COVID-19 and Learning to Be Human
The XXIV World Philosophy Congress in Beijing during August, 2018 had the general theme, “Learning to Be Human.” Although this theme resonates with principles of both Confucian and classical Greek philosophy, at the time there were some who found the issue quaint, somehow superseded by modernity and science. As we find ourselves now in the midst of a global, pandemic health crisis, understanding what it means to be human is crucial to our hopes for the future. I want to look at two ethical challenges, surprisingly interlocked, to the future of humanity that are posed by the spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19: First is the use of medical AI to diagnose and then determine the necessary treatment protocol and appropriate therapy for those infected; Second, the identification of the virus as caused by an ethnic group and its cultural practices. In this presentation I will outline the traditional philosophical ideal of being human and then show how the growing use medical AI together with rising ethnic/cultural xenophobia threaten this ideal. Finally I will discuss how these apparently disparate phenomena are related and how the fear of COVID-19 might lead to the acceptance of troubling ethical standards.
I pray the gods to quit me of my toils,
To close the watch I keep, this livelong year;
Tor as a watch-dog lying, not at rest,
Propped on one arm, upon the palace roof
Of Atreus’ race, too long, too well I know
The starry conclave of the midnight sky
Too well, the splendors of the firmament,
The lords of light, whose kingly aspect shows-
What time they set or climb the sky in turn-
The year’s divisions, bringing frost or fire.
And now, as ever, am I set to mark
When shall stream up the glow of signal-flame,
The bale-fire bright, and tell its Trojan tale-
Troy town is ta’en: such issue holds in hope
She in whose woman’s breast beats heart of man.
Thus upon mine unrestful couch I lie,
Bathed with the dews of night, unvisited
By dreams-ah me! – for in the place of sleep
Stands Fear as my familiar, and repels
The soft repose that would mine eyelids seal.
And if at whiles, for the lost balm of sleep,
I medicine my soul with melody
Of trill or song-anon to tears I turn,
Wailing the woe that broods upon this home,
Not now by honor guided as of old-
But now at last fair fall the welcome hour
That sets me free, when’er the thick night glow
With beacon-fire of hope deferred no more.
Aeschylus, Agamemnon (opening lines by The Watchman)
Introduction: Science and Understanding
The novel coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic has opened a global crisis of multiple dimensions. Our first concern must be, has been, and continues to be the difficult and dynamic effort to control transmission of the pathogen. But the other dimensions of the crisis (economic, political, psychological and social) are likewise of vital importance. Our understanding of the human significance and meaning of this global, viral epidemic reveals itself within these categories. Yet one must ask if the methodologies of the
social sciences are fully suited to the task of disclosing the human nature of this life-threatening pandemic. What should be the response of the humanities and of
philosophy? In his essay, Wissenschaft als persönliches Erlebnis, [Wissenshaft as Personal Experience]
1 Hans Jonas reminds us of the distinction made by Heinrich Rickert over a century ago between a field of inquiry whose goal is “explanation” and one whose goal is “understanding.” As scholars venturing into the discipline of medical humanities we need simultaneously to embrace the wissenschaftlich character of our inquiries and to acknowledge how personal involvement influences our goal of understanding. Ideally, one might like scientific discourse to stand apart from our personal perspective, but such distancing would not fully grasp the existential threat.This truth, however, is a cause for concern.
The virus ironically presents itself to us wearing various masks, persona we want to hide from. Is hiding how a threat is overcome? But what is distancing or isolating, however effective it is medically, if not an attempt to hide from an invisible enemy? This fact provides a clue to our dilemma: the most effective means we have at present requires us to withdraw from the threat. The impulse to hide, born of fear, does not in itself characterize the unseen as enemy. That interpretation only results from explanation and rhetoric. Yet the invisible power of the virus does touch our experience. However subjective we think it is, the feeling of an invisible power over us provokes a sense of awe.
