Sunday, April 19, 2020

Hermes: Covid-19 and Story

So my last post left me in a relativistic muddle, unable to choose among competing localized epistemologies, or seemingly so. In their introduction to Serres, Harari and Bell say that Serres claims that all epistemologies are equivalent, but they do not quite define what they mean by equivalent, so I feel quite free to go off on my own to make sense of it for me. That's probably what I would have done anyway, even if they had provided a definition. I really do read to learn what I think, not so much to learn what others think. It's one of the things that makes me such a poor scholar.

Anyway, in what sense are localized epistemologies equivalent? Does this mean, for instance, that epidemiology as a system of knowing is equivalent to conspiracy theories about the Democrats undermining the Trump administration in terms of understanding and responding to Covid-19? I can think of some ways these two localized epistemologies are equivalent.

First, I think all our systems of knowing and believing are made up by us. We each create our own peculiarly localized epistemology. We each have a mind with an idiosyncratic set of affordances that enable us to perceive and understand the world and ourselves in an individual manner. We each sit at the center of our own worldview, and that view is as distinct as a fingerprint.

But just like a fingerprint, almost all of our minds are recognizable as human minds with contours, lines, and whorls that echo from mind to mind, print to print. We are at once both unique and similar, same but different. This is in large part because we do not create a worldview out of thin air. We are all born into amazingly rich physical and cultural environments with which we spend a lifetime exchanging energy, matter, information, and organization. This dynamic interaction with a physical and cultural environment is just as necessary for the development of a way of knowing as is the network of neurons in our brains and through our bodies. In fact, the environment may be more important than my nervous system — the physical and cultural environments can exist and function quite well without my individual mindset; however, my mindset cannot exist without the environment. Of course, the environment needs some minds — and apparently, the more and more varied, the better — but the scales of importance tip decidedly in favor of the group mind embodied in the Earth, just as my mind is embodied in my body. My mind/body must exchange with the Earth's mind/body, or it is stillborn.

So all epistemologies are created by each of us individually in our dances with groups of other people and with the Earth, and all of us create multiple ways of knowing. We have, of course, intellectual ways of knowing, but we also have physical ways — body-knowledge — emotional ways, spiritual ways, and so on. And each of these large domains of knowledge have multiple knowledges. Even the hard-headed, exacting sciences have multiple knowledges. Currently, physicists have 5 main string theories, and Brian Greene's book The Hidden Reality explores 9 different kinds of multiverses, and a whole host of other scientists believe that these theories are bunk. The truth is that all of us have multiple ways of knowing reality. We are not Mr. Spock, totally locked into one coherent, logical, and efficient system of knowing, though many of us want to cultivate that ideal. Perhaps amoeba have one system of knowledge, but we humans have multiple.

Saying that each cultural formation or knowledge system is equivalent to any other is not the same as saying that I can't believe any of them. I can believe, and I should. The entire process of maturation as an adult can be summed for me as a process of developing and practicing a range of localized epistemologies, belief systems, stories that allow me to interact with my environment in ways that sustain and enrich both myself and my environments — in some ways, the two are equivalent, certainly complementary: I am my environment. We are our environment. I need a story, or a constellation, to make sense of my journey with my environment.

Of course, like most of us, I was born into a group of stories and given a language, land, family, market, state, church, and school with and within which to speak and adapt those stories. For whatever reason, I was able — again, like many of us — to examine my inherited stories and to find some of them wanting. I've spent the rest of my life changing my stories, looking for a new constellation, and I've been fortunate enough to create a few new stories using many of the old stars but a few new ones and a slightly different contour. But I cannot fool myself, here: I'm still basically a Southeastern US Pentecostal Christian, and my constellations still lie in the same quadrant of the sky as that of my father. If an ancient Egyptian were to view my belief systems, my constellations, they would hardly see a difference between my father's constellations and mine, and they would point to a very different sky quadrant to show their own very different constellations. A good childhood church friend of mine who lived consciously as an atheist always persisted in calling himself a Christian. He explained that all of his cultural values and ideas — even his science and reason — came out of western, Christian culture; therefore, he could hardly be anything else. Of all the people I've known, this fellow was the most like Mr. Spock.

