Rethinking Free Will

I thought an outline of the problem of free will would help anyone that is interested in the debate.  To answer if free will exists, it depends on what we mean by free will as well as what framework we use to interpret the concepts, and it even depends on our point of view.  If you want to say that free will exists without saying that it depends, then you are motivated to show that it exists.

The Problem of Free Will

Philosophers rarely address all of the problems and pick one or two and call it a day.  So I would be suspect of anyone saying that free will exists or doesn’t without qualification and explanation.  There is a reason why some philosophers have spent thirty years on the problem but seem to have made little progress.  It is a difficult problem.  To be clear, I have come to the conclusion that free will exists within a certain linguistic framework, but once we start explaining things at the physical level, it cannot exist.  I concede that number “1” below is true, which is freedom of action, and I will explain why the rest are problematic in the next posts.

First show:

  1. show the capacity to act freely (easy to show)
    1. also known as freedom of action (FA)
    2. there is empirical evidence that we experience free action which includes [1]
      1. Acts that show the person resisting temptation and resisting external pressures.
      2. Acts that involve the pursuit of long-term gain, rather than short-term impulse.
      3. Acts that indicate conscious reflection and thought are regarded as free.
    3. the fact that we have self-control implies that we have some degree of freedom
    4. e.g., If I will a coffee, then I am free to get it if no constraints.
    5. the question becomes how much control do we have over our actions
  2. show the capacity to freely make choices (difficult to show),
    1. this is freedom of choice or alternate possibilities (AP)
    2. includes “could have chosen otherwise”
    3. requires that options are open to us in the first place
    4. requires the characterization of choices
    5. obstacles of making it work with determinism
  3. show that mental states cause action
    1. also known as causal control (CC)
    2. do mental states—our intentions, beliefs, and desires—cause us to act?
    3. a majority of philosophers think that mental states do cause actions
    4. epiphenomenalism, endorsed by neuroscientists, says that mental states don’t do the real work
  4. show that conscious intentions lead to action
    1. “If all behavior were produced only by nonconscious processes, and if conscious decisions (or choices) and intentions (along with their physical correlates) were to play no role at all in producing any corresponding actions, free will would be in dire straits. ” [1]
    2. the above quote illustrates what a pro free will philosopher believes would be the end of free will
    3. because if we have no awareness of what is happening, then free will is meaningless
    4. even if that were true above, it may not affect freedom of action, “1”
  5. but it depends on the framework (level of analysis) used
    1. “1” above depends on using the framework of intentional agency to understand it
    2. intentional agency framework relates concepts to one another by semantics and logic
    3. the physical level relates things by physical causes
    4. we can not reduce intentional agency down to the physical
    5. the intentional agency level is said to supervene the physical level
  6. but it depends on our point of view or frame of reference
    1. there are three ways in which we can shift perspective on the self
      1. we can view ourselves as the entire body
        1. this means that it is always us choosing
      2. we can view ourselves as a series of mental states
        1. if we are our mental states, then it is us
      3. we can view ourselves as an executive
        1. a passive executive that witnesses action so not us
        2. an active executive that decides action so us
  7. but it depends on your definitions of what is real
    1. for some neuroscientists the physical level or materialism is the only thing that counts as real
    2. for others, like cognitive science, multiple truths exist since truth is defined as “to understand”

Then answer:

  1. if we are free, then show that freedom is sufficient for moral responsibility?
    1. also known as ultimate responsibility (UR)
    2. we do have the capacity to control some actions but not others
    3. but it is not fair because we have different genetic dispositions, which is the problem of “moral luck”
    4. there is the problem of infinite regress in terms of ultimate responsibility


[1] Roy F. Baumeister.  “Free WIll and Consciousness”

[2] Richard Holton. “Willing, Wanting, Waiting.”

[3] Kane, Robert.  “The Oxford Handbook of Free Will”

[4] Leary, Mark.  Selfhood.

[5] List, Christian.  “Why Is Free Will Real.”

Feynman and Self

I was forced to take an Uber today, and the driver was talking about how wonderful it is not knowing what his next ride may bring.  He later says that if he worried, then he would be in a state of paralysis; for he woke up this morning and asked God to take his will.

This has the effect of giving up control which would be interesting to see if it reduces stress to help with happiness and health.  This doesn’t mean that I endorse the belief in God.  Because there are a lot of psychological tricks that we could use to reduce stress.

Feynman’s video on how believing in God is too self-serving to be taken seriously came to mind.  I love the part when he gets emotional and says:

The earth, he came to the earth; one of the aspects of God is that he came to the earth mind you and look at what’s out there; it isn’t in proportion.  [Italics used to point out Feynman’s accentuation.]

