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Which Story?

One of the things we’ve talked about in the course I’m teaching out at Columbia Bible College this semester is the importance of understanding how all world-views—whether they consider themselves to be “religious” or not—offer their own set of explanations to questions about the nature of the world, the nature of human beings and the problems that plague us, and the potential remedies that are available. The nature of the story one accepts about the world will determine both the kinds of questions one will be inclined to ask and the nature of answers that will be deemed acceptable in response to those questions.

An excellent example of this can, I think, be found in an article on the causes of drug addiction from the December issue of The Walrus. Contrary to the popular scientific consensus, retired SFU psychologist Bruce Alexander claims that the root cause of this problem has less to do with the nature of the drugs themselves, than with the social environment in which the addict finds himself. He bases this conclusion on the results of a series of experiments he conducted in the 1970’s. Alexander decided to test the pervasive notion that drugs are the main cause of addiction—a notion bolstered by B.F. Skinner’s famous “box experiments” from the 1950’s and 60’s where rats in a cage became “slaves to drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines” when given the option of self-administering these substances. The drugs, it was concluded, were the problem, and research on addiction since then has been largely focused on discovering neurochemical solutions to the problem.

However, Alexander wondered what would happen if the rat’s environment was altered. What if the cage, rather than easy availability of the drugs was the problem? So he built a kind of “rat Eden” where the animals had plenty of space, cedar shavings, boxes, tin cans for hiding and nesting, poles for climbing, and plenty of food. Perhaps most importantly, there were plenty of rats of the opposite sex!

Well, the short story is that even though the rats were given two options – one water bottle filled with ordinary water and the other one laced with morphine—when their social environment was suited to their “rat nature” (whatever that might be), they tended to choose the water containing no morphine. It seemed that rats did not, in fact, find certain drugs to simply be irresistible. When their “social” needs were adequately met, they were perfectly content with the ordinary water. Alexander’s conclusion was that addiction was a function primarily of the inadequacy of social environments, not a physical inability to resist a certain kind of chemical stimulant.

Alexander’s results were not greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm by a scientific community committed (and funded) to find neurochemical causes for social problems like addiction. Despite the fact that Alexander’s science was acknowledged to be sound, the results of his research were largely ignored because they didn’t fit the kind of solution that the rest of the scientific community was looking for. They didn’t fit the accepted understanding of the nature of the human story.

So what could be so wrong with the social environment of an affluent Western nation like, say, Canada? Addiction is, after all, an issue here, as it is in many other “first-world” nations. The main problem, according to Alexander, is that “the core values of Western life have created an environment of rootlessness and spiritual poverty that leads more and more of us to addiction.” The root problem of addiction is not, on this view, a “drug issue” but a social issue, yet the solutions to the problem are often thought to lie primarily in the realm of biochemistry. As in so many areas of life, science is thought to be the source of all our answers. “We’re bathed in this propaganda from childhood, and it’s totally persuasive,” Alexander says. “It’s so much easier to believe that the drug takes people away than that the very civilization we live in is making life miserable for everybody.”

While I’m not sure I would go quite as far as to say that Western civilization is “making life miserable for everybody,” Alexander’s perspective is worth considering. If the picture he presents is accurate, it provides an interesting example of the worldview questions mentioned above. We see one solution to a human problem being rejected by a community who is largely committed to a particular way of looking at the world. The scientific community that rejected Alexander’s conclusions appear to be convinced that human problems are solved by understanding their physical causes. End of story. Alexander, on the other hand, seems open to a different story than the one promoted by the scientific community at large. He was and is prepared to consider that there is more going on in the problem of addiction than can be described in terms of physical causation; that people are more than biological machines; that they have spiritual needs; that they require meaning, purpose and a sense of connection to the past and to one another.

Both of these stories claim to provide the best way to understand the problem of addiction. What we make of these two approaches will depend, I think, on the story we think best explains the world—both in terms of the diagnosis of the problems that plague and the responses we will look for to address them.

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. “the core values of Western life have created an environment of rootlessness and spiritual poverty that leads more and more of us to addiction.”

