It’s been an unusual week. It’s not often that I get to exchange opinions with a renowned conservative columnist on my blog, but that is what has been happening. Further to my previous post documenting a conversation on Twitter with Peter Hitchens about addiction, he personally responded to my points at great length in the comments section. To which I replied. To which he replied. To which I replied. To which he replied. To which I replied. To which he replied again. It’s all here and makes, I think, for an interesting read.
It was also unusual for me in that, after starting from a resolute position on the subject of addiction and continuing with this theme for most of the conversation, I suddenly found myself having enormous doubts about my stance when I attempted to respond to his following request:
You’re going to need to strip the whole thing down to bright metal, and ask yourself to answer the following question with a clear, unambiguous definition. ‘What is “addiction”?’
In short, I couldn’t do it. It slowly dawned on me, while trying to construct a watertight definition, that it wasn’t logically possible. The language involved is either blatantly self-contradictory or intellectually inconsistent.
I’ll try to summarise my newly found position. Addiction is commonly understood as being some overbearing and unstoppable illness that renders its victims completely unable to withstand its temptations. In response to his debate on the subject with Hitchens on Newsnight, for example, Russell Brand (famously an ex-heroin user) wrote a comment piece in The Spectator. Here, he wrote:
…the mentality and behaviour of drug addicts and alcoholics is wholly irrational until you understand that they are completely powerless (my emphasis) over their addiction and, unless they have structured help, they have no hope.
But this simply cannot be true from a logical point of view. If addiction really did render addicts “completely powerless” then nobody would ever give up any addiction, would they? Addiction would be a one way destination, impossible to return from. So addiction cannot mean this, we must dismiss that definition. So instead of words like ‘compulsive’ or ‘irresistible’ what should we use? Powerful? Gripping? What we have now is a watered down version of addiction which is self-contradictory. If it is a compulsion then that is absolute. We cannot then say it’s a compulsion that can be defeated – that is nonsensical. Therefore we downgrade it to mean “something that is very difficult to resist”. Difficult, yes. Impossible? No. Either way, we have either a definition of addiction that is blatantly false or a mishmash. The first option removes the notion of choice or will or determination. The second definition contradicts the first and relegates addiction to something that requires lots of willpower.
As Peter Hitchens said in one of his replies:
Of course, as I know well from dozens of these debates, you will now start to redefine ‘addiction’ for *this* part of the argument, saying that it doesn’t actually mean total compulsion. But you will retain the original definition, of an overmastering irresistible power, for the other part of the argument, the one you use to excuse the alleged ‘addicts’. This is called ‘inconsistency’, and in a serious argument it loses you lots of points.
In this argument, because conventional opinion and majority opinion are behind you, and because you (and intellectual fashion in general) have a deep dislike of the concept of free will and full human responsibility, you can dance around it and pretend that you haven’t committed an offence against reason. Most people listening or reading will applaud you. But you will still have lost the point.
This was the killer blow for me: it clanged like a bell in my head, arousing the dormant logician within. I had unwittingly fallen into a semantic bear trap of claiming that it is a truly powerful force that compels the user to continue but not so powerful a force that it negates free will entirely. It cannot be one *and* the other and I had to acknowledge this.
From everything I have read so far on the subject, much of it on Mr Hitchens’ own blog but also elsewhere, similar nonsensical positions are advanced on such a routine basis that it’s staggering that the contradiction is not more frequently pointed out.
In this piece, for example, which heralds a new definition of addiction by the American Society of Addictive Medicine (ASAM), there are a number of inconsistent statements in the very first page: (the words in bold are my emphasis)
If you think addiction is all about booze, drugs, sex, gambling, food and other irresistible vices, think again. And if you believe that a person has a choice whether or not to indulge in an addictive behavior, get over it. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) blew the whistle on these deeply held notions with its official release of a new document defining addiction as a chronic neurological disorder involving many brain functions, most notably a devastating imbalance in the so-called reward circuitry. This fundamental impairment in the experience of pleasure literally compels the addict to chase the chemical highs produced by substances like drugs and alcohol and obsessive behaviors like sex, food and gambling.
So the person does not have a choice, they are literally compelled. If this is true, if this is really what addiction means, then there is nothing that can be done is there? Once addicted, there can be no way out. But how does this square with the fact that many people do overcome their addictions? Not easily, not without setback and almost certainly not without support – but they do it.
There’s more (in this quote the italics are the emphasis of the original article, not mine):
In other words, conscious choice plays little or no role in the actual state of addiction; as a result, a person cannot choose not to be addicted. The most an addict can do is choose not to use the substance or engage in the behavior that reinforces the entire self-destructive reward-circuitry loop.
In the preceding quote, it was claimed that it’s not possible to believe that a person has a choice whether or not to indulge in an addictive behaviour. Yet in the same the article, just a paragraph or two later, they unwittingly water down the definition by saying that conscious choice plays “little or no role”. They’ve let a chink of light in there – they’d just told us that there is no choice, but now there’s at least the possibility that choice can play a little role. Well, which is it? Such language, in my admittedly limited reading on the subject (hell, I’m no expert, but I can spot inconsistent language, even if I didn’t originally see it in my own) is routine.
Peter Hitchens debated the subject recently with Damian Thompson who uses similar contradictory terminology, stating that addiction is compulsive behaviour but it remains a matter of choice. It can be compulsive, it can be a matter of choice, but it cannot – by definition – be both.
I have written much more here than I intended to do. Indeed, anyone still reading this rambling post might conclude that I am crazy to a) reach consensus with Peter Hitchens after publicly baiting him about the subject and b) then write a lengthy follow-up post that details just how wrong I now consider my original position to have been. And they may be right. Nonetheless, my exchanges with Mr Hitchens were educational and forced me to forgo my original complacent position and to delve a little deeper into a subject that is extremely ambiguous.
My initial exchanges were based on a misunderstanding of what I thought Peter Hitchens meant by saying that he doesn’t believe that addiction exists. I think this is a common misunderstanding by his critics, many of whom, I suspect, choose to misunderstand him deliberately. I initially thought that by denying its existence he was actually denying the reality of being drawn to a substance. But of course he doesn’t mean any such thing (at least, I don’t think he does). Such feelings, cravings and desires are as real as any other. But this isn’t ‘addiction’ in the popular understanding of the term, because it can be conquered by anyone determined enough to do so. Some people won’t overcome these desires, some won’t even try, but others do.
At the risk of being accused of wanting to have my cake and eat it I’m still not sure that I would state with absolute certainty that “addiction does not exist”. I don’t know enough about neuroscience or the validity of studies of the brain’s so-called “reward circuitry”. However, I am able to say that I haven’t come across a definition of addiction that stands up to rigorous logical scrutiny and on the semantic point of “what is addiction?” I now understand Mr Hitchens’ argument.
If you don’t agree with me, let me know. And if you can conjure up a satisfactory definition of addiction, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.