Religious Experience
not a Placebo

Page 1

Skeptics often say they can counter the argument form religious experience with one little bitty word, than they gleefully entone the mantra, "Placebo!" And they dismiss anything that relates to religion, and the mind, including thought, with that one misused and higly abused concept. I can counter their "one little bitty word" with a word of my own, "panacea." This term "placebo" has given them a great sheild to hide behind. They need not take seriously any sort of arguments invovling anything to do with healing, prayer, experience or the mind, because any such phenomena are atuomatically sweept under rug marked, "Placebo." But this is nothing more than a gimmick. Let's look at what this is the case in relation to the religious experience arguments that I have used elsewhere.

Just to refresh the nature of these arguments:

I. Humans fit for Religion.

Human nature is such that we are designed to be rleigious. Thus it is normative (sets the standards) for humans to be religious. Form this I formulate a design argument, but more importantly than the design argument is the fact that since religion is normative, the skeptic has the burden of proof to demonstrate that there is anything wrong with being religious. (This of course angers them a very great deal because the sec web tells them the believer always has the burden of proof in everything, but obviously not true)

II. The Religous a priroi

The argument says that there are several different types of expereinces but they demonstrate the a priroi nature of religious turth. We can expeirnce God phenomenologically, thorugh a pre-cognative God consciousness, or a sense of the Holy, or by embracing our ultimate concerns. We need not have vast dramatic experinces, although those can come, and we can be assured in our in most beings of the reality of just by paying attention to the sense of God consciousness which God has put in us anyway. As a correllary to this argument I show that religious expeince has long term positive effects and thus is not the result of mental illness, chemical imbalance, stomach ache or anyother temporary phenomena, but must be caused by some external corrollary to the expeirnce itself (ie God).

III. The Thomas Reid Argument

This simpley says that it is a matter of defeasable reasoning that religious consciousness is prperly basic as a belief and needs no futher defense. Because it is properly basic we can have a personal experiential assurence of God's reality, and we are well within the bar of reason to take it seriously because it based upon the same sort of criteria through which one is assured of or assumes the certianty of the reality of the external world, other minds, or one's own reality. We do not have any empirical data that proves that we exist. How could we? Any data we gather is automatically part of the world illusion! The only reason we assume the world is real is beacuse we always expeince it and it always works in the same way. One can say the same thing of religious expeirnce which is always there, works the same way over long period of time and is consistent. In reponse to this argument the Skeptic merely tries to dismiss it all by saying "Placebo." Here is a defintion of what a Placebo is:

Sangeeta Iyer

Quote:"Placebo is any treatment that is devoid of specific actions on the patient's symptoms or diseases that, somehow, can cause an effect upon that patient. (2) Usually this treatment is used as a control to an experiment. A placebo can be a "sugar-pill" or fake surgery/therapy can even be effective. (3) As in any research, the greater the difference between the results of the control group, whom was given the placebo, and the experimental group, whom was given the actual medication, would mean the greater pharmacological effectiveness of the drug being studied. However, in recent years, the effect of the placebo is becoming as great as that of a given medication.

The placebo effect is when a measurable or observable effect is noticed on a person or group of persons that have been administered this innocuous treatment. It is believed that the placebo effect is psychological, due to a delusion on the part of the subject that the treatment will work. (3) A person's beliefs and homes about a treatment, combined with their gullibility, seem to have a significant biochemical effect. Sensory experiences such as scent and sight as well as thoughts have been known to cause an effect in an person's neurochemistry and other biological systems. This effect suggests that a hopeful outlook on treatment can effect physical well-being."

1) Placebo proper is a medical treatment.

While we might well imagine that anything could be a placebo for something, and while it is a logical cirticism to say that religious experince is only psychological, the skeptics that I have debated on the net never present any kind of data to show that the actual placebo effect applies to religious expeirnce. It's all medical evidence extrapolated to something not concerned with the medical world.

2) Mystical experinces are really hard to produce.

A psychologist named Panhneke conducted an experiment called "the Good Friday Experiment" in which he tried to induce mystical experiences in subjects of the control group, and gave subjects of the experimental group psychodelic drugs, such as mechaline and LSD. 65% of the experimental group reported mystical like expeirnces (although I do have studies which show very significant differences in actual mystical expeirnce and those drug induced) and only 11% of the control group reported having mystical expeirnces. So if this is "just a placebo" it looks like it would be more esaily induced if one merely found the proper trigger. The triggers for mystical expeirnce are well known and will be alluded to futher latter on.

3) Placebo is not long term.

Several studies show postive long term effects from mystical expeirnce. the Skeptic can produce no data showing that there are positive long term effects from Placebos. The effects are short term, and so short term that they wear off quickly and this has been observed. The placebo can be re-used and the same effect induced, but the effects of just one mystical experience can last a life time and that will be documented in a moment.

a) Can't evoke with Promised treatment.

