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.