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  • The Phenomenology of Craving, and the Explanatory Overreach of Neuroscience
  • Zoey Lavallee (bio)

I would like to thank Owen Flanagan and Douglas Porter for their interesting and insightful commentaries, both of which inspired me to think more deeply about aspects of addictive craving. In this response, I will make some clarifying points, particularly regarding my views on the relationship between neuroscience and phenomenology, and I will expand on my thesis, focusing especially on addiction treatment and the role of testimony.

I will start with two central concerns that Flanagan raises, then I will address three of his additional criticisms. First, Flanagan takes issue with my claim that the dominant neurobiological view of craving does not capture the phenomenology of craving. The worry is that I am asking neuroscience to do something that by its nature it cannot; namely, to capture the way craving is experienced first personally.

To begin, I would like to lay out three things that I do not mean when I use the term phenomenology. First, I am not referring to phenomenology as the basic qualitative character of addictive craving, rather I am using phenomenology in a thicker sense; that is, phenomenology as the first personal understanding of the experience of addictive craving, which is interpretive, motivational and often reflective. Phenomenology in this sense is not always the first iteration of an experience, but one that people typically access on reflection. Second, I do not mean that people in addiction have a perfectly clear and articulate purchase on the nature of their addictive cravings, or that they will always describe craving in the precise terms that I give as examples in the article. The importance of the first person is that the things people commonly say about their cravings reveals that they are relating their cravings to existential aspects of their lives. And third, I do not think that phenomenological evidence is the only kind of evidence for my theory of addictive craving, or that it is the only kind of evidence that matters. What I do think is that testimony that is narrative, reflective, and interpretive, along with the other kinds of evidence that I present (including behavioral facts and evidence from social and psychological research on addiction), directs us towards the more existential analysis of addictive craving that I defend.

Now, to the concern that I am asking too much of neuroscience. I entirely agree with Flanagan that neuroscience should not and cannot be expected [End Page 247] to capture the way things are experienced first personally, not because I am a dualist when it comes to craving (or otherwise), but because, as most everyone would agree, neural descriptions are different from psychological descriptions. The neural description will not convey “what it is like.” My point is that the desires the received view of craving explains and the desires I am describing are different mind/brain processes, that is, the desires they explain at the neural level do not map onto the experiences of craving that I describe. This matters, because the desires I depict play a significant role in overriding attempts to not engage in one’s addiction (especially in chronic and poly-addiction), according to people experiencing addiction themselves.

The dominant neurobiological account of craving, including the version defended by Berridge and Holton (2013, 2017) and Robinson and Berridge (1993), does a good job of “capturing” (read: explaining) certain kinds of desires that result from using drugs repeatedly across time. However, they are not explanatory of the more existentially loaded desires that play a central role in addiction. In other words, I am exposing the explanatory overreach of the dominant neuro-biological accounts of craving. The neuroscience simply does not offer an explanation of the kind of craving I describe; neuroscience is looking in the wrong place insofar as it has not addressed the way cravings connect to the existential and emotional needs of people in addiction. Thus, I am not trying to dismiss neuroscience, but rather to redirect it.

The second major concern that Flanagan expresses is that my theory of addiction does not give a unified account of all addictive craving, across all addictions. But he is expecting more from my...


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pp. 247-251
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