The ‘logic’ of Covid-19 denial

Sandra asked:

How am I to deal with people who persist in believing that truth doesn’t matter, e.g., who can say that Covid-19 isn’t real?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

As I write, the UK is battling to vaccinate as many of its citizens against Covid-19 as the supply of vaccines allows. I was fortunate to receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccination this week.

First, I want to say something about conspiracy theories in general, then about the concept of truth, and then, finally, about groups of people who have, or seem to have, encouraged the belief amongst themselves that Covid-19 is somehow not ‘real’.

It is axiomatic that a conspiracy, of any kind whatsoever, requires the continued cooperation of all the conspirators. It only takes one former conspirator, or a few former conspirators, to ‘blow the whistle’. This is one of the reasons why in UK law, ‘conspiracy to do XYZ’, where XYZ is a criminal offence, is a worse crime than when a single individual does XYZ.

The idea that the Covid-19 pandemic is a conspiracy would require the cooperation of not hundreds or even thousands but tens of thousands of people. Theoretically, it could be done. All the news reports, where cameras have been allowed into hospitals around the world, could be showing actors rather than patients, doctors and nurses. But each one of those supposed ‘actors’ would have to be in on the conspiracy. Common sense would seem to show that the pretence could not be maintained for any length of time.

A similar point could be made about the so-called ‘conspiracy’ to persuade people to believe that the Earth is round rather than flat. There is an added point to make here, however, that the very idea that it is an a priori truth that ‘things fall down’ is at least partly to blame for the Flat Earth theory. The very first philosophers in the Western tradition believed in the Flat Earth theory. It seems that Thales and Anaximenes both assumed this to be an unquestionable truth. And why not? And yet the principle was questioned by Anaximander, who was the first to see that the question wasn’t about ‘falling’ but about attraction, why objects should be attracted towards the Earth. His answer, although we now judge it to be incorrect, was that things ‘fall’ in order to maintain the symmetry of the ‘cosmos’.

Two millennia later, Isaac Newton proposed that a very small attractive force exists between any two masses which is proportional to the inverse square of their distance times the product of their masses. When one of the objects is the size of the Earth, that force becomes significant, and we call it ‘gravity’.

In the case of Covid-19, a population who are used to seeing spectacular sci-fi epics in the cinema can be partly excused for being tempted to think that the images flickering on their TV screens might be just more of the same. But, as in the case of things falling, there is a better explanation than the claim of conspiracy. The better explanation is that Covid-19 is real, and that, to date, it has killed more UK citizens than died in the Second World War. (The number of deaths world wide still has a long way to go before it reaches the total number, the largest part of which was suffered by citizens of the former USSR.)

Even though it is not the only logically possible explanation, the best explanation for reports of the devastation caused by Covid-19 is that the reports are true. But why must we believe ‘the truth’? No-one is forced to ‘believe’ any matter of fact. The grieving mother who refuses to accept that her son has died in a foreign war, even when his body is returned in a casket, has chosen ‘not to believe’.

Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland saw a philosophical conundrum here. At one point in the story, the White Queen claims to be 101 years old:

‘I can’t believe that!’ said Alice.

‘Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’

Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said: ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’

‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’

— You might think that the same could be said by a ‘believer’ in the Covid-19 or Round Earth ‘conspiracies’. But, generally, they don’t say this because they don’t have the White Queen’s smarts. What they believe is not something they regard as ‘impossible’ but, on the contrary, they believe their theory to be the most likely explanation. This is just not the case.

But if someone says, right out, ‘I know that it is true that Covid-19 is real but I choose not to believe it,’ then there is a much swifter point to make, which was highlighted by the philosopher G.E. Moore. ‘It is raining, but I do not believe that it is raining,’ is known as ‘Moore’s Paradox’. There is no logical contradiction in this sentence, and yet the claim seems impossible. Surely that is truly a ‘last gasp’ basis for resistance by the scorched Earth conspiracy theorist.

Despite this, there are groups of people who have, somehow, convinced themselves and one another that the conspiracy is real. Just this week, British police broke up a party of 400 people. Although this was not reported on the BBC News, according to the Daily Telegraph, it was a wedding party amongst Ultra Orthodox Jews. Could any of the guests have been watching the News, the battling doctors and nurses tired beyond desperation, the body bags and graves? It is entirely possible that a group of people should, for reasons best known to themselves, refuse to watch TV or read newspapers. To me, that is the kinder explanation. The less kind explanation is that the guests were fully aware of what they were doing but chose deliberately to put themselves and all the persons they came into contact at risk from a deadly disease, something that is simply beyond my comprehension.

