In a blog post on August 1st, I looked at resistance to wearing face masks as indicative of deeper commitments about the nature of freedom and how Jesus’ actions in Matthew’s Gospel can provide guidance for this subject. In a subsequent article, I attempted to show disagreement is often connected to differences in how a person gathers and arranges knowledge, structures their thought, and communicates to others—their “method.” In this post, I will apply some of the method’s principles (see here) to the mask as a contemporary example.
Method and the Mask: The Implications of Realism
As a general rule, philosophical questions do not preoccupy the average person’s mind, not because the subject matter is unimportant, but because there is surprising agreement about reality—that it is mind-independent. The technical term for this position is “ontological realism,” ontos—from the Greek word meaning “being.” Ontology is the studying of being. Understandably, philosophers and non-academics alike have cast doubts about the existence of an objective world to various levels of sophistication. Nevertheless, people live as if realism were true. The implications are extensive, though we take most of them for granted.
Whenever an argument draws support from “facts,” whatever their nature, the assumption is that our world has consistent patterns with existence independent of people’s perception. For example, videos captured on cell phones provide demonstrable proof that what was digitally captured occurred in space and time. Only under unusual circumstances will the video’s veracity be questioned. This is also true of verbal and eyewitness testimony, particularly when it is corroborated. When you meet a stranger, you believe what they tell you at face value unless contrary evidence leads you to doubt what they say. For these reasons, denial of realism would present serious challenges to the very concepts of truth and falsehood.
As for examples of human dishonesty and deception, the ability to recognize lies is possible because the real world stands over and against attempts to deny some aspect of it. Likewise, realism entails a kind ethical framework that is “given” or “received,” not simply created. Bill Clinton’s “it depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is” elicits laughter for it shows how feeble attempts to deny guilt aren’t persuasive.
Realism, for its part, entails some notion of “common consent” about the nature of ideas, persons, or events. In the featured example of wearing a mask to reduce the transmission of COVID, China, which had experienced infectious diseases such as SARS previously, required that masks be worn by their citizens. Even as late as February 2020, U.S. health officials equivocated on the efficacy of masks until empirical and anecdotal evidence proved compelling. People had become ill or died in contexts where transmission occurred after a person without a mask coughed. By all reasonable standards, the masks worked, yet such evidence has not convinced a substantial minority.
The contention here is that realism as a guiding principle should make us amenable to arguments based on consensus, especially when derived from individuals who work extensively in a field and thus have expertise. In many respects, realism should engender humility, for we are created subjects, not the creator God. Skepticism derives from pride and/or fear that powerful forces will destroy if we do not take matters in our own hands.
If realism places the burden of proof on the skeptic, it does not mean that the majority is never wrong, or that an intuition is always false, or that powerful persons and institutions do not suppress evidence. They do, at times. But realism should effect a willingness to accept consensus-based arguments, not because they are necessarily true, but because they are probably true. Conspiratorial-type conclusions, on the other hand, are flawed because applying the logic consistently is virtually impossible to sustain.
Applying Scrutiny Consistently
The current global consensus is that wearing masks helps slow or stop the transmission of COVID. Skeptics who oppose wearing masks usually offer two alternative theories: first, that masks are a pretext to further restrict civil liberties, and second, the scientific community’s methods of research are erroneous or the conclusions are intentionally distorted. Both propositions are logically possible for they are not contradictory. Insufficient evidence, however, threatens to make such conclusions improbable.
The circularity of conspiracy-type reasoning usually becomes evident at this point. That the majority opinion on masks is untrustworthy precisely because it is the majority opinion is an antirealist position in line with the most radical wings of postmodernism. In antirealism, reality essentially becomes the will of the strongest—whether that is the community, the state, or a dictator—a position that is incompatible with the Christian faith. An external world distinct from us provides assurance that falsehood is parasitic (it cannot survive without a host) and harder to sustain the larger it becomes. The number of actors—politicians, professionals, private citizens—necessary for a “cover-up” exponentially decreases a conspiracy’s probability, for a single whistleblower can expose and foil even the most sophisticated plots.
If the truest philosophy is that which is lived, a conspiratorial-oriented method falls short by limiting its scrutiny to select areas of life. For example, assuming a professional is qualified based on a badge or piece of paper on a wall is sufficient to convince us of one’s credentials. For the dentist, the mechanic, to even a pastor, few would cast doubts on one’s qualifications apart from prior knowledge of dishonest behavior.
If knowledge based on the consensus of qualified researchers, scholars is disregarded, the consequences for society will be devastating. Democratic processes will be undermined at every level. Citizens will not accept the outcome of elections, especially close ones. No set of criteria could be agreed upon to render a given view implausible. In our country presently, the very idea of expertise is in danger of being lost, at least in some circles. If the (current) majority opinion on masks—and COVID in general—is false, what confidence could we have that the government and those who inform its leadership are telling us the truth about carcinogens, or processed foods, or vaping?
Of course, a sober dose of skepticism is wise, but attributing motives to an entrenched, sinister plot is intellectually dangerous. The emergence of cultish groups such as QAnon, where the cherished source of true knowledge is literally anonymous, is sad, if not unsurprising.
The possibility of changing your mind
A critical, if at times uncomfortable question to consider is whether a given belief can be definitively disproved, that is, falsified. While falsification is possible with certainty in mathematics and the physical sciences, it is challenging when applied to categories pertaining to truth, beauty and goodness—the transcendentals, or questions concerning the meaning of historical events.
Whether a mask is effective against transmission of COVID can be empirically verified. Whether governments are intent on controlling their populace can only be proven over time. In the meantime, a judgment based on probability is sufficient, though evidence in favor of one or the other grows with each day. Asking honest, probing questions is often the most helpful way to “filter” our thought processes to solidify or even reconsider a position. Here are a few:
- Do I dismiss particular sources of information because their content does not support existing beliefs about face masks?
- Can I provide factual reasons why other people disagree with me about masks?
- Can I identify the weakest points in my position on masks and explain what new information would strengthen this position?
- Can I provide a coherent alternative explanation that would convince a person who doesn’t presently share my views about masks?
- What particular kinds of information would persuade me to change my mind about masks?
- Have any personal experiences provided support to my claim about masks?
In James 3:17 the Apostle writes of what he calls the “wisdom that is from above” that is “open to reason,” “impartial” and “sincere.” This wisdom makes a person teachable. Whoever listens thus, does so for the purpose of understanding, even to the point of being transformed. From a Christian perspective God’s communicating “being” to a universe of which we are a small, if eternally significant component, should provide some confidence that, to counter a quip by Immanuel Kant, “reality is not what we make it.” The tendency to let fear paralyze us into buttressing views simply because they empower us, not because they are true must be resisted at all cost.
Whether wearing masks during COVID is salutary, sinister or pointless is less important than applying a rigorous and consistent method that can produce a compelling conclusion, not force an endless cycle of changing the subject.