Beyond the Influence: Alcoholism, Free Will and Compatibilism

Determinism is the view that any event is the consequence of laws of nature acting on antecedent circumstances. Given any set of circumstances (A) and the laws of nature (L) then (on the assumption that the laws of nature are -in this universe at least- inviolable) then A plus L will inevitably lead to their consequent B. It goes without saying that A will itself be the consequence of a set of antecedent circumstances in conjunction with L. Determinism has been taken by many philosophers to be incompatible with free will on the grounds that our actions are the product of “choices” both of which are part of the natural world and are therefore subject to L. Choices are also “events” and are therefore the inevitable consequence of some set of antecedent circumstances acted upon by L; as are the expression of those choices in action. Determinism may or may not be true but if it is true then there is no room (so the incompatibilist argues) for free will. Free will is an illusion: occasionally comforting, occasionally not.Compatibilists on the other hand argue that if we allow that our choices are uncaused (call this indeterminism) then this makes them random and therefore not choices at all: the very concept of free will seems inimical to randomness. There must, therefore, be an account of free will that rescues it from determinism. Other philosophers (most notably Peter van Inwagen) have suggested that it might instead be the case that the concept of free will is incoherent since it seems inconsistent with all logically available positions regarding the truth or otherwise of determinism. At best free will is mysterious on this view.

I was reminded of all this whilst reading Beyond the Influence, an analysis of the science and sociology of alcoholism co-authored by Katherine Ketcham and William Asbury. Beyond the Influence sets out a persuasive and robust defence of the claim that alcoholism is a disease of a straightforwardly biological kind, rather than a pathological consequence of a behavioural or psychological chain (of choices). The alcoholic, they argue, has a cellular genetic inheritance that makes her interaction with alcohol qualitatively distinct from the interactions that occur within a “normal” drinker: “alcoholism is a true medical disease rooted in abnormalities in brain chemistry -biomechanical aberrations that are inherited by the great majority of alcoholics…when the alcoholic drinks something different happens” (p4).

The science is set out impressively and I see no reason to dispute the authors’ central claims that (a) alcoholism is a disease and that (b) that disease has a genetic component that amounts to more than predisposition. However they then move on to assert a collection of conclusions that can be collectively stated as: the claim that the alcoholic has any freedom of choice over his drinking relies on a distortion of the concept of freedom; the biological underpinning of the disease of alcoholism disallows the application of the concept of freedom in this case. The authors proceed to make a number of laudable claims on this basis: that alcoholism should be treated as a disease rather than as a psychological condition susceptible to fashionable therapies; that the alcoholic is a victim rather than the author of her own circumstances; that the idea that alcoholic “abuse” is a version of self-harm is misconceived; that the concentration on the behavioural over the disease description of alcoholism is in part driven by the interests of the alcohol industry. And more.

I wondered though, as I read it, whether the authors had made assumptions of the sort alluded to above. Is the contrast here really between a biological/genetic (ie determinist) versus a behavioural (free choice) analysis of the condition?  And if so is it not a false one? I know that in my own case, prior to recovery, the taking of alcohol was presenting not as desire, or even as need, but as compulsion. But I felt at the same time that the decision was nevertheless genuinely cognitive and freely taken. And that the shame that the decision to drink occasioned was not neutralised by the belief that the condition overall is a matter of biology and genetics.

Ironically enough (and as an aside) there is a discussion of compatibilism in Roger Scruton’s I Drink Therefore I Am: a philosopher’s guide to wine in which (having dismissed the idea that intoxication is a natural kind and is therefore an appropriate subject not just for science, but for philosophy as well) he introduces an aesthetic of wine which serves to underpin his Kantian sympathies. The paradox of the human condition, he suggests, is that we are at one and the same time objects in a world of other objects (and governed by the same physical laws as those objects) and freely choosing subjects with a perspective on that world of objects (from which it follows that we are apart from that world of objects). Freedom, again, is mysterious on this view and to set up free will in competition with determinism is misconceived.

Beyond the Influence is published by Bantam Books (2000); I Drink Therefore I Am is published by Continuum (2009).

