Control and COVID-19: How to Confront the Wall of the Invading Virus

by Robyn Repko Waller

Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

My professional expertise as a philosopher concerns questions of free will. Sometimes the question is whether determinism threatens our free will. Sometimes the question is whether science speaks against our having free will. And sometimes the question is how others’ influence on our lives limits our control and responsibly. Often the discussion centers on thought experiments about sci-fi manipulators, studies of the neural events that lead to our actions, or logical entailments of the laws of nature. But we don’t need these experiments and metaphysical claims to see a quandary of free will at the intersection of all three staring us in the face: how do we — and ought we — as agents navigate a COVID-19 world? Let me explain.

Recently I read an article in which an anti-mask protestor held up a sign stating “Is it about the virus or is it about control?”

Regardless of one’s stance on masks, the sign vociferously speaks to the phenomenology of control in COVID times. Now one interpretation of the sign is, of course, that government mandates have restricted citizens’ activity and required masks in some jurisdictions; and this individual might be claiming, then, that government mandates are a matter of state control firstly and public health perhaps only secondarily at best. Or perhaps the protestor is stating that the debated right to not wear masks is an issue of individual liberty, and not a rejection of the statistics of COVID-19. While I personally do not take either of these views of the recent government mandates, the expressed experience of agency of this individual, who felt an encroachment on his control, stood out as intriguing. What is it like to be an agent, a person of personal and civic freedom, during COVID?

One might remark that, almost unique to COVID times, we ALL already know what it’s like. Consult your own experience. This is a global pandemic, and few places or individuals have not been impacted in some way. We have lost loved ones, long-term health, livelihoods and educational opportunities, financial stability, enjoyable diversions, freedom of movement, face-to-face connection, and suffered psychological stress from uncertainty.

And similar to climate change, COVID-19 — until a viable vaccine is developed and distributed, anyway — is a horrible ‘inconvenient truth’ as Gore put it, hanging over the global population. It won’t just go away. Lack of acknowledgement doesn’t wish it away, and ignoring it fuels it all the more. Just like climate control, the science suggests a rational practical path forward. Countries have signed the Paris Agreement. But I bet you can guess correctly for yourself whether there will be any polar bears by 2100 or if summers will be habitable for humans then for that matter.

Why, then, the discrepancy between the rational response and so many people’s actual actions? Whether it’s a trip to the bar or a mask free-outing. Why does it SEEM so unbearable to us — the unseen virus around us? Why the psychological resistance to follow guidance and restrict our diurnal agency so?

Here I’d like to suggest that, beyond the obvious fear of the unknown and status quo bias, lies a more intriguing characterization of the inner turmoil and reaction to these times: a characterization that relies on the threat of determinism, broadly conceived, and the attachment we have to our own perceived free will. But to do so I won’t appeal to contemporary work in philosophy or psychology on the nature and exercise of control. Certainly there’s much to be said there. Instead, let’s look to that repugnant but undeniably commanding character and antihero, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. No one else sums up, in a such a frenetic yet insightful way the phenomenology of those who are painfully aware of a lack of control over nature and the prescribed rational course ahead.

In Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground the reader shares a small crawlspace —изъ подполья — with an extraordinarily eccentric being, oft referred to as the Underground Man. The Underground Man is no one you’ve ever met and yet he is in much amplified measure a collection of bits of everyone, yourself included — something you come to begrudgingly see. To say that the Underground Man is allergic to a good suggestion is a vast understatement. When we first meet Underground Man he introduces himself thusly: 

I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I think my liver is diseased. Then again, I don’t know a thing about my illness; I’m not even sure what hurts. I’m not being treated and never have been, though I respect both medicine and doctors.…

Even so, if I refuse to be treated, it’s out of spite. My liver hurts? Good, let it hurt even more! (p. 3)

(Here I do not intend in the slightest to draw a literal connection between his illness and the disease of COVID-19; in particular, I am not suggesting that those skeptical of the COVID data would suffer unnecessarily through the pain of disease due to spite; Rather, I simply wish to exemplify Underground Man’s deep commitment to contrarian irrational ways.) At first you may rebuff that this creature could illuminate anything about our own agential response to perceived lack of control and expert advice in our current times. I’m nothing like him. I’d go to a doctor straightway if I had splitting liver pain and, you say, so would you! No one in real life acts so absurdly, you say. 

Yet Underground Man offers an explanation for this persistent allergy to suggestion at great cost to his well-being — one that might echo familiar with tamer sentiments you and I have felt. His explanation for his persistent damaging irrational actions is grounded in his suffering from the consciousness of  ‘the laws of nature’ and their prominence (at least as he argues) in the ongoing unfolding of the world. As beings who investigate the nature of the world, we may come to see through this understanding of the natural world, in its beautiful but glaring glory, that we aren’t the unmoved movers of some naive self-conception. Underground Man depicts this as a wall, an invisible enemy to which you can’t break through: 

Impossibility — does that mean a stone wall? What kind of stone wall? Why, of course, the laws of nature, the conclusions of natural science and mathematics…

just accept that too; there’s nothing more to do, since two times two is a fact of mathematics. Just you try to object…

“For goodness sake,” they’ll shout at you, “it’s impossible to protest: it’s two times two makes four! Nature doesn’t ask your opinion; it doesn’t care about your desires or whether you like or dislike its laws. You are obligated to accept it as it is, and consequently all its conclusions. A wall, you see, is a wall…etc. etc.” (p. 10)

