Scientific Evidence for the Benefits of Faith

Increasingly, scientific studies have recognized the power of positive expectations in the treatment of people who are suffering from various illnesses. The so-called “placebo” effect is so powerful that studies generally try to control for it: fake pills, fake injections, or sometimes even fake surgeries will be given to one group while another group is offered the “real” treatment. If the real drug or surgery is no better than the fake drug/surgery, then the treatment is considered a failure. What has not been recognized until relatively recently is how the power of positive expectations should be considered as a form of treatment in itself.

Recently, Harvard University has established a Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter in order to study this very issue. For many scientists, the power of the placebo has been a scandal and an embarrassment, and the idea of offering a “fake” treatment to a patient seems to go against every ethical and professional principle. But the attitude of Ted Kaptchuk, head of the Harvard program, is that if something works, it’s worth studying, no matter how crazy and irrational it seems.

In fact, “crazy” and “irrational” seem to be apt words to describe the results of research on placebos. Researchers have found differences in the effectiveness of placebos based merely on appearance — large pills are more effective than small pills; two pills are better than one pill; “brand name” pills are more effective than generics; capsules are better than pills; and injections are the most effective of all! Even the color of pills affects the outcome. One study found that the most famous anti-anxiety medication in the world, Valium, has no measurable effect on a person’s anxiety unless the person knows he or she is taking it (see “The Power of Nothing” in the Dec. 12 2011 New Yorker). The placebo is probably the oldest and simplest form of “faith healing” there is.

There are scientists who are critical of many of these placebo studies; they believe the power of placebos has been greatly exaggerated. Several studies have concluded that the placebo effect is small or insignificant, especially when objective measures of patient improvement are used instead of subjective self-reports.

However, it should be noted that the placebo effect is not simply a matter of patient feelings that are impossible to measure accurately — there is actually scientific evidence that the human brain manufactures chemicals in response to positive expectations. In the 1970s, it was discovered that people who reported a reduction in pain in response to a placebo were actually producing greater amounts of endorphins, a substance in the brain chemically similar to morphine and heroin that reduces pain and is capable of producing feelings of euphoria (as in the “runner’s high“). Increasingly, studies of the placebo effect have relied on brain scans to actually track changes in the brain in response to a patient receiving a placebo, so measurement of effects is not merely a matter of relying on what a person says. One recent study found that patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease responded better to an “expensive” placebo than a “cheaper” placebo. Patients were given injections containing nothing but saline water, but the arm of patients that was told the saline solution cost $1500 per dose experienced significantly better improvements in motor function than patients that were given a “cheaper” placebo! This happens because the placebo effect boosts the brain’s production of dopamine, which counteracts the effects of Parkinson’s disease. Brain scans have confirmed greater dopamine activation in the brains of those given placebos.

Other studies have confirmed the close relation between the health of the human mind and the health of the body. Excessive stress weakens the immune system, creating an opening for illness. People who regularly practice meditation, on the other hand, can strengthen their immune system and as result, catch colds and the flu less often. The health effects of mediation do not depend on the religion of those practicing it — Buddhist, Christian, Sikh. The mere act of meditation is what it important.

Why has modern medicine been so slow and reluctant to acknowledge the power of positive expectations and spirituality in improving human health? I think it’s because modern science has been based on certain metaphysical assumptions about nature which have been very valuable in advancing knowledge historically, but are ultimately limited and flawed. These assumptions are: (1) Anything that exists solely in the human mind is not real; (2) Knowledge must be based on what exists objectively, that is, what exists outside the mind; and (3) everything in nature is based on material causation — impersonal objects colliding with or forming bonds with other impersonal objects. In many respects, these metaphysical assumptions were valuable in overcoming centuries of wrong beliefs and superstitions. Scientists learned to observe nature in a disinterested fashion, discover how nature actually was and not how we wanted it to be. Old myths about gods and personal spirits shaping nature became obsolete, to be replaced by theories of material causation, which led to technological advances that brought the human race enormous benefits.

The problem with these metaphysical assumptions, however, is that they draw too sharp a separation between the human mind and what exists outside the mind. The human mind is part of reality, embedded in reality. Scientists rely on concepts created by the human mind to understand reality, and multiple, contradictory concepts and theories may be needed to understand reality.  (See here and here). And the human mind can modify reality – it is not just a passive spectator. The mind affects the body directly because it is directly connected to the body. But the mind can also affect reality by directing the limbs to perform certain tasks — construct a house, create a computer, or build a spaceship.

