Further adventures with Peter Hitchens

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.


Centrist. Atlanticist. Dry liberal. Anti-totalitarian. Post-ideological pragmatist. Child of The Enlightenment. Toucan.

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33 comments on “Further adventures with Peter Hitchens
  1. Frank Bath says:

    This has been an excellent read. I don’t feel confident but I’d like to toss a few things into the pot – because it’s made me think – excuse me if I’m going over old ground.
    If one believes in free will then addiction would seem to be a denial of it and so cannot exist, unless free will is not possessed by everyone to the same extent, e.g. children, the mentally weak, the mentally ill, the sick, those with Alzeimer’s.
    Put an addict on a desert island without supplies and s/he would survive and lose the addiction. Case proved. Or die. I don’t know.
    I wonder to what extent to deny the fact of addiction is equivalent to denying other mental, emotional or physical states, like denying the fact of love, the everyday as well as heavy, sickening, debilitating romantic love, in so far that a good dose of free will get one out of it.

    Thanks for the debate.

    • Citizen Sane says:

      Thanks Frank – glad you enjoyed it.

      I think the desert island example is a good one and I’ve seen someone else use this somewhere. Stick someone with cancer on a desert island and leave them there: they’ll die. Stick an addict on there and they’ll be sick for a while, then they’ll be fine.

      Your love analogy is a good one. I suppose the major difference here is that love isn’t diagnosed as an illness (although I’m sure the poets would disagree) that is then treated with love replacement therapy by an industry that claims to have a cure for it. Nor would anyone’s actions be excused because they were stricken with love…. But yes, agree that there exist a whole range of emotions and conditions that cannot be objectively measured or diagnosed in much the same way.

      • Ralph King says:

        Stick an addict on a desert island and they’re forced to leave their fuel behind. Stick a cancer patient on a desert island and they take their fuel with them. Hardly a true comparision?

  2. this has become an argument about definition. I dont accept the definition of addiction as defined as being completely unable to withstand temptations. Why has addiction got to be all or nothing?

    • Citizen Sane says:

      I understand where you are coming from – exactly the conflict that I had in my head. I found myself reasoning that addiction was an impulse that couldn’t be resisted, except when it was or when it didn’t mean that at all. I had to acknowledge the contradiction. It all hinges on the definition for me. If it isn’t, as you say, “being completely unable to withstand temptations” then on what basis is it an addiction rather than just a powerful urge to do something? And if it’s a powerful urge to do something, but not a completely overpowering one, then the individual retains the choice, the power to defeat it. So what is the addiction?

      I can’t state with any certainty. The whole thing is starting to melt my brain to be honest. But I can be fairly certain now that the common understanding of addiction is riddled with logical flaws.

      • Maybe im missing something. I dont have a problem with addiction being “a powerful urge to do something”. I found this article quite interesting http://www.peele.net/lib/mistakennotions.php

      • Gazlives says:

        I guess I always translated addiction in my mind to mean a generally irresistible need to x. However, there are both external and internal factors that can reduce the need, hence ‘generally’ irresistible. For example, a relative or loved one in distress could act as an overriding emotion for a short time period. This also explains why ‘support’ is needed for many addicts to give them some mental and physical tools to help them fight addiction.

        I’ve seen Hitchen’s posts before and I can see where he’s coming from, compulsion is not 24/7 for most addicts (e.g. When one’s satiated) therefore there must be a window of opportunity to seek help and support for the tools to fight the addiction. This is where I think Hitchen’s would argue will power comes to the fore and if will power enables one to seek help to combat addiction, Voila, not a compulsion and therefore not an addiction. Semantically, he’s right of course and we can look for better descriptions of addiction. But it seems trivially so.

        So you can argue addicts are not ‘compelled’ (at least not 24/7), ok great, but we can try to be more precise (I suspect we’ll need German for this) and probably use longer sentences because one or two verbs aren’t cutting it in English, but we are still left with people who are incapable of resisting needs without support or an external physical/emotional jolt once they’ve experienced x for a period of time.

        To say, well it’s will power they are lacking doesn’t really move us along if these people can’t muster this magical will power. The problem is exactly the same – for now we call it addiction.

  3. Livy says:

    It’s heartening to see genuine, thoughtful exchanges on Twitter and blog sites where individuals learn from each other and come away without the standard animosity one observes in YouTube comment threads.

    Peter has to some extent seduced you into dancing on the head of a pin; this has now really become a game of semantics. Of course he is right – to the extent that he has narrowed the scope of the argument. But I don’t blame him. Good move.