On the possibility of philosophical enlightenment

Ceren asked:

What is the point of Plato’s allegory of the cave in Book Seven?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

If you search ‘Ask a Philosopher’ you’ll find several answers on this topic. Plato’s Allegory of ‘the Cave’ can be found in his dialogue Republic. Many generations of commentators have interpreted this as a metaphorical account of the difference between ordinary knowledge of the world of phenomena and philosophical knowledge of ultimate reality, which Plato conceives as the Form of the Good, metaphorically the ‘sun’ that is the source of the illumination that reaches us only indirectly, as shadows cast on the wall of the cave.

I am very conscious of the cave, ‘Living in the dark’ as I described it in my latest YouTube video Painfully so. My question is whether, in fact, there is anything outside the cave, or, if there is, or must be, whether there is any possibility of coming to know anything about that ‘something’, by using the methods of philosophical inquiry or otherwise. In my video, I describe the world in which I find myself as ‘Plato’s cave without the Sun’.

Is this a tenable position? Is it even bearable? I mean, to think of Reality with a capital ‘R’ as something totally beyond any possibility of knowledge or human comprehension. Not to mention the highly questionable claim that it is in some sense ‘good’, or indeed the ultimate Good with a capital ‘G’. At some time not too far in the future, I will be dead. And I will have died, never having discovered an answer to that question. The comforts of religion don’t interest me, they seem like fairy tales. The claims of philosophers, Plato included, seem baseless and even arrogant.

Whether in fact Plato did believe that knowledge of the Good is possible is itself unclear. He describes his ‘dialectic’, or the correct method of philosophical inquiry as directed towards knowledge of the Good, but nowhere does he claim that he, or anyone else, has ever reached this goal. Reading his dialogues, the strong impression is that the Good is merely posited as the ‘best explanation’ of how dialectic itself is possible. But who is to say that it is the only possible explanation?

Kant, similarly, draws a distinction between the two worlds of phenomena and ‘noumena’, claiming that while the human capacity for reason is capable of discovering a priori truths relating to the world of phenomena or appearances, there is yet ‘room for faith’ about the noumenal world, including the existence of God, human freedom and everlasting life as conceived in the Christian religion.

F.H. Bradley, by contrast, conceives of his Absolute not so much as a second ‘world’ but rather as a way of grasping reality as a single whole, free of the contradictions inherent in human thought. Again, a kind of ‘faith’ is brought in to bridge the gap that human beings are incapable of crossing by means of thought and reasoning, although we have an intuitive vision of the Absolute in the unbroken wholeness of ‘immediate feeling’.

Plato and Kant were geniuses, and if they couldn’t prove that there is anything outside the cave, then I certainly am unable to do so. All the wondrous discoveries of science are unable to do so, they merely describe in more detail the walls of the cave. The laws of nature are just rules that we posit hypothetically in order to account for observation and the results of experiment. We don’t even know what it would mean to say that these rules are ‘true’, let alone the ultimate Truth. To even raise that question goes beyond science and the experimental method.

Maybe enlightenment is just realizing that ‘this is all there is’ and the very desire for more is a mistake, or illusion, maybe even a necessary illusion. In my book Philosophizer I wrote of a ‘horizon that recedes as I advance’. The fact that I see, or seem to see a horizon ahead of me implies the existence of a place I can never reach, however long I travel, just as one never reaches the end of the rainbow.

Split consciousness scenarios and the self

Lee asked:

So I read that an octopus has neural networks in each limb (a kind of brain that can think independently). Assuming that there is a single consciousness if a limb in separated from the body does a single mind then control both entities at the same time? If so and we could replicate this in humans (in the far future), would it be possible to split our mind in two with a single consciousness that would be able to communicate with both physical bodies at the same time regardless of distance between the two? Or at the point of splitting is the consciousness split also?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

If you cut off one of the limbs of an octopus, there is no physical process whereby the ‘mind’ of the octopus is able to control its own body and also the movements of the separated limb. That’s just a matter of physical and physiological fact. However, we can imagine a possible world scenario in which human beings have electronic gadgetry put in place to enable my various spatially scattered ‘parts’ to communicate with one another and with my brain. I could even send part of myself to Mars, my left arm, say, while at the same time I am sitting at home, safely in front of my computer.

Actions and movements on Mars would be difficult to say the least, given the time lapse. It would not be a lot different from what NASA technicians do now, when they control the movements of the various Mars rovers. Say, I want to pick up a rock with my left hand. It would take between 5 and 20 minutes for the radio signal to reach Mars, and the same amount of time to see that my action had succeeded. Anything more than a simple graping movement would be virtually impossible, given the constant two way communication that normally takes place between hand and eye. The setup would also require wireless transmission of almost imaginable capacity compared with what we have now.

