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Our Titanic moment and the puncturing of illusions

My objection is to those who think that technology and/or technological “systems” will be our salvation, failing to realize that it has always been and always will be people with distinct character virtues that save a civilization.

A health care worker in New York City takes a break outside the emergency center at Maimonides Medical Center April 14, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters)

“Man has nature whacked.” C. S. Lewis relates this comment made to a friend of his at the beginning of the final chapter in his book The Abolition of Man. The comment was ironic, reports Lewis, in that when the man made it, he was dying of tuberculosis.

There have been many suggestions of historical precursors to our current travails, indicating lessons we might learn from people’s experiences of plagues and pandemics of the past. Since I believe in the value of history, I enjoy these articles and have benefitted from them. But were I to suggest a historical precedent for our current situation, it would be the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. Not because I think we’re all “going down” and that our current efforts are just so much “shifting deck chairs on the Titanic.” Not at all. I am impressed with the way most people in the country have rallied round and chipped in to help, and I have every hope that the situation will improve markedly before too long. But then again, I am no expert.

No, I am calling it our “Titanic moment” not because I think we’re doomed, but because this pandemic, much like the sinking of the “unsinkable Titanic,” is our “moment of truth”: the puncturing of that illusion that “man has nature whacked.” Nature repeatedly shows that she still has her ways of whacking back. And those lessons are often very painful. One wishes such lessons would become less necessary rather than more so; that we would learn that advances in technology and organization cannot solve every problem, especially those that must be faced with wisdom and courage.

What something like this pandemic does is to shatter the illusion of control that we all too often indulge. One can see it in the constant carping and criticisms of any and all administration efforts and/or perceived lack of efforts. The presumption is that we can control everything—or should be able to. And if we fail to control something, then someone must be guilty of ill will or incompetence.

Consider, for example, the constant clamoring for “testing.” If only testing had begun earlier; if only we had gotten people tested before the thing got serious. But since it wasn’t done, someone is to blame. Someone must have “blood on his hands.”

Perhaps early signs should have been heeded earlier, even though plenty of qualified experts did not insist on it. Hindsight is always 20/20. But let’s do some simple math. Too simple, as we will soon see, but perhaps instructive nonetheless. In a nation of over 350 million people, even if we could test a million people per day, which to my mind, though not impossible, seems highly unlikely, it would take nearly a year to test everyone. Let’s take just New York with its roughly 11 million people in the metro area. If we could test 500,000 people per day—again, highly unlikely—it would take 22 days to test everyone.

And where were these 500,000 tests supposed to come from? Does anyone imagine we could have manufactured that many tests for a hitherto unknown virus in a matter of one or two weeks?

People are impressed by the testing regime in South Korea and Taiwan. But South Korea has a population of 51 million, Taiwan 23 million, spread over a geographical area much smaller than the United States. You get a much clearer sense of the spread of the virus testing 150,000 people in South Korea or Taiwan than you do testing 150,000 people in a nation that stretches from New York to California and from Upper Peninsula Michigan to the Florida Keys. I have no doubt one of those many computer modelers could produce a nifty set of bouncing dots to show us why.

Now the obvious rejoinder to this overly simplified math is that we need not test everyone, simply a random selection of the population or some proportion. That’s true, but also not quite right. Let’s say I get tested today and find that I am not infected. Hooray. But that doesn’t mean I won’t run into someone this afternoon and get infected, so that by tomorrow or the next day, I might be infectious. So I would need to be tested again — and again and again. Health care workers in hospitals caring for Covid-19 patients would need to be tested every day. How many tests would we need now in a nation of 350 million?

And here’s the grim truth only now becoming clear about “testing.” For various reasons, testing seems to be only 70% accurate, so there are many false negatives, leaving those people free to infect dozens of others. Widespread testing can decrease the spread of the virus to a certain extent; it cannot eliminate it.

I fear many people still live in the illusory world of the Marquis de Laplace, the early nineteenth century French mathematician who famously asserted,

An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

This is sometimes known as “Laplacean determinism.”

