“Objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder.” I enjoy this quote from Theodor Adorno. For me at least, this quote induces a contemplative pondering, since I spend a lot of time in my work drawing on concepts. Objects do leave behind something of their being that cannot be easily conceptualized.
Let’s take as our example the SARS CoV-2 virus. The virus is made up of other objects—the nucleocapsid (N) protein, the stalk spine (S) protein, and the RNA. Or we may think of the virus, not as a single entity made up of N and S proteins and RNA, but as the activity of multiple viruses together acting in some, unbeknownst-to-us, evolutionary process. Our units of conceptual analysis—the ‘objects’—matter, but even if we know at what level our unit of analysis confronts the ‘objects,’ we also find that the reality of the thing does not fit easily to our concepts. And so, “[o]bjects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder.”
The same holds not just for objects like viruses, but for any problems facing the world, which our communities, our governments, and our universities are supposedly designed to address. Yet, the realities of our problems do not organize themselves according to public health strategies, or governmental agencies, or university departmental structures. Reality exceeds our thinking of it, and making it worse is the way our thinking itself is structured to our institutional functioning and not the realities of our problems.
It is hard to think the whole, and it seems to me that under the current organization of our social institutions there is no place—no social institution—capable of imagining the whole. That office once belonged to, of all institutions, the science of theology.
Finding the Real Problem
So, we are searching (see Jeffrey P. Bishop and Martin J. Fitzgerald, “Norming COVID-19: The Urgency of a Nonhumanist Holism” Heythrop Journal) for real solutions the very real problem of COVID-19, which is… what?
Viral mutation and evolutionary process? We have designated the virus causing COVID-19 as SARS CoV-2. In humans, the virus initiates an overwhelming inflammatory response. In this century, there have been three Corona viruses to cause a serious inflammatory response. The other two, SARS CoV and MERS CoV, were more deadly than SARS CoV-2 and it is fortunate that more humans recover from SARS CoV-2 than recovered from the other two.
The CoVs—their number are legion—are symbiotic with many mammalian species, permitting successful viral replication (and thus more chances of mutation) and causing varying levels of response in the host animal, from no illness to severe illness to death.
Thus, perhaps the “real” problem is not the virus, but the human inflammatory response. An animal host might have no inflammatory response to the virus, which is the best outcome for the virus. The result will be that the host animal does not die, but may languish in the long term, and may or may not be cut short.
The animal may have a significant inflammatory response to the virus, and may in fact kill the virus; the host animal will suffer temporarily, but have better long-term prospects for flourishing.
Or the host may mount an inflammatory response that cascades out of control, killing the host as well as the virus.
If there is one thing that the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) has taught us, it is that our model for thinking about infection prior to HIV was wrong. We thought that viruses and bacteria attacked the body. Turns out the human inflammatory response is often what kills a person acutely. The inflammatory response is made up of opposing biological and biochemical processes that ramp up and dampen at the same time. The perfect balance between escalation and de-escalation ideally results in survival of the host and in the death of the cells infected with the virus. Too far in the direction of escalation and the cascade spirals out of control, the body destroying itself as it “attacks” the cells containing the virus. Too far the other direction, and a chronic carrier state begins, which means energy expenditure goes to the replication of the virus, rather than to the flourishing of the animal.
And, evolutionarily speaking, if the virus and host cohabitate long enough, say hundreds and hundreds of years, then the host—in this case the human—may change such that flourishing now means something different than it once did. Something like this cohabitation is believed to have happened at the dawn of eukaryotic cells. Reality itself, which our concepts purport to capture, changes.
Now we humans don’t like to think of ourselves as the material upon which evolution rides, so rather than imagining the problem as one of inflammatory responses to evolutionary pressures of viral replication, perhaps the “real” problem is one of prevention. Perhaps we can distance ourselves from each other such that we do not spread the virus.
But then we know that this response to the problem will be impossible to achieve; we are too interdependent. So, we imagine that we will just have to distance ourselves from each other long enough for herd immunity to be achieved, a “natural” immunity. Or perhaps we just need our best technoscientific minds to work out a new vaccine such that we can create an “artificial” immunity, a technologically mediated herd immunity.
But short of immunity, and if we cannot muster the general will to social distance, then perhaps the real problem is the problem of poor government. Bad government led to slow responses to close borders. Donald Trump is the real problem, which is, at some level, true, of course. But oddly enough, people that normally would not be given to closing borders on account that we are interconnected across a globe, now suggest that failing to close borders and indeed failing to create borders around individual domiciles within a city or a given locale is the real problem.