1 Wissenschaft as Personal Experience Author(s): Hans Jonas Source: The Hastings Center
Report, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Jul. - Aug., 2002), pp. 27-35 Published by: The Hastings Center Stable
According to Rudolph Otto in his influential 1917 book, Das Heilige - Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen, [The Idea of the Holy] 2 the sense of awe is the root of all religious experience. Is not our response to the virus, that is to the invisible and powerful, if not to the holy in some sense a reaction to what we fear? COVID-19 evokes a non-rational response to the demonic – an unseen (numinous) force whose power we don’t fully grasp and hence fear as a potential enemy. In the United States and elsewhere some Christian evangelicals and members of other religious groups have advocated the defiance of stay-in-place and self-isolating recommendations. To them such actions are not effective because they misconstrue the enemy. If we are righteous the true defense must be something different. Perhaps the words of Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians are what offer them guidance.
2 Publisher: Beck C. H.; N.-A., Nachdr. 2004. edition
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 3
3 Ephesians, 6: 10-17 (NIV)
The message is that hiding, even in the form of medically effective practices of isolating and distancing, is not the appropriate response to the enemy, the evil one.
I propose that in the face of the current pandemic this kind of thinking, prominent in pre- scientific mythology and religion, persists in our day. In this view the threat is not merelyto our physical health the crisis is not a health crisis as defined by medicine. The cosmic worldview behind this kind of thinking suggests an hypothesis that supports an interpretation something like this: viz., If the virus is (or is a manifestation of) an invisible force, growing exponentially to the point of ubiquity, the presence of which mightchange everything, then the only salient question is “How do we preserve our well- being, our humanity?” In other words: We are being threatened by that which is whollyother, invisible, unjustly attacking what is rightfully ours and indeed our very humanity. This is what calls us to battle.
The XXIV World Congress of Philosophy was held in Beijing in August of 2018. The general theme of the Congress was Learning to be Human. The Congress represented all branches of philosophy globally and vigorously pursued the general theme from multiple perspectives and methods. But issues such as the ethics of health care, artificial intelligence, and big data were not prominent concerns among those addressed by the participants and discussants. In retrospect we recognize the need for philosophers to engage with these topics. The idea of learning to be human stands out in an age when the notion of post humanity is thought by many to be in its incipient stages or upon us already. The question of learning how to be human in this context assumes a new urgency. This task represents a step beyond the Socratic injunction to know thyself in order to live well in accord with the good, beautiful and just, but becomes a question of how or if it is possible to co-exist in a world in which non-human entities, cyborgs in possession of intelligent agency, determine the social and cultural norms available to humans. In the eye of the pandemic storm we now, perhaps, understand better the dilemmas that issue from the encounter of traditional human values with the invisible and increasingly autonomous forces that operate our most advanced tools, the very tools we use to master the challenges of life. As we will note below, it is a curious lack that the reality of big data, with its inextricable bond to such devices as intelligent robots, has itself not emerged as one of philosophy’s leading concerns.
Within this frame I will argue in what follows that two apparently disparate responses to COVID-19 have in common several underlying beliefs reflective of thought patterns grounded in our tradition but not fully engaged with the dilemmas posed by technological medicine. The result is a kind of mythical thinking that sees the pandemic as an unjust punishment: it is an attack from an invisible enemy; the attack is unjust but can be defeated by the heroic efforts of superior individuals.
Two specific modes of reaction that receive a specious legitimation from this sort of mythic construct are in most respects radically and entirely dissimilar and thus it is jarring and confusing to consider them together. The one is a crude attempt to locate the enemy and is condemned for its inherently biased, prejudicial and unscientific assertions. I refer to the xenophobic and racist attitude that calls COVID-19 the Chinese virus, and says not that the novel coronavirus was first identified in China but rather it was caused by China. Such declarations fit nicely into the rhetoric of the new cold war wherein China is the enemy and existential threat to our way of life. One can cite numerous examples of this neo cold war rhetoric that posits links between the economic policies and political positions of China and the pernicious threat present in the virus.
