Saturday, April 4, 2020

Hermes: Covid-19 and Enough Knowledge

So I'm being given an object lesson in connectivity, exchange, and emergence, though not the one I want. Still, the pandemic is here -- I may as well think about it. I'll consider the virus in light of my readings through Michel Serres' collection of essays, Hermes: Literature, Science, and Philosophy.

I start with the introduction to the book by Josue V. Harari and David F. Bell who attempt to outline through a list of theorems Serres' program for exploring his primary thesis ("Introduction: Journal a plusieurs voies"). According to Harari and Bell,  Serres' thesis, first noted by Rene Girard, is simple: to demonstrate the passages and connections between the exact sciences with their regime of mathematical demonstrations and rigorous observation and experimentation and the human sciences with their more open literatures, myths, and discussions. Harari and Bell list 5 theorems that they glean from decades of Serres' writings and which, they say, suggests the contours of a program of philosophical study that Serres pursued for much of his life:
  • Theorem 1: In order for there to be an encyclopedic totality, this totality must be constituted as a theory providing access not only to a field of knowledge but to the world as well. (An encyclopedia that omits any of the multiple dimensions of knowledge is a false encyclopedia at the very moment of its realization: this explains, in Serres's view, the repeated failure of all philosophers of totality.) (xvi)
  • 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. (In some cases mythology may even express or explain the emergence of a new field of knowledge. This happens for instance in the nineteenth century with the emergence of topology.) (xx)
  • Theorem 4: "Science is the totality of the world's legends. The world is the space of their inscription. To read and to journey are one and the same act." One must therefore conceive of a philosophy that would no longer be founded on the classification and ordering of concepts and disciplines, but that would set out from an epistemology of journeys, forging new relations between man and the world" (xxi, xxii)
  • Theorem 5: Order is not the law of things but their exception. (xxvii)
I find their outline of Serres' thesis and program very helpful, especially since I have not read as much of Serres as Harari and Bell appear to have (much of Serres' writing has not been translated from French to English, and my French is inadequate to the task), but this is a great deal to unpack. After all, Serres spent much of his life unpacking it (he died last year, 2019, at age 88). I don't think I have that long.

Fortunately, I have Covid-19 to help. Lucky me.

Harari and Bell start their overview of Serres' program with an epistemological issue: the problematic relationship between knowledge and the world, or reality. Humans seem to want a coherent, simple world and knowledge of that world, science included, yet everywhere we see evidence of multiple views of the world, and if we travel enough, we see multiple views of the world. This multiplicity disturbs us. We will argue over different views, and we will attack, conquer, and kill over different views. We might want to think that science is above this fray, but Harari and Bell point out that it isn't. Science, too, tends to believe in the mythical one Theory of Everything, the big TOE, that holds in all the universe, at all scales, and explains everything -- and by extension, gives us power over all things if we can just understand the explanation. Harari and Bell explain science's buy-in to the one world view this way:
Until recently, science had convinced us that in the classification of the spaces of knowledge of the local was included in the global ... Clearly this assumption implied a homogeneous space of knowledge ruled entirely by a single scientific or universal truth that guaranteed the validity of the operation of passage. Such a space differs qualitatively from a more complex space in which the passage from one local singularity to another would always require an arduous effort. Rather than a universal truth, in the more complex case one would have a kind of truth that functions only in the context of local pockets, a truth that is always local, distributed haphazardly in a plurality of spaces. The space of knowledge, indeed, space itself, would not be homogeneous or rigidly bound together, it would be "in tatters." (xii)
Serres, they say, rejects a simple view of reality and embraces a multiplicity of both reality and knowledge. Harari and Bell quote Serres from his book Hermes V:
No, the real is not cut up into regular patterns, it is sporadic, spaces and times with straits and passes . . .. Therefore I assume there are fluctuating tatters; I am looking for the passage among these complicated cuttings. I believe, I see that the state of things consists of islands sown in archipelagoes on the noisy, poorly-understood disorder of the sea, ... the emergence of sporadic rationalities that are not evidently nor easily linked. Passages exist, I know, I have drawn some of them in certain works using certain operators . . .. But I cannot generalize, obstructions are manifest and counter-examples abound. (23-24)
There is no Big TOE. Or to say it more comprehensively: there is no God's Big TOE. Actually, I'm not willing to say that in any absolute terms. Perhaps there is a Big TOE and perhaps it is God's Big TOE after all, but I am unable to know it in any encyclopedic sense. I can't say what Serres' final judgment of God's Big TOE might be, but he seems to suggest that he thought it highly unlikely. Rather, reality itself is too complex for a Big TOE: "the real is not cut up into regular patterns, it is sporadic, spaces and times with straits and passes." Serres clearly sees an issue between reality and the models of reality that we humans like to construct through our various knowledge regimes.

Knowledge can be thought of as a model-making activity: we try to capture reality in words, numbers, and images that we can share with others and that enable us to extend our authority over the real. Both the religious and scientific minded, in the West at least, tend to believe that the world was made for us and that we were given dominion over it, and both our religions and our technology have provided ample evidence to support that belief. Just like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, we want one ring, one Theory of Everything, to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. We want one model of reality by which to exercise our dominion over the world. To my mind, this is the heart of fundamentalism -- political fundamentalism, economic fundamentalism, religious fundamentalism, social fundamentalism, philosophical fundamentalism, all fundamentalisms. Fundamentalism claims that there is only one reality, that there is only one valid way to view and understand reality, and that all other worldviews are false -- or in today's parlance, fake news. Serres rejects fundamentalism. So do I.