    Loving our neighbors involves envisioning and modeling on their behalf a culture that does not cut lives short. Not to insult the rats, but things are more complex on the human side. Addiction becomes a whole complex of factors—chemical, social, psychological, and identity (“personal,” I suppose)—that bring people back time and time again to the same traps. Shifting the physical environment helps (i.e. welfare, social programs), and removes crucial impediments to genuine liberation, but the real changes are needed at the cultural level.

    So, the question lurking in my mind, is the “health” to which we are trying to restore so many of society’s disenfranchised anything but a bigger, and better stocked cage?

    Thanks for the post Ryan, good thoughts.

    November 29, 2007
  2. I think your question is a good one Eric. We need to have some kind of an idea what a “rooted” and “spiritually healthy” mode of being might look like. Obviously, it can’t just be a matter of having a “bigger and better stocked cage” because addiction does not seem to simply be a function of material poverty. The issue is, as you say, an extremely complicated one. But one thing seems certain – assuming that human beings are little more than biological machines seems like an inadequate way to deal with the problem. I think that as a culture, we need to be open to a bigger (and better) story than that if we’re going to make any progress on the matter.

    November 30, 2007
  3. “As in so many areas of life, science is thought to be the source of all our answers.” I’m supposing you meant to say “nature” instead of “science” here.

    You also said, “The scientific community that rejected Alexander’s conclusions appear to be convinced that human problems are solved by understanding their physical causes. End of story. Alexander, on the other hand, seems open to a different story than the one promoted by the scientific community at large.”

    I’m assuming, the rats are not thought to have found “God”. But I do wonder how it is that spiritual needs like “meaning, purpose and a sense of connection to the past and to one another” cannot be understood scientifically.

    If it is understood by the scientific community that humans are by nature, social beings, valuing their existence as a community, throughout its duration, intent on its purpose to maintain said community with the required (healthy) means to do so, what’s the problem?

    November 30, 2007
  4. Gil #

    Jerry,
    There’s a certain reductionism in the kind of ‘scientism’ that assumes if we can demonstrate the physical causes for something that we have adequately explained it (as if there is nothing left to account for).

    For example: if my love for my kids is explained as a the result of a complex and lengthy process of biological adaptations that have convinced me that I am feeling ‘love’ when all my genes are really after is the preservation of my species, then the ‘explanation’ has somehow altered and diminished my sense of what is real.

    I read Ryan as asking the question of whether there is room within the ‘story’ of science for explanations that go beyond this kind of reductionism.

    November 30, 2007
  5. Paul Johnston #

    It is perhaps modern Christianity’s greatest sin; the fact that we have yet to create a tangible expression of Christian community. We offer no real alternative to a set of cultural predispositions that promote “rootlessness”.

    Though we say we live for Christ we do so by first embracing post enlightenment traditions and culture and then look to make some space for Christian expression “within it’s walls” afterwards. I don’t think we honestly make a true effort to live as the Spirit, grace, tradition, and word tries to lead us. We hold Christ hostage to the principals of men, however noble the philoshophies and cultures of men may seem.

    If we can’t even define what our Christian cultural alternative should look like, much less live it, how impotent and foolish the power of the Spirit must seem to the non believer.

    Convict me?, asks the secular culture around us.

    Convict yourself first!

    December 1, 2007
  6. Paul,

    It’s happening is small ways and scattered places. There are communities of people living together across racial, economic, and educational lines–quietly serving the neighbors around them. The Rutba house in Durham, NC is only the example I’m most familiar with. (check it out: http://www.newmonasticism.org/who/index.html )

    You are right to suggest that we need to substantially re-think the shape of being Christian in the world–it consists in a more radical critique of the world’s “empty ways of life” than most of us are comfortable with. But there are people out there doing it, and we ought not ignore them, or make comments that gloomily elide over their presence.

    Rather than a perpetual lament for the church’s lack of moral imagination, we need to model character–demonstrate to people (both Christian and non) another way of living. Once people see a few more options, they are often open to embracing them (or at least taking steps in that direction)…

    December 1, 2007
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Hi Eric,

    Believe it or not, I’m with you with regard to “perpetual laments”. Thanks for the link, it seems generally similar to the “Opus Dei” movement within Catholicism.