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  1. I’m alcohol dependent myself, although I dosify what I drink.
    A day does not go by without me drinking, except those when I pass my limit (which is infrequent) and end up with a hangover.

    My father was also alcohol dependent and able to dosify his daily drinking.

    I’ve also observed that there are families in which everyone drinks and families in which drinking is limited to social occasions.

    What’s more, I enjoy what I drink. I don’t feel compelled to drink, but that it’s a very pleasurable habit. I’ve never tried to stop drinking.

    I think that it’s only moralism or puritanism or medical paternalism that singles out drinking as determined and other options as somehow free. I freely choose to drink insofar as I freely choose. I choose to drink as freely as I choose to be an introvert or to enjoy rational discussions. I’m not at all sure to what extent I choose to write this post, but I feel no more or less compelled to write this post than I do to drink a glass of wine.

  2. I really like how Amos seems to understand the situation. The only good literature I’ve read on the subject of free will (not alcohol dependency) is by Dan Dennett. Have you read it, and if so, are there good responses or critiques to it? I find myself agreeing with him almost completely. The only problem I find with his analysis is that the free will he’s left with might as well not be called free will. Although I haven’t read his works, based on your description, I think Peter van Inwagen presents a view closest to my own. Free Will is just not a sensible topic for discussion.

  3. How can free will exist in light of the findings of science?

  4. I come from a family of alcolics, having a mother who is an alcoholic and also a brother who is an alcoholic/drug addict. When you’re in such a situation, this theoretical issue also brings up all kinds of existential crisises. How does one treat the alcoholic? If you say it’s a disease, there can be no moral finger wagging. Books like “Codependent No More” suggest that the non-alcoholic who enables the alcoholic can be sick as well, caught in a vicious relationship of enabling, even without drinking. The book suggests one’s best bet is the course of “tough love,” to take care of oneself. Each individual is construed as ontologically separate and not responsible for the behaviors of others. It’s not always easy, but for better or worse, that’s the course I follow.

  5. I was tempted to ramble on about the scientific work of Benjamin Libet and similar more recent authorities whose work represents a drastic onslaught on the concept of free will. However I guess most here are aware of its existence. I accordingly endorse the comment from Philosophical Reviews “How can free will exist in light of the findings of science?”
    The comments from Amos are very interesting as they represent a different view concerning alcohol from mine. I have never had any interest in alcohol I do not like the taste of it and its effects on me in large quantities cause a giddy dreamy ethereal state, which is far from pleasant. To be sociable I will not refuse to drink with someone but if somehow I can dispose of the stuff secretly without drinking it I will. People say to me you simply must try this or that wine; it is always ghastly, a variation on the same gustatory experience. They are usually so anxious for one to approve their selection that I have never had the heart to tell them that for me it is horrible. Not to approve leaves some, looking alarmed and as if they were in the presence of a mad man. I have no issues with others drinking provided they do not harm others by so doing. Substitute smoking in the above for drinking for my views on that practice. One day I must try to get a life.
    Amos says “I choose to drink as freely as I choose to be an introvert or to enjoy rational discussions.” I find this a bit puzzling. Can one actually choose to be an introvert or enjoy rational discussions? Are these not innate propensities? Maybe what is meant is that drinking itself is a similar propensity, there at the onset, so the freedom of choice is similar i.e. there is no choice.

  6. “Given any set of circumstances (A) and the laws of nature (L) then (on the assumption that the laws of nature are -in this universe at least- inviolable) then A plus L will inevitably lead to their consequent B.”

    That isn’t really true. There is never any way of knowing perfectly what A plus L will lead to, except in the simplest of cases. Certainly A being ‘putting person P in front of a glass of wine’ could never be predicted with any degree of certainty. We *can* say that B is a result of A plus L but that is after the event. Determinism only truly works in the -t direction.

  7. Tony: your point is a good one but is consistent with what I said. The determinist’s claim is not epistemological, the “inevitability” is a metaphysical one.

    I do agree that it matters what “inevitable” means though.

  8. “Epistemic” not “epistemological”.

    Sorry (multi-tasking).

  9. Don:

    I have no idea what Benjamin Libet says and a outline of his work would be welcome.

