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Placebo Religion and Philosophy

by Peter B. Raabe

I would like to introduce two new terms into the English language: placebo religion and placebo philosophy.

As you know a placebo is a faux-medication (such as a sugar pill) with no active therapeutic ingredients. A placebo effect is when the patient believes that the faux-medication he is receiving has active ingredients in it because he's convinced he can feel its non-existent effects. The same placebo pill will cause different patients to believe they feel very different 'effects.' One patient may be convinced the placebo pill helps him to sleep better, while another patient is convinced that the same pill has improved her eyesight.

I define placebo religion as when a believer believes that a piece of supposedly spiritual writing he is reading has active spiritual 'ingredients' within it. The same piece of writing will cause different believers to understand the spiritual message in very different ways. But like the placebo pill, placebo religion has no 'active ingredient' in it; the message of placebo religion is always vague, ambiguous, full of cliches and New Age platitudes, so that multiple interpretations can all seem correct.

When questioned or challenged on this problem of multiple interpretations, the authors who write placebo religious books and essays defend themselves by arguing that there doesn't have to be just one correct interpretation, and that, in fact, they intended their writing to be variously understood. They're willing to acknowledge that, of course, their writings will mean different things to different people. But in actuality, this is an admission that, like the placebo pill, there is no effectual substance to their writings. The benefit of their writing is the placebo effect, which is never contained in the writing itself; it is only in the believing reader. This is an example of the sort of writings found in what I call placebo religion:

There is only one absolute Truth, all other truths emanate from it. When you find that Truth, your actions will be in alignment with it. Human action can reflect the Truth, or it can reflect illusion. Can the Truth be put into words? Yes, but the words are, of course, not it. They only point to it. The Truth is inseparable from who you are. Yes, you are the Truth. If you look for it elsewhere, you will be deceived every time. The very Being that you are is Truth.

Eckhart Tolle A New Earth: Awakening Your Life's Purpose 2008

In placebo religion all the benefit comes from the belief of the believer. Not surprisingly there are psychological benefits, just like there are with a placebo pill, but there is no evidence that there's any spiritual benefit in the writing itself. For example, there is no evidence that there is an 'absolute Truth' or that finding it will lead to some sort of miraculous change in one's life. Without belief a placebo religion, just like a placebo pill, has nothing substantial to offer. And to offer placebo religion as though there's something substantial in it is clearly deceptive and immoral.

I use the word 'religion' because a lot of writing that is claimed to be spiritual becomes religion, in that there are texts published (which gain a sort of sacred status among believers), there are seminars (which are very much like religious meetings), there are leaders (who claim to be enlightened), there are faithful followers (who are awed by their leader and believe him or her without question), there are ritualized practices, there are memorized words and phrases, there are amulets, and so on.

The problem with placebo religion is that it causes harm in several ways. First, placebo religious writings make the believer feel inadequate because it leads him to feel he lacks the level of enlightenment that would allow him to clearly understand the vague and ambiguous writings which, in fact, can't be clearly understood. The religious response to this criticism is that the writings don't require understanding, rather they require some sort of mysterious 'feeling' or special 'knowing.' If the believer doesn't feel he knows what the writings mean, then he is told he lacks enlightenment. How is enlightenment attained? By reading the writings which the believer can't understand due to his lack of enlightenment. This circular argument places the responsibility for making sense of placebo religious writings on the believer; in other words, lack of understanding is blamed on the victim.

The second problem with placebo religion is this: imagine a patient with a serious illness is given a placebo pill as treatment. Since there is no substantive therapeutic medication in it, the patient will continue to suffer from the illness and perhaps even die. The same danger exists in placebo religion: it has no real substance other than the placebo effect. The believer will continue to be vulnerable to the ill effects of everyday life while he is convinced his belief in the placebo religion is having a positive effect on a negative reality.

And third, the leaders who promote placebo religious beliefs often receive financial patronage from their followers. This financial support enjoyed by the leaders allows them to spread the self-fulfilling prophecy that belief may bring financial rewards, or at least that a leader's enriched life is evidence that the life of those who believe will soon change for the better. If life doesn't improve for believers they are once again blamed for not believing correctly or fervently enough.

