Five Choices (5): The Experts vs the People
Where To Next...?

The New Sickness Unto Death

A reply to Chris Billows' blog-letter Everything Counts at Death as part of the Republic of Bloggers (15 minute read).

Frederick Goodall (1856) - The Sick ChildDear Chris,

It is a strange time to talk about 'sickness'... it seems as if only one kind of illness matters right now. A shame, because the sickness we are expected to focus upon is not quite the one I want to talk about in this letter. I shall do as required, though, and dutifully discuss that disease, or rather I will discuss the scientific problems concerning vaccination against that disease, and the political disasters unleashed in its wake. But what I most want to reflect upon in this letter is the sickness spoken about by the Danish existentialist philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, the one that haunts every troubled heart, and brings great suffering upon all who fall prey of it. The 'sickness unto death', as he called it. It is spreading so far and so fast now, even my idealistic optimism is barely proof against this rising tide of hatred and despair. But I cannot submit to this. And neither, I hope, can you.

Firstly, I must thank you for keeping the Republic of Bloggers away from its final end with your blog-letter to me, Everything Counts at Death. I sometimes fear you and I are all that is left of this form of discourse, but I I suppose I could be mistaken. I also think it most strange that these days we have all but eliminated the exchange of ideas. Newspapers accept letters as comment, but they are not willing or able to promote discussion in that way; the news is happy to quote Tweets, but again, not able to promote discussion; academic papers... well, don't get me started. Why have we stopped talking? Perhaps because social media scratches the itch to respond all too well, but solely when we are angered by what we read. Everything else just glides by, ignored, or eliciting nothing more than a brief approving nod and perhaps a click of a 'like' icon. It is as if we are cultivating a world where engagement can only happen at the very places where mindful discussion cannot.

You are quite right, of course, when you say that I do pitch some positions precisely in the hope that somebody will engage - it appears, sadly, to be the only way to provoke a response - although I hope it is clear that the principle 'every cause of death matters' I wrote about previously is utterly heartfelt. If we can regain democracy - and alas, my faith wavers! - reigniting our ideals of equality will be essential, and this issue over causes of death is so enormous, on so many levels, not least of which would be the question of poverty that you wisely draw attention to. Could there be any greater contributor to human death? Could there be a topic more consistently brushed under the political carpet...? And it's an awfully lumpy rug these days.

I want to talk about sickness, but I shall come upon the sickness I want to talk about rather slowly, for reasons that I trust will soon become apparent. Rather, I want to begin with my immense sadness at what I have been reading about the situation in the Republic of Senegal, where an ill-advised lockdown policy led to a government power grab. Long-term lockdowns might have saved the lives of some Europeans and North Americans able to work from home (although even that isn't as clear cut as is often assumed), but they cannot possibly help those living hand-to-mouth, who are merely being ordered to starve to death and cannot plausibly comply. In Senegal, the imposition of lockdowns has achieved nothing except plunging the citizens of that great country even further into poverty while lining the pockets of the corrupt. As Mamadou Ndiaye laments:

There’s no democracy in Senegal anymore, even though Senegal was always singled out before as a strong African democracy. If you are one of them, you can do what you want. There’s no justice. It’s only in Africa that you can find a state official making millions.

Meanwhile, the New York Times and other 'Trusted News' providers run stories about the Paris-Dakar rally, or the shortage of COVID-19 vaccines in Senegal. How can this possibly be the story we should tell here? The excellent Our World in Data site that you justly praise can provide some bitter perspective on this lack of vision. At time of writing, Senegal had lost 1,855 of its good people to SARS-CoV2. Yet every year in Senegal, roughly 9,000 people (nearly five times as many) die from unsafe drinking water, nearly 17,000 people (more than nine times as many) die from causes related to air pollution, and nearly 22,000 children under the age of five (nearly twelve times as many) die from preventable pneumonia. We are somehow required to see Senegal as a 'country of interest' only in connection with COVID-19 vaccination (or motorsports)... this obsession with one specific cause of death is not only logically insane when it comes to nations like Senegal, but through the pointless imposition of lockdowns that its people could not possibly afford to pursue we have inadvertently shattered one of the few strong democracies in Africa.

Black Lives Matter, we are told... we are doing a rather terrible job of showing it.

Every expectation has now been upended by this monomaniacal fear of an infection that is certainly serious enough to warrant action, yet nowhere near dangerous enough to warrant abandoning democracy. If you had told me two years ago that black and Hispanic citizens of the United States would be denied public service jobs or turned away from restaurants in New York as unclean and unwelcome I would have thought you drunk on conspiracy wine. Yet here we are! A vaccination with excellent results at preventing hospitalisation and death but demonstrably weak at preventing infections is being made a requirement of participation in civil life, with the result that ethnic minorities are back to being excluded and reviled - but it's supposedly okay, because people aren't hating them for being black or (dare we say it, even in jest?) foreign, just for not aligning with medical strictures created at the behest of mostly white folks to maintain their preferred concepts of health and cleanliness by force.

Vaccine mandates are not a scientific measure, they are a political one - and the data suggests the unsurprising conclusion that attempting to force people to vaccinate risks counter-productively hardening their resolve to resist instead. The problem at heart is a lack of trust, a situation that is poorly addressed by simply demanding that people do as they are told. As Tiffany Green remarked of the effects of vaccine segregation upon ethnic minorities in the United States:

We can’t expect that medical systems who have earned the mistrust of many marginalized groups will now be trusted because of Covid. It doesn’t work that way.