This may be somewhat unfair to Laplace, since he understood, as we should, that the universe is not really determined. What we get are mere probabilities. So the best we can say is that it is more likely that the spread of the virus will be diminished within certain parameters if we do x, y, and z, not that it will happen. So let’s say that it’s 90% more likely that the spread of the virus will be diminished 50% if we continue social distancing measures. What if we fall into that less likely (but not impossible) 10%? Now the spread of the virus will be diminished … well, who knows? And if we do fall into that unfortunate 10% area, whose fault was it? Who will we blame? Was it anyone’s fault? Or is assigning fault or blame in such circumstances simply an absurd, knee-jerk reaction based on our usual notions of determined cause-and-effect that don’t apply in such complex situations?

At what point are we forced to admit that there are certain things that simply aren’t under our control. Why did these people die? Perhaps we didn’t prepare well enough. Perhaps we didn’t know we needed to prepare better. Perhaps there are some things we just can’t prepare for. Perhaps we are not the gods of nature and history after all. Just regular old short-sighted, fallen human creatures trying to make it through the next couple of days or months. But what if some horrible cancer hits? Or a “hundred-year flood” happens twice in my neighbor in the space of five years and all my life savings are wiped out? Should I have been prepared? Whose fault was it? Who should I blame? Myself? The government who didn’t warn me? Those people who aren’t helping me get back to “normal”? God?

There is another dimension of our illusory grasp of the world this crisis is revealing all too clearly. “Virtual” reality is not reality. And by this, I don’t just mean that computer models do not capture human reality, although this should be clear as well. I mean that there are more basic illusions we harbor that allow us to buy into the illusions of the computer world. The problems is that just as the ship that on paper was deemed “unsinkable” might at some point run into an actual iceberg, so too the system computer models predicted would work flawlessly, might just run right into an actual human crisis. Reality can be a hard brick wall.

So, for example, some people may be suffering from the misconception that food and other necessary household goods come from a store. How else to explain the odd notion that we should “keep the economy shut down” for another six to twelve to eighteen months? Does no one understand that in fairly short order, if the factories and distribution plants remain closed, there will be nothing in the stores? There will be no packages of pasta, no more replacement light bulbs, no more cleaning solution, no meat, no fruit, no vegetables.

Obviously, some people in some industries are still working, indeed working overtime: those working in “essential industries” an interesting label, which ought to cause to examine those “unessential” industries and ask why we spend so much money on them.

The word “economy” comes from the Greek oikonomia, which means “household management.” Since very few of us live in self-sustaining households, we all know that the notion of “sheltering in place” and “stay at home” orders are essentially meaningless when it comes to one essential household activity: we all need to go to the store. And the store needs to go to its store. And those stores need to get products from the producers who work in those plants or factories.

There is simply no way of keeping the economy “closed down” for much longer (hint: it’s not really entirely “shut down” now). This comment has nothing to do with “lives” vs. “money.” It is a simple conclusion derived from getting off the computer and looking at the reality of the physical realm. No economic output means no products in the store.

At some point, centralized governments will simply have to trust local, intermediary associations to gather responsibly, as they are doing now in many grocery stores, where social distancing is being maintained while people get their needed groceries. If centralized government officials—whether mayors of towns, governors of states, or the President of the United States—decide at some future time that prudence dictates we should “allow” such private judgments about social distancing to once again guide citizens in their daily activities, and if there is an uptick in infections and even deaths, will those officials have “blood on their hands”? Or will we have the good sense to recognize that, contrary to the modern presumption, human beings, even with all their superb technology, simply can’t control everything.

Make no mistake. This is not a complaint against modern science and technology. Thank God we have it. And thank God for the scientists working tirelessly to discover better and faster testing and a possible cure.

I also have no special expertise or advice for government officials on when they should loosen the social distancing requirements. I have little doubt that social distancing has been important, if for no other reason than it has forced us to develop certain habits which will serve us well even when our current lockdown ends.

