Philosophers Clearing the Way for 12-Step Spirituality

By Zachary Siegel 11/18/15

Thoughtfully dispelling many stereotypes and misconceptions about the much-contested program of recovery, philosophers reflect on 12-step spirituality. 

Sobering Wisdom
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Sobering Wisdom, compiled and edited by philosophers Jerome A. Miller and Nicholas Plants, is a collection of philosophical arguments and reflections on addiction and 12-step spirituality. 

And it is about time some serious (even scholarly) thinking entered the volatile and seemingly unwinnable debate on the 12 steps—where do they fit in the 21st-century addiction paradigm? Though philosophers didn’t write their essays to win the argument once and for all, or to convert readers to a 12-step spiritual diet of serenity prayers and 10th step inventory, the essays feel sharp and engaging. 

Even for those who are non-(or dare say anti) 12 step, the essays will give you something to chew on, maybe even challenge your presuppositions. I began to question my own definitions of spirituality, which tend to be the Spinozan “God is nature,” or nature is God (I always forget), in the non-anthropomorphic sense. This non-corporeal, non-thinking, non-intervening type of “God” tends to make 12-step thinking difficult to work with, that is, without performing some mental gymnastics to customize the language. 

It seems as though working through an addiction almost necessitates a philosophy to stand on. So to get sober, in a sense, forces you to philosophize. To maybe hone your thinking or to better understand how you think about 12-step spirituality, or spirituality as it relates to addiction in general, this book may be what you’ve been looking for. 

Below is a parsed down interview with Jerry and Nick, the philosophers who put the call out for submissions, who edited the essays and also wrote their own, which they thoroughly discussed with me. 

Academic philosophers tend to write for and only each other in a very jargon-y, technical kind of way—the profession is often criticized for that. So what made the two of you want to put together a book about something as middlebrow as 12-step spirituality? 

Jerry: We were struck, first of all, by the fact that philosophers have paid almost no attention to 12-step spirituality. Especially in the last 10 years or so, philosophers have been very attentive to the issue of addiction, which has really been an issue since Aristotle. But there has been almost nothing about 12-step spirituality. We wanted to do something that was explicitly addressed to people who were interested in serious reflection on addiction and 12-step experiences, but to address that in a way that is accessible to a wider audience than just academics.

Nicholas: I would also add for the very reasons that you laid out, in terms of the tendency in academic philosophy to be insular in the way you described, that I think, is a shortcoming. I think we could have done something where it was guided solely to academics, but that seemed to us to kind of defeat the purpose of what we were trying to do.

Some of the feminists I've read feel that the first step in AA—to admit powerlessness—is totally contrary to their agenda to become empowered in a society where it is codified that, in relation to men, they are the less powerful sex. Do either of you care to take up a philosophical argument against the feminist critique?

Jerry: I think it is important to keep in mind that the actual 12 steps themselves, and most, if not all, of 12-step literature, relies on common sense terminology. It does not make philosophical distinctions. So, it's real easy, because of that lack of intellectual distinction, to read into it meanings that are not what is intended. 

But if I could re-write the 12 steps, taking into account my understanding of what they actually mean, I would replace the word "power" with "control." I would say that the first step is all about realizing that efforts to be in control really are self-defeating. In some fundamental sense, we are not in control of our lives. I don't think it's saying that we don't have any abilities, of course we have abilities. The question is: Can we control our lives in the way we like to believe we can? 

Nicholas: Along those lines, I think it is very important to remember the lived context out of which the steps were written. I completely understand why the feminist, or other perspectives, would look at the 12 steps—or first step in particular—in that kind of a way. I do think that the lived reality the steps are trying to get at is a much broader category. You don't have to be an addict to read the first step and realize that it has resonance for human beings. I think you can read that and say, this is a part of life that human beings struggle with. I think that addicts may struggle with it in a more specific kind of way than others, but I think it resonates more broadly. So I would not dismiss their concern, but I think it has to be placed in a larger context.

Some do not see 12 step as a prescriptive spiritual program but rather frame it as a religion. What is the difference, philosophically, between spirituality and a religion?

Jerry: At the core of a religion is a particular way of imagining, conceiving, and identifying the “divine.” Usually, there’s a set of primary beliefs that articulate this conception of the divine. And as a religion evolves, and becomes intellectually self-reflective, a theological tradition develops, with distinctive methods and principles.

