Educational Examples

The undead: alienation and ad hominem addiction research.

If you feel alienated from other people, you may feel as if people don’t understand you. If you feel alienated from yourself, you likely feel as if you’re just sort of watching your life unfold without participating. While many seem to pretty intuitively understand these forms of alienation, they have difficulty seeing the connection between the two, and they have difficulty understanding other forms of alienation. For example, feeling alienated from your labor or from your environment (nature) are rarely given much genuine thought. Yet these are very, very often the root causes of alienation from yourself and from others. It’s also worth noting that if you feel alienated in one aspect of your life…you’re very likely experiencing alienation in other parts of your life, even if you don’t recognize that this is happening. 

“By alienation I project an experience, which potentially is in me, to an object over there. I alienate myself from my own human experience and project this experience on something or somebody outside, and then try to get in touch with my own human being, by being in touch with the object to which I have projected my humanity. That holds for alienation and idolatry. The two terms refer exactly to the same phenomenon. The one term is used by Hegel and Marx and the other is used by the prophets of the Old Testament.”

— Erich Fromm, Beyond Freud: From Individual to Social Psychoanalysis

To clarify this definition of alienation, let’s look at a concrete example: alcoholism. The alcoholic’s feelings of alienation drives her to drink, while her over-drinking pushes the people in her life away, further alienating her. A community like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) disrupts this positive feedback loop. 

NOTE: A positive feedback is when both behaviors encourage/exacerbate the other, e.g. alienation drives one to drink, while drinking exacerbates feelings of alienation. The word positive here does not indicate that the feedback is a good one. While a positive feedback could be good, the terminology itself is value-neutral. 

People often discuss AA as if it is a medication that either works or doesn’t, but this framing is deceptive. AA can disrupt the drinking-alienation cycle, but the other positive feedbacks in the alcoholic’s life making her feel alienated (besides alcohol consumption, e.g. a deadend job, excessively alienating media propaganda, a narcissistic family member), can outweigh this…this isn’t a closed system. Assuming it is may be a reasonable assumption in some cases, but in others, such an assumption will lead to you ignoring the most significant forces (mechanisms) acting on the system. This is one way a mathematical model can be biased! This is also, more broadly, how scientific research can be biased.

Comic from xkcd.

That is, we must make assumptions about what factors matter. Do we consider that the alcoholic has difficulty making rent each month or do we deem that to be irrelevant? What about if she feels disconnected from her labor, where she only produces one component of a product, making her feel detached from the final product? What if her boss frequently talks down to her, telling her she can be replaced at any time? What if she has few opportunities to connect with her other coworkers? What if she feels that she is alone in her financial struggles, and so turns her anger inward at herself? What if she feels alienated from herself; that is, she feels as if she doesn’t even know what she herself wants from life? What if she believes her boss that she has no value? What if she doesn’t recognize herself? What if she feels trapped in her own life? Why would the living dead care about alcohol poisoning? 

“By alienation is meant a mode of experience in which the person experiences himself as an alien. He has become, one might say, estranged from himself. He does not experience himself as the center of his world, as the creator of his own acts – but his acts and their consequences have become his masters, whom he obeys, or whom he may even worship. The alienated person is out of touch with himself as he is out of touch with any other person. He, like the others, are experienced as things are experienced; with the senses and with common sense, but at the same time without being related to oneself and to the world outside productively.” 

— Erich Fromm, The Sane Society

I feel like a rat in a cage.

It’s often thought that drug and alcohol addiction are either purely biological (hereditary), or entirely due to a lack of willpower. However, there’s compelling reasons to believe that addiction is largely a response to alienation and poor material conditions. 

While the argument that addiction is a willpower issue likely stems from the myth of American individualism (see Isolating COVID-19), the biological argument (at least in part) stems from a misinterpretation of an experiment looking into morphine usage in rats. A researcher observed rats kept in individual cages, each given unlimited access to morphine (there’s often a sort of “anything goes” vibe to scientific research…there is at least some truth in the notion of bourgeois science [paper in link is not in English]). He found that the rats would consume the drugs until intervention (removing access or overdose), and made the “discovery” that drug addiction is essentially a biological response that will take over once you’ve started using. This sort of conclusion based merely on observation of these rats is an example of a context-free ideology intervening in scientific inferences. The idea that these results were highly dependent on environmental context would go unaddressed for a while, allowing time for this “fact” to permeate general knowledge as a settled matter, “proven” with science. 

Consider if you were placed in a cage by yourself, with nothing to do, and no reason to believe you would ever be getting out of the cage. Why the fuck wouldn’t you take morphine if you happened upon some in your otherwise empty cage? Why would you give a shit about it killing you? Are you not already dead?