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We Are Not Pure Glowing Creatures of Free Will

Confronting addiction, we are forced to confront the truth, which is that we are not pure glowing creatures of free will. 

When you understand the biology of pleasure in the brain and you understand that 40 percent of the variation and the predisposition for addiction is genetic and that the remainder is largely contributed by life stress, starting in the womb and continuing throughout life, what we are left with is the notion that any one of us could be an addict.  Addiction is not just a moral failing.  It is not something that happens because you are a weak-willed loser.  The only model of addiction that makes sense is a disease model and the only attitude toward addicts that make sense in light of the science is an attitude of compassion.  

Does that mean there’s no free will?  Not at all.  Does that mean that we just give addicts a free ride for antisocial behavior?  Not at all.  So imagine you go into the doctor and the doctor says, “You’ve got heart disease.”  We don’t say, “Well, you have heart disease, you suck.  You are morally inferior and there’s something wrong with you.”  No, we say, “You’ve got heart disease; it’s not your fault that you have heart disease.  But now that you know that you have heart disease, it’s your responsibility to eat a healthy diet, to exercise, to take the statin drugs, to see your cardiologist.  And if you don’t do those things, the outcome is your own darned fault.  It’s no one else’s fault but yours.”  

Likewise, you’re an addict.  We shouldn’t say, “You suck.  You’re an addict.  You’re morally inferior.”  We should say, “You’re an addict.  You’ve got something wrong with your brain; just like that other guy had something wrong with his heart.  It’s not your fault you’re an addict.  But now that you know that you’re an addict, it’s your responsibility to get into treatment, to avoid the triggers for your addiction, to develop stress reduction strategies, to take anti-craving drugs where they exist and are safe and effective.  And if you don’t do those things, it’s not societies fault.  It’s your own darned fault.”  

And confronting addiction, we are forced to confront the truth, which is that we are not pure glowing creatures of free will.  All of us are subject to strong subconscious forces and motivations and the strength of those subconscious forces and motivations varies enormously from individual to individual.  It’s not a constant.  So does that mean there’s no free will?  No it doesn’t.  Does it mean that there’s pure free will and that you should be able to conquer any subconscious motivation thrown in your path?  It doesn’t mean that either.  The truth is in between.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think’s studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock. 


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