The other kind of response that I argue fits this mythic paradigm is the faith in advanced AI as the secret weapon that will ultimately defeat the unseen enemy. This idea is a specific appropriation of AI that may greatly mischaracterize its actual utility and tend more toward science fiction than scientific fact. But as such it is still a significant expression of how what it means to be human is understood in the age of technology when facing an invisible medical threat. Let’s begin with a consideration of this perspective on medical AI and then take up the contrasting case of xenophobic racism.
Medical AI: A secret weapon against an invisible enemy?
Before the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic the press worldwide was filled with fanciful depictions of robots with humanlike appearance that would soon, guided by advanced AI, fill the gap left by a severe shortage of qualified healthcare providers. In Japan such robots were already deployed in hospitals to perform many functions previously the responsibility of medical aides and assistants. In China a plan was in place to use robots as healthcare assistants and companions to the elderly. My engineering students in Beijing enthusiastically designed all manner of devices to assist in diagnostic and therapeutic medical procedures. There was widespread appreciation for how many medical procedures could be performed equally as well or in some cases better by AI driven robots. For many reasons machine learning could often provide better diagnostic data than physicians using advanced conventional technology could. This optimism has been brought to the fight against COVID-19. At my own university in New York researchers from the College of Medicine and the Institute of Applied Mathematics collaborated to create an experimental AI tool that can predict which patients with pandemic virus will develop serious respiratory disease.
“An artificial intelligence tool accurately predicted which patients newly infected
with the COVID-19 virus would go on to develop severe respiratory disease, a
new study has found.”
Although one of the study’s investigators offered the caveat “While work remains to further validate our model, it holds promise as another tool to predict the patients most vulnerable to the virus, but only in support of physicians’ hard-won clinical experience in treating viral infections,” but another added, “Our goal was to design and deploy a decision-support tool using AI capabilities—mostly predictive analytics—to flag future clinical coronavirus severity.” Indeed, the significance of the study, stated cautiously, as reported in the journal Computers, Materials & Continua4 was that the best indicators of the future severity of the virus were not what was expected based on clinical diagnostics. In other words, what human clinicians were looking for and what would be the basis for their diagnostic assessments was found to be less predictive and less accurate than what an AI tool identified.
It doesn’t follow, but a faulty inference might be drawn: to fight an invisible enemy the tools (weapons) of AI are required. The response to COVID-19 begins with this attitude. There is a kind of correspondence between the mystery of AI and the invisibility of the virus. And since viruses exist also in cyberspace, the movement of this enemy, the novel coronavirus, is best fought on a cyber plane. Another aspect of the mystique generated by a cyber warrior versus an invisible enemy scenario has to do with how the power of AI is actually achieved. It derives from two factors: (1) the capacity to perform an incredible number of calculations in an infinitesimally small amount of time, and (2) the rapid access to a virtually unlimited storehouse of information through online databases. This of course is far from the whole story of why AI is as powerful and effective as it is, but it does offer two natural points of comparison with human capacity. If being human means being an intelligent and rational creature, then our ability to calculate and solve problems as well as our memory would seem to be essential indicators of our humanity. Therefore, by many standards of measure humans find themselves, even according to the very criteria of being human, inferior to machines.
We might better understand this when we remember how the perceived crisis of being displaced by AI is analogous to the perceived crisis of displacement that was prompted by the Copernican revolution when the status of earth was demoted from being the center of all creation to being merely the third planet from the sun. In the historical example, humankind’s understanding of what it meant to be human and what the value of human life was, were both deeply shaken.
In the midst of this perceived crisis of advanced AI comes another. The corona virus is an invisible threat that subjugates us by taking our freedoms of mobility and association, causes suffering and death, and ultimately, if we survive, potentially indentures us to lifelong poverty. Against these existential threats we feel powerless. Against this threat ordinary human defenses are impotent. This good versus evil paradigm lends itself to high technology defenses. If we can marshal AI to our defense then our human stature will be preserved. This master-slave approach is reminiscent of Dr Frankenstein’s creation.