Even better is when he says this:

I can live with doubt and uncertainty of not knowing. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything. For instance, I’m not sure if it means anything to even ask why we are here.  I don’t feel frightened not knowing.  Say by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose.  But this is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.



Economists, Go Away

Despite our participation in the free market being a positive summed game when we gain wealth, this does not mean that the disparities that unbridled capitalism allow do not have effects on our health and happiness.  [Musings 9/2020]

I started with this quote exactly one year ago, and I am now closer to understanding the effects.  In looking at status as a relative phenomenon and not an absolute one, this turns the economists’ concept of well-being on its head.  First, when economists talk about capitalism being a positive-summed game, they mean when we participate in market transactions that both parties benefit.

When we emphasize “competitive markets,” we lose people who think in terms of zero-sum outcomes. The focus on competition evokes concerns about fairness and empathy for losers, rather than an appreciation that the cooperative outcomes these markets facilitate by providing opportunities for improving everyone’s wellbeing. [Susan E. Dudley]

Of course, when we exchange goods and services we benefit by increasing our utility and satisfaction in life.  Whether or not our well-being increases when we play the game is an empirical question; economists have no business using the word well-being so loosely in order to extol the virtues of the free market.  Short-term happiness is usually increased but not long-term happiness.

Second, economists say that the proverbial pie isn’t fixed and can increase when a nation experiences more economic growth per capita.  Both ideas use the reasoning that capitalism isn’t a zero-summed game and that our well-being improves.  I am making two claims here that well-being depends on how we measure and define it and life’s happiness can’t easily be summed up.

Well-Being Is Abused

If anyone bothers to look at the studies of how happiness is related to consumption, education, and income, then they would realize that happiness comes with interpretation and qualification.  Well-being is usually defined as subjective wellbeing, which is a measurement of life satisfaction, positive affect, and lack of negative affect.  It is a surprisingly reliable and valid measurement.

Economists base all of their well-being studies on “point-of-time” studies and not on “life-cycle” studies.  They do this because increased income from point-of-time studies results in a positive correlation with well-being (happiness).  That is, the more money we make, then the happier we will be.  This has been replicated over and over again.  But this is not so with a life-cycle study.

Mainstream economists’ inference that in the pecuniary domain “more is better,” based on revealed preference theory, is problematic. An increase in income, and thus in the goods at one’s disposal, does not bring with it a lasting increase in happiness because of the negative effect on utility of hedonic adaptation and social comparison. [1]

The quote spells out what a life-cyle-type study reveals.  It reveals that over one’s lifetime we adapt, known as hedonic adaptation, to our set-point of happiness.  That is, we are like on a treadmill, where any gains in short-term happiness, leave us no better off in the long run.  The second point in the quote above is what I’ve been discussing for the past two posts on relative status.

Our well-being, in this case, short-term happiness, is affected after we get an increase in salary, but we adapt to this new happiness because we only create higher standards to compare by afterward.  Furthermore, I always feel better as long as I’m making more than who I compare my income with.  But economists are silent on these factors which usually have the effect of lowering well-being.

We Can’t Sum Life

The idea that there are winners and losers in capitalism is something that we may actually hear from economists.  We do judge one another by how far we have come, but hopefully, this is based on how far we are capable of going.  The point I want to make here is that the economists are misleading us when they link positive-sum games and a bigger slice of pie for everyone with well-being.

Maybe they can get away with “better off” since capitalism has raised our standard of living which is mainly our material living standards.  At this point, I don’t want to comment on health statistics beyond what I have presented on relative risk of death.  But what I do want to do is illustrate further how the concept of well-being that the economists use is impoverished to serve their ends.

If we break down happiness further, then we will see that it is a process.  We feel first—either positive or negative affect—and then we rewrite history convincing ourselves that we are either satisfied or not with meeting some standards.  But then psychologists weigh in and say that that is not enough.  What if we add all of the other factors that affect our well-being as I have laid out below.

  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning and purpose
  • Accomplishment

It is these very parts that give life meaning and purpose, and they significantly affect our well-being.  We are misled into believing that more money will bring us more happiness because, in the long run, we adapt to it.  This illusion causes us to focus an uneven amount of time and effort on money-making instead of meaning-making and relationships.  But I can’t part with my OLED screens.


[1] Easterlin, Richard.  “Explaining Happiness”.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Sep. 16, 2003, Vol. 100, No. 19 (Sep. 16, 2003), pp. 11176-11183

The Wrong Status, II

The last post argues, not from me but from thirty years’ worth of epidemiological studies, that where we are positioned relative to others matters to our health and happiness.  It matters because we will have more control over our lives and social benefits.