Similarly, Liz Wolfe questions whether this authoritarian turn by New York mayor, Bill De Blasio's, is in any way helpful:

De Blasio's order will disproportionately exclude members of minority groups—including people who distrust the medical establishment, lack confidence in a new vaccine, or don't have time to take off work in the event of bad side effects—from public life... It is unclear whom de Blasio's order will help. The vaccinated already are well-protected from severe illness or death, even if they contract a breakthrough infection. Eradicating the disease entirely no longer seems like an option... If the idea is to give vaccinated New Yorkers peace of mind that they can socialize with minimal risk of becoming dangerously ill, they have that already thanks to the vaccine.

Advocates of 'vaccine passports' (and I fear you are one) verge upon being utterly disconnected from scientific process as they attempt to justify them. While the vaccines are not 'poison', as opponents of all kinds of vaccination decry, they're not miraculous either: they must be subjected to rigorous scientific evaluation just like any other medical intervention. The data from both Israel and Sweden confirm that vaccine efficacy against infection wanes substantially after about six months, while all the recent vaccine surveillance reports for the United Kingdom clearly show that the infection rate has been substantially higher here among the vaccinated than the unvaccinated, with large negative figures for unadjusted vaccine efficacy, in some demographics worse than -100%. That doesn't mean the vaccines don't work - they are still effective against hospitalisation and death - but it does mean the data doesn't support the logical premises of vaccine mandates.

We can no longer support the prior assumption that these vaccines are highly effective against spread (let alone more effective than natural infection, as the CDC bizarrely and falsely claimed), and we can no more expect to eliminate SARs-CoV2 with these vaccines than we can hope to eradicate influenza. Yet we are not permitted to say these things, because we must pretend that all vaccines are exactly the same, even though they patently are not, and we must maintain at all costs the (largely true) story that vaccines are safe, even though what makes vaccines 'safe', in the way we usually use that term, is the acquisition of long-term data about their safety. As Jennie Bristow cogently argued, acting rashly over new vaccines where only partial data exists risks driving up vaccine hesitancy for our successful childhood vaccination programmes that carry far greater community benefits. In this regard, diehard pro-vaxxers have become precisely that which they hate: spreaders of vaccine disinformation that risks discouraging life-saving vaccination programmes.

How did we leap straight to the imposition of these vaccines upon everyone, when we are still establishing the long-term safety and efficacy of these vaccines? Even the British Medical Journal raised an eyebrow when the FDA in the United States abruptly decided to declare 'these new vaccines are now approved', as if waving a magic wand to make the need for longitudinal studies disappear. Peter Doshi, senior editor at the BMJ was forced to remark regarding the draft proposal:

Prior to the preprint, my view, along with a group of around 30 clinicians, scientists, and patient advocates, was that there were simply too many open questions about all covid-19 vaccines to support approving any this year... I reiterate our call: "slow down and get the science right—there is no legitimate reason to hurry to grant a license to a coronavirus vaccine."

I am sympathetic to the terror people feel about this disease, a fear fostered by the irresponsible way the pandemic has been reported - some even mistakenly believe SARS-CoV2 is as deadly as smallpox. It's actually a hundred times less fatal, 0.3% versus 30% infection fatality rate. That doesn't mean this isn't a serious disease - measles typically has a comparable 0.2% infection fatality rate and we take that seriously - but neither does it mean we can avoid the role of evidence in both making and revising our decisions. We simply cannot afford to sacrifice good scientific practice to our fear, and like everything else in this miserably mishandled pandemic, we all swiftly jumped to our preferred conclusions early on and then proceeded to forcibly discount any and all evidence to the contrary.

We made this catastrophe together by shattering open scientific discourse through the same ugly, partisan politics that have blighted civic discourse for decades. If we could put a thousandth of the effort invested in denouncing our political opponents towards pursuing answers to the research ambiguities, we might have actually saved lives instead of just squabbling. Even now, rather than examining the data  and debating which policy changes might protect the vulnerable, some continue to exacerbate this destructive divide by falsely claiming that unvaccinated US citizens are 'overwhelming' hospitals. Yet at time of writing, Department of Health and Human Services data shows that only 15% of beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, and the September JAIC report shows that in the crucial 65+ age demographic, 71% of hospital patients for this disease were already vaccinated (up from 60% in August). That's not evidence the vaccines don't work - the age group was 80% vaccinated, which skews the ratios. But it is evidence that demonising the unvaccinated is little more than hateful scapegoating.

As I argued in my piece for the AIER (an organisation I never thought I would be writing for!), slow science is strong science. When we rush our understanding, we get it wrong. And not just the scientific implications, we get the moral implications wrong too. We kick black and Hispanic citizens out of society because they did not panic in the way that white people required them to panic. We unjustly dismiss the loyal service of police officers and nurses even after they heroically bore the risks of the pandemic through their dedicated service to us. We declare that the only good people are those who react to a new medical intervention with an unquestioning zeal that goes far beyond the evidence.

Worst of all, we destroy democracy in Africa over a disease that is far, far more serious in the global north. In the countries where you and I dwell, people are lucky enough to live to be over 80 and thus die of respiratory infections in their sunset years, rather than dying from preventable pneumonia under the age of five like those 22,000 black children who die in Senegal every year, whose black lives apparently do not matter one jot. Millions of poor children around the world die like this, as much from poverty as from the pneumonia that actually ends their lives. There's more than one kind of sickness worth worrying about.

