My son was having trouble graphing an equation for his algebra class so he had to ask me for help. Poor kid. As I struggled to remember my eighth-grade algebra, he wondered aloud when he would ever use this stuff in “real life.”
At that moment, I couldn’t help but think of the dozens of graphs I have seen dotting news articles and social media feeds over the past several weeks.
Coronavirus case counts, death rates, regional breakdowns, demographic breakdowns. It seems everyone is an epidemiologist now as they interpret red and purple lines that seem to be always ascending and never descending. When’s the peak going to hit? How is my state doing?
As we near the frightening apex of the pandemic curve, the models and graphs that have dominated the national discussion reveal another feature of this unsettling moment: the age of algorithmic thinking is also reaching a peak of sorts.
Everything from public policy to stock prices to the individual behaviors of millions of people seems to follow the movement of mathematical models. When virus cases are down, perhaps restrictions are eased, investors gain confidence and people feel safer going to the grocery store.
If the line breaks the other way, the opposite occurs. This is certainly a prudent use of our scientific abilities, but it only provides a fleeting sense of control in the midst of so much chaos.
The belief that someone (or some computer) is crunching vast amounts of data to discern the behavior of a microscopic virus gives us a certain sense of security. It provides a small layer of cognitive protection between us and the reality that nature cannot be fully captured by graphs and algorithms.
Creation is an act of the divine Logos, not artificial intelligence. As such, God’s loving plan unfolds with a reasoning beyond human understanding that is both universal in scope and extremely specific in its attention to the particularities of each human person. We are not made in the image of statistics and demographics, rather, we are made in the image of God.
To put this theological truth in today’s mathematical language, suppose you tried to “graph” our “model” Jesus Christ. His passion, death and resurrection would be “V-shaped.” A descent into the depths of suffering and hell itself before a literal rising from the dead, ascension into heaven and life eternal. The V-shape stands for victory over death.
If there is a model we should follow as we navigate this uncertain time, it is derived from one simple equation: “The Son of God became man so that we might become God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 460). Take heart in the things that mathematical models fail to capture — the unseen acts of sacrifice, mercy and compassion, even in the face of grave danger, that make us human and make us all like unto God.
Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.
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