(Ibid) Quote: "Positive results from a placebo are being noticed in patients being treated for a variety of disorders from depression (4) to those who have enlarged prostates (5). Especially in the case of depression, researchers found that 50% of the drug effect was due to the placebo response. The researchers continued to test the theory, and found that just the promise of future treatment did not have any affect on depression levels, but that combination with the pill did." (5)

b) Mystical Experience Long Term.

Abraham Maslow

Quote: "...My feeling is that if it were never to happen again, the power of the experience could permanently affect the attitude toward life. A single glimpse of heaven is enough to confirm its existence even if it is never experienced again. It is my strong suspicion that even one such experience might be able to prevent suicide, for instance, and perhaps many varieties of slow self-destruction, e.g., alcoholism, drug-addiction, addiction to violence, etc. I would guess also, on theoretical grounds, that peak-experiences might very well abort "existential meaninglessness," states of valuelessness, etc., at least occasionally. (These deductions from the nature of intense peak-experiences are given some support by general experience with LSD and psilocybin. Of course these preliminary reports also await confirmation. )... ...This then is one kind of peak-knowledge of whose validity and usefulness there can be no doubt, any more than there could be with discovering for the first time that the color "red" exists and is wonderful. Joy exists, can be experienced and feels very good indeed, and one can always hope that it will be experienced again...."

4) Placebo is expectation.

Therapeutic Placebo Effect:
A Mind/Body Connection

Patricia Anne Kinser
Neurobiology and Behavior
Prof. Grobstein
Feb. 23, 1999

reformatted from original at

Quote: " Basically, the only way this treatment can work is if one believes that it will....Most often, the patient's belief that the placebo will be positively effective is a self-fulfilling prophecy"

Yet a great deal of first time mystical experience is totally unexpected. This is espeicially true witht he less dramatic conversion experience (not mystical but related to it). The expeirncer does not have any expectations and does not know what to expect.

Childhood Transpersonal Childhood Experiences of Higher States of
Consciousness: Literature Review and Theoretical Integration

Pure Consciousness/Mystical Experiences

Quote: Experiences in childhood are obtained from adult recollections and children's reports or studies on children doing a technique proposed to get near or attain PC. Both Millar (1990) and Hunt, Gervais, Shearing-Johns & Travis (1991) asked their adult subjects about mystical experience incidence in childhood (Hunt et al. defined it as, "During waking you may experience a sense of oneness and unity in all things, along with experiences of awe, bliss, and/or wonder. Sometimes this involves a sensation of melting or fusing with one's surroundings, feelings of being overwhelmed by a sense of love or compassion. Some of these experiences can be very hard to put into words." while Millar defined it as, "This is often a profound and deeply moving sense of communication, unity and oneness; a transcendental experience of higher consciousness or love, too beautiful to fully express in words. It can also be an experience of the void." . A large percent (45%) of Millar's sample of self identified psychics reported mystical experiences in childhood. In Hunt et al. meditators reported significantly more mystical experiences in childhood than the nonmeditators.

Finally, Robinson (1977) found that 15% of his adult respondents spoke of childhood mystical experiences. As this from a 40 year old female:

Quote: "When I was eleven years old I spent part of a summer holiday in the Wye Valley. Waking up very early one bright morning, before any of the household was about, I left my bed and went to kneel on the window seat, to look out over the curve which the river took just below the house. The trees between the house and river ... The scene was very beautiful, and quite suddenly I felt myself on the verge of a great revelation. It was as if I had stumbled unwittingly on a place where I was not expected, and was about to be initiated into some wonderful mystery, something of indescribable significance. Then, just as suddenly, the feeling faded. But for the brief seconds while it lasted I had known that in some strange way I, the essential "me", was a part of the trees, of the sunshine, and the river, that we all belonged to some great unity. I was left filled with exhilaration and exultation of spirit. This is one of the most memorable experiences of my life, of a quite different quality and greater intensity than the sudden lift of the spirit one may often feel when confronted with beauty in Nature (p. 37)."

The same can be argued of convertion experience. Most people who have "born again" or other kinds of conversion experiences do not expect anything, and usually dont' know what to expect. There is no sense of psycholoigcal manipulation or working up into an altered state because one does not have a preconsieved notion of the thing. This was definately the case with my own conversion. I had heard miracle stories, but had no idea that one actually felt a presence, and I first felt it even before I "came around" and was totally confussed by what was there. I recall feeling a sense of literal electricity in the room and wondering about it. But I had no idea to expect any such thing. My conception was that you feel real happy, but i had no idea that any sort of physicological symptoms went with that.

5) Placebo doesn't alter physiology.

Athough many reports of healing form placebos are reproted, many studies show that there is no actual physiological change.


Quote: Also, the placebo never directly affects the problem as well. For example, although the placebo was able to help make patients with enlarged prostates feel better, it was found prostates that were treated with the desired medication shrank more than 21% but placebo prostrates grew about 8.4%. However, the pain during urination and the weak flow was not experienced by the placebo group, suggesting a positive effect. (5) Because the placebo does not directly affect a specific condition, it is providing "false hope," according to some physicians. (6)

a) Altered Brain Waves.

