Philosophy in a Crisis

As we’re all slowly coming to grips with the craziness that is COVID-19, one of the things that will likely be on our minds is the question “What really matters?”

Personally, I’ve been thinking through the particular problem of whether the abstract subjects of philosophy and theology have much to offer in a time like this. When there are people being infected by and dying from a new virus, states and countries are locking down and issuing shelter-in-place orders, and people are hoarding supplies like it’s the end of the world, what can an obscure branch of philosophy called epistemology provide us? On first glance, it’s easy to think the answer to that is simply “Nothing.” People are fighting for their lives in hospitals, losing their freedoms, or anxious that our day of reckoning has come. Asking the questions “What is knowledge?” and “How is knowledge possible?” seems a little silly.

But maybe it’s not that simple.

Let’s take the problem of what we know about SARS-CoV2. Now, I can’t personally say that I know all that much. Maybe *slightly* more than the average person, assuming the information sources I have are accurately reporting research, and the research being done is abiding by the appropriate scientific standards. But let’s talk about data for a second. If you’re anything like me, you’re seeing many different datasets, graphs, or other visualizations every day. (I’m starting to limit myself now due to a rising sense of anxiety about my lack of control over the whole situation, but I digress.) The problem with all of this data, simply stated, is two-fold:

  1. Our data collection methods are probably not built to accurately get all the information we’re trying to get. Testing in the United States is only just now ramping up. Which means that all the information we had up to this point was likely TERRIBLY inaccurate. There weren’t only 14,000 COVID-19 cases a couple days ago. That was just confirmed tests, and lots of people who showed the right symptoms were being told to go home and take care of themselves because no tests were available! That’s a problem, because we all think we have some kind of knowledge about reality (the number of cases), but the available data told us almost nothing except that 14,000 people (41,000 as of today) got tested positive. Examining the data further may tell us things like where testing is happening the most, but will tell us almost nothing about what we actually want to know.
  2. “Data” is never just data. For data to be meaningful, it must be interpreted. This is why we have graphs, charts, and whole industries built around data visualization. Because humans are really bad at looking at a million single pieces of information and compiling them together for meaningful analysis. And every time you look at a chart or a graph, you know what’s really happening? You’re looking at that information through the lens of the person + computer that compiled the data. You’re seeing information that has been filtered. You’re seeing charts that have intentionally removed bad pieces of information. And you know how got that data? See #1 above. That data was collected with data collection methods that were inherently flawed somehow.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love looking at data. My favorite math class I ever took was statistics, and in my previous job, I tried to use data frequently to help make better decisions for my team. But we were working with a set of 2000+ students and a relatively small set of variables — most of which had values that had been determined for months or years. When it comes to this pandemic, we are right in the middle of it. Things are changing every day, and we don’t even know all of the right questions to ask yet that will help us see things a little more clearly. We’ll never know how many people were really infected, and we’ll also never know how much our current efforts of social distancing and shutting down the economy were. That’s the nature of the finite human condition.

So again, we might ask, what use is philosophy in a crisis? It’s quite useful — just maybe not in the way we would like it to be. When we ask how we “know” things, it helps us to see through shoddy claims just a tiny bit better. It allows us to think through our own systems for what we accept as verifiable fact, logical claims, warranted claims, and unwarranted assumptions.

This is why Kierkegaard is my philosophical hero. He had a clear, systematized understanding of what constituted objective and subjective knowledge, and why those distinctions were important. Maybe reading long philosophical tomes is boring. But it can help us to learn how to think with clarity, both in a crisis and when things feel “normal.”

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