    I fear the whole question is impossible to explore sufficiently without introducing detailed knowledge of brain chemistry into the equation, and allowing Peter even to predicate his view of addiction on the existence of free will puts us on slipper terrain than one might imagine. Cede him that much, and you cede him much of the argument.

    I once heard an addict say that a man is not addicted to alcohol. Rather, it is the alcohol that feeds his addiction. There may be something in is, and we have all seen example of this person in our own lives. If an illegal drug screws up somebody’s life, it’s because that drug got there first. If it wasn’t that drug it would have been scratch cards, and if it wasn’t scratch cards it would have been cheese burgers.

    • Citizen Sane says:

      Cheers Livy.

      Dancing on the head of a pin? Maybe. But I dance so well.

      For me, the whole thing started to evaporate when I tried to define it. PH was right when he said that people who have argued with him try to define addiction with different meanings depending on what point they are trying to prove at that moment. The definition is key. If it cannot be meaningfully, consistently defined then how can it be meaningfully, consistently diagnosed? How can it be tested for? Is an addiction to drugs more difficult to beat than an addiction to scratch cards or cheeseburgers? What’s the standard?

      Go on, try and come up with a definition that doesn’t undermine itself with its own inconsistency. I dare you.

  4. Nick Kaplan says:

    I’d like firs to say how much I have enjoyed following this exchange, coming from a position of sympathy with Peter Hitchen’s view that there is no such thing as addiction understood as a “compulsive force” that the addict is “powerless to resist,” but troubled by his suggestion that there is therefore no such thing as addiction. I agree that addiction is widely misconceived, but am far from convinced that the confusion around it renders the concept redundant.

    Nonetheless, I thought it might be helpful an interesting to recommend 2 works which indirectly touch upon the issue and could serve as a springboard for further thought:

    (1) The Metaphysics of Mind – this was written by the famous philosopher Sir Anthony Kenney. In one chapter he addresses theories of psychological determinism and compressively demolishes the notion of a ‘compulsive urge’ which he shows to be incoherent nonsense, from which it follows that the notion of addiction *as commonly understood* is deeply confused.

    (2) The Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience – written by the neuroscientist M R Bennet and Peter Hacker (the UK’s foremost expert of Wittgenstein). This book is of less direct relevance but may deal with some of your residual concerns about what neuroscience has to say on this matter e.g. with regard to “the validity of studies of the brain’s so-called “reward circuitry””, as the book shows that, while neuroscience is a vital area of important human knowledge, its insights are constantly misrepresented by its more vocal practitioners, who generally fail to realize when they are straying from scientific discoveries into philosophical confusion about what they have discovered (much like what seems to have occurred in the piece you quote about ASAM.

    • Citizen Sane says:

      Thanks for commenting – really nice to see people enjoying this sort of thing. It’s a pleasure to exercise the brain this way – there are few opportunities for it these days (for me, anyway).

      I’d say your position is one I share. I’ve stopped short of saying “addiction doesn’t exist” because I simply cannot say that with certainty, but I can certainly sympathise with this view now.

      Thanks for the reading recommendations. I remember taking a course of Philosophy of Mind at university. In the end I bailed out and swapped it for a course on Aristotle instead. The metaphysical arguments blew my, erm, mind. But I’d certainly be interested in reading up on it some more.

  5. Mark says:

    I just wanted to thank you a great deal for the debate – it was very interesting to read; and I was made to feel somewhat guilty about my flippant dismissal of his views in the comment section (which I hope Mr Hitchens didn’t read).

    I do agree with your conclusion, but I might prefer to write it like this: addiction does exist, but it is only physically real in the mind of the addict. It seems as though it might be best viewed as a psychological illusion – an addict CAN give up the substance, because if someone takes it away then they have already stopped taking it.

    Nonetheless, this should not – and I don’t think Mr Hitchens does – undermine the profoundly painful symptoms of an addiction. A powerful case can cloud our outlook on free will to such an extent that to give up an addiction by choice APPEARS virtually impossible – and this is effectively the same as being unable to give it up.

    I don’t know. Sorry for rambling!

  6. Rob in Madison says:

    “It can be compulsive, it can be a matter of choice, but it cannot – by definition – be both.”

    I’m addicted to alcohol. There are days when I can “stand up” against the gathering desire to drink that night. There are other days when I watch my own mind decide to drink, and the cognitive wherewithall to resist that decision is nowhere to be found.

    So, in my own experience, there is something murky about the process of yielding and resisting. One might say that when I simply don’t resist, that’s pure compulsion at work and no free will in sight. But there are times (thankfully, frequent ones) when the mental experience does seem like active choice in favor of abstaining.

    Complicating matters is the sense, often quite plain, that thinking about drinking is made use of, someplace in the murky depths of my mind, deliberately to stimulate the desire; rather than the reverse.

