free will


I just went to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It was the closest one I could find using a Google search–a few blocks from my house, maybe a four minute ride, in a house that I’ve passed hundreds of times. I didn’t expect that. I probably would have guessed that there were something like five or ten AA meetings in all of Eugene and Springfield, but when I searched “Eugene 12-step meetings” I immediately had a list of one hundred and seventy-eight meetings within 15 miles of my zip code. One hundred and thirty-four of those were AA, most of the rest were Narcotics Anonymous, and some were Gamblers (4) and Overeaters (10) Anonymous. They happen every day of the week, from early in the morning until late at night. This movement is huge. No one knows exactly how big because there is no registry, no dues, and the meetings are self-organized, but there were 10 people at my meeting, and this was Halloween night. If 10 is average, that’s something like 1,800 attendees per week, though there is certainly lots of overlap–people attending multiple meetings. Still, that’s a lot of people sitting in a lot of meetings, and that’s in an area with a population of about 200,000.

It was interesting to be so outside of my normal social bubble. I was nervous to go, and nervous when I got there, but everyone was super nice. There were 6 boomers, 2 X-ers (including me), and 2 millenials. I guessed a few were middle class and the rest working class. I’ve been working class my whole life, but these days my social circle is mostly upper-middle, with thin skin and clean hands. My eyes were drawn to the “mechanic hands,” with grease practically tattooed into the grooves of the fingers, and the rough, thick faces of hard lives. We sat in a circle, introduced ourselves, and started reading from Alcoholics Anonymous, the Bible of AA. We each read a paragraph and then passed to the next person. About half of us had what sounded like a grade-school reading level, another reminder of the thin slice of society I live in, so highly educated.

The story was about a rich alcoholic, who failed to get sober in the US and went to Carl Jung in Europe, who also failed to cure him. Apparently, after some effort, Jung told him something like “I have never had any success helping your type of drunk. Sometimes a spontaneous spiritual epiphany can do the trick, and I have been trying to produce that in you, but have failed. You are a hopeless case.”

The format was that anytime anyone felt moved to speak, they would pipe up: “I’m so-and-so, and I’m an alcoholic” and then tell their story or make their comment on the reading. I found it moving to hear their stories and even just to cop to being alcoholics. There was clearly power behind that ability to admit powerlessness. One woman shared about how her life before sobriety was “insanity,” not only in that she was constantly miserable to the point that she felt like her life was “hell,” but in that “What I thought or what I decided about drinking had no impact on whether I drank that day.”

A lot of the readings for my Modern Issues in Addiction class are critiques of the 12-step model, the “disease model,” of addiction. The in-vogue model in post-modern circles like my Couples and Family Therapy program is the “harm-reduction model,” which is secular, so it requires no spiritual epiphany to reorganize the addict’s behavior, and is not aiming at abstinence, but at reducing the damage done by the addiction. One reason harm-reduction is appealing is that you are allowed to count positive outcomes that fall short of abstinence; isn’t it a victory if someone who used to get drunk every night now gets drunk just 3 nights a week? Yes, I think so. Another reason harm-reduction is appealing is that God, even as vaguely defined as it is, is such a dicey topic, hard to manualize for therapy, hard to justify getting behind for us multiculturalists, not wanting to offend the atheists or the theists who have another word for God. The AA God has a male pronoun, for God’s sake. So unhip. It’s hard for us to get behind a program that is not for everyone.

The critiques of the 12-step model have all been theoretical critiques of theory–a form which is quickly becoming my least favorite form of writing. If you have a theory you want to critique, please use data to do so. Please build your counter-theory on data. That would be lovely. The trouble is, the data does not contradict the 12-step model. The summaries of evidence I’ve read (which were written by the critique-ers) basically say that 12-step programs work at least as well as harm-reduction programs, however you measure outcomes, and they work significantly better for addicts who are religious.

The God part of the program was clearly a key part for the folks in my meeting. Two men told harrowing stories about their pre-sobriety days that focused on their denial of their problem. They would go to meetings but they didn’t really “get it” and things got worse and worse. Both described turning-point moments that turned on a prayer. One night, one said in anguish simply, “God, help!” The other said, “Oh, God, I will do anything.” And suddenly they knew that they had a real problem, and that they were personally powerless against it.

I have a difficult time relating to the concept of a second-person God–it’s hard for me to believe anything I can’t directly experience–but I think there is something real and useful going on here. It reminds me of what it’s like to sit in Vipassana meditation. I sit and systematically observe the sensations in my body. It seems as if I have some control over what part of my body I’m focusing on, but I don’t seem to have any control over what sensations I experience in that part of my body. I look and feel what is there, and what is there is given. I am learning to relinquish control over the things that I cannot control. I am practicing not reacting against what is given. And really, how I react is also mostly not in my control, also part of what is given, so I sit with the intention of allowing reality to happen and watch. Suffering is part of the reaction. If I have pain in my body and I react against it, that is suffering. If I have pain and I don’t react against it, that is just pain, which is radically different. And the difference between reacting and not reacting, I think, is grace. It’s my willingness to sit and pay attention, and grace. This is not so different from an alcoholic turning their life over to God. It’s like the serenity prayer, which we said:

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

When we went around the circle introducing ourselves, each person (just like in the movies) said their first name and that they were an alcoholic. When it came to me I said “Hi, I’m Nathen, and I’m new here.” I was a little nervous about it, but they seemed to like that fine and said “Hi, Nathen!” with just as much enthusiasm as they did for the others.

