Roman bronze bust of the late 1st century BC, assumed to represent Hesiod, thought to be a copy of a lost Greek original of ca. 200 BC. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. Photograph: Marie-Lan Nguyen
Roman bronze bust of the late 1st century BC, assumed to represent Hesiod, thought to be a copy of a lost Greek original of ca. 200 BC. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. Photograph: Marie-Lan Nguyen

Chaos and COVID-19

COVID-19 has seem­ing­ly thrown the world into “chaos”, tak­ing away safe­ness and cer­tain­ty that had been tak­en for grant­ed, and prompt­ed us per­son­al­ly to pre­cip­i­tate launch­ing loico, with all the lim­i­ta­tions such a move impli­cates. Now that we have start­ed and are mov­ing toward the loico new nor­mal, we may as well pick up one or the oth­er sub­ject of inter­est along the way as regards log­ic and log­i­cal fal­lac­i­es that may have impli­ca­tions for actu­al deci­sion mak­ing.

I just read a state­ment by promi­nent Italian virol­o­gist Ilaria Capua say­ing:

“There are many, many things that we do not know and about which many peo­ple won­der and unfor­tu­nate­ly sci­ence has a long, very long time to get to its rel­a­tive cer­tain­ties. A sea of uncer­tain­ty envelops us and dis­ori­ents us. We do not even know how much the infec­tion has cir­cu­lat­ed and spread in Italy because sam­pling is not rep­re­sen­ta­tive and pro­ce­dures are not har­mo­nized. So any esti­mate is only an esti­mate and as such intrin­si­cal­ly wrong – we just have to under­stand how much”.1

Ms. Capua’s words appear to be quite lit­er­al­ly refer­ring to chaos. Unfortunately, she does not seem to be get­ting the log­ic of chaos exact­ly right. Having the wrong log­ic mixed into deci­sion mak­ers’ imag­i­na­tion car­ries the risk that wrong deci­sions are pon­dered and even­tu­al­ly tak­en.

First, as should be obvi­ous, an “esti­mate” does by def­i­n­i­tion not give a pre­cise val­ue. It gives an approx­i­mate val­ue in order to pro­vide direc­tion­al ori­en­ta­tion. When decid­ing to pur­chase stocks in order to obtain future cash flows meant to aid in retire­ment, it is “per­fect­ly clear” that those future cash flows are intrin­si­cal­ly uncer­tain. Does that make our esti­mate of them “intrin­si­cal­ly wrong”? No, and not even “wrong”, as long as we some­how remain in the right ball park. All we care about is that the pur­chased assets will like­ly yield some­thing like a “decent” return. It can­not be deemed but unfor­tu­nate when an influ­en­tial pub­lic fig­ure adds to the already per­va­sive log­i­cal con­fu­sion by say­ing that “an esti­mate … as such [is] intrin­si­cal­ly wrong”.

Second, if we seek to be per­fect­ly pre­cise, we will quick­ly acknowl­edge that esti­mates are real­ly all we have any­way. There is not and – as we will dis­cuss in due length and detail on this site – can­not be what we imag­ine when we think of “pre­ci­sion”. The math­e­mat­i­cal “point” does not exist. Period. In actu­al­i­ty, every­thing is, most things less, some things more, chaot­ic. Even Swiss watch­es, as we know, suc­cumb to the influ­ence of grav­i­ta­tion, and celes­tial bod­ies hov­er around to a mea­sur­able yet only part­ly pre­dictable extent under the influ­ence of a num­ber of oth­er such bod­ies.

Which is per­fect­ly log­i­cal, there­fore to be accept­ed and dealt with appro­pri­ate­ly instead of being viewed as an unsur­mount­able prob­lem.

Hesiod, the “father of Greek didac­tic poet­ry”, fea­tured in the image above this post, famous­ly stat­ed: “In the begin­ning, chaos came into being.” Chaos essen­tial­ly denotes inde­ter­mi­nate­ness, and more “pre­cise­ly” so than this lat­ter word does: the “in-” express­es dis­tinc­tion from what “in-” relates to, while what “chaos” seeks to express is the total absence of dis­tinc­tion.

Hegel stat­ue in Hegelplatz behind Berlin University. Photograph: loico.com

2500 years lat­er, the log­ic con­tained with­in Hesiod’s sen­tence was high­light­ed by the German philoso­pher Hegel, who dis­tin­guished between its express mean­ing on the one hand and the implied one on the oth­er. The “com­ing into being” implies the dis­tinc­tion between the being and the – pri­or – non-being, and between what came into being and what it became of (and is there­fore intrin­si­cal­ly relat­ed to). The lat­ter is left unsaid. But a sci­en­tif­ic mind must reflect not only on what is (seem­ing­ly) obvi­ous, but specif­i­cal­ly on what is left to “dis-cov­er”. The marked dif­fer­ence in expres­sion on the faces of Hesiod and Hegel in the images illus­trat­ing this post con­veys a dis­tinct impres­sion of how human­i­ty has advanced in its pos­ture in the face of chaos and its abil­i­ty to see through it. Mind you, loico’s mot­to is “Beyond imag­i­na­tion.”, but as we have explained in our “Welcome” text, imag­i­na­tion is fine wher­ev­er, as is the case with actu­al art, log­ic is con­scious­ly cast to illus­tra­tive image.

At any rate, there is “some­thing” unsaid with­in chaos that rep­re­sents relat­ed­ness, thus giv­ing the seem­ing­ly inde­ter­mi­nate, uncer­tain a hid­den amount of deter­mi­nate­ness. An analy­sis of what chaos log­i­cal­ly is leads to the con­clu­sion that it must be pos­si­ble to pre­dict the behav­ior of chaot­ic sys­tems to a degree (some­thing we are work­ing on at loico in, as it were, our “day job”).

The truth con­tained in the state­ment by Hesiod is that the world is (1.) chaot­ic and – there­fore – (2.) pre­dictable to some extent. Predicting things approx­i­mate­ly, that is: as pre­cise­ly as pos­si­ble but with­out being par­a­lyzed by a lack of unat­tain­able pre­ci­sion – is sim­ply the best we can (seek to) do. It has suf­ficed for human­i­ty to arrive at where it is today. It will suf­fice to under­stand approx­i­mate­ly – or to “esti­mate”, for that mat­ter – when COVID-19, accord­ing to the log­ic of the mat­ter, will effec­tive­ly have run its course,2 and to inform deci­sion mak­ing to the extent pos­si­ble.

It is not enough to pro­duce data and “see” it. As the paschal Emmaus expe­ri­ence sug­ges­tive­ly illus­trates, what mat­ters is to “get” what the seen data means.3 So help us – log­ic 😉

Happy Easter!

Tiziano Vecellio, Supper at Emmaus. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons (click to enlarge)

_____
  1. https://www.ilgiornale.it/news/cronache/virologa-capua-gela-speranze-previsioni-sul-virus-sono-tutte-1853100.html[]
  2. An esti­mate which we have tak­en a shot at here: https://loico.com/covid-19-herd-immunity-likely-much-sooner-than-expected/[]
  3. Which we have made a first attempt at here: https://loico.com/the-logic-of-surviving-the-coronavirus-pandemic/[]
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