Recall that the title comes from the idea that although absolute status matters, say how much income and education we have, for health and happiness, we have forgotten that the status of others affects us too (relative status).  I will assess the statistics here.

Straightforward Statistics

I view statistics as a way to manipulate the concerns of others, so I will try to pick apart the flagship study from epidemiologists.  We can see that the data is presented as relative risk and not by an odds ratio, which is more intuitive.  However, relative risk exaggerates the significance compared to absolute risk.  But there is not much room to massage things and no statistical inference.  The question then becomes is income, education, or income and education causing the risk of death to change.  The authors conclude that the cause is what income and education bring, which is to increase control and social benefits in our lives.

Explaining the Bar Graph

Figure 1: Adapted from data in McDonough (1997)

The above plot is taken from the book “The Status Syndrome” by Michael Marmot.  It is data collected from 1972 to 1991 of a sample size of 8,500 men and women and adjusted to 1993 dollars.  Focusing on the grey bars, the household income of greater than $70k (2021 ~ $140k) was assigned the arbitrary relative risk of death of 1 while, for comparison, the income between $15-$20k (2021 ~ $30-$40k) had a risk of death of 3 times that of the $70k group.  The data are adjusted for age, sex, race, period, and family size while the black bars are adjusted for education.  When we adjust, this means that those things can’t affect the risk of death.  The only thing that is left is education and income—that is, the more status we have, the less risk of death.

For Experts in Statistics

I have real-world experience with uncertainty and accuracy measurements but not with descriptive and inferential statistics from the social and behavioral sciences.  So if anyone does, it would be helpful to understand how the corrections are done to take into account age, sex, race, and education.  I do realize that these are confounding variables or covariants that affect the measurement.  If we want to focus on the relationship of fewer variables affecting the measurement, then we must find a way to correct the data.


[1]  Marmot, Michael. The Status Syndrome. Henry Holt and Co.

The Wrong Status

This post is on the conclusions that epidemiologists have come to after three decades of research: the Joneses are very important.

What a good time to be alive. Except that it is better for some than others—considerably so. Where you stand in the social hierarchy is intimately related to your chances of getting ill, and your length of life.  And the differences between top and bottom are getting bigger, and have been for a generation. [4]




I just finished a book on social status written by an epidemiologist, and I believe it presents the missing evidence that liberals need to use to argue against unbridled capitalism.  Liberals intuitively know that there has to be something wrong with how status is distributed in the world because they can feel either hate for those that have it better or compassion for those that have it worse.

Those emotions are there for a reason and shouldn’t be discounted, but they must be backed up by arguments.  To be sure, there is a corrosive effect to social hierarchies which is the result of unequal distribution in status.  In fact, it is relative status and not absolute status that matters to people’s health and happiness.  Although I’ve hinted at this, I was ignorant of the research [4].

In other words, I will be more healthy and happy if I have more status than the Joneses do.  Status is much more than just income, education, and possessions as it is also valuable attributes such as beauty, smarts, likability, knowledge, and talent.  We compete to bestow value on one another with these attributes and those that have more of it relative to others have more control and influence.

Absolutely Relative

When we talk about absolute status, then we are not concerned with how the status of others affects us or vice versa.  One of the arguments for capitalism is that it brings people out of poverty, but it doesn’t matter much because it’s all relative.  In fact, researchers were perplexed as to why households that made more than enough to be healthy and happy still had a higher risk of death compared to other households that had a slightly higher income and education level.  Education and income, however, can only help with so many good decisions and can only provide so much superior health care because of the law of diminishing returns.

Then what else is causing the unequal health and happiness measurements amongst families that otherwise have enough income and education?  It is what we all know and think; it matters how and where we are positioned relative to others.  This should create tension to any ideology although some would settle for “tough luck” to the bottom feeders.  But even that isn’t accurate because it is a health gradient that where anyone on the status continuum is positioned lower than another, all else equal, they will be worse off.  When we understand status as being on a continuum, it makes the categories of rich versus poor meaningless.

Happy and Healthy

So how does status work to help our health and happiness?  At the very least, we know that income and education help us to maintain a certain level of status that prevents absolute deprivation, which is starvation, dysentery, and malaria—anything associated with poverty.  But I explained above that absolute status that is associated with education and income can’t explain why anyone on the status continuum will be worse off than anyone that is above them all else equal.  To understand why it matters what others have relative to us as well as how it affects us, we must first understand the two measurements of health and happiness.

