Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Cybernetics of Alcoholics Anonymous

Is there a secular Higher Power?

Hitting bottom, in A.A. terms, may come in the form of a wrecked car, a wrecked marriage, a jail term, or simply the inexorable buildup of the solo burden of drug-seeking behavior. While the intrinsically spiritual component of the A.A. program would seem to be inconsistent with the emerging biochemical models of addiction, recall that A.A.’s basic premise has always been that alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases of the body and obsessions of the mind.

When the shocking moment arrives, and the addict hits bottom, he or she enters a “sweetly reasonable” and “softened up” state of mind, as A.A. founder Bill Wilson expressed it. Arnold Ludwig calls this the state of “therapeutic surrender.” It is crucial to everything that follows. It is the stage in their lives when addicts are prepared to consider, if only as a highly disturbing hypothesis, that they have become powerless over their use of addictive drugs. In that sense, their lives have become unmanageable. They have lost control.

A.A.’s contention that there is a power greater than the self can be seen in cybernetic terms—that is to say, in strictly secular terms. As systems theorist Gregory Bateson concluded long ago after an examination of A.A principles in Steps to an Ecology of Mind:

“The ‘self’ as ordinarily understood is only a small part of a much larger trial-and-error system which does the thinking, acting and deciding... The ‘self’ is a false reification of an improperly delimited part of this much larger field of interlocking processes. Cybernetics also recognizes that two or more persons--any group of persons--may together form such a thinking-and-acting system.”

Therefore, it isn’t necessary to take a strictly spiritual view in order to recognize the existence of some kind of power higher than the self. The higher power referred to in A.A. may simply turn out to be the complex dynamics of directed group interaction, i.e., the group as a whole. It is a recognition of holistic processes beyond a single individual—the power of the many over and against the power of one. Sometimes that form of submission can be healthy. Many addicts seem to benefit from being in a room with people who understand what they have been through, and the changes they are now facing. It is useful to know that they are not alone in this. “The unit of survival—either in ethics or in evolution—is not the organism or the species,” wrote Bateson, “but the largest system or ‘power’ within which the creature lives.” In behavioral terms, A.A. enshrines this sophisticated understanding as a first principle.

Excerpted from The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction by Dirk Hanson © 2008



Anonymous said...

I'm unsure of the argument that you are proposing: that A.A works because the basis of its principles allow for "cybernetic" group formation or that the individual is weaker than a group, or possibly, that we can not control our "addictive" natures unless we hand ourselves over to a "higher power."

What is more interesting than your conception is the success rates for A.A. participants. What has been found, time and time again, is that it matches random rates. Let me be clear - that people who avoid all alcohol based on the idea that they can not control it tend to fall back into these same behavior patterns after a short period of time. In fact, most A.A. success stories are a very small subsection of the total population. So, from first principles, the idea of allowing a higher power help you does not seem to work.

Stealing from the individual the responsibility they have to themselves seems to be the key issue. Understand this as "God made me do it" syndrome. I drink because I want to drink. I drink to escape the basic cognitive dissonance of being and becoming, and this is what we need to focus on rather than some vain attempt to connect to a higher power be it some unfathomable god force or cybernetic group mechanics.

From my perspective, you have done the same thing AA has done. You have valued a theory and a belief more than the person. And for that reason, you and AA will continue to fail to help individuals in pain in the longterm.

Dirk Hanson said...

My theme in this brief post boils down to the shift that takes place when a hard-core addict realizes that the thing he is battling--his own biochemistry--is stronger than his so-called "will power." He cannot pull himself up by his own bootstraps. What to do? One direction is to submerge a portion of the self in something larger. It might be something as seemingly mundane as volunteerism or community involvement that helps put the self at the service of a larger positive feedback system and therefore helps foster humility, gratitude, and commitment.

Is what I was trying to say. I don't consider group formation or support of this kind to be "stealing from the individual the responsiblity they have to themselves."