One philosophical question raised by this thought experiment is, ‘Where am I?’ If the part of ‘me’ that is sent to Mars is destroyed when the capsule crashes, I am still here. just as in the case of the octopus, it would be like cutting off a limb. But what if I could send half of my brain? I have robot ‘eyes’ on Mars and on Earth, each wired up to one of my separated brain halves. If my Mars body dies, then I am still alive here on Earth. But, equally, if my Earth body dies, I can continue my life on Mars, as a human ‘Mars rover’.

In a sense, the same applies to each of us, now. It is not as if ‘I’ am where my eyes are. My feet are in a different place from my brain. Just from looking that the physiology of the human body, we can say that there are various spatially located parts which are ‘part of me’ and there is a centre, that receives information and controls the functions and movements of the various parts that in the case of human beings is in a particular place, the skull of a living human being, but in different possible world scenarios could be scattered far and wide.

All that is relatively simple. It is indeed possible that what I have imagined might never come to pass, because we are defeated by the complexity of of brain processes. The total number of possible brain states is enormous, even in comparison with the number of atoms in the universe. A similar thing can be said of the bandwidth of the process of communication between the two halves of the human brain, which we still only barely comprehend.

However, there is a deeper philosophical question that can be raised here which attacks the Cartesian idea that there is just one ‘mind’ or ‘self’ controlling our body, or bodily ‘parts’, regardless of how these are distributed in space. The classic article is Thomas Nagel’s ‘Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness’ (Synthese 1971, you can find this in PDF if you search on Google). Nagel’s article is based on an actual experiment on a human subject, where the corpus collosum connecting the two halves of the brain was severed, as a drastic treatment for epilepsy after other treatments had failed.

In this experiment, various setups were used to test the ability of the subject whose brain had been bisected brain to recognize different shaped objects. Amazingly, the subject could recognize, say, a cube by feel and also by sight, but was unable to say whether or not the object they had seen and touched was the same shape or not. This seems impossible, if we think of the mind as a single arena or theatre, where all the contents of consciousness are displayed. Surely, if you see there is a cube there, and feel the cube, you must know that what you have felt and seen are the same shape? It seems that we have to say that what the experiment of brain bisection shows that there is no ‘theatre’, no single ‘you’ here.

You could also look at other classic articles by Sidney Shoemaker, Derek Parfit, Bernard Williams, Daniel Dennett, David Wiggins, and others dealing with a whole range of thought experiments raising questions about our intuition of ‘self identity’. A classic example is Shoemaker’s thought experiment, where my brain is split and each half put in a new body. My response to this, which I argued for in my book Naive Metaphysics, is that this could be plausibly seen as a case of ‘survival’ as two fully separated beings. There would simply be two GKs, both possessing my memories.

If you have doubts about this, or think, ‘this could never happen to me’, imagine that it has already happened, and the other ‘you’ one day knocks on your door, you invite him or her in, and once you have gotten over the awkwardness of the situation talk about old times when there was ‘just the one of you’. For example, my first operation, when my adenoids and tonsils were removed at the age of four, becomes ‘our’ operation. An so on.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Factor in the various possibilities of amnesia, as in Derek Parfit’s ‘Methuselah’ thought experiment, in which the future GK, living hundreds or thousands of years from now, has no remaining memories of my self in 2020, and it becomes increasingly plausible to say that either the very notion of ‘self’ is a complete illusion, or that there only ever was one ‘self’ that has split many millions of times, forming all existing human and non-human subjects of consciousness. Some would argue that the two suppositions amount to the same thing. I am not you. You are not me. Imagining that, despite this, in some sense ‘we’ are one seems just a fanciful way of saying that we are both conscious subjects, full stop.

But what about my existence, here and now? I am not you. But, equally, I am not in the future, because the future has not yet happened, and I am not in the past, because the past has gone. If it is logically possible that the universe only came into existence five minutes or five seconds ago, as Bertrand Russell once hypothesized, then all that is indubitably ‘me’ only exists in the present.

And this is the bit I can’t get past. Take ‘me now’ or ‘this’ away, and everything else, the whole universe and all the people in it, remains unchanged. So what is it? Why is it? Why am I here at all? – I am sure that there is a lot more to say at this point but that is as far as I have been able to take the question.

Why is my life so important?

