Do you want a total war?
“Nothing is more free than the imagination of man, and though it cannot exceed the original stock furnished by the internal and external senses, it has unlimited power of mixing, compounding, separating and dividing these ideas in all the varieties of fiction and vision. It can feign the train of events with all the appearance of reality, ascribe to them a particular time and place, conceive them as existent and paint them out to itself with every circumstance that belongs to any historical fact which it believes with the greatest certainty.”
To me, David Hume, who wrote those words, has always seemed an odd man out in the universe of Western philosophy. It’s not a philosophical system, a complete mental world each of the famous traditional philosophers created for themselves, that has haunted me ever since I read Hume, but just one thought. It was of course, like a musical theme, an integral part of his entire logical symphony, but in my humble mind it stuck just like this:
The cause-effect connections exist only in our imagination, based on experience and habit. There is no necessity in anything being caused by something else, apart from our perception and memory registering those things appear in a sequence over and over again.
Now, the reason I eventually found philosophy frustrating, while still adoring it, was the fact that it was simply impossible to explain something like Hume’s sceptical view of causality in a conversation with highly intelligent and creative friends of mine. We could all talk about poetry, art, theatre and film, and even science, with infinite wit and subtlety, and be understood, but logic was one thing too narrow and abstruse, much more so than even, say, biochemistry.
And in many ways it is. Yet the global COVID-19 crisis poses some basic philosophical questions whose relevance to human life, society, politics and culture, is normally ignored. Logic can sound extremely arcane, but it does have a human face and is capable of guiding us, ordinary citizens, out of some terrible predicaments — if we pull ourselves together and let it do it.
It is not difficult to understand what fallacy is. One of the most famous goes like this:
God definitely exists.
How can you know for sure?
The bible says so, and the bible is the truth, because it’s God’s word.
OK, but what has this fallacy got to do with the COVID?
Just a moment, let’s look at another syllogism:
This dish is the healthiest you can have.
Because it’s the only one on offer that consists of only natural ingredients.
This is also a fallacy. Logically speaking. But the fallacious quality in the latter case is not as obvious as in the fallacy about God. Logically, “only natural ingredients” is not a proof of the proposition that this dish is healthier than those with other kinds of ingredients. But in terms of convention, custom, belief, it may be considered as “proof”.
The reason that few would fail to spot the God fallacy, while the natural ingredients one is pretty certain to go unnoticed, is that God is not as popular today as natural ingredients are. At the same time, even if many of those who still believe in God are perfectly capable of seeing the God fallacy for what it is, their faith makes them somehow more forgiving of the formal weakness of the argument in favour of God. It is not terribly important, if the premise that God exists is correct. That is, if you believe in God.
The same goes for healthy eating and natural ingredients. Being able to consume natural food is so much more important than following formal logic, if you believe that natural ingredients are healthier than all others. And there’s nothing surprising or scandalous about it. The epoch conditioned custom is stronger than abstract logic, and a certain conflict between them remains invisible for most people at most times.
Let us look now at the infamous COVID. The most horrible thing we hear through the media about it is the “death toll”. Every single day headlines tell us of a daily count of those who died… — and already right here I wonder how to continue my sentence. Died — yes, but due to what? The answer seems obvious. But look at how this is expressed.
“Deaths from the virus”
“Death toll from the virus”
“Deaths of people with the virus”
“Deaths linked to coronavirus”.
“…People who have died after testing positive for coronavirus”.
“Deaths within 28 days of testing positive”.
“The city has added more than 3,700 people who were presumed to have died from coronavirus but had never tested positive.”
Causality is clearly implied in all of the expressions, though not clearly stated in some of them. One suspects also that by using “with”, “related” and “after testing positive” writers were consciously dodging a direct causal link of “from” (interestingly I haven’t seen “caused by” being used much). Which doesn’t make them more conscientious. On the contrary, if you feel there is a problem with that link, you should explore the problem, and not tune it out in the hope to have the cake and eat it: conveniently joining pack journalism of the day, without committing a formal logical fallacy.
For a fallacy of course it is. How can one say the deaths are from (caused by) the virus, if just a tiny percentage of the total number of the reported dead had no underlying condition?