    So I think that if your statement above is sound in reason, the actuality of the phenomenon pretty successfully blurs the line between choice and compulsion. Maddeningly.

  7. Jonathan says:

    The online Oxford Dictionary definition is “a physical or mental dependence on a particular substance.” Here’s mine, and one I think can be consistently used in an argument:

    “A state of being physically or mentally dependent on something, in order to function normally or obtain relief from discomfort, which harms the person’s health.”

    This definition leaves out legitimate dependence on medical drugs due to illness and includes all harmful habits, as people often refer to addiction to pornography or video games. Is this a coherent definition and do you accept the existence of addiction by this definition?

    I would add that changing a definition halfway through an argument can be a logical error, but isn’t necessarily. In the case of addiction, it is just a very difficult word to define, and during an argument one may realise that their initial definition was not perfect. Words like ‘religion,’ ‘love’ and ‘freedom’ are difficult to define but that does not mean that they don’t exist or are logically incoherent as concepts. Someone may know exactly what they mean but not be able to perfectly express them in words.

  8. Angela Sarah says:

    Rather than using adiction we could state that it was a temporary stopgap replacing the real panacea that would cure or fit naturally into our everyday life. That people return to the wrong cure for a temprorary fix that never works and therefore creates a perpetual cycle.

  9. NEarl says:

    Nope sorry, don’t buy it. Hitchens merely wins these ‘arguments’ through semantic games. Yes there is ambiguity in these subject, and if you have had a change of opinion or reconsidered matters (for better or worse) it is brave to openly accept that and write what you have.

    However, the ideas Hitchens promotes are flawed. One such idea, that jailing drug offenders more frequently and handing out longer sentences, is ludicrous. It would not deter people, and by extension, Hitchens’ view that society needs to make people afraid of breaking the law is laughable. Not only would that create a society based on fear, but if people are only acting in a morally acceptable way out of a fear of punishment, then there is no real morality or choice in their actions. Something that Hitchens so keenly promotes, his pathetic ideas about free will and choice can’t exist in the society he wants or if so, are simply part of a fearful totalitarian state (something else he supposedly despises), so contradictions there.

    Also, his criticisms of the definitions of addiction may be thought provoking, however, it is wrong to suggest there is no middle ground. Sure, it is an area filled with ambiguity, however, to say that it is all merely a choice and that urges can easily be resisted is nonsense. People need help to get through these things, and need to be dealt with compassionately. Whether it is a disease per se is debatable. However, it is a medical issue, a pyschological issue, and one that can seldom be dealt with merely through self restraint. Even if that is not what Hitchens is arguing, it is purely a fantasy to argue that imprisoning more addicts will solve the matter or prevent them or future users from taking drugs.

    I also find his comparison between homosexuality (formerly seen as a disease) and the current perception of drug addiction as worthy of little response. It’s nonsense. The two matters aren’t comparable. In this case, scientific evidence currently suggests that addiction may be a legitimate disease. Sure this could be later disproved, which is why a degree of hesitancy should exist before definitively calling it a disease. However, who do I trust: a right wing agenda pusher who openly considers himself to be a writer of Britain’ obituary, or sound and evidence based research?

    As for his view that Western countries have essentially legalised drugs…pah! What has the USA been doing for the last thirty years. Constant it has been in its war on drugs, wasting public resources, and much of police time and prison real estate in its attempts to combat drugs. Has it worked? No.

    And the half baked in-between in Europe has been mixed in success too. Truthfully prohibition doesn’t work. Legalising drugs, or soft drugs, may be a hard argument to accept. But the idea of it being a gateway drug is contentious, and legalising it would run these drug lords and all that comes with them, out of business. The government would have a better understanding of who took drugs, and would be able to keep a greater check on addicts, who would be able to come openly to get help. I think Portugal has been a shining light in how it has dealt with the drug problems in its country.

    Whatever the case in terms of defining addiction….Hitchens is wrong about choice, and how much free will we have on these matters. In addition, his opinion on deterrent punishment is very flawed, both from an ideological and practical perspective. Moreover, he is wrong to suggest we have legalised drugs, and that we never fought a war, either in the UK or Western world. Furthermore, it is right that people now want to be more compassionate in their approach to addicts.

    It also true Hitchens is a massive agenda pusher. And unlike his great brother, I don’t believe he has anything credible to say about any matter. For a man who sees himself as a rejected figure who seldom gets the credit or air time he deserves, we certainly hear a lot from him.

    It is sad to hear you back tracked Citizen Sane. Yes Hitchens can be debate relatively well, even if his chief technique is shouting over everyone and making generalisations whilst calling all that disagree with him liberal bigots. Not to mention how many assumptions he makes about people’s opinions. However, think through this matter again.

