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On Having One Too Many

Les Reid on the insights the demon drink can provide into the philosophy of mind.

The striking feature of having one too many (drinks, that is) is that you do not realise it yourself. You think that you are still simply enjoying the euphoria which the first couple of drinks brought you, whereas in fact you have long passed the zenith and are now clearly (to everyone else) sliding down into drunken incapacity. You are starting to slur your words and are becoming too assertive and opinionated for comfort.

A few moments previously you were in good spirits, literally, enjoying the banter and an alcohol-induced frame of mind which could be called ‘heightened sociability’. In this state everyone at the table, yourself included, seemed more than usually friendly and witty. Familiar little anecdotes from everyday life provoked waves of merriment and you felt very much at home in the group.

Such feelings demonstrate the magical powers of alcohol. Undoubtedly it affects the chemistry of the brain. In metaphorical terms, it was lubricating the brain/mental processes and making everything run more smoothly. In more literal terms, the alcohol was probably affecting the connections between neurons, making them fire more easily and hence more widely, thereby causing the kind of lateral thinking on which so much humour depends.

The reference to causation in that last sentence picks out the key feature of the process of drinking. The alcohol causes changes in behaviour and mental states. It gets into the brain via the blood stream and it changes the whole person. And therein lies its philosophical interest, in that drinking is a process which straddles the divide between the public arena of bodily behaviour and the private arena of mental states.

What you experience is, initially, simply a feeling of well being. “It makes you feel good” seems a fair description and it is certainly one that the drinks advertisers have tried to exploit. “Feel good” is a way of saying that you have changed, without going so far as to say that you are now a different person. It is still the same you, but you are now ‘in a different mood’ is another way to describe it. Applying the word ‘mood’ has no explanatory force, however. It is not an explanation, merely an assertion that these changes of mental state do not amount to a change of personal identity. A euphoric, three-glass you is still you, but you are in a better mood than usual.

Unfortunately, when you are in a state of euphoria it is only too easy to think that having another drink will prolong that agreeable situation. Rationally, and empirically, in the cold light of day, you know that euphorias do not last and that having more drinks is guaranteed to bring this one to an end. But you are in a state of euphoria and such cautionary tales seem to you to be premature and pessimistic. The logic of euphoria tells you that if two drinks have created your present mood, then two more drinks will either intensify the feeling twofold, or make it last twice as long, or perhaps even both.

So you have the two extra drinks and you start to slur your words and to ramble your way inconsequentially through stories for which either the punch-line has been completely forgotten or, remembered, seems a poor reward for a longwinded narrative. It is at this point that the internal logic of euphoria begins to fall out of step with the logic of external physical reality. For you, nothing has changed, except that the merriment no longer seems as general as it was: you are doing most of the laughing at the end of your own stories. But that can be interpreted euphorically to mean merely that you appreciated the humour more distinctly, or that you were in a better mood than everyone else.

To an external observer, however, or to other members of your group who have not drunk quite so much, the occurrence of slurred words and rambling stories with pathetic punch-lines is evidence of a state of brain malfunction quite different from that enjoyed earlier. What was a matter of degree has now become a matter of distinct states. The change of quantity in the physical world (ie. the alcohol) has produced a different kind of change in the mental world.

It is no good saying that you are still the same person. Bodily, that is true, with the exception of the additional alcohol now coursing through your veins. But the person, in whose company others now feel trapped, is quite different: the genial socialite is now a drunken bum. A change in mental state has occurred of which you, the person undergoing the transformation, are quite unaware.

How is that possible? How can mental states change without the knowledge of the mind involved? It is tempting to say that brains are the key: we cannot see into our own brains to see what state they are in, and even if we could, we would not know what we were looking for. But brains are not necessarily the answer. Even if we accept that a blood sample indicates the amount of alcohol in the brain (a belief supported by police breathalyser teams), it is surely logically possible for you to have your blood sampled and then say, “I do not dispute the reading, but I am not drunk. I am only euphoric.”

That answer is logically coherent, but, as the police breathalyser team would say, it does not prevent you from being wrong. You are not euphoric; you are drunk. The evidence is available to all: you slur your words, you think inane remarks are uproariously funny and you have a tendency to fall over. Your insistence on a fundamental dualism of mind and body such that the mind is unaffected by bodily chemistry is clearly further evidence of your impaired reasoning. Dualism has failed to do justice to the situation. The evidence lies in your behaviour and therefore a physicalist account of mental states in terms of bodily actions must lie closer to the truth.

Has the person been dissolved then? No, only a part of your brain. That desperate assertion, “I am only euphoric,” is mistaken, not only about the euphoria, but also about the self making the mistake. Is there an ‘I’ to which the drunken incapacity is happening? Is there some still point in the vortex of swirling impressions and sensations? Can the real you please stand up? Of course not. You are drunk and your drunkenness consists of slurring words, staggering around, falling over furniture, etc. And that is all. What more could there be? A kernel of self which soars above all that shambles? A little sober bit in the midst of all that incoherent speech and mindless mirth?

In the words of the police breathalyser team, pull the other one. There is no little sober bit. You are drunk through and through. You are soaked. Plastered. You think you are still the same self as before but you are in no fit state to pass any judgment. Tomorrow when you see that ashen face in the mirror and try vainly to remember what happened, then you will know that you were not yourself and that the illusion of continuity of identity was only that – an illusion. You were those disconnected words, raucous laughs and inaccurate movements, but now in the cold light of day you disown them, and accept that the present headachy, nauseous and irritable self is the next stage in the series of you.

Or so you should, but old habits die hard, and so you cling to the discredited illusions of continuous identity. “What a fool I made of myself last night!” you say ruefully. But that heroic acceptance of responsibility does not prevent you from blaming the excess alcohol. The drink got the better of you. It caused you to act as you did. It gave the orders and you, in a state of diminished responsibility, carried them out. So you say, “What a fool the drink made of me last night!” And the truth of the matter lies in the connection between those two exclamations, which you in the haggard chill of the morning are reluctant to contemplate.

© Les Reid 2001

Les Reid is continuing his research into alcohol, mental states and personal identity. Any person or institution interested in funding this important work should contact him via the Editor.

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