Making Sense of a World in Transition

Same as it ever was . . .
—Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”

Technological acceleration has outpaced our ability to understand many of its effects. As new ethical and political questions emerge around social media, artificial intelligence and robotics, there has also been a rush to understand the psychological effects of our new digital environment. Unfortunately, much of the analysis gets mired in modern behavioral models of human consciousness and fails to account for the effects on what Aquinas would call the “inner senses” of memory, imagination, and the sensus communis. It is here, in the human psyche (Greek for “soul”) that the aftershocks of the digital quake are being felt most deeply. While neuroscience has provided new techniques for plumbing the mysteries of the human mind, the tradition and wisdom of the Church should remain in conversation with the new tools. Understanding technology’s effects on the human person requires more than fMRI scans and other novel neuroscience techniques.

One place to start is the Catholic ressourcement, a theological movement that returned to the sources in order to better navigate modernity. The ressourcement movement of the mid-twentieth century sought to recover the dynamism of tradition and bring it into conversation with the modern world. While some used the return as a mere refuge from modernity, Romano Guardini confronted the changing reality head on. The German theologian’s End of the Modern World provided a prophetic response to the increasing power that man had acquired over nature. Guardini argued that the new age of scientific and technological power, minus an ethic of humility and responsibility, was becoming increasingly hostile to both nature and humanity.

Guardini saw what was coming, in part, because he looked backward in order to look ahead. Guardini drew deeply from history, philosophy, and theology, showing the way in which humanity’s increasing sense of dislocation in the universe resulted from the displacement of God. His narrative continues to resonate today as the Holy Father’s encyclical Laudato Si has given Guardini another prominent hearing. In particular, Chapter 3 of the pope’s document, “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis,” retrieves Guardini’s caution against the blind pursuit of power, profit, and efficiency that has come at great human, spiritual, and environmental cost.

This age of constant change—what Pope Francis has called an “epoch of changes”—has led many to believe that the world has become a senseless place. The degradation of the natural environment has been accompanied by an increasingly destabilized and unbalanced psychological environment. According to Pope Francis’s notion of an “integral ecology,” these two spheres are not, as modernity would have it, distinct, but deeply connected. The psychological environment, shaped by a century of “psychological warfare” via mass media, television, advertising, and now social media has had a profound impact on our grasp of reality and our sense of being in the world. The human psyche has been turned inside out by a fantasy-industrial complex that has commandeered the collective imagination for over a century. That is all changing now.

In part a response to electric “modernity,” the Catholic ressourcement also produced thinkers like Marshall McLuhan whose Tetrad heuristic for understanding technology was constructed, in part, around research on Henri de Lubac’s “Four Senses of Scripture,” and Aristotle’s notion of “formal cause.” McLuhan recognized that technology’s effects were related to its causes: material, efficient, formal and final. The modern focus on material and efficient cause obscured the full Aristotelian insight that the formal cause of any new technology provides the underlying structure and blueprint for reshaping the culture. Culture and consciousness tend toward conformity with any new technological form. Form becomes metaphor as computer words like “processing” and “bandwidth” become metaphors for human thought and feeling.

Applying McLuhan’s heuristic, digital technology is not the same as the electric media technologies that preceded it. The formal structure of digital technology is memory based. With the computer, the human faculty of memory is emphasized, reshaping its relationship with the inner sense of imagination, which has all-too-often become disordered fantasy. This paradigm-shift is now playing out in real time while also appearing in sermons and encyclicals. In Guardini's second series of post-WWII lectures titled Power and Responsibility, the essential tasks were outlined. Today's technology now points us towards what Fr. Philip Larrey has called “Artificial Humanity.”  

Is Television Real?

No, it is not. Television is a technology that was designed to present illusions. The human sensorium did not evolve to deal with an endless stream of blinking lights, which is all that television can deliver. That is the structure of the technology itself. Reality does not blink at you thirty-times a second. To deal with this, a process called “flicker fusion threshold” is involved, in which we go from blink-blink to what we report as a “continuous image.” But we are not fooled and the consequences are overwhelming.

As a result, we are living in a dream (which for many is a brutal nightmare). As the Talking Heads put it, “And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack . . . And you may ask yourself, 'Well . . . how did I get here?'” Recently, Ross Douthat of the New York Times suggested that we are living in an “Age of Dreampolitik,” which he contrasted with an earlier pragmatist “realpolitik.” Douthat ended his column by noting: “But we can look forward, in the next decade if not sooner, to discovering whether my confidence in the separation of political fantasy and political reality was the greatest fantasy of all.”

