Wheat & Tares

The philosophies of men mingled with the philosophies of women.

21 thoughts on “Infantile Omnipotence: the Power of Faith and Placebo

  1. I think this is what happened when Joseph translated with his stone, it wasn’t a holy stone per se – but his unflappable faith made it into one. Isn’t it faith that creates holy spaces out if the muck and mire? Perhaps that’s why I feel my faith strengthened in the presence of doubt.

  2. Nate, thank you so much for this. I really enjoyed it and learned some new things. Have you read anything by Mario Beauregard?  One thing he produced was a book titled ‘The Spirtual Brain’.  I briefly mentioned this elsewhere. There are other studies, books, and authors, but this is pretty concise. Good stuff. 

    “What is the difference between faith working miracles and the placebo effect?”

    Nothing.

    “Does recognizing something as a placebo mean it is debunked, or rather is there something divine about placebo itself?”

    It is divine, and from the Divine. 

    “How can we retain faith when surrounded by doubt?”

    I don’t feel there is any easy answers that can be offered. It is one of the purposes of life, but liturgy, ritual, temple, hope. 

    “Is the culture of doubt in the Bloggernacle contributing to a loss of faith and it’s potential power in our lives?”

    Nocebo, I shall harm. 

    Funny thing, this I get (in someways, we can always learn).  If you want, drop me a contact and I will share some things. Nothing big, just nothing I would like out in the open online forever, and you can decide if there is any value. I think this should have logged my email address. 

  3. Seriously?

    “What is the difference between faith working miracles and the placebo effect?”

    Nothing.

    Someone being given a glucose pill by a man in a lab coat and having their acne or depression, etc. get better is no different than the works of faith described in the scriptures?

    The placebo effect is natural and ordinary, it’s established science. Faith-based miracles are super-natural and extra-ordinary, to me that’s what makes them miracles based on faith.

  4. Justin, At what point would you draw the line between super-natural / extra-ordinary and the other?

  5. Ah, and I meant that as in you personally and not as an attacking attitude. Trying to understand?

  6. Great article Nate!

    Faith healing is at least placebo effect. What is spontaneous remission of disease? Doctors and science don’t know! I’ve heard testimony of faith healing that reversed tumors and cured diagnosed cancer. Most people accept that we can make ourselves sick, if this is true then the opposite is also possible, we can make ourselves well.

    I like you tying this concept to our doubts vs doubting our doubts. The church’s creditability problem will be temporary but past mismanagement comes at a significant growth and retention cost. The feeling of betrayal often comes from belief being tied to false absolutes (historicity of the BoM, the church is either completely true or total fraud, etc, etc) instead of tying belief to the rock of (personal) revelation. Follow the Spirit rather than the prophet and you will not experience that kind of disappointment.

  7. Kristine, thanks for your commment. I’d love to hear more about why you feel your faith is actually strengthened in the presence of doubt.

    forgetting, I think you and I are on the same page. The placebo effect, as defined by science can be described, but not adequately explained, and thus lies in the supernatural spectrum. (Supernatural meaning that it is simply beyond current scientific understanding. But Joseph Smith taught all spirit is matter, and ultimately, there is nothing truly supernatural.)

    Howard, good point about belief being tied to false attributes. But the placebo effect teaches us that the attributes are not as important as the faith itself. You are right that the problem comes when people loose their faith when the attributes start to look faulty. Good idea to try and put our faith first in the rock of personal revelation.

  8. Justin, At what point would you draw the line between super-natural / extra-ordinary and the other?

    The prefixes “super-” and “extra-” mean above or beyond. I draw the line when there isn’t a naturalistic/physical explanation for it — when the phenomenon is beyond that which is “natural” or “ordinary”.

    Ah, and I meant that as in you personally and not as an attacking attitude. Trying to understand?

    No offense taken.

  9. Hmmm, back when I didn’t live with one iota of doubt. . . .

    I literally have born my testimony in the past about how I knew just as Joseph knew (“and I could not deny it . . . “). I knew everything I’d ever been taught was 100% certain black and white truth and I knew all my good works were earning me a place in heaven (“after all that I can do . . . .”).

    And then, something cracked. Doubt crept in. And in my fall from my very high place of certainty I found my Savior at the bottom, loving me in my sin and doubt and searching and wrestling. I found a deepened spirituality from which I lean extensively and most heavily on my Savior and His Grace, more than I ever had in the past. I describe faith as an action verb, and it has much more meaning to me to act in faith while doubt is present.

    I know others have had spiritual confirmations of their own faiths just as I have had in mine. What do I do? Act in faith; it is more bold and more decisive for me to know one foot is moving into the darkness in my steps forward. I’m more reliant on my Savior.

