Philosophy and Alcoholics Anonymous

Once again, I’m posting something from theĀ My Life With KantĀ days. Across two episodes, I covered Alcoholics Anonymous and “The Big Book”.

Since the audio recording is of poor quality, I’m only posting the transcripts. So please forgive any spelling or grammatical errors.



We’ve all been down some pretty dark paths before. I’m no exception. And I’ve been giving religion a pretty hard time lately. Some of it is well deserved. However, I think that it’s time to give it the credit that it deserves. Love it or hate it, people have done some pretty insane things in the name of religion. So whether or not those beliefs have any merit, just the belief in religion alone is capable of making individuals do some extraordinary things.

Now mental health awareness is something that I champion. And one of the common symptoms of poor mental health is substance addiction. In the last episode, I covered Aldous Huxley. In the book “Brave New World”, he describes a world that is seemingly addicted to the drug soma. In his other famous work, “The Doors of Perception”, Huxley explains that everyone wants to escape the confines of their consciousness, and the healthiest way to do that, he advocates, is the drug mescaline, that helps open these new doors of perception. However, one of the more unhealthier ways of trying to achieve this is by becoming intoxicated by alcohol.

Now addiction can manifest itself in different ways. Some become addicted to narcotics, others to prescription pills, and even sex. But the objective is all the same…to escape reality. However, one addiction to a certain drug has become perhaps the most common in human history…and that is the addiction to alcohol.

Till this day, despite the increase in opiate addiction, alcoholism has still got to rank up there. And one of the more common paths towards recovery is through AA, or Alcoholics Anonymous. In my experience, there’s a number of folks who criticize AA for being a fake religious cult that spews out religious nonsense. And while there are certainly religious aspects to it, I think that it would be missing the point to look at it from that view. The reality is that there are some that like to mix their religion into it, but that is totally a choice. It is not absolutely necessary. However, AA does take some of the aspects of organized religion and makes it it’s own.

Islam has the Quran, Christianity the Bible, Judaism the Torah, and AA has the Big Book. And Bill Wilson, or Bill W. because this is alcoholics ANONYMOUS, was the primary author of the Big Book, and is the founder of the organization. And apparently he took LSD with Aldous Huxley, so if we want a degree of separation from the last episode, there it is. But don’t believe everything you read off the internet. But anyways, the Big Book can be interpreted as being similar to a biblical-like text, which is both a praise and a complaint of the alcoholics that I’ve been acquainted with. Nevertheless, it is something that is worth your time, and if you’ve ever been a part of these struggles, alcohol or otherwise, there’s a lot there you can identify with.

Now I’ve recently found my own copy that I had during the days of my personal struggles. And I went through the book and highlighted the parts that spoke to me. And even though I’m several years removed from those struggles, I’m still surprised that I can still understand the notes that I was taking. They still resonated with me. And the first notes that I took were in Chapter 2, where it says opinions may vary as to why the alcoholic reacts differently from other non-addicts. And there’s a lot of biological and genetic explainations within that. But from the individual level, there is certainly a lot of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde elements. When you’re sober, you’re one person. Then when you take a drink, you’re a completely different person. Often times waking up and wondering how you got there.

Now I know that there’s that saying “A drunk man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts”. And I guess that’s true to an extent, but I think that that would be missing the point. We all have those demons that are buried deep down. Sometimes we’re aware of them, sometimes we’re not. But that’s just the duality of us humans. We have a side of us that we present to the world, then there’s another side of us that we keep in the basement. And for a good deal of us, we wish that we could do away with the demon that lurks within us.

The state of mental health support is so poor in our current time, that it shouldn’t come as a shock to think about how bad it would have been many years ago. The pain of having personal struggles with oneself can be so strong that people have to reach for readily available drugs, like alcohol or narcotics. However, those things don’t suppress or do away with the demon, but instead you switch places with the demon. And when that happens, you are no longer the master of your drug of choice, but it becomes the master of you.

