Veiling: Necessary Uncertainty

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Key thought: uncertainty and mystery lie around corners, veiled.

Physicist Brian Greene, reflecting on the developments of modern physics, writes that “the overarching lesson . . . is that human experience is often a misleading guide to the true nature of reality” (5). If personal experience cannot often lead to truth and reality, what can?  Establishing credibility with his expertise in physics, Greene discredits his audience’s experience to defamiliarize reality, a move that raises epistemological questions: what is considered “true” and who decides? What information can be considered “knowledge”? Is there a “true nature of reality” at all (Greene 5)? 

The biological structures behind human perception limit possibilities for human experience. Humans cannot directly know the expanse of the cosmos or see molecules with the naked eye, so people rely on indirect methods, including language and images, to transmit and understand information. According to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, language and meaning operate through metaphors that interact with each other and stem from and respond to human experiences (120). For Lakoff and Johnson, all truth is relative to understanding, and understanding is relative to contexts (165). In other words, truth is personal and contextual (183). 

While Greene notes that experience does not necessarily lead to the truth of physics, he is careful to note that he does not have any “final assessments” either (6). Carlo Rovelli too emphasizes doubt and uncertainty, noting that quantum mechanics “remains shrouded in mystery and incomprehensibility” (Rovelli 14).

Mysteries abound, yet agreeing on a common set of facts allows people to navigate cooperatively through life. But with uncertainty and relativity at the heart of scientific thinking, science writers must make creative choices and rhetorical moves in order to situate the information appropriately for audiences (Bazerman 25).  A rhetorical analysis of metaphor, guided by ancient Western tradition and postmodern philosophies of language and epistemology, can prove fruitful for understanding writers' rhetorical moves and the meanings and truths they aim to convey.


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