My objection is to those in our society who habitually speak as though any and every problem can be solved by technical expertise and scientific know-how. Real scientists know the limits of their craft; they are taught to gauge the “degree of error” of their results and report it honestly. Much of what passes for “science” in the modern world is merely “scientism,” or what in an earlier time would have been termed “quackery.”

My objection is to those who think that technology and/or technological “systems” will be our salvation, failing to realize that it has always been and always will be people with distinct character virtues that save a civilization.

My objection, finally, is to those who think that, since everything can and should be controlled, any ill fortune anywhere in the country must have been someone’s fault. Because from their distinctly modern point-of-view, bad, unfortunate things don’t just “happen.” Someone, somewhere must not have done his job. Someone, somewhere must be to blame. Because clearly, if something bad happened, someone could have (and should have) stopped it.

I am not suggesting there is no room for responsible reporting on human errors, so corrections can be made. Fraternal correction is essential to human progress. But those who can tolerate no mistakes and who are constantly assigning blame are not usually the ones working tirelessly to stop the crisis; they are simply the people pointing the finger at others for not having done so. And to be honest, I’m just not sure how helpful that is.


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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 38 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is a full professor of Theology at a Catholic, liberal arts university. His book Reading the Sermons of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide is available from Emmaus Press. And his next book, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture at Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary will be available from Cambridge University Press in the fall.

10 Comments

  1. True enough, we can’t “control” everything. And technology is not God.

    But on the other hand, maybe it’s less about control than it is about “attention to detail.” (The poster on the wall: “Attention to detail, gentlemen, a collision at sea can ruin your whole day!”)

    So, beneath the surface, what more can we learn from the “Titanic Moment”? Specifically:

    Why were the so-called 17 watertight compartments of the Titanic NOT sealed at the top to avoid domino flooding (an engineering mis-assumption waiting to happen)?
    Why was the Titanic steaming at 22 knots in dangerous waters (deadline chutzpah waiting to backfire)?
    Why didn’t the officer-of-the-deck know well and in advance the technique for last-second damage reduction (anything other than slowing and then sideswiping an ice berg)?
    Why did the steamship California, only 20 miles distant, dismiss the eight signal flares?
    Why was the Titanic equipped with only white flares rather than the standard red (for danger), and why still did it not at least send the flares in groups of three (the universal distress signal)?
    Why was the Titanic equipped with only enough lifeboats for half the design-level number of passengers?

    Is it all about OFFICE CULTURE? The failure, or inability, or unwillingness, or elementary curiosity to “imagine” the downside. (Instead: “unsinkable”). This, too, a U.S. Navy adage: “you can delegate responsibility [blame?], but you can’t delegate accountability.”

    On this point of imagination and accountability, from the 9/11 Commission: “Imagination is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies [!!!]….It is therefore crucial to find a way of ROUTINIZING, even BUREAUCRATIZING [!?] the exercise of imagination” (National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, The 9/11 Commission Report [New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2004], 344, caps added).

    Imagine that(!)—routinized bureaucracies willing to pop their own bubble—that do NOT punish whistleblowers; that DO listen to significant details from below-deck/outside the boardroom. And, that DO respect more the imaginative (yes?) liberal arts which ought NOT to be so totally eclipsed by the STEM silo (the industrial-educational complex).

  2. There is plenty of blame that is warranted — from the Federal and state governments for failing to be prepared for a pandemic even though they should have known better — this is just negligence — to those who have been pushing for globalism and the outsourcing of America’s manufacturing capabilities to foreign countries. There should be political consequences.

