Aaron Harburg

Causality and social media, a rant.

A corner stone of Thomistic/Aristotelian is the “four causes.” Briefly, they are material or what something is made out of, efficient, what makes it (the agent cause), formal, the what-ness of the thing, final, or the purpose for which it exists. Aristotle uses the analogy of a bronze sculptor. The material cause is the bronze, the sculptor and his tools are the efficient cause, the shape of the sculpture is the formal cause, decoration is the final cause. 

Empirical science is only capable of observing the material and efficient causes. However, it is literally impossible to imagine a universe without final causes or teleology. Many object to the notion that final causes exist in the universe because they see that as an anthropomorphic projection of our own psychology onto nature. It is true that our intentions are the final cause of our actions, but that is because intentions are a species of the genus of final causality. There are two problems with the objection that there are no final causes in nature. First of all we have just established that our intentions are a form of final cause and to make such a sharp distinction between our own psychology and the external universe is falling into the trap of Cartesian dualism which places humans as somehow separate and apart from the universe. We are part of the universe and everything we have is owed to it. The second problem is that if you remove final causality the entire field of biology becomes unintelligible.

Darwin himself was praised for providing a synthesis between morphology (study of the particular) with teleology. He just made “survival of the species” as the final cause for everything which has been basically wholesale adopted. There is unfortunately not as much evidence for this as most would believe and in many ways is just a philosophical presupposition that falls short of the even bigger question: Assuming survival of the species is the final cause of all our biological components (and today many pseudo-scientists argue, psychology) then what is the final cause of the survival of our species? Even more problematic is the fact that Darwinian theory was an attempt why there are different species and natural selection is a very promising mechanism for this, but if it is true then all of a sudden it’s not the preservation of the species so much as the “evolution." 

Now Darwin was not responsible for the theory of evolution. Evolution being the "rolling out” of species always progressing to a “better” state. In fact the term didn’t even show up in his landmark “On the Origin of Species” until the 5th edition. It was a philosopher by the name of Spencer who originated this idea from philosophical grounds. These two ideas, that we “progress” and the the final cause of our biology is survival, are in some ways in contradiction. It is no longer the preservation of the species so much as the transformation. Into what I wonder? The purpose of natural selection is to ensure that the organisms best suited to their environment survive. What about biodiversity then? Why are humans necessarily at the top when we are often a threat to the survival of all species? A cockroach in someways is one of the most brilliantly adapted organisms and fulfills its teleology better than most 21st century teenagers. 

Social media, such as this tumblr, being a product of man have, presumably, a more traceable and intelligible line of causality. When I say “intelligible” I don’t mean logical or symmetrical, I mean simply that it can be known. It could very well be that its creation followed a very chaotic and disjointed path against our tendency to want a cohesive narrative. A feature of human psychology is to seek a Gestalt, a whole picture that is neat, clean, organized, and mathematically necessary. Reality is a bit messier than that. 

We know what social media is made of, electronic signals, computer hardware, etc… We know more or less who causes it, programmers, businessmen, etc… Even the form is pretty spelled out in terms of its aesthetic and features. The final cause is less apparent in large part because of its versatility. One of the fascinating features of final causality is that final causes can be nested. They can also be referential to other causes. So the final causes of the feature of sharing a picture for example can be to allow people to show what they are eating. The final cause of this is to allow people to feel connected. The final cause of this from the minds of those creating the site is to drive traffic to the site. The final cause of that is to make money. The final cause of making money is then divided up according to the interest of the various investors and stakeholders.

Social media then has as its driving final cause economic forces. Its efficient cause is technological know-how and economic realities that allow for investment. Its materials also are only possible in a globalized capitalist market economy. What is tricky about social media is that it is a lot like a Swiss army knife.

Precisely what is so appealing about it is the vast array of potential final causes or uses. I like to make a distinction at this point between proximate or immediate final causes and remote or ultimate final causes. The proximate is somethings function. That is what it affects immediately on the level of efficient causality. The remote final cause is the purpose or what it affects on a dimension above its immediate sphere. For example, the function of the knife is to cut, the purpose of the knife is to be useful to a man in procuring or preparing food. 