To overcome this, AA with some controversy, recommends cultivating a spiritual life. Now I won’t go into typical AA orthodoxy, at least not in this episode, but this was an area that I struggled with because I didn’t believe in any such realm. This is probably the part where AA receives the most criticisms, and by the way, there are a LOT of atheist that attend these meetings. Now I live in a red state, and believe me, most of the people in those meetings are in fact atheist or agnostics. So I always found that to be a puzzling criticism. But the mantra that is repeated at the end of each meeting is “keep coming back because it works if you work it”. And those are words to live by. AA won’t necessarily cure you on it’s own, you know, following the Twelve Steps mindlessly won’t do anything for you. But you get what you put into it, so it’s you that has to do the work. Whatever spiritual interpretation that suits you doesn’t save you, only you can save yourself.

I think that the organization gets criticized because, I guess that it overemphasizes the importance of alcohol. So if we want to understand this in a religious context, alcohol is sort of treated like the devil or sin, and sobriety becomes the only means of salvation. Continuing on down this line of thinking, salvation within various religions require you to go through certain rituals, or require you to believe in something in order to save your soul.

So what sort of rituals, or right of passage, does AA use? Now before someone jumps onto me for getting certain things wrong, this is just my own interpretation. If you want, attend an AA meeting and experience these things for yourself. That’s all I’m saying. But anyway the Twelve Step program is the way to achieve sobriety.

But before I get into that, there’s a chapter in the Big Book titled “We Agnostics”. Which, alarmingly, I took almost no notes on during my time with the group. But the chapter addresses the skeptical feelings of agnostics. While I re-read through it recently, I found it’s summary ultimately unsatisfactory, because basically it comes down to asking “who are you to say that there is no God?”, and it’s pretty easy to turn that question around. But I guess the idea should be to not shut your mind down completely regarding a higher authority. And I guess that it makes sense to believe in a God when trying to overcome alcoholism, because when you fear punishment or desire supplemental strength from a higher authority, it certainly makes choices easier because it’s taken out of your hands, so to speak. Nevertheless, a sizeable portion of AA members are in fact atheist, and still find it’s principles to be useful.

So onto the Twelve Steps. Which is something that I imagine a lot of people are familiar with, but here they are, and this is directly from the Big Book:

1. We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol- that are lives have become unmanageable.

Whenever I read this, I’m reminded of my experiences within a certain sect of Christianity that said you had to admit you’re a sinner and accept Jesus as your savior in order to be saved. This is a similar idea. If you want to be cured of your alcoholism, you must first accept that you are, in fact, an alcoholic. Makes sense. It’s hard to cure something that you don’t know you have. So that’s the first step. The second step…

2. Came to believe a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

So I imagine that this is where there’s a great deal of controversy. Much of which, I’ve already discussed. But during my time in this group, a lot of the long-standing members wanted to not get hung-up on this step. There was one example of someone that simply couldn’t move forward because they just couldn’t believe in a higher power. However, their sponsor was also an atheist, and they just advised them to not get caught up in the supernatural aspect behind the notion of “a greater authority”. I wasn’t privy to their conversations, so I can’t get any more specific than that. But that’s an interesting way to look at it, even though I can’t explain that further. But it’s important to note that AA isn’t a religious institution. You’re not going to get kicked out because you didn’t donate enough money or have slightly different beliefs. It’s sole purpose is to get people to stop drinking. So anyways, on to step 3…

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God “as we understand Him.”

Sort of like what I said in the second step. AA isn’t a religious institution, so pick whatever God or spiritual entity that you want. No one’s going to kick you out.

4. Made a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.

You know, I think that part of the problem with a lot of addicts is that they don’t think of themselves as addicts. They might think of themselves as dependent, but they can certainly quit whenever they want. At least in my view. So there’s a lack of awareness on their part. There might even be a tendency to blame external circumstances on one’s own substance abuse. External factors may in fact be the trigger, but there are underlying causes as well. That’s why it’s important to search yourself when trying to overcome one’s self. You are your own worst enemy. And if Sun Tzu taught us anything, it’s that you should know your enemy.