The health metric can measure the amount of heart disease, diabetes, and mental illness within a given population, which are no longer thought to be “rich-man” diseases but due to how the status of others affects us.  Of course, getting mental illness and heart disease involves other factors as well such as genetics and access to health care.  This post explains that once we correct for those things (i), why is there still a health and happiness gradient amongst people of differing status after an absolute threshold is met.

The answer that is given by the author is that the degree of control and participation that we have in society is directly related to how we are positioned relative to others.  The more autonomous and free that we are, then the more control we have in our lives.  Think about how free we are at the workplace where management on a whim can make us feel fear of losing our positions.  It is anxiety and rumination that directly taxes the mind to produce a stress reaction that makes us more susceptible to heart disease and mental illness.  It is that last line that so much recent research has been devoted to and that I will focus on in the next post.


i) The data on the next post shows that these things aren’t corrected to predict how relative status affects our risk for death.  It does, however, correct for age, family size, sex, and race.


[1]  Deaton, Angus. The Great Escape. Princeton University Press.

[2]  Gilbert, Paul.  Subordination and Defeat: An Evolutionary Approach To Mood Disorders and Their Therapy. Taylor and Francis.

[3]  Jonathan’s Musings. “Chomsky on Playing Fair

[4]  Marmot, Michael. The Status Syndrome. Henry Holt and Co.

Addiction Explained

I want to bring awareness to addiction but explain it in words that we use every day.  I will use words like desire, willpower, and intention.  In the scientific community, this is known as folk psychology, but there is nothing wrong with this.  Although “desire” is a dopaminergic signal found within the mesolimbic system, we want to understand the experience of addiction and not the neuron.

After understanding addiction, it should become clear that compassion and accountability are more appropriate responses to dealing with alcoholics and addicts than demonization and punishment.  Furthermore, addiction meets all of the definitional requirements of being a disease—that is, a part of their addiction is out of their control—which makes punitive measures ineffective in the long run.

The Survival Center

Put simply, drugs and alcohol are compelling because they hijack the precise mechanisms that evolved for sex. [5]

Those that come from alcoholics anonymous get lost in their literature and believe that they must follow the twelve steps word-for-word as if life depended upon it.  In fact, the original steps were written in six steps.  The point is that the overarching mechanism that keeps them clean is probably the group consciousness that makes them adopt new norms that using is not acceptable.

In the process of working the steps, the parts of the mind that have an obsession with the substance become dormant like a muscle that atrophies when not used.  When these parts don’t get used, then the desire to use and the cues associated with using become weakened.  They don’t, however, completely go away which is why, arguably, once an addict, then always an addict (i).

The reason addicts develop strong desires to use in the first place is that they are hijacking their survival center.  This pleasure center (ii) has a dense source of dopamine receptors within the nucleus accumbens and dorsal striatum, and it makes us want and desire things such as caloric-rich foods, sex, and material items.  Drugs and alcohol, unfortunately, target the same part of the brain.

Normal Temptation

Judgment becomes nothing more than the projection of the strongest desire. [1]

In short, we have intentions, desires, and beliefs that interact with one another to create a behavior or action.  This system is controlled by our willpower.  Think of willpower as a skill or a muscle that becomes easier to use when used often and well-rested.  When we resist temptation, it is not because we use good judgment but rather we use willpower in order to stick with our intentions.

The problem with addicts is not their willpower but that the desire to use is stronger than what we would experience in normal temptation.  Not only is their desire stronger but the desire is decoupled from reasoning, which means that reasoning is near impotent (iii).  This does not mean that addicts don’t reason, but when they reason and make choices it will always be biased.

In normal temptation, a person may desire chocolate and indulge by giving in to the urge.  In order to do this, they perform a judgment shift.  A judgment shift is when we place a higher value on what we would gain if we gave in to temptation and a lower value if we were not to give in.  We do this by finding reasons to give in to temptation which reduces our cognitive dissonance.

As an interesting aside, if our intention was to not give in to temptation, then our desire was victorious but we couldn’t say that we went against our better judgment.  We could even say that our decision was rational since when making the choice to indulge or not, we gave ourselves reasons why to indulge.  This although is reason-based rationality and not the rationality that we are familiar with.

Addicts’ Temptation

Desire works by capturing the user’s attention, focusing on what is desired, and narrowing horizons. [1]

When the addict, on the other hand, makes a judgment on whether or not to use, there is such a disparity between the two that not using won’t be tempting.  It is not as if the addict doesn’t realize that the choice to use has consequences but rather the desire to use is much more tempting than to not use.  In fact, the desire is so overwhelming that the consequences feel like a walk in a park.

