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?