The Thinking Poet


The Natural & The Divine Order 1998


In this essay I shall attempt to outline some of the ideas held in common by the philosophers Michael Polanyi (1), W T Stace (2), and Susanne K Langer (3). These three all seek to allow both the discursive and the intuitive as vital modes of human awareness. I shall draw on their writings in both précis form and direct quotations to illustrate these ideas.

 Tacit Knowledge

Polanyi attributes man's intellectual superiority in the animal kingdom to his ability to represent experience in terms of manageable symbols. Animals are limited, (to quote his phrase), to "bare unaided memory". Man is aided by the power of systematization of symbols through language, and to a lesser extent through mathematical symbols.

 Polanyi cites Wittgenstein's aphorism: "Of what cannot be said" - i.e. said exactly, as a sentence in natural science - "thereof one must be silent"; but he goes on to observe that, strictly speaking, nothing that we know can be said precisely. What is termed "ineffable" may simply be something that I know but can express only vaguely. Though I cannot say clearly how I ride a bicycle this does not prevent me from saying that I know how to ride a bicycle. When we acquire a skill, whether muscular or intellectual, we achieve an understanding which we cannot put into words. This is what Polanyi calls "existential meaning". What I understand in this manner has a meaning for me, and it has this meaning in itself, and not as a sign has a meaning when denoting an object. In sign-learning an animal, (e.g. Pavlov's dog) is taught to expect an event by recognising a signal foretelling the event. Susanne K Langer offers a useful way to differentiate between a signal and a symbol:

 * a SIGNAL is comprehended if it serves to make us notice the object or situation it bespeaks.

 * a SYMBOL is understood when we conceive the idea it presents."    

 Ineffable knowledge is expressed only inadequately. It is tacitly known, says Polanyi, just as we know the meaning of a letter recently received, though not its precise content. All our knowledge is tacit in character; we remain ever unable to say all that we know.

 Two modes of human awareness

Two modes of human awareness can be described as follows:-

1) Discursive / analytical, in which we behave as detached observers of our environment; weighing and measuring.

2) Intuitive / contemplative, in which we behave as participating observers.

 Polanyi presents the idea that the conceptual framework by which we observe and manipulate things acts like a screen between ourselves and the sensed object.

The screen keeps us aloof from it.

 Intuition is felt as an irreducible fact of life. Only in the things in which I dwell will I have insights. Contemplation is that state which invites intuition. Contemplation dissolves the screen. We cease to handle things and instead become immersed in them. We become absorbed in the inherent quality of our experience for its own sake. Contemplation is the opposite of objective observation which is detached.

The religious mystic and the absorbed poet achieve contemplative communion.They seek to relax intellectual control. Both artistic creation and artistic appreciation are, first and foremost, contemplative experiences. Art attempts to break through the screen of objectivity and, just as a newborn child experiences the world without being able to control it intellectually, so the artist draws upon pre-conceptual vision.

In the last three or four centuries there has been a gradual erosion of the value of one of mind's cognitive faculties, i.e. intuition. Religious belief has become discredited. It is reduced to a status of subjectivity: to that of an imperfection by which knowledge falls short of universality. For knowledge to be universally accepted therefore we must become detached observers of an objective word in which there is no lurking doubt.                                                                                               

The nature of religion

Faith has been described as a passionate commitment to an uncertainty. Polanyi quotes the theologian Paul Tillich as saying: "Faith embraces itself and the doubt about itself."

It is the practice of science that has raised expectations of certainty: the certainty of fact that can for instance predict an eclipse precisely. Gradually we have been seduced into a state of mind that respects fact and predictability, and which contrariwise suspects uncertainty. Knowledge has been elevated to the status of that which has impeccable rational credentials, i.e. that which is amenable to universal demonstration and proof. We have come to think of truth as propositional. Uncertainty is suspect, particularly when it is blended with passion!