Douthat does not identify television as the cause of this separation, even though it should be obvious that the politics to which he refers were largely fought in that medium—as well as in another medium, Twitter, that tried to circumvent television (until Twitter decided to play by television rules by featuring video). Recent literature on the supposed deleterious effects of Facebook have focused on the remedy of forcing these platforms to conform to the regulatory strictures observed by television, including restrictions on free speech—as if the medium was not the message. We still have a lot to learn about how technologies construct our lives.

The purported “psychology” behind these claims about the effects of Facebook and other mediums—including addictions mirror-neurons, dopamine release, etc.—have actually never been satisfactorily demonstrated. Likewise, despite efforts dating from the time of the Talking Heads, the actual psychological effects of television have never been fully explored. Beginning in the 1990s, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that no child “under 2 years of age” (recently reduced to 18 months) should be allowed to have any “screen time.” None at all. But why stop there? What happens to 10-year-olds? Or 50-year-olds? What are the psychological effects of binge-watching Netflix?

Today's psychology, focused as it is in “clinical” treatment of society's disorders (to such a degree that the antipode of “positive psychology” has become a fad), has few answers. Neuroscience can tell you what happens in lab-rats, but is largely silent on the human impact of technological environments. In fact, neuroscience seems to have “proved” that humans do not actually have free will, a conclusion backed by many modern philosophers, leading to the “compatibility thesis,” which ignores all that and proceeds as if we did anyway. Alas, contemporary scientific trends are not likely to help us much to understand what is going on—which, arguably, is why these effects are so widespread.

Psychology needs a major overhaul. Today's widespread separation of “reality” from “fantasy” requires that we start over again by dealing with our inner senses. That is where this crisis originates. That is where our inability to find coherence in our lives begins, starting early in life. Under television conditions, we are unable to assemble an understanding of reality because we have subjected ourselves to a relentless regime of make-believe. Neil Postman called it “amusing ourselves to death.” Marshall McLuhan, a mentor to Postman, called it “discarnate man.” Modern cognitive science ignores these inner senses, as did its “behavioral” ancestor. Ever since psychology ditched its roots in philosophy and became “experimental,” humans have become lab-rats and our interior processes have become ignored (or seriously obscured). This cannot continue.

In 1969, Marshall McLuhan wrote a letter to Jacques Maritain reflecting on his experiences trying to provoke a wider understanding of how technology shapes our behaviors and attitudes. In it he observes, “There is a deep-seated repugnance in the human breast against understanding the processes in which we are involved. Such understanding implies far too much responsibility for our actions.” It is our technological “power” which demands we take “responsibility” for our own inventions. Yes, the robots are coming.

Do Robots Have an Intellect?

No, they do not. And they never will. Of course, if you define intelligence in such a way that the human intellect is not needed, then, of course, robots can become intelligent. But, as the phrase “artificial intelligence” (AI) implies, that is a qualified sort of intelligence, a kind of machine intelligence. This “intelligence” is not the same as the human intellect (intellectus in Latin and dianoia in Greek). Indeed, the intellect is a faculty of the human psyche, which does not appear anyplace else in nature. Without the soul—considered as the “form” of a human—there can be no intellect. Non-humans need not apply.

Current AI research, typically referred to as “machine learning,” has hit a wall. And the researchers know it. Despite the success with the GPT-3 algorithm generating texts that often appear to be “human-like,” they also clearly lack what AI researchers call “common sense.” A recent article calls it the “dark matter of AI.” The Allen Institute for AI has developed a system they call “Mosaic” to try to deal with this conundrum. They are still wrestling with problems like “Can an elephant fit through a doorway?” Indeed, they are still trying to figure out what “common sense” would mean for a machine. Young children beat them every time.

This is because children have an intellect. Indeed, more than one. Passive, active, and potential intellects (according to some accounts). Those intellects sit on top of an array of “faculties”—one of which is called the “common sense” (or sensus communis). This common sense is “common” to the typical five “external senses,” bringing them all together by starting the process of generating “percepts.” Much of modern psychology has gutted all of this out, beginning in earnest in the sixteenth century. That humans have “direct perception” of “qualia” is now the consensus view (albeit still with plenty of disagreements). That might be a good way to design robots, but it totally fails when humans are involved.

