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Intelligent Dasein
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Intelligent Dasein John Lyne "As human beings, we need to understand our position vis-à -vis the rest of nature, in ways that will permit us to recognize, and feel, that the world is our 'home.'" Stephen Toulmin, The Return to Cosmology Living a purposeful life within a nature that is both blind and accidental is something humankind has not had much experience with. We can always unearth some ancient Greek who had that intuition, but this is mainly a twentieth-century phenomenon. Neither Newton nor Jefferson knew anything of it, and if the polls are to believed, neither do most Americans. The pieties of old fit social understandings to the ways of a purposeful creation. Twentieth-century scientific pieties seem to require, in an about-face, that we affirm purposelessness as the ground both of the cosmos and the life within it. This abrupt shift must put great pressures on the old pieties. I am speaking of piety here in Kenneth Burke's sense, as the longing to conform to the sources of one's being. How can we be at home in a place so apparently unlike us? We continue to be uneasy about the wedge Darwin drove between science and the general culture. By and large it is the morally threatening specter of biological evolution that has given us the image of science versus religion. Physics, by contrast, has not in recent centuries run afoul of religion and in fact sometimes makes good use of theistic rhetoric. Parents rarely worry that their children will learn something in physics or chemistry class that countermands their own beliefs. And physics itself extends the occasional open hand. The gurus of contemporary physics, such as Hawking and Weinberg, speak of their quest to "read the mind of God" (even though one suspects this is less a theistic sentiment than a tactical ploy to put the reader in the proper state of awe before the throne of physics.) Physics's closest runin with religion is the Big Bang, and any alert theist can with little difficulty meet that challenge by pushing the question of origins one step further into regress. In any case, a cultural accommodation at this level is easier, because everything at issue John Lyne is Professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a past president of the American Association for the Rhetoric of Science and Technology. © Rhetoric & Public Affairs Vol. 1, No. 4,1998, pp. 579-585 ISSN 1094-8392 580 Rhetoric & Public Affairs seems (albeit deceptively) less related to our lives. Evolution, by contrast, speaks unflatteringly about our ancestors and confusingly about us. It gives us a biological home only by evicting our angel half. Behe hits the nail on the head in saying that narratives about origins have a way of working themselves into a social agenda. That is certainly the case with the narrative about the beginnings of life, just as it is with the narrative about the origins of the cosmos. The rhetoric of science at these outer edges of the knowable needs to be examined in light of this, not just to help us understand how truth is spoken to power on cosmic issues, but to illuminate how our positioning within the universe sets us up for very local dramas. Our cosmic myths, when functioning well, simultaneously satisfy our need to understand and our need to feel that things are as they should be, which is to say, natural. They undergird both our being and our knowing . They also lend themselves to strategic rhetorical deployment, which may or may not serve us well. When narratives of origin change, something is afoot. I share Dembski's suspicion of the evolutionary psychologists, who explain our social and moral lives with reference to suppositions about how our distant precursors got along in the world. Likewise for the gene-talkers who extrapolate a social code from the genetic code. It should give us pause that such discourse moves so easily along the tracks of a currently dominant rhetoric of science. These moves entail powerful reconfigurations of who we (the long-term we) thought we were— as if piety and impiety had traded places...