When I think of people suffering from depression or other mental illnesses, I think that it’s a big mistake to just take the prescription medication and just say “problem solved.” More work has to be done. You have to search yourself and identify your trigger warnings so that you can properly stop them. So step 5…

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

As I’m going through my notes, I strangely highlighted a paragraph that discusses this section. I don’t know why, but it says, quote: “More than most people, the alcoholic leads a double life. He is very much the actor. To the outer world he presents his stage character. This is the one he likes his fellows to see. He wants to enjoy a certain reputation, but he knows in his heart he doesn’t deserve it.” End quote. And I have no idea why I highlighted it, but it’s an interesting quote, and I thought I’d share it.

But I guess to make sense of this step, I’m reminded of someone famous that I can’t recall who was trying to loose weight. He successfully did it by texting his friends his weight, daily or maybe weekly, I can’t remember. But I guess the idea was that it put pressure on him to actually loose that weight because his friends knew exactly how fat he was. I’m not gonna lie, I wasn’t completely sold on this step, I’m not one that typically likes to divulge my inner most secrets. But when trying to correct your flaws, this might be a crucial step. I don’t know. So step six…

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

The Big Book says that when we’re ready to engage this step, our prayer should be something like this, and I’m once again quoting from the book: “My creator, I am willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen.” End quote.

But I guess the important thing here is that you have to be willing to let go. Or perhaps you should be willing to accept help and forgo whatever ego you might have possessed. You should transcend your flaws. Sounds cheesy, but whatever. Step 7…

7. Humbly ask Him (or God) to remove our shortcomings.

Sort of sounds like step 6. So, Step 8….

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

So this is a chance for redemption. And this is actually a very interesting step. It’s just as important to the alcoholic as it is to the person whom forgiveness is being asked. In my experience with alcoholics going through this step, it’s usually something that happened in their head. They didn’t actually harm the person in any meaningful or memorable way, but it was something that stuck out to the alcoholic. So whenever they made amends to that person, it usually wasn’t a big deal, but it was a huge burden lifted off their shoulders. However, this wasn’t the case every time.

Of course, there were those who couldn’t grant forgiveness. The damage was done. But the past can’t be changed. So then it becomes about forgiving one’s self because you can’t change the things that you’ve done. So forgiveness doesn’t have to be granted, but the alcoholic must be willing to make those amends. Unless of course, in step 9…

9. Make direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

So if you slept with someone else’s spouse and then they threatened to kill you if they ever saw you again, perhaps you can let that one slide.

Step 10

10. Continue to take personal inventory and when wrong, promptly admit it.

So there’s a zen quality that AA is reaching for. As evidenced in the next step.

11. Seek through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand him, praying only for knowledge of His Will for us and the power to carry that out.

And Finally, Step 12.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and practice these principles in all our affairs.

I think that an important thing within AA is that you have to focus on today. It’s not about quitting drinking forever, it’s about not drinking today. And then about not drinking the following day, and so on. That’s probably the reason why it’s so difficult for alcoholics and addicts in general to stop. And I think that that’s the absolute right way to stop addiction…is to focus on the present moment.

So I think that the secret towards success within Alcoholics Anonymous, and the reason for its controversy is that it mimics religion in many ways. And in my opinion, it shamlessly does that. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but religion is a very powerful thing, whether or not there’s any merit behind it’s beliefs. You can either use it for good or for bad. AA choses to use the religious template for good, because it has been successful throughout human history. Like it or not, the whole quest for philosophical and moral knowledge stems from other-worldly pursuits.

Has AA been successful 100 percent of the time? No. Or even 50 percent of the time. That’s not the point. At the end of each meeting, the chant becomes “keep coming back because it works if you work it.” That’s the point. It’s all about what you put into it. If you truly have a desire to stop drinking, you will do the work, and AA is there to guide you through it. Because it’s pretty damn hard to go through these things alone.