Thinking Clearly With Aquinas About Covid-19


The Covid-19 Crisis calls for clear thinking but how do we know if we are thinking clearly about Covid-19? How do we know if someone else is arguing logically?

Good Philosophy

This column includes examples from the Covid-19 Crisis in order to explain how our minds work when they think clearly about anything. It is an introduction to, or review of, basic epistemology, which is the branch of philosophy that studies knowing. Much of what follows is common sense because good philosophy elaborates common sense. Just as naturally good athletes still benefit from good coaching, naturally good thinkers still benefit from learning good philosophy. Philosophical terminology will be minimized as much as possible since this column is intended for a wide readership.

To paraphrase the great St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD), the clearest thinking is knowing the truth. In general, we know the truth or have the truth when what is in our minds fits or matches what is in reality. (This is the Law of Correspondence. Correspondence in this context means “fit” or “match,” not “written communication.”) 

In order to know the truth, our minds need to function well in three ways. It is easier to understand each function by starting with how that function is expressed. Knowledge is expressed in three ways: accurate words, true statements, and sound arguments.

Accurate Words

The expression of knowledge begins with using words accurately. The first result of clear thinking is the use of accurate words. Words are accurate when they fit or match the thing to which they refer. E.g., the word tree is accurate in reference to an oak, but not in reference to a rose.

This is because words express concepts, which are the result of noticing that some things are different from other things. E.g., from seeing specific trees, the mind forms the concept of “tree” in order to distinguish trees from other things, such as flowers or houses. So the first function of our minds is forming concepts. A concept is a generalization pulled out or abstracted from specific images of things in order to identify its essence or nature. We form a true concept when our concept fits or matches the thing we are trying to understand. (The essence of a thing is expressed in a good definition of it.)

A big challenge on this level is to avoid equivocation, which is the use of the same word with different meanings. E.g., the word love can be given contradictory meanings.

There seems to be equivocation with regard to Covid-19. E.g., according to Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist Michael Levitt of Standard University, “I don’t believe the number [of cases] in Israel, not because they’re made up, but because the definition of a case in Israel keeps changing and it’s hard to evaluate the numbers that way.” He adds, “Even in China it’s hard to look at the number of patients because the definition of patient varies, so I look at the number of deaths [to try to measure whether the virus is spreading].” So we cannot be sure that every time we read or hear the words case and patient (and who knows how many other words), they are being used with the same meaning. In order to think clearly about Covid-19, we need words about it that are used accurately.

True Statements

Knowledge is also expressed in true statements. A statement is true when it fits or matches reality. E.g., that tree is an oak is a true statement if and only if it is in reference to a tree (and not a flower) that is an oak (and not a maple). (Of course, true statements require accurate words.)

This is because the second function of the mind, after the first function of forming concepts, is putting together concepts to make judgments. Judgment in this context does not mean a “negative evaluation,” as so many people mean it; it simply means identifying a thing as this and not as that. Statements express judgments. That tree is an oak makes the judgment that it is not a maple, a birch, or any other kind of tree except an oak. That tree is an oak puts together the concepts of “tree,” “is,” and “oak.”

A mind-boggling number of statements about Covid-19 have been made—statements about the nature of the virus, its transmission, its treatment, the capacity of our medical system to handle virus cases, the economic effects of how we are treating the virus, the moral principles involved, the legal principles involved, etc., etc. Which are true and which are false?

Sound Arguments

The third way knowledge is expressed is in sound arguments.

In this context, an argument is not a quarrel or heated debate. It is a group of statements in which one statement, i.e., the conclusion, results from the other statements, i.e., the premises. Premises are the reasons for the conclusion. E.g., because that tree is an oak, and because an oak tree drops acorns in the Fall, therefore that tree will drop acorns in the Fall. In this example, the conclusion is the statement that begins with, therefore, and the premises are the statements that begin with because.

The third function of the mind is logic or reasoning, which is when the mind puts together two or more judgments which cause it to make another judgment. E.g., judging that tree is an oak and an oak tree drops acorns in the Fall causes my mind to judge that tree will drop acorns in the Fall.

Every attempt to be logical is not successful. E.g., Because a two-year-old child can carry an acorn, therefore a two-year-old can carry a bushel basket of acorns. The premise (Because . . .) does not support the conclusion (therefore . . .). Such a group of statements is a fallacy.

