Published:  12:15 AM, 29 March 2020

A philosophical inquiry into the coronavirus

A philosophical inquiry into the coronavirus

John Locke in his Essay Concerning the Human Understanding had advanced the view that the meaning of a word is an idea in the mind of the person who uses it. But some argued that the idea is a private, but word is public. So, I think about a meaning instead of an idea in my mind about the word 'coronavirus'.

If I want to teach somebody about coronavirus, then a good idea is to show them how it looks like, but we need an electron microscope to show this virus. There are different meanings of the word 'corona', but one can see under electron microscope resemble a 'crown'. Hence take that word as a meaning of it. It is 125 nanometres across and contains 20 genes. In philosophy this is known as the denotative theory of meaning.

Bertrand Russell argued that we need to understand the underlying logical form, its expression in order to understand its meaning. This is the subject matter of analytic philosophy. So, I would like to share my thoughts in this essay about the expression of coronavirus in terms of its reality, risk, uncertainty and truth.

The current situation surrounding me is like what Albert Camus described in his novel The Plague, published in 1947 as 'This empty town, white with dust, saturated with sea smells, loud with the howl of the wind.'

According to this novel the town people of Oran are in the grip of a deadly plague, which spread from rats and now condemns its human victims to a swift and horrifying death. Population were forced into quarantine but each person responds in their own way to the lethal disease. Some resign themselves to fate, some seek blame and revenge and a few like a character Dr Rieux, join forces to defy the terror.

We can read the Albert Camus's voice in the novel as narrated by one character named Tarrou, who said, 'we are all in the plague…All I know is that one must do one's best not to be a plague victim….And this is why I have decided to reject everything that, directly or indirectly, make people die or justifies others in making them die.'

This ethical position of Camus appears to me are resonating through our city and town now. Our moral position could be different, because morality concern actions and our actions flow from our character. So, when I think about a reality, risk, uncertainty and truth in relation to coronavirus, I think about two things: how should I live? And what is the right thing to do? First question concerns the ethical issue and second question concerns the moral issue.

R. Buckminster Fuller, an inventor and futurist mentioned that 'up to the twentieth century, reality was everything humans could touch, smell, see and hear. Since the initial publication of the chart of the electromagnetic spectrum, humans have learned that what they can touch, smell, see, and hear is less than one-millionth of reality.

Ninety nine percent of all that is going to affect our tomorrows is being developed by humans using instruments and working in ranges of reality that are non-humanly sensible.' Fuller's thought is very much pertinent when we see that using electron microscope we can only sense what this coronavirus means. However, metaphysically this reality is the mind-independent existence of the world investigated by the science.

But neo-Kantian views of the nature of scientific knowledge reject this position. They think that what we see is not mind independent rather it dependent on the ideas that one brings to scientific investigation, which may include theoretical assumptions and perception. Hence the risk and uncertainty are two other ingredients of scientific knowledge need to be considered.

Risk can be defined in nontechnical term, an unwanted event which may or may not occur. In technical term, we may say a probability of unwanted event which may or may not occur. Philosophical way of thinking risk is that when there is a risk, there must be something that is unknown or has an unknown outcome. Therefore, knowledge about risk is knowledge about lack of knowledge.  From epistemological point of view, this combination of knowledge and lack of it make the issues of risk complicated.

This view echoed, what Leo Tolstoy wrote in his novel War and Peace, 'all we can know is that we know nothing. And that is the sum total of human wisdom.' We also need to realise that technology has some limitations. We look at very small things using a very large thing in comparison with the things that we see. For example in order to observe a tiny virus we need an electron microscope or to see a fundamental particle, we need a very big linear accelerator.

In UK, suppression has been used as a strategy for tackling current coronavirus crisis. However, those researcher advocated this strategy, maintain that there is a major challenge of this strategy because this type of non pharmaceutical interventions need to be maintained until a vaccine becomes available, which is potentially eighteen month or more.

WHO launches last week a global mega trial of the four most promising treatment known as 'Solidarity' to find out the coronavirus treatment.

But prediction is that transmission of the virus will rebound if interventions are relaxed. Also Imperial College research suggests that there are large uncertainties around the transmission of this virus, the likely effectiveness of different intervention policies and the extent to which the population spontaneously adopts risk reducing behaviours.

We also need to understand that a measurable uncertainty or risk is different than an un-measurable one that it is not in effect an uncertainty at all. Coronavirus response team from Imperial College maintains that 'future decisions on when and for how long to relax policies will need to be informed by ongoing surveillance.'

Philosophically one can think that decision-makers should take normative uncertainty into account in their decision making. Just as it is plausible that we should maximize expected value under empirical uncertainty, it is plausible that we should maximize expected choice under normative uncertainty. Michael J. Zimmerman, in his book Living with uncertainty: moral significance of ignorance offers a conceptual analysis of the moral 'ought' that focuses on moral decision-making under uncertainty.

Quoting a different treatments for a disease Zimmerman argues that moral obligation consists in performing the action that is 'prospectively best,' that is 'that which, from the moral point of view, it is most reasonable for the agent to choose' given the evidence available at that point in time.

Bertrand Russell's theory of descriptions suggests that knowing the meaning of word consists in knowing its 'truth conditions' that is what makes it true or false. But if we allow truth value gap, then we need to see the details of reality, risk and uncertainty attached to that truth.

Truth sometimes hides itself by putting up with simplifications, models, idealisations, analogies, metaphors and even myths and fictions. We also need to consider this matter.

The coronavirus crisis is pushing institutions, governments and societies to their limits. Everybody is worried about their health, their families, job and the uncertainty the future holds. The economic fallout of this crisis is still uncertain too. Our anxiety lies there, as Philosopher Heidegger says, 'mere anxiety is at the source of everything.'

Hence, all the points just sketched above, I am of the opinion that we should not compromise our freedom with a state's surveillances. Because of global warming, many more ancient microbes that today's humans have never exposed to will come our ways from the melting permafrost. So, we should consider our ethical and moral position carefully. Our future after coronavirus is more important than our present lockdown scenario.


The writer is a UK based academic, environmentalist,
columnist and author


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