These harms in turn all lead to a still greater harm: a mistrust and abandonment of all religious writings, many of which may in fact have something substantive to offer those who wish to enhance their spirituality. What's the antidote to placebo religion? I suggest it's the 'therapeutic' effect of an examination of one's beliefs and values by means of philosophy.

Unfortunately, not all philosophy is beneficial. There exists quite a bit of what I call placebo philosophy. The ancient philosopher Epicurus said that philosophy which does not relieve any human suffering is just empty philosophy. Just like a pill that is empty of any medicinal ingredients is a placebo pill, philosophy that is empty of any beneficial 'ingredients' is placebo philosophy.

It may be argued that philosophy doesn't need to be beneficial in a practical sense; it only needs to be significant in an intellectual sense. While this may be true, philosophy that is claimed to be intellectually significant can also be empty. Empty intellectual philosophy consists of published works that are difficult if not impossible to understand because they're full of technical jargon, neologisms (invented words), ambiguity, vagueness, New Ageisms, and post-modernisms that lend themselves to a multitude of interpretations.

Here's an example of what I consider to be placebo philosophy:

Understanding is the being of such a potentiality of being which is never still outstanding as something not yet objectively present, but as something essentially never objectively present, is together with the being of Dasein in the sense of existence. Dasein is in the way that it actually understands or has not understood to be this way or that way. As this understanding, it 'knows' what is going on, that is, what it's potentiality of being is. This 'knowing' does not first come from an immanent self-perception, but belongs to the being of the there which is essentially understanding.

Martin Heidegger Being and Time 1953

Placebo philosophy is often believed to be intellectually deep, conceptually profound, consequential, and full of value. But its value is evident primarily to believers, those individuals who believe there must surely be something substantial in it because it sounds so important, or because they recognise the author's name, or simply because of the fact that it was published.

Placebo philosophy, just like placebo religion, also has its awe-inspiring sacred texts, cult-like leaders, faithful followers, and seminars. It also has a form of ritual practice: analyzing various published editions and translations of the 'sacred' text to find purity of meaning, searching through secondary and tertiary sources for supportive commentary, even dissecting phrases and scrutinizing their individual words for greater enlightenment, all with a reverential diligence and deferential humility sustained by the belief that, in time, the meaning of the text will clearly reveal itself.

The problem with placebo philosophy is that it causes harm in several ways. First, placebo philosophical writings make the believer feel inadequate because it leads her to believe she lacks the level of philosophical sophistication and intellectual aptitude necessary to clearly understand those esoteric writings which, in fact, can't be clearly understood.

Second, it's a waste of time. Students and graduates alike can study placebo philosophy for many years in what ends up being a futile attempt to make sense of that which is mostly nonsensical. Yet many writers of placebo philosophy have argued that it's acceptable for a concept to be a self-contradictory, self-referential, true by proclamation, and an enigma with no set meaning. But this argument begs the question, Is it true that this is acceptable in philosophy?

Third, in the same way that placebo religion harms legitimate spirituality, placebo philosophy harms legitimate philosophy. It perpetuates the belief among non-believers and non-academics that philosophy is obscure, difficult, mysterious, useless, and largely absurd. Not only that, but placebo philosophy which advocates transcendent illumination can sound exactly like placebo religion, leading to the alienation of individuals who are simply looking for meaningful philosophical discourse on everyday questions and issues.

What's the antidote to placebo philosophy? I believe the only solution is for philosophers themselves to stand up against it, to point it out for what it is when it's encountered, to refuse to study or publish it, and to write the antidote 'prescriptions' themselves in ordinary language. I believe that both placebo philosophy and placebo religion are a reprehensible and manipulative deception of the human mind in its desire for deeper knowledge and higher enlightenment.

© Peter B. Raabe 2008


Professor of Philosophy
University College of the Fraser Valley
Abbotsford, BC

Philosophical Counsellor