Logical Reasoning

Being logical does not solve all our problems in trying to think something through. For one thing, logic does not guarantee truth. Someone can be perfectly logical and yet be mistaken. That is because we can put false statements together in a logical way. E.g., Because that tree is an English oak, and because English oak trees keep their leaves all year, therefore that tree will keep its leaves all year. The problem with that preceding argument is not its logic—it is perfectly logical. The problem is that the second premise (oak trees keep their leaves all year) is false, which then makes the conclusion (that tree will keep its leaves all year) false. A sound argument has statements—all its premises and conclusions—that are all true; an unsound argument has at least one statement that is false.

Someone could be making a perfectly logical argument about Covid-19 which is unsound. They could be perfectly logical and yet mistaken because of a false premise.

The Debate About Covid-19

The great debate about Covid-19 that is raging right now is whether we should try to keep everyone from getting the virus, and therefore shut down much of the country, or whether we should try to keep those most at risk from getting the virus, and therefore treat Covid-19 much like we treat the flu. One of these conclusions is true, and one of them is false.  They cannot both be true. (This is an example of the Law of Non-contradiction, which is that two contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time and in the same way.)

Is it a sound argument or an unsound argument to conclude we should shut down much of the country? Is it sound or unsound to conclude we should treat Covid-19 much like we treat the flu? In order to know whether we should shut down much of the country or whether we should treat Covid-19 much like we treat the flu, we need true premises or reasons.

Complicating our attempt to think clearly about Covid-19 is another important issue with logic: the conclusions of all sound arguments do not follow with equal force or certainty. A conclusion can follow from true premises as possibly true, probably true, or necessarily true. E.g., from the two true premises That tree is an English oak and English oak trees must lose their leaves in the Fall, we can make three different conclusions of different strength: (1) That tree will lose it leaves by the end of September, which is possibly true; (2) That tree will lose its leaves by the end of November, which is probably true; (3) That tree will lose its leaves by the end of January, which is necessarily true. (At least where I live.)

Three Types of Arguments

There are three kinds of sound arguments. When the conclusion is possibly true, we have a weak inductive argument. When the conclusion is probably true, we have a strong inductive argument. Inductive arguments can have more than two premises—the more the premises, usually the stronger the argument. When the conclusion is necessarily true, when it must follow from its premises, we have a deductive argument. Another example of a deductive argument learned in Math class, is: because a = b, and because b = c, therefore a = c. Deductive arguments never have more than two premises.

Is the conclusion to shut down much of the country the result of a weak inductive argument, a strong inductive argument, or a deductive argument? What about the conclusion to treat Covid-19 much like we treat the flu? It seems to me, the argument for either conclusion is inductive. At best, we can only know what we should probably do. If there is a deductive argument—with premises that are certainly true—for either conclusion, I would love to know it. It also seems to me that if both sides of the debate recognized their arguments are inductive with conclusions that are probably or possibly true and not deductive arguments with conclusions that are necessarily true, we could have less invective notwithstanding the gravity of the problem.

Thinking With St. Aquinas

Thanks to St. Thomas Aquinas, we can think clearly and know if others are thinking clearly about Covid-19 by getting good answers to the following questions:

  1. Do the words being used express accurate concepts?
  2. Do the statements being made express true judgments?
  3. Is the logic sound (with true premises and a true conclusion)?
  4. Is the logic fallacious (because their conclusion is not supported by the premises)?
  5. Is the logic weakly inductive (because the conclusion is only possibly true)?
  6. Is the logic strongly inductive (because the conclusion is probably true), and how strongly at that since there is a range within probability from weaker probability to stronger probability?
  7. Is the logic deductive (because the conclusion is necessarily true)?

It goes without saying that our reasoning must include true moral premises. While providing needed theological context to the Covid-19 Crisis, R. R. Reno has done an excellent job of critiquing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s absurd moral principle: “If everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.” The National Catholic Bioethics Center has helpful resources for applying Catholic morality to Covid-19.

It should also go without saying that being moral must include reasoning. God has not revealed practical solutions to the Covid-19 problem.

Many excellent pieces, such as those on Catholic Stand, have addressed the relationship between the Covid-19 and faith. There is a meme going around which has Jesus knocking on a door and saying, “Hey Debbie? It’s me, The Lord. Listen, you need to stop telling Facebook that your health is in my hands. You’re going to have to wash your hands and quarantine with everyone else.” Better than all others—thanks to our intellectual tradition epitomized by St. Thomas Aquinas—we Catholics should know it’s a matter of Faith AND Reason. Our health is in both Our Lord’s hands and our own hands. In God’s good time, His Kingdom will come.

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