Addiction and the captive will: A colloquy between neuroscience and Augustine of Hippo

Cynthia Geppert

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

159 Downloads (Pure)


Twenty-first century neuroscience has discovered that in some severe cases, addiction may so constrain human freedom that the will is able only to choose to use substances of abuse. At this advanced stage, substance use has become the primary driver of salience, co-opting and subsuming other moral priorities and human rewards.

Scholars have investigated Aristotle’s concept of akrasia as an ancient mirror of this understanding and there have been some preliminary discussions of Augustine’s concept of the divided will as it bears on addiction. To my knowledge, no detailed and comprehensive exploration of the work of Augustine has yet been undertaken as it relates to three contemporary models of addiction: the choice, learning, and brain disease models. Augustine’s psychological awareness, his mastery of ancient theological and philosophical thinking, and his enormous and enduring influence on both Catholic and Protestant theology, make him an ideal subject for such research.

This thesis hypothesizes that Augustine’s doctrine of the captive will offers a theological parallel of each of these contemporary models of addiction but is most closely aligned with emerging neurobiological models of addiction. The textual analysis focuses on Augustine’s experience and interpretation of the captive will in the Confessions. Augustine’s formulation of the human predicament in the Confessions as one in which human desire is ineluctably attracted to lesser goods rather than the true happiness found in love of God will be compared to and contrasted with three primary models of addiction.

The method utilized is a historical and philosophical review of the choice, learning, and brain disease models in Part 1 of the thesis, followed in Part II by a phenomenological reading of the Confessions, supplemented with key selections from other of Augustine’s writings. Part III presents a theological analysis of the analogues of sin and grace in the three addiction models as a means of critiquing neuroscientific and neuroethical concepts of free will and determinism in the development of and recovery from addiction. The thesis concludes with suggestions of how this mutual dialogue can open new pathways for clinicians and pastors to see and respond to persons struggling with addictive disorders.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Arts and Education
  • Cameron, Andrew, Principal Supervisor
  • Doherty, Bernard, Co-Supervisor
Award date01 Jan 2022
Place of PublicationAustralia
Publication statusPublished - 2022


Dive into the research topics of 'Addiction and the captive will: A colloquy between neuroscience and Augustine of Hippo'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this