On a more pleasant note, I must say that it is a perverse pleasure to hear you write openly about being "a religious person". For most people I talk to, that phrase means "Christian", and most Buddhists I know shy away from using the term 'religious' for that very reason. Wouldn't want to associate with Christians, would we... they, after all, are the most likely US citizens to decline the opportunity to vaccinate against SARS-CoV2. That is partly why black and Hispanic citizens living in New York make up such a significant proportion of the unvaccinated, because these communities are strongly Christian, although I don't want to ignore those mostly-white Catholics who are being denied religious exemptions from these draconian mandates, despite clearly having a sound legal basis for asserting such an exemption. 'Freedom' is such a negotiable term in the 21st century; a 'plastic word', as Sinéad Murphy suggests 'Health' has become... it is a wonder anyone can use either term with a straight face any more.

As you know, I'm moving back to the United States - at least, I will be as soon as my papers come through, which could take another year. My family has already been there for two months, and I miss them greatly. But I can't help but worry about the grave missteps being taken by the great country they are now living in. I worry especially about these measures that segregate the unvaccinated, which feels like the most shocking thing the US has done to its own citizens in my lifetime. Given that these vaccines are less effective than natural immunity at preventing spread, and given how many people have already carried the infection, why would we institute such unjust measures rather than just encouraging the vulnerable to get vaccinated for their own benefit? As Stanford university health economist Jay Bhattacharya laments: "Businesses that exclude the unvaccinated are, in effect, discriminating against the working class and the poor who have already suffered through the disease." Have we not inflicted enough harm on those who live on the edge of poverty without this further indignity?

I have been vaccinated against SARS-CoV2; I never got the infection to my knowledge, and at my age of not-quite-fifty the data shows I stand to benefit from substantially reduced risks of death or hospitalisation. But even though I've had the 'jab', and encourage others to do so where the benefits are clear-cut, I will not be able to comply with these monstrous policies that discriminate against the unvaccinated as if they were unclean, rather than merely at greater risk of dying from one specific cause of death (and not even that, if they already carried the infection!). I have had to resign my position at LCAD in California since they have decided to segregate and I simply cannot support an organisation that has chosen to do so, not under these circumstances. How could I look anyone in the eye knowing that I had endorsed segregation? And how can I see this as anything but segregation when I look at the data for this disease and for these vaccines...?

You tell me that it is wrong to call it segregation, because it is justified on medical grounds. But if that is so, then doesn't it follow that if those medical grounds are shown to rest upon mistaken assumptions (as they do), we should indeed call it segregation? You also tell me that we've done this before - but when? When have we forced vaccines that were still untested long-term onto anyone, much less upon everyone - even children for whom the risk-benefit calculus for these vaccines is so far from reasonable expectations that it would ordinarily constitute a scandal? When have we ever compelled the healthy, rather than the sick, to quarantine, unless you count the Jewish ghettos of the Middle Ages? Even in medieval epidemics, those doors that were marked as 'harbouring the plague' were those that were actually infected, although then too some who were seen as different were unjustly persecuted and blamed for what was happening... Then as now, we are projecting our fear of the virus onto those who we mark as 'unclean' and trying to foist blame onto them for nothing more than holding different values.

I realise there are many who will vociferously object to the way I am characterising these issues - perhaps including you yourself. Indeed, we have already clashed on Twitter over these vaccines and over my insistence on using the inflammatory (yet apposite) term 'segregation'. I might even get banned from Twitter for sharing this, for all I know, since it most certainly disagrees with their chosen interpretation of the data, and that is a global censoring offence these days. But I invite all those who disagree with me, as I invite anyone and everyone at all times, to write to me, and to discuss this immensely difficult topic with me in a civil and thoughtful manner. Help me to understand why it is acceptable for white people in wealthy nations to enforce their inadequately-researched doctrines of public health onto the world in such a way as it excludes large numbers of black and Hispanic citizens from participating in their own society, forces loyal public servants with natural immunity to lose their jobs for no good reason, and destroys democracy in African nations that had previously shown such beauty and hope.

You talk about 'karma' in your letter... As you know, I like to identify as a Zen Sufi Hindu Christian Discordian, and the concept of 'karma' I follow comes not from my Buddhist tradition (Zen) but from the Hindu traditions. Karma for many Hindus is a straightforward concept of cause and effect. It does not even require a mystical element, although it is often afforded that dimension. When we cause harm, harm returns to us, not by straight roads, but through the web of causality that links all things together. Karma for me, and for some other Hindus, is not a positive concept, it is the damage we cause through our actions; harms that we seek to keep as small and inconsequential as we can.

My Hindu concept of karma dovetails with my Christian concept of sin through the writings of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, after whom my first born is named. Kierkegaard writes of "the sickness unto death", by which he does not mean infection, but despair, which is what 'sin' means to him:

When death is the greatest danger, one hopes for life. But when one learns to know the even more horrifying danger, one hopes for death. When the danger is so great that death has become the hope, then despair is the hopelessness of not even being able to die.

So it is superficial... to remark of someone in despair, as though it were the penalty of despair, ‘They are eating themselves up.’ For that is just what they despair of doing, that is just what to their torment they cannot do, since with despair a fire takes hold in something that cannot burn, or cannot be burned up – the self.