John Elder, MFT said...

Discovering that a "power greater than myself" can "restore my life to sanity" steals nothing from me. I have learned from painful experience that when it comes to putting mind altering substances in my body, I will eventually rationalize a set of choices that becomes destructive.

And that rationalization is based on seeing myself in a limited way. It's a focus on only one small part of my being.

A "higher power," whether it's the process as a whole, or a Big Daddy in the Sky, gets me beyond the illusions of my ego. But it relieves me of no responsibility.

I am responsible for the consequences of my behaviors, whether or not I take the steps. If I drink, I'm responsible for that. If I don't drink, I experience the consequences of that.

Langdon Gilkey makes an interesting case for the imperative that humans get beyond their limited ego perspectives in his excellent book, Shantung Compound. He derives this idea based on his own observations of human behavior in a Japanese internment camp during WWII.

I very much enjoyed the article. Thanks for writing it.

Anonymous said...

In my own lengthy experience of active alcoholism (about 30 years), I found there was no particular rock bottom. There were numerous disasters - losing jobs, my driving licence etc. but the "shocking moment" never happened. I never became "sweetly reasonable" or "softened up"; what happened was that after 15 years or so I decided that I was getting fed up with it and made the first of numerous attempts to quit.

These all ended up in relapse, but each time I relapsed I learnt something about why I'd relapsed e.g. accepting a drink because I was in a situation where I was too embarrassed to explain why I initially refused one. Eventually I gave up, 7 years ago, and didn't start again.

I did ALL of this on my own, so I won't appear in any statistics, and I suspect there are many others like me. I tried AA meetings at one time, but as an atheist found them completely unhelpful, inflexible and patronising. I just didn't find any of their philosophy helpful, and the 12 steps arbitrary nonsense. Why 12? For no reason at all except that that's what worked for Bill Wilson.

The secular higher power is just a get out clause to try and fit vulnerable but not yet religious people into AA. Then you sit in meetings 100s of times listening to people talking about god, and ramming the 12 steps down your throat. Personally I don't accept a single one of them, not even the first. I've not touched alcohol for 7 years, so who's in charge there? I'm not powerless at all.

We all want company, and AA provides that, but it's a rather repetitive conversation. Personally, having wasted so much of my life drinking the stuff, I don't want to spend the rest of my life talking about it. I'd rather go to the theatre, do some evening classes, join a book club etc.

Higher power? Whether you believe in a holy one or a secular one or neither, like me, we don't all succeed or fail to the same pattern, and if you do it on your own you certainly don't appear in the stats.


Dirk Hanson said...

You wouldn't have appeared in any A.A. stats, either, since they don't formally track participants. I'm happy you were able to quit on your own, as many people do.

A.A. is not for everyone, and I never claimed otherwise. I might add here that the tone and style of A.A. groups vary widely. I have sat in on meetings in which the word "God" never came up, and also meetings which opened and closed with the Lord's Prayer.

Denis Joe said...

This was my stumbling block in AA. As an atheist I was not going to recognise any metaphysical entity. As it is i am a humanist (of the Marxist kind) and seeing my fellow humans as a higher power is what keeps me going.

You take a very narrow view of 'spiritualism'. I believe that one can have a spiritual relationship. For me engaging in those things that mankind has created is the most important factor of my recovery. Through DVDs CDs and books I gain a 'oneness' (couldn't think of a better term) with humanity.

I firmly believe that one can be a materialist and be spiritual at the same time.

Spiritualism is only a belief (or grasp) of something which is an abstraction. We talk of the spirit of humanity and it is this that I hold to.

lbhunt said...

It took me years to come to terms with the concept of a "higher power". Even now, there is no "God of my understanding". Whatever it is that acts upon and provides me with some sense of purpose and security is beyond my understanding. I have thought that it may be a univeral power, or just my mind fooling itself. It doesn't matter to me. It works. The idea that the "self" we are aware of is limited, and there are parts of our mind of which we aren't conciously aware, but which have a direct (or indirect) bearing on our behavior seems to me just as reasonable and useful as any other concept of a higher power.

