Saturday, April 18, 2020

Hermes: Covid-19 and Power

In my last post, I began writing my way through Harari and Bell's introduction to Serres. I listed the premise and 5 core theorems that they glean from decades of Serres' writings, and I applied, way too briefly, the epistemological issues of Theorem 1 to our current struggle with Covid-19. My takeaway at the moment is that world knowledge is a ragged patchwork of different knowledge systems and points of view, sometimes overlapping and sometimes totally disconnected, and each vying to position itself as the dominant system. Each wants to be the one, true theory of everything, if not for everyone, then for at least one subset of beings. Trying to understand something as complex as Covid-19 requires access to all these knowledge domains, a Herculean task, but necessary for, as Serres says it, "any encyclopedia that omits any of the multiple dimensions of knowledge is a false encyclopedia at the very moment of its realization" (xvi).

I accept up front that no encyclopedic knowledge exists, certainly not within the mind of any one human such as I. Such knowledge requires God, and I don't have access to that encyclopedia, though I know people who believe that they do. Anyway, given that I must make decisions about Covid-19, then the more knowledge domains that I can bring to bear on my decisions, the better. I know that I tend to privilege some knowledge domains over others — in the case of Covid-19, I favor scientific and technological domains in general and epidemiology in particular — but all domains hold some actionable knowledge that may be of benefit. In short, I accept the truism that the more I know, then the better decisions I can make. I also accept that I will never know enough to make decisions with absolute certainty. Complexity does not allow certainty, only probability. Probability is woven into reality somehow. Harari and Bell summarize it this way, quoting Serres' collection of essays in Hermes V:
"To see on a large scale, to be in full possession of a multiple, and sometimes connected intellection" means to understand that the foundation of knowledge presupposes neither one philosophical discourse nor one scientific discourse, but only regional epistemologies. (xiv)
Regional epistemologies leaves us with something of a social and political mess: we have multiple, local ways of knowing that have competing rules and stories, and as they develop and assert themselves, they inevitably come into conflict with other local ways of knowing, many, if not most, claiming to be the one, true theory of everything. Any one, true theory of everything — whether religious, social, political, or scientific — has great difficulty tolerating opposing theories, which are, from their points of view, at best wrong and at worst threatening. Threats must be subjugated or destroyed.

This brings me to Theorems 2 and 3 of Harari and Bell:
  • Theorem 2: Any theoretical exigency is inextricably linked to a moral or political exigency. (Theory always borders on terror -- something that has always been known in academic circles that engage exclusively in theory.) From this follow two corollaries: (xvii)
    • 2.1: A philosophy is not purely and simply the result of a free choice ; it always results from a double necessity, theoretical on the one hand, moral and political on the other hand. (xvii)
    • 2.2: The theory of science is akin to the theory of domination. Knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is always finalized by political practice : "To know is to engage in a practice implicated in the ideology of command and obedience." (xvii)
  • Theorem 3: There is no hierarchy of cultural formations. "It is not, it has never been the case that science is on one side and myth on the other. In a given myth, millennial tradition, or barbarous thought, the proportion of relevant science is probably as great as the proportion of mythology that envelops any given science." From which one may draw the following corollaries: (xix)
    • 3. 1: Science is a cultural formation equivalent to any other. Thus one passes from the cultural formation called "science" to any and all cultural formations. (xix)
    • 3.2: There is no "natural" hierarchy within the sciences. At any given moment, one scientific discourse may fall silent to give another scientific discourse or mythology a chance to speak. (xx)
Whatever belief or knowledge system we hold -- and I hold belief and knowledge to be similar concepts, as Serres helps me explain in Theorem 3 -- our tendency is to champion our own system and to disparage or destroy through assimilation, argument, law, and violence other systems. We find it very difficult to say, "Well, this is true for me, and my next door neighbors are free to believe as they wish." We want to surround ourselves with like-minded and remove those who are different. Moreover, those who hold to a one, true theory of everything tend to regard opposing theories as imminent threats to be ignored at best or forcefully opposed.