Research into meditation and religious experience demonstrates the power to alter brain waves, perception of the self, and change other aspects of physiology and psychology long term.


Childhood Transpersonal Childhood Experiences of Higher States of Consciousness: Literature Review and Theoretical Integration

"Pure Consciousness/Mystical Experiences"

Quote: The major two markers identified thus far are EEG Coherence surges and breath suspension. But such biological considerations have not been limited to this tradition. They are reviewed by Murphy and Donovan, (198 and involve many of the variables studied by the Wallace group, in fact much of the Vedic work is included in the Murphy and Donovan review.

A topic of hot debate among those doing work in this area is the relationship of ecstasy experiences to experiences of the void both considered aspects of the mystical experience. The active (ecstasy, passive (void) distinction is explored by Fisher (1971) from a biological perspective. He conceptualized these as waking Ergotropic versus Trophotropic transpersonal states. Hyperaroused ergotropic states such as the peak ecstatic rapture experiences of the mystics falls at the top of a continuum of arousal states. The void of Yoga Samadhi is the peak hypoaroused (low arousal) type of trophotropic states. He points out that at these peaks, "the 'Self' of ecstasy and the 'Self' of samadhi, are one and the same 'Self.'

b) mystical expeirnce greater changes.


Quote: These states of being also result in behavioral and health changes. Ludwig (1985) found that 14% of people claiming spontaneous remission from alcoholism was due to mystical experiences while Richards (197 found with cancer patients treated in a hallucinogenic drug-assisted therapy who reported mystical experiences improved significantly more on a measure of self-actualization than those who also had the drug but did not have a mystical experience. In terms of the Vedic Psychology group they report a wide range of positive behavioral results from the practice of meditation and as outlined above go to great pains to show that it is the transcendence aspect of that practice that is primarily responsible for the changes. Thus improved performance in many areas of society have been reported including education and business as well as personal health states (reviewed and summarized in Alexander et al., 1990). Specifically, the Vedic Psychology group have found that mystical experiences were associated with "refined sensory threshold and enhanced mind-body coordination (p. 115; Alexander et al., 1987)."

6) Skeptical Bait and Switch

The skeptic is basically pulling a baint and switch by dubing mystical experince as "placebo." As I pointed out, the term "placebo," which means "I will please," is an old gimmick form the medical field. But the Skeptics are applying it broadly to all areas. When we encounter alternative helth practices health see mental states having an effect upon physiology, and subscribe to the placebo theory as an explaintion. The Skeptics than observes this and so decides that everything connecting religion with mental states is merely a placebo. But the skeptic has stepped over leveral imprtant bounderies in dragging the label accorss disciplines so freely. How can we be so sure tha the old fashioned sugar pill pschology is really what is going on in alternative medicine? Obviously they are related phenomena, but that doens't really prove that is exactly the same thing.

7) Placebo still linked supernatural.

Placebo does not so easily dismiss the Supernatual as a mere psychological trick but actually raises the question of spiritual link.

The skeptic wants us to think this is just some little trick of the mind, it just alters the way we look at things that's all there is to it. Granted, it clearly deals with the mind, it but the fail safe the skeptic has chosen, to dub all mental activity as "a trick" to be dismissed, is far too simplistic. If there is a reality in God, and if God did create us to commune with him than we should expect to find that we are constructed such that our brain chemestry and nero-pyhsiology accomodate and even induce such states of awareness as one finds in the spiritual. This would explain the sort of anedote found above where the little gril looks at the trees and feels to be a part of them and thinks she understands something profound. Clearly there is an automatic sense here, and studies show that it can be triggered by, among other things, observing nature. But does that mean this is all there is to it?

I think the nature of the brain and the connecting link which may enable the placebo effect itself, the link between nervous system and immune system, is an indication that we are designed to be spiritual beings, and that we can see the actual spirit at work in the placebo effect.


Quote: "The power of the placebo and its effects on the human body call to question the power of the mind and general medical practice today. The power of a thought, although delusional, has the ability to create physical changes in the body. To diminish painful symptoms that would otherwise need expensive medications. Why is this type of treatment not cared to be prescribed as often? Why is it being overlooked by medical practicioners throughout the nation even though it provides measurable results just as any experimental drug?"

Note: he does not mean physiological changes, but changes in perception of pain.
Glenn Miller, Unravelling Wittgenstien's Net:

Quote: "There is a large body of diverse data that supports the view that mind ACTUALLY DOES exert downward causal action on the brain-body. Actually, we could stop here--we have shown that (1) 'classical matter' is not ALL THERE 'is'; and (2) that something ELSE interacts with 'classical matter' as it appears to us. This amounts to some kind of 'mind' or 'soul' already--whether it is identified with quantum effects, non-linear dynamics, other fields, higher dimensions, or ghosts is simply immaterial (pardon the pun). But, since this smacks of what has historically might be termed 'dubious dualism', it may be pertinent to comment on the status of dualism and the status of knowledge in the field."

page 2

Miller has a wealth of data, please read:

The Religious A priori