We humans tend to think that if we are to understand something, then we must know its cause. This is especially true when we seek to understand vexing problems such as global warming, cancer, the common cold, addiction, etc. If we can identify underlying causes, then we are much better positioned to advance remedies for these problems. Obviously, this is true.

However, there is a longstanding tendency to reduce complex phenomena to just one primary cause. We philosophers call this reductionism. With a reductionist approach, other causal factors or aspects of the phenomenon are cast off to the side as relatively unimportant. Reductionism presents a significant challenge to understanding addiction. Thankfully, there is a counterbalance to reductionist approaches.

The concept of emergence is gaining more traction in the natural and social sciences. The concept of emergence holds that complex forms arise from simpler or more basic elements, their interactions, and laws that govern these interactions. It is not possible to reduce a complex phenomenon to its constitutive parts; the whole in this case is not just the sum total of its parts. It is also a crucial component in emergence that the more complex phenomenon may have novel properties or attributes, which in turn affects the more basic elements that are part of its constitution. Emergence happens in a context and never in a vacuum, making the physical and social environment active participants in this process. There is a certain dynamism to this process, leading to a kind of unpredictability and variability in organisms that share basic elements.

There is much to be gained from considering addiction as an emergent property of individuals but also of the broader social body. This approach makes it possible to bring more disciplines into the discussions, which would provide more rich and nuanced understandings of addiction and the possibilities for recovery.

To help make the case that addiction is an emergent phenomenon, I offer a half-baked analogy to a cake. The cake I have in mind is a chocolate layer cake made with cocoa. I choose this simply because it is my favorite and for no other compelling reason. This cake includes butter, sugar, eggs, cocoa, flour, baking soda, baking powder, and boiling water. Method matters enormously in baking; it involves combinations and order of ingredients as well as technique. You cannot dump all the ingredients in huge bowl and mix them all together and produce a cake batter. Certain ingredients need to go together and be treated as a unit, such as butter and sugar, and the dry ingredients such as flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Dropping an egg into a bowl of sugar will cause the egg to begin to cook as will pouring boiling water over it. Dropping and egg into a cup of flour and whisking it around will simply produce a mess. Order matters too. In general, the dry ingredients are added at the end, and depending upon the matter they may be folded in just barely to the point of incorporation.

Now if you are lucky to make a successful cake batter, you are still far from a successful cake. You need the pans that perhaps have been greased and floured, but you also need an oven that has accurate and even heating. And, never forget the importance of altitude and the kinds of adjustments in time and temperature that need to be made. This is all quite complicated. If a cake is this complicated, imagine addiction. 

How is addiction an emergent phenomenon and what are its physical ingredients? Well, there may be genetic markers, chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine levels in the pleasure circuitry of the brain, and some combination of neurotransmittors and a compromised signaling ability.  There are the substances and behaviors that light up that pleasure circuitry like nothing else. Those behaviors and substances become combined and associated in such ways that lead to cravings. Order matters here too; while there may be all sorts of predispositions or genetic markers, something needs to actualize them. Just because there is a genetic marker does not entail that a trait will emerge. If someone has a genetic marker or has suppressed levels of dopamine but very rarely uses those “light up the pleasure circuitry” drugs, she will most likely not become an addict.

Other factors need to be in play, which bring us to environmental considerations. Where and how do people learn to drink and use drugs? What drugs are readily or easily available? How do people learn to perceive their effects as pleasurable or fun? Find other people who drink or use drugs in the same ways? Consider that very few people would consider vomiting violently as fun. But yet, this is considered at least the price, if not the point of, drinking to dangerous levels of intoxication in collegiate settings.

Even with all the same “ingredients” and behaviors, there can be a high degree of unpredictability and variation in addictions. Two people who share the same addiction may experience their addictions very differently from one another. Two people may use in the same ways, yet only one develops an addiction. One person may have multiple addictions though each differs from the others in significant ways.

I am intrigued with this concept of emergence because it helps to resist the pervasive and insidious trend to reduce all addictions to one cause. If there were one cause to all addiction, it might be tempting to suppose that there is one path from addiction as I’ve written about earlier. The concept of emergence fundamentally challenges the view that there is one cause to all addictions. Emergence keeps a broader focus on a multitude of causal factors of addiction and their relationships to one another. It reframes the question “what is the cause of addiction?” to a host of related questions: What are some of the causes of addiction? How do these various causes interact and play off one another? What are the trajectories of addiction? Why are there more addictions to substance____ here while more to ____there? Why do addictions of this sort respond better these sorts of treatment protocols and other addictions to other treatments?

Emergence complicates the picture of addiction in all sorts of productive ways. It shows clearly that addiction does not belong to just one discipline but rather to many disciplines. Neuroscientists, behavioral economists, psychologists, sociologists, physicians, and most certainly philosophers, can all make equally important contributions to the study of addiction.

About the Author

Peg O'Connor Ph.D.

Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and gender, women, and sexuality studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

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