Theoretically speaking, the virus can be a decisive factor in a lethal outcome, even if the underlying condition is serious enough. But is there firm evidence to support that in each case registered as a death “linked to” COVID? No there isn’t. Even the BBC, which has generally been in the vanguard of the uncritical reporting of “coronavirus death toll”, admitted there had to be a statistical “overlap” in the numbers of coronavirus deaths and those from other causes. BBC quoted the Imperial College scientist David Spiegelhalter: “Many people who die of Covid would have died anyway within a short period.”
Then again, how can one be certain those people died of — because of — the COVID and admit, in the same sentence, that they would have died anyway, without the virus that is, within a short period? I admit such frivolous assumption of causality (coming from a scientist) may not sound incongruous to an average reader, but would have certainly rattled a logician like David Hume.
It is well known that the trust in the media is generally decreasing, but the COVID may be a case apart. Fear and panic make it different, drastically reducing the levels of the audiences’ healthy scepticism. Still the media have to provide some evidence for their claims. It seems to be in the pictures of piles and rows of coffins in Bergamo and in the soundbites about mass graves that might have to be dug in public parks in New York. The fact that most media stories are “linked” to the virus seems to be in itself a proof of its exceptionally lethal nature. A moving story of grieving over a death (“linked” to COVID) would count as evidence of the virus’ mortal danger. And here I don’t claim to be any different from an average consumer of news. It impresses me just like most people. I am not claiming to have any insider or scientific (apart from maths and formal logic) knowledge. I am just asking simple questions I haven’t seen any logically satisfactory answers to.
The death rate among those infected from COVID is now reported to be about 5%. But 5% of what number exactly? It is the percentage of the identified, “confirmed” cases, that is of those who have been tested positive. But if at least three quarters of all infections are believed to pass without symptoms, and if not all those with symptoms have been tested, how can we say that 5% of those infected die?
The death rate of the 2017–18 flu epidemic in the US peaked at 10,8%. There can be the same problem with that statistic as with the above mentioned 5% COVID-related one. Yet these approximate comparisons of death rates today and two years ago are still interesting. Everything around us is screaming that the current crisis is unprecedented, yet numbers tell a slightly different story.
Let’s have a quick check of the Italian case, until recently the worst in the Western world. The flu-related death toll by the end of the winter 2017 in Italy was as high as today. The question then is why were there no news of Italian health care system collapsing three years ago?
Ilya Pestov has pointed out some relevant statistics. According to the WHO over 100 000 people became infected in Italy by the end of March, eleven thousand of them died. The number of hospital beds in Italy is over 200 000. The Chinese experience shows that under 14 % of the infected would require hospitalisation. If approximately 15 000 people, spread over a certain period, needed hospitalisation in Italy, how come the system disposing of more than 200 000 beds would become so badly overwhelmed this year, but not in 2016–17? The geographically uneven distribution of the infection could be a factor of course. But could it also have something to do with the criteria used as to whom, how and how many to test, treat and hospitalise? And a lot to do with the psychology and politics, and the media coverage, of today’s crisis?
But who are we to contradict the WHO in their conclusions (never mind some of their statistics)? At least as reported by Bloomberg those conclusions sound like a perfect paragon of fallacy:
“The World Health Organisation has cautioned against comparing Covid-19 to the flu.”
“This isn’t just a bad flu season,” Mike Ryan, head of health emergencies at the WHO, said in a March 20 briefing. “These are health systems that are collapsing under the pressure of too many cases. This is not normal.”
Why not just say, the infections rate now is unprecedentedly high, much higher than in all other recent outbreaks, and so is mortality. And give unambiguous numbers. No, he can’t say that, because it’s not true. Wiggling his way out of the question of evidence for the claims that the infections and deaths count is unusually high, the WHO official needs the crutches of logically unrelated, but emotionally effective, mention of the collapsing health systems. Begging the question, that’s what it’s called, sir. With a caveat that it isn’t innocent, as you are a responsible official of a trusted global health authority. Your fallacy is not just about logic, it is also about the political agenda of the ruling classes.
Here’s a brief story I found randomly perusing readers’ comments under an article on pandemics:
“My grandfather was 15 years old. His parents and his two siblings were very ill with the flu so he ran to get help. By the time he got back to the house they were all dead. I am lying in bed with the H1N1 right now. Probably the sickest I’ve ever been. I personally believe face masks should be mandatory and all public transportation. What a tragedy all the way around.”