The crucial feature of a high technology defense system, in this case to be deployed against the invisible pandemic virus, is the ability to discover how the virus will proceed. The work of epidemiologists and other medical sociologists is to discover the patterns and trends revealed by the spread of the virus. Computer modeling is limited by the available data. The more data, the more accurate the models produced by expert systems will be. Yet, as the new tool described above indicates, if the data is limited to that collected by human observers, we can expect the flaws and limitations that come from personal experience to be reified in the resulting computer model. So the collection of data must also be given over to intelligent machines. The result is that an overwhelming amount of information is collected, present to us, so to speak, only as huge encrypted data sets. The necessity of AI data mining technology is obvious.
Many argue that the ability to access the enormous and unorganized collections of data and to make sense of them in ways that human calculation is not capable of, will lead to an entirely new level of human mastery.
Consider the three components of a standard definition of big data:
1. It consists of high-volume, high-velocity and high-variety information assets.
2. It demands cost-effective, innovative forms of information processing.
3. It produces enhanced insight and decision making.
We notice that the source (1) is not accessible to ordinary observation or comprehension. It is too vast, changes too quickly and is too diverse for that. Normally invisible, the apparent influence of such data sets may evoke a sense of awe when we first become aware of them. Next it is asserted (2) that this awesome source makes demands of us, viz., we are to know it through innovative information processing. Normative modes of information processing will not do. And finally (3) those who inquire in the proper way will be rewarded. The anti-democratic message is implicit for obviously not everyone, not even most people, but only a select few, the philosophers or high priests of big data, can access this source and they, at their discretion, mediate the enhanced insight they possess for the benefit of the many.
This doctrine has been put forward before, politics and religion both offer examples. We have mentioned Otto’s notion of the holy; a Platonic version is expressed in the Cave Allegory in the Republic. The Gnostic paradigm suggests another and perhaps more insidious version, but it is the one that is most tempting in the present crisis. According to the Gnostics of late antiquity the truth was concealed, and humanity was generally imprisoned in a body surrounded by veils of ignorance. A secret message was conveyed to select few providing the salvific key necessary to break out of this constraining environment and move on to understanding and liberation.5 Is it too great a stretch to think of big data in these terms, viz., as an unapproachable deity that can provide the secret message that will lift the veil of ignorance and bring humanity to a brighter future?
5 The term gnostic paradigm refers to ideas held by the Gnostics of late antiquity but is broader than the inverted theological cosmology they proclaimed. See Hans Jonas: Gnosis und spätantiker geist.
If we believe Aristotle the human condition is one not of certainty but wonder. The question of purpose, the purpose of action, and the belief that there must be purpose, that things make sense, supports the conviction that with enhanced insight beneficial decisions are possible and that progress can be made. Behind the idea of progress is the assumption of fixity, a stability against which motion toward a goal is possible. On this view the human condition is largely a quest for mastery.
This belief in progress and the quest for certainty foment the crisis of modernity from Descartes to Kant. For Descartes the discovery that what appeared to be and was evident to ordinary observation, and which had been validated by metaphysics eginning with Aristotle, was false and called for the wholesale and radical reassessment of all knowledge. His method was disbelieving or at least doubting all one had been taught and which had been confirmed by experience as correct. One of the enduring lessons of DesCartes was the distrust of personal experience. Descartes called this discovery our new knowledge, a precarious formulation that ultimately required the severing of mind from body and the declaration that God is no deceiver to legitimate it. The faith that Descartes’s God required was in the enhanced insight afforded by modern mathematics (of which Descartes was a prominent founder).Descartes’s assertion was that the efficacy of mathematical rationality both (1) to succinctly summarize the true nature of the physical world and (2) to demark the limits of human insight. His position was eventually capped and partially refuted by Kant’s famous declaration that “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” Similarly, Kant asserted: “The schematicism by which our understanding deals with thehenomenal world ... is a skill so deeply hidden in the human soul that we shall hardly guess the secret trick that Nature here employs.”6
6 Both remarks are found in Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft.
Kant acknowledges, in this way like the advocates of big data theory, that the source of our knowledge (the noumena) is beyond our grasp, that what appears to us (phenomena) is due to the structure of human reason itself. The ways of nature are beyond our ken while still determinative of our well-being. Conformity to duty becomes the key ethical principle and guide for our actions and the basis of our hope.
