Determinism and Addiction

I recently saw a short video about how hard determinists respond to people with an addiction (addiction to alcohol was the example used).

The premise of the video is simple. If an alcohol addict comes to a hard determinist and asks for help, what advice could they offer the addict that would not make him or her despair? If they just tell the addict that they don’t have free will, the addict might lose hope.

The hard determinist in the video responds that they could help the addict by identifying the influences that are contributing to their addiction and offering the addict a series of steps that they could follow to recover. This is what agencies like Alcoholics Anonymous do. We can’t just tell the addict “you’ve got to recover, or else!” We have to tell them how to do that.

Here is my response, as a libertarian about free will.

First of all, it’s not clear to me why we can’t tell the addict “you’ve got to recover,or else!” The addict has the ability to choose whether he will continue drinking alcohol. It will be very difficult for him, but in the vast majority of cases the addict does have the ability to quit by will power.

Nevertheless, there are ways of making it easier for an alcoholic to quit using alcohol, and it is useful for the addict to be made familiar with these so that he will be more likely to recover. This is not inconsistent with free will, since the existence of libertarian free will is consistent with there being limitations on our consciousness.

The fact that there are limitations on our consciousness has very important epistemological and moral implications. Specifically, it means that I can’t expect more out of my mind than it can deliver. I need to keep the fact that my consciousness has limitations in mind when I am planning out how to study for a test, e.g., I shouldn’t make a plan to study for ten hours straight, since that would cause exhaustion. This process of forming plans in light of what one’s mind is capable of is an important responsibility that every adult has.

The fact that some means of recovering from addiction make it easier to recover than others is not a refuge from responsibility, it is an instance of responsibility. If someone is addicted to alcohol, they have a responsibility to think about the problem and seek out the most effective means of escaping their addiction, like joining Alcoholics Anonymous. If an alcoholic tries to quit on his own, fails, and does not seek out a more effective means of quitting, then that is a form of irresponsibility on his part, albeit one less severe than not trying to quit at all.

So, to return to the main issue at stake: Is libertarianism a more effective framework for quitting an addiction than hard determinism?

In spite of the arguments in the video, I say yes. Libertarianism implies that the addict can usually quit on his own, by his own will power, or find an effective method of quitting that is based on research other people have done. This is a more encouraging message than the video’s brand of determinism, which implies that he is helpless to quit unless someone else saves him by spoon feeding him the steps required to quit.

 

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21 thoughts on “Determinism and Addiction

  1. Marvin Edwards

    I was able to quit smoking after many failed attempts. But it is not just one decision. It is a very long list of actual decision to not light up a cigarette. As you acquire the addiction you build a collection of habits. I need a break, so I go out and light up. I’m tired so I light up. I’m bored so I light up. It gets built into your daily routine in hundreds of ways. Or, it’s simply been a while since your last nicotine hit, and the physiological craving tells you to light up.

    Each time you get another cue to light up, you have to make that decision again! And the cues continue to trigger you, until you’ve experienced enough of them without lighting up, that they begin to lose their power.

    I had learned both from my prior attempts to quit, and also from the literature, what to expect. So I could formulate a plan to quit, and steeled myself against the slew of temptations to follow.

    But back to the philosophical point. Any version of Determinism that fails to acknowledge us as purposeful causal agents, making choices for ourselves, of our own free will, is really Fatalism.

    Personally, I believe that ordinary free will and ordinary determinism get along together just fine. Ordinary determinism is nothing more or less than a belief in the reliability of cause and effect. Ordinary free will is nothing more or less than us making decisions for ourselves, as opposed to being forced to choose or act against our will.

    The fact of universal inevitability is totally useless. It is so ubiquitous that it becomes irrelevant. It is like a constant on both sides of every equation, that can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the result. The criminal cannot claim it was inevitable that he committed the crime because the judge can say it was also inevitable that society outlawed the behavior and penalizes those breaking the law.

    It is not necessary to escape from cause and effect in order to have free will. There is no such thing as “freedom from causation”. Free will only means free to act according to our own will rather than having others decide for us what we must choose to do. This is a significant and meaningful distinction, and it is sufficient for moral responsibility.