    As for his debate with Matthew Perry, I have no opinion on drug courts. However, his views on addiction as a fantasy should remind you once again of his ignorance. Not only is it not a disease, but its also a fantasy? Oh my.

    Lastly, don’t forget what he bases his assumptions of free will on. Nope, it’ not evidence Just like his arguments, evidence is secondary. He bases it on his belief in God. That’s right, a faith call.

    All his views, if you haven’t noticed originally stem from his own moral positions. Which are in turn, rooted in his faith in the Judeao-Christian concept of God. No wonder the man is a joke. All his views are faith based.

  10. ginger says:

    I believe Peter Hitchens is trying to show that addicitive-like behaviour is nothing more than a repetitive act. Why some people repeat an act is because they are experiencing short term but quick rewards for very little expenditure of time or effort. Telly addiction-like behaviour seems pretty widespread for example; I see tired parents sticking it on because it keeps their young children from demanding attention, even though they know play is better for their children and adults letting telly or surfing the internet destroy their former hobbies and ability to talk to their family properly. In both cases, turning the computer or telly off might seem to be easy enough but too many simply don’t. In the same way, rolling a cannabis joint is easy and the pleasures experienced are quick to come, at least when people begin. But physically, there is nothing involuntary in the act of lifting a cannabis cigarette to one’s mouth; it has to be a choice because the feelings a cannabis cigarette generates are often those of lassitude and feelings of lassitude are not going to by themselves operate the major motor functions of the human body. To lift an arm therefore takes willpower and conscious control.

    One might say that repetative acts can become involuntary when the sub-conscious mind can take over responsibility for them, as it does when we balance while cycling or when we breathe. Yet taking drugs is qualitively different; it involves a whole process from buying them to preparing them, both of which require a conscious mind making decisions. And if our conscious mind is making decisions, then it could chose not to buy or prepare the drugs equally well. It seems to me that the addictive-like behaviour that accompanies drug use is simply the repetative result of indulgence, that is giving in to quick gains for little expenditure of effort. Then, once the drugs start having detrimental effects in other areas of life, the mental rewards can still appear to compensate for the detrimental effects and the protagonist continues invoking the beast. What is seeking help about in such circumstances but an attempt to feel better about the highs and lows of an indulgent behaviour in order to prolong it? To take the effort to break a conscious habit, one still has to have hope that one will experience more pleasure in the future without the drug than with it. That process is all about making choices but the indulgent protagonist is simply not going to choose to stop taking the drug if he cannot see a better future without the drug. And so the drug-taking is prolonged and because the drug-taker is thus unable to chose not to take the drug, it is assumed that the choice is involuntary. When all along it is completely voluntary.

    • efgd says:

      Excellent point that the drug or drink or action creates for a time being a pleasure or relief. We continue to want that pleasure and or relief. We become scared that that feeling of pleasure or relief will cease to exist if we stop taking the drug or drinking the drink. Akin to anorexia whereby the person fears that they are fat or will be fat if they eat. They become fixated on the physical aspect of their body as the drug taker, alcohol drinker or smoker becomes fixated on the pleasure or relief. :like eating and drinking – not the anorexic – it becomes something we need as well as want to do to get the pleasure or relief we crave. Thinking of a time without those pleasures or relief prevents us from stopping. Only with help can we be directed to having other modes of pleasure or relief. Yes PH is right many addicts do manage to get out of the circle of events but most need help to do so and most need to see why they were aiming for that certain pleasure and what they were seeking relief from. I would also look at the social class of addicts. The attitude of society – okay for the elite and the rich but not okay for most of the others and certainly not okay for the underclasses.

  11. Simon Jones says:

    Okay, here’s my attempt at defining addiction, edited slightly from what I posted on Peter Hitchens’ site:

    Addiction: “a condition whereby the physical and/or psychological discomfort of forgoing some harmful substance or activity is perceived as a symptom of an imagined dependency, which is (incorrectly) believed to be either inescapable or only escapable by a herculean effort of will of which the sufferer may not be capable.”

    Thus I think Peter Hitchens is closer to the truth on this subject than his opponents. Insofar as the word ‘addiction’ signifies something objectively real (and I believe it does), it signifies a primarily spiritual and not physical malaise. Which isn’t to say that the phenomena isn’t accompanied by physical markers; we are, after all, composites of body and soul. But, rather, the attempt to understand addiction as a primarily physical (or even neurological) state logically founders for precisely the reasons Mr Hitchens and Citizen Sane identify.