The only hope for an addict is that their willpower to resist is strong and the desire to use isn’t strong, which occurs with abstinence.  If they try to engage in reasoning, it will be a rationalization or judgment shift in favor of the more desirable (iii).  The use of the word choice just doesn’t make sense for an addict because the feeling to use is heavily anchored, which will bias the decision or choice.

In normal circumstances when our desires aren’t overwhelming, I suppose we can call it a choice when we stick with our intentions in the face of a contrary desire.  That is, we chose to not give in to temptation and instead chose the right path.  But I don’t think that is what is going on here.  Because the one that chose correctly may have just had a weak desire, a strong will, and intentions not to.

Hate But Still Want

There must be an almost complete disconnection between judging an outcome good and wanting it, or, conversely, between judging it bad and not wanting it. [1] 

The addict after time will start to hate the substance yet still want it.  Not surprisingly experiments show that liking (hating) and wanting (not wanting) are distinct phenomena but work under the same motivational system.  For an addict, these two feelings become decoupled as one doesn’t affect the other.  So no matter how much they hate it or think it is “bad” they will still want it.

All of the above discussion assumes a degree of severity in the addict’s addiction which depends on how often they have used, how long, what the substance is, and their own genetics.  Depending upon the stages and severity of the addiction, the disparity between the value assigned to using and not using will diminish and start looking more like a choice as the more they chose not to use.

The interesting thing is why would an addict or alcoholic choose to use years after sobriety.  That is to say what if their intentions change and they decide to use despite having the belief that using will result in consequences.  After all, our intentions, wherever they come from, motivate us directly and don’t require us to have a desire.  This is where the complexity lies, see addendum.

Addiction Is Immoral

If we think of people in categorical ways, then we can label an obese person and an addict as lazy and weak.  After all, it’s their biology and choices that got them there.  But if we allow science to illuminate the details of human behavior, we won’t resort to a black-and-white reading—instead, we will understand addiction as a mechanism and not a moral failing that deserves contempt.

I am not suggesting that we give up labels because they describe what we observe.  Addicts and alcoholics are downright weak when they succumb to substances in order to cope with the pains that life serves them.  They destroy the lives of family members and become a burden to society.  If morality is about the wellbeing of others, then they certainly qualify as being immoral beings.

This viewpoint, however, serves our interests and not the addict or alcoholics.  To help, we must remove morality from the equation.  If we label them as immoral and punish them, then they will only hide their addiction better.  Our penal institutions are a sham for the addict and our attitudes are misguided.  It is time we let science speak and give them a fighting chance to become moral beings.


i) This means that addicts and alcoholics will often “pick up where they left off” if they start using again.  But this isn’t destiny since the wanting of the substance becomes lessened while they learn how to not act on that want.

ii) This is somewhat a misnomer because dopamine is about “wanting”, and it’s the opioid receptors that give “pleasure”.

iii) This is when an addict is in the active stages of addiction.


  • intention – enables us to resolve deliberative uncertainty in order to facilitate action
  • judgments – evaluation or appraisal of what is best
  • desire – a state that preoccupies an agent’s attention with an urge to perform an action
  • willpower or self-control – when one sticks with their intentions in the face of contrary desires
  • weak-willed – when one revises their intentions too readily and can be due to either having one’s willpower depleted or other factors
  • choice – when the situation arises of what to do


[1] Richard Holton. “Willing, Wanting, Waiting.”

[2] McGonigal Ph.D., Kelly. “The Willpower Instinct.”

[3] Miller, Shannon. “The ASAM Principles of Addiction Medicine.”

[4] Morgan, Oliver J. “Addiction, Attachment, Trauma and Recovery.”

[5] Wilson, Gary. “Your Brain on Porn.”

The AA Delusion

As fascinated as I am over the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous—a physician and stockbroker who created a mass movement because they couldn’t stop drinking—I would not be much of a freethinker if I didn’t offer a more candid analysis.  The Big Book, despite containing some obvious truths, is a muddled piece of work that seems to only intrigue its members but not the experts.

Although it contains many pithy statements to give it its appeal, the book is far away from a scientific understanding of alcoholism and substance abuse.  Even though it is wrong in its details, the approach works for many (iii) by creating a group consciousness that their pseudo-selfish (i) behavior is destructive to them and to others.  The group acts to reinforce the new social norms created.

Too Smart For Own Good

Now we come to another problem, the intellectually self-sufficient man or woman… far too smart for own good… blow ourselves into prideful balloons… [2]

The theme throughout the book is that the ego, self-will, or willpower is something to be smashed and looked down upon.  The ego is the part of us that we feel when we self-indulge—I want, and I need—and helps us to differentiate ourselves—I am better than he, she, or they—as well as engages in self-appraisals—I did this and everyone needs to know.  The ego is the ugly part in all of us.