The promise of big data asserts the claim to be able through the data mining technology of information science to penetrate Kant’s noumena, or in other words not to be constrained by the limitations of pure reason. The new knowledge disclosed is (or will be) salvific in that it is promised to put us on the road to progress. In this way it is possible to transcend the limits and constraints on the human condition as understood by Kant. This approach of big data is inherently gnostic: it is predicated on the communication of secret knowledge (from a demythologized deity) conveyed by a messenger to an elect few. The messenger of this secret knowledge is technology, aided for the present by human under laborers. The salvific promise entails the subordination of human action to data mining technology. Indeed, this must be the case, given the presupposed complexity of the fields of big data, that successful data mining can ultimately be accomplished only by computing devices managed by artificial intelligence. Clearly such an eventuality would redefine the human condition, the nature of human action and the existential meaning of being human.
An alternative way of conceiving the human condition, one that preserves the integrity of human action, has been suggested by Hannah Arendt. Let us approach her theory from the standpoint of thinking. Descartes’ famous designation of a human being as a thinking thing (res cogitans) of course raises the questions of just what thinking is, why it is the defining characteristic of humanity, and why it is that humans choose to think. Kant was critical of what he called Denker vom Gewerbe (professional thinkers) because thinking was the natural disposition of humanity. Yet when referring to the highest interests of humanity (for Kant: God, Freedom and Immortality), he opposes those he mocks as the Luftbaumeister of reason, people who would try to establish the truth about these matters through arguments removed from all common experience and understanding. For Hannah Arendt the problem is precisely how to see thinking in terms of common experience and understanding. Mental activity that is disconnected from such understanding (as indeed the calculative heuristics of mining big data would be) cannot lead to action and our determination of ourselves as agents of the human prospect.
In her aptly titled book The Human Condition Arendt delineates several useful distinctions: the public and private realms; the vita activa (active life) and the vita contemplativa (contemplative life); and the three types of activities within the vita activa – labor, work and action. Unlike in the philosophical tradition the contemplative life is not viewed as superior to the life of action; action is not dependent upon the formative influence of thought and the goal of action need not be to change understanding – Arendt is not simply inverting Marx’s 11th thesis. While Marx argues that humans are animal laborans, that is defined by the necessity of labor, Arendt asks what if automation (AI technology) frees us from this necessity of labor so that we don’t need to labor merely to survive? Work according to her scheme is different because whereas labor is what one does simply to survive, work has different goals and produces durable objects. Action, the third category, includes what we ordinarily call action as well as speech and it is the way by which humans present themselves to each other and is distinctly human. Being human implies the ability to act. It is through action that the human world is created and maintained and through which human community is sustained. But this is due to difference, not conformity to an unchanging essence: the human condition is contingent, beginning anew with each birth, and hence a matter of ever-changing possibility. “Human plurality, the basic condition of both action and speech, has the twofold character of equality and distinction. If men were not equal, they could neither understand each other.”7
7 Arendt, The Human Condition.
The Cartesian mind-body dualism is by Arendt supplanted by more subtle distinctions in which human action is neither predetermined nor the emulation of an ideal type. Moreover, with her famous emphasis on natality, she underlines the fact that with each birth a new beginning with new possibilities and hope, is established. A Hegelian view of history is ruled out. Like Kierkegaard, Arendt sees new individuals as the foundation of the human condition. These individuals are to be sure thinkers, but thinkers in the midst of lived experience contributing to the common realm of possibility by working through diverse opinions.
As we have suggested, the accessibility of big data radically reframes the questions of what it means to be human and of the state of the human condition. This reframing challenges the traditional formulations of philosophy from antiquity and the enlightenment. Big data is not available to us ether through a rational, deductive logic or through sense perception, the two sources of all knowledge that Descartes argued were exhaustive. Moreover, given the dynamic and even volatile state of big data, an epistemology yielding certainty is out of the question. The approach advocated in the techno-business world suggests a dangerous Gnostic typology based upon privileged access to a body of hidden knowledge which can offer the enhanced insight necessary for a life of excellence. The mining of big data is offered as the new paradigm obviating approaches rooted in common experience. Arendt’s notion of action with a pluralistic world of competing doxa derived from experience in the public realm likewise is on this view inapplicable.
