Author’s Note: This post is part of a larger sequence on addiction, and sampled from an appendix post of mine. For more background on the appendix format I used, read this.

If you are in, suspect you are in, or have struggled in the past with some sort of addiction, feel free to join this Discord server. It is a recovery group I set up focused on helping EAs struggling, in case they think they would benefit from having a space where they can discuss more unique struggles with a group of people who are more likely to understand them. It is currently relatively inactive, but I am trying to change this. If you are uncomfortable with this for any reason, but still want help, feel free to get in touch via DMs, and I can try to help you in some other way.

Image from the film “Toy Story 2

In my original post I discussed a few beliefs that in some way either made me more likely to drink (x-risk worries) or made my drinking feel worse (demanding ethics of beneficence) associated in some way with Effective Altruism. There are some other philosophical positions I haven’t discussed yet, however, which are often more common amongst EAs than outside of EA and which have also given me difficulty in recovery. These are often views that I have had to almost pretend I don’t hold, or lean into the part of myself that intuitively disbelieves them (or at least recognize this part of myself). Other times they are basically impossible to just pretend don’t exist to the needed extent.

The most obvious one is probably atheism. This is inconvenient for the fairly specific reason that it makes me fit in even worse with the AA program – the most readily available recovery group, and the one easiest to talk with and get advice from other alcoholics about. Beyond this social inconvenience, I think AA has been popular in part because of the benefits of involving religion of some sort in one’s recovery, not just vice versa. In Appendix B, I described the basic features of “God” that seem important to working AA normally in the following way:

“a power that is not you and is greater than you, one that is with you and guiding you in your worst moments, one that you can confess things to and ask things of in a fairly anthropomorphic way, one that cares about you, and one that is strongly related to morality in some way”.

It can be genuinely valuable to have something like this, especially if it is always around, so you can’t ever “get away with” drinking. Even better if it also accounts for the bad things that happen to you. This last one is very weird and hard for me to relate to, but so many addicts in my programs seem to get value from reframing bad things that happen to them and trigger them as “tests”. Things they are given by a benevolent deity because they are meant to be able to get past it and prove something in the process, and which will later pay off in some karmically positive way. I don’t have this. I am not just “an atheist”, I am the wrong sort of atheist. I have difficulty answering people when they ask whether I am “spiritual”, because I feel that this question pays off in a couple different ways.

If I describe my metaphysical views to people, I think they automatically consider them a bit “spiritual”. I believe that there are no hard boundaries between different people, and that in some sense therefore, acting with altruism and acting with prudence aren’t separated by anything metaphysically meaningful either. I believe that there is some “mind” in everything in the universe, and further lean towards the belief that mind is something like the intrinsic nature of all matter. This all sounds very woo and spiritual in “genre”. More substantially it has connection to “Eastern” ideas, in at least the sense that they are closer to the views endorsed by many Buddhists than those of most members of Abrahamic religions (and “Eastern” is practically a synonym to “spiritual” in many Western minds).

The issue is, as far as I can tell “spirituality” gets to ideas like these from a sort of overfitting of human cognition with the rest of the universe. Self-described “spiritual” people will often believe in forms of psychic connection with facts about the universe far away, or past lives or future lives, or will believe in some sort of cosmic intentionality, or universal moral balance. A beneficence basic to the universe. I came to my beliefs in a very different way. I decided that the sorts of things that people associate with individual human minds, unified wills and intentions, integration of the information within the “mind”, are all loosely defined concepts that break down as differences of kind when certain mental facts are merely changed by degrees. That is, the universe having a mind doesn’t mean that it has human-like attributes; rather, I think that the universe doesn’t have to have remotely humanlike characteristics to be a mind, and this is why I can still believe that it is one. I think that the universe is neither coordinated nor integrated in ways that interestingly resemble the human mind or are close to what we even mean by words like “value” and “meaning”.

Beyond even just AA and “god”, spirituality is an extremely popular angle for recovery work, and the psychological benefits of “spirituality” were extolled numerous times while I was in rehab, especially through the work of Lisa Miller. I do care about things like morality and altruism a great deal, and participate in a social community that shares similar reasons for and approaches to these things, and I think this gets me some of the relevant benefits. However, I think both that existing resources would be of more use to me, and that even in an ideal world I would have more and better choices for my recovery, if I was “religious” or at least “spiritual” in the relevant senses.