So if the human mind can shape the reality of the body through positive expectations, can positive expectations bring additional benefits, beyond health? According to the American philosopher William James in his essay “The Will to Believe,” a leap of faith could be justified in certain restricted circumstances: when a momentous decision must be made, there is a large element of uncertainty, and there are not enough resources and time to reduce the uncertainty. (See this post.) In James’ view, in some cases, we must take the risk of supposing something is true, lest we lose the opportunity of gaining something beneficial. In short, “Faith in a fact can help create that fact.”

Scientific research on how expectations affect human performance tends to support James’ claim. Performance in sports is often influenced by athletes’ expectations of “good luck.” People who are optimistic and visualize their ideal goals are more likely to actually attain their goals than people who don’t. One recent study found that human performance in a color discrimination task is better when the subjects are provided a lamp that has a label touting environmental friendliness. Telling people about stereotypes before crucial tests affects how well people perform on tests — Asians who are told about how good Asians are at math perform better on math tests; women who are sent the message that women are not as smart perform less well on tests. When golfers are told that winning golf is a matter of intelligence, white golfers improve their performance; when golfers are told that golf is a matter of natural athleticism, blacks do better.

Now, I am not about to tell you that faith is good in all circumstances and that you should always have faith. Applied across the board, faith can hurt you or even kill you. Relying solely on faith is not likely to cure cancer or other serious illnesses. Worshipers in some Pentecostal churches who handle poisonous snakes sometimes die from snake bites. And terrorists who think they will be rewarded in the afterlife for killing innocent people are truly deluded.

So what is the proper scope for faith? When should it be used and when should it not be used? Here are three rules:

First, faith must be restricted to the zone of uncertainty that always exists when evaluating facts. One can have faith in things that are unknown or not fully known, but one should not have faith in things that are contrary to facts that have been well-established by empirical research. One cannot simply say that one’s faith forbids belief in the scientific findings on evolution and the big bang, or that faith requires that one’s holy text is infallible in all matters of history, morals, and science.

Second, the benefits of faith cannot be used as evidence for belief in certain facts. A person who finds relief from Parkinson’s disease by imagining the healing powers of Christ’s love cannot argue that this proves that Jesus was truly the son of God, that Jesus could perform miracles, was crucified, and rose from the dead. These are factual claims that may or may not be historically accurate. Likewise with the golden plates of Joseph Smith that were allegedly the basis for the Book of Mormon or the ascent of the prophet Muhammad to heaven — faith does not prove any of these alleged facts. If there was evidence that one particular religious belief tended to heal people much better than other religious beliefs, then one might devote effort to examining if the facts of that religion were true. But there does not seem to be a difference among faiths — just about any faith, even the simplest faith in a mere sugar pill, seems to work.

Finally, faith should not run unnecessary risks. Faith is a supplement to reason, research, and science, not an alternative. Science, including medical science, works. If you get sick, you should go to a doctor first, then rely on faith. As the prophet Muhammad said, “Tie your camel first, then put your trust in Allah.”

What is “Mythos” and “Logos”?

The terms “mythos” and “logos” are used to describe the transition in ancient Greek thought from the stories of gods, goddesses, and heroes (mythos) to the gradual development of rational philosophy and logic (logos). The former is represented by the earliest Greek thinkers, such as Hesiod and Homer; the latter is represented by later thinkers called the “pre-Socratic philosophers” and then Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. (See the book: From Myth to Reason? Studies in the Development of Greek Thought).

In the earliest, “mythos” stage of development, the Greeks saw events of the world as being caused by a multitude of clashing personalities — the “gods.” There were gods for natural phenomena such as the sun, the sea, thunder and lightening, and gods for human activities such as winemaking, war, and love. The primary mode of explanation of reality consisted of highly imaginative stories about these personalities. However, as time went on, Greek thinkers became critical of the old myths and proposed alternative explanations of natural phenomena based on observation and logical deduction. Under “logos,” the highly personalized worldview of the Greeks became transformed into one in which natural phenomena were explained not by invisible superhuman persons, but by impersonal natural causes.

However, many scholars argue that there was not such a sharp distinction between mythos and logos historically, that logos grew out of mythos, and elements of mythos remain with us today.