    It seems to me that some people are freer than others or at least that some areas of the mind/brain are freer than others. I doubt that Beethoven’s piano sonatas are wholly determined, while my obsessive-compulsive personality traits probably are.

    Similarly, it seems that someone who is aware of have obsessive-compulsive personality traits is freer than someone who is not aware of his personality traits.

    However, what impresses me is how moralism or puritanism or medical paternalism decides that some conducts or personality traits can be considered sickness or determined, for example, alcoholism, while other conducts are subject to praise and blame, reward and punishment, for example, physical aggressivness. Is there are any evidence that the decision to beat someone is freer than the decision to drink in excess or to drink in moderation, as you do?

    That is, it seems to me that the scientific or even the phenomenological study of free will/determinism should liberate itself from all ethical considerations.

    Andy’s comment that his drinking made him feel shameful seems to be an example of how moralism distorts our perception of how free or not free we are. For example, recently, I was in the hospital and I began to vomit
    repeatedly, which make me feel ashamed in front of the pretty, young nurses. Yet, surely, I was not free to vomit or not.

    That is, the moralism of our society leads us to feel ashamed when there is no cause for shame.

  10. Why is understanding useful in cure? If you stop drinking are you cured even if you don’t understand what your drinking was. Can there be movement to a new level if you are locked into the same epistemology? Gregory Bateson of double bind fame has an essay The Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism in Steps to an Ecology of Mind which his counter-intuitive claim is that

    surrender to alcoholic intoxication provides a partial and subjective short cut to a more correct state of mind

    He discusses the cybernetic correctness of the 12 Steps (AA). It’s philosophically interesting about the dualistic struggles between the drinker and John Barleycorn. It’s very concise and not really amenable to a pat summary.

  11. Re Amos:- Oct 19th
    I agree in the main with what you say here. Ethical codes and religious dictates so often intrude, confuse the issue, and introduce emotive overtones which conspire to adulterate clear scientific thought. So far as Libet is concerned I think it best to refer you to

    Roughly, the decision for action in the human and probably other animals is made unconsciously.
    The decision is made by the unconscious brain and enters consciousness about 350 milliseconds only after the event. This time laps does seem to differ from one authority to another but not vastly so.
    Consciousness of the action follows very quickly after the unconscious decision such that we feel and have always assumed, we consciously made the decision and then acted.
    If you have access to Dan Dennett’s ‘Consciousness Explained’ page 167-8 there is an account of unpublished work done by W Grey Walter a neurophysiologist and robotician in 1963. This is a somewhat startling account and demonstration of the anomaly between decision and action. I am not aware if anybody has attempted to replicate the experiment so it has not had the usual thoroughgoing examination and comment by peers as is normally the case. That said it makes a fascinating read. The subjects in the experiment were also similarly surprised and mystified.

  12. Don: Interesting, but has any work ever been done on highly creative mental processes, writing music, playing chess, doing philosophy?

    It seems to me that while unconscious mental processing undoubtedly plays its part in creativity, there is a conscious decision process involved too. There is a difference between “deciding” to choose chocolate instead of vanilla ice cream (undoubtedly an
    unconscious “choice”) and deciding which chess piece to move.

  13. Re AMOS:-Oct 19th
    The bulk of the work in this connection has been centred on decision and resulting bodily action. I am not aware if similar work has been done in doing philosophy and writing music. I imagine these creative acts would embrace so many other variables such that the phenomenon one hoped to study was swamped. I suppose it would be possible to connect a composer to the necessary Laboratory equipment and measure the unconscious readiness potential in his brain preceding the action of writing say c sharp rather than c flat. I do not think this is what you mean when you say work on highly creative mental processes. On the other hand a chess player seems an ideal subject. He or she sits quietly at a table considering the next move. Could we measure his neurological states, I would expect to see that the decision to move to a particular square i.e. the neurological readiness potential had been unconsciously determined prior to the action of moving the piece. Libet did suggest that even at this late state the subject could possibly veto the move but I do not think he was ever able to substantiate this and so far as I know this possibility has now been discounted.
    There are associated examples of action in the absence of Visual consciousness i.e Blindsight. And you may be interested to look at