    As a Christian I would explain addiction as a consequence of the effects of the Fall, since when our wills, though still free in the sense of being entirely our own, are nonetheless divided against themselves. The consequence is that although we want to be happy, we nonetheless consciously will that which we know will not make us happy. To put it another way, we will X, even though we want to will (or, perhaps, want to want to will) its opposite, Y.

    A moment’s self-examination confirms for me that essential lesson about human nature, for example when I contemplate my own pitiful addiction to smoking. I have, I find, a sort of schizophrenia (in the popular sense of the term) of the will, and yet I cannot point to that and say, “don’t blame me, I didn’t make myself a fallen human being!”. On the contrary, it’s a characteristic of my condition that I know myself to be fully responsible for the choices that I make, and liable in all justice to bear their consequences. If I’m a prisoner, it’s a prison of my own making, and the keys to the door are right here in my hand. My choices are not compelled; it is rather I, the chooser, who am weak, and needful of God’s mercy and healing if I am to escape his just judgement.

    So while, like Mr Hitchens, I favour a more robust criminal justice system to deter the young from being caught in that trap, I also pity those with very destructive and advanced ‘addictions’ – the more so to the extent that they are the architects of their own misfortune. The thing which Mr Thompson, Mr Perry and Mr Brand call addiction may not exist; but in respect of the thing which does, I can only say that “there but for the grace of God”.

  12. 31428571J says:

    This isn’t rocket science, its physics and neuroscience. Free choice of the will is an illusion. Determinism reign true. Get over it, live with it and accept it.

    • Simon Jones says:

      In which case, you can hardly blame me if I don’t accept that, because according to your philosophy my behaviour is determined not by my choice but by physics and neuroscience.

      But if that’s true for me, it’s also true that your own beliefs are determined by those same things. In which case, why should the neurological processes in your brain lead more reliably to true belief than the ones in mine?

      • 31428571J says:

        I can accept your first paragraph – even though you are (by definition) determined to believe in the falsity of free choice of the will – but as to the second (unless you are a compatibilist), neurons firing in the brain (a level below neurological processes) are either random, ie: indeterminate, or fixed.

        Allowing causal determinism to track the universe back to a single cause/effect event (even if ‘creation ex nihilo’ is a ‘creation from nothing’ event) one has to accept the following:

        Universal wavefunction (the wavefunction or quantum state of the totality of existence, regarded as the “basic physical entity” or “the fundamental entity, obeying at all times a deterministic wave equation)

        Hugh Everett:

        “Since the universal validity of the state function description is asserted, one can regard the state functions themselves as the fundamental entities, and one can even consider the state function of the entire universe. In this sense this theory can be called the theory of the “universal wave function,” since all of physics is presumed to follow from this function alone”

        … and in regards to neuroscience:

        Neuroscience, free will and determinism: ‘I’m just a machine’ ( – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/8058541/Neuroscience-free-will-and-determinism-Im-just-a-machine.html – )

        “What does this mean in terms of free will? “We don’t have free will, in the spiritual sense. What you’re seeing is the last output stage of a machine. There are lots of things that happen before this stage – plans, goals, learning – and those are the reasons we do more interesting things than just waggle fingers. But there’s no ghost in the machine.”
        The conclusions are shocking: if we are part of the universe, and obey its laws, it’s hard to see where free will comes into it. What we think of as freedom, he says, is a product of complexity. “An amoeba has one input, one output. If you touch it with one chemical, it engulfs it; with another, it recoils.”

        If you remove the duality of the soul from the totality of the body, you are left with just the machine. And if one insists upon its resurrection, then, more than the weak (non-evidential) ‘god of the gaps’ philosophy is paramount.

        The mind is just activity of the brain, and the brain a state of ‘finite and determined’.
        Without a soul, or any immaterial source/force, we are just complicated machines (with biology playing second fiddle to physics of course).

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks for your reply (even if it was mostly in the form of quotations from others!).

      You seem very certain of your position, whereas I’m more agnostic. I believe in free-will not because I think I can prove it in the way that you suppose its non-existence can be proved, but because I’ve never yet encountered a coherent argument to make me reject my own experience of it, which is that of a self-evident reality. I believe it in much the same way that I believe in the existence of an external world beyond my mind, something that I likewise cannot prove – but which would take a fairly watertight argument to incline me to really doubt.

      I’ve grappled with those reductionist arguments (or, as someone called them, “nothing-buttery”!) many times, but so far found them incoherent from a metaphysical point of view. For example, to argue that the universe could be “deterministic”, in the sense of “obeying” certain physical “laws” is, I would suggest, ultimately a category mistake, like the statement that “Tuesday is green”. And the reason for that mistake is, I think, that the argument is expressed in figurative language whose metaphors all too easily become unexamined assumptions.