Now as an on-the-record compatibilist about free will — someone who argues that agents can act freely even if the world is deterministic — I myself don’t share all of the doom and gloom of Underground Man. I reject, on well-argued grounds elsewhere, that we are mere “piano keys” or “organ stops” (p. 18). Even as intermediate causes, our values, decisions, and actions matter causally. As such, I do not buy into the picture of our agency that

there still exist laws of nature, so that everything he’s done has been not in accordance with his own desire, but in and of itself, according to the laws of nature… (p. 18)

But there is a kernel of truth here that I suspect everyone accepts — we as human agents in a natural world don’t control the vicissitudes of nature — hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.— just as we don’t control the truths of mathematics and logic. In this respect, our agency is cowered by the laws of nature. Even if we control aspects of our lives. This is a humbling thought. 

But this narrowing of the circle of control becomes terrifying if the natural elements one cannot control reign destruction and chaos on our lives and in that moment one is aware of the scope of it all. The onset of an exponentially expanding global health pandemic is one unfortunately apropos example. Underground Man elucidates this terror nicely:

…the aimlessness of the pain which consciousness finds so humiliating, the whole system of natural laws about which you really don’t give a damn, but as a result of which you’re suffering nonetheless, while nature isn’t. They express the consciousness that while there’s no real enemy to be identified, the pain exists nonetheless… (p. 11)

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic makes the virus an unsatisfactory enemy, even if one intends to fight it. That we are pained by the realization that we lack control over the laws of nature is not the whole of Underground Man’s story, however. If it were, we might advise, why not just do what you can in the event of this consciousness — control what you can control. For instance, follow all public and personal health guidelines religiously. That sounds reasonable. It is reasonable. Indeed, Underground Man concedes that with enhanced understanding of the natural world, science evidences an increasing ability to tell us what is in our best interests. So why not align your actions with the recommendations of statisticians and other experts? It will achieve your ends. It will maximize societal well-being.

There is a further perceived good, or advantage, in life the Underground Man argues, that contributes to folks going against their best calculated interest and perhaps too against the public good. That further good is our perceived free will:

…namely that man, always and everywhere, whoever he is, has preferred to act as he wished, and not at all as reason and advantage has dictated; one might even desire something opposed to one’s own advantage… (p. 19)

That we act contrary to our prescribed best interests at times, even when we are aware of the means to achieve those interests, is driven, in part, by our attachment to our perceived free will. We seek to avoid further loss of control. This doesn’t justify that we so act. But the phenomenon of bucking good suggestion is less mysterious in its nature now. Underground Man anticipates the lack of justification: 

You’ll shout at me (if you still choose to favor me with your shouts) that no one’s really depriving me of my will; that they’re merely attempting to arrange things so that my will, by its own free choice, will coincide with my normal interests, with the laws of nature, and with arithmetic. (p. 23)

What all this contrary behavior comes down to, though, is an attempt to “stick out your tongue” (p. 25), if only in secret, to the whole system of perceived diminished locus of control, in the form of laws of nature and of state. What it is not is being contrary for the aim of suffering itself. Such agents aren’t seeking out suffering.

The resultant suffering, experienced by oneself and by others, when we as agents act contrary, however, strongly weighs against our doing so, especially in these times of crisis. Further, that it would be a terrible existence to live in complete accord with Underground Man’s all-encompassing commitment to contrary and irrational action, for the sake of a stab at self-professed unobtainable control, is obvious. Indeed, Underground Man himself at once endorses and is repelled by this ethos. But the phenomenology of the agent who is painfully aware of the limits of her control over nature, the facelessness of the ‘enemy,’ and best practice guidelines is thrown into clearer relief through Underground Man’s notes.

In COVID times, we are those agents, painfully conscious of the laws of nature and scientific conclusions: The ‘wall’ of the invading virus (you’ll run right into it!), the science of flattening curves, and the logic of wearing masks and social distancing. And yet there’s the urge to stick out one’s tongue — to act against those personal and public health interests for our short-term interests. You won’t restrict my agency anymore than nature already has! My locus of control will not be further reduced!

Or, more charitably, there’s the desire and striving for normalcy. To see friends and family. To make a living. To enjoy recreation. To take comfort in how things used to be. But even Underground Man acknowledges that you can desire and hope all you want that 2+2 makes 5 but nonetheless if the facts on the ground are that 2+2 makes 4 — and they are — then 2 +2 makes 4. You can desire that it does not all you please, suffering in the consciousness of reality, but the object of that desire won’t obtain. Your willing it so does not make it so. That is the control that you so acutely lack. Still, your consciousness that things aren’t normal is part of the journey of our time. That is something we will, individually and collectively, carry forward and recount to generations to come.

What’s clear, though, perhaps painfully so, is that the science provides a logic for a course of action to weather this pandemic as a society. Social distance, wear a mask, quarantine when ill, donate resources and expertise where they are needed, develop novel treatments and vaccines, and so on. And here’s the thing: As apt as this characterization of the phenomenological experience of COVID times are, the analogy doesn’t quite fit reality: You see, happily, unlike 2+2=4 — a necessary truth — we CAN affect the course of the pandemic: the shape of the curve and the number of deaths. Intermediate causes have impact on contingent states of affairs. We as agents are part of that causal picture of history. We have a positive hand in the unfolding narrative. If only we act in our own and the public best interests.