Clerestory

Dry November: Day 7

November 07, 2019

After a week without alcohol, I feel healthier and more content, more intellectually engaged. But as I said the other day I feel less social, and I’ve skipped a few writing meetups to think more.

Yesterday I read Michael Polanyi’s Republic of Science (1962, PDF), and could make neither heads nor tails of it. At first it seems he’s taking a Hayek line, arguing that scientific research operates according to market principles that ought not to be interfered with, but then he half-disavows that, and concludes somewhere in the territory of Isaiah Berlin’s positive liberty. I.e., that people need to self-actualise unidirectionally.

Surprisingly, he seems to think that individual agents working on their own independent “self-improvement” will lead to both the progress of science, and to a better society. Modernity (implied to be an absence of religion) will lead to an unmanaged tradition of science — much like a literary canon.

He goes on to describe an almost medieval guild-like system of master/apprentice relationships, which as a side effect produces a kind of spontaneous “scientific authority.” This authority is formed of a consensus, that will lead the progress of science in a totally unknown (possibly unknowable) direction. And yet he seems quite confident that wherever it leads will be good?

Though he never quite says it, he implies that the pursuit of science, unfettered by human meddling, will result in something like Von Neumann’s (wisely vague) singularity. In that sense, at times it sounds almost religious. I definitely agree with some parts of the argument and disagree with others, but as a whole I can’t quite decide whether I recommend reading it or not.


I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.