How the metaphysics of D.M. Armstrong can help us understand the basic principles of the Corona-virus.
By Peter Graarup Westergaard
Metaphysics is a branch within philosophy that deals with the principles of things; what are then the basic principles of the coronavirus? In this essay, I don’t propose to understand the coronavirus in a medical way. I might touch upon epistemological issues, but the focus is on the coronavirus from the perspective of applied metaphysics (Hawley). During the experience of the corona-crisis, one can experience the workings of universals and the fear of the corona-virus is, in some sense, the anxiety of the universal.
The coronavirus, as a phenomenon and a concept, questions the problem of universals and particulars, and as such, it is exemplary of a metaphysical problem. On the one hand, we have the particular instances of COVID-19, and they partake in the category of a general description of the coronavirus, which we could determine a kind of universal. It might not be a universal of first-order, but since it determines a disease which refers to the same in all instances, I will assume it a universal in this essay. How is the principle of the relationship between the universal and the particular then in the case of the coronavirus?
Universals and Particulars
The concepts “universals” and “particulars” are very difficult to define, yet they entail the entire existence and the definition of how things are. In order to understand the relationship between universals and particulars, D.M. Armstrong argues in his work “Universals: An Opinionated Introduction” (1989) that one needs to define a principle of instantiation of universals, otherwise one would just find bundles of universals without the manifestation in particulars.
However, the next question is if there exist “uninstantiated universals”? The view that there exist uninstantiated universals is, namely, a Platonist understanding of an ideal and transcendent world separated from the phenomenal world. As Plato writes in Parmenides, “Therefore nothing can be like the form, nor can the form be like anything else. Otherwise, alongside the form, another form will always make its appearance, and if that form is like anything, yet another; and if the form proves to be like what partakes of it, a fresh form will never cease emerging” (Metaphysics, 229-230). The form is something unique in itself, the one, without being a part of the particular, otherwise the form of forms will come into existence in an infinite regress.
Armstrong, on the other hand, argues against Plato that universals must exist in the space-time world, the world of particulars. In order to “bridge” universals and particulars, he uses the principle “instantiation” and in that sense, he believes to step outside the “relation regress” that one finds as the problem in Plato’s Parmenides. Furthermore, this also means that Armstrong does not assign to a “Platonic Heaven”, as he says, “Instantiation then becomes a very big deal: a relation between universals and particulars that crosses realms” (Metaphysics, 236). Armstrong characterizes the connection between universals and particulars as a “relationship” – and as such, it seems that the essence of instantiation can only be grasped metaphorically, as a relationship, a crossing, fundamental tie or a kind of binding or bridge. Armstrong underlines this by defining the principle of instantiation as a primitive notion and by saying that the principle is founded by a “truth-maker principle”. According to this principle, truth only comes into the world by something making it true.
Furthermore, the concepts of universal and particular are not unworldly, one could say. As D.M. Armstrong argues, universals must inhabit a space-time world and this world consists of a state of affairs (Metaphysics 243). In his understanding, a principle of instantiation warrants the relation between the universal and the particulars. Through this principle of instantiation, universals connect with particulars.
In continuation of this, one could argue that a patient suffers from COVID-19 because of an instantiation of the universal coronavirus. The COVID-19 is a state of affair in the world, and it instantiates its existence in the particular. Yet one could easily suffer from the COVID-19 without knowing the universal determination of the disease. However, can one suffer from a disease without partaking in the universal definition of the disease? Armstrong finds it hard to imagine or to conceptualize ‘bare particulars’:
“A particular that existed outside states of affairs would not be clothed in any properties or relation. It may be called a bare particular […] A bare particular would not instantiate any universals, and thus would have no nature, be of no kind or sort. What could we make of such an entity?” (Armstrong, Metaphysics 247).
Just as well as we cannot think of any uninstantiated universals, we cannot conceptualize bare particulars. Universals and particulars are inseparably linked and assume each other. When applying this on the COVID-19, one must concede that the universal definition of COVID-19 creates the disease in the particular, yet the particular symptoms in the particular patients also define the universal diagnosis.
The Problem of (Home) Diagnostics
The whole problem of the relationship between universals and particulars is actually encapsulated in the problem of diagnostics. If we don’t test people for COVID-19, how do we determine if someone suffers from COVID-19? The general symptoms are e.g.: sore throat, coughing, fever, tiredness and breathing difficulty. But all these characteristics are also a part of the descriptions of other common diseases. Depending on the properties of symptoms, the class of disease changes. This is a basic example of class nominalism that says when properties differ, the classes also do (Metaphysics 221.) These characteristic symptoms belong to at least three classes of diseases: a cold, the flu or COVID-19. This is exactly why, it is hard for us, people staying at home, families sending children to school, to decide if we are suffering from COVID-19 or not. If the properties of diseases are different, they need to have different predicates.
Many authorities/media talk about “resemblances” or “differences” between diseases in their public advice; yet what is the similarity or difference between properties and their attributes when we talk about the coronavirus and other diseases? Allow me to paraphrase what has been pointed out in the media:
- COVID-19 resembles the flu and a cold in symptoms, but they are different diseases
- COVID-19 is a deadly or serious illness for some people, mild disease for others or leaves no symptoms at all.