I’m not an alcoholic. I don’t like alcohol. The first swallow can be pretty interesting, especially if it’s expensive stuff, but after that it starts tasting like something you would scrub your sink out with. I think I inherited that from my mom’s side of the family. That’s how you can tell the Pikes from the in-laws at a family reunion: The in-laws are drinking, the Pikes are not.

I can relate to compulsive behavior, though, mostly around food. And when I say food, I mostly mean sugar. (I seriously considered going to an Overeaters Anonymous meeting for this project instead of AA. I think that I didn’t because I (unfairly, I’m sure) imagined the real food addicts staring at me, maybe hating me in my effortlessly thin body.) At times, I can relate to the woman who said it didn’t matter what she thought or decided about drinking. I can make what feels like a very serious decision not to eat any more cookies today, for example, and then find myself rationalizing my way back to the package. Or ice cream, chocolate, pretty much anything sweet. I can remember sitting, my stomach already feeling kind of bad, looking at a half-eaten bag of chocolate chips, and realizing that I was going to finish those chips. It didn’t matter that I would feel terrible. It didn’t matter that I would have trouble getting to sleep. They weren’t even tasting that good anymore. But I was going to eat them all. I find that disturbing. I think of myself as the kind of person who can and does make decisions and follow through, all the way. That is the kind of behavior psychologists call “ego-dystonic,” or counter to the conception of the self.

So I had my moment of feeling like I was in the right place. It was Halloween night, and they had a big container of candy on a table in the middle of the circle and said, “Help yourself!” It was all crap, in the sense of my intention for this year, “Do not eat crap.” I saw that immediately. I was not hungry, but I wanted some candy. I thought, “I should probably eat a piece or two of that candy to take part in the culture of this group.” I took and ate two Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups–probably my favorite of the crap-class candy–during the meeting. I’m certain no one would have noticed if I hadn’t. My rationalization was just my rationalization. I felt a little guilty for breaking my intention and I noticed my attention going back to the candy throughout the meeting. It was easy not to eat any more, but that may have been because there were no more Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups visible. I would have had to dig noisily through the container while others were reading or sharing.

But while I did have that experience, I don’t mean to make light of the experience of the people at that meeting, or of actual food addicts. I am not a food addict. I have some usually-mild compulsive behavior around food, but not to the point that I’ve ever done anyone wrong or maintained an unhealthy lifestyle. These folks were dealing with something on a whole other level of suffering and trouble. And they seemed to be doing admirably. One man described how when he started craving alcohol, he knew it was time to “reach out”–go to more meetings, call for support, be with good people. As with the others’ sharing, I was moved by his sincerity, conviction, and wisdom.

After an hour of talking, we stood, held hands, and closed with the Lord’s Prayer. I did not expect to be moved by it, but their delivery of the about temptation and evil had such feeling and meaning after hearing their stories:

Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us,
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.
Amen.
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Reanna is reading me a book, called Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, a memoir about a marriage and the history and culture of marriage. I’m only just into chapter 3, but so far, it’s good.

One thing the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, writes is that in 1967, when interracial marriage was made legal by the Supreme Court, seven out of ten Americans believed that it should remain illegal.

!

Wow. It’s hard to imagine anyone outside of the most racist crackpot seriously defending that position anymore. I wonder how many of that 70% are still alive, and what they think now? Two generations–the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900) and the G.I. generation (born 1901-1924)–have died since then. Two have been born since then–Gen X and Millennial. But two entire generations, Silent and Boomers, are still alive from that time.

I also wonder how many people would still believe interracial marriage should be illegal, if not for that activist-court decision? Could it be that if not for the Supreme Court’s very unpopular interpretation in 1967 that 70% of us would still believe that interracial marriage should be illegal? Would the anti-miscegenation laws have been struck down anyway, by political representatives of the liberal Boomers when they came to power?

And isn’t it easy to imagine that you would have been one of the 30% enlightened people in 1967 and hard to imagine otherwise? Chances are, though, we would have been in the racist camp. This kind of realization is one of the big reasons I doubt the existence of (much, at least) free will. It really seems as if I’ve come to my views on interracial marriage (and most other things) through consideration of facts, but it’s quite likely that the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision had a bigger effect on my beliefs than any of my own efforts have.