Even if we are liberal-minded enough or confident enough in our own systems to be willing to engage, understand, and co-exist with other systems, times of great stress which force a public decision can reveal fault lines among different knowledge systems. Covid-19 has done this.

Different epistemologies lead different people and groups to formulate different responses for this pandemic — everything from doing nothing to total isolation until we have a cure and vaccine. For instance, if you see Covid-19 as a judgement by God on a wicked people, then you will have a very different response to the pandemic than if you see Covid-19 as a naturally occurring and overly aggressive pathogen, or as a conspiracy by the Chinese to attack the United States, or as an economic issue that threatens to disrupt the world's leading economy. All of these different responses play out from very different knowledge systems, and I can see these different responses playing out around the world, though most modern countries do not seem to be as conflicted as the United States, but that may be because I do not see those other countries as well as I see the US.

The genuine need to respond to an existential threat forces people to make choices, usually based on their view of the world. For instance, if you think that personal power and economic health trump all other considerations, then you will make one set of choices. If you think, on the other hand, that a scientific approach to public health is primary, then you will make different choices. Some of those choices may overlap, but many won't, and those that don't will make plain the different knowledge systems among people.

Unfortunately, and especially in a time of crisis such as we face with Covid-19, people must make decisions and take action. Those individuals and groups with the most power will make decisions for themselves and others, and it will be painfully obvious that "any theoretical exigency is inextricably linked to a moral or political exigency." If people are of a like mind — if they share a common knowledge system — then these decisions by leaders can match the group well (Note that I'm not saying that the decisions will be correct, only that they will fit the group well). However, in a pluralistic society such as the US and many western countries, where people adhere to very different knowledge systems, coherent decision-making and action becomes problematic. Even if everyone is acting in good faith, conflicts will emerge among the differing world views. To prevent chaos and to enable action, coherence and adherence will be enforced by whoever has the most power, but not everyone will like it, and for many, decisions made and actions taken — or not taken — will appear wrong-headed and counterproductive, even disastrous.

This is where I am and where I think many in America are. Some of us believe that the decisions and actions of the Trump administration have been disastrous and wrong-headed, some of us don't. Some of us think the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, has been too stringent in her stay-at-home orders, and some of us think she has not gone far enough. My 89-year-old father believes that my 87-year-old mother's nursing home is being grossly unreasonable in stopping him from visiting his wife of seventy years. Never mind that he has been basically free-range during the pandemic, in part because he still mostly believes that the pandemic is being over-played by the Democrats as a devious attempt to undermine the Trump presidency. His behavior and mindset do not match mine.

Needless to say, I find it difficult to discuss Covid-19 with my father and to agree on a public course of action.  I present my scientific facts, which he largely dismisses, he presents his conspiracy facts, which I largely dismiss, and we get nowhere. It is, of course, incredibly easy for us both to dismiss the other as unreasonable, and here's the rub, from our different "regional epistemologies", from our different little islands of understanding, the other is unreasonable. We don't see the same facts, and what common facts we do share, we don't arrange the same way. Our epistemologies work in different ways to create different world views. We both look in the sky and see different constellations. We are both genuinely confused and annoyed that the other cannot see our constellations.

Moreover, Serres claims that there is "no hierarchy of cultural formations." Rather, "Science is a cultural formation equivalent to any other", and indeed, there is "no 'natural' hierarchy within the sciences. At any given moment, one scientific discourse may fall silent to give another scientific discourse or mythology a chance to speak." If I believe this, then I cannot claim any natural or inherent superiority of my scientific point of view over my father's conspiracy point of view. I probably shouldn't even use the pejorative term conspiracy to label his point of view, though that is what it seems to me. Dad's constellations are equivalent to my constellations, mine to his, and we have both believed our own constellations for so long that they seem natural and self-evident.

Well, I seem to have gotten myself into quite a relativistic muddle here, and with power thrown into the mix, I can see great potential for struggle and injury on all sides, just as I see in the daily news. Is there a way out for me? I think so, but this post is long already, so I will write about telling Covid-19 stories tomorrow.

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