The great uncertainty of the impact of the Covid-19 disease wreaks fear and doubt in many. In a world that longs for certainty, we have met our match.
For much of our human history, we have thought of the future as ‘a terrifyingly unknowable blur’. More lately, full of increasing knowledge and with the creation of forecasting models, we have come to view the future as a linear extrapolation of the past.
We call it risk management and many, in particular hedge funds managers, have become rich by using such tools and pretending that they know how to be certain in an uncertain world. But there are limits to it.
Margaret Heffernan, in her book, ‘Uncharted’, identifies the folly of this type of extrapolation: we figured out the financial crisis of 2008, so we will figure out other crises.
To navigate the unknown—and the outcomes of the coronavirus situation is one such—one has to use all available tools, including what is in your peripheral vision. You can drive with the use of a GPS but do not ignore what else you see.
You simply should not put all your eggs in one basket, so to speak. You need to collect as much data from sources as diversified as possible. You increase your success rate by so doing.
Professor Theodore Lewis poses, yet unsatisfactorily, answers how to deal with uncertainty in his April 21 Express column, ‘Covid-19 and the limits of faith’. He argues that ‘pure, unvarnished truth’ can arise from researchers, statisticians, epidemiologists and the clinicians and that human hope now resides in the ‘great universities and laboratories’.
He suggests that ‘we have […] a disease that has the potential to decimate mankind […] and we see that here we come to the limits of faith’.
This is not a view sustained by science, which sees itself as changing the way we think about the world. Science is, itself, a grasping for truth or facts through a specific approach to answer life’s existential questions. We solve questions not by just questioning the question itself but by realising the implicit prejudice that exists in the way we think about the problem.
There is often no immediate nirvana, no magic bullet. The vaccine to combat smallpox took nearly 180 years to develop. Our HIV/AIDS experience teaches that nothing is certain, and everything takes time—the vaccine is yet to come while it took us nearly two decades to develop anti-retroviral therapy which staves off the mortality risks.
We understand something new, either by new data that has arrived or by thinking more deeply about what we already know. We see the daily twists as global medical and scientific professionals wrestle with the stealthy virus. What we thought we knew is upended as new facts bring new learnings.
To think deeply, we have to accept what we already have learnt, challenge what we think and know that there are some things we may have to modify or change. This is why it is difficult for some to accept that a non-pharmaceutical solution, social distancing, works well in the absence of a vaccine.
There is no need to dispense with our faith in God established through experiences. What is needed is to challenge what we think we know and be prepared to modify or change our views.
Science and religious faith are but two sides of the same human impulse to understand the world. We should not try to let one usurp the other’s role; that is simply unnecessary.
Today, we witness the exponential growth of human knowledge—IBM estimates that, in 2020, doubling knowledge will take place every 12 hours!—and simultaneously, the reduction in time to prove that half of the knowledge or facts in a particular area is untrue.
Yet we still grapple with some large problems such as ‘why did the universe come into existence? Why is it ‘exactly right’ for life?
Like with William Henry’s discovery of the circulation of blood, we can be stumped because we do not know how it happens at first. So we need to ask, ‘is there some persistent structure in life even when we do not see it?’
In this, we should hesitate to lay aside our faith.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s plea was mischaracterised. His advice re following the advice of experts was in the context of ‘how to walk in faith, resist fear, and support those who are most vulnerable’. This order of action is eminently sensible and is akin to the advice given on planes re the oxygen masks in times of emergency.
The representation of Pope Francis’ urging of priests in Italy is not a complete one. Taking active care of those who are ill and stigmatised is core to the mission of the Church Universal, even when we consider its warts. Martin Luther is another example of this type of faith in times of pestilence.
Indeed, the sterling point of difference about Pope Francis is his care for the marginalised. Locally, we see the faithful extending their arms and their money to those in need. This is not limited to the Living Water Community and FEEL. The story of the Good Samaritan is a worthy template.
The urgings of these religious leaders for us to build community as a bulwark against the ravages of the diseases, are valid. As former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has suggested, we will not lick this virus unless there is a global united fight, all hands must be on board. Each of us have a role to play.
The other option is to be isolationist and think that you will be able to adapt without help. That does not line up with our life experiences about success.