6. What Thomas Reid can Teach us about Doomscrolling

Every day, lately, I wake up hungry to check my twitter feed. But, my twitter feed does not make me feel good. I am not unique in this. It is actually hard to find anyone I know who has what I would call a genuinely healthy relationship with the internet and social media (especially since we had to start social distancing).

I recently got a copy of Solutions (and other Problems) by Allie Brosh, who was hugely successful on the internet, wrote a best-selling book, and then decided not to be on the internet for several years, and then wrote another best-selling book, and so has returned to do like one or two interviews. She has maybe the healthiest relationship to the internet of anyone I can think of (which is to be offered the option of a position promising massive attention and adulation, and decline it).

This is the introduction to Brosh’s new book, which is amazing and you should probably buy her book and read it instead of my writing.

Okay, so, I wake up, and I check my phone, and then proceed to keep checking it throughout the day. Why does the title of this essay claim that Scottish Enlightenment Philosopher Thomas Reid can help explain any of this? Well, Thomas Reid’s Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind is an interesting book, and has a lot of really neat stuff going on, but the part I am thinking about today concerns Essay 3 (“Of the Principles of Action”) Part II (“Of Animal Principles of Action”) Chapter 1 (“Of Appetites”).

People in philosophy use the same terms in different ways all the time, so you never know at first what someone means when they introduce a term, even a familiar one. Fortunately, Reid helpfully tells us that he means “appetite” not in the super strict sense where some people limit it just to hunger, and not in the super loose sense where some people use it for any desire whatsoever, but for “a particular class of desires, which are distinguished from all others by the following marks.”

First, Every appetite is accompanied with an uneasy sensation proper to it, which is strong or weak, in proportion to the desire we have of the object. Secondly, Appetites are not constant, but periodical, being sated by their objects for a time, and returning after certain periods. Such is the nature of those principles of action, to which I beg leave, in this Essay, to appropriate the name of appetites.

EAP, 3.2.1 5

So, for Reid, appetites are desires accompanied by an uneasy sensation, and recur periodically. They feel bad when you have them, they go away when they have been fed, and they come back on the regular. These are animal principles of action, for Reid, because they aren’t special for humans: hunger and thirst (and, according to Reid, lust) are examples of such desires that we share with lots of animals.

Most of Reid’s discussion is concerned with assessing how actions motivated by these desires relate to virtue/morality, but I promised diagnosis of doomscrolling, and that is what I shall give.

Now, Reid astutely observes that we can totally mess up the way these appetites work. He says “I believe our natural appetites may be made more violent by excessive indulgence, and that, on the other hand, they may be weakened by starving.”

If you do philosophy the right way, you can always find a relevant meme.

My understanding is that this is not the current cutting-edge model of how appetite regulation works, but the underlying insight that these natural appetites that function for homeostatic equilibrium and such can be totally set off kilter is an important observation, even if we are glad that we nowadays have a lot of more nuanced/refined scientific understanding of the actual mechanisms behind that.

What is most interesting, as I check my twitter feed, instagram, email, facebook, and so on, for the fifteenth time since I started writing this, though, is Reid’s observation about inventing appetites, ex nihilo.

Besides the appetites which nature hath given us for useful and necessary purposes, we may create appetites which nature never gave.

The frequent use of things which stimulate the nervous system, produces a languor when their effect is gone off, and a desire to repeat them. By this means a desire of a certain object is created, accompanied by an uneasy sensation. Both are removed for a time by the object desired; but they return after a certain interval. This differs from natural appetite, only in being acquired by custom. Such are the appetites which some men acquire for the use of tobacco, for opiates, and for intoxicating liqours.

EAP, 3.2.1 35-6

We can artificially produce appetites in ourselves, through training ourselves by repeated application of nervous system stimuli, which then leave us languorous when their effects wear off, leave us regularly wanting another fix, and are accompanied by an uneasy sensation.

Reid points out that this is distinct from building habits in the sense of just gaining facility or capacity to do things. This one is specifically accompanied by the recurring uneasy sensation relieved only through satisfaction of your desire for the stimulation. Now Reid is talking about getting yourself addicted to tobacco, opiates or liquor, but I say (flippantly) that that’s mainly because he didn’t know about twitter.