Arweena asked:

Say, if I already passed away and after a few years time, all of my relatives and friends passed away too and any mark of my existence would have been lost, would I cease to have existed? How come my life is so important if there’s about 7.8 billion of the same species as myself? I don’t believe humankind will reach a point when its disparity reduces into a thin line.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

A joke recounted by the poet W.H. Auden goes, ‘We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know.’ According to the W.H. Auden Society the quote originates from a 1923 recording from music hall comedian John Foster Hall (1867-1945), who called himself ‘The Revd. Vivian Foster, the Vicar of Mirth’.

I don’t know why I am here on Earth. So how far should my needs and interests be taken into account when deciding on any course of action? The point made by the Revd. Vivian Foster and W.H. Auden is that to live a meaningful life there has to be something worth doing beyond merely sacrificing oneself for the needs of others, whatever that may be, because the same principle applies to them.

Assuming a reasonable state of health, I am the person best placed to look after the physical and mental state of GK, and it is reasonable to assume the same for others – excluding children and infants, or non-human pets that require humans to care for them.

If we expand the range of ‘things that are important’ beyond my own interests, there are friends, family, nation. where I am better placed to help than those outside that sphere. It is also true that I care more for these people than others, but that is far from being a tautology. Not everyone loves their country, for example.

So we are concerned here with two kinds of constraint on my actions and projects: the practical and the ethical, and the same applies to everyone else. There are things I can do for others, with lesser or greater difficulty, and things I ought to do for others, for lesser or stronger reasons.

Consider also the belief that some human beings, by virtue of their personal qualities, are more important than others, but at the same time ‘importance’ is relative to the needs and interests of the agent. The classic argument to this effect is the ‘Archbishop Fenelon’ objection to utilitarianism. The good Archbishop’s house is burning down and you have the choice of saving him, or a humble female servant. His death will bring pain and sorrow to many people. But the humble servant happens to be your mother. But why is that ‘important’? Isn’t she just another of the billions of people inhabiting this planet?

As Bernard Williams has argued, a utilitarian is forced to accept that even if utilitarianism is in some sense ‘true’, or ultimately the ‘best’ criterion for right action, the greatest happiness for the greatest number requires that people do not base their actions on a disinterested utilitarian calculation. Letting your mother die would be despicable. In general, it is better for the good of all, that human beings are encouraged to pursue interests that are important to them, that are, as Williams describes it, part of their ‘personal integrity’ (Smart and Williams Utilitarianism For and Against, 1973).

I am important to me, for practical and ethical reasons, and the same applies to every other human being. But other human beings are important too, not to forget non-human animals, the environment, etc.

But I sense that there is more to your question: granted all this, there does seem to be a sense in which most of us our very strongly attached to our own life. How many lives would you be prepared to sacrifice in order that you should continue to live? Clearly, if, from an objective standpoint, ‘importance’ is equally spread, then I should be happy to lay down my life in order to save the lives of, say, two complete strangers whom I was not connected to in any way. Why not?

My response is that I would not like to be the kind of person who would do that. That would be insane. Or imagine a world where you can donate your living body in order to provide your heart, liver, kidneys in order to save the lives of more than two people. It would be, in some sense, ‘inhuman’, to care so little about one’s own life.

OK, then, you say, let’s up the stakes. Suppose that, by laying down your life, you could save the lives of a hundred people, a thousand, a million, or everyone on the planet? Where do you draw the line? And on what basis?

There is an answer to this question, but it is based on what I care for, not on arithmetic. Consider a soldier in battle. One might very well care more for one’s honour and the lives of one’s comrades than a life of shame and dishonour knowing that you have betrayed them. If I am not important, if it is not ‘my honour’ that is at stake, then none of these reasons are especially important.

Or, consider a ‘Titanic’ scenario. Wouldn’t it be shameful to put your own life ahead of a lifeboat full of people, assuming you were in a position to save them by your own self-sacrifice? Should you first do your best to save them before considering your own safety? What counts as ‘doing your best’? Real life is rarely so simple as an example concocted for the sake of philosophical discussion.

Beyond that, there is something else, something metaphysical: the very mystery of my existence. Given that there is a world, there is no mystery to me why you exist, or Donald Trump or anyone else. But aren’t I just another ‘human being in the world’? For sure, that is true of the person ‘Geoffrey Klempner’, seen from an objective standpoint. What is utterly mysterious – and this is the question I am totally unable to answer – is that I am that person.

Reasons to be hopeful

Mason asked:

Why should we be hopeful at all?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

There is no limit to how bad things can get. This is a truth that has been known at all times even though it has not always been believed. And, in fact, it is very often the case that it is not believed. Human individuals find it very difficult to accept that the worst could happen to them, or even worse that ‘the worst’ as they conceive it.