Where do we turn? This kind of embrace of medical AI defense system that I have imagined is not inevitable, nor are objections to it objections to the judicious use of AI in medical systems, just as criticism and objection to U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s star wars missile defense system is not a criticism of all possible uses of guided missile technology. This kind of problem solving characterized by this approach to medical AI derives from the interplay of gnostic psychology, the theory of society descended from Durkheim, the economics of late capitalism, the neo-conservative attempt to reclaim the idea of authority and, most of all, the uncertainty unleashed by the success of modern, scientific technology. It seems that the challenge presented by big data is how, in a world where decisions are based on aggregations of information that are beyond the parameters of natural access, is whether it possible to sustain an idea of humanity that preserves our unique status as agents who can pursue the good, true and beautiful.
Can we do this if we treat the novel coronavirus as an invisible enemy we need to go to war against with an arsenal of high tech AI weaponry?
Xenophobia and Racism as Responses to Plagues
We are investigating the question of what it means to be human and what are the intellectual resources we need to learn in order to be human. Although the increases in power, influence on ordinary life and complexity of technology have increased almost beyond comprehension in 20th and 21st centuries, philosophy and the human sciences have yet to answer basic questions about how to be human in the artificial and technologically built world of today. Indeed the post-human hypothesis seems to cede the point.
The pandemic crisis that we face today is in part a result of this failure. The novel coronavirus and COVID-19 are widely seen as plague-like threats against which we feel defenseless. The feeling of helplessness comes in part from inadequate knowledge of the biology of viruses and in part because we are unclear about what our course of action should be. The complexity and mystery (and even magic like appearance) of technology suggests both that in some way it should be our defense while at the same time eliciting the despair that we as humans have no defense. Although one of researchers from NYU who developed the new AI diagnostic/prediction tool allowed that it was intended only to support the experienced clinician, it is quite clear that it does (if it works) actually do much more than that. Indeed its success offers one more scrap of proof that clinical judgement and practice, along with clinical based knowledge, has severe limitations.
This kind of limitation of the efficacy of clinical practice shows the inadequacy of human judgement. But the surrogate for human judgement, advanced AI technology, is too complex and too distant from human feeling to provide the assurance that if we stand strong, if we are courageous and faithful, this plague will not hurt us. In the vocabulary of war, now widely used to articulate our fight against COVID-19, strength, courage and fidelity require an enemy we can overcome. The demonization or de-humanization of the enemy helps to enable the growth of this attitude. This enemy, however, cannot be omnipotent or our cause would be hopeless. In the Oresteia Aeschylus raises the issue of an unjust or unfair god; this provides ground to fight as well an unwaranted basis for hope. This kind of literary construct when translated into categories of modernity becomes the quest for one who is other and who then is accused of being unfair and unjust and subsequently disclosed as the enemy. In the case of the novel coronavirus the popular imagination is aided and abetted in this quest by a host of unreliable and often anonymous persons (possibly bots) who are omnipresent in social media and other places. In this process COVID-19 became the China virus, that is an evil caused by China and spread globally by Chinese interests and people. This xenophobic racism comports with the cultural, economic and political cold war currently being waged against China (mostly by the United States).
Let us examine some of the features of this particular xenophobic racism. CNN recently reported in a piece by Kuan-lin F. Liu some examples of anti-Chinese sentiment.
President Donald Trump has recently insisted on repeatedly calling the Covid-19 either a “foreign virus” or a “Chinese virus” in his speeches and tweets, an insistence that appears to say “this is all China’s fault.”
Fox News personality Jesse Watters asked China for a formal apology earlier this month during "The Five," a Fox News panel talk show he co-hosts. According to Watters, the virus originated from Chinese people eating raw bats and snakes because “the Chinese communist government cannot feed the people, and they are desperate.” Watters also said scientists believe this to be the origin of the virus, despite no credible disease expert having made any statement of the sort. Scientists do believe the virus likely originated in an animal before transmission to a human host, but the exact sequence of events or even the animal in question remains unknown. ...
