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Steve Fuller   Apr 17, 2020  

Thinking in Four Orders
One can imagine four orders of thinking about the COVID-19 crisis, or indeed, any pandemic:

  1. First order: Winning the fight over the virus. This is defined nation by nation, and mainly for domestic consumption. Here one should expect considerable variation.
  2. Second order: Winning the fight over what ‘winning the fight’ means. This is defined at an international level, probably by the World Health Organization. It may end up invalidating some of the first-order claims.
  3. Third order: Winning the fight over the lessons to learn from winning the fight. This is defined by whether people want to go back to ‘business as usual’ with minimal disruption or take the crisis as an opportunity for ‘no more business as usual’.
  4. Fourth order: Winning the fight over what the lessons learned mean more broadly. This is how the crisis comes to define who we are – and in that sense, we come to ‘own’ the crisis as having made us stronger by not killing us.

These four strands of thought are ‘ordered’ logically, in the sense that the later ones presuppose some sort of closure on the earlier ones. But of course, temporally speaking, all four orders are discussed simultaneously, though over time the different orders are gradually disaggregated to become associated with discussions about the ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ of the pandemic. What Hegel and others have called the ‘logic of history’ begins from this awareness. Thus, ‘fourth order’ talk about the pandemic effectively refers to its long term legacy. This is the frame of mind in which a movement called ‘transhumanist’ should adopt when thinking about the pandemic’s events as they unfold.

Arguably the last crisis to have substantial fourth order effects was the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. Based on the records of the time, seismologists estimate that it registered 8-9 on the Richter scale, which is unprecedented in living memory. (The California earthquakes of the past fifty years have registered 6-7 and the even the 1995 Kobe, Japan earthquake registered only 7.) Moreover, Lisbon was still a major city in the mid-eighteenth century. Nevertheless it lost at least a quarter of its population and Portugal nearly halved its GDP. The earthquake’s shock waves were felt as far away as Finland, North Africa and possibly the Caribbean. The major philosophers of the time – including Voltaire, Rousseau and Kant – wrote extensively about it. Generally speaking, it shook up not only faith in God’s benevolence – if not his very existence – but also faith in humanity’s own ability to tame the forces of nature through ‘civilization’. These doubts about God and humans capture Voltaire’s and Rousseau’s respective contributions. Voltaire left the greater literary legacy, the satirical Candide, while Rousseau cast the longer shadow on the entire Enlightenment mindset that they originally shared. As for Kant, his essays on the earthquake introduced the metaphor of ‘firm/shaky foundations’ for knowledge claims, which have become a staple of philosophical and even popular discourse in the modern period. Kant’s contribution proved to be the ultimate fourth order effect of the crisis.


Thinking in the Fourth Order: The Role of Metalepsis

For the current pandemic to have similar impact on our postmodern psyche, it would need to be lifted out of the realm of metaphor. In more precise rhetorical terms, the pandemic would need to become metaleptic. To see what I mean, recall that metaphors are usually intended to be quite limited in scope, which is typically what makes them appear striking yet also ‘merely’ figurative. ‘The early bird catches the worm’ works as a piece of wisdom just as long as one doesn’t dwell for too long on how the connection between, on the one hand, birds and worms and, on the other, humans and their goals is supposed to work. The ‘magic’ of the aphorism lies in its constructive ambiguity: The listener has considerable discretion in how s/he completes the meaning of what has been said. To be sure, some – especially evolutionary psychologists – may believe that the underlying causal process in both the avian and human cases is substantially the same. In that case, the metaphor acquires the status of an analogy, which is then pursued scientifically in terms of more detailed possible correspondences between avian and human behavior, genetics, etc. The fate of that exercise is normally an empirical matter, with the expectation that the analogy will prove true in some respects but not in others. However, sometimes in the course of inquiry the two sides of the analogy effectively reverse roles. Thus, instead of asking whether birds can explain what humans do, whereby humans set the standard that needs to be met, we simply presume that birds explain what humans do, in which case the burden of proof is placed on the humans to explain why they deviate from avian expectations when they do. At that point, the metaphorical is rendered literal, and we enter the intellectual wormhole that is metalepsis.

Deep conceptual revolutions are metaleptic. The world literally comes to be seen from an entirely different point of view. We know that it is ‘an entirely different point of view’ because something that had previously been an object of our knowledge is now constitutive of how we know the world. We don’t see the sun; rather we see as the sun. We have come to inhabit ‘the other’ to make it part of our lifeworld. Thomas Kuhn (1962) famously caught glimpse of this insight when he likened revolutions in science to Gestalt switches. Recall that Kuhn’s main historical example was the Copernican Revolution, which involved learning to make sense of the heavenly motions as if one were not planted on Earth here and now but rather located anywhere (everywhere?) in space-time. In Christian theological terms, the revolution was about humanity abandoning its animal identity (i.e. Aristotle) in favor of its divine identity (i.e. Newton). This point had been explicitly raised a few years earlier by the crypto-Cosmist French historian and philosopher of science, Alexandre Koyré in From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (1959). The Harvard historian of physics Gerald Holton later added more detail to this insight in The Thematic Origins of Modern Science (1973), in which he revived a late nineteenth century German conception of scientific theories as Weltbilder, or ‘world constructions’.