So a major part of becoming a viable human is writing stories with and within your environments, or finding constellations with the stars you can gather. The issue is do I create simple, closed stories or complex, open stories? My father has created a closed, simple story. I have created an open, complex story — rather, I'm creating an open story, for an open story is never finished. Of course, the issue is more nuanced than I'm writing it here. My father's stories are more open than I make them out to be, and mine are more closed. I'm exaggerating our differences to make a point, but all our stories are open and closed, so we differ in degree rather than kind. My father has been fairly open to new stories about race, though his stories about gender, politics, and most of all, religion are closed. Of course, he's also 89. Perhaps my stories will be closing by then. While I'm more open on those issues, I do have my own closed stories. The music of the 60s and 70s was the best, the ONLY music. Rap and hip-hop will never measure up. See? I can be a fundamentalist still.

A complex, open story implies several attitudes and beliefs. First, an open story implies, as Serres seems to, that no story is complete. No story covers it all. No constellation uses all the stars. No system of knowledge sums up all you need to know about Covid-19. Something else always lies outside the explanatory capabilities of any system, as Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem demonstrates with a system as seemingly closed and airtight as arithmetic (Yes, I'm extending Goedel's rather exacting work outside the field of mathematics and likely unfairly, but I'm comfortable with applying his insight to reality in general). As Paul Cilliers' writing demonstrates to my satisfaction, any system of understanding, any model of reality, that we develop leaves some aspect of reality out so that we can grasp and manipulate the model, and we can not know beforehand if the omitted knowledge is important or not. For instance, the conspiracy stories of Covid-19 have some information that my scientific stories omit, and I cannot say beforehand and with certainty if that information is useful or not. I confess that I am not overly concerned about some conspiracy story being correct and containing useful, actionable information and insight, but I cannot be certain.

Then, a more open story understands that its meaning does not emerge solely from the static, internal arrangement of its own stars — though that organization is vitally important — rather, the meaning of a story also emerges from the dynamic interaction of its internal energy, information, and organization with the environment in a continuous give-and-take that changes both stories, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Any given story can pollute its environment as well as enrich it. Indeed, all stories will pollute some environments and enrich others. The story of oxygen's emergence some two and a half billion years ago, flipping our atmosphere from an anaerobic state to an aerobic state, looks like enrichment to us aerobic creatures, but for the primitive anaerobic microbes that dominated Earth's ecosystem before the flip, oxygen looked very much like pollution, very deadly pollution. It was something like dropping bleach into a petri dish full of Covid-19 — end of story. I'm certain that some organisms will benefit from our current pollution of the Earth and that some aeons hence they may be telling a happy story, but it won't be our story.

A more open story recognizes the value of other stories and will exchange energy and information with those other stories. An open story is resilient rather than rigid. It maintains a core identity through multiple retellings around different campfires. For instance, my Bible is resilient, my father's is rigid. My father is fond of saying, "The Bible says what it means, and means what it says." And of course, my father knows what it means, and I, apparently, do not. This brittle understanding of knowledge led me to initially reject any reading of the Bible, and it has taken me a good long while to learn that the Bible is far more resilient than my father understands it. I find many brittle stories about Covid-19. This is very unfortunate.

Finally (at least for this post), all stories have some value in some context. Conversely, all stories are stupid and inappropriate in some context. The key test for me is actionable knowledge. Does this story, this understanding, lead me to action that increases well-being or decreases it in this situation? For instance, does the story that Covid-19 is being overblown by the Democrats and the liberal media to undermine the Trump administration lead me to any action that increases the well-being of my community and me soon? I think it does not. Could it be useful fodder for idle speculation over dinner with friends and family after the pandemic fades? Possibly, though the fascination might be short-lived for me and could very well lead to a family argument. Could it be the basis of a wildly popular action novel and movie starring Tom Cruise and Alec Baldwin? Hmm … now there's a context that begins to make sense to me. So in some contexts, I can do something useful with the knowledge contained in the conspiracy story. In other contexts, I can do nothing useful.

So I can choose from a range of stories available to me, and I must choose as no choice is also a choice. I must engage the world to some degree and in some fashion to exchange energy, matter, information, and organization, and I engage it through some story — my story — knowing full well that I might be wrong. I have chosen a story grounded in a scientific system of knowledge about Covid-19 that I believe will give the best chances of preserving the well-being of my family, my community, and me. However, as our lockdown continues, I am expanding my stories to include those grounded in economic and spiritual knowledge systems. More hard choices will lie ahead, and the more knowledge systems I can bring to bear, the better.

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