But the ego is also the part of us that helps us to advance in life since it drives us to compete with others.  The problem with the Big Book is that it generalizes the ego and equates it to sin.  This isn’t surprising given the Protestant background of the founders, and the same fear tactics are used from religion concerning over-indulgence.  But a big ego in itself doesn’t cause addiction (ii).

The book contradicts itself often and one noteworthy paradox is that the same will and self that is condemned is the same will and self that helps the member to learn new habits and stay clean and sober.  Maybe the founders anticipated members to be critical—”far too smart for own good”—of the newly learned beliefs and hence they decided to denigrate the concept of the ego altogether.

The Self-Centered Man (iv)

Selfishness, self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. [3]

Selfishness can’t be the cause of addiction.  We usually stand to benefit when we are being selfish and alcoholics and addicts are beyond the stage of pleasure.  They are driven by an obsession to use the substance and can act compulsively on that impulse.  Selfishness is just not an accurate description especially since their willpower has been hijacked by a very strong desire to use.

Even in the beginning stages of addiction, a member that drinks occasionally would be no more selfish (ii) than someone that indulges in chocolate.  From an outsider, it looks like a selfish act since the attention is on them, but in the long run, there is no net benefit for them, and they end up harming themselves.  At best, we have to settle for a label of quasi or pseudo selfish [1].

The Big Book of course gets it right when it says that arrogance and over-indulgence usually backfire on us, but that does not mean that these qualities cause addiction.  Furthermore, there is no shortage of grandiose personalities who are not addicts or alcoholics, and there has to be the right situational and genetic factors that lend hand to creating what we would call an alcoholic or addict.

A Harmless Delusion

We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. [3]

During the course of the day, many of us will think and feel that we are better than average in capabilities, appearance, and intelligence.  This can’t be true if these traits have a bell-shaped curve.  But we operate best when we delude ourselves into thinking that we are slightly better than others.  So is there anything wrong with members believing that God is helping them stay sober?

We should be careful to not dismiss members out of hand because there are well-understood benefits to surrendering ourselves to something greater than ourselves.  This concept is endorsed by Western psychology and even evolutionary psychology as a way to deescalate the defense system (involuntary defeat system) which is what is activated in periods of failure, rejection, and stressors.

The founders wanted members to be demoralized, hence the humiliation of “My name is __, and I am an alcoholic”, so that they realized the severity of their problem.  Members often are in denial to protect their egos, so perhaps this method works in combination with surrendering their willpower to something greater than them so that they open up and address the problem.

But if we want an analysis of what is really going on, then members need to realize that believing in something that feels good doesn’t mean it’s grounded in reality.  A belief in God is optional but is probably harmless.


i) The best analysis that I have seen on AA was brought to my attention by Dr. David Allen.  Please see the references section [1].

ii) Two personality traits that are related to what we would think of as egotistical would be narcissistic and self-centeredness.  Addiction is correlated with these two traits but that does not mean that they cause addiction.

iii) An analysis of over 27 randomized controlled studies concludes that 42% of 10,565 participants of a 12-step approach will remain abstinent for a period of 1-year or more whereas only 35% would remain abstinent through other approaches.

iv) When I use the word man, I am implying the pronouns he, she, or they.

v) The group’s “serenity prayer”—”. …accept the things we can’t change, the courage to change what we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”— is powerful and although we may not know it in words, we intuitively do it all the time by letting go of concerns that are out of our control.


[1] Allen, Dr. David. “The 12 Steps of AA: A Translation.”  Psychology Today

[2] 12 Steps and 12 Traditions.  Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc.

[3] The Big Book.  Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc.

The Real AA

Unless you have had a problem with addiction or have an interest in psychology, this post may have a limited appeal.  I will show how a 12-step program can be explained without an appeal to the divine, while the next post will explore the group dynamic in detail.


I have been wanting to do this for a while as my family has had its challenges with addiction.  And what better place to debunk than here at freethought blogs.  If you have had the opportunity (i) to experience a 12-step program, it becomes obvious that this is a cult [ii].

This is not unique to AA since whenever a group forms with a shared vision, there are social norms to be followed but not questioned.  I pity an atheist as a group member though since one obvious agenda of the creators is to get you closer to God.

I want to criticize the dogmatic nature of the group and explore how it may actually work.  From a naturalistic standpoint, there is no mysterious force that helps people stay clean and sober, and we know that a “spiritual awakening” is not a miracle but a change in attitude.

