Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Placebo effect: A non-material cause

In response to a recent post, Philosopher offers six signs of scientism, someone asked me to explain a non-material cause:

To a materialist, any materialist thesis about the placebo effect, no matter how inadequate, must be preferred to any non-materialist thesis.

The placebo effect is a good example of how a phenomenon can be studied from a scientific but non-materialist viewpoint.

Put simply, placebo is a relationship effect. Even if we can’t quantify the mind, we can study the relationships between mental and physical states.

Example: John has a flareup of a chronic condition, and his doctor announces that a promising new medication is available. John takes it, and begins to feel better.

The doctor forgot to inform him that the effects of the medication will only take hold about 12 hours later, at least if chemistry alone were the deciding factor.

In other words, John shouldn’t feel better now, but he does.

This is one of the best-attested facts in medicine. Indeed, one reason for double blind studies with control groups is precisely that much of the control group will feel better, as long as they believe they are the study group. Fortunately for themselves, members of control groups do tend to believe that.

We can make many assumptions, assessments, and predictions about the placebo effect and use it as needed, without knowing the exact constitution of the mind.

Ignoring the placebo effect set medicine back in certain ways, decades ago. Doctors, honestly believing that chemistry and surgery would do the trick, discounted the fact that a hospital looked and operated like a slaughterhouse.

For example, surgeons used to wear white scrubs, like butchers, but growing awareness of the placebo effect cause a switch to “surgical green".

Mario Beauregard and I discuss all this at some length in The Spiritual Brain.