Twelve-step spirituality is explicitly open to any concept of the divine, and does not itself espouse any particular way of imagining, conceiving, and identifying the divine. Hence, it has never developed a distinctive theological tradition or framework. Indeed, it explicitly eschews any such framework. What it does espouse is a way of living that involves a set of practices and adhesion to a set of principles, including practices and principles involving a “higher power.” But the steps prescribe no image or conception of this power and do not identify it with the divine, as the divine is understood in any religion. 

A common criticism of AA or 12 step in general comes from scientific thinking—that human behavior and subsequent conditions are becoming more and more medicalized, basically reducible to biology. Then, you have neuroscience, which tends to reduce behavior to specific systems within the brain. What is a philosophical counter to these fields, which when followed to their logical conclusions don't leave very much room for a spiritual solution such as the one AA offers? 

Jerry: I think brain science is sort of the latest manifestation of what happens all the time in human history, which is: a new theory or new intellectual discipline develops and lots of people jump to the conclusion that it can pretty much explain everything.

The key thing in what you said is people who take that view have a reductionist understanding of the new science. I have no doubt that there are incredible things the new science can contribute. But to explain everything in biochemical terms means not just spirituality is gone, it's psychotherapy that's gone, the value of literature that's gone—you're pretty much eliminating the value of all human arts and sciences except for biochemistry. To me, it is kind of preposterous that we'll ever be able to get away from the distinctively human.

Another area is: can we acknowledge the inescapability of the distinctively human in a way that does not violate broad naturalistic philosophy? Do you have to bring in God, that is, in some traditional sense of God? I think one of the revolutionary things about 12-step spirituality is that it is not theistic, that it is not committed to any traditional religious framework. It accommodates an understanding of spirituality that can be atheistic—it can be naturalistic, it can be this world focused, it can be Buddhist, it can be secular humanistic. I think of all that is entirely compatible with 12 step.

Nicholas: Whatever other shortcomings spirituality may have, it is not reductionist in the way you're talking about these sciences. In my mind, that is a major point in its favor. I think spirituality speaks to deep human needs, and it can help people work their way out of struggles. I think that needs to be taken seriously. I think it needs to be taken seriously, not just by people who are practitioners of 12 step or of religiously minded people, I think it needs to be taken seriously by scientists and by everyone. 

To your essay Nicholas, you opened up with Viktor Frankl. I read him while I was in rehab. His insights were super impactful on me, I even wrote about it once. Care to expand on what you see as his contribution to spirituality and addiction? 

Nicholas: I think reading Frankl's book is a good way to maybe—not that I want to move us backwards—shed light on the feminist critique. It seems to me that what Frankl finds in the concentration camp is that when his outer things are taken away from him, that it was not possible for the Nazis to take everything away from him. 

There was a power—if you want to use that word—or a type of freedom that he would never have gotten in touch with if he hadn't lost all of his physical belongings. It is no mistake that he calls it spiritual freedom, that's his terminology. His insight, it seems to me, is that that type of freedom, that we all have, can be found in and through powerlessness.

I think you have to be very careful though, when you are talking to people who are feeling powerless. I don't want to suggest that the notion be thrust upon somebody. But I'm sure you had a similar experience yourself—that you were getting in touch with a kind of freedom, a type of choosing and a way of being that you would not have been in touch with were it not for the incredibly painful situation that you were in while in rehab. 

Now I don't know how you describe that to somebody who maybe hasn't gone through a similar experience. I teach Frankl’s book in a class and I say to my students: I'm not advocating you go to a concentration camp to get in touch with yourself. What I am saying is that something radical is going to happen to you in your life and when it does you might recognize that you find things that you may not have found any other way.

That’s a great way of framing it. So what drew you to utilizing Nietzsche, whom you identified as an unlikely ally, given his disdain for, well, most things. 

An important part of my essay is the notion of authenticity. Authenticity has come under the same kind of grueling criticism that 12-step spirituality has in some circles. One reason for that is there are notions of authenticity out there that are squarely focused upon the self, and the self is not seen as anything else but an isolated kind of atom. 