For example, ancient myths provided the first basic concepts used subsequently to develop theories of the origins of the universe. We take for granted the words that we use every day, but the vast majority of human beings never invent a single word or original concept in their lives — they learn these things from their culture, which is the end-product of thousands of years of speaking and writing by millions of people long-dead. The very first concepts of “cosmos,” “beginning,” nothingness,” and differentiation from a single substance — these were not present in human culture for all time, but originated in ancient myths. Subsequent philosophers borrowed these concepts from the myths, while discarding the overly-personalistic interpretations of the origins of the universe. In that sense, mythos provided the scaffolding for the growth of philosophy and modern science. (See Walter Burkert, “The Logic of Cosmogony” in From Myth to Reason: Studies in the Development of Greek Thought.)

An additional issue is the fact that not all myths are wholly false. Many myths are stories that communicate truths even if the characters and events in the story are fictional. Socrates and Plato denounced many of the early myths of the Greeks, but they also illustrated philosophical points with stories that were meant to serve as analogies or metaphors. Plato’s allegory of the cave, for example, is meant to illustrate the ability of the educated human to perceive the true reality behind surface impressions. Could Plato have made the same philosophical point in a literal language, without using any stories or analogies? Possibly, but the impact would be less, and it is possible that the point would not be effectively communicated at all.

Some of the truths that myths communicate are about human values, and these values can be true even if the stories in which the values are embedded are false. Ancient Greek religion contained many preposterous stories, and the notion of personal divine beings directing natural phenomena and intervening in human affairs was false. But when the Greeks built temples and offered sacrifices, they were not just worshiping personalities — they were worshiping the values that the gods represented. Apollo was the god of light, knowledge, and healing; Hera was the goddess of marriage and family; Aphrodite was the goddess of love; Athena was the goddess of wisdom; and Zeus, the king of the gods, upheld order and justice. There’s no evidence at all that these personalities existed or that sacrifices to these personalities would advance the values they represented. But a basic respect for and worshipful disposition toward the values the gods represented was part of the foundation of ancient Greek civilization. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the city of Athens, whose patron goddess was Athena, went on to produce some of the greatest philosophers the world has seen — love of wisdom is the prerequisite for knowledge, and that love of wisdom grew out of the culture of Athens. (The ancient Greek word philosophia literally means “love of wisdom.”)

It is also worth pointing out that worship of the gods, for all of its superstitious aspects, was not incompatible with even the growth of scientific knowledge. Modern western medicine originated in the healing temples devoted to the god Asclepius, the son of Apollo, and the god of medicine. Both of the great ancient physicians Hippocrates and Galen are reported to have begun their careers as physicians in the temples of Asclepius, the first hospitals. Hippocrates is widely regarded as the father of western medicine and Galen is considered the most accomplished medical researcher of the ancient world. As love of wisdom was the prerequisite for philosophy, reverence for healing was the prerequisite for the development of medicine.

Karen Armstrong has written that ancient myths were never meant to be taken literally, but were “metaphorical attempts to describe a reality that was too complex and elusive to express in any other way.” (A History of God) I am not sure that’s completely accurate. I think it most likely that the mass of humanity believed in the literal truth of the myths, while educated human beings understood the gods to be metaphorical representations of the good that existed in nature and humanity. Some would argue that this use of metaphors to describe reality is deceptive and unnecessary. But a literal understanding of reality is not always possible, and metaphors are widely used even by scientists.

Theodore L. Brown, a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has provided numerous examples of scientific metaphors in his book, Making Truth: Metaphor in Science. According to Brown, the history of the human understanding of the atom, which cannot be directly seen, began with a simple metaphor of atoms as billiard balls; later, scientists compared atoms to plum pudding; then they compared the atom to our solar system, with electrons “orbiting” around a nucleus. There has been a gradual improvement in our models of the atom over time, but ultimately, there is no single, correct literal representation of the atom. Each model illustrates an aspect or aspects of atomic behavior — no one model can capture all aspects accurately. Even the notion of atoms as particles is not fully accurate, because atoms can behave like waves, without a precise position in space as we normally think of particles as having. The same principle applies to models of the molecule as well. (Brown, chapters, 4-6)  A number of scientists have compared the imaginative construction of scientific models to map-making — there is no single, fully accurate way to map the earth (using a flat surface to depict a sphere), so we are forced to use a variety of maps at different scales and projections, depending on our needs.

Sometimes the visual models that scientists create are quite unrealistic. The model of the “energy landscape” was created by biologists in order to understand the process of protein folding — the basic idea was to imagine a ball rolling on a surface pitted with holes and valleys of varying depth. As the ball would tend to seek out the low points on the landscape (due to gravity), proteins would tend to seek the lowest possible free energy state. All biologists know the energy landscape model is a metaphor — in reality, proteins don’t actually go rolling down hills! But the model is useful for understanding a process that is highly complex and cannot be directly seen.