The author starts by describing her grandfather’s experience during the 1918 pandemic. And what date would you put on her own experience she is describing? Today? No, she wrote this in March 2019.
I remember fainting in my cutting room in the autumn of 2009, and ending up in a hospital where two people I had briefly met died within five days I spent there. I was told it was the flu. I had it, and some of my colleagues did, and no one of course had heard of “social distancing” or “self-isolating”. Would it have been better if we all stayed at home? Probably. But it is equally important, today, to be telling the whole truth. If that epidemic back in 2009, when I almost died, and every other outbreak between then and now, were much lighter, and therefore the media and the governments are right in making this one out to be the plague of the century, we should be clearly told that with all the evidence being out there in black and white and colour. Why do we have to look for that evidence, or counter-evidence, a bit like people in the Soviet Union were reconstructing the truth out of rumours and titbits from jammed Western radio programmes? If some data is objectively not available or is incomplete, those who have power to bring our lives to a halt, must still explain what makes this case different from others as to warrant such drastic measures.
We are shocked and deeply moved by portraits and stories of NHS doctors and nurses who died in action, literally, as heroes. I am just wondering if there were cases like this last year, and in 2015, and in 2009? If yes, why did we not see their portraits on the front pages then?
The news of celebrities, mostly older ones, having died “after testing positive” are very visible as well. Were the news of the death of an old aristocrat, or a septuagenarian football manager who died “with” a flu a few years ago, as prominent as they are today?
Politicising fear of illness and death on this scale, by all parties, is a tremendously sad new phenomenon. But are those in the conservative camp so wrong when they talk of the dark side of the lockdown where death from other illnesses is lurking? The drastic, if not violent, overnight change of the way of life, ruined plans and projects, lost income, separated and endangered families — all that is not just a bother one can put up with if politely asked to by the well-meaning authorities (“sorry for the inconvenience”). It is an extremely tangible damage with direct and lasting health implications for many. And they shouldn’t be just made light of as “psychological”. We do not know what triggers — “causes” — many life-threatening or crippling conditions, and, again, even the BBC has admitted that fewer of the steeply increased number of deaths during the lockdown could be attributed to COVID than to other causes.
The infamous dilemma of “health or wealth”, opening up countries for business or keeping the lockdown, is artificial, misleading and hypocritical. If “wealth” were to mean just the interests of the rich, the choice should be obvious. But health care in Europe is, in one way or another, heavily subsidised and any major economic disaster, such as the one predicted for the nearest future, would overwhelm a service like the UK’s NHS which even in the best of times is under much pressure. “Health or wealth” is not a dilemma of the COVID crisis, it is a constant theme, or should have been, in a society that is clear about the ways modern parasitical capitalism is bleeding the real economy. Unfortunately, most people prefer to, or have no choice but, just keep muddling through the desolate status quo landscape.
The logic according to which NHS and lives are saved by keeping everybody, except “key workers”, inside is of course fallacious, even if it rings true emotionally. Instead of changing the system and redistributing wealth in favour of such services as the NHS, millions of ordinary people (are they all supposed to have those lovely British back gardens?) are told to sacrifice elementary comfort, income and eventually health and sanity. At the same time, emotional propaganda helps stifling rational and critical thinking. Facebook flags posts for simple questions like this: (Other) “viruses killed more people than coronavirus and yet they’ve never, ever shut anything down. So, what are the government not telling the public? Or, am I the only one confused by this?” The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to “combat false news and misinformation”. Whether or not the author of the post is right, it sounds pretty ordinary and inoffensive even by the standards of the hyper-sensitive election-meddling era, but we now seem to have moved to a higher level of paranoia still. The righteous struggle against “conspiracy theories” started of course well before this crisis, but today “misinformation” can incite people to disobey the government’s orders (aka “advise”), and it is the defence of everyone’s well-being that can now justify going after hard-won political freedoms.
