COVID-19 and the Game of Life: The Opposite of a Philosophical Moment

One of the most remarkable things the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated about the world is not the fickleness of our institutions or the immutability of the human condition. I would argue, instead, that it has pointed to the absolute improbability that anything else could have ever existed. The exposed underbelly of the human race has revealed far less meatiness than first assumed. We’ve been bested by the same biological mechanisms on which our cells have capitalized to give us our own brief lives on Earth — our immune systems have never existed outside of this battle. We’ve had to recede back into the shelters our primordial ancestors first constructed, back into the fleshy bodies which we’ve evolved over millions of years to just barely survive within. We’ve started listening to the deepness of our breaths, to the small aches and pains that might signal the onset of illness, to the oily secretions on hands that are now crackly and dry. This is not a philosophical change, but the absolute opposite. We’ve been outgunned by organisms that we cannot see, acting on the physical building-blocks of our bodies, spread programmatically through societies based on our human predispositions towards group activities. Much like the fly tricked into the mouth of the flytrap by the sweet promise of nectar, the moral here is simply that life does its best in a game that it can never know how to play. And the game is very, very hard.

In building societies and civilizations, we forget the absolute unlikeliness that such a thing could emerge, that life could persist at all. Viruses are not self-interested in the sense that many envision humans to be. They do not seek to improve their own subjective, abstract desires in their worlds. Instead, they reproduce mechanistically, algorithmically. They maximize their own systematic continuance, based on a biological imperative to reproduce. They take advantage of the physical bodies which we inhabit, not necessarily “tricking” cells into reproducing their RNA, but making use of the same cellular mechanisms on which we also parasitically rely for life. There is nothing unjust here — coronavirus itself is not a blameable entity here—which makes reconciling with its destruction that much more unfathomable. The same could be said of our own species, after all, which has come to dominate the entire planet on what is arguably a much more labyrinthine pursuit of that same biological imperative. Humanity is a product of incredible contingency, or perhaps coincidence, in which all of the necessary parts somehow persist for just long enough to give the illusion of permanence.

The inevitable conclusion of something like this pandemic is that the planet, of course, does not bear any of the fruits of humanity past the constructed version of the planet which evolution has somehow enabled us to envision in our minds. If we were, for example, to continue polluting the planet for the next 100 years, humanity would likely die off, followed by an a-temporal (because time is also a construct of our minds) period after which a new equilibrium, replete with new or extant forms of life would continue to live contingent lives, during which all records of human life would likely be lost, provided another sentient being does not eventually emerge. (I am always amused by the pastoral vision of life after humans, in which animals live harmoniously away from the evil clutches of man — as if all of nature is not an unbearable and ruthless game in which slightly weaker animals are chosen to die.) There is no power in humanity other than the narrow imagination of power that we project onto a world that is entirely our own egomaniacal construction of what it means to survive on this planet. It is important to remember: even if we completely reverse the tide of climate change, the climate might change itself anyway — because that is what the climate has done countless times in the history of Earth. Our self-importance is overwhelming.

The takeaway of this cannot be nihilism — try framing nihilism in evolutionary terms and you should see why. Trying to ascribe meaning to the universe while thinking through a brain that evolved for our precarious lives on Earth is like an antelope trying to make sense of human society through the lens of a lion’s chase. There might be metaphors to be had, but it certainly couldn’t possibly get it. Perhaps it is worthwhile to simply accept that we do live in a constructed world — because that is almost certainly one of the other “most remarkable things” to ever emerge on Earth. The fact that collective societies can form within the endless vortex of survival, that we can harness electrical signals and Boolean logic to create tools to augment our physical existence on Earth, that we can begin to build mathematically consistent models of the world around us — all of these things exist in the domain of humanity which cannot be touched by the more contingent aspects of our physical existence. This is not a philosophical moment because it asks us to look outwards, to compartmentalize the pursuit of meaning outside of this wasteland of life on Earth. We fight wars in response to the scarcity of life which our planet has always used to guide its evolutionary processes. But what if we break free from that, and accept that we are already outmatched. Let’s save the planet, not for the sake of nature, but for the sake of ourselves.

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Economics Student at Yale University | Trying to figure out the real cost of the modern world

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Robert Jett

Robert Jett

Economics Student at Yale University | Trying to figure out the real cost of the modern world

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