There are less obvious issues as well, though. In my original forum post, I make reference to “some recent more hard to explain emotional motivation”. This was mainly a reference to a single weird, hard to explain event that gave me a burst of motivation. Maybe it’s reflective of my general weird psychology and the type of media that sometimes affects me a really unusual amount (and part of the reason I was reluctant to write about the experience directly), but it happened in the middle of watching Toy Story 2.

I hadn’t watched it since I was young, well over a decade ago, and I decided it might be something fun and nostalgic that I could reserve as an incentive for a night I managed to stay sober. This was following up on several straight days of heavy drinking and a sense of defeat in a plan I had recently been meaning to implement after successfully tapering. That day I got sick of the motivational failure and took naltrexone to ensure that I didn’t have much incentive to drink.

I thought the movie would be a fun distraction, but as I kept watching it I was getting unexplainably sadder and sadder, and almost turned it off. Eventually it got to probably its most famous sequence, Jesse’s backstory and the accompanying song “When She Loved Me”. I started bawling, which in itself isn’t exactly surprising or difficult to admit, it is one of the many Pixar scenes that are basically precision engineered for clickbait listicles about things that make zillenials cry. But I don’t think this was a normal reaction to the scene, or simple nostalgia. I wound up immediately connecting it to my alcoholism, and in particular where I was now versus who I was as a child.

Part of this was probably as simple as the fact that that was the last time I watched the film, but there were also more direct connections in the scene, such as the sense of betrayal in the child growing up and losing values once important to him, or the sadness of observing this transformation from the perspective of someone who deeply and originally cared about this child. I of course don’t think that Pixar meant to imply that getting into makeup and playing less with cowboy toys is a moral failing, but of course when I watched the scene as a child I viewed this scene as the sort of abject betrayal I, of course, would never do. Funny that I felt worse about my drinking when I thought of it as comparable to abandoning Jesse than when I thought about it as, well, the life ruining actual real thing that was happening to me and those close to me. I’m not sure whether that says something about how affecting I find media like this in certain moods, or just the way alcoholism itself resists being looked at directly.

It’s hard to explain exactly what I felt, but I wound up later interpreting it as mostly coming down to “what would my self as a child think if they saw me now” or the more bitter followup thought “what if this child knew that this is what they would be forced to go through, what they would be forced to become”. This seemed to tread the very difficult line recovering addicts often face. On the one hand many addicts report only being reliably motivated when they are doing recovery for themselves, not for others. On the other hand many have lost their sense of self and see themself now mostly as an addict, willing to sacrifice all other values and whose personality is defined by either getting a drug or being on it. In short, someone who even the most theoretically omnibenevolent person will have a hard time loving enough to go through the enormous effort required by recovery. Instead of falling on either horn of this dilemma, do it for your child self, because you are doing this to their life.

Now this is, in its way, a lovely sentiment, and one that was extremely affecting at the time and motivated me enough to get the optimistic period I was in when I released my original post. The issue is that I doubly, perhaps triply, don’t believe the basic philosophical assumptions behind it.

Most obviously, as I mentioned when discussing my strange relationship with “spirituality”, I don’t believe there are strong metaphysical boundaries between persons. I believe that the things I might appeal to about a future experience in order to label it “mine” rather than anyone else’s, will all come in degrees and be separated at arbitrary points, much like most of our practically useful but simplifying categorical language. In this way, it’s hard for me to say that I am now what happens to my childhood self in a sense that will be satisfyingly literal. In fact, the degree to which I am separated from what my childhood self would want, partially corresponds to the degree to which I am further from being straightforwardly “the same person” as this earlier self. I am tempted to view this as a wrong takeaway, by saying that there is no reason to use reductionism to put up boundaries, only to take them away, but as I’ve mentioned, part of what is useful about this connection to my recovery is the sense of “doing this for myself”. Reductionism concerning personal identity undermines the very idea of there being a difference here, and unfortunately dilutes the takeaway to a degree that is hard to remain viscerally motivated by.

