Toward Heuristic Conversation


Heuristic power is the capacity of a person or an idea or a text or an object to point us to possibilities and inspire us to discovery and conversation and relationship.

Four Articles

Recently a friend posted links to four articles to bolster an argument being made during a Facebook discussion.  Two of the articles were old news and I only glanced at the first sentences of each before setting them aside.  The third was an old topic but it had fresh information and some interesting photos, so I read through it quickly.  The fourth was a critique of American evangelicalism and its first pages were sprinkled with enough emotionally charged words to make me think that it would be another one-sided diatribe of little value.  However, it seemed to have an historical orientation and I read on, hoping to learn something.  As it turns out, my hopes were realized; I found the article enlightening and worth reading carefully.

Some time later, I thought back to my experience and began to ponder why I had such different responses to these four articles.  What was it that drew me to the third and fourth articles that was not present in the first and second?  In a world saturated with news and academic studies and advertisements and personal contacts, what is it that prompts us to choose some things and not others and to enjoy some things and not others?  I would like to suggest that one answer is something called “heuristic power.”

Discovering Heuristic

I first recall the word “heuristic” from dabbling in computer programming.  There it means a rule or set of rules that act as a short-cut for problem solving.  At that point in life, I was more focused on practice than theory, so the meaning of a single word was relatively inconsequential.  Nevertheless, my impression was that a heuristic was a programming sub-routine or function that allowed one to more easily complete a task without having to begin “from scratch.”

My second encounter with “heuristic” was in the philosophy of Michael Polanyi who employed the term extensively in his magnum opus, Personal Knowledge[1].  Despite its prevalence, for some time I did not focus attention on its meaning.  Only when I attempted to understand why the example of Copernicus was so important to Polanyi did I also turn my attention to understanding what heuristic means.

For Polanyi, the importance of the “Copernican Revolution” was not its accuracy (Kepler showed that planetary orbits were elliptical, not circular as Copernicus thought) nor its predictive capacity (the Ptolemaic system was just as effective at predicting planetary motion).  Rather, its importance was its anticipatory and heuristic powers.  By imagining the solar system in a different way, Copernicus planted a seed in the minds of subsequent scientists like Galileo and Kepler and Newton that prompted them to explore new possibilities.  Their discoveries, in turn, prompted future scientists (like Einstein) to also imagine alternative ways of seeing the world[2].

George Polya, a fellow Hungarian and friend of Polanyi, helped me to bridge my two understandings of heuristic.  Polya’s How to Solve It[3] is a popular text in the study of mathematics and computer science and defines “heuristic” as a branch of study focused on “the methods and rules of discovery and invention.”[4]  “Heuristic,” as an adjective, means “serving to discover” and “heuristic reasoning” is “reasoning not regarded as final and strict but as provisional and plausible only, whose purpose is to discover the solution of the present problem.”[5]

Examples of Heuristic

Heuristic reasoning, then, is provisional reasoning that helps one solve a problem by pointing to possibilities and by triggering the imagination.

In computer programming, a heuristic can be understood as a quick-and-dirty solution to an incidental or intermediary problem that allows one to keep focused on the larger picture without becoming bogged down in the immediate.  It acts provisionally to point to the possibilities of, and leaves the imagination free to focus on, discovery of the complete solution.

In Polanyi’s description of the Copernican Revolution, the heuristic power of the Copernican system was its ability to anticipate and point to possibilities that triggered the imagination of his scientific heirs.  Polanyi also wrote much about “logical gaps” that had to be leapt, and it is easy to imagine that the heuristic power of an idea or a theory or an article can be roughly measured by the size of the logical gaps it permits one to leap.

In How to Solve It, Polya describes a clear process for solving problems that includes the explicit definition of the problem and a plan for solving it.  However, successful problem solving is not based on unchanging methods and absolute facts but on a heuristic process that points to a solution that must be discovered, rather than defined.

“Heuristic reasoning is good in itself,” wrote Polya.  “What is bad is to mix up heuristic reasoning with rigorous proof.  What is worse is to sell heuristic reasoning for rigorous proof.”[6]

Heuristic Conversation

When I read or write, whether for public or private consumption, my desire is to read or write content with heuristic power.

The goal of my reading is to spur my imagination, toward an ever deeper understanding of reality and truth.  I hope to gather new clues that point somewhere.  I am not much interested in “facts” because facts have no heuristic power.  Only as clues do they energize and excite me.

In the same way, the goal of my writing is to spur the imagination of others, for it is only when others are prompted to also seek out a deeper understanding of reality and truth that a conversation is born.  When I declare my beliefs as fixed, unchangeable facts, I rob them of their heuristic power and undermine the development of relationships.

“Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord[7].  God, himself, enjoins us to enter into conversation, to speak and to listen heuristically and to seek out a relationship with the one who speaks the world into existence each moment of each day.

Heuristic conversation is a key to deepening relationship.  When I read or write, whether for public or private consumption, my ultimate goal is the deepening of relationships.

Four Articles Revisited

The four articles shared with me to bolster an argument were part of a conversation anchored in, but also helping to build, a relationship.  The first two lacked heuristic power; they added nothing to my storehouse of clues and did nothing to prompt my imagination.  The third had little informational value, but the photos prompted my curiosity and imagination.  Consequently, it had some heuristic power.  The fourth article, while initially appearing to state certain “facts” in the defense of absolute “truth,” turned out to have significant heuristic value.  Not only did it add clues to my collection, but it did so in a manner that prompted my imagination, leaving open the possibility of discovery and debate and (heuristic) conversation.

By pointing toward something else, heuristic writing encourages us to read and to engage in relational conversation. It provides us with new clues, triggers our imagination, and points us toward discovery.


[1] Polanyi, M. (1958/1962). Personal knowledge: Towards a post-critical philosophy.  Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press.

[2] Perhaps Polanyi’s best presentation of this argument can be found in “Science and Reality” from The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, XVIII, 1967, pp. 177-96 but also available in R. T. Allen (Ed.), Society, economics & philosophy: Selected papers Michael Polanyi (pp. 225-247). New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.

[3] Polya, G. (1945/1985). How to solve it. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

[4] Polya, p. 112

[5] Polya, p. 113

[6] Polya, p. 113

[7] Isaiah 1:18

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