The root cause of the US failure to grapple with the ongoing health and economic crises unleashed by the coronavirus ultimately stems from the collapse of any notion of a publicly shared reality. To beat the virus everyone would need to believe in its existence and act on that reality. They would need to socially distance, wear a mask, wash their hands, limit interactions with others to small groups and necessity. They would need to eliminate unnecessary travel, and avoid vulnerable members of the population whenever possible.
If most evil arises from ignorance, then what is driving our failed response is a lack of belief because the knowledge of what to do is everywhere. Too many of us distrust the medical experts’ understanding of the disease and the media’s communication of what needs to be done in light of it. America is not alone in this epistemic crisis, it being a shared legacy of the West, but suffers from a particularly acute version of it, one that has made our capacity to respond to the virus much worse than any of our peers. It’s a crisis that like Trump himself has been a long time in coming.
Restoring a shared sense of reality is the clearest way out of the crisis, but the difficulty such a restoration faces is that we’ve known for a long time now that any such notion of the real world is a fabrication. Like Adam and Eve, we find it impossible to return to a state of lost innocence, our intellectual virginity was lost a long time ago. We’ve known since Kant that the “thing in itself” lies just outside our reach, and since Nietzsche that we’re all liars. The lessons of social construction have been deeply embedded in anthropology and sociology, and infuses philosophy through the lucid caterwaul of postmodernism and the workaday plodding of pragmatism.
Even the most whiggish liberal among us understands that the news is a ratings and click-bait game, objectivity a smokescreen- we’re all Chomsky-est now. All good scientists now know that our theories don’t correspond to some true world “out there”, but are mere models- provisional guides for the blind through an uncertain labyrinth. Even the best of our models of covid-19 and its spread are merely provisional maps of a constantly changing landscape, and because of that full of holes only the future will reveal.
The greater public might not learn of this alienation from Truth via university education, but they experience it viscerally every day through television and the internet. Hard core reality has disappeared behind screens, becoming fungible, editable. Not a mirror held up to the real but a means of distortion, compression, enhancement, and amping. All we have are models now, and whose models you trust depend on a set of prior commitments that seem unshakable even in the face of the catastrophic failure of one’s own assumptions regarding the world.
This reduction of capital T truth to models isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The idea that human beings who are part of and made by the world could somehow through our narrow sieve of cognition create a completely faithful copy of that world was always a species of hubris. In that sense, our closest approximation of the truth might come from the acknowledgement of our own limits- identifying the permanent holes in our maps. Yet the replacement of the truth by models does come with its own unique set of dangers, the first being that only part of a society gets the memo.
In that case you get a group or groups of individuals in a society who have sincerely confused the map with the territory. We might call these people fanatics, or maybe just believers depending on our mood. And they need not necessarily be anti-scientific, but instead confuse what science does with a mistaken belief that it describes reality, rather than its actual task of demarcating uncertainty. Because they never update their beliefs to incorporate new information that conflicts with their priors, given the right circumstance they will repeat the same mistakes over and over again- like Charlie Brown and his football. In honor of Lucy we can call them blockheads, though this should not be seen as an insult. Blockheads are made not born. And it is the supposedly cleverest among us who are responsible for having made so many of them.
Of course, all past societies did this. They organized life around socially constructed fictions. Surprisingly, this ability to live on the basis of imagined worlds has been a great strength of our species rather than a weakness. Part of the reason that it could remain a strength was that such delusions have always been constrained by common sense. This partly biological and partly learned shared understanding of how the world works arises from our inherited or experienced contact with the real world. At a bare minimum our social constructions are anchored to the language we share with whatever larger human group we belong to. We share meanings for commonly experienced things within the world, where what we have inherited constrains the forms any future social constructions can take.
Even the insane don’t normally lose this grounding, but merely adopt a private version of delusions that are usually social and make little sense outside of a collective context. The only people who experience its loss are those suffering from severe forms of dementia where what is lost is not so much beliefs but shared protocols on how to interface with the world, and thanks to the globalization of technology, these protocols used in the human made world are now universal. A person suffering from a manic delusion might wrongly think that there is a monster hiding behind a door, but they will rarely forget how to open one.
What distinguishes our own age of belief is how good we’ve become in inventing and spreading imaginary worlds while, at the very same time, the origin of our protocols has drifted away from common sense. The modern scientific revolution began as an effort to clarify, demarcate, and formalize this common sense. In the search for the grounds of our commonly experienced world science ended up taking us farther and farther away from the scale of the world as actually experienced by human beings– confronting us with new scales in both space and time. Invisible entities or hyper-objects that are too large for us to see, time scales too fast for human perception, or too long to be comprehensible when compared with our own limited human lifespan replaced angels and demons, infinity and the abyss.
Yet our belief or disbelief in these invisible entities has no consequence for our use of technologies and interfaces based upon them. Using my computer requires no understanding of what computation actually is, for all I know, it could be tiny Keebler Elves running the show back there. A person traveling to a flat earth convention isn’t flummoxed in the least by the fact that he uses GPS to find his way there.
