues, transcends this experience by embracing a vision of a reality beyond our senses, … such an account of scientific procedure would generally be shrugged aside as out-dated Platonism¬† …

yet this is a better description of the actual process than what is taught.

Mr Polanyi’s first supporting example of that is a contrast and comparison of the story which is taught today of the development of Special Relativity … as contrasted with the historical reality of the intellectual developement actually transpired.

In virtually every Physics textbook account of the development of Special Relativity, the Michelson-Morely experiments, which had a negative result in measuring the drift of the earth through the ether, are used as observations which movitated and explain the need for Einsteins special relativity. That is, the negative result showed that there was no difference in the speed of light by direction as the earth traveled, in different directions through the universe as it orbited the sun throught the year. This means that the speed of light is measured the same whether at rest or at motion. This, allegedly, which when taken as a hypothesis leads to Einstein pondering this and arriving at what is known as speciial relativity. However … alas, that is not actually how Einstein arrived at this theory.

Einstein arrived at his theory after “a ten year reflection” on a paradox of how he would observe a beam of light if he traveled at the speed of light as well as some asymmetries in Maxwell’s equations. His initial paper in fact discusses those things in depth, only remarking as an aside that it might have applicability to “similar examples, as well as the unsuccessful attempts to measure the relative motion of the earth in respect to the medium of light …”.

The astute textbook account of Michelson-Morley leading to Einstein’s theory is an invention. Interviews of Einstein tell that he developed his theory of special relativity before he even knew of the Michelson-Morely result. Einstein admitted as well, that Ernst Mach’s philosophical notion that idea that Newton’s ideas of absolute rest and motion should be discarded because they were untestable, and in fact meaningless motivated and influenced his (Einstein’s) investigations. But Mach was wrong. Newton’s ideas weren’t untestable and therefore meaningless. Einstein’s rejection of those ideas and the assumption of Mach’s rationality led to new ideas, which showed that they were not only testable, but false. Mach proposed a rationality, a Platonic idea (that there is no absolute reference) which when developed by Einstein gave fruit.

There is, we are informed, another side to this story highlighting the “objective” nature of science. From 1902 to 1926, WM Hicks and DC Miller and collaborators found and noted and refined positive results from the Michelson-Morely experiment. Yet these make no impression on a scientific community now enthralled with the new Mach/Einstein rationality and view of the universe. When he gave his papers on the positive effect of this experiment to the APS society in 1925 his audience should have sprung to test it in other ways and for a time abandon relativity. Yet this did not occur. Yet this new rationality had so enthralled the physics community that thinking of the universe in other ways was almost impossible. This in part, demonstrates plainly that the idea that “experiment” alone drives science is simply based on repeatable experiments.

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