Is the Placebo Effect a Problem for Atheism?

Catholic journalist Denise O’Leary seems quite persuaded that the placebo effect stubbornly resists any plausible materialist explanation, and so is a problem for atheists. (O’Leary wrote, with a neuroscientist by the name of Mario Beauregard, an interesting book a few years back titled The Spiritual Brain.) In any case, here’s what O’Leary wrote recently at the Discovery Institute’s blog, Uncommon Descent:

Non-materialist neuroscientists must often deal with the claim that their work is “unscientific,” despite the fact that, for example, the placebo effect, for example, is one of the best attested effects in medicine . . .

Ignoring the writing tick (using the word example twice), is it really true that the placebo effect is a stubborn problem for materialist neuroscientists?

I’m not a neuroscientist, materialist or otherwise, but I can think, just off the top of my head, of an obvious triggering factor for placebo effects that requires no souls knocking neurons out of their otherwise determined courses (that is, no soul hypothesis). Are you ready?

Here it is: neurons that fire together wire together.  

Haven’t you ever, for example, mistook a stick for a snake, or a piece of paper in the wind for a bird, or momentarily smelled coffee in a coffeeless kitchen simply because you expected to? You thought you were about to step on a snake, or see a bird swoop past you, or smell coffee, and, for an instant, you did (or thought you did) precisely because some of the neurons that usually fire together with these experiences started firing with just the very idea of them.

It hardly seems a stretch to infer a similar explanation for the placebo effect: a doctor tells you to take something that will make you feel better and neurons fire in anticipation (those wired with previous experiences of feeling better after being ill).

Am I being stupid here? What’s the problem about the placebo effect for atheism again?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Is the Placebo Effect a Problem for Atheism?

  1. Iain says:

    The idea that placebo threatens a methodologically materialistic science (and atheism) is about as wrong as the idea that homeopathy “works” because it performs as well as the placebo control group in a trial.

    People have funny ideas about placebo.

    Consider a placebo control group in a trial, given that is when we see the placebo effect happen in science. The placebo effect is what happens when “nothing happens”, so to speak. I read a meta-analysis paper on placebo and they reported that an average of around 30% of non-serious physical and psychological ailments can be cured by placebo (although in single trial, about 70% was the highest cure rate). In the subset of people who are cured, there may be any number of reasons why the illness stops. For example, if somebody experiences “spontaneous remission” then they would be counted as a placebo success even if it causally had nothing to do with the sugar pill the doctor gave them. So I’ll say it again, the placebo cure rate merely is the cure rate when nothing of note happens; it is the same as chance, it is the baseline.

    You can tell that people miss the point of placebo when they say things like, “we need to find a way to harness the power of placebo”, or, “our pill should be further researched because it has been shown to perform as well as placebo”.

    I guess a final point would be that the line of reasoning expressed by O’Leary is bordering on an ‘argument from ignorance’; we don’t know why humans heal themselves in certain situations and therefore… (insert favourite anti-materialist dogma here)

  2. Christ's Angel says:

    Islam’s placebo, the “allah of the Koran”, is the devil himself. But the “allah of the Koran” has been exposed – the jig is up – so Islamic Egyptians find themselves wandering their streets intent on murdering one of their own, even denying any conspiracy about it. Their ultimatum – be gone Mubarek by Friday, or else. This epitomizes the Biblical verse “those destined for ruin” – all on account of placebo God – GET REAL ISLAM!!!

  3. Pingback: The placebo effect is Super Cool! |

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