Can the pandemic cure us of bad habits of mind?
As the coronavirus pandemic spreads throughout the globe, Americans are doing their best to “flatten the curve” by practicing social distancing. This is the advice of the world’s scientists, who are tracking this disease that has already cost so many lives. But in the midst of this collective push to secure compliance with necessary safety measures, a number of people still refuse to take the threat seriously. We now know, for example, that coronavirus can incubate in the body for several days without symptoms, yet you may still hear from some that, as long as no one is feeling sick, public gatherings are OK. This only quickens the contagion, as apparently healthy people unwittingly function as vectors for a virus that will likely find its way to someone more susceptible to the disease.
Mandatory lockdowns nationwide will soon make these minor rebellions irrelevant. But it is nonetheless worth asking ourselves why so many people—secular and religious alike, elected officials and regular citizens—failed to heed the warnings of scientists. There are at least four sources of this heedlessness: political scheming, entrapment in the politics of “culture wars,” a profound ignorance of our own fragility, and a general distrust of science. Together they are prime examples of what the Jesuit philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan (1904–1984) called human bias.
In Insight (1957), his monumental study of the human process of learning, Lonergan discusses the conditions not only for knowing but also for unknowing—that is, for the ways we can get knowing wrong. The human process of discovery, of insight, is always motivated by our innate desire to know, that basic orientation of wonder toward the world described by Plato and Aristotle and discovered by anyone who has ever met a child’s incessant questioning. We are, by our God-given nature, oriented toward truth by the ineluctable drive within us to ask questions and to seek reality through inquiry. Bias is anything that prevents the instinctive dynamism of our minds from attending to experience, seeking to understand, and making a disinterested judgment on the evidence that life offers. Lonergan identifies many kinds of bias, but among them are two that help explain the sources of heedlessness in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.
The first is group bias. Because every instance of discovery takes place in the context of community, the process of reaching truth can always be interfered with by perceived community interests. There are truths we would rather not know, and so questions we will avoid asking, because it could cost us something. As societies develop, Lonergan notes, a process of accumulating insights leads to progress. But this cumulative process can turn back in the opposite direction, such that a society enters into a state of decline as a result of group bias wreaking havoc on political life. At that point, certain important questions are off the table.
This marker of decline is certainly on display institutionally in the White House today. There, President Trump has created such a culture of fear that his deputies hesitate to tell him news he may not want to hear. Anxious about his electoral prospects should this pandemic take a great economic toll, Trump insisted on downplaying the gravity of this new coronavirus. His administration’s refusal to ask critical questions concerning the real scope of this crisis and what it could do to the American medical system has already cost lives and will likely cost many more in the weeks and months to come. This is a sign of a society that is in serious political decline.
We also witness group bias in the response of certain religious commentators who use specious theological arguments to sow doubt in the wisdom of public-health recommendations. To suspend public celebration of the sacraments, it is argued, is to capitulate to secularism in its absolute fear of death; the church that lives in the light of the Resurrection should interrupt its ministry for nothing, not even death. Here theological truths and half-truths are twisted to support an embittered us-versus-them mentality. Yes, the church’s priority is the spiritual health of the flock, and the specter of death must not keep the church and its pastors away from ministry. Yes, there is such a thing as living in excessive fear when good must be done. But except in moments when the church is asked to renounce its faith, there is no reason to disconnect the corporal from the spiritual works of mercy. We do not prove our concern for souls by displaying our disregard for the health of bodies.
Simply put, pastors may not make martyrs of their own people in the grand battle not to be like the secular world. What is more, while pastors may risk their own lives to minister to those suffering from illness, in the current situation, pastors who overlook the possibility of infection or death for themselves may unwittingly bring disease and death to other, more vulnerable parishioners. Only group bias could cause someone to mistake the current predicament and to imagine we are living in Shusaku Endo’s Silence. This is not that, and we are not sacrificing our faith and our ultimate loyalty to the church when we temporarily close the churches. For “church” never closes, since the love of God never ceases to be poured into our hearts by the Spirit. God’s grace is not limited to the sacraments, even if God is always graciously available in them. By affirming this we do not gnostically disincarnate Christ’s ecclesial body; rather, we recognize that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
Yet psychic repression works only when there are plausible stories we can tell ourselves to maintain our blind spots. One such story arises from what Lonergan calls the bias of common sense or general bias. Simply put, general bias is a bias against theoretical knowledge. In the realm of philosophy of knowledge, or epistemology, it is our natural tendency to think that knowing is like taking a look. As children, we first come to identify knowing with sensory experience itself: what is “real” is what I “bump up against” in the world through my senses. In other words, “seeing” (broadly understood as sensory experience) is believing, and if I cannot see something, then it must not be real. Common sense thrives in the world of the practical. It concerns what works, not the nature of reality itself. And this is as it should be: to expatiate on the nature of “money” at the grocery store check-out line would make a fool of the philosopher and frustrate everyone else around. But it’s a problem if we come to think that what works is the only thing worth knowing and that we need never ask any further questions. At that point we are living in general bias.
While not intrinsically opposed, the realms of theory and common sense are always liable to conflict. There are times, after all, when common sense breaks down. In those moments, general bias can resist the judgments of theoretical knowledge and its representatives—experts, in other words. This occurs most frequently when the general populace cannot validate the statements of scientists simply by taking a good look. I suspect this is why many have found it so difficult to believe they could be transmitting the coronavirus unknowingly when they do not feel ill. If they cannot “see” the effects of the virus in their own bodies, how could they be a danger to others? This pandemic reminds us of common sense’s limitations and of the dangers of its bias against theory—particularly when theory takes the form of scientists warning us of inconvenient truths we cannot immediately see, feel, or touch. America’s anti-intellectualism and distrust of elites has many causes, but general bias constitutes its heart. Sadly, its conjunction with Christian group bias against the secular world and the broader group bias of the healthy against the vulnerable is now endangering public health.
This year’s pandemic will not be the last. We can expect other crises that will challenge our society and expose its inherent weaknesses. Lonergan writes that “the challenge of history is for man progressively to restrict the realm of chance or fate or destiny and progressively to enlarge the realm of conscious grasp and deliberate choice.” In this crisis, chance has already claimed many lives and will no doubt claim many more before it’s over. “The realm of conscious grasp and deliberate choice” must be further enlarged before the next such crisis arrives. That will require a collective effort on every level—local, national, and international. And that effort will be successful to the degree that we manage to overcome the biases that keep us from seeing and accepting inconvenient realities. The church, as the society whose interests are those of the human race and not of any particular group, has a duty to strive to root out all forms of bias. Alongside all people of good will, we must work together for the flourishing of the whole. This will be remembered as a moment when American society either further entrenched itself in its dangerous biases or worked to correct them in order to promote the general welfare—here and throughout the world. Let us pray it will be the latter.
Roberto J. De La Noval is a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of Notre Dame.
Reproduced with the permission of Commonweal Magazine.