But what about the next viral mutation? What can be done to prevent it? Perhaps the real “root cause” is the wet markets in China, which seems to be the source of SARS CoV-2. That means that the real problem is Chinese Communism, the policies of which in the Great Leap Forward resulted in significant poverty amongst peasants (see Bishop and Fitzgerald). Bad ideology and bad government gave rise to unregulated wet markets all over China to feed starving populations created by bad government.
Or maybe we ignorantly and wrongly imagine that, if the Chinese peasants could have engaged in a free market, they might have developed into modern technological societies that created better hygiene and technological solutions for food storage—refrigeration—and thus obviated the need of wet markets. Never mind that wet markets are really just the Chinese version of Western farmer’s markets, aimed at keeping food local and close to its lively source.
Or perhaps the “real” problem is globalization itself, or global capitalism, or global technology, or global technocapitalist political economy! After all, it seems that the SARS CoV-2 has found a way to exploit the work of human hands—the global technocapitalist political economy—permitting its replication and its participation in a larger evolutionary process (see Bishop and Fitzgerald). Its own mutation is made possible by global technocapitalist political economy. SARS CoV-2 is, in this sense, socially constructed.
So, it seems that each department of our science, whether virological science, or medical science, or public health science, or social science, or political science gives us different concepts with which to take up with the “real” problem. Each department of knowledge gives us different ways to ponder the “objects” of our interest. Each gives us knowledge of a set of facts, and within each science we can come to some understanding of what is going on. Yet, it is impossible that the “objects” of our concepts are exhausted by the concepts. It even seems to overwhelm the moral imperative to alleviate human suffering.
There is no social location from which an understanding of the whole can emerge, let alone a social location from which wisdom can emerge. How shall we avoid nihilism? I look to the hills, from whence shall come our salvation?
Imagining Holistically, Imagining Theologically
To avoid nihilism, we must imagine the whole, even beyond the limits of our imaginings. It is hard to hope past the seeming futility of our imaginations. Yet, we still long for a master science, hoping that some department of our thinking will find a way to take up with the problem at hand.
Something within the human hopes against hope. In this sense, then, we long for a queen of all knowledges—that is to say, a queen of all sciences—where it might be possible to imagine holistically.
This queen of the sciences would not itself gather facts about objects; that is a task for other disciplines. Nor would it contribute to the understanding of one department’s facts. However, it would be in a position to contribute imaginatively to the understanding of the whole, and it thus might be in a position to keep each department of our learning “from closing in on itself and proceeding as if the truths it discovers were incommensurable with the truths discovered by other disciplines.”
It is here then that theology is most needed. The very thing that universities (even religious ones) and governments despise is perhaps the best hope. (After all, we must keep reminding our religious universities about the central importance of theology. See Cavidini.) For it is theology that attempts to imagine the whole, however fallible those imaginings may be. Theology attempts to bring together all knowledges created by departments—compartments—of human thinking.
And theology knows that its thinking is an act of imagination, and that it imagines beyond the limits of imagination, and that these acts themselves are limited. Thus, the queen of the sciences must even ponder the limits and frailties of imagination, and the limits of the human herself—ego, confusion, arrogance, pride, despair, in short, sin—as she imagines the whole, beyond the limits of imagination.
The theologian must even imagine where the human, with all her limitations, fits into the whole, so she can achieve an appropriate and measured response to real problems. She understands that all her imaginings fall short of the reality of which she is a part, a reality over which she has no control, and yet a reality with which she participates.
And the theologian knows that her “object” of study is no object that can be studied, but is itself a “mystery that transcends all other objects of study.” This mystery that transcends all objects, and concepts, then is the inspiration for her hope of imagining the whole, beyond the limits of imagination.
Acts of imagination seem best to happen in moments of contemplation, where one imagines the whole and one’s place in it. The theologian was once the one who pondered, and imagined, and prayed; the one who prays is the true theologian, as Evagrius Ponticus noted. It is in this act of imagination that one finds the source, not of facts or of understanding, but of wisdom.
Theology rightly understood, then, probably does not happen in departments within universities; or in governmental agencies; or in virology laboratories: though it may happen in such places. It may, on occasion, happen within Pontifical exhortations, or within the dicasteries of the Church; but the fount of its imaginings is outside the polis.
What seems clear is that the world’s religions are the only social location practiced enough at imagining the whole to be of any use to us, for wisdom. Then, might it not be that only theology—the thing despised by Western cultures—is the best source for hope and for an imagined future beyond the limits of all our sciences?