It might still be possible to rescue the idea that I am “doing this to” the person I was as a child by appealing to the idea that this child had values about who I am now that I am betraying by my actions. Indeed very deep values, that ground some of this child’s own sense of identity, since he did not believe in reductionism concerning personal identity. The trouble is…I also disagree with value theories that say that the distant fulfillment of preferences can be good for someone. I do not think that if I have a preference now about things that happen in the future, and then the thing happens, it then retroactively benefits me. I think the value of my life then was sealed by the actual experiences I had at that point (this is a point I would have been in some agreement with even at the time, so it might be even more undermining than the personal identity concern, though I am also much more uncertain about this one).

I said possibly triply, because as I child I believed in A-theory time (not that I knew what it was called or extensively considered the alternatives, it was just the commonsense that I accepted), and it would have been sensible, and personally important to me, that I would become this future person. I no longer believe in A-theory time, so the most I could say, if I granted personal identity, is that this child would have to share an identity with a person experiencing the lows of addiction, at some different point in time, one forever separated from the child of the time.

I could still try to translate each of these components into ideas more philosophically credible to my present self: I currently care about what this other being (child me) would think about current me’s life. This being would have, to my current estimation, been distressed and hurt by the thought of this experience, on a deeply personal level. Therefore I, in the present, care about getting past my alcoholism. This is valuable, because I care about it right now, and recovery can happen to the me of right now.

This translation blows. It does absolutely nothing for me, in contrast to the initial thought itself. I don’t know whether my philosophical commitments did eventually cause my motivation to lapse, but lapse it has, and it’s been an uphill battle to try returning to this earlier state, and to basically just ignore the philosophy. Take this as a recommendation that something like that thought, that yourself as a child has to become the person you are now, and have the things that have happened to you happen to them, is a thought which can be highly motivating (and, fair warning, also extremely sad if you succeed in feeling it on a literal level). But keeping it might be especially difficult for EAs, who are more likely than most to have similar philosophical commitments to the ones I just mentioned.

A final, very subtle, difficulty I’ve had related to my philosophical beliefs, is about the point mentioned above when you become “someone who even the most theoretically omnibenevolent person will have a hard time loving enough to go through the enormous effort required by recovery”. Many people have a hard time believing they are worth the trouble to save, but they believe this more explicitly. They have done terrible, selfish things, and the process for being worth saving is relatively clear: you have to like yourself better - both by being more self-forgiving, and becoming a better person.

I have often had difficulty recognizing anything like self-esteem issues, because on paper I simply don’t believe in desert – I think morality in fact should be fully omnibenevolent. This means if people ask me if I think poorly of myself, my easy answer is “no, I don’t think poorly of anyone”. This is a lie in some relevant sense. I have human psychology, and with it, human problems with self-esteem, that are very difficult for me to introspectively identify. But I can identify that I would put in much more effort to save someone I love and admire from something like addiction, like immediate family members and close friends, than I have been willing to put into saving myself from it. Because of my philosophical beliefs, I haven’t found it as obvious as other people might that an important part of recovering means tending to my character and self-esteem.

You might notice the distance between the problem with the philosophical belief just mentioned, and the ones immediately before it. While I am both an intuitive and philosophical atheist, there is tension between my philosophical views and intuitions in the other mentioned areas. You can’t fully commit to whichever view is most helpful for recovery, without having the other side. If either the intuition or the philosophical belief is missing, it can make recovery that much more complicated in that area, and EA is a culture where people are unusually likely to accept philosophical beliefs that are in tension with intuition.

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Executive summary: The author's philosophical views, which are common in the Effective Altruism community, have made addiction recovery more difficult by conflicting with intuitions that could provide motivation and comfort.

Key points:

  1. The author's atheism makes it harder to fit in with and benefit from Alcoholics Anonymous, which relies on belief in a higher power.
  2. The author's views on personal identity and the separateness of persons undermine the motivating idea of "doing recovery for one's childhood self".
  3. The author's belief in omnibenevolent morality makes it hard to recognize self-esteem issues that are important for recovery.
  4. Effective Altruists are more likely to hold philosophical views that conflict with intuitions that could aid recovery.



This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

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