    In this may also be interested to examine how you feel immediately on arising from bed. Can you positively identify the instant when you decided, or was it more like you were suddenly getting up and just assumed you must have consciously made the decision so to do. Personally I find I am suddenly getting up I have no remembrance of an instance of decision in favour of that, as against staying there.
    All this stuff is of course a threat to the concept of free will which seems to demand conscious choosing. So much of our mentation is at an unconscious level and it seems decisions are made at an unconscious level; we accordingly wonder what survival value consciousness has for the organism. The best suggestion I know of is that it serves as ‘a late error detector’. This means we have an opportunity to consider what we did wrong and take steps next time to avoid falling onto the same trap cf Jeffrey Gray “ Consciousness: Creeping Up on the Hard Problem” chap 7.

  14. Don:

    My take is that people have a lot less free will than is commonly imagined, but that it’s not an either/or thing. That is, sometimes, one consciously decides and sometimes, not.

    My experience of playing chess (I’m the world’s worst chess player) is that while lots of unconscious processing goes on, I
    do consciously reason and decide which piece to move.

    Similarly, when I write carefully, I choose my words (although I choose words out of a menu which my unconscious mind suggests).

    As I said before, it is really difficult to imagine that a musical work as complex as a Beethoven piano sonata is merely the result of unconscious processing.

    I do have the phenomenological experience of deciding to get out of bed in the morning. There is a moment I say to myself: now, and then I get up. However, I’m willing to concede that that moment of conscious will power may be an illusion.

    What I will not concede is that I do not conscious choose or decide
    what chess piece to move or what word to use when I’m writing or speaking carefully. Here’s an example: you’re learning a foreign language and you’re trying to construct a difficult sentence.
    Don’t you consciously run through a set of rules from your mental grammer book, seeking the rule
    for the use of, say, the past subjunctive? I do at least.

  15. Re AMOS:- Oct 20th
    We are not speaking of conscious deliberation or contemplation here, of course that occurs all the time. If you agree (for the purpose of this explanation, if you like) that consciousness serves survival in that it is late error detector, then your deliberations about the next move in chess are such that you may remember the last time you went from position X to Y resulted in disaster and you will not do that again, and so on. What is important here is decision and the action which comes as a result of prior conscious thought. It is the actual irrevocable commitment to move the piece which is important. This unconscious neurological activity, that is the irrevocable commitment, is known as the Readiness Potential and causes the subsequent conscious event of the urge of moving the piece. In this connection we are speaking of split second timings, perhaps at the end of a long period of conscious contemplation. The origin of the decision for bodily action was unconsciously constructed . You cannot veto consciously, something that is being unconsciously constructed. For that reason issues such as free will are threatened, since “my brain appears to know I am going to move, about a third of a second, which is a remarkably long time in neural activity, before I do”
    I am not sure what the present cutting edge of research in this matter reveals, but so far as I can see, it seems the essence of unconscious determination still remains unassailed.

  16. Don:

    You’re saying that as a result of a long process of conscious deliberation or reasoning, in which all the options are consciously pondered, an unconscious switch decides on option a or option b.

    That seems counter-intuitive to me nor does it fit with my phenomenological experience. How would the unconscious mind
    decide which conscious option to select?

    Once again, I’m only speaking of highly complex mental processes, such a moving a chess piece or deciding which word fits in a poem. I don’t deny that my choice of red wine instead of white wine is an unconscious decision, which appears to consciousness as a conscious decision.

    By the way, even if the unconscious mind, after weighing all the conscious options on the menu, throws the switch: isn’t that free will of sorts? To do away with free will entirely, you would have to show that the unconscious mind is determined (by genes, by astrology, by the relations of production), and so far all I see is that the mind freely decides which chess piece to move, perhaps consciously (according to my version), perhaps unconsciously
    (according to your version.)

  17. Long practice has set up the predilection to drink which is a disposition that is self-installed. The consciousness and the shame that occurs is in the milliseconds (Libet gap) after the power of that auto-conditioning has occurred. We allow ourselves to become automatons. There may be a connection here with the phenomenon of hypnotism and autosuggestion or post-hypnotic instructions.