The insight in 12-step spirituality is that there are sources of yourself that draw you out of yourself. But they require a sort of vulnerability and you have to be open to others, to some sort of a higher power, or life. So to put the notion of authenticity in the context not of a static category like being but in a dynamic category of becoming, is crucial. I think it is very difficult for people who are not really familiar with the steps to hear an addict say at a meeting: "My name is Zachary and I’m an addict," because their first response to that is it’s a fixed moniker, one that doesn't change and that's it. 

To me, Nietzsche's major contribution is to get us to realize that being is actually about becoming. Saying that you are an addict does not mean that you are worthless and can't do anything and that your life is circumscribed by that word and that's the end of the story. It's the first, literally, the first step in what is a very long process of realizing that you are much much more than that. But getting to that point requires an admission and an acceptance of vulnerability on your part. 

Jerry, you discuss self-control and moral agency being a largely Western, cultural phenomenon. What you argue is that there is something more fundamental to being human than the controlling ego, something you termed "the heart." In your essay, there is a great line which renders addiction as a tourniquet around the heart, a great metaphor by the way. Care to elaborate on what drove you to write about that issue in 12-step spirituality?

Jerry: What I think is distinctive about 12-step spirituality is this idea that the key thing is to recognize my inability to be in control and that this effort to control is really an illusion.

If you go back to the beginning of philosophy, the answer to addiction has always been: exercise your willpower, clench your fist, just say no, or refuse to give into temptation. That is the whole moral framework in terms of which addiction has always been understood. I think what's distinctive about 12-step spirituality is not that it brings God into the picture, I think what’s distinctive about 12-step spirituality is that it says the real answer to addiction is not to clench your fists, not to exercise this domineering active will, it’s to, in some sense, open yourself up and be vulnerable, allow yourself to be moved by other people—by the beauty of the world—instead of clenching your fist. That’ll just make you a tight controlling kind of person. 

It’s really about opening yourself and being vulnerable, to allow yourself to fall in love with the world. That is what you are shutting yourself off from when you engage in addiction. You’re not allowing yourself to be vulnerable, to fall in love and so that is why I was led to use the metaphor: Don't clench your fist, open your heart. 

My own experience as an addict, as the parent of addicts, has been that the addictions are a way of recoiling from that kind of experience of vulnerability. And what's tragic is that experience of vulnerability is what really opens us to life. In recoiling from vulnerability, we cut ourselves off from the very thing that can make our lives wonderful. The way I connect that with 12-step experience is that in the meetings you have to reveal yourself—you don't have to but you're invited to open yourself up—to me that's what opens the door to the whole alternative way of being, where instead of trying to clench your fists and exercise will power, you're allowing yourself to become vulnerable by sharing yourself with other people.

Really enjoyed both of your pieces in the book. Thanks for expanding on them. One last thing, and I’m not even sure philosophy is the right discipline to look for an answer to this, but it comes up a lot with respect to AA’s functionality—is it a cult? 

Jerry: I tend to think there is always the danger of enclosure. There is always the danger of being closed off and getting trapped in your own assumptions—only being able to operate inside them. Once that happens, you are going to start getting the characteristics of a closed society. It can definitely happen in 12 steps, but it can also happen to secular humanists, Buddhists and Catholics—so there is always the danger of that. 

In the case of 12 step, when that does happen, it is contrary to the very principles of the group. I think when it happens in Buddhism, too, it is contrary to the nature of the community. Whereas with Jim Jones and the lunatic fringe stuff, when that happens it’s not foreign, that is the very essence of the group, that kind of exclusivity and closed-mindedness. That’s what attracts people to those groups and I don’t think 12 step is like that. There are meetings that are like that but they are contrary to the spirit of the group. 

Nicholas: One thing that comes to mind is the concept of the group conscience. There may be meetings that have a group conscience that is not really a group conscience, it could be one person calling the shots. Group conscience is potentially a radical thing, right? If there is a real problem in the group, it’s going to get talked about. It’s going to get talked about by people who are not going to shy away from it, this is their recovery and they tend to take it pretty seriously. The very concept of a group conscience, I would think, is very foreign to most cults. 

Just had to ask, though I think it is a real uncritical assertion that it is a cult. I mean, if it were, it’s gotta be the cheapest cult out there by a long shot. 

Nick: It’s fundamentally open, not just literally but every aspect of it requires openness. 

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.