    I think it is time for the political dialogue among Christians to begin to focus around how we should be looking to live our lives together as a community so that we might, as you say, “character demonstrate” another way of living.

    December 1, 2007
  8. jc #

    Ryan,
    Well I picked up this months edition of the Walrus and read this article. I thought there was a lot of good points made in the article but the last little quote kind of ruined it for me. Alexander says “It’s so much easier to believe that the drug takes people away than that the very civilization we live in is making life miserable for everybody.” I guess I must be living in a parallel universe but everybody is not miserable. Most people I run into are generally happy people. Most people I run into aren’t addicted to drugs. He even says that 88 percent of the people who came back from Vietnam were able to stop using drugs after coming home to their society where apparently everybody is miserable.

    December 2, 2007
  9. “The main problem, according to Alexander, is that “the core values of Western life have created an environment of rootlessness and spiritual poverty that leads more and more of us to addiction.””

    How is it science to conclude on an evaluation of the short comings of our human environment without any inquiry? Has there been any research on the variety of environments that are good or bad for the rats? Has there been any research on the variety of environments that are good or bad for the human species? And has there been any inquiry on the difference between the social natures of rats and humans?

    I have to ask – is Alexander, by any chance, a religious man? The reason I ask is because I’ve heard about a small minority of scientists (see Discovery Institute) who try to discredit scientific conclusions as being more reasonable than supernatural ones while attempting to use science to support their religious leanings. I’m wondering if Alexander has been following the Discovery Institute methods.

    And Gil, asking scientists to look at the gaps in their knowledge is a no-brainer. They relish in that kind of stuff. But ask them to pursue incommensurable possibilities to fill those gaps (along with materialist possibilities), is asking them to be mystics, not scientists.

    I also think it unfortunate that an evolutionary explanation of your love for your kids could diminish your sense of its reality. However my child and I came to be, and the love I have for my child, it is a present blissful reality that need not be justified by any explanation. The beauty in this experience is full, though there may be greater pleasure to come from it. And based on human experiences since the enlightenment I doubt more pleasure will be via the supernatural.

    December 3, 2007
  10. jc, I agree with your suspicions about Alexander’s use of hyperbole – I mentioned something to that effect in my initial post. Clearly “everybody” in Western civilization is not miserable, and he is guilty of gross overstatement to suggest such a thing.

    Having said that, I don’t think that the world Alexander is describing (however exaggeratedly) is a completely “parallel universe” either. Just the other day I was driving to hockey with a bunch of guys and we were talking about drug/alcohol addiction. All of them told stories of people they were close to – friends, family members, co-workers – whose lives had been devastated by addiction. These are all reasonably well-off people living in the wealthiest city in Canada, yet something about the quality of their lives seems to drive them to substance abuse.

    Western culture is obviously not the source of all misery, but neither is it the pinnacle of social evolution. The truth, as usual, probably lies somewhere in the middle.

    December 3, 2007
  11. Jerry,

    Re: your questioning of the adequacy of Alexander’s research.

    Upon what are you basing your suggestion that Alexander has reached his conclusions “without any inquiry?” Did you read the article? It quite clearly discusses some of the issues he has researched beyond the rat experiment. From what little I know of the man, he’s spent a rather lengthy academic career researching addiction so I would guess the issues you raise might have occurred to him as well.

    “I have to ask – is Alexander, by any chance, a religious man?”

    Why is this something you feel you “have to ask?” Would the discovery that Alexander is “religious” thereby discredit or contaminate his work as a scientist? I have no idea whether or not he is religious.

    “I’m wondering if Alexander has been following the Discovery Institute methods.”

    I’m a little confused as to why you would link Alexander to the Discovery Institute. Is there some obvious connection that I’m missing? Is it just because you happen to disagree with the conclusions of both? Alexander made no reference to the “supernatural” in the article so it’s hard for me to see how he is attempting to “discredit scientific conclusions as being more reasonable than supernatural ones while attempting to use science” to support his “religious leanings.”

    December 3, 2007
  12. Gil #

    Jerry,
    To me it seems like you’re operating with a double standard. On the one hand you say science relishes in the possibilities of closing the gaps in our body of knowledge. On the other hand, when it comes to a very basic social phenomena (like the human experience of love) you suggest that ‘it does not need to be justified by any explanation’.