      So, for example, we end up with the notion of the universe as something like a complex version of Conway’s Game of Life, a computer program rigidly and inflexibly unfolding according to the discrete set of rules or laws from which it’s built, with the difference that those rules are, at least in principle, knowable by the system itself. This may be an instructive analogy for the way in which the scientific method proceeds, but it doesn’t furnish any metaphysical or epistemological grounding whatever for the reliability of that method. In fact, I would argue it may even be self-refuting, because I still cannot conceive how a wholly deterministic theory of mind could possibly be compatible with a belief in the validity of human reason.

      Anyway, I’ve enjoyed thinking about this, so thanks, even though I’m going to draw a (no doubt premature) line under this discussion for now to think seasonal thoughts instead!

      On which note, have a very Happy Christmas.

      • 31428571J says:

        Hi Anonymous,

        My own personal belief in a creative source/force (a sort of panentheistic God) is the result of a similar (as yet) non-self contradictory statement as well.
        By testing my subjective belief with the critical methods of science (as a dual/parallel and potential union of) I find great advantage in my personal understanding and appreciation of both.
        Einstein always believed there to be an underlying (sub quantum) domain, where the rules of determinism always reign true.
        This indeterminism of free-will is something that I just cannot get a hold of. Its the same with the definitions of both the words ‘stop’, ‘random’ and ‘chaos’ too.
        (‘stop’ doesn’t exist (to truly ‘stop’ is to cease existence), ‘random’ should be defined as ‘humanly unknown’/’as yet undetermined’ – with ‘chaos’ falling into the ‘random’ bracket)

        “… And the reason for that mistake is, I think, that the argument is expressed in figurative language whose metaphors all too easily become unexamined assumptions.”

        I do agree with you here.

        There ‘are’ those who believe that the universe itself runs according to darwinistic rules (see Prof Lee Smolin’s hypothesis of cosmological natural selection for example), but, as you infer from your ‘Game of Life’ paragraph (to me at least:-), where do all those laws of causation come form?

        Some (of the highly qualified) seem to think that ‘creation ex nihilo’ is no problem at all.
        “If there are no laws then anything can happen” they say.
        Balderdash.I say… your ‘nothing’ deviates to a ‘something’ then.
        Its funny how some physicists ridicule philosophers, yet insist upon their own philosophy continually.

        T+0 (the beginning of time) is, for us, a paradox for eternity I think (the original first cause).
        The theory of the big bang was meant to be the answer to it all, but now we have (at least) cyclic/bouncing/brane and parallel universes competing for a way to truly understand and answer this most important of questions.
        In fact, the many world interpretation (MWI) is advocated by the most qualified now.

        When I temporarily suspend my disbelief and allow ‘free choice of the will’ validity (the ability for it to run with authority in my head), I quickly find a problem in that:
        If this mother set universe already contains all actions past/present and future actualised (eternalism/block universe hypothesis etc…) all ‘free’ choice/actions are played out and timelessly determined already.
        (here we have the issue of complexity and a return to Einstein’s ‘underlying determinism’)

        So where now is our ‘choice’?:-)

        Apologies for both the way I type (many brackets:-) and the barrage of excerpts and quotations. Posting regularly on the Guardian Science page tends to cause and hard-wire this method of ‘discourse’ I’m afraid.

        A very Happy Christmas to you too.


      • Gazlives says:

        It could be all semantics I suppose but Sam Harris has some excellent reflections on this in his short book called, funny enough, ‘free will’. Conclusion is there is none, but the detail of why that is so is illuminating.

  13. LFD says:

    Hi there, saw this through the Mail website like everyone else, and found it rather interesting. But – again probably like a lot of other people – I find myself echoing earlier comments that this is all surreally absolutist. https://citizensane.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/further-adventures-with-peter-hitchens/#comment-2261

    I mean, let’s look at some at two moments where you seem to present a logical fait accompli:

    1) (from this thread) “If it’s a powerful urge to do something, but not a completely overpowering one, then the individual retains the choice, the power to defeat it. So what is the addiction?”

    2) (from the post) “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.

    The unarticulated assumption of the first quote is that ‘choice’ or ‘free will’ are such absolute concepts that a smidgeon of one is as good as a win. That is to say that any component of choice or free will in the struggle with addiction completely negates any component of compulsion.

    The unarticulated assumption of the second quote is similar: that allowing any hint of free will into the debate turns the difference between addiction and non-addiction into a difference of mere degree, rather than type. You also seem to suggest this makes the concept of “addition” useless, which doesn’t seem to follow (though forgive me if you’re actually just trying to problematise the way it’s popularly used).

