Learning to live with the new normal

My original understanding that the goal of lockdowns was not to avert virus-caused deaths, but to postpone them, to spread them out over time.  Now it seems life shall not return to normal until scientists have learned to cure or immunize.  The assumption that this can be done quickly strikes me as optimistic, and we must prepare for the possibility that the media and government will make social distancing essentially permanent.  There will probably always be enough danger of illness from a mutated coronavirus or some other disease to allow journalists to scream that anyone who wants churches open is a murderer.

We must be absolutely clear that social distancing is an evil.  Call it a necessary evil if you must, but it is social connection that is good.  Visiting family and friends in person is good.  Crowded churches are good.  Children playing together in parks is good.  The Western custom of showing one’s face in public (which conservatives used to argue showed the incompatibility of Islam with our way of life before we outdid them in head-covering) was good.  Google hangouts and Zoom are better than nothing, but they are not as good.

If I were a bishop, I would begin preparing a contingency plan for the possibility that meetings of more than 10 worshippers will never again be allowed.  (Even if the number is 20 or 30, some planning of the sort below will be necessary.)  If they are someday, great.  One should still plan for the worst.  It will surely not be time wasted.  We’re going to lose our churches eventually anyway, either from being taxed as punishment for not approving homosexuality or by legal persecution tactics whereby Catholics lose due process protections in sexual abuse accusations.  We will soon be unable to afford buildings that can house more than a dozen souls at a time anyway.  Our leaders display an indolence that should not be confused with principled conservatism and would probably not have carried through any serious preparation until our churches were taken from us.  In this sense, COVID-19 has given us a wonderful opportunity to restructure without hostile media attention and with with a bit more leisure.

Let us say a parish’s priest offers Mass a few times on weekday evenings (each lasting maybe half an hour) and perhaps a couple of times more than that on weekends, for about a hundred Masses a month serving a thousand parishioners.  Everyone could go once per month.  Families would have to be organized into groups of about three families.  Each group would attend Mass  together with the priest that one evening or weekend per month and would be encouraged to meet without the priest for prayer one other time (perhaps outside, if social distancing laws demand it).  Each family would have to submit its available times, and there would be a greater sense of commitment than before having officially agreed to a Mass time and with attending such small groups that their absence would be noticed.

Devising the schedule will be work, but it’s manageable.  Turning priests into Mass-saying machines while still leaving a bit of time for the other sacraments would be an awful burden on them; we could no longer expect them to do much of anything else.

Praying from home as a substitute for Mass cannot go on for 18 months, or however long it is they think a vaccine will take.  It feels silly.  We’ll all be atheists by the end of that time.

Also, if I were a bishop I’d still make all my priests wear body cameras, even now that they have been cut off from all human connections.

All of this would be to make the best of a terrible, terrible situation, but that’s what you’ve got to work with when you’re a Catholic.

Nonlocality: pick your poison

Quantum Non-Locality and Relativity: Metaphysical Intimations of Modern Physics (3rd edition)
by Tim Maudlin

I’ve lost most of my time to read.  This is the first one I’ve finished in a long time.

I first heard of Bell’s inequalities in undergraduate quantum mechanics, and I came away with the standard lesson that Bell had proved that, given the statistical predictions of quantum mechanics (since empirically confirmed), one must either accept that the laws of nature are nonlocal or that they are nondeterministic.  Like many, I was taxed enough in that class with formalism and calculations that I lacked the appetite for philosophical reflection.

In this excellent book, Maudlin quickly establishes that the idea of a “choice” between believing nature is nondeterministic and believing it allows nonlocal influences is completely wrong.  Violation of Bell’s inequalities proves nonlocality; determinism vs. nondeterminism is irrelevant.  The first chapter gives the clearest explanation I have ever read of Bell’s inequalities and consequences for nonlocal influences.  Only Reichenbach is as good a case as Maudlin for showing that physicists and physics students should read philosophers to understand their own field.

Maudlin’s conclusion is, as the title of this post indicates, that physicists are forced with a choice of what to believe about the nature of the world–although not the one we’ve sometimes thought we were faced with–and all of the choices are unappealing, in the sense that there are good reasons to resist any of them.  One can break relativity by accepting a special foliation of spacetime, a standard of simultaneity in which wavefunctions collapse, although this special slicing of spacetime seems to have left no imprint on anything measurable.  One can posit backward causation, signals moving back in time along light rays, as in the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics.  (Maudlin, though, does not think such theories are viable.)  One can accept some version of the many-worlds interpretation, with all the violence it does to common sense.  One can formulate quantum mechanics in an explicitly foliation-dependent way, so that counterintuitively even facts that we think of as entirely local (such as the polarization of a photon at a particular event) will depend on how the describer chooses to mentally cut up spacetime.  Or one can accept an ontology in which microscopic objects usually have no local existence at all.  Perhaps being deliberately provocative, Maudlin questions whether physicists’ reluctance to tamper with relativity is well-motivated when faced with such a choice.

Rationally or not, I do share this reluctance to posit special foliations.  I see it as a case of preferring to let the more clear illuminate the more obscure.  Relativity is easy to understand, and the lack of time relations for spacelike separated events, or at least the absence of a need for such a thing, is at the level of a genuine philosophical insight.  The interpretation of quantum mechanics, on the other hand, is notoriously unclear.  Although Maudlin doesn’t mention it, physicists seem to be moving toward interpretations (e.g. consistent histories) that would be comfortable with foliation dependence of local quantities.  One can take that as a mark in its favor, or further confirmation of the perversity of physicists, that we’re more willing to tamper with logic than with Lorentz invariance.

If you get this book, make sure to get the 3rd edition, which has an extra chapter reporting new research on objective collapse theories that affects the debate significantly (but doesn’t resolve it).