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In Personal Knowledge chapter 11 Polanyi elaborates his critique of the "physico-chemical investigations of a machine" by carefully dividing reasons and causes as types of explanations:

Since rules of rightness cannot account for failures, and reasons for doing something can only be given within the context of rules of rightness, it follows that there can be no reasons (int this sense) for a context and to describe the origins of failures invariably as their causes. We can say then that physico-chemical investigations of a machine, carried out with a bearing on its operational principles, can elucidate both the conditions for their success and the causes of their failure. It would be wrong to speak of establishing the physical and chemical 'causes' of success, for the success of a machine is defined by its operational principles, which are not specifiable in physico-chemical terms. If a stratagem succeeds, it does so in accordance with its own premeditated internal reasons; if it fails, this is due to unforeseen external causes.

(Personal Knowledge, 1962, p.349; emphasize mine)

This is preceded by:

We have a solid tangible inanimate object before us... Then let a team of physicists and chemists inspect the object... They will describe the clock precisely in every particular, and in addition, will predict all its possible future configurations. Yet they will never be able to tell us that it is a clock... no physical or chemical observations of clocks will be of any use to a clockmaker, unless such observations are related to the operational principles of a clock, as conditions for their success or causes of their breakdown... Some physical and chemical characteristics of a machine... will be of interest in themselves on certain occasions... But this is about as much as the scientific study of a machine can achieve when pursued in itself, without reference to the principles by which the machine performs its purpose.

(Personal Knowledge, 1962, p.347-348; again emphasize mine)


So basically the gist of Polanyi's criticism is, by invoking the 'rules of rightness', that physical and chemical inquiry cannot account for the 'rightness' (success or failure) of the operation of the machine, but only to the rightness of its intrinsic functions.

But if we, sticking to his clock example, take all the rules of the intrinsic functions of the clock, can we not deduce that if the large hand moves every minute, that function shows us the passing of minutes? Perhaps we won't call this machinery "clock", but simply describe it by its functions "that which tells us the passing of time" (or even simpler "the passing of minutes and hours"). How, then, can we say that the physical investigation cannot account for the operation of the machine? Does Polanyi (if so then bizarrely) disregard the use of logic (even as simple as inference) in these investigations?

Or did I misunderstood Polanyi's reasoning?

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    I think his argument is valid in that one can not extract teleology out of natural causes, but it is not an argument against physicalism as typically understood. Physicalists themselves happily disclaim teleology as an anthropomorphic manner of speaking, and nature for them does not care what is or is not "of any use to a clockmaker" or what counts as "success". It could, perhaps, be construed as an ethical argument about limitations of natural science. – Conifold Aug 14 at 21:51
  • @Conifold I indeed had difficulty defining in proper terms what he's going out against here. It's in a certain way the physicalist' common premise of reductionism, I presume, and the alleged success of explaining life (if we're expanding it to arguments presented later on in his book) according to the reduction to physico-chemical explanation. But in response to what you say about teleology - even if nature does not care for "the use of x", it wouldn't prevent them from claiming that they can deduce from their investigation what the use of x is. – Yechiam Weiss Aug 15 at 13:14
  • I do not think this is what "reductionism" means, it looks to me like he is pretty much granting the premise of reductionism with "describe the clock precisely in every particular, and in addition, will predict all its possible future configurations" based on physics and chemistry, i.e. by reducing clock to them. Purposes can, of course, be added by hand, and means-end reasoning then performed, but perhaps his point is that adding them goes beyond naturalistic explanations. Peirce makes a somewhat similar point in his semiotic, I think. – Conifold Aug 16 at 4:09
  • @Conifold yeah reductionism is also not the proper term. Perhaps emergent explanation? So as to claim that physico-chemical explanation would naturally, inherently explain not just the mechanism but the reason/purpose behind it, would be false by Polanyi, right? And so again, I do not fully understand why is that true (I understand the claim, I do not understand how it's not self-refuting). – Yechiam Weiss Aug 16 at 17:22
  • Let me try to understand your objection. How can we take into account "rules of the intrinsic functions" naturalistically? Where would the functions or purposes come from in the first place if all nature does is follow causes? Short has an interesting discussion in Teleology in Nature of how such questions can be answered using something like evolutionary tendencies, but they are vulnerable to the objection that such "functions" cannot account for failures. His proposal is that some naturalistic explanations are not mechanistic/causal. – Conifold Aug 16 at 18:18
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Polanyi appears to be arguing several points:

  • Purpose, teleology, has to be in the intention of a builder, and is discerned in the mind of an observer, it is never intrinsic to an object.
  • The logic of a design or mechanism -- how it is constructed to operate and interact with itself and the world, its "operational principles", are a logic or informational feature (IE non-material) that also is not intrinsic to the material of the design or mechanism.
  • "Causes of Success" or failure, are likewise non-material, and are tied to the "operational principles", and "external causes"

Polanyi appears to be arguing a valid point, but does so very unclearly, as it appears he himself is confused about what he is saying.

Purposes, teleology, are abstract objects. They have no mass, nor location, and can exist in between periods of apprehension and consideration by consciousness. Design logic, the "operational principles", are once more abstractions, and again have no mass, location, nor fixed time. Whether something has "success" or "failure" is a judgement call, and has to reference teleology, and the specifics of a situation, and therefore is significantly dependent on abstractions. Causation itself, has neither mass nor location, nor is ti limited in time.

These abstractions that an investigation of a machine must make use of -- are not plausibly material, and serve as a refutation of materialism. This is a valid point, which Polanyi seems to be reaching for, but does not clearly articulate.

They do NOT establish that MINDS are non-material. Hence, they are not actually a valid critique of a physicalist view of mind.

Polanyi is also incorrect in at least one aspect of the third bullet above -- physical investigations of mechanisms, to figure out why they are not operating properly, is a central feature of all mechanical design projects, is a key skill for every repair project, and is the central activity that most medicine consists of. These activities, like almost all in the physical world, rely absolutely upon all sorts of abstract phenomenon, such as causation, purpose, success/failure criteria, etc. This reliance is so intrinsic to pretty much every physical object or physical process, that most of us do not even think about it. But this process IS basically physical PLUS abstract, as opposed to NOT being physical as Polyani asserts.

The philosophers who most clearly articulate that abstractions are non-physical, and thus break the assumptions behind physicalism, would be Frege, Quine, and Popper. Frege and Popper also note thought has no mass nor location, hence is also non-material, ans assert a pluralist ontology as the only way to address this irreducibiltiy between three types of things in our world. All three make the abstraction objection to materialism far more clearly than Polyani does, and do not confuse it with the experience/qualia objection.

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