    Many scientists do not share your rational contentment here. Natural selection has been and continues to be used to explain a wide variety of phenomena that extend beyond the hard sciences, from human love to ethics to the development of religion in general. If this is ‘mysticism’ then there seem to be a lot of scientific mystics around.

    To me your approach seems a bit like someone from the Middle Ages coming across an automobile and delighting in the ‘blissful reality’ of sitting in the driver’s seat and gunning the engine without ever asking the question of how this curious thing came to be and what it was actually there for.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly that the present experience of love is ‘full’ and meaningful. I’m a bit surprised that you would be content without an explanation for it. If I misunderstood you here and you actually meant something like: “I find the evolutionary account of why I love my child to be adequate,” then I would obviously disagree for the reasons highlighted above.

    December 3, 2007
  13. jc #

    I re-read your post and of course you are right. You had already stated the point I made. Sorry for missing that.

    December 3, 2007
  14. J #

    Jerry,

    “asking scientists to look at the gaps in their knowledge is a no-brainer. They relish in that kind of stuff. But ask them to pursue incommensurable possibilities to fill those gaps (along with materialist possibilities), is asking them to be mystics, not scientists.”

    It seems to me you haven’t read enough in the philosophy of science. Thomas Kuhn (an atheist) and Michael Polanyi (a philosopher of science from Communist Hungary; I don’t know his [non]religious commitments) – to name just 2 philosophers of science – have both demonstrated that scientists do not necessarily relish in examining the gaps in their knowledge. Scientists deem certain questions valid, and others not, based on the inherent criteria of their theories. Scientists tend to consider gaps only when enough of them pile up as to seriously challenge their theories!

    Furthermore, philosophers of science have demonstrated that scientific theories (which lead to scientific discoveries and scientific progress) are formulated and based upon a scientists intuition. In fact, scientists ask questions and pursue new knowledge based on curiosity. In other words, scientists are mystics. They DO pursue “incommensurable possibilities.” If they don’t “follow a hunch,” science grinds to a stand still.

    December 3, 2007
  15. Ryan,
    “Alexander made no reference to the “supernatural” in the article so it’s hard for me to see how he is attempting to “discredit scientific conclusions as being more reasonable than supernatural ones while attempting to use science” to support his “religious leanings.””

    So it was just you and Gil, then?

    Gil,
    Just because I don’t think the human experience of love doesn’t need to be justified by any explanation, that doesn’t mean I discourage inquiry. That’s quite the non-sequitur leap you made here.

    With regards to your love for your kids, you said, “the ‘explanation’ has somehow altered and diminished my sense of what is real.” And I’m saying that a father’s sense of the reality of his love for his children should be able to stand on its own (whether there’s a curiosity for how this love came to be or not). The love is still real. There is no need for it to seem “altered” or “diminished” unless the father’s love for his children is only (or in part) a means to love something else.

    J,
    Just because scientists use their intuition (of which its incommensurability is being challenged through the study of consciousness), that doesn’t mean they pursue incommensurable possibilities as ends. Their ultimate pursuit as scientists is something they can test. If you want to call hunches or intuition a “mystical” catalyst, that’s your prerogative.

    December 4, 2007
  16. Gil #

    Jerry,
    Not to put too fine a point on it but I believe that if you follow the thread above you are the first contributor who introduced the whole ‘supernatural’ category here. Ryan was talking about the influence of social environments on human behaviour and asking the question of whether or not this article pointed any kind of ‘spiritual’ needs within human beings and revealed any inherent limitations within the scientific worldview. You introduced the whole science vs. religion question much later in the conversation.

    So as much as you’d probably like to hang this one on the ‘theists’, I think you’re probably bringing in a few of your own biases here (especially given your odd and, to this point, unexplained suggestion of a link between Alexander and the Discovery Institute – as if everyone who dared to challenge received scientific wisdom was a closet six-day Creationist secretly trying to subvert the advance of science).

