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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