What is particularly interesting is that some of the metaphorical models of science are frankly anthropomorphic — they are based on qualities or phenomena found in persons or personal institutions. Scientists envision cells as “factories” that accept inputs and produce goods. The genetic structure of DNA is described as having a “code” or “language.” The term “chaperone proteins” was invented to describe proteins that have the job of assisting other proteins to fold correctly; proteins that don’t fold correctly are either treated or dismantled so that they do not cause damage to the larger organism — a process that has been given a medical metaphor: “protein triage.” (Brown, chapters 7-8) Even referring to the “laws of physics” is to use a metaphorical comparison to human law. So even as logos has triumphed over the mythos conception that divine personalities rule natural phenomena, qualities associated with personal beings have continued to sneak into modern scientific models.

The transition of a mythos-dominated worldview to a logos-dominated worldview was a stupendous achievement of the ancient Greeks, and modern philosophy, science, and civilization would not be possible without it. But the transition did not involve a complete replacement of one worldview with another, but rather the building of additional useful structures on top of a simple foundation. Logos grew out of its origins in mythos, and retains elements of mythos to this day. The compatibilities and conflicts between these two modes of thought are the thematic basis of this website.

Related: A Defense of the Ancient Greek Pagan Religion

Einstein’s Judeo-Quaker Pantheism

I recently came across a fascinating website, Einstein: Science and Religion, which I hope you will find time to peruse.  The website, edited by Arnold Lesikar, Professor Emeritus in the  Department of Physics, Astronomy, and Engineering Science at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, contains a collection of Einstein’s various comments on religion, God, and the relationship between science and religion.

Einstein’s views on religion have been frequently publicized and commented on, but it is difficult to get an accurate and comprehensive assessment of Einstein’s actual views on religion because of the tendency of both believers and atheists to cherry-pick particular quotations or to quote out of context. Einstein’s actual views on religion are complex and multifaceted, and one is apt to get the wrong impression by focusing on just one or several of Einstein’s comments.

One should begin by noting that Einstein did not accept the notion of a personal God, an omnipotent superbeing who listens to our prayers and intervenes in the operations of the laws of the universe. Einstein repeatedly rejected this notion of God throughout his life, from his adolescence to old age. He also believed that many, if not most, of the stories in the Bible were untrue.

The God Einstein did believe in was the God of the philosopher Spinoza. Spinoza conceived of God as being nothing more than the natural order underlying this universe — this order was fundamentally an intelligent order, but it was a mistake to conceive of God as having a personality or caring about man. Spinoza’s view was known as pantheism, and Einstein explicitly stated that he was a proponent of Spinoza and of pantheism. Einstein also argued that ethical systems were a purely human concern, with no superhuman authority figure behind them, and there was no afterlife in which humans could be rewarded or punished. In fact, Einstein believed that immortality was undesirable anyway. Finally, Einstein sometimes expressed derogatory views of religious institutions and leaders, believing them responsible for superstition and bigotry among the masses.

However, it should also be noted that Einstein’s skepticism and love of truth was too deep to result in a rigid and dogmatic atheism. Einstein described himself variously as an agnostic or pantheist and disliked the arrogant certainty of atheists. He even refused to definitively reject the idea of a personal God, believing that there were too many mysteries behind the universe to come to any final conclusions about God. He also wrote that he did not want to destroy the idea of a personal God in the minds of the masses, because even a primitive metaphysics was better than no metaphysics at all.

Even while rejecting the notion of a personal God, Einstein described God as a spirit, a spirit with the attribute of thought or intelligence: “[E]very one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe — a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” In an interview, Einstein expressed a similar view:

If there is any such concept as a God, it is a subtle spirit, not an image of a man that so many have fixed in their minds. In essence, my religion consists of a humble admiration for this illimitable superior spirit that reveals itself in the slight details that we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds.

Distinguishing between the religious feeling of the “naïve man” and the religious feeling of the scientist, Einstein argued:  “[The scientist’s] religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”

While skeptical and often critical of religious institutions, Einstein also believed that religion played a valuable and necessary role for civilization in creating “superpersonal goals” for human beings, goals above and beyond self-interest, that could not be established by pure reason.  Reason could provide us with the facts of existence, said Einstein, but the question of how we should live our lives necessarily required going beyond reason. According to Einstein:

[T]he scientific method can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other.The aspiration toward such objective knowledge belongs to the highest of which man is capabIe, and you will certainly not suspect me of wishing to belittle the achievements and the heroic efforts of man in this sphere. Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. . . . Objective knowledge provides us with powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source. . . .