We could maybe paraphrase (1) into: if a particular patient x suffers from COVID-19, and a particular patient y suffers from the flu and the particular patient z suffers from a cold, then this entails that the attributes of the particular disease in the patient x in some sense resembles the case of y and z and vice versa, yet the property of the diseases differs. They are not identical, but “alike” or they correlate. However, it is difficult to base the definition of the predicate of the COVID-19 on the resemblance or difference of attributes of different diseases. The reason for the difficulty of defining a resemblance (or difference) between the COVID-19, the flu and a cold is that their symptoms really are attributes showing from disjunctive properties of universals (Metaphysics 239). For example, COVID-19 gives a fever, but lacks rapidity, the flu gives a fever, but lacks a gradual development, a cold lacks a fever, but has a gradual development. The three diseases are basically not the same.
Furthermore, talking about “resemblance” could also be conceptually unfortunate when talking about COVID-19, because we are not dealing with symptoms of a disease which is symmetrical with the symptoms of the flu or a cold. Neither are they transitive: if one has the symptoms of the COVID-19 they do not also suffer from the flu or a cold or vice versa. The diseases have different properties. The predicate COVID-19 might not even be identical with itself: there exist more than one version of the virus – it has different properties and attributes, yet the same predicate. The predicate COVID-19 is not reflexive since it might not exactly resemble itself (Armstrong, 2010, 13).
And what about the next sentence (2), maybe we could paraphrase that into: For all particular patients X, who suffers from COVID-19, the disease has the property of being both deadly or serious A or mild B or with no symptoms C in all possible near future. So the predicate COVID-19 can entail both the attributes of the property A and B and perhaps also C. Especially, the condition for the patient with the attribute A differs fundamentally from the condition of C. As a consequence, we have to imagine a continuum of extremes when talking about the outcome of the disease; from death to no symptoms at all. Yet can one make any definitions of the outcome of COVID-19 by saying that it could show attributes from nothing to death?
Basically, we are saying a universal disease can have an undifferentiated continuum of attributes of the property (outcomes in terms of severity) in the particular. Yet this is the case in many examples of the relationship between the universal and the particular, at least there are vague boundaries between the attributes of the particular as W.V. Quine argues (Metaphysics 147). If we wanted to establish exact boundaries between the different predicates of the COVID-19 and other diseases, we would get into trouble when we examine a small-scale attribute of the particular. We need to include vague boundaries in our criteria of similarity or resemblance, otherwise we would end in a paradoxical state of affairs, yet vagueness must not result in an absolute undifferentiated continuum. The vagueness and the disjunctive definitions of the COVID-19 can easily result in a general anxiety of the universality of the corona-virus that could, in turn, make us behave irrationally.
However, we also learn a lot from these vague similarities and differences. Why? Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept “family resemblances” could be an explanation for the applicability. But as Armstrong points out: “I think that the real moral of what he said is only that predicates and universals do not line up in any simple way” (Metaphysics 241). So we need to understand the COVID-19 as having family resemblance with, for example, the flu and a cold, and as such, one must remember that predicates and the universals do not come in a fixed relation, they are as Wittgenstein says, “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing” (Wittgenstein 32). But that does not take away that universals in some sense run through all particulars, as Armstrong argues.
The final metaphysical question, concerning the relationship between universals and particulars in the COVID-19-case, deals with the very existence of universals. Nominalism is basically a rejection of the existence of universals because we cannot determine where they exist. But my analyses here show that we would not be able to talk about the coronavirus without presupposing its universality.
Yet my analyses also show that the relationship between universal and particular is not something that could exist independently of our thinking about the coronavirus. On the contrary, the existence of the COVID-19 requires our conscious conceptualization of it, but this also shows that the conceptualization raises metaphysical problems because it leads to vagueness. One could then argue that universals are not only abstract entities, but very concrete as the COVID-19. Universals have to be instantiated, otherwise they won’t make sense, as Armstrong would argue. As such, the principle of instantiation seems the basic principle when we are talking of the coronavirus metaphysically – and taking the test would be the final truth-maker-principle: do I suffer from COVID-19? Or rather the flu? A cold? Or just a kind of metaphysical anxiety of the universal? In that sense, we don’t need to be afraid of the universality of the COVID-19, but rather of the still vague definitions and variable instantiation of the COVID-19.
Armstrong, D.M. 2010. Sketch for a Systematic Metaphysics. Oxford.
Armstrong, D.M. 1989. Universals: An Opinionated Introduction. Focus Series. Westview Press.
Armstrong, D.M. (1989). Universals: An Opinionated Introduction. In: Crane, Tim et. al. 2004. Metaphysics – a guide and anthology. Oxford. Pp. 235-248.
Crane, Tim et. al. 2004. Metaphysics – a guide and anthology. Oxford.
Hawley, Katherine. ”Applied Metaphysics” Link: https://katherinehawleydotorg.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/applied-metaphysics-may-5th.pdf. Accessed 29.03.2020.
Plato. Parmenides. In: Crane, Tim et. Katalin Farkas, Metaphysics, Oxford University Press 2004
Quine, W.V. (1948). ”On what there is” In: Crane, Tim et. al. (2004) Metaphysics – a guide and anthology. Oxford. Pp. 179-192.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1986 (1958). Philosophical Investigations. Basil Blackwell.
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