This concept of sin, not as transgressions against a cosmic law but as suffering and as self-inflicted suffering aligns with the understanding of karma I get from Hindu scripture, because of course the despair we inflict upon ourselves all too often becomes a despair we inflict upon others, most evidently with suicide. And this is what I am seeing everywhere now - a great despair we have inflicted upon ourselves that we seem insistent must be inflicted everywhere. The new sickness unto death. Alienation from our love for one another, the collapse of the mutual respect upon which democracy depends, and an explosion of bigotry and scapegoating so hateful that we now rejoice at the deaths of those who disagree with us, instead of weeping together at every tragic loss of life. We can no longer find the solidarity championed by Ghandi or Martin Luther King, the universal love that for both Hindu and Christian is alone deserving of the hallowed name 'God' (Brahman). This infectious hatred of others is a disease far more dangerous than COVID-19, since the virus only threatens us with death yet this other sickness entails the far greater risk of utterly destroying our ability to live together.

It's not fashionable to talk of God. And it is rarely fashionable to talk about God in ways that straddle traditions. But I have never cared much for fashion. What I care about is people, our planet that we share, and the future that we might build together. That's why I don't care whether people have one religion, no religion, or many religions. I only care about caring, and striving to avoid causing inadvertent harm through our attempts to care - the ever-present yet oft-ignored risk at the very heart of this crisis. So I let myself care about everyone, and I cannot and will not set a limit on that love, nor exclude some arbitrary set of people from the universal love that flows through me from nowhere or from everywhere, depending upon how you choose to see it.

This new sickness unto death is as great a threat to what matters as anything that came before. I must oppose it with the only weapon I can permit myself to draw: my compassion. It is my fervent wish that you and others will come to stand in solidarity with me as we form a line to resist the darkness that engulfs our world. Hope is still kindled in my heart, and perhaps in yours, and no doubt in others too. Let us stand together in love against every despair that threatens our capacity to live together in peace.

With unlimited love,

Chris.

Only a Game returns in the Gregorian New Year.

Comments

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Came here from the writers' and artists' yearbook to read this deranged rant. I just wanted to read up on game design, for fuck's sake.

Dear Chris,

I have been something of a long-time lurker on your blogs as I always found this meeting of philosophy and game design most interesting. I have also a couple of years ago with great joy read your book on Imaginary Games. So I always circle back every once in a while and I'm incidentally about to embark upon reading Kierkegaard's "Enten Eller" (indeed in Danish) with a good friend in the near future.

I think your brief opening remarks on social media ring true in a lot of ways. Most of it does not facilitate real discussion. Even in this framework where I engage with your writing that is much longer than a Tweet and in a different way than by clicking a like button - it is still much different from for example a vis a vis conversation with people in your daily life, especially a continuous conversation with people you reliably see every day or every week.

You write about sickness as "Alienation from our love for one another, the collapse of the mutual respect upon which democracy depends, and an explosion of bigotry and scapegoating so hateful that we now rejoice at the deaths of those who disagree with us, instead of weeping together at every tragic loss of life."

Yet I don't know if these are all the most apt categories to analyse the strange machinations of the modern world (i.e. us/society). But it seems to me on most things we broadly agree.

We no doubt come from somewhat different lived realities as the USA if anything feel like a mirror-world to continental Europe. It is not something I can intuitively grasp but at best only intellectualize (and if any observations I hold about the USA are apt I don't know). Lived experience is the bedrock of our ideology, our worldview, as such I will not claim to truly hold any greater wisdom when I say that skin colour does not seem like a meaningful line of separation for a biological disease and the political counter-disease (if you like) to it.

In mainland Europe there are similar discussions. Italy has already months ago enforced a vaccine mandate for workers in the medical sector. Austria is also going to enforce one in the near future. And we have also had measures aimed to exclude the unvaccinated from certain things. There is of course a social dimension to this but to me it always seemed more innately about poverty (poor neighbourhoods in Germany also often had way higher rates of infection than rich neighbourhoods nearby for a myriad of reasons). Furthermore the rationale does not seem entirely unreal. In Germany the vaccine rates differ wildly between the states and in the states with the lowest vaccination rates (Saxony, Thuringia, Bavaria) we have now seen overflowing intensive care units, triage situations and exports of patients to other states with higher vaccination rates and remaining health care capacities. Furthermore there are tons of necessary operations which are getting postponed further and further, other second rates effects of such an ongoing situation (like depression or kids falling years behind in school) and on top of that the aforementioned states have responded with the toughest measures of all states. So it seems like a lose-lose situation. Per 100k citizens the death rate from Covid in Saxony is 5 times as high as in my state and generally the restrictions were always tougher (like curfews which there are none of here).

I agree that there is an element of trust that is vital for much of this. How Denmark, Spain and Portugal succeeded at getting relatively high vaccine rates was by personally inviting every citizen. Bremen, the smallest state in Germany, did the same thing and similarly has the highest vaccination rate in Germany.

I don't think vaccine mandates will work as well as many people believe. The experiment is similar to first kindly asking someone to do something and then over a year gradually upping the antics until concluding with: "but you must" as if that would solve all problems. Innately this does not seem like it would work but I don't have any stock in this, I don't believe to really know what will happen and above all I'm curious to see what will happen in Austria and probably soon Germany too.

The analogy between the vaccines and miracles - which you also evoke here - is one that has been made many times - and a million times more as an implicit hope.

Miracles are a curious field in philosophy, not one I am terribly educated about, but I fondly remember being introduced to the debate on miracles back at the introductory classes in Heidelberg (I believe we read Humes famous text). Though it seems to me if we apply this definition that a miracle is a transgression of the laws of nature, vaccines are if anything anti-miracles as they were precisely engineered by using what we know about the laws of nature. That they are treated as miracles shows if anything, that humanity has problems at grasping the world around them - which is not a damning indictment at all, I can not claim that I truly know how my toaster or my phone works, we are surrounded by things we do not understand and we will come up with all kinds of explanations post-hoc. This is a thought I will try to return to later.