Covid-19 helps me explain why.

We -- by that I mean the world, not just the United States -- we are confronted with an enemy that is invisible to all our senses at the human scale. It is, then, demonic. Fortunately, science and technology have exposed this demon for many of us, but millions of us still don't see it, or hear it, or feel it, smell it, taste it. For these people, Covid-19 is demonic or a hoax, depending on the knowledge regime, the island, they inhabit. And lest those of you on the scientific archipelago are feeling smug because you follow Dr. Fauci and the experts at WHO, know that your knowledge regime is no less disconnected and peculiar. For some of you, Covid-19 is seen from a den crowded with screaming, schooless children who are driving you insane. That is a very different understanding of Covid-19 from those who see the virus from a hospital emergency room in tattered protective gear and with too many patients in the ragged process of dying or recovering.

Each of us constructs a model of the virus based on our own particular knowledge regime. That model comes from the reality we confront, our existing beliefs about reality, and the interactions between reality and our minds. Each of us will work hard to see the virus in light of what we already know, and each of us will find evidence -- hard facts -- that fit our model of reality and make sense to us. All of us will struggle to form a simple model that explains and gives us control over the virus, whether we see a biological agent run amok, a punishment by God for our wickedness, or a plot by the Chinese (or North Koreans, or Democrats, or whoever) to undermine our economy or Trump's re-election or both.

But Covid-19 ain't simple, nor is our understanding of it simple. Both are complex; however, the contagion itself is more complex than our understanding of it because models of something (knowledge of something) are always less complex and more simple than the thing itself. The best, the most complete and accurate, model of something is always the thing itself. Serres says in his 1977 article La Naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrece, "The best model is the thing itself, or the object as it exists" (202, translated by Harari & Bell). However, we cannot grasp mentally or physically the thing itself, so we make models that we can grasp and understand, but the model always reduces and excludes aspects of the thing itself, as Paul Cilliers explains to my satisfaction (see his article "Knowledge, limits, and boundaries"), and we cannot predict how the aspects reduced or left out change the behavior of the model and distort our knowledge of the thing itself. But they do change and distort. Thus, it is impossible to know anything completely with full fidelity, certainly not something as complex as Covid-19.

Am I suggesting, then, that knowledge is useless (if you can't know it all, then you can't know anything) or that any knowledge system is as good as any other (everybody is entitled to their own opinion, as my students like to claim)?


Both those claims are nihilistic and relativistic bullshit that lead to insanity and death. In the face of existential crises such as Covid-19, some knowledge is better than no knowledge, and some knowledges are better than other knowledges. In the apocryphal words of George Box, "All models are wrong, but some are useful."

Of course, a little knowledge can be dangerous, and we should always strive to gain more knowledge -- especially knowledge from outside our usual knowledge system, but we will all make decisions from positions of relative ignorance in terms of Covid-19.

So here's what I learn from Serres, and from Harari and Bell's interpretations of him: I will never know all there is to know about Covid-19, but despite that lack of knowledge, I must generate as much sense of the virus as I can, because I must be able to take action. To my mind, some sense of where I'm going is better than no sense at all. I want for my family, my community, and me to make it through the pandemic in good health. The more I know, then the better decisions I can make.

Given that I cannot know all there is to know about Covid-19, I must seek other knowledges, often from people I do not know. In the case of epidemics, I look first to epidemiologists. These people have studied plagues and contagions way more than I have, and I have faith that they want to stop the pandemic as much as I do. I access these people through media channels that I trust to tell me just what they say -- no more and no less -- so that I can expand my own knowledge and make my own decisions. I test these people for actionable knowledge. Does this new knowledge help me to make good decisions?

Even as I am taking action, I continue to look for new information. I look to the experiences of others who have already gone through the pandemic and either did well or poorly. Both have lessons to teach me. I read a case study of two side-by-side Italian provinces in the hard-hit Lombardy region, Lodi and Bergamo, that took different responses to the pandemic and had two very different trajectories. Lodi began social distancing on Feb 23 and Bergamo not until two weeks later. At first, the infection trajectories were almost identically upward, but within two weeks, Lodi's trajectory began to flatten while Bergamo continued its exponential rise. Social distancing seems to work. I don't even have to know why to know that it works. That's sufficient knowledge for me to take action.

I also seek knowledge outside the scientific knowledge domain. I look to spiritual, social, political, and economic knowledge domains. While I might privilege scientific knowledge in this case, I cannot ignore other knowledges.

I also reject some knowledges. First, I reject knowledge of those who refuse to seek knowledge outside themselves. Politicians or business leaders, for instance, who systematically remove and undermine scientific and technical expertise from an administration and who surround themselves with sycophants are left with too narrow and simplistic view of any situation, and to my mind, that results in poor decisions. Some leaders today have consistently viewed Covid-19 only through the only frameworks that they value, and they, thus, make decisions based only on considerations about how an action will affect their personal political power, economic profit, and social popularity. When confronted with a challenging situation, such people cannot rise above their own limited points of view to craft a more comprehensive plan of action.

This unwillingness -- perhaps inability -- to seek knowledge beyond oneself is a most damaging trait for anyone, but especially for leaders. Covid-19 makes that painfully obvious to me.

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