  18. Because I find it hard to make sense, even a little sense, out of the idea of free will, I am curious if any proponents of free will could tell me what it is that it’s free from?

    I have to admit that when I sit an ponder, or when I’m engaged in playing pool, or chess, or even video games…all manner of things, really, I feel really, really free. I don’t feel determined at all. I understand and totally empathize with all of that. But when I try and figure out what I might be free from, I don’t feel that I even have a place to start. I admit to being a layman when it comes to the hard sciences (any sciences, really) but I can’t think of any understandings we have of the natural world allowing for me to be free of any of it. When I consider the question, it feels much like an optical illusion to me.

  19. Re Amos:-21st Oct.
    I think it is necessary to differentiate between ‘Seems’ and ‘Is’ in this matter. I agree with a lot of what you say and I too have similar experiences. How ever coming to the ‘Is’ bit, Neuroscience has shown that other, is the case. I am not saying that science has the final word here as all scientific endeavour has a tentative element to it and accordingly can be revised in the light of further research. If you consider the evolution of consciousness it seems (I can’t use ‘is’ here as I am not sure enough) that in the dim past, organisms functioned on a stimulus and response basis certain stimuli elicited appropriate actions. The actions having the best survival value in an organism gave it a head start over others. What I am suggesting here is that action in organisms was vital, and preceded consciousness which was more recent characteristic of organisms. The work of Libet et al does seem to confirm that such is still the case, we act, then are conscious of the act. In addition to this the phenomenology of conscious experience demands far more neural work in different parts of the brain and time to occur, much more that is demanded by the neural work involved in action; so on this count alone we would expect action to “win the race” so to speak.
    If you want a good example of action preceding consciousness think of the number of times you have unwittingly touched a very hot plate perhaps on an electric cooker. You hand is withdrawn before the conscious phenomenon of pain occurs. On such occasions I have just had time to think “This is going to hurt”. If we needed to be conscious before we withdrew the hand we could well be badly burned. There are of course other cases where action occurs in the absence of consciousness for example sleepwalking, certain cases of epilepsy (not where convulsions are concerned) where the subject continues an action but is in a state of unconsciousness. Have you ever driven a car and suddenly thought how did I get here? you just cannot remember the preceding few minutes it was as if you were somehow deeply immersed in thought to the exclusion all all else. I was worried for some years about this happening until I found it was a common experience. When you are driving a car and a child runs out in front of you your foot is on the brake, and clutch, if the car is a manual, before you can think you just find the feet are there. Again if we needed the time for the onset of consciousness what was a near miss could have been a tragedy.
    You speak of artistic work here like writing a poem or perhaps painting. These occupations do demand actions and the prior decision to do that particular action. I must say in this connection I myself find it difficult to accept our consciousness could be lagging behind our creativity.

  20. Hello Don:

    First of all, thanks for your thoughtful answers.

    The mind-body problem is incredibly complex. I’ve been reading up on it in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy the last few days, and I’m not going to make a fool of myself trying to
    discuss it in detail.

    However, Libet’s experiments and Dennett’s books don’t entirely convince me. I think that I’ve made it clear why they don’t.

    Here is a comment from the Ask Philosophers website about the mind-body problem that indicates how complex it is and to what extent it puzzles philosophers.

    It has been an interesting and fruitful conversation.

  21. Re Michael F. Oct 21st:-
    I am not a proponent of Free Will, my sympathies lie more with the deterministic explanation. That said I see free will as, free from the constraint of not being in charge of your destiny. You can accordingly choose what you want and what you will. Whether you get it or not is another matter, the choice is there. Those who support Free will often make the claim that one could have chosen otherwise. I have never understood this, How could it be tested? One can never go back in time and run the scenario over again. Were this possible I am sure one would again make the same choice. You seem to sum the matter up well when you say “but I can’t think of any understandings we have of the natural world allowing for me to be free of any of it.”
    Free will like cause and effect are human constructs helping us understand this place in which we find ourselves. However in spite of the fact that they are quite useful to Humans (if we do away with the concept of free will than our whole legal systems promptly collapses) I do not think they represent or participate in the real world, whatever that may be.

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