In the more practical sense I found the public discourse on vaccines very alienating. They were treated with the exact same commodity fetishism as any other product. The former German health minister likened one of the vaccines (either Biontech/Pfizer or Moderna) to a Rolls Royce to highlight how great it was - he is a bank clerk by profession. Now of course Germany has an extra vested interest in this. From the vaccine profits alone Rheinland-Pfalz (a mid-sized German state in the south-west) was able to tip the economical balance and is now expected to not receive money from the "Länderfinanzausgleich" but to pay money into it for the first time since its creation in 1950 (note: "Länderfinanzausgleich" is simply a federal transfer system from the economically well off states in Germany to the less well off states) - this is because Biontech is located in Mainz. But still the aforementioned commodity fetishism seems telling about the world we live in.

If you'll excuse more quasi-Marxist thought-experiments: I find it increasingly enlightening to mirror the current world and its current political-economic systems in feudalism - which seems to me the only other grand scale system besides capitalism and authoritarian state socialism that have been tried (and I presume there are arguments to call the former USSR and China just different sides of capitalism, negative capitalism if you want). In the feudal age no one would have given a damn about vaccines. If your liege would have commanded you to take a vaccine, you'd have done it and the rest would have been forgotten to history. Indeed, one of the last real feudal states left - the UAE - has a vaccination rate of around 100 %. But don't misunderstand me, I agree entirely with Marx here, feudalism is terrifying and capitalism is true emancipation from these dark shackles and much preferrable.

However it seems to me with the digital world becoming ever more emergent in our lives, we arrive at strange new shores that can not duly be compared to the past. Indeed one could - as you have done - call us cyborgs, however I feel like we suck at being cyborgs because we are in the end very crude beings. A Hegellian approach to the colossal growth of readily available information at our fingertips might be to say that the growing information is in actuality growing misinformation in disguise (the negative is in the positive and vice-versa, they are the same organism). To me this seems to be the real sickness and more precisely in medical terms something that grows endlessly and devours its host is usually called cancer.

Varoufakis has coined the term neo-feudalism for what is going on in the current world of economics, politics and technology with new kinds of serfdom emerging. I think there is indeed a materialist side to this, one which works by disembowelment and which makes commodity fetishism into the bedrock of our ideologies as we see it mirrored everywhere - it appears to us as the essence of our society (I am not discounting myself here, this is if anything precisely an indictment of myself). And then on the more idealistic side there is the realization that the statement "we live in the information age" means to the exact same extent: "we live in the disinformation age". Truth is an institutional category. What your feudal liege tells you to do is the truth. Truth is still a concept we love today but how fruitful is it when deep down on the material side of things we believe in exchangeability? My truths are not different from my shoes. When they are broken, I'll throw them away and buy some new ones, truth is what is useful to us (in our current world). As such the notion of a common truth is inherently broken.

I think in truth this strange entanglement between growing material fatigue (in a multitude of ways) and an explosion (like a Big Bang) in the ideal world with a discourse that is more and more separate or unhinged from our lives and acts as an infinite mirror where I can find anything that suits and comforts me is what creates these symptoms you speak about. It is this emerging alienation which appears to me the main driving force. Everything else is an afterthought, a system of a deeper problem. We do not understand the world and this not understanding is too growing boundlessly in tandem with the growing information. At the same time we think that we have thrown god to the junkyard but he will only remerge with other faces. Gradually it reveals itself before us that the information age is the greatest religious age in human history yet but problematically whereas medieval Europe had just a handful of religions and a few heresies, we have thousands or millions of things to believe in. With every new bit of information we produce, we produce an even greater statis of not understanding the world and not understanding each other.

I think the Austrian philosopher Leopold Kohr was onto something when he suggested we should live in smaller worlds. It seems to me he was right when he said the only big problem is in mass. As such a way forward to a world that feels more whole might be to find a way back to a more manageable size. Ironically this is a gargantuan task.

Happy Holidays and all the best,

Tobias.

Dear Tobias and "your mum",
Thank you for your comments - especially Tobias', whose remarks are deep and thoughtful.

"your mum":
I think you are quite right to call this a "deranged rant". Deranged means, after all, beset by madness, and in an insane world the only kind of rant possible is either also deranged, or else in denial. I would rather be deranged than in denial, I suppose.

You don't really provide any specifics to your objections, though, and from your chosen sobriquet I assume you will not be back, but if you want to engage I will do so.

Tobias:
Thank you so much for these insightful remarks! There is so much I agree with here, and I will pick various things out in particular. Let me start by saying, however, that I am 'trapped between two continents' - while I am a British citizen, my wife and kids are all dual citizens of the US and the UK. As such, my perspective spans both Europe and the US, although I am surely more grounded in British culture than in Tennessee where I am certainly "an alien", however welcome I might be.

Though it seems to me if we apply this definition that a miracle is a transgression of the laws of nature, vaccines are if anything anti-miracles as they were precisely engineered by using what we know about the laws of nature. That they are treated as miracles shows if anything, that humanity has problems at grasping the world around them - which is not a damning indictment at all, I can not claim that I truly know how my toaster or my phone works, we are surrounded by things we do not understand and we will come up with all kinds of explanations post-hoc. This is a thought I will try to return to later.

