Front Page Titles (by Subject) Polanyi, Hierarchy & Reductionism - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1981, vol. 4, No. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Polanyi, Hierarchy & Reductionism - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1981, vol. 4, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Polanyi, Hierarchy & Reductionism
“Polanyi's Notion of Hierarchy.” Religious Studies 16(March 1980):97–102.
Michael Polanyi is associated with the view that, through “tacit knowledge” of lower levels of reality, we can come to know something of higher levels—even, possibly, of God, the highest level of all. In Prof. Olding's view, Polanyi's argument for such a hierarchy of being is confused and illicitly mixes ontological and methodological claims.
Against the reductionists Polanyi has argued that biology is not reducible to biochemistry. While reductionists assert that growth and heredity are determined by the sequence of DNA molecules, Polanyi holds that what allows DNA to do its work is not its chemistry but the order of bases along the DNA chain. Since the laws of physics and chemistry hold universally, they would be entirely unaffected by the particular linear sequence that characterizes the triplet code. Any order is possible physico-chemically; therefore physics and chemistry cannot specify which order will in fact succeed in functioning as a DNA code.
Prof. Olding finds this argument fallacious. The laws of nature allow for any linera sequence only when a set of initial conditions is not specified. Once these have been identified, the order of molecules is no longer arranged randomly.
The notion of hierarchy in Polanyi's conception of nature stems from his view that the DNA molecule functions both as a blueprint and as an engineer which somehow constructs the living organism. Polanyi has likened organisms to machines and has argued that, even dealing with ordinary machines such as clocks, we cannot give a reductive account of mechanical activity. This is because a machine “works under two distinct principles. The higher one is the principle of the machine's design, and this ‘harnesses' the lower one, which consists in the physical-chemical processes on which the machine relies.”
At most, this is a misleading metaphor. Polanyi himself admits that “this harness is not unbreakable; the structure of the machine, and thus its working, can break down. But this,” he says, “will not affect the forces of inanimate nature on which the operation of the machine relied.” If one thinks of the machine in this way, then its structure clearly does not harness its matter as a rider harnesses a horse. There is no question here of higher and lower “principles” and, therefore, no threat to the reductionist position.
To assert the existence of different levels of principles is to invite a criticism dubbed the “two-worlds argument” by John Passmore. The argument states that once two ontological levels and two distinct kinds of being are distinguished, then there is no way that they can interact once two ontological levels and two distinct kinds of beings are distinguished, then there is no way that they can interact once again without contradiction. Polanyi, seemingly aware of this objection asserts that lower order principles are “open” to the higher or that higher powers may “emerge” from the lower. Such statements merely reduce to the notion that the matter of machines has both the character of X and non-X. Entitles and hierarchies, claims Olding, must exist on one ontological level.