How Effective Is It?

We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater because the 12-Step approach to recovering from substance or alcohol abuse can be effective.  An analysis of over 27 randomized controlled studies concludes that 42% of 10,565 participants of a 12-step approach will remain abstinent for a period of 1-year or more whereas only 35% would remain abstinent through other approaches [1].

Being addicted to substances is usually far worse than the effects of endorsing any of the problematic aspects of the AA ideology.  Until something much better comes along, AA may represent the only hope for some. [4]

The principles of cognitive-behavioral theory explain most of how the program works although no one knows exactly how any particular individual stays clean and sober.  Members that are ideological about AA will no doubt have a problem with explaining how it works because they read their literature as a fundamentalist Christian would read scripture: inerrant, always relevant, cryptic, and divinely inspired [2].

How It Really Works

This program has been looked at by many practitioners, and so I have provided one possible interpretation of how it may work.  There are other interesting areas to explore for instance the idea that having a “higher power” may provide benefits.  Of course, believing that there is something greater than you for comfort (akin to an attachment figure like a “Father”) can provide benefits without being true.


CBT Translation

Click on the figure to see in detail.


i) I use the word opportunity not out of sarcasm but irony—that is, for most members, the program offers them a complete change in perspective on life by developing moral consciousness.  This new consciousness demand that members drop judgments of others and look at the similarities in one another, not the differences.  In a nutshell, that is the spiritual awakening that they speak of.

ii) For some, it may not seem fair to label AA as a cult but that is the impression that is given off to outsiders.  A cult is never our group (orthodoxy) and always another group.  In other words, the word cult is a way to disparage another group.  But I use the word cult here in the sense that leaders and beliefs are often followed, not questioned, and admired to an unwarranted degree.



[2] Kugel, James L. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.



Making It Happen

The only thing I disagree with my Quaker friends on is the slogan speaking truth to power.  First of all, power already knows the truth; they don’t have to hear it from us; it’s a waste of time and the wrong audience. (ii)

The Huffington Post says that we can no longer afford to practice a “nonchalant type of acceptance” (i).  But if tolerance is not good enough, then what else can we do?  I thought I’d share what the sociologist Aldon Morris says from a recent article in Scientific American.  His message is quite different from what we hear from conservatives in which they often ridicule protest and subversion.

There are three ways of conceptualizing the tactics and strategies employed by social activists attempting to make a change in the culture.  Aldon Morris is endorsing the third theory of social change.  If there is evidence that his theory works, then why do conservatives protest about protesting?  I can come up with several hypotheses, but it is best framed as a struggle for power.

Whichever tactics are employed, the ultimate goal is to disrupt the society sufficiently that power holders capitulate to the movement’s demands in exchange for restoration of social order. [1]

Verbatim from “From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter” found in Scientific American

  1. influential resource mobilization theory: It argued that the mobilization of money, organization, and leadership was more important than the existence of grievances in launching and sustaining movements—and marginalized peoples depended on the largesse of more affluent groups to provide these resources.
  2. political process theory: It argues that social movements are struggles for power—the power to change oppressive social conditions. Because marginalized groups cannot effectively access normal political processes such as elections, lobbying or courts, they must employ “unruly” tactics to realize their interests. As such, movements are insurgencies that engage in conflict with the authorities to pursue social change; effective organization and innovative strategy to outmaneuver repression are key to success.
  3. indigenous perspective theory: It argues that the agency of movements emanates from
    1. within oppressed communities—from their institutions, culture, and creativity. Outside factors such as court rulings are important, but they are usually set in motion and implemented by the community’s actions.
    2. Movements are generated by grassroots organizers and leaders—the CRM had thousands of them in multiple centers dispersed across the South—and are products of meticulous planning and strategizing.
    3. This also frames social movements as struggles for power, which movements gain by preventing power holders from conducting economic, political, and social business as usual.
      1. Tactics of disruption may range from nonviolent measures such as strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, marches and courting mass arrest to more destructive ones, including looting, urban rebellions, and violence.

In order for movements to develop, a people must first see themselves as being oppressed. This awareness is far from automatic: many of those subjected to perpetual subordination come to believe their situation is natural and inevitable. This mindset precludes protest.


[1] Morris, Aldon.  “From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter”.  Scientific American


(I). “Americans who are poor, female, of color, queer, disabled, or not Christian cannot afford to practice the nonchalant type of acceptance-of-any-and-all-opinions when the opinion of many hardline social conservatives is that it would be preferable to exclude these people from the conversation altogether.”  Huffington Post

ii). This quote is from Noam Chomsky.  This quote is applicable to anyone that has power or control over you as it’s the perception that they give off.  I’m not a radical that is endorsing overthrowing the government, so please don’t misinterpret this.