    Both of these assumptions I find wacky as hell. Firstly, I see no reason why to accept the idea that “if it is a compulsion then that is absolute”. Gravity is a ‘compulsion’ but you can put things in its way. Hunger is a ‘compulsion’ but some people voluntarily starve to death. The fact that there are ways around these powerful forces does not negate the necessity of considering their influence at every juncture where they are relevant. Their power means they fundamentally condition our plans, responses and problem-solving procedures in every area where they operate. Surely the same is true of even a vague definition of ‘addiction’.

    Secondly, even the narrative of ABSOLUTE addiction is not inconsistent with the idea that addiction can be defeated. In fact you can be incredibly deterministic about addiction and still propose solutions – just like you can be deterministic about the path taken by a stone rolling down a hill and still agree things will change if it is caught. ‘Absolutists’ always stress the importance of family, routine, environment – of help, intervention, structure. What these things have in common is that they are external – if I can be a bit clinical – to the system which is being claimed as deterministic. The narrative is not ‘nobody can fight addiction’; it’s that ‘individuals can’t fight THEIR OWN addiction’.

    So now one goes, okay, well, what if there’s even just one person in the world who did exactly that? But then one has to realise that there’s no control group for humanity without external factors. There is no human being who operates without environmental factors: language, society, culture, economics, the weather, squirrels, whatever you like…the point is that there is no ‘uncontaminated’ human we can look at here. So nobody does anything on their own, let alone fight addiction, and neither success and failure can be fully disentangled from environmental factors.

    And that’s where we get to what is kind of my basic objection, which is that in the process of deconstructing the concept of ‘addiction’ you’re uncritically reifying the rather woolly idea of ‘free will’. Why does this deeply contentious cocktail of chemicals, upbringing, cognition, spirituality, Paradise Lost and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis escape the scrutiny brought to bear on ‘addiction’? I could just as easily reverse your emphasis. “Aha!”, I might say, “you can’t exercise complete and total choice over behaviour x, and therefore free will is a fantasy. I mean, if free will is affected by anything, it’s not free will, but if it is affected by things, then it’s just ‘freer will’.” Perhaps the truth is that all differences are differences of degree – along some axis or another.

    Sorry for the length of this, but it remains only to note that there are two quite different levels of debate being conflated here. ‘Addiction’ as a medical question is not going to be decided in a TV debate. The issues there are very complex and also circumscribed within well-defined scientific fields. Debates about the relative merits and biases of those are also very complicated, and in any case haven’t been raised. On the other hand, there is addiction-as-a-policy-guiding concept – a tool which we use to respond to the problem of drug use – and that’s a different matter. We might say the crucial question is what happens when we treat phenomenon Y AS IF it had characteristic X.

    Ironically, this returns to Hitchen’s big objection, which is that whatever ‘addictionists’ claim in an individual debate, they still advocate policies and support a notion which functions AS IF the condition is unstoppable and absolute etc etc. But it seems to me equally ironic that this whole debate has centred around absolutism about definitions and not evidence of which approach actually works to achieve given outcomes. It’s almost as if moral condemnation serves those who condemn more than those who are condemned.

    Regardless of the logical consistency of any given person’s definition of ‘addiction’, my experience of the world and view of the evidence suggests that acting as if drug addiction is a compulsion leads to helping addicts stop and spotting addicts early – while treating it AS IF it’s a matter of ‘choice’ and ‘willpower’ leads only to a kind of spiritual Somme – a dim plain of broken lives and brains whose inhabitants are deplored and condemned but never helped or comforted by tutting guardians of ‘moral responsibility’ who implicitly proclaim their own superiority without even a murmur of ‘there but for the grace of God (or upbringing, or sociological context, or biology) go I…’

    This kind of situation is a field day for Peter Hitchens, but not much fun for anyone else.

  14. David says:

    I loved the first half of the blog thread. Such honest searching in the writing around a topic that was both troubling to writers and in the writer’s mind not yet resolved. Then came the massive posts with quotes and far too many points for the next person to artfully respond. I was taken by the interjection of the addict who talked about the blurring of the definition in his life because at times he seems to experience free will and at others he doesn’t. To me the problem with the construction of Hitchen’s argument is the focus on a definition for all people and not on what this means in practice, in the world, in the places where it really matters, not blog posts, but in law or medicine/psychology, for two examples. To me addiction exists and it can be defined loosely by a series of behaviors that range from uncontrollable compulsion to a deep urge that is challenging to overcome, all based on the makeup of the individual human organism. That is not contradictory that is how people are in reality. If you have a very compromised immune system toxoplasmosis can kill you if you don’t it is something you never notice that your cat dragged in from a neighbor’s litter box. And there are human responses to toxo in between those poles all across the spectrum. That isn’t contradictory that is reality on the level of a human. On a legal basis is someone less or more responsible for a criminal act because they claim to be under the influence of an addiction. I say NO. Do I believe that if I were a juror I might give them a lighter sentence if they would enter a treatment program – yes – but that is a digression to say I am not heartless. From the medical (psychiatric) or psychological position a flexible definition is important so that practitioners can decide treatment options based on literature and statistics from similar cases but success is still on the individual level. Of course, a clever wordsmith can wrap a flexible definition back on itself and find contradiction but that is just talk and I find it without real value.