Here’s my very dangerous “conspiracy theory”. The financial system has been slowly, or not so slowly caving in, but now everything can be explained by and blamed on the COVID. This of course doesn’t mean that some dark powers have spread the virus intentionally. But the reason why I actually tend not to believe conspiracy theories is that I don’t overestimate the intelligence of our rulers. You’d need to be something of a philosopher-king to plan things, good or bad, so much ahead. Instead, carpe potestatem — is the modus operandi of the modern political and financial “influencers”. Still, given that the old-guard establishment’s popularity is being resuscitated amid the COVID emergency (as is the case with the German ruling living-dead CDU party), opportunistic strategies and tactics are working just fine. And Frau Merkel can even get a standing ovation (from non-German media) for admittedly shaking the rust off her GDR education and talking basic equations the Guardian seems to be calling epidemiology.
Without wanting to belittle Angela Merkel personally, it has to be said that this halo of science authority sits perfectly within the begging the question propaganda. We are supposed to be impressed by Frau Merkel’s ability to count, without any chance of gleaning the factual basis for her assumptions. We’re ordered to believe, and offered a bit of free circenses starring the scientist chancellor, along the way.
David Hume would feast on this one: “She knows that for every effect there has to be a cause and maybe also ideal conditions,” — The Guardian quotes Lothar de Maiziére talking to the Merkel biographer Evelyn Roll. — “She knows the laws of formal logic and is therefore capable of building logical chains with speed and determination.” Guys, formal logic does not deal with causes and effects, it deals with inferences and fallacies.
As always, draconian measures only work when they can rely on the support of a sizeable majority. It is understandable when good people today talk up the threat of the far-right in a classic sense, yet it is not very plausible that today someone with a project of a total war can get a third of the vote in a multi-party democracy, which makes that a landslide win. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes, as Mark Twain famously said. Which words, which sounds will rhyme this time? Despite prejudices and racism certainly flourishing in some quarters, curfews would not have public support today if they were imposed on the people of a “wrong” religion, or on those with a particular shape of the nose. But some other types of curfews clearly do have support, and as this crisis seemed unexpected, unexpected but acceptable will be various “measures” that will be invented and implemented in the name of health and security. Enough, or may be not, has been said of the boost the COVID has given to surveillance technology, or rather its acceptance by the public. The existential threat many feel at the moment was the reason why people supported some personified “last hopes” in the XXth century. It was fear and despair, and not necessarily hatred and cruelty, that made most people welcome the destruction of freedom then, even if hatred and cruelty subsequently did manifest themselves on an incredible scale.
“Merkel tells Germans: Fighting virus demands war-time solidarity”. Great. “We are at war” — says Macron. “Not with another nation but…” Thank you for that.
One thing philosophy is good at is explaining how naive are those who think that modernity with its scientific and technological progress gives us total intellectual advantage over previous cultures and social systems. The “coolest” philosopher of modernity, Ludwig Wittgenstein, while lambasting traditional metaphysics, pointedly wrote:
“The whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.
Thus people today stop at the laws of nature, treating them as something inviolable, just as God and Fate were treated in the past.
And in fact both are right and both are wrong: though the view of the ancients is clearer in so far as they have a clear and acknowledged terminus, while the modern system tries to make it look as if everything were explained.”
Perhaps the little bit of extra free time that’s being forced onto us will give us the leisure to recognise the wisdom of those words. It is quite clear that our attitudes and reactions to life and what we perceive as scientific knowledge are, essentially, a superstition. At the time of crisis it becomes especially clear that we often wrap our instincts in a language which is arbitrary, if not absurd, yet reassuring. Logician’s scepticism is not aimed against practical science and scientists, even if some of their statements (especially statements to the press) don’t always follow formal logic. That doesn’t matter. Scientists are hard at work for us; theirs is the world of what Hume called “experience”, and “causality” is of course part of it. The way to reconcile formal logic and experience would be perhaps to use Wittgenstein’s view that some things can’t be formally discussed, as that would be neither right nor wrong, but nonsensical. But they can be shown. Physical causality is one of those things. And scientists do have a lot to show for their efforts. But those who operate language as their main professional tool, for living, journalists, politicians, the PR class, those who exploit the prestige of science and interpret its findings to promote their ideological agendas and material interests, those people must be held to account. That’s so difficult in practice, that most means are acceptable. Even philosophy.