Narcissism As Normal

The narcissist may be intimidating, mesmerizing, even larger-than-life, but beneath the bombast or the charm is an emotional cripple with the moral development of a toddler. (i) [1]

Narcissism is a cluster of sub-traits or tendencies that we all show but if it becomes a neverending quest to feel special and better than, then life is about maintaining our image and striving for status.  Being fixated on self leaves little room for empathy, and others become means to our ends.  Narcissism, as many argue, is a normal trait to have but some are just better at it than others.

What Is a Personality Trait?

A trait is a quality that we describe to a person.  This quality is an adjective, so to make it a noun we add “ness”.  If someone comes across as agreeable, then we may call the trait agreeableness.  Personality traits are heritable and are shaped by our genes and environment.  If we make the assumption that a trait over time becomes stable, then we have to figure out how to separate it from the interaction of any given situation.  The only way to do this is to take multiple observations and measurements across many different situations and come up with a global or average figure that we hope is independent of the situation that we observe.

But we can’t ever truly separate the situation from the individual because then the trait wouldn’t exist since it is an interaction based on inputs from our environment.  The field of psychology, moreover, can’t observe people over long periods of time and in different situations.  The field relies on self-assessments which must be reliable—make consistent measurements—and valid—measure what it says it does.  There are statistical methods that help determine how sound the measurements are by uncovering the most fundamental sub-traits of the assessment.  For narcissism, the fundamental sub-traits have been established from a factor analysis.

Self-Evaluations Don’t Work?

In looking at the statements from the narcissistic personality inventory or NPI from figure 1 below, these apply to everyone since we are born narcissistic and have a pervasive need to feel special, unique, and valued (ii).  There is a scale that grades the degree of narcissism if we were to take the NPI, but I don’t take it seriously for the pathological cases since narcissists protect their image.  I reject the test because narcissists are self-conscious and know that the test is evaluating how special we think they think they are.

  1. Authority, e.g. ‘‘I have a natural talent for influencing people’’;
  2. Exhibitionism, e.g. ‘‘I will usually show off if I get the chance’’;
  3. Superiority, e.g. ‘‘I am an extraordinary person’’;
  4. Entitlement, e.g. ‘‘I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve’’;
  5. Exploitativeness, e.g. ‘‘I find it easy to manipulate people’’;
  6. Self-Sufficiency, e.g. ‘‘My achievements are of my own making’’;
  7. Vanity, e.g. ‘‘I like to show off my body’’

Figure 1: Factor Analysis Reveals Fundamental Sub-Traits

Inflated or Genuine Self-Esteem?

All of the sub-traits above with the exception of exploitativeness are positively correlated with self-esteem and happiness.  Arguably, exploitativeness, however, is what gives it its pathological designation in its extreme forms.  Extreme narcissists have high but unstable self-esteem, and it is argued that they maintain it in a maladaptive way because they are sensitive to feelings of shame (iii).

Narcissists are much more driven to get ahead than to get along.  Narcissism is associated with the need to dominate others and the need to achieve superior resources.  In contrast, authentic self-esteem is much more associated with the desire to establish deep, intimate relationships with others.

The issue is if this type of self-esteem is authentic or inflated.  It is a fact that we have to navigate our social hierarchy, so it is possible that narcissists are just more sensitive to the hierarchy and engage in ego-defense strategies that are helpful to them at the cost of others.  That is what I’d like to explore in the next post because the causes of pathological narcissism are fascinating.


i) I think it is important to look at the causes of having a morality that is not well developed.  Is it because they have callous traits, they do what the situation allows them to get away with, or is it a complex combination of both?

ii) As far as classifying narcissism in its extreme forms as pathological, I believe it is a case of morality in action.  But this trait is normally distributed within populations—it has a bell-shaped or Gaussian distribution, which shouldn’t be surprising as it is a natural phenomenon.  Any skepticism I have had on its existence has been quelled by identical twin studies.

iii) Feelings of being “less than” or “not enough” come from shame.  Shame comes from our self-esteem system.  Our self-esteem system was designed to maximize our social inclusion with others, and we are rewarded (feelings of pride) when we are accepted and approved of and punished (feelings of shame) when we fall short of standards.


[1] Hotchkiss, Sandy. “Why Is It Always About You?: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism.”

[2] Malkin, Dr. Craig. “Rethinking Narcissism.”

[3] Mischel, Walter. Introduction to Personality: Toward an Integrative Science of the Person, 8th Edition. Wiley Higher Ed.