Social media is very similar to this, but its ends are even more versatile on a magnitude that is truly astounding. Even a medium like twitter, which is relatively restricted, clearly has a profound versatility. There is also a formlessness to it. As Facebook has demonstrated, they can change the interface at will and they will. What is particularly fascinating as that most emerging technology are shifting to a development process referred to as “agile” that mimics the process of natural selection. In this development process they test features for its desirability against their target markets. Thus a lot of new products are being created and crafted according to evidence based discovery of other peoples desires. 

What is peculiar to this is that now we have solutions for problems that were created for other solutions. The internet itself being a vast sea of information, most of which is hidden from search engines, is now seen like the ocean. Beautiful, vast, powerful, but deadly and largely unknown. A reductionist view of human psychology often will then cite how we were not “evolved” to deal with all of this information. In many respects I agree with the notion that we cannot handle this information. I’m not certain about natural selection really being all that crucial to developing the limits of mental bandwidth. 

What I’d ultimately like to point out is that this continual development, change, versatility, and adaptation is not necessarily a good thing. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing. However, there are some particular effects on human psychology which have been observed. It seems that millennials in particular are subject to a very damaging development. Eric Erickson has a theory on developmental psychology which he splits into “stages.” I’m fairly convinced these stages only have relevance for a post-industrialized modern society, but they have worth nonetheless and possibly have some more universal application. One of the key is “identify formation.” This is a stage when a person begins to understand “who they are." 

Unfortunately, in a modernist reductionist society that attempts to ground of all human psychology in neural chemical interactions many people believe their entire psychology is the result of cultural forces interacting with innate biological forces that have evolved overtime. This sets most young people up with the mistaken notion that they are largely transient beings. It is not uncommon for people to refer the mind as being "software.” This basically eviscerates the possibility of the human mind having any sort of form or final causality. Instead one’s immediate pleasure often will usurp any sense of ultimate purpose. How is it possible to have some abiding personality if your identity is just like a computer program, like Facebook, constantly changing with the tides of public opinion?

It isn’t. I’d like to introduce the idea that maybe by looking at our psychology a little more holistically we will discover something about ourselves that cannot be reduced to the final causality of “survival” or “evolution.” The very notion of the latter presupposes some hierarchy of goods. In this there is a chance for the idea of something transcendent. Something eternal and unchanging. We all long for something that is actually and truly perfect. Something that is so good that it sits on the top of all other good. Something that does not need to change. It is complete. Done. Something that fully satisfies all of our wants. 

The second aspect is that the problem with the internet is one of value hierarchy. We have a limited amount of time. We cannot look at everything before we die. Secondly, nor do we want to. There is a lot of evil on the interwebs. Things that are best left unseen and unknown. We are all suffering from the deluge of perversity which strips even the most wholesome of our innocence. Never before in the history of mankind has the common everyday person been so exposed to wickedness of every conceivable form. Our intellects or minds however seem to have an infinite capacity. There is a voracious desire to know, even against our better judgement. This future is unique to humanity. It is termed “rationality.” We can make observations and draw conclusions. We make judgments about the nature of things in our world.

Thus when forming our identity IRL we would hope to maximize our goodness in behavior and part of that is increasing our capacity to know. Social media can help or thwart that. It can be a tool for the destruction of our goodness or a sway towards it. This much is sure, the more base instincts of mankind will prevail if left unchecked. The market forces will march to the tune of everyone’s basic selfishness. Fortunately, this formless and excessive versatility present in social media makes it an excellent tool for the noble. What everyone must evaluate is whether or not their capacity for goodness is not exceeded by their capacity for action in general. Aquinas states towards the beginning of the Prima Secundae Q.2 Art. 4 "God’s power is His goodness: hence He cannot use His power otherwise than well. But it is not so with men. Consequently it is not enough for man’s happiness, that he become like God in power, unless he become like Him in goodness also.“

Now I am not advocating that social media should solely be used by exclusively noble ends, we know how obnoxious it is to follow people constantly posting about heavy topics. Part of nobility is having fun and enjoying things. However, in the right measure and manner. Thus you must decide what will be the primary end of your use of social media? Entertainment? Edification? Both? In what amounts? Will your profiles be a reflection of who you actually are or who you want to be? The latter isn’t bad if it is consistent, thought out and intentional. 

In any event, that is my rant for the day. A+ if you actually read it.