As the whole world now scrambles to deal with an escalating threat that just a month ago seemed to be a "Chinese problem," it is time to acknowledge that blame is hardly the point and most definitely not the solution. In fact, the deep- seated Sinophobia, or anti-Chinese bias, underlying the initial urge to judge China for the problem is what has allowed Covid-19 to catch the US off guard with its widely criticized response to the pandemic.
As China has grown economically and politically to a position of global influence since the late 1990s, it has received backlash and criticism, particularly from its neighbors in Asia Pacific and in Western Europe and the United States. Many questions that have been raised regarding human rights violations are valid, but some, including Watters' comments that intend to paint China as an underdeveloped, backwards country, are more self-serving than anything else. By vilifying China, critics like Watters perpetuate a narrative of Western supremacy. ...
The misconception of what it means to be Chinese or live in China has cultivated a widespread negative sentiment towards the Chinese people, leading to a rise in hate crimes against people of Chinese or Asian descent. Such negative sentiment informs not only how we treat Chinese or Asians in general whom we encounter but also how quickly we are to accept any criticism of the Chinese government or Chinese officials without much substantiation.8
8 CNN: Opinion: Will Sinophobia be our downfall in the fight against coronavirus?
This article makes three salient points. First, the notion that it is a Chinese virus or was caused by China betrays ignorance of scientific knowledge and the biology of viruses. Second, it supports a political worldview of national sovereignty justified purely by power. Finally, it asserts our own goodness, righteousness and purity. This is not a real theory of the good, only the proclamation that we are good because we are who we are.
What we see is another aspect of the excessive embrace of AI as a kind of magical art that will save us. It will save us because we have it, it is our secret weapon and we and only we are naturally entitled to it. This is reminiscent of attitudes toward atomic weapons after their first use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nations other than the United States should not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons because they could not be trusted to use them judiciously, in service of the good. And why was the United States more trustworthy? Only because of its self-appointed status as guardian of the world order, peace and prosperity.9
9 In the face of the soon to be cold war, philosophers recognized the inherent danger. One response was the creation of the new sub-discipline of engineering ethics; another was the founding of the journal Philosophy East and West to foster dialogue outside of the cold war propaganda.
Xenophobia and racism assert the superiority of one party over another. The claimed superiority is of a sort that cannot be easily measured; although the metrics of social science are sometimes used in an effort to do. A popular claim heard in the United States is we are number one. What is this supposed to mean? Since the United States neither has the largest population nor the largest land area one assumes it refers to the magnitude of the US GNP. From that the claim is drawn that we possess this wealth because we deserve it, because we are better than others, because we are good.
In this analysis, the xenophobic racism is an aspect of the war on the novel coronavirus/COVID-19. The focus on China is contingent, the fortuitous fact that the virus was first identified in China coincided with the anti-global fear of its expanding economy. Since the late 1970’s, beginning with Deng Xiaoping and America’s diplomatic and economic opening, China’s unprecedented economic expansion has made it both the leading industrial producer globally in some sectors as well as a huge and coveted consumer marketplace. Its astonishing growth and modernization was making China a contender to the status of number one in the world. That this economic strengthening was parallel to the rise in the quality and prestige of Chinese universities and the accompanying development of an innovative high technology sector, along with other factors, led some in the West to begin thinking of China as a genuine economic threat to America’s privileged way of life. As technology began to focus on AI and 5G communications the battle lines were drawn and the demonization of China began in earnest. It was fairly easy to stoke the fires of anti-Communist sentiment. When the coronavirus began to spread to the United States the war propaganda described above could easily assimilate under the guise of fighting the insidious and invisible enemy a refreshed xenophobic racism.
The link between xenophobia and borderless high technology is not unique to the pandemic; rather it is an expression of our inadequate understanding of what it means to be human in this world.
To be Human What do we need to Learn?