Polanyi describes the Christian faith as a passionate heuristic impulse which has no prospect of consummation. The heuristic impulse is never without a sense of its possible inadequacy, and what it lacks in absolute assurance may be described as its inherent doubt. A sense of its own imperfection is essential to a religious faith. The attraction of science is that it appears to offer some sense of certainty. But science doesn't enable one to apprehend life. Life requires decisions, not hypotheses. Central to existential thinking is the belief that we must make decisions without assurance of knowing we are right. Anxiety is inescapable.

Can rational thought adequately satisfy our search for meaning in life? Polanyi believed that it could not. Science, he believed, usurps the role of meaning. There is a way of knowing in which we become absorbed in our experience itself. In the contemplative state of indwelling we discover the essence of things. Polanyi refers to religion as an indwelling rather than an affirmation. W.T.Stace supports this conviction when he says: "Western, solely rational man does not see that the essence of religion lies in religious experience, and not in any belief at all, and that all so-called religious beliefs or doctrines are merely theories about the religious experience." 

God is beyond observation, rather, he is the source of meaning that we derive from observation. God does not exist as a fact but as an experience that prompts worship and service; service, in the sense that an artist should serve his art, not impose his will upon it. Worship in the sense that an artist must love the object of his creative endeavour.

Statements of fact and accreditive statements.

Statements serve two different purposes. Susanne Langer observes that the most immediate experiences in our lives pass unrecorded because they are known without any symbolic mediation, and therefore without conceptual form.She goes on to say that philosophers of science and mathematics have drawn a great black line between propositional language used to state facts as unequivocally and literally as possible, and all other kinds of "emotive" and immediate expression.

The philosopher Rudolf Carnap refers to the supposititious sentences of metaphysics as pseudo-sentences. They have, he says, no logical (meaning "conceptual") content, but are only expressions of feeling which in their turn stimulate feelings and volitional tendencies on the part of the hearer.

The phrase: "are only expressions of feeling", has, I suspect, been taken in a dismissive sense by many. Certainly the tradition of linguistic philosophy in this century has tended to denigrate any use of language other than the propositional.

W.T.Stace attempts to rectify this blinkered view of the use of words. God is ineffable and nameless because no concept can grasp him. Any statement of the form "God is x", is false. But this does not mean we should abandon language. The idea of "the positive divine" expresses the fact that in spite of this, i.e. that all words we use, if appropriate words are chosen, evoke in us some intuition of the divine nature.

Michael Polanyi argues similarly: the words "God exists" are not a statement of fact, such as "Snow is white", but an accreditive statement, such as `"Snow is white" is true'. the latter sentence stands for an a-critical act of assertion made by the speaker. It is not a descriptive sentence and cannot be the subject of explicit doubt, i.e. the subject of logical analysis.

Stace attempts to clarify the use of symbolism as follows:-

Scientific propositions are, or are intended to be, literally true.

Religious propositions are symbolically true.

In non-religious symbolism a proposition must be translatable into a literal proposition. (Example: The number of positively charged particles in the universe is equal to the number of negatively charged particles.)

In religious symbolism this is impossible, because any literal proposition about God would involve the conceptualization of that which is above all conceptions. But religious symbolism is not on this account mere metaphor, because that which is symbolized is not a proposition about God but the direct apprehension of his presence in religious or mystical intuition.

System circularity.

Polanyi draws our attention to the exclusivity of science as a closed system: the all-embracing interpretive powers of a conceptual framework are regarded as evidence of its truth so long as we have faith in it. The power of a system of implicit beliefs to defeat valid objections one by one is due to the circularity of such systems. The whole thing hangs together because all the concepts are interdependent. He gives an example of circularity in terms of language. Has a particular English word any meaning in English? An English dictionary dispels any doubt by giving a definition using other words, the meaning of which is not doubted.

The circularity of a conceptual system tends to reinforce itself by every contact with a fresh topic. Science is a cumulative conceptual system. Concepts are integrated into a framework of existing concepts. Thus a body of knowledge grows by which "a truth" (the truth?) is established. That which may not be conceptualized is automatically excluded from such a system.