An excellent insight - and an honest one! I'm not sure you did return to this, though, and I would gladly read more thinking along these lines. I think that the category of miracle is an important one, for first it was denied that miracles occur (which was Hume's point), and then it was claimed that technology produces miracles... but as you say, nothing could be further from the truth. Technologies achievements are by their very circumstances anti-miraculous, precisely as you say. Yet they bankroll via our science fiction the expectation of further miracles - which is to say, the expectation that the impossible will become possible by the revealing of new scientifically-discovered principles. And right there, in the midst of this, is a revelation as to nature of the deceit at the heart of science fiction, a lie that we still love to take as truth, because here (and only here) we may still defend an expectation of miracles, and thus "rationally oppose rationality".

If you'll excuse more quasi-Marxist thought-experiments:

Of course! I love thought-experiments, although I am suspicious of them, as I have written previously. And 'quasi-Marxist' isn't a category I have any particular problem with. I'm not a Marxist, but I don't have any difficulty talking to Marxists, and I readily understand why Marx' categories have survived. After all, they are (ironically) the foundation of capitalist philosophy! :)

I presume there are arguments to call the former USSR and China just different sides of capitalism, negative capitalism if you want

I couldn't directly attribute this to someone, but it's hard to avoid that conclusion. This hilarious juxtaposition of 'Capitalist' heads against 'Communist' tails is still trading the exact same coinage, after all.

A Hegellian approach to the colossal growth of readily available information at our fingertips might be to say that the growing information is in actuality growing misinformation in disguise (the negative is in the positive and vice-versa, they are the same organism). To me this seems to be the real sickness and more precisely in medical terms something that grows endlessly and devours its host is usually called cancer

Quite so! And supportively, Raimon Pannikar remarks: "If the acceleration - in this age of the machine - continues to grow unabated, it will be more and more impossible to stop. Grow or die, we are told. But there seems to be no appreciation of the fact that rampant growth means cancer, in all orders."

And then on the more idealistic side there is the realization that the statement "we live in the information age" means to the exact same extent: "we live in the disinformation age".

I have not seen this inversion previously, but you are quite right! And indeed the very act of drawing out 'information' (rather than knowledge) is part and parcel of the whole problem...

My truths are not different from my shoes. When they are broken, I'll throw them away and buy some new ones, truth is what is useful to us (in our current world). As such the notion of a common truth is inherently broken.

Aye, up to a point. But people will in fact hold on to both truth and shoes, even while it is causing great harm to them, if the alternative is too fearful to face. Just my lack of desire to go to a shoe shop is enough to cause me to hang onto my shoes long after they start giving me blisters, and how much more do people value their own truths than their shoes...

Gradually it reveals itself before us that the information age is the greatest religious age in human history yet but problematically whereas medieval Europe had just a handful of religions and a few heresies, we have thousands or millions of things to believe in. With every new bit of information we produce, we produce an even greater statis of not understanding the world and not understanding each other.

I tend to talk about nonreligion, to allow for the fact that the practictioners of this plenitude of nonreligions expressly see themselves as nonreligious. But I cannot deny what you say here. It is Charles Taylor's Nova Effect, and what I call in Chaos Ethics the Chaos Nova, after Taylor - and learning to live with it is precisely the problem, and the reason that an apparently unitary position - however wrong - is appealing in so much that enough people seem to be following it. How much longer can we permit the harms that flow from that, I wonder...

I think the Austrian philosopher Leopold Kohr was onto something when he suggested we should live in smaller worlds. It seems to me he was right when he said the only big problem is in mass. As such a way forward to a world that feels more whole might be to find a way back to a more manageable size. Ironically this is a gargantuan task.

Aye, it is absolutely unthinkable that we could form smaller worlds. But on this front - see the serial that is starting next week, "the Ascenturian Saga", as it is highly relevant to what I discuss in part two.

Many, many thanks for this thoughtful reflection, Tobias! It is comments like this that make enduring the horror of social media worthwhile, and why I still value my blog above all other channels.

Bless you and all who know you - a rather self-fulfilling blessing, I suspect!

Chris.

Dear Chris,

I get back to you over a month later but I want to kindly thank you for your enthusiastic response, which I have read weeks ago already but haven't found the time to fully reply to yet. I also want to add that I'm very excited to read your new series of posts which indeed (from skimming) seems to relate to science fiction.

I like your point about the shoes a lot and I think it rings true to a double sidedness of this relationship. While in society our meta-conception of truth has taken a somewhat relative turn, the value placed in identity has dramatically increased. Our truths like our clothing style defines us, conceding a point to someone else is often connoted not with a step in a dialectic search for truth or wisdom but with embarrassment. It's like you give up a part of yourself, not inherently so at all, after all a world where we think differently about such processes is imaginable but this fashion seems characteristic of our society, also relative to the social sub-groups our identities place us in. It is of course not the only moment. I could also simply find it convenient to stick to my truths, much like I'd stick to worn out shoes, a half-broken chair or a cranky PC fan that occasionally produces a grinding noise. I mean it still does the job, right?

Note: In cases like those described at the end, it's sometimes interesting that you only see how much this change was worth relative to the cost and/or effort after you've finally done it (like the fan issue that's totally not taken from my life). Maybe in some ways this can relate to truths as well, at least to the extent of their practical appliance or their consequences. Along these lines the problem would present itself as such: you do not want to change your ways but would want to if you had experienced the alternative. So, in some ways change presents itself like a chicken-egg problem. If you don't lay an egg, you'll never hatch a chicken.