The earlier “faculty psychology” approach needs to be retrieved. It was discarded when psychology went “modern” in the twentieth century. Even the father of experimental psychology, Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), did not want that to happen. This earlier psychology was a Catholic philosophical mainstay, although not a matter of dogma. Others, like the Rev. Joseph Haven (1816-74) at Amherst wrote about it in his Mental Philosophy: Including the Intellect, Sensibilities and Will (1857). His book was the first on the topic translated into both Japanese and Chinese—two languages that had no word for “psychology.” Then, in the rush to become modern, it was summarily forgotten.

For roughly 2000 years, since its invention by Aristotle, psychology (or psyche-ology) was approached using various accounts of these faculties. Maimonides (1138-1204) used them to argue against his Islamic interlocutors about the character of the soul. Avicenna (980-1037) and Averroes (1126-98) used it to make their own cases, often expanding on what Aristotle (384-322BC) had to say. Galen (129-210) did the same with his medical treatment of mental disorders. What was once a common reference when considering the psyche was swept away and our understanding has been spiraling downward ever since. No, the modern “modular” approach taken by Prof. Fodor will not work, since it is based on the mistaken notion of mind-as-computer, where Fodor's approach turns faculties into software “routines.” As a result, Ray Kurzweil's effort to use this approach to “create a mind” (as he titled his book on the topic) cannot succeed.

Yet, billions of dollars are being spent now trying to develop Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). By some accounts, this is already a global arms race—in which the US and China have become the “AI Superpowers.” Countries around the world have announced their “AI Strategies,” with military applications often attracting more funding than commercial ones. Instead of making the “human turn,” many philosophy departments have turned toward “post-humanism” as a leading area of research. The Transhumanism movement runs in presidential elections. The fact that today humans put extensive effort into generating post-human results is more concerning than whether-or-not AI research will achieve its results.

One of the central illusions fostered by television—this time derived from its basis in geostationary satellites—is the fantasy of “globalism.” Fred Turner has called it the “democratic surround” and its framework is still very much in the news. But it has now run its course. China has made sure of that. The notion that the Chinese would inevitably become “like us” as their economy grew and they participated in the WTO and other such organizations was fundamentally wrong. More broadly, the ground-level separation between the East and the West has become too stark to ignore. Calls for “global governance” to prevent epidemics now fall on deaf ears.

These types of “mass-beliefs” are caused by mass media. Various attempts to name the process were tried before Richard Dawkins finally hit the jackpot with the notion of “memes” in his The Selfish Gene (1976). Memes, which some have analogized to genetic “codes” (which we have discovered are not all they were cracked up to be), have been described as a “unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices”—while, as expected, ignoring the underlying processes involved. Without television, there would be no memes. Not on Facebook. Not anywhere. And, as you might expect, with the demise of television as our psycho-technological environment, memes are now becoming an extinct species, taking the world of advertising with it.   

What Comes After Memes?

Memory. We are talking about a world in transition, but a transition from what to what? We are now experiencing a radical shift in the technologies that underpin society and, therefore, human sensibility. This is happening everywhere, all at once. In the 1980s, Willis Harman wrote about “Global Mind Change”—leading to the New Age and its television expression in Oprah Winfrey and other personalities—but as many have observed, it never really happened. Now, this shift, on a global scale, is impossible to deny. We are now undergoing a full-on psychic shift of a magnitude likely not experienced since literacy overcame our oral past in the “Axial Age.” As Walter Ong, SJ would put it, “secondary literacy” is replacing “secondary orality.”

Television is being replaced by digital technology. The digital is not only displacing television as a communications technology, but also as a technological environment, bringing with it fundamental changes in our psychology. As it turns out, television severely impacted the inner sense of imagination. Typically described as the “storehouse” of the images generated by the “common sense,” imagination is how we first come to know the world. If that sense is fed an endless diet of blinking-lights, however, then our percepts will be scrambled and our ability to use our intellect subverted. The only antidote to this process is to rebalance imagination with its companion inner sense, “memory.” And that is exactly what is happening, thanks to the digital.

We have been trained to champion our imagination. Indeed, as a balanced sense, it is crucial for our perceptions. But fill it with nonsense puppet-shows and “making sense” becomes quite difficult. Taken too far, we end up with the confusion between “madness” and “creativity.” A Finnish Aristotelian, Vesa Hirvonen, recently published an article titled “Mental Disorders in Late Medieval Philosophy and Theology,” in which he identified how some Franciscans considered the matter. Duns Scotus, for instance, states: “Thus imagining can become so intense that it leads to insanity.” William of Ockham similarly speculated: “it appears that frenetics and persons in a fury are wrong because the acts in their imaginations are ordained in different ways as in those in a state of good health.” Indeed, poorly “ordained” imagination becomes dangerous fantasy.