  15. Mik says:

    Addiction is a word that can be loosely defined in everyday life as a succumbing to the draw of something to the point of obsession and/or compulsion, e.g. I’m addicted to this tennis match. To define it more precisely in light of a drug that has an effect on the brain is obviously not possible, as we are uncertain of the change in conditions. What I would argue is this however. Free will can never be compromised by it, as stated by posts above when addicts become non-addicts. What makes the process of stopping an ‘addiction’ so difficult are the withdrawal effects it has. (I think it also taps into the ‘obsessive gene’). These effects can be very difficult, and I think most people would accept a weaning off a drug is certainly more desirable, kinder and realistic than an instantaneous stop. Alongside this, I think a common problem is that people’s lives on a drug become so narrow and focused on that pleasure that they struggle to get it out their heads. It is said that variety is the spice of life for very good reasons – the more variety we have with hobbies, friends, activities, etc, the less dependent we become on a few single pleasures within our lives. A counsellor once gave me a good analogy to this – imagine your life as a table – the more legs you have, the more stable your life. The fewer legs we have, the more vulnerable we are to the table toppling over, and chaos ensuing, e.g. if our happiness is solely dependent on one source, we are asking for trouble. Indeed for the spiritually enlightened, we can go a step further to state that it is only through detachment from things that we are truly free; we should never need or depend on things (or pleasures) for happiness, it is simply from our ‘being’. I think the point that Hitchens is trying to stress is that if we give up on the battle to reinvigorate the free will inside somebody from the fog/symptoms of drugs, then it means the winner is addiction, and the more we label it as a disease, the more we sympathise with and fuel the addiction ‘entity’.

  16. Cudowny post, humor i dystans! Plus ogolnie bardzo fajny blog 🙂 Gratuluje! 🙂

  17. George says:

    Addiction is easy to define and caffeine is the ultimate drug to use to define it.

    First you need to know the difference between dependence and addiction. These are medically defined terms. You can become dependent on caffeine but you can’t become addicted to it. Same with nicotine. There are no nicotine or caffeine Addicts, only those with a dependence.

    You see, dependence is a desire or need to use a drug in order to function normally or at perceived normal levels.

    Addiction is the continue use of something despite the obvious negative consequences of doing so. Nobody has lost their homes over caffeine or nicotine. Nobody is dieing from overdoses from them and the health problems caused by smoking take so long to manifest that they don’t really fall under the definition of ‘obvious’ even though we all know of them.

    It’s not about overpowering or irresistible compulsion because there’s simply no such thing.

  18. Pirmasen says:

    Nice to see that there are still some people out there who are intellectually honest enough to change their opinion of something as and when confronted by superior evidence/logic.

    PH is correct in his analysis of the faults in the “addiction exists” argument. The whole argument is based upon the desire to remove any blame or personal responsibility from the person with the problem, ie the person who made a choice (usually knowingly) to take and repeatedly take a substance that has the potential to create difficulties for them and those in their lives, because it feels good while it’s chemicals alters their conscious.

    I believe there are two reasons why this argument is used with regards to drugs,

    1. Obviously if the thing we call “addiction” is not real and is nothing more than a catastrophic loss/lack of will power then this would switch the emphasis from the person having problems with drug use, from being an innocent sufferer to the position of being someone who at least in part selfishly and or stupidly made the wrong choice.
    The problem with this is that word there..”WRONG”

    Because we know that we live in a world that while is content to still use moral language, doesn’t actually BELIEVE in something being actually objectively WRONG. If you don’t believe in objective morality then you cannot claim that anything is really wrong in any real sense and if you can’t do that then you certainly will not be able to hold anyone responsible for a wrong.

    2. Big money wants to make big money by commercialising dope.

    This whole personal responsibility tactic is not solely to be found in the drug arguments, it’s all over the place esp at the interfaces where mass public moral failings and govt attempts to fix the consequences of it are.

  19. Chris Maillet says:

    I would define addiction as: “The Pathological Pursuit of Pleasure”.

    That’s it.

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