Your allusion to Taylor and the Nova reminds me of the last chapter in your book, Imaginary Games - where you among other things make the point that truth could be understood like a competitive game. I think this is also a very salient observation about our society as indeed our market principles of competition seem to widen themselves to other spheres as all market tendencies have the habit of doing. Immanently in such a system our role as consumer and producer seems to define our lived reality. However, I think - and I remember you must have wrote at length about this as well - that games can be far more than just competitive and that even competitive games can be understood and played in different ways. For instance, you can go into a debating tournament with different rhetorical tactics, but you can also go into it with different mindsets. Your point in partaking could be primarily to win but it could also be primarily about having a good time, meeting other people, even about trying to break out of your social role and play someone else (in a debate that's the advocatus diaboli, a game me and my friends liked to play quite a bit in high school), etc.

If we apply this thinking to truths, they appear even more fragmentary, like a nova of novas as not just our truths would differ but also our objectives in having them. Though of course here we may assume a relative similarity. In the grand scheme of things, we probably all to some degree and depending on the situation think the way we think because we want social affirmation, the “fake it till you make it” version of peer pressure if you want (we take on a belief because of societal pressure at first and gradually make it our own) - though I am convinced that peer pressure at the very least has some positive moderating effects in forcing us to reflect. A problem in post-modern society might be that we often only experience true peer pressure from our various in-groups (those who kind of think like we do anyway), not the out-groups. Our "bubble" would only allow us to diverge that far from the centre before peer pressure becomes too big and maybe that is still too far away from other bubbles to make contact.

The particularity of truth is something many modern and post-modern philosophers have spoken about in one way or the other. Nietzsche was one of the first modern philosophers to assess, that our conception of truth is mainly an instrument of dominance and is far removed from the thing itself (particularly in the translation process in-between sensory impulse, initial reaction, and later language categories). Nietzsche preferred the way of art over the way of ordinary truth, much like Camus (in fact it seems Camus takes this largely from Nietzsche). Deflationists argue that saying a sentence is true is not inherently different from simply saying the sentence. Wittgenstein much in correspondence with the deflationist view had the distinction between knowledge and belief be the way we talk about (the level of conviction), nothing metaphysical.

Adorno frames it in the way of non-identity (between language and object but also between the universal and the particular) which allows him to place special value on the particular, while however keeping Hegel’s truth of the whole around. In general, I find the Hegelian position that Adorno and others take fascinating because it allows us to think of truth in another way, namely the truth of our conditions. For instance, someone like Trump, even though he lied all the time, could be deemed to be the truth of the US-American conditions, a manifestation of economical and societal developments. Hegel of course made the famous example with the flower. The bud is not the truth of the flower, but neither is the blossom, the truth is the whole of the flower or even the ecosystem at large, yet the individual stages are manifestations (or appearances) of this greater truth.

If we go back to the bubbles this is precisely the problem, the whole of society eludes us probably much more than in previous times. One very practical example is that people don’t watch the same media anymore. 30 years ago if there was something on TV a lot of people in your social surroundings might have seen that as well which made it possible to talk about it. However, if shared experiences more and more elude us, it becomes harder to find a basis for talk. Here I mentioned media because I think it to a large extend shapes our worldview and as such it is relevant. I alluded to this already (also with the feudalism example) but I think much of the vaccine scepticism is also reflected in and largely caused by an entire parallel media ecosystem that I doubt you or me for instance consume much of.

Perhaps many would deem it paradoxical that the whole eludes us more than in previous times. What did medieval peasants in Europe know of Japan for instance? Don’t we know the whole better than them? In the grand-scale implication of the whole this is maybe true, however in the small-scale way (e.g. knowing our neighbours well) it is very likely false and it is precisely the later which actually forms the basis of our lives and where we could directly change things. This is what I tried to allude to in my previous post as well. I think we have a universality crisis (which you talk about as well in your allusions to Ghandi and Martin Luther King) that seems to arise out of a particularity crisis.

I’m sorry if I got a bit carried away with the length of the post but I wish you all the best and am excited to get around to read your new blog entries in the coming weeks.

All the best

Tobias

Dear Tobias,
From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for these thoughts you are sharing. You apologise for making your comments too long - please know that I accept every word as a gift, and that in no way should you consider it necessary to say sorry for giving more of yourself rather than less. If you had written just a dozen words, I would be grateful to you. You give me a hundred times that, and so a hundred times more do I thank you for writing.

I'm going to pick out just one paragraph to reply to, partly because so much of what you say I agree with, and partly because it is my desire that the conversation moves forward. Alas, I have to come to accept that the path I tried to open with this letter failed, and that it only reaches those who already understand the injustice we have allowed to happen.

Here is the paragraph that I think warrants further comment:

If we go back to the bubbles this is precisely the problem, the whole of society eludes us probably much more than in previous times. One very practical example is that people don’t watch the same media anymore. 30 years ago if there was something on TV a lot of people in your social surroundings might have seen that as well which made it possible to talk about it. However, if shared experiences more and more elude us, it becomes harder to find a basis for talk. Here I mentioned media because I think it to a large extend shapes our worldview and as such it is relevant. I alluded to this already (also with the feudalism example) but I think much of the vaccine scepticism is also reflected in and largely caused by an entire parallel media ecosystem that I doubt you or me for instance consume much of.

