COV-19 and the Poor Logic of Chastisement

Douglas P. McManaman
April 6, 2020
Reproduced with Permission

It is difficult to believe that some Catholics have begun to talk about the COVID-19 as a divine chastisement. This is a very Old Testament mindset, and it is a dangerous posture, but one that is very attractive to those of a fundamentalist bent.

The fact of the matter is that we simply don't know the mind of God with respect to this particular pandemic. He has not revealed it. Moreover, to settle upon chastisement as the ultimate explanation of the crisis is hasty, and some basic logic is all that's needed to show this. We simply don't know the ultimate significance of this crisis; we can believe what we wish, but to confidently proclaim from the hilltops that this pandemic is a divine chastisement is epistemically presumptuous and fundamentalism at its roots.

Our knowledge begins with the facts in evidence, and it is from this starting point that we proceed towards a fitting account of those facts. What many fail to realize is that there are typically a number of possible hypotheses that can account for the facts in evidence, and very often not all of them are equally plausible. But determining the most plausible hypothesis among a number of them depends on context, which provides information against which possible hypotheses are to be compared. It is logically invalid to conclude H1 (Hn stands for a particular hypothesis) on the basis of a conditional premise: If H1, then E (E stands for evidence). To employ a straightforward example,

If a person has MS, then he will experience numbness, fatigue, and tingling.
The facts are that he experiences numbness and tingling.
Therefore, he has MS.

The problem is that there are a number of possible hypotheses that can account for the same facts in evidence: Lupus (H2), Lyme Disease (H3), Spondylopathies (H4), Neuropathy (H5), Fibromyalgia (H6), Sjogren's syndrome (H7), Vasculitis (H8), Vitamin B12 deficiency (H9), Neuromyelitis Optica Spectrum Disorder (H10), Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis (H11).

Further testing is required in order to more fully determine the most plausible account. In terms of our everyday reasoning that proceeds from the evidence to a hypothesis, emotional factors very often cause us to settle too quickly on a hypothesis and forget the number of other possible antecedents that can account for the same evidence. I recall having to work very hard to convince one cleric of the invalidity of this basic logical form after he insisted his bishop was malicious, for malice seemed to explain the facts in evidence. What he could not seem to appreciate was that there were a multitude of other possible hypotheses that could account for the same facts in evidence, hypotheses far more plausible in that they were more consistent with other pieces of information in our possession - which suggested the bishop in question was not malicious, only deceived. One powerful emotional factor that causes some to settle too quickly upon a single hypothesis to the exclusion of others is the "need to know". Uncertainty is uncomfortable. At times the need to know is so inordinate that it overrides the fundamentals of logic. It is emotionally satisfying to have grasped the cause of a complex phenomenon; unfortunately, an erroneous hypothesis can be equally satisfying, at least until we discover that it is erroneous.

A child that plays with matches may unwittingly burn down the entire family home and cause tremendous suffering, including perhaps the death of a sibling. One could put forth the hypothesis that the family is being punished by God for any number of sins committed in the past by one or both parents and any number of siblings. There's no definitive way to refute such a hypothesis, especially in the face of a long list of sins that might have preceded the tragedy. However, "a cigar is sometimes just a cigar". Without any other information at our disposal, falsification alone proves a hypothesis wrong. For example:

If H, then E.
Therefore, not-H

If you have MS, then you will experience numbness, tingling, fatigue and a number of other symptoms associated with MS.
John does not experience numbness, tingling, fatigue and a number of other symptoms associated with MS.
Therefore, John does not have MS.

We can be certain of the conclusion. The other valid form is the following:

If H, then E
Therefore, E

If you have MS, then you will experience numbness, tingling, fatigue and a number of other symptoms associated with MS.
John has MS.
Therefore, John can expect to experience numbness, tingling, fatigue and a number of other symptoms.

But drawing the conclusion that one has MS by virtue of the fact that one is experiencing a number of symptoms associated with the disease is logically invalid; we cannot be certain of such a conclusion, which is why doctors warn against self-diagnosis. This, it seems to me, is the kind of reasoning behind the contention that the COV-19 pandemic is a chastisement from God. There is no doubt that God punishes sin, and without a doubt God can and has revealed his mind about many things that Israel had to undergo as a consequence of her infidelity. And in a very general sense, sickness and death are effects of Original sin. But it does not follow that a sickness that befalls an individual or household is a chastisement from God, nor does it follow that COV-19 is a divine chastisement upon the world at this time. What the Lord has made clear is that it is not necessarily the case that all hardship is to be explained by an individual's sin, or the sins of ancestors.

As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world." When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, "Go wash in the Pool of Siloam" (which means Sent). So he went and washed, and came back able to see. (Jn 9, 1-7)

God can and does draw good out of evil. An equally plausible account of the crisis we are in is that this is not a chastisement, but a product of natural evolution [1] out of which God can and will draw tremendous good. We can be certain of this last point because, as St. Paul says: "We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" (Rm 8, 28). To definitively conclude anything more than this is a leap, and to publicly proclaim that leap is epistemically presumptuous, if not downright arrogant.