In the quest for truth, philosophers through the ages struggled to make sense of how our minds relate to the world to determine knowledge.
The sceptics wanted us to hold back from accepting universal truths unless they were either confirmed by our senses or coherent to our minds. But the end point of this approach is the we can’t really know anything for certain.
Immanuel Kant tried to bridge this divide by describing the pursuit of knowledge as a rational discernment of the perception of our senses. But in practice he tended to rely on the power of the mind, as the things of the world cannot be known in themselves.
Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) suggested this gap between passive sensation and active reason can be resolved if we’re prepared to admit that our senses aren’t inherently deceptive but are simply limited. We don’t live very long, we can’t be in more than one place at once, and so the quest for eternal and universal truth is not something we can obtain in a lifetime – it will always be bigger than us.
Therefore, we must participate in a community of knowledge if we are to learn anything beyond what a single limited individual is capable of discerning.
This is where faith comes in. In order to know anything, we must trust (‘have faith in’) some community of knowledge.
Polanyi argued that to learn, we must have some form of ‘faith’, manifested expressed in:
1. Tacit assent – a willingness to learn.
2. Intellectual passion – a desire to pursue knowledge.
3. Sharing of idiom – a common language within a learning community.
4. Cultural heritage – a tradition of testing and sharing ideas
Consider the picture above: the student must be willing to (1) trust the doctor knows what he’s talking about, (2) be keen to learn, (3) share the idioms of language and images and model of the brain, and (4) engage with a tradition of testing and sharing ideas about the brain from other medical experts throughout history.
Learning therefore takes place within an ecosystem of expanding network of knowledge communities.