Aye, you are exactly at the root of the matter here - or rather, here you expose the absence of the roots, and thus why the forest was knocked down all-too-easily. We do not share common experience, and so it is harder for us to talk. This is where we fail. It is all the worse for the attempt to sustain the illusion of a unified experience by the legacy media. By shutting down dissent, certain media organisations project the idea that there is a common truth that we must share, and thus those who do not share in this truth can and must be vilified. This is a pattern we have seen before, a grim pattern...

Yet the mark of truth is never that it must silence those who disagree. For if it were indeed truth, there would be no need to silence dissent. Truth is that which resists objections. Truth is that that crosses between worlds. When one has to resort to censorship to stop something that is claimed to be lies, there is fear afoot, and truth will be scattered and no longer found where we expect it. That is the dark place we have reached.

You say, in this paragraph, that you doubt that either of us participate in the parallel media ecosystem where vaccine scepticism is reflected. You are somewhat mistaken. I go where I am needed, and I have (with some reluctance...) had to go there, to listen to the anti-vaxxers, and those who oppose the mandates but not the vaccines, and to those who support vaccination but oppose these vaccines. I will not say I've read it all - how could anyone claim this now! - but I have read more than you would expect. I have read much that I have disagreed with, and I have read some of what it is fashionable to dismiss as 'conspiracy theories' that is mostly paranoia, and I have also read many things that are widely dismissed as 'conspiracy theories' despite being founded on true claims.

I have read scientists who have been censored and excluded, who have been hounded and suffered death threats, all for reporting what their own scientific work revealed to them, their face of the truth. We can only ever see one face of the truth, since we can only stand in one place, although we can listen to others and see further, which I always endeavour to achieve.

Many have been driven into this parallel media ecosystem you mention because they cannot be heard elsewhere, although this shadowlands you speak off actually shades into the mainstream in places - there is a continuum, even here, in the media. It is not so much a parallel ecosystem so much as the whole thing is, as the name 'www' attests, a web, with connections between the mainstream, the not-so-mainstream, and the entirely removed from the mainstream.

The official story is that anti-vaxxers are against science, and have the facts wrong. I can now report that this is not an adequate description. The so-called anti-vaxxers have some of the facts and have a fair share of mistakes too, mistakes that warrant an open debate that has been denied to them. Yet among these people are also those who have not obviously made any mistakes, and whose grasp of the scientific matters is far better than might be expected. How can this be?

The sad truth of where we are at now is that the pro-vaxxers are regrettably just as anti-science as those they are reacting to, if not more so. They also have the facts wrong, indeed, a great many of the facts wrong. Perhaps this is not surprising - those for whom the name 'anti-vaxxer' is an abomination can only fall into moral horror when they encounter the enemy that negatively defines their beliefs, and one should never determine what one believes negatively, by saying "I believe whatever they don't believe!"

If I had known, when I first encountered someone with anti-vaccine views, decades ago, that views like these would eventually give rise to pro-vaxxers who would ride roughshod over civil rights, ignore the established principles by which medical safety has traditionally been established, and shatter the norm of informed consent that was supposed to be enshrined in law, perhaps I would have approached this whole issue differently. But the anti-vaxxers I met were a threat to no-one. They were essentially homeopaths, practitioners of alternative medicine. How could I know that leaving this issue untouched could lead to such brutal harms? How could anyone know...?

We wield this term 'anti-science' to mean 'dangerous fools', rather than (as would be more honest) 'people who disagree with my chosen interpretation of the facts'. What is truly anti-science, perhaps the only thing that could deserve this name, is censorship of scientific debate. For in the absence of disagreements, when discussions are prevented, then the practice of science is itself destroyed. At the heart of this tragedy is precisely that: the destruction of scientific practice.

I choose to believe that this is a temporary aberration, for the alternative would be to yield to despair, and this I will not do. And I'm afraid this discussion, long deferred, can no longer be avoided. It is going to be necessary to face up to what just happened, and that is going to entail opening up a discussion about vaccines that has a high risk of being just as intractable as the non-debate concerning abortion. Yet it is now unavoidable that this discussion must happen. My hope is that it will end with the establishment of an understanding about public health that can endure in accord with a renewal of our civil rights. But this path will not be opened easily.

Before I conclude this reply, a small request: although I will certainly never say you cannot continue this or any other discussion, I invite you to take our conversation forward elsewhere. Consider engaging with the Ascenturian Saga rather than continuing this discussion, or with any other piece you like. I say this for one reason: this letter failed. Continuing to push here will not help, so we ought to push elsewhere. If you feel you must say more, do so and know it will be welcomed. But let us see if we cannot move the conversation forward, somehow, somewhere, anywhere we can.

I will leave you with a quote from Martin Luther King's Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant."

I stand with right temporarily defeated against evil triumphant. But that evil is not the people, but the ignorance and fear that has driven them mad. Eventually the light will get in again.

With unlimited love,

Chris.

Post-scriptum: The main reason this letter fails is that people are wildly uninformed about the vaccine mandates and the treatments being mandated. This tragic situation sprang from systematic failures in health care communication, exacerbated by media censorship. This has lead to nonsensical positions being asserted as if they were in the benefit of public health.

To anyone with a genuine interest in understanding these issues, the best paper currently available is the SSRN preprint, "The Unintended Consequences of COVID-19 Vaccine Policy: Why Mandates, Passports, and Segregated Lockdowns May Cause more Harm than Good"
https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4022798

I heartily recommend this paper as an entry point into the issues surrounding this grotesque public health failure.

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