The basic intuition, once again, is metaleptic: If we say that the ‘world is a machine’, then the machine is not simply a metaphor or even an analogy that generates testable hypotheses. It is more than that: It is a normative standard to which we hold the world accountable. That which does not behave mechanically is deemed deviant and potentially problematic because it violates the terms of what is possible – or more to the point, permissible – in this Weltbild. When we speak of the ‘hegemony’ enjoyed by something called the ‘Newtonian world-view’ from the late seventeenth to the late nineteenth centuries, this is what we mean. Of course, no Weltbild lasts forever – at least as a continuous entity. What Kuhn called a ‘scientific revolution’ occurs through the systematic reversal of metalepsis. In practice, this means that a ‘paradigm’ (Kuhn’s proxy for Weltbild) has accumulated so many unsolved problems over a long period that the paradigm is thrown into what Kuhn himself called ‘crisis’, whereby what had previously functioned as a norm is rolled back to an analogy whose hypothetical status then renders it vulnerable to still more attacks. This in turn invites candidates for the paradigm’s replacement, one of which metaleptically emerges as the ‘new normal’ for the world that will have been constructed. In effect, we wake up from one dream, only to be captured by another. And so Newton came to replace Aristotle, and Einstein Newton. Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers may have been right, after all.

Now the idea of Weltbild is itself inherently ambiguous with regard to the relevant sense ‘construction’ – or ‘building’, etymologically speaking. When this term first circulated among physicists, it was in the spirit of a ‘world picture’, a kind of systematic image of the world, a term associated with Weltanschauung (‘world-view’), the modern idea of ‘aesthetic perception’, which Kant adapted for his own purposes in the Critique of Judgement shortly after its coinage in the late eighteenth century. However, the unprecedented carnage of the First World War resulted in much literal ‘building’ of European infrastructure and institutions – often from the ground up. In this context, Rudolf Carnap and his fellow logical positivists began to interpret Weltbild more concretely as Aufbau, a term that Niels Bohr had recently brought into scientific usage to describe how matter was built up from atoms, but which also had currency in the ongoing ‘modernist’ (Bauhaus) revolution in architecture. The positivists spun the meaning of Aufbau to comport with Kant’s earlier metaphorical innovation of ‘foundations’ from the Lisbon earthquake. Twentieth century philosophy’s signature preoccupation with establishing ‘firm’ foundations for knowledge, morals, etc., is a consequence of this particular feat of metalepsis. Earlier philosophers – even ones like Descartes who sought certainty in all things – did not envisage the task in such concrete terms. Nevertheless, in the spirit of a Gestalt switch, Descartes and most of the same historical figures continued to be discussed after this revolution in philosophy – except that their respective strengths and weaknesses as thinkers looked somewhat different, sometimes radically so.


Thinking about the Pandemic Metaleptically

If the crisis surrounding COVID-19 holds the same metaleptic potential, what might that be? To be sure, the idea that fatal illness might have an alien airborne source is far from new. The etymological kinship of ‘influenza’ and ‘influence’ in the early modern period provides a natural start to this story. However, originally the discussion was not metaphorical at all. People actually thought that the motion of the heavenly bodies (somehow) caused people to become ill, depending on their birthdays. Moreover, this ‘illness’ was conceived in psychosomatic terms – that is, not confined to either the mind or the body. Such were the ways of astrology. As astrology faded as an acceptable Weltanschauung, ‘influenza’ and ‘influence’ came to be associated with different causal streams, effectively reduced to ‘mere’ metaphor. Psychoanalysis has been arguably the strongest ‘scientific’ standard bearer of the old astrological line over the past five hundred years. (Here Carl Jung deserves ‘full marks’.) Otherwise the default tendency has been for a greater disaggregation of ‘influence’ and ‘influenza’, periodically punctuated by controversy whenever someone seemed to  allege a closer connection, as when Richard Dawkins modelled ‘meme’ on ‘gene’ in The Selfish Gene (1976). However, a close reading of Dawkins reveals that the real model for the meme was the virus – that is, free-floating strands of DNA that require a host to replicate and potentially alter the host’s genetic makeup. And so the move to metalepsis might begin.

Here it is worth recalling that the ‘virus’ as an entity distinct from ‘genes’ or ‘germs’ dates no earlier than 1898 (due to the Dutch botanist, Martinus Beijerinck), despite various premonitions that such an entity might exist. And even that was a half-century before the DNA revolution in molecular biology could begin the explain viruses properly. But perhaps more to the point, it was long before viruses began to be engineered by biomedical scientists to produce potentially permanent changes in the genetic makeup of organisms. The spirit of the activity is one of simulating what is known in evolutionary theory as ‘horizontal gene transfer’, whereby genes are transmitted between two species that are not directly related in conventional taxonomic terms -- such as bat-to-human, in the purportedly original case of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China. Of course, there is an obvious difference between what genetic engineers in laboratory and clinical settings do and what nature does when mutating viruses spontaneously. The former is deliberate and therapeutic in intent, while the latter is arbitrary and indifferent – at least from a human standpoint. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to draw a clearer line of battle – marked by the virus -- between humanity wanting to turn nature for its own purposes and nature having a mind of its own.

Insofar as transhumanists consider genetic engineering as a central feature of their armament, they need to accept that nature can and will use the same weapon against them. To be sure, in the late nineteenth century, Louis Pasteur famously put the entire French nation on a war footing with regard to ‘microbes’ as the ‘invisible enemy’. His metaphor stuck and was extended across biomedicine in the twentieth century, in which many diseases became ‘silent killers’. However, the occurrence of a pandemic at this stage in scientific history potentially carries metaleptic import because we now know enough about viruses to be able to generate them not simply by accident, but on purpose. Little surprise, then, that US President Donald Trump among others have floated the idea that COVID-19 was somehow ‘manufactured’ in Wuhan. In any case, it put long-standing ecological concerns about humanity’s relationship to nature on a much more literal footing, rendering it ‘up close and personal’. 

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. From 2011-14, he published three books with Palgrave Macmillan on ‘Humanity 2.0’. His next book, due out in Autumn 2017 from Anthem Press, is on ‘post-truth’.

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