  10. Very interesting point of view Nate. I do think there is something to be said about the power of the mind. I recall an experiment in which people were told that they were being rubbed with a poison ivy leaf, but unknown to the participants, it wasn’t really poison ivy. They still broke out in a rash. So, this placebo effect caused a rash. Another group was rubbed with real poison ivy and nothing happened, because they didn’t think they were allergic to it.

    In my stats classes, we talk about Rogaine. One group was given a placebo, and 40% actually grew hair! But those in the drug group, something like 86% grew hair, so the drug definitely was more effective. Still, it illustrates the power of the mind. I think there is something to the idea where Jesus asked “do you have the faith to be healed?” Those wihtout faith can’t be healed. Those who have faith MIGHT be healed. The placebo effect does seem to explain the capriciousness of faith healing.

    I do believe the power of God can heal, but only under our own faith. Is it placebo effect? It often is, I believe. But I also believe in real healing, What’s the difference? I have no idea.

    I also believe that doubt can play a large role in the absence of miracles and faith healing.

  11. Justin: Thank you, I was aware of the meanings of the prefixes, but I still thank you for your answer. Let me try again, it was probably my fault, I don’t communicate well sometimes. I was asking for examples so I could understand. What is super- or extra- specifically in your mind. I think we all have different ideas about this line, and what is super- to one might be mundane to another, and then we talk past each other.

    Nate, thanks. I agree back again. For me, we are all spiritual beings. We have just fallen, and so we have forgotten this.

    Kristine: I think I didn’t refresh or something after I read the OP. Yes, you nailed it (or so I would say) about the seer stone. Everything the Lord gives us, it’s like baby walkers and training wheels, enough to go one until we can run and ride with confidence and take real pleasure in the gift.

  12. Justin: … I was asking for examples so I could understand. What is super- or extra- specifically in your mind. I think we all have different ideas about this line, and what is super- to one might be mundane to another, and then we talk past each other.

    Things that are super- or extra- cannot even, in principle, be explained by naturalistic means. They would be “impossible” actions. So, e.g., some have commented that the placebo effect is observed by scientists but is not explained. But that doesn’t change the fact that, in principle, what is going on is a state of affairs inside in the participant’s head — it’s just that we haven’t been able to fully explain the mechanism yet [in practice].

    If “God” or “miracles” are “real” [in any way in which the word “real” can have any valuable meaning], then it is as something beyond which there even could be a physical, naturalistic explanation. To be “real” needs to be something that exists “outside” of a state of mental affairs within your own head [independent/objective].

    For humans, some things are possible and some things are impossible given the laws of nature we are working within. The capacity of scientists are then bound within the limits of our knowledge of the natural laws and the limits those laws inherently possess.

    For a miracle worker, however, natural laws impose no limitations whatsoever — therefore there could be no such thing as an “impossibility” to them — all things being possible through their faith. A miracle worker can then work within the bounds of natural mechanisms [like a normal person can], as well as in contradiction to those natural laws and in areas where the laws are non-existent/have no say. Such a person would be limited only by their faith in working their miraculous and non-miraculous actions.

    Most of what I’ve read in the comments here lean towards an Arther C. Clark/Ancient Aliens perspective that “divine” is just a Supernatural-of-the-Gaps argument:

    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    To me, thinking this suggests that the natural laws precede and constrain God — and that it is only because He knows all the higher laws [which are yet unknown to us] that His “miracles” [which are really just advanced science happening to a people who don’t understand the laws yet] appear to us to be magic. He’s “divine” only because we are still ignorant of the yet-unknown natural laws He is operating by.

    Therefore, in reality, there is no such thing as a miracle — there’s only naturalistic/physical explanations we haven’t uncovered yet. And so God really becomes a Supreme Scientist, instead of a Miracle Worker.

    But if physicalism/naturalism can do the job, then why add the “God-hypothesis” on top of what is already an adequate model of explanation at all? Let’s just continue to work towards uncovering naturalistic physicalism as we have been doing and leave “God” out of it entirely [which is what working scientists already do].

  13. Justin,  thank you, I understand what you are saying a little bit more. I would still like to nail you down on specifics, but it isn’t relevant. We are in some agreement. In my perception we are lazy when we talk about mind and brain. They are two very different, although very entwined, entities. I wonder if you are perceiving my comments as coming off somewhat as a materialist, and if so, that has been my fault. Some people might see it the way you suggest they do, but I am not one of them. To use something closer to our lingo, one way I like to look (very loosely) at it is as if we are all terrestrial beings, and because of the veil we have just forgotten this, so we behave as if we are telestial, living and dying right into our expectations, nocebo. So, when I suggest the placebo is divine and from the Divine, make no doubt, I mean it. Our mind or spirit, that which is from God, and of God, has the potential to access this power. That is really sloppy, it is a gift and is received, but there you have it, it’s a blog reply. I am suggesting we explore how this is of and from God, how it functions, and work to access it’s potential more fully. Materialism rejects agency, and I reject this rejecting of agency. 