    Regarding the example I raised above. It seems to me (please clarify if I’m wrong) that a rigorously materialist worldview would force me to conclude that regardless of what I THOUGHT my present experience with my children was (love or anything else), in reality it was simply my genetic material seeking to replicate itself by giving me the instinct to nurture and care for my children. You say “regardless of how this love came to me it is real”. That is precisely my point. According to a strictly materialist worldview it is NOT real. It is something other than what it appears to be.

    I find it kind of ironic that you’re basically arguing, ‘well whatever the causes are, just enjoy the present experience and the bliss it provides, the experience should stand on its own.’ That seems very close to the problem diagnosed by classical critiques of religion which argue that the experience of consolation or enjoyment from religious belief is not a sufficient reason to consider it true.

    December 4, 2007
  17. Jerry, does the nature of your response mean that you’re not going to address the questions I asked you? You made some strange claims in your previous comment – claims that I wouldn’t mind seeing some evidence in support of.

    For what it’s worth, arguing for a “bigger” story within which to interpret the world does not rule out a grateful appreciation of science as a part of that story. The claim that science does not tell the whole story does not entail the conclusion that science does not tell important parts of the story (a non sequitur, if you will). Things seem to be fairly binary for you – if someone expresses any kind of reservation about the limits of science they are automatically attempting to discredit the scientific enterprise as a whole in the attempts to bolster their crazy supernatural views. There are more nuanced ways of looking at the world and the role science and religion play within it than you seem willing to consider.

    December 4, 2007
  18. J #

    Jerry,

    “Just because scientists use their intuition (of which its incommensurability is being challenged through the study of consciousness)…”

    I have no clue what you mean.

    “…that doesn’t mean they pursue incommensurable possibilities as ends.”

    So what? How does that change what I said?

    “Their ultimate pursuit as scientists is something they can test. If you want to call hunches or intuition a “mystical” catalyst, that’s your prerogative.”

    I didn’t call it a “mystical” catalyst. Kuhn and Polanyi do (they’re scientists, and not of the Discovery Institute, either).

    So you still haven’t given a robust answer to anything I’ve said. Want to give it another shot?

    December 4, 2007
  19. jc #

    “The scientific community that rejected Alexander’s conclusions appear to be convinced that human problems are solved by understanding their physical causes. End of story.”

    Ryan, You seem to reject this whole notion that human desires and problems can be reduced to physical causes. Does this mean that you support the idea of the ghost in the machine? When I used to be more religiously inclined this concept always bothered me. With mentally challenged people it seemed the evidence was that their intelligence was limited by some sort of physical problem in the brain or whatever. Maybe this is asking too much but what is your understanding of this spirit/body dualism?

    December 4, 2007
  20. jc, I accept the idea that human desires and problems have physical causes – that you could tell a story about the things that human beings do and feel in terms of matter + energy and the laws that govern them. The question I always have is whether or not this tells enough of the story.

    In the case discussed in the article about addiction, if you could somehow explain, say, the sense of spiritual rootlessness Alexander alludes to, in terms of physics or chemistry, how would that solve the problem? Would we then try to come up with a drug which would produce the brain-state which corresponds with spiritual fulfillment (assuming we could figure that out and that it was the same for everyone)? At the end of the day, it seems to me that we still have to address societal problems by appealing to apparently free human beings and how they choose to live and order themselves socially. I don’t know how looking at the issue as if we were nothing more than biological machines could produce the desired results. Again, I think that the story told by the sciences is a useful and important one, I just don’t think it includes enough.

    Re: the mind-body problem, I’m not sure if I have any new insight to offer. I don’t find the kind of radical split between spiritual and physical stuff implied by the “ghost in the machine” idea very convincing. I do believe that human beings are psychosomatic unities, but I don’t know precisely where I would put myself on the continuum from idealism to materialism. I’m not completely prepared to rule out non-reductive physicalism/dual-aspect monism (held by John Polkinghorne, among others) – the idea that what we call mind or soul is just a different aspect of the same underlying physical reality. As you say, an awful lot seems to depend on physical brain states. But I’m also not prepared to rule out some kind of dualism either. Phenomenologically, so much more seems to be going on in human beings than can be adequately described in terms of exclusively physical stuff.

    December 4, 2007

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