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Big Questions, Free Will, and Addiction

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Galaxy Spinning in Space

Broadly speaking, it lasts from ages 10 to 20, with a greater salience between, say, 12 and 15 years old.

This is the period of life (at least in my life) when the Big Questions got the most attention. These questions concern such matters as:  What is the meaning of life (if any)?  Is there a god?  What sort of a god?  Do we somehow outlive our corporeal existence?  Why is there so much suffering?  Why does anything exist?  And do humans have free will or are we mere automatons shoved around by a radically deterministic universe?  I well remember anguishing over these kinds of questions.

In my junior year as a Berkeley undergrad, for instance, I remember the free will and determinism question being associated with a long patch of depression — whether as the depression’s partial cause or partial effect I cannot say. 

In fact, I tried to find a way out of the deterministic trap – and the meaninglessness of life that radical determinism implied – by leaving certain life decisions to the outcome of a random event, say, the flip of a coin.  Of course, I knew that the flight and final disposition of the coin were also subject to the laws of motion and, ultimately, to their own level of no-escaping-it determinism.  But at least flipping a coin seemed to provide a mode of escape from any radical determinism operating at the personality level.

I tried to find other more sophisticated randomizers, too.  It was said that quantum physics was inherently stochastic in character.  Would I be better off leaving one or another decision to the results of a subatomic interaction?  I had friends who worked as bubble chamber scanners at Berkeley’s Rad Lab.  They could tell me my options, I could choose one, and they could report back the outcome.  But then again, Einstein, I knew, had objected that “God does not play dice with the universe.”  So I was back where I started – with the coin flip.

Head You Lose, Tails I Win

Somehow these questions got demoted as I moved into the responsibilities of adult life.  Imponderables gave way to practical matters.  Woody Allen made many wonderful films and, I assume, a pile of money as well, by hanging on to a preoccupation with the Big Questions into adult life.  But I — like most people, I guess — moved on.  All of which provides my set-up for a few words on a too-little-noticed philosophical assumption buried deep in the concept of addiction.

Although addiction may be defined and operationalized in a number of different ways, the heart and core of the concept lies in its implication of the loss of the ability to choose – that is, the loss of free will.  Hence, and logically, the concept of addiction also implies the actual existence of free will.  And there lies the rub.

The addiction concept repackages one of the Big Questions – free will and determinism – into a new and seemingly more manageable form.   But should we be entirely comfortable with the tacit implication that ordinary, non-addictive conduct is freely willed?

Can Science Answer the Big Questions?

Of course, this assumption underlies much of our day-to-day lives.  We show up at work late and we are responsible for the choices we made that caused our lateness.  Our legal system relies on the same assumption as well.  It assumes people freely do what they do and must take responsibility for their actions. But a notable problem arises when we consider the concept of addiction in a medico-scientific context.

It is here, I would suggest, that the underlying Big Question character of the addiction concept harbors no small potential for epistemological inconvenience and embarrassment.  Can science, after all, confidently assert (or even quietly trust) that free will actually exists?  If not, where does that leave the scientific concept of addiction in relation to its core loss-of-free-will meaning?  To put this another way:  Is science’s authority actually misappropriated every time medico-science makes some sort of pronouncement on the subject of addiction?

The otherwise familiar and unproblematic notion of a science of addiction, I’m suggesting, returns us — albeit quietly and without explicit notice — to the unresolved and probably unresolvable Big Questions and philosophical conundrums of our youth.

If You Don't Take the First Drink, You Can't Get Drunk



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