That’s So Second Millennium
Episode 098 - Uncertainty Principles, Principled Uncertainty, and Science in Times of Catastrophe

Episode 098 - Uncertainty Principles, Principled Uncertainty, and Science in Times of Catastrophe

March 30, 2020

In this episode, Bill and Paul discuss the coronavirus, economics and risk, and the L'Aquila earthquake trial.

  1. Paul and Bill continued a discussion that began in the previous episode. They allowed the sense of gravitas they felt in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic to push them along a path through many uncertainties—where it’s tempting to rely on one’s GPS guidance system and, if possible, an autonomous (self-driving) vehicle. But should human beings relieve themselves of all responsibilities for self-guidance, and if not, how should they accept and address those responsibilities?
  2. Underlying this discussion was the perception that society has chosen to confront the pandemic through the wisdom of science, which boils down to a healthy use of reason, which of course is a God-given gift. But we are also blessed (and cursed?) with the gift of sensing that reason is not enough. Can we put ourselves on automatic pilot by trusting completely in calculations of risk and probability and a in human understanding that can’t take all possible values and outcomes into consideration?
  3. Paul cited observations by Hilaire Belloc, a great British writer and Catholic commentator from the early 1900s. Belloc argued that being “practical” and “realistic” is  not enough, especially if a human being seeks to make decisions with Godlike precision, effectiveness, and comprehensiveness. For example, Paul pointed out that “social distancing” and related policy weapons being utilized against the spread of the Coronavirus are not enough to say that we are systematically reducing the risk of death or harm in an easily calculable way. For example, forbidding public gatherings of any significant size can be seen as a wise precaution against certain people becoming infected, but little thought is given to the fact that all the cancelled meetings of twelve-step programs means people who were being helped to address their own particular issues and risks might suffer tangibly from losing their support network.
  4. At some point, there is a need to acknowledge that some risks, like human death, cannot be eliminated, and a perfect society cannot be achieved. This meshed with Bill’s concern about whether “social distancing” might push man people further toward the phenomenon of social polarization, characterized by isolation, indifference and marginalization in many instances. Or will the experience of being distanced wake us up to the unhealthy results of these characteristics and rein us back from the precipice of thinking we can define and enforce the right answers that will yield the best outcomes?
  5. Ultimately, Bill and Paul agreed that humans seeking to provide humane, prudent leadership in a crisis must be “all in” as participants in a robust civic life in a well-ordered civil society that respects the many sides of individual experience. Can we put all our faith in the decision-making of a political system, especially if we have not made an equivalent commitment to enrich the body politic—and indeed to contribute in ways that go beyond mere gestures of political participation, such as voting?
  6. We must take into account a larger part of the story of human challenges, not risk management alone. At the time of this writing, for example, Bill learned that the Governor of Pennsylvania, after having ordered the shutdown of all liquor stores in order to slow the spread of the virus, was reconsidering his decision. According to news reports, experts had told him that a sizable portion of the alcohol-dependent population could suffer severe consequences from suddenly withdrawn access to hard liquor, meaning harm would be done by other means.

Image by Angelo Giordano from Pixabay.

Episode 097 - Social Distancing and Loners in the American Psyche

Episode 097 - Social Distancing and Loners in the American Psyche

March 23, 2020

Bill and Paul discuss the topic on everyone's mind, the coronavirus and social distancing, through the lens of social polarization and isolation that already so characterized American, Western, and modern society in general.