The Natural and Divine order

Stace refers to the conceptual framework within which the scientific enterprise is conducted as the natural order. To summarize his thesis: discursive thought, the exercise of logical intellect, operates within it. The natural order is the totality of all things which stand to each other in the one systematic network of relationships which is the universe of physical/chemical law, the periodic table, etc. No inference can ever carry one from anything in the natural order to anything outside it. Starting from a natural fact, my inferential process can only end in another fact. No compromise is possible between the natural order and the divine order of religious symbolism. For instance, a postulated "first-cause", because it is a cause, becomes a fact in the natural order. The singularity referred to as the "big bang" if regarded as a first-cause can do no more than indicate an interface with another order.

The divine order is therefore unknowable to the logical intellect. This is the conclusion of Kant _ the principle of the negative divine. But to make God completely unknowable is to make an end of religion; the opposite of Kant's intention. There is a way, Stace says, by which God may be known other than by the logical intellect. This is religious intuition which Kant fails to include in his system.

Faith and reason

Following Stace's line of thought, God is known by revelation in intuitive experience, or not at all. What then is the relation between faith and reason? Faith does not mean blindly believing propositions for which there is no evidence or which are contrary to the evidence. To discover God is the function of faith through intuition. Reason interprets to the intellect the discoveries of faith. It does this by means of symbolic propositions which are mutually consistent, and fall into an ordered system. Within the divine order, faith originates truths; reason interprets them.

Polanyi speaks too of a specifically Christian framework of imagery within which theology has an important analytic task, i.e. that of helping practising Christians understand better what they are practising. But he hastens to add that theology is of secondary importance. It can only support an existing faith through analogy and metaphor. It can only, therefore, assist the converted. It has no powers of persuasion amongst unbelievers.

Whereas paradox can be accommodated by the believer within the divine order [example: the parable of "the workers in the vineyard"], to the unbeliever paradox is irrational and incomprehensible.

Miracles too can be accommodated within a spiritual structure simply because the spiritual is an acceptance of the supernatural.It is illogical to attempt the proof of the supernatural by natural tests, for these can only establish the natural aspects of an event and can never represent it as supernatural.

The two systems

From the point of view of the natural order, the divine order is an illusion, and vice versa.

Both are closed systems, each demanding its respective faith and symbolic usage.

The two systems do not contradict one another; they are two different  media of expression. Each employs its own language in which the symbolism is different, one from the other.

To sum up: there is a differentiation of symbols; those used in discursive thought, and those pertaining to intuition.

Non-religious symbolic propositions can be translated into literal propositions. The relation between the symbol and the symbolizandum is one of meaning. Intuition is non-conceptual. A religious proposition stands for direct experience, not a literal proposition.

The relation between the symbol and the symbolizandum is that of evocation . God is directly apprehended by virtue of the symbol, and not merely understood indirectly through the symbol. The symbolic proposition about God, therefore, does not stand for another proposition - a literal one - about God. It stands for and represents the mystical experience itself. This experience, thus symbolized, is actually present in the mind in the form of an intuition, though not in the form of a conceptualizable representation.


1) I can never start from the natural order to prove the divine order. [example: the failure of "proofs" of God's existence, e.g. "by design"].

2) We should never seek to defend religious truth by making it an exception to the natural order. [example: justification of religion by virtue of miracles].

3) The divine order is not a part of the natural order. God is not a "fact", "thing", "object", or "existence" [hence the theological notion of God transcending the natural order yet being immanent in it].  

4) The proof of the divine order must lie, somehow, within itself. It must be its own witness. For it, like the natural order, is complete in itself. [reference to the "circularity of systems"].

5) God can never be proved or disproved by arguments based on premises taken from natural facts [example: the attempt to disprove God by virtue of the existence of pain and evil in the world].

6) God is known only by intuition, not by the logical intellect. Faith, the passionate commitment to an uncertainty, results from directly felt experience attended by a conviction that intellectual assurance is rendered unnecessary since irrelevant.

 JUNE 1998