There is no limit to how bad things can get, regardless of the existence or non-existence of God. Maybe there is a Hell and you are bound for it. Some would say there doesn’t need to be, this life is hell for so many people today.

I remember reading somewhere that ‘being hopeful’ is a trait of normal human psychology, and that the default position on the scale of pessimism and optimism is somewhat towards the optimistic side. To see the world as it is, just as it is, without the colouring of emotion or fancy, one can only be depressed and disheartened.

The truth is that there is no ultimate ‘reason’ for anything, no reason to get out of bed, except for the reasons we create ourselves, give to ourselves. Nature has ensured that, for the most part, we ‘find’ these reasons and are satisfied by them.

But what good is ‘hope’ if you see through it? That is the question. As human beings in the world, we seem to be faced with the alternative of giving ourselves to our nature, as beings who pursue our lives under the optimistic illusion that ‘things will work out for the best’, or realizing the awful, paralyzing truth.

It is a question that I have considered in my recent books. How to live, as a philosopher (or ‘philosophizer’ as I term it). I’m not now talking about philosophy as an academic exercise, but as an approach to life, as an attempt at solving this very problem.

I don’t have an answer for you. I am going to die. I am nearer death now than I was when I started out on this quest. I will almost certainly pass away before I achieve any satisfaction or find answers to the questions that grip me. Like many people, I hope that the process of dying won’t be too painful, even though it may be. But, who knows, I might be lucky, and that is something to be genuinely hopeful of.

The most important thing one could hope for the human race is that it should survive your death and mine, and all the current threats to its existence, that human beings will overcome our present disagreements and colonize the stars, as Asimov predicted. It could happen. Or we could all be gone in a hundred years. As a philosopher, I am not qualified to say what are the chances. But if the attitude of hopefulness helps rather than hinders a better outcome, that is sufficient reason for being hopeful.

Knowledge versus spirituality

Gagik asked:

About 2 weeks ago in a religion class we were talking about materialism vs spirituality. The claim of my teacher was that at the end of the life materialistic goods would not matter. My reply was that knowledge is very important for people, so important that it is easily objectified and it could be materialistic in a way, for example: If someone really wants to become a doctor they have to learn for it to have a better future buy things so on and so on. So my question is this, does the knowledge of the scriptures mean that it is materialistic and it can be objectified ? forgive me for using banal words, I am working on it.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Is knowledge a ‘material good’? There is a strong tradition within Christianity that the quest for knowledge – or, at least, certain kinds of knowledge – is an expression of human vanity, and should be suppressed. ‘Credo, quia absurdum.’ (‘I believe, because it’s absurd.’). So, yes, even knowledge of the Holy Scriptures (whatever your faith happens to be) could be termed materialistic, if you are going about this as someone who is keenly interested in religion as human phenomenon, rather than someone who is devoutly religious seeking revelation.

Here’s another way of putting your question: Is knowledge for its own sake in any way better than material possessions and enjoyments, so far as the pursuit of spirituality is concerned? Aren’t they both in the same category, as things we ‘own’ and ‘enjoy’?

In the Middle Ages, the defence of anyone pursuing knowledge against religious criticism was that one is striving to ‘appreciate better God’s great works’. Learning about the world of nature, or science, can be seen as a religioius quest, up to a point. Maybe they believed this – up to a point.

Consider the story of Galileo, or Descartes. I don’t know how devout these men really were. Galileo was up against a view of the physical world derived from Aristotle that was considered at the time to immune to challenge. Anyone who questioned that view was challenging the authority of the Church. Galileo was forced to recant his view that ‘the Earth moves’ by the Inquisition. Descartes suppressed some of his own writings for fear of suffering a similar fate, presenting his radical theory of mind-body interactionism in the form of a defence of the notions of the ‘soul’ and ‘God’.

I would like to consider a view that is perhaps not that popular today, that all this impressive knowledge is a kind of human vanity. The world is in incredible place full of, wherever you look, through the lens of physics, or chemistry, or biology, and all the other sciences or indeed the humanities. Art, literature, music. Enough to make any one of these realms your whole life.

And, yet, you might still be missing something. I am talking about the sense of ‘what it all means’, the feeling that motivates religion. Can you be spiritual, without believing in a God? Is there room, in our lives, for focusing on the ultimate questions of existence, regardless of how the world may be in all its incredible variety and detail? If there is, then that is an activity that I would consider part of the enterprise of ‘metaphysics’, as I conceive it.