Blockheads can normally get along just fine in the world precisely because of this persistent gap between belief and performance. Politics in such a world doesn’t normally take the form of Mytilenian debates, with all the existential risks they entail, and are more like loyalties to sports teams- matters of taste where nothing of real consequence is at stake. Like with sports, politics can be tribal and because a change in position is tied to questions of identity they are usually rare. And analogously to someone switching out his favorite team for a new one the job can be taxing and deemed not worth it. Constantly updating one’s priors is hard, and when the civil war is merely a Potemkin conflict, so long as you yourself aren’t a member of its “collateral damage”, is just rare enough to not have revolutionary consequences- at least up until now.
With the coronavirus (and climate change) we’re faced with particularly harsh examples of what it means to live in a society that depends on science for its existence, yet where so few of us need any understanding or experience of this science to thrive. With the coronavirus you have something that is both too small for us to see, and whose effects- until it infects ourselves or a loved one- are too large and diffuse for us to understand. Outside of the normal human scale it becomes just another demon dreamed up by eggheads in lab coats. Whereas every human society in the past was confronted by the mass death of pandemics in their homes or on the streets, our deaths are now hidden away from us in hospitals, whose horror shows, like with our slaughter houses, factories, or prisons we never need to personally see.
You combine the fact that the virus is outside of our normal human scale and hidden from everyday experience with an information ecosystem that is so obviously corrupted, and where much of science itself has been captured by these very forces of corruption, then it’s no wonder why we find ourselves in a situation where a medical crisis has become yet another football in our endless and self-destructive partisan conflict. Indeed, and in the greatest of ironies, once the pandemic became political it thereby could be deemed unreal, just another front in the meaningless war between rival armies of blockheads.
For the second danger in replacing truth with models is that we start to view all models with cynicism. Ultimately, the cynic comes to see the search for knowledge itself as nothing but a game. In his view what separates the wise man from the fool is that the wise man knows that everybody is playing him. A chaotic good cynic might take this one remaining piece of truth in the world and use it to become a prankster whose sole goal is the exposure of all those whose power arises from their control of these language games. Someone of the chaotic evil bent, on the other hand, might use the truth of untruth as a vehicle for wealth or power for what it gives him is an unprecedented flexibility when it comes to language. The primary skill of both the salesman and the demagogue is knowing how to tell you exactly what you wanted to hear.
This penchant for using the flexibility of language to create fantasy worlds or steer the block headed crowd lies deep in the roots of the American psyche, a country whose first truly novel cultural export was confidence men like P.T. Barnum. Some would merely see it as salesmanship, but there is a fine line between persuasion and deception, a line that is drawn where the persuader’s belief in his own veracity fails.
The constant pulling at our coattails by marketers wouldn’t matter so much had we been able to hive off the important issues of the public sphere from its influence- something which Walter Lippmann urged us to do as far back as the 1950’s. What we’ve proven since then is that it’s impossible to build a system of public communication that is supported by advertising and political propaganda while at the same time dedicated to informing us of the truth in a way we’ll actually believe.
Luckily, in America very few of these cynics leading blockheads have become demagogues, and even fewer of these demagogues have obtained positions of national power. On the white populist side, we’ve had William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Father Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace and now Donald Trump. The last has managed to smoothly transition from being a huckster cynic to becoming the only demagogue to ever obtain the nation’s highest office. God help us all.
The seemingly intractable problem we now face is that we have a man leading the country who doesn’t believe in reality and who has amassed a following of cynics and blockheads large enough to make an effective response to a very real pandemic impossible. In all likelihood the pandemic will move much faster than us finding an escape route from our epistemic jam, but we should try chart a path towards an exit in any case- otherwise we’ll keep repeating the same mistakes until reality has its final say and at last does us in.
The fact is that we’re returning to a world where substituting the creation of fantasy worlds for the discovery of necessarily tentative truths will likely become increasingly less tenable. It’s often been said that it was Huxley’s Brave New World rather than Orwell’s 1984 that got the late 20th century right because Huxley put his finger on the fact that the society being built was all about escapism. What critics of Orwell miss is that the societies he imagined were based on an entirely fake war because war itself had become impossible.
It was the absence of war which made the complete replacement of the search for reality with the construction of fantasy possible because the existential stakes of war require those who wage it to see the world in front of them as truthfully as possible, while at the same time acknowledging the limits of their own perception, along with the necessity of making decisions even when information is less than complete. And while 21st century warfare may in large part concern itself with getting inside the enemies’ OODA Loop, and leveraging misinformation both assume that there is an actual reality whose perception can be disrupted or hid.
The US may or may not be headed towards a new cold war style conflict with China, but in any case, the American exceptionalism that is our refusal to accept reality cannot be sustained. Our wealth and geographic isolation have saved us from facing the full consequences of our numerous mistakes going all the way back to at least the Vietnam War. What we face now is not so much an escalating competition with other societies as it is an intensifying struggle with Nature itself. What we desperately need to learn is that the world outside of us follows an agenda all its own, oblivious to our fantasy worlds and regardless of how skilled we are at building them.