Can We Be Free-Willing Robots?

On the Possibility of Free Will in a Deterministic World

7. Addiction

Book cover: Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzanig

For the ordinary person on the street, as well as for medical and legal experts, many addictions are seen as compromising a person's ability to choose freely. These psychological compulsions that inhibit the exercise of free will include alcohol, substance, work and gambling addictions. Examples are addiction to sex, hoarding, kleptomania and pyromania. Let's look at drug addiction as an example.

Dr. Alan Leshner is director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the United States. He was asked in an interview about the drug addict's lack of choice and what this means for free will. First, he emphasized that one's 'brain is constantly changing as a function of the experiences one has'. However, if you're an addict, he explains:

You're in a state where the drug has totally taken over your being. . . . So, there's something about these biological changes that are going on at the cellular level that gets translated into compulsive, uncontrollable drug use on the behavioral level.

[An Interview with Alan I. Leshner, Ph.D., Moyers on Addiction, Moyers, 1998]

So, for Dr. Leshner, free will is not about having some of one's brain states form independently of one's genetic constitution and environment. It's about being free of psychological compulsion and being true to one's character; to one's being.

Book cover: The Man Who Wasn't There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self by Anil Ananthaswamy

Next, consider what happens in the court room. According to the Law Library, a judge will only allow an accused person to enter a guilty plea if they consider that the accused 'exercised free will'. The guilty plea is not accepted if the 'defendant isn't mentally competent at the time he agrees to the plea, for example, due to a developmental disability, intoxication or influence of narcotics'. Here, the ability to reason about one's actions figures prominently in the consideration of whether the act is free. The accused must be able to understand the court proceedings and 'consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding' [Guilty Plea: Accepting the Plea - The Elements of Guilty Pleas, Law Library, 2016].

I discuss this in greater depth and draw upon more real-life examples in my essay, Free Will and Compatibilism. What these examples demonstrate, though, is that both the common person and the medical and legal professional alike link the loss of free will in cases of addiction to feelings of compulsion, loss of personal identity and reasoning ability. The hard determinist's and libertarian's notion of contra-causality is notably absent from these considerations.

Copyright © 2018

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