Free Won’t—Some argue that the executive function of our brain, the part of us that is most like a “will,” gets to deflect impulses as they come up out of our non-conscious processes. That is, if we’re paying enough attention to what we are about to do, we get to say “no.” (Look up Benjamin Libet and the controversy around his work, if you’re interested.) This idea has some intuitive appeal, and I do have experiences that feel like I’m exerting myself to avoid doing something, like eating a piece of candy. On the other hand, I also feel like I’m exerting myself when I do math, but I know that sense of exertion has to be coming from flexing extra muscles or something, because there are no sensory nerve endings in the brain.

Focusing—Jeffrey Schwartz, an OCD expert, argues in The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (which is definitely worth reading though at times frustrating to baffling), that in moments of deep concentration, we get to choose to focus—basically that we can choose to pay attention. Again, this has intuitive appeal, and again, I have experiences while doing some kinds of schoolwork or while meditating that feel like I’m exerting myself to bring myself back to the task at hand. Again, I’m suspicious of the “exertion” part of it, but I like the idea that when I’m really calm and concentrating, I can intentionally examine.

Choosing that which we are compelled to do—This one’s from some existentialist philosopher, I think, though I first heard it from Brad Blanton. The Landmark Forum people present it well, too. Again, it requires something of a meditative state, where you (hopefully) have minimized the influence of your past and your habits, and can (hopefully) really grok the situation that you are in. In that state, you can choose to be in that situation. It’s kind of like the “Yes” to Free Won’t’s “No.” I like this one because I do feel most free when I’m in that kind of a state, when I’m not contracting away from reality, so to speak. In that state it feels like I can be really creative and spontaneous. I don’t know if it has anything to do with “will,” but it’s nice.

If you believe in the unconscious mind, or one of its many permutations, subconscious, non-conscious, pre-conscious, extra-conscious, (and maybe even cognitive schemas or implicit memory), if you believe that any of your thoughts, emotions, or behaviors are caused by or motivated by factors of which you are not aware (and if you don’t, let me know and I’ll send you a week’s worth of reading, research showing you are almost certainly wrong), then you cannot rationally believe that you have free will, because even if you did have free will, you could never know it. There will always be that possibility that each action you take is guided by something that is not your will. You can still believe that you might have free will, and you might,* but not that you do have free will.

*In fact, you may be better off pretending that you do.

“I know of no evidence of a force or power that may be called a will.” -Harry Stack Sullivan

Back in the days that I had time for extracurricular thinking, I spent about a year reading, talking, and thinking about the arguments for and against free will. One of my tentative conclusion was (and remains) that the arguments for the existence of free will are very weak. Most flow, knowingly or not, from Christian dogma, “How can God righteously judge us if we do not really make choices?” or that other great religion of the western world, Individualism: “Why should anyone doubt that the all-mighty Individual makes choices that shape the world?” There is the moralistic “argument” that comes from our desire to exact righteous revenge: “How can we feel good about punishing criminals (or even just judging/disliking people) if they do not really make choices?” That comes with the corollary, “How can we feel proud about our accomplishments if we really had no choice in the matter?” There are the emotional arguments, along the lines of, “It would just be too depressing to imagine I didn’t have choice,” or, “The idea that I have free will is inspiring to me so I choose to believe it.” (That one a close parallel of Bender the robot’s defiant but casual, “I choose to believe what I was programmed to believe.”) There’s the classic argument from lack of imagination, “I just can’t believe that I don’t have free will.” There is the “argument” from self-evidence, “We have free will because we have free will.” (Who was it who defined “self-evident” as “evident without any evidence”?) There is the argument from randomness, which I find utterly baffling. It goes something like, “Quantum mechanics says that there is some randomness in the subatomic level of my brain, which undermines determinism. Therefore, I have free will.” While ridiculous, at least the argument from randomness is an attempt at an argument and not just dogma, like the rest.

Those who don’t believe in a distinct self, like mystics and post-modernists, say something like “Of course there’s no free will. There is no distinct entity (ego, self) to have free will. We’ve looked for it and it ain’t there.” And though I’m not a mystic or a real post-modernist, that’s my problem too. I can have vivid experiences of running, a collection of sensations that convince me that there is such a thing as running. I can have vivid experiences of loving, too, which many people consider very abstract for some reason. But nothing I’ve tried has given me any vivid experience of choosing. I can notice thinking about options, and I can notice feeling uncomfortable or excited about them or the prospect of choosing, I can notice my thinking, “Maybe it would be better do such-and-such,” and I can notice doing one of the options at some point, but I have failed to be able to notice choosing. When I look close, it just doesn’t seem to be there. And because I don’t have access to anyone else’s experience, I have to assume that people who do think they are experiencing choosing are either fooling themselves or not looking close enough.

Why do I keep thinking about this? I think it’s because I’m romantic and I feel like I’m coming to this very unromantic conclusion. (Is that true? Is being able to choose more romantic than not? It seems like it.) But now I have a blog and I can ask a bunch of people for help in one fell swoop: Please, tell me about your vivid experience of choosing. How can I have that experience? What am I missing? What should I do and what should I pay attention to while doing it?