Anonymous said...

I'm not quite fond of the 12-step programs of anonymous groups (AA, NA, MA) but I agree with the major points made in the article.

About some points made in the comments section:

* None of the anonymous groups undermine the individual responsibility with their reference to Higher Power. "God made me do it" is a misunderstanding on your part (anonymous reader 1) of the Higher Power principle put to play in 12 step programs.

* Many people who end up dependent on alcohol or drugs do so with the often subconscious effort to find some escapade from thoughts, emotions or experiences they find unmanageable otherwise. For their choice of substance soon becomes a higher power of its own that govern and direct their lives, the Higher power principle in 12-step programs helps them turn to a somewhat more pleasant point of reference.

* The 12-step programs openly mention God in many of the articles they list, yes- but the preferred word choice today is Higher Power. Insert there your will, Nature, spiritualism, karma, Cosmos, or Xenu if you like.

* The 12-step program and meetings emphasize an honest approach to one's own reasons behind the dependency. Thus personal responsibility is a big part of it all.

* I agree about the repetitive quality of the conversations in anonymous meetings. But re-assertions help a lot of people to realize that they're not alone in their dependency problems or detox issues.

* 12 step programs work on the basis of voluntary participation to the extent one finds fit. Thus the infamous statement "You are a member when you say you are." Participants are not patronized or forced in any way to explain or justify how/why they follow the steps or don't, either.

* The support found in the group environment does wonders for some.

My point: There are quite a few things I don't like about 12-step programs myself, but I personally don't find it necessary to judge or bash on the basis of what I don't agree with, or find helpful. Much more productive to focus on & work with what helps.


Dirk Hanson said...


Good points all. Like most treatments or therapies, AA doesn't work for everybody. That's part of its charm, in a way. Usually people find out pretty quickly whether or not they can become a productive member of this unusual grouping.

Unknown said...

The trick to stopping yourself in a cycle of drinking, Is to realize you are in the process of repeating and negative cycle. The next inevitable step from thinking about drinking is drinking, when one becomes aware of this is very easy to cut short the desire. The group may help but it really takes self awareness and a little discipline.

Unknown said...

Norbert Wiener from Cybernetics (or control and communication in the animal and the machine):

"..... the Macy meetings has suggested concerns the importance of the notion of the technique of communication in the social system.... On this basis, Drs Gregory Bateson and Margret Mead have urge me, in view of the intensely pressing nature of the sociological and economic problems of the present age of confusion, to devote a large part of my energies in the discussion of this side of cybernetic.

Much as I sympathies with their sense of urgency of the situation, and much as I hope that they and other competed workers will take up problems of this sort, which I shall discuss in a later chapter of this book, I can share neither their feeling that this field has the first claim on my attention, nor their hopefulness that sufficient progress can be registered in this direction to have an appreciable therapeutic effect in the present disease of society.

There is another group of those who see nothing good in the anarchy of modern society and in whom an optimistic feeling that there most be some way out has led to an over evaluation of the possible homeostatic elements in the community. Much as we may sympathize with these individuals and appreciate the emotional dilemma they find themselves in, we cannot attribute too much value to this type of wishful thinking.

I mention this matter because of the considerable, and I believe false, hopes which some of my friends have build for the social efficacy of whatever new ways of thinking this book may contain. The are certain that our control over our material environment has far outgrown our control over the social environment and our understanding thereof. Therefore, they consider that the main task of the immediate future is to extend to the fields of anthropology, of sociology, of economics, the methods of the natural sciences in hop of achieving a like measure of success in the social fields. From believing this necessary, the come to believe it possible. In this, I maintain, they show an excessive optimism, and a misunderstanding of the nature of all scientific achievement. "

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