    Yes, the human body can do amazing things, and not just healing, but even the smallest of gifts, be it faith healing, or being healed as you took a placebo in a study, are divine. Both have rituals and have reached deep into the mind and unlocked it. Faith and hope are eternal principles, and apply universally. Ideally faith in Christ, or (a) God, is better. He is our Savior and Lord, but He loves everyone. Imagine the potential offered to members in the Gift of the Holy Ghost. Even the atheist that recovers from depression from a placebo has received a lesson that will carry him through eternity after the veil is pulled. To what degree we access the divine is our choice, wether we choose to see it’s effects or not.  

    “To me, thinking this suggests that the natural laws precede and constrain God — and that it is only because He knows all the higher laws [which are yet unknown to us] that His “miracles” [which are really just advanced science happening to a people who don’t understand the laws yet] appear
     to us 
    to be magic. He’s “divine” only because we are still ignorant of the yet-unknown natural laws He is operating by.”

    Reality is formed in the perception and seeing; it is all probability and potential until it is observed or measured.  I agree, we limit God by deciding what He can or cannot do, and we also limit ourselves. The concept, and even in some cases the acknowledgement that it was Divine, happened long before scientists took placebo, called it theirs, and started mucking about with it.  They might think it is theirs, it’s not.

    Or, so I think.

  14. Friends-

    Faith is a gift from God.

    From scripture study, I’ve come to believe faith in mortality is a blessing we first received in premortality.

    That said, it doesn’t prevent anyone in this life from receiving the gift of greater faith.

    The details of how all this works and is related to the placebo effect and hypnosis isn’t as important as asking, knocking, and diligently seeking for the gift of faith in the name of the Savior.

    Remember Joseph Smith using a ladder to describe progress towards exaltation? The ladder analogy can be used to help us understand that we can grow in faith too. It’s a matter of learning how to approach God with real intent.

  15. The whole placebo/nocebo thing is interesting. I recall an interesting article I read some time ago (in the New Scientist probably, that’s usually where anyway), discussing whether or not medical professionals should tell their patients they are dying, because of evidence that some patients have gone and done just that, when it later turned out post mortem that a diagnosis had been mistaken, leading to the conclusion that the patient could only have died because they had believed they were going to. That being the case, faith and optimism may well be the better choices, even where a diagnosis is in fact correct.
    Meanwhile, I don’t envy the medical profession their ethical dilemmas, but it seems at the least they should be encouraging patients to go with the best case scenario, even whilst providing all the information they have.

  16. Justin, I suppose I’d taken it for granted that all Mormons view God as acting and obeying natural law. A friend of mine once said Joseph Smith was in fact an atheist, because he believed God was simply an extra-terrestrial being acting according to natural law, and that there was no such thing as spirit. Like he said in D&C, “All spirit is matter, just more fine.” Mormons say things like “mercy can’t rob justice” to explain the atonement, which is seen as balancing the demands of justice, which God cannot break. So your view is new for me, although I’ve heard it expressed by other religious groups.

    forgetting and Hedgehog, thanks for your comments. I think placebo vrs. nocebo deserves more attention. I like forgetting’s phrase that telestial people are “dying into their expectations” which is nocebo. “Living into their expectations” would be placebo. It’s another way of thinking about whether you are following the light, or the darkness, whether you are being positive or negative, and the real power that orientation has over our destiny.

    Jared, I agree that faith is a gift, like it says “some are given the faith to be healed, some the faith to believe on others.” So we come with unequal gifts of faith. But as you rightly say, whatever our endowment, it can be built upon.

  17. A friend of mine once said Joseph Smith was in fact an atheist, because he believed God was simply an extra-terrestrial being acting according to natural law, and that there was no such thing as spirit.

    I’d agree with that then.

    As I said, if naturalism can do the job, then why add the “God-hypothesis” on top of everything at all? You automatically make a better theory by leaving “God” out of the whole model and just keeping the “natural laws” part of it [because, in the way that you’re saying most Mormons view it, “God” is just an added assumption into the model that isn’t bringing any explanatory or predictive power beyond that which can be gotten by natural laws uncovered by science alone].

    Shouldn’t we just continue to work towards uncovering naturalistic physicalism [as working scientists have been doing] and leave the whole “God” thing out of it entirely [as scientists tend to do]?

  18. That’s a good question Justin. If Mormons are really empirical materialists, why even mention God?

    Perhaps because we exercise “advanced” empirical deduction by discerning our own personal revelation and interpreting our world view accordingly. Science takes a skeptical view of empirical deductions that cannot be independently confirmed. That could be a possible difference.

  19. Shouldn’t we just continue to work towards uncovering naturalistic physicalism [as working scientists have been doing] and leave the whole “God” thing out of it entirely [as scientists tend to do]?

    Because the whole point of the theology of the Restoration, as opposed to the mumbo-jumbo our ancestors believed for centuries, is that that’s what God IS.

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