Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What Is Truth? Michael Polanyi on Truth and Fruitfulness

Michael Polanyi
"But the long controversy between the two views shows also that this distinction is as difficult as it is vital. The difficulty is merely covered up by suggesting that a true discovery is characterized by its fruitfulness, which a purely formal advance lacks. You cannot define the indeterminate veridical powers of truth in terms of fruitfulness, unless ‘frutiful’ is itself qualified in terms of the definiendum. The Ptolemaic system was a fruitful source of error for one thousand years; astrology has been a fruitful source of income to astrologers for two thousand five hundred years; Marxism is today a fruitful source of power for the rulers of one third of mankind. When we say that Copernicanism was fruitful, we mean that it was fruitful source of truth, and we cannot distinguish its kind of fruitfulness from that of Ptolemaic system, or of astrology, or Marxism, except by such a qualification. To use the word ‘fruitful’ in this sense, without acknowledging it, is a deceptive substitution, a pseudosubstitution, a Laplacean sleight of hand.” (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Kindle 3211.)

Polanyi distinguishes between “truth” and “fruitfulness” for scientific discovery. Some theories are fruitful and are later proven to be untrue under other circumstances (like Newtonian physics). Just because a theory has predictive power under some circumstances, doesn’t mean that it is true.

I’ve often heard it argued that the biblical narratives are “true” in the sense that they produce results in people (religious identity, inspiration, ethical example). But I agree with Polanyi that this is more appropriately called “fruitful.” Yes, the biblical stories give us religious identity, inspiration, and ethical examples, but this in itself does not make them “true.” To be true means to correspond to reality.

What do you think? Can a story like the Exodus or the resurrection of Jesus still be “true” if it never happened in actual history? What do we mean when we say that a story is true?  

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