  1. One should not assume that “social distancing” breaks connections. Paul and Bill got together to talk about the subject and found that it connects to many other things, at least as an intellectual exercise. But also with many emotional, spiritual and sociological implications.
  2. Bill said that, upon first hearing about “social distancing,” he instinctively connected it to a phenomenon he ponders and writes about a lot—the phenomenon of social polarization. (He writes about it in his OnWord blog, and in 2018 he wrote a book (When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?) reflecting on Pope Francis’ concerns about the polarizing effects of contemporary news and digital information flows.
  3. Social distancing, apart from the validity of scientific claims that it is needed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, looked to Bill like a physical, societal manifestation of the polarization trend which leads to the isolation, exclusion and defamation of people. It encourages them toward confirmation bias because they choose to hear only the opinions that back up their pre-conceived notions.
  4. Paul said social distancing also seems to tie into America’s infatuation with the “loner.” He recalled the self-imposed isolation discussed in Robert D. Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone.
  5. Both participants in the conversation connected the concept of loner with many ideas: the modern assumption that being a loner need not carry high risks, like it once did, because of the protection offered by government; the omnipresent promise among colleges that they will prepare their students to become “leaders” as opposed to followers; the observation by Alexis de Tocqueville (in Democracy in America) that Americans of the 1800s were instinctively individualists; and the more recent observation that we live in an age of celebrity when everybody wants to famous, even in relatively impotent, purposeless  ways.  This latter notion was discussed by Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft in an episode of EWTN’s “The Philosopher’s Bench.”
  6. It is especially sad that, at a time when Pope Francis points out that the Church has many valuable responses to the tendency toward social polarization and isolation, “social distancing” has prompted an end to Mass attendance. As remarked in a blog post by David Seitz, OFS, one of Bill’s favorite Franciscan commentators, the loss of civic solidarity and civil conversation is a profound kind of penance.

Image by Austin Monroe from Pixabay.

Episode 096 - How a Strong Nest Can Lift Society Higher, with Darcia Narvaez

Episode 096 - How a Strong Nest Can Lift Society Higher, with Darcia Narvaez

March 9, 2020
  1. We welcome Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D., to the microphone. She is a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in developmental cognition, the human brain, and behavior.
  2. She has authored or edited numerous books, including Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom: First Nation Know-how for Global Flourishing (2019); Basic needs, wellbeing and morality: Fulfilling human potential (2018); and Developing the virtues: Integrating perspectives (2016).
  3. A cornerstone of her research, Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom (2014), received the Expanded Reason Award from University Francisco de Vitoria and the Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation. The award recognizes innovation in scientific research and academic programs based on Pope Emeritus Benedict’s proposal to broaden the horizons of reason. This expansion questions and incorporates reflections on the anthropology, epistemology, ethics, and meaning that exist within a specific science. The foundation selected her book from among more than 360 entries from 30 countries.
  4. Prof. Narvaez discusses here the concepts she groups together as “Evolved Nest” perspectives on child development and human flourishing. They serve as a lens for understanding the current state of our society and culture—our “downward cycle” in the collective pursuit of wisdom, morality, and community interaction. You can explore the concepts and their relevance for children, adults, and human ecology at evolvednest.org. She writes about an array of topics connected to this in a widely popular Psychology Today blog called “Moral Landscapes.”
  5. Based on her research and informed by her diverse experiences (spanning seven careers, as she puts it), she suggests several ideas for recapturing a sense of wholeness amid the woundedness in human nature. Several characteristics of modern society have arisen over the past few centuries to cause the wounds seen today in civic life, communities, families, and individuals, she says. Drawing upon lessons from cultures that existed a long time ago, her suggestions to restore wholeness include such often-forgotten basics as more frequent engagement with nature, thinking new thoughts, journaling, and free-spirited play. “People don’t know themselves,” she comments. “You can get a lot of work done if you take a break.”
  6. Morgan Burkart is the audio engineer for this third season of “That’s So Second Millennium.” Our original theme music, “Igneous Grok,” is by Vin Marquardt. Paul Giesting, Ph.D., is a geologist, consultant, and public intellectual with a passion for philosophical and theological insights into the world that complement scientific knowledge. Bill Schmitt, MPA, is an independent journalist, consultant, musician, and multimedia content producer in the fields of higher education, engineering, religion, and public affairs.