22 April 2014

Addiction

Sometime ago, The American Conservative and, shortly thereafter, Mangan had posts about addiction. The former suggested that addiction was too broad a term to be scientifically useful while the latter questioned whether the recent denial of porn addiction was serious.

The heart of the problem is that of the English language; it is a fluid, dynamic language crafted and manipulated by poets for the sake of their poetry. It doesn’t have the rigidity of a dead language, like Greek or Latin, and so its uses and meanings fluctuate over time. This is particularly true of the field of psychology, and its purely nonsensical subset, social psychology.

Psychology draws on a lot of modernist thinking and uses English to describe its paradigms and assumptions, which generally means that psychological research generally follows a predictable pattern: some researcher notices a very obvious thing, uses big words to describe it, systematically proves the observation, and then followers pursue the paradigm and alter the definitions and parameters of the concept until the whole concept is rendered either trivial or useless.

This point was reinforced for me this past Sunday when I was writing a paper for a girl who was pursuing her Master’s degree in social work. I researched and wrote a four-page paper on Cognitive Theory, which basically stipulates that people learn from observing social interactions. This is a fairly trivial observation, though it was, at the time, a necessary counterbalance to the dominant theory of operant conditioning. The problem with Cognitive Theory, though, is that it has become so broadly defined so as to be trivial. It also can’t be easily falsified, which makes it worthless as a scientific theory.

In a roundabout way, this is essentially the problem with trying to discuss addiction, or virtually anything related to modern psychology. Since the terms of use are derived from a rather fluid language, and the discipline doesn’t really adhere to the strictures of the scientific method to begin with, what happens is that people often latch on to a neat or clever description of a common problem (binge-drinking, say, or watching tons of porn) but don’ clarify what, precisely, they mean. As a result, you have people arguing that anyone who bows towards certain inclinations (say, drinking) is an addict while others argue that one could engage in a repetitious activity all day every day without it really being a form of addiction.

The problem, then, is that the word, and subsequently the thinking that stems from said word, are completely muddled. The language used to describe the phenomenon is not precise enough.

Incidentally, this helps to explain why neurology has made leaps and bounds beyond psychology and will ultimately replace it as a hard science. Unlike psychology, neurological theories are falsifiable. Also unlike psychology, neurology turns to dead languages to come up with considerably more stable and precise concepts and definitions.

To bring this full circle, the ultimate issue with addiction is the concept and meaning of the word itself. Does addiction imply that one is incapable of making decisions for oneself? Or, does it imply that is merely strongly limited? What does “strongly limited” even mean? Is the term relative? Or does addiction simply refer to strong feelings of desire? How strong? Is addiction even bad?

The limits of the concept and the word should be clear. Having strong desires isn’t wrong or problematic. It is generally a good thing for a man to have strong feelings for his wife; it is generally bad to have strong feelings about porn. So, then, is the problem of addiction really the impulse? Or is it the object? The word is too muddled, and thus useless. The entire concept needs to be abolished in favor of something more precise and easily applied.