To make clear these fundamental ends and valuations, and to set them fast in the emotional life of the individual, seems to me precisely the most important function which religion has to perform in the social life of man. And if one asks whence derives the authority of such fundamental ends, since they cannot be stated and justified merely by reason, one can only answer: they exist in a healthy society as powerful traditions, which act upon the conduct and aspirations and judgments of the individuals; they are there, that is, as something living, without its being necessary to find justification for their existence. They come into being not through demonstration but through revelation, through the medium of powerful personalities. One must not attempt to justify them, but rather to sense their nature simply and clearly.

Einstein even argued that the establishment of moral goals by religious prophets was one of the most important accomplishments of humanity, eclipsing even scientific accomplishment:

Our time is distinguished by wonderful achievements in the fields of scientific understanding and the technical application of those insights. Who would not be cheered by this? But let us not forget that knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. Humanity has every reason to place the proclaimers of high moral standards and values above the discoverers of objective truth. What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses, and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind.

Einstein’s views of Jesus are particularly intriguing. Einstein never rejected his Jewish identity and refused all attempts by others to convert him to Christianity. Einstein also refused to believe the stories of Jesus’s alleged supernatural powers. But Einstein also believed the historical existence of Jesus was a fact, and Einstein regarded Jesus as one the greatest — if not the greatest — of religious prophets:

As a child, I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene. . . . No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life. How different, for instance, is the impression which we receive from an account of legendary heroes of antiquity like Theseus. Theseus and other heroes of his type lack the authentic vitality of Jesus. . . .No man can deny the fact that Jesus existed, nor that his sayings are beautiful. Even if some them have been said before, no one has expressed them so divinely as he.

Toward the end of his life, Einstein, while remaining Jewish, expressed great admiration for the Christian sect known as the Quakers. Einstein stated that the “Society of Friends,” as the Quakers referred to themselves as, had the “highest moral standards” and their influence was “very beneficial.” Einstein even declared “If I were not a Jew I would be a Quaker.”

Now Einstein’s various pronouncements on religion are scattered in multiple sources, so it is not surprising that people may get the wrong impression from examining just a few quotes. Sometimes stories of Einstein’s religious views are simply made up, implying that Einstein was a traditional believer. Other times, atheists will emphasize Einstein’s rejection of a personal God, while completely overlooking Einstein’s views on the limits of reason, the necessity of religion in providing superpersonal goals, and the value of the religious prophets.

For some people, a religion without a personal God is not a true religion. But historically, a number of major religions do not hold belief in a personal God as central to their belief system, including Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. In addition, many theologians in monotheistic faiths describe God in impersonal terms, or stress that the attributes of God may be represented symbolically as personal, but that God himself cannot be adequately described as a person. The great Jewish theologian Maimonides argued that although God had been described allegorically and imperfectly by the prophets as having the attributes of a personal being, God did not actually have human thoughts and emotions. The twentieth century Christian theologian Paul Tillich argued that God was not “a being” but the “Ground of Being” or the “Power of Being” existing in all things.

However, it is somewhat odd is that while rejecting the notion of a personal God, Einstein saw God as a spirit that seemingly possessed an intelligence far greater than that of human beings. In that, Einstein was similar to Spinoza, who believed God had the attribute of “thought” and that the human mind was but part of the “infinite intellect of God.”  But is not intelligence a quality of personal beings? In everyday life, we don’t think of orbiting planets or stars or rocks or water as possessing intelligence, and even if we attribute intelligence to lower forms of life such as bacteria and plants, we recognize that this sort of intelligence is primitive. If you ask people what concrete, existing things best possess the quality of intelligence, they will point to humans — personal beings! Yet, both Spinoza and Einstein attribute vast, or even infinite, intelligence to God, while denying that God is a personal being!

I am not arguing that Spinoza and Einstein were wrong or somehow deluding themselves when they argued that God was not a personal being. I am simply pointing out how difficult it is to adequately and accurately describe God. I think Spinoza and Einstein were correct in seeking to modify the traditional concept of God as a type of omnipotent superperson with human thoughts and emotions. But at the same time, it can be difficult to describe God in a way that does not use attributes that are commonly thought of as belonging to personal beings. At best, we can use analogies from everyday experience to indirectly describe God, while acknowledging that all analogies fall short.