Ran across this helpful quote from Walter R. Thorson of the Dept of Chemistry at the University of Alberta. He brought Polanyi’s thinking to bear on Hebrews 11:1: Good stuff.
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11: 1). Familiar as this verse is, we tend to let it roll smoothly off our tongues rather than think carefully about what it says, which at first seems either very surprising or else nonsensical. To retranslate: “Faith brings to substantial, actual realization things that are at first only hoped for; it creates a clear and convincing focus on things we cannot yet see.”
The first half of the sentence sounds perilously close to the view of some five year-olds that “if you believe in something hard enough it will come true,” and the second half sounds like “if you believe in something long enough, after awhile you will be quite sure about it.” We laugh at this-because we all know just how silly we should be to trust such naive maxims. Cheer up; the writer of the letter to the Hebrews is no five year-old. Yet I never really felt intellectually satisfied about this text until Michael Polanyi showed me what it really means by describing just how this principle functions as the dynamic element in scientific discovery (oddly enough, he never seems to have referred explicitly to this remarkably appropriate text.)
To make it clearer for all us academics, here is a third, technical rendering: “the indwelling of a true theory by persons responsibly committed to it leads functionally to the eventual manifestation and confirmation of realities which at first are only vaguely intimated, or but poorly perceived.” If you read Personal Knowledge, you will find a thoroughly fascinating account of precisely this remarkable phenomenon. I referred in an earlier talk to the story of the Copernican revolution, which illustrates the principle very well. For those who were committed to it, the Copernican hypothesis provided an integrating vision of the heavens; it was only within the framework of such commitment that previously unanticipated elements could be brought into clear focus, and the relevant activities conceived and sustained, which ultimately brought the truth of that vision to its full manifestation. For more than 150 years until Newton’s laws of motion were discovered-it could not be said convincingly that the factual evidence confirmed the Copernican, and refuted the Ptolemaic, view. Yet during that long period faith in the validity of the Copernican hypothesis sustained a chain of labors which finally vindicated it.
The point, of course-one to which the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is very sensitive-is that manifesting a hidden truth in hostile or indifferent circumstances is a laborious, time-consuming, and costly business, and one will not be able to sustain the effort required, unless he really is committed to a serious belief that the reality in question exists. In my own career as a theoretician I have experienced the validity of this principle in several specific problems, where belief in the existence of a certain type of solution to a physical or mathematical problem provoked imaginative responses or new insights, and sustained long periods of laborious and often fruitless search until at length one line of work ended in success. I am sure many others of you have also had similar experiences.
Of course, our Scripture text about faith takes it for granted that what is being believed in is true. It is certainly not saying (as the five-year-old does) that faith as such produces results, but that it is faith which sustains fruitful activities, when it is directed toward valid objects-and, without such faith, even a true theory remains barren and ineffectual. Again, it is partly for this reason that we must entertain of any serious theory that it is potentially true. In science, as in religion, I hope there is none among us who really believes that “to travel hopefully is better than to arrive;'” as C.S. Lewis acutely said, “If that were true, and were known to be true, who would ever start out upon a journey?”
It would be very fascinating if we had time to think a bit about spiritual and intellectual hope. According to our text, “things hoped for” are antecedent to faith, and perhaps we could infer they are in some manner stimulants to faith.
“Hope” in the New Testament does not mean wishful thinking, but a strong sense of anticipation of unheralded and certainly unspecifiable possibilities. Spiritual hope is not ultimately directed toward a seen object (“hope that is seen is not hope”); it is properly and ultimately hope in God.