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The Cybernetics of Alcoholics Anonymous

Posted Jul 29 2009 10:08pm

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. 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

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