Reid concludes his discussion of these artificial appetites by saying “we ought to beware of acquiring appetites which nature never gave. They are always useless, and very often hurtful.”

I have one and a half objections to Reid, and they both relate to artificial appetites for personal hygiene.

When I wake up in the morning, I feel uneasy sensations accompanying the desire to brush my teeth and take a shower. Now you might say “that’s not because of an appetite, that’s because you actually need to clean up!” The reason I am counting this as one and a half objections, rather than two objections, is because I think the toothbrushing can be maybe be hand-waved away with the “that feeling is about whether your mouth needs to be cleaned”, but look: some people are morning shower people, and some people are evening shower people, and I think if those people reflect on it, they’ll realize their feeling that they need to shower on their “schedule” is not always tied to how clean they actually are, it’s more of an appetite in Reid’s sense.

Reid claims that this artificial appetite to perform daily hygiene is useless (I’ll just assume he won’t claim this is one of the hurtful ones). But that seems to overstate the case against it, at least a bit. It would be great if I could get myself to feel about daily flossing the way I feel about brushing my teeth twice a day. I would love to have an appetite for flossing!

Of course, this is all a distraction. Because this essay is about the appetite for doomscrolling. And on that front, Reid seems right. I’ve acquired an unhealthy habit to repetitively go through the unease-relief-unease cycle. The objections to Reid are fun considerations, but they don’t do anything to help with the main point of this essay: Thomas Reid had a good analysis of what’s happening with my relationship to social media.

Now the flipside of this is that Reid is also deeply invested in the view that humans are fundamentally social beings. He calls particular operations of our minds social when they “necessarily imply social intercourse with some other intelligent being who bears a part in them”. And for him this includes making promises, asking questions, asserting things (in contrast to seeing, hearing, and remembering, for example, which can be done in solitude). In Essay five (“Of Morals”), Chapter 6 (“Of the Nature and Obligation of a Contract”), Reid explains that these social acts of mind are part of the basic machinery we come stocked with, and he thought that you can’t construct them out of the solitary operations (which he saw as the default approach taken by many of his contemporaries).

If nature had not made man capable of such social operations of mind, and furnished him with a language to express them, he might think, and reason, and deliberate, and will; he might have desires and aversions, joy and sorrow; in a word, he might exert all those operations of mind, which the writers in logic and pneumatology have so copiously described; but, at the same time, he would still be a solitary being, even when in a crowd; it would be impossible for him to put a question, or give a command, to ask a favour, or testify a fact, to make a promise or a bargain.

EAP, 5.6 15

The idea that without these irreducibly social operations, we would be alone “even when in a crowd”, speaks to how crucial Reid takes sociality to be for human nature. So, while ordinary times might permit us to simply cut out our involvement with habit-forming social media, I think if we heed the overall picture Reid would give us, then, at least at this moment, right now, we have to hesitate, or at least add some nuance.

There is a tension in trying to pay heed to Reid’s advice—at least, in the specific scenario that we are enduring at this very moment—and that is that that giving up appetitive social media might lead to becoming an island of a person, given socio-physical distancing. And that’s unhealthy in a different way.

But, if it is not a good time to try to just quit the apps, I think Reid would still say it’s a good time to try and break the habitual relationship to them. I have friends that I connect with through them. I have friends whose children I am only able to know about by way of them (and you may think “gosh couldn’t you just keep up with those friends directly?” but I think, to be fair, my friends with kids don’t have time to write personal emails to every single friend of theirs who wants to know what is going on in their lives; they barely have time to post pictures and updates to instagram, so let’s not be too judgy about how people are keeping up with each other).

I can’t become Allie Brosh, I can’t even, realistically, aspire to my [uninformed, likely entirely imaginary ideal] of the Allie Brosh relationship to the internet. But I can probably find ways to diminish or defuse this artificial appetite, even as my current social needs can only be met through the same avenues that induced it in the first place.

On the other hand, if you liked this essay, please share, retweet, etc.

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