These inner processes are akin to what we might today call the “subconscious”, although few using that term appear to have studied the inner senses. These senses were appropriated by Freud and others with the term “unconscious.” Ultimately, Freud's heuristic structure of the Ego, Superego and Id (only arrived at late in his schematizing) might be considered an ersatz reflection on the inner senses, which he was likely taught by his University of Vienna instructor Franz Brentano. The earlier and well worked-out understanding of our faculties, however, is completely obscured in Freud’s psychology. An “inflamed” imagination could be thought of in terms of the Id, whereas a “stabilizing” sense of memory might be a version of the Superego. No wonder we seem to be trapped in a “crisis of coherence.” We have been severely handicapped in our ability to recognize the patterns in our lives.

Along with this article, the authors have written a series of essays and collected some material on related topics—ranging from a Warburg Institute monograph on the “Inward Wits,” to accounts of the “Cogitative” faculty, sometimes referred to as the “missing sense,” in addition to a bibliography. The technical Thomist literature (today often in Spanish) is filled with discussion on the problem of how the immaterial intellect makes use of these material inner senses. Looking down into the senses, this is described as the “conversion to the phantasm,” while looking up into the intellect, much has been written about the formation of the “species intellectus.” This is a rich library of philosophical speculation, contained within a wide-ranging philosophical/theological historical matrix, just waiting for the next generation of philosophers of mind and neuroscientists to explore it.

Alas, the problem today is not consciousness, as many believe, but rather the psychological processes which precede awareness, as we build our identities while being shaped by our own tools. There is a widespread bias in today's social sciences called “social constructivism,” which holds that society can be “constructed” by humans to take whatever shape we would prefer. Not only is this obviously not possible, given endless failed attempts to do just that, but rather it is the reverse. We are “constructed” by the technologies we habitually use—starting at a very early age. What Piaget termed the “concrete operational” phase of development is particularly sensitive to this shaping—not determining, since formal cause is at work—as that is when humans are neurologically configured to deal with the particular world in which they live. Change the environment and you will change the resulting neural networks. When Frank Zappa sang about “Plastic People,” he was not kidding.

In his posthumous volume, Laws of Media: The New Science, Marshall McLuhan offered the Tetrad heuristic, based in part, as noted above on Henri de Lubac’s four senses of scripture, detailed in de Lubac’s Medieval Exegesis. In the Laws McLuhan offered a Tetrad for both television and computer. In the “flip” quadrant, which details the end stage of a technology, television is described as “The Inner Trip.” In the crucial “retrieval” quadrant, which reflects the psychological ground effects of any human artifact, the entry for computers is “Perfect Memory: Total and Exact.” Sound familiar? This is the transition the world is now experiencing—from self-absorbed fantasy (i.e. flipped television) to a meaningful recalling of how we got to where we are (along the way, answering David Byrne's question, “How did we get here?”).

Digital technology has given us robots and the ability to gene-edit/splice new lifeforms. It also gives us the ability to “retrieve” what it means to be human—which is radically different from a machine. This unique human capability is not what some might describe as “human rights” (now morphing into “robot rights”) but, rather, underpins the responsibility we all have to promote “human dignity.” We have the power. Now we must take up the responsibility that understanding these processes requires. In combination with the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, a renewed understanding of the human psyche will be required for humanity to address the new challenges of the digital paradigm. As Thomas Kuhn suggested, new paradigms require new sciences. That means a new psychology (yes, updated from an old one). McLuhan started us off on the right foot. It is now up to the rest of us to make sense of our remarkable and, truth be told, precarious circumstances. God help us.

Featured Image: Taken by Voice of America, Donald Trump speaking at the "Stop the Steal" rally on January 6, 2021; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Gov.


Stahlman, Robinson, Berkman, and Pugen

Mark Stahlman is President of the Center for the Study of Digital Life (CSDL). Brett Robinson is Director of the Church Communications Ecology Program at the McGrath Institute for Church Life. Peter Berkman, and Adam Pugen are Fellows of the CSDL, a strategic advisory firm that was established in 2015. The Center's detailed materials on the Inner Senses can be found online at the CSDL website, under the heading of “Dianoetikon: A Practical Journal.”

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