Phenomenal Authority: The Epistemic Authority of Alcoholics Anonymous
To understand a complicated psycho-bio-social phenomenon(a) such as addiction to alcohol one wants ideally a phenomenology, a behavioral and cognitive psychology, a physiology, and a neurobiology – all embedded in a sociology. One wants to know what it is like to be alcoholic – if, that is, there is any commonality to the experiences of alcoholics (Flanagan 2011). One wants to know about such things as whether and if so what kind of loss of control alcoholics experience in relation to alcohol (as well as, any and all affective and cognitive deficits). One wants to know what the brain is doing and how it contributes to the production of the characteristic phenomenology(ies) and control (and other cognitive and affective) problems. One wants to know what effect heavy drinking has on vulnerable organ systems, e.g., the brain, the heart, and the liver. And, of course, all along the way, one should want to know how the sociomoral-cultural-political ecology normalizes, romanticizes, pathologizes, etc. alcoholism and its relations, heavy drinking, recklessness-under-the-influence, etc. Some scientists and philosophers worry that the program of A.A. biases our understanding of the phenomenology, psychology, physiology, and neurobiology of addiction and prevents a unified, or at least a consilient, account of the nature, causes, and treatment of alcoholism from emerging. I have experience in the rooms of A.A., as well as in seminar and conference rooms with experts on addiction. From this perspective, I assess this claim that A.A. is part of the problem, not of the solution, and suggest some ways to increase mutual understanding between the various modes of understanding alcoholism, which if abided would yield sensitive and sensible interaction among the practical program of A.A. and the sciences of addiction. One consequence is that A.A. would need to acknowledge that as a therapeutic social institution it is a repository of some practical knowledge about what works to help some people recovery and stay abstinent, but has no expertise on alcoholism or even on “how it works” if, that is, it does work.