Don’t return to philosophy as a task-master, but as patients seek out relief in a treatment of sore eyes, or a dressing for a burn, or from an ointment. Regarding it this way, you’ll obey reason without putting it on display and rest easy in its care.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (5.9)
It looks as though the medical and epidemiological strategies are working to contain this viral pandemic. It’s now thought to be likely that a vaccine will be developed that will inoculate us against another outbreak of COVID-19. When this is the case the world will declare victory and make efforts to return quickly to the status quo ante. What will we have learned and what will we still need to learn?
Kant’s ridicule of the Luftbaumeister sounds the same note as the Stoic and raises the question of the role of philosophy. The question guiding these reflections, that of learning to be human, raises also the more narrow question of how philosophy fits into medical humanities. In his essay on science as human experience Hans Jonas describes the power of the Gnostic worldview:
[Gnosticims’s] invented myths revealing a comprehensible fundamental experience, common to them all, that had found objective expression there --one that had both revealed and concealed itself. These myths gave a speculative answer to the problem of existence -- namely, "gnosis." It was the experience of an essentially otherworldly self, a self in bondage to the world, which then had to free itself from that bondage. 10
10 Hans Jonas, Ibid. Wissenschaft as personal experience
Jonas later elaborated on this theme in his essay, Gnosticism, Existentialism and Nihilism11 in which he identified the nihilistic elements in both ancient Gnosticism and modern existentialism.
11 This essay is included in two books by Hans Jonas: The Gnostic Religion and The Phenomenon of Life.
If, as I have suggested, AI and its reliance on big data re-present a gnostic worldview, and if this worldview’s way of resolving threat is to project a cosmic war of good versus evil, us versus them, then if philosophy is going to contribute to the project of learning to be human it needs to be more than a meta-discipline vetting the social sciences for clarity and logical coherence. Heidegger’s reflections on the nature of thinking (reflected in the later works of Arendt12) and his sharp distinction between the kind of calculative problem solving embraced since DesCartes by science chart a possible pathway. Like Arendt and Jonas, Heidegger traces scientific research back back to DescCartes’ search for certitude. For Heidegger, the modern is characterized by the prevalent attitude objectivism in science, whereby being is calculated in advance. In his view this metaphysical fixity is incorporated into the methodology of calculative, exact science. Room for personal experience as a part of understanding is ruled out methodologically. Was is, is set in place. If this kind of Being is the good, beautiful and just, presupposed by science, then the status and meaning of life comes into question. As Jonas puts it in the conclusion of essay,
“... to sum up what motivated my desire for knowledge and how the knowledge I gained turned into experience, I would point to three areas: first of all, what is past, which de- serves to be made present in knowledge; then, what has always been present, life with its enduring nature, which wants to be understood from within itself; and finally, the future in the light of our caring about it, as something filled with threats to be averted, something that is threatened and must be protected. Care, however, presupposes that its object is worth caring about, and all I had come to understand about what was past and present came together in
my belief that life and humankind-this great adventure of Being, now in jeopardy- are worthwhile, are worth my effort and even torment, including the price of
mortality that must be paid in return for the constant rejuvenation in the lives of the newborn. A belief like this must be able to say "No" to much that we are doing today, but the belief itself is an embracing ‘Yes’.”13
12 Hannah Arendt: The Life of the Mind, vol 1, Thinking.
13 Hans Jonas, Ibid. Wissenschaft as personal experience.
It seems axiomatic that the medical arts and medical humanities must stand as an embracing yes to the great adventure which is the life of humankind. The current, worldview that consists of a peculiar combination of of exact science, awe of the wholly other, belief in the redemptive power of technology and the invidious projection of fear in racist xenophobia that has emerged in response to COVID-19 pandemic is perhaps as much a threat as to humanity as the pathogen itself. Medical humanities, and certainly philosophy, have a duty think what it means to be human in a manner that embraces life.
The coronavirus pandemic shows an unlikely conjunction of the ancient and the modern, the beautiful and the degrading, the spiritual and the technical, the natural and the artificial, and in so doing points to the value of life. It has perhaps opened up for view the limits of our understanding of what it means to be human.