  3. Lewis could presume Nature could Whack Back, and hard 1883 Krakatua Sunda Strait Indonesia 36 416 deaths. Compare that to 1918 Spanish flu 50 million. As Dr Smith notes Lewis was waxing ironic. He was quite immersed in the question of death and suffering. He probably would have agreed with the tragic blame game critiqued by Randall Smith. Whether in the morass of causes and effect, responsibility there is always justification for blame, the point is well made. That’s usually the process in correction. Nonetheless I’m ‘vexed’ by the question whether there is an underlying cause for it all and that blame can and should be honestly considered. One that I’m frequently queried about is the Vatican Pachamama garden party. That much to the chagrin of the participants if it were indeed true that the goddess of the Andes has Whacked us. But one would ask what for? She [if indeed she does exist] was quite honored. Even rescued from drowning by heroic Rome police and assuaged by the Pontiff himself. Rather than be discriminatory, if what we’re experiencing is chastisement, being shut out from the Church during Easter an historical first we all share the blame for our personal idolatries. For one it’s been reported by statistical survey that pornography viewing has increased astronomically during the pandemic, Lust entrepreneurs waving fees to garner future clients. Hoarding of universally needed goods. Then the’re the heroic. Medical staff, delivery personnel, priests [Italy where a hundred have perished most assisting the dying]. Qoholeth says There is a time for dying. Christ would add this is a time for jettisoning idolatries and to whatever measure suitable becoming heroic.

    • Additionally perhaps we should be concerned about puncturing delusions. Illusion is mistaken interpretation of events delusion is akin to a bizarre personal belief. Such as attributing blame to those who abuse the ecology for Coronavirus as a just retribution by Nature, to wit Mother Earth. As quoted by a Vat spokesman then retracted. Why? Because of the absurd implication that the goddess of the Andes is exacting revenge for sins against ecology. Pope Francis seems to support that perception in response to a Spanish journalist’s query: “There’s a saying that you surely know: God always forgives, we forgive sometimes, [but] nature never forgives” (LifeSiteNews). Apart from speculation on the bizarre there is an increasing focus by the Vat on not simply ecological abuse but sins against the ecology. Surely such abuse can be sinful, although it’s excessive to the point of delusion when the Catholic Church shifts focus from homosexual cultural destruction, rampant killing of innocents in the womb – to climate control or strip mining [should we add smoking in public or driving our four wheeler through the woods as matter for confession?]. Life is precious and eternal our home on this planet is transient.

      • All good points, and yet there is a legitimate sense in which “nature [lower case, and unlike us] never forgives.”

        The comparison might be human slavery suffered century after century more-or-less in silence, versus abused natural ecosystems which (not who!) simply exact a consequential vengeance (so to speak) as in the Dust Bowl, or as in our nearly irreversible extermination of the buffalo. There are tipping points.

        But also, infecting the distinct “human ecology” (which St. John Paul II wisely did not conflate with the “natural ecology”) there’s the viral homosexual subculture versus normal human sexual complementarity. And, the seeming inability of some Church leadership to “socially distance” (!) or, recently, to at least stop camouflaging this pandemic with the cover-story “pedophilia”. And, too, there’s the socially acceptable, routinized and high mortality-rate killing in the womb, which you also mention (an “unspeakable crime” and a kind of “chemical warfare,” said St. John Paul II).

  4. I so greatly agree with this article and think the blamers are only looking at a tiny part of anything. They sound like little kids on the playground!!! I have so much sympathy for New York and all their sufferings. I am not shallow, and I pray every day for them, but could not help but remember the joy and glee on the faces of the lawmakers when the abortion, infanticide law was signed and the Empire state building was lit up. Shocked!! Where are the lights now?? I don’t think it is wise to mock God. I don’t think NY is much worse than the rest of us however the rest is suffering too. I think Corona Virus is pro choice and takes who it wants. How does that feel?? It was just so clear and blatant an answer to me. Jesus said repent or the same will happen to you when talking about seeming accidental things. Returning to the simple truths of life and God and the virtues and heroic lives is so good and true. We cannot make it different than HE made it. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein. Countries that create these biological weapons will not be found in the world to come. What goes around, comes around …simple

  5. One Wuhan lab workers lunch time walk on a busy Wuhan street…………………
    One ChiCom tyrant hell bent on a cover-up by his Godless country…………….
    One 80 year old socialist/democrat woman in a powerful position……………..
    Makes 3 Strikes Your Out!

  6. Maybe it should just come down to personal responsibility. Wash your hands, wear a mask if your health is compromised, choose where you will congregate and with whom?

  7. Another great article. I wonder why the short “About Dr. Smith” box at the end of his articles has ceased to mention what university he teaches at.

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