    Reply
  2. johnsonav

    It doesn’t seem to me that it would make any difference whether one was a libertarian or a determinist when it comes to quitting an addiction. I don’t think either position would influence my thinking or actions dealing with the issue, were I the addict. Nor would my position influence the advice I’d give to someone else suffering from the addiction.

    Perhaps, though, some people conflate determinism with fatalism. And that’s something that could have an effect on dealing with addiction. But that’s a different matter.

    Reply
    1. Marvin Edwards

      A hard determinist over on Twitter said, “A puppet is free as long as it loves is strings.” “You may be content, but you are not free.”

      “Hard” determinists do not believe we have free will. Determinism – Free Will = Fatalism.

      Reply
      1. johnsonav

        The fatalism I’m referring to is the position that what will happen is unaffected by what one does. This position is not entailed by hard determinism.

        Reply
        1. Marvin Edwards

          That’s the best, most concise, definition of fatalism I’ve heard.
          However, the hard determinist, by asserting that one has no control over what one does, produces the same result in practice. In both cases, what happens is never up to you.

          Reply
          1. johnsonav

            I’m not sure that a non-fatalist, hard determinist would say that one has no control over what one does, nor that what happens is never up to you. Control over one’s actions is compatible with determinism, as is the idea that one’s actions are (sometimes, at least) causally efficacious.

            Reply
            1. William Post author

              Well, hard determinists *claim* that control over one’s actions is compatible with hard determinism. I don’t see how someone could defend that claim convincingly, and I don’t see how it’s different from compatibilism.

              Reply
              1. johnsonav

                A determinist thinks that one has control over one’s actions in cases when one’s mental states stand in the right kinds of causal relationships to one’s actions. A determinist, for example, is in control of his actions when his intentions are “but for” causes of his actions.

                A determinist doesn’t think free will is compatible with determinism, but a compatibilist does. That’s the difference. They don’t disagree about the causal facts; they disagree about what free will is.

                Reply
                1. William Post author

                  That’s a good definition of control over one’s actions, thanks. I don’t agree that it’s consistent with hard determinism, though, since admitting that the mind exists and stands in a causal relationship to the body undermines the justification for hard determinism.

                  Reply
                2. Marvin Edwards

                  Johnsonav: “They don’t disagree about the causal facts; they disagree about what free will is.”

                  Precisely. The incompatibilists on both sides hold that “free will” must include “freedom from causation”. The compatibilist defines free will as the act of choosing for oneself rather than being forced to act against ones own will (subjugation to the will of another, that is, the “cage”).

                  Reply
            2. Marvin Edwards

              The “hard” determinist specifically denies a person’s ability to choose of his own free will. It is as if choosing is taking place outside of the person. The person is considered to be a “puppet” controlled by external strings.

              My determinism views the person as a center of purposeful causation. All else may be outside of his control, but the choosing is happening by him alone. None of his choosing is forced upon him against his will, because the choice is his will, and only exists because he does, and because he himself did the choosing.

              He is acting for reasons that exist only within himself, such that he is truly the causal agent.

              Reply
    2. William Post author

      The question is not necessarily what you, personally, would do if you held one theoretical view or another, since you have absorbed a number of habits that may not be consistent with your professed theoretical views. A professed Christian might live lavishly and engage in sharp business practices without realizing that he has absorbed these values from a non-Christian culture.

      Reply
      1. johnsonav

        That’s a fair point, I think. But, to phrase it more carefully, it doesn’t seem like there’s any difference between how a determinist should handle addiction and how a libertarian should handle addiction and remain consistent with their views.

        Reply
          1. johnsonav

            In your OP, I don’t see any reason to think that any of the avenues for treating addiction are closed off to either the determinist or the libertarian. The position on free will makes no difference. Determinism does not entail that the addict is “helpless to quit unless someone else saves him by spoon feeding him the steps required to quit.” And what you write about how a libertarian might approach the issue seems equally applicable to the determinist.

            Reply
                  1. johnsonav

                    The conjunction of incompatibilism and the existence of free will, and anything which entails such a thing being true.

                    Reply
                    1. William Post author

                      I agree that the definition of libertarianism doesn’t imply any specific approach to treating addiction by itself, but I think adopting it as your conceptual framework as opposed to hard determinism could make a difference to the conclusions you draw about what the best treatment options would be. That’s certainly a premise that the hard determinist in the video would share with me.

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