Reflection 141: Placebo Consciousness

August 12, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Mankind is beginning to realize that “under-standing” is only an illusion, that life and action are based upon illusions and lead to illusions.   Hans Vaihinger, The Philosophy of ‘As If,’ 1924, International Library of Psychology, Philosophy, and Scientific Method.

Cigarette smoking is a habit often acquired during adolescence as a means of coping with anxiety experienced in stressful social situations. It provides a ready ritual to create the illusion of being as calm and collected as Humphrey Bogart or the Marlboro Man. Too bad it’s addictive and can lead to lung cancer. In that sense, cigarettes are a kind of placebo, something to calm the waters of the soul when they are agitated or internally threatening.

Our word “placebo” stems from Latin placere, to please, and like “pleasant,” “placate,” and “placid,” from a more ancient root meaning to be flat—as a windless sea can be flat calm. Placebo literally means I shall please, taken from the first word of the first antiphon of the Roman Catholic Vespers for the Dead. We use the word today in referring to a sugar pill or some other ruse to make us think we are receiving effective medication when in fact we are not. The mind seizes on the pill as justification for feeling better solely on the basis of wishful thinking. Ineffective in itself, a placebo gives the mind an excuse for no longer feeling sick, leading to the illusion of effective treatment and recovery based on a very real reduction of self-induced stress. Placeboes give us a chance to demonstrate the truth of the old adage, “mind over matter,” or as Luigi Pirandello said, “It’s true if you think so.”

Doesn’t apply to you? Think again. We say the sun rises and sets—which is how we see it—but it is actually the Earth rotating on its axis that creates the illusion. Our word “universe” means one turning, but it isn’t the cosmos that turns but, again, our rotating Earth that is responsible. We don’t feel ourselves on the skin of a top spinning through space, but that’s where we live nonetheless. For myself, I was racing 15 mph over the speed limit today to make an appointment, which I excused with the handy placebo, I didn’t want to be late. The obvious retort to that would be, well, don’t wait till the last minute. We excuse ourselves as a matter of habit, always defending our self-image if not our actual behavior. “Not guilty, your honor,” we plead with a straight face, when we well know we’re guilty as hell. All for the innocent pleasure of being more self-righteous than the next person.

As I am so fond of saying in regard to consciousness, strange business, indeed. Just putting on a new hat can make us feel our social image is more attractive, like putting on make-up or getting our hair “done.” There’s a new bounce in our step and we feel younger and less drab. Donning a dark, pin-stripe suit lends politicians an air of authority, much as Superman takes on superhuman powers by changing his clothes in a phone booth. We defer to people in uniforms as if underneath they weren’t people who eat junk food on the run, argue with their spouses, and yell at their kids. Owning a late-model car lifts our spirits, even though it’s no better than the trade-in we got rid of. Much of what we do depends on the trade in illusions, which every marketer knows and uses in manipulating us to his profit and advantage, along with every minister who calms the waters of his flock by making reassuring noises, and every celebrity who performs the outrageous acts his fans demand as the price of their loyalty to someone they can identify with.

When we reach above the social plane to the theological or cosmological, we outdo ourselves in grasping at illusory placeboes to make us feel good about matters far exceeding human understanding. Vaihinger quotes Immanuel Kant:

I can make possible . . . systematic unity of the manifold of the cosmic whole, by looking upon all interconnection as if they were the orderings of a supreme reason. . . . This rational entity is, of course, a mere Idea, and is not simply and in itself to be accepted as anything real but is only problematically assumed . . . in order that all the connections in the world of sense may be regarded as if they had their basis in this entity, simply and solely however with the object of building thereon a systematic unit . . . which may be indispensable to the reason and is in every way helpful to the empirical understanding. (Page 281.)

So usefulness is Kant’s criterion for calling up the idea of God as the unifying principle which human reason takes as its base. The idea of God is useful in much the same sense placeboes are useful—both reduce stress by invoking illusions that have no merit in themselves. Yet if we take them as true, then in our minds they become true for us. Creating gods of convenience because it pleases us, we are the true creators of the world we choose to inhabit. In Common Sense (1776), Thomas Paine follows much the same procedure in establishing the idea of God as the ultimate source of the rights of man. I quote at some length from Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, (Classic House Books, 2009) to preserve the gist of Paine’s argument:

Before anything can be reasoned upon to a conclusion, certain facts, principles, or data, to reason from, must be established, admitted, or denied. . . . If . . . man has rights, the question then will be: What are those rights, and how man came by them originally? (Page 89.)

The error of those who reason by precedents drawn from antiquity, respecting the rights of man, is that they do not go far enough into antiquity. They do not go the whole way. . . . If we proceed on, we shall at last come out right; we shall come to the time when man came from the hand of his Maker. What was he then? Man. Man was his high and only title, and a higher cannot be given him. (Pages 89-90, italics added.)

The fact is, that portions of antiquity, by proving everything, establish nothing. It is authority against authority all the way, till we come to the divine origin of the rights of man at the creation. Here our enquiries find a resting-place, and our reason finds a home. If a dispute about the rights of man had arisen at the distance of an hundred years from the creation, it is to this source of authority they must have referred, and is to this same source of authority that we must now refer. (Page 90, italics added.)

Though I mean not to touch upon any sectarian principle of religion, yet it may be worth observing, that the genealogy of Christ is traced to Adam. Why then not trace the rights of man to the creation of man? (Page 90, italics added.)

I mean that men are all of one degree, and consequently that all men are born equal, and with equal natural right. . . . Consequently every child born into the world must be considered as deriving its existence from God. The world is as new to him as it was to the first man that existed, and his natural right in it is of the same kind. (Page 91.)

The Mosaic account of the creation, whether taken as divine authority or merely historical, is full to this point, the unity or equality of man. The expression admits of no controversy. “And God said, Let us make man in our own image. In the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” The distinction of sexes is pointed out, but no other distinction is even implied. If this be not divine authority, it is at least historical authority, and shows that the equality of man, so far from being a modern doctrine, is the oldest upon record. (Page 91, italics added.)

Paine, rational man that he is, bases his argument on assumptions neither theological nor historical but mythological through and through. Make-believe is his ultimate authority for determining the origin of the rights of man. Take away God and his creation, Paine’s words fall in a meaningless heap. Yet he is so sure of himself, so relentlessly logical, so self-congratulatory, so much a victim of his prior assumptions that he is clearly peddling placeboes he earnestly feels good about and wants to pass on to us as fundamental truths. Times have not changed all that much due to human consciousness being in charge from Paine’s day to ours. Mind over matter is still our motto; if we believe something to be true, then surely it is. As long as it eases our minds and reduces stress, anxiety goes away and we feel our trusting, childhood selves once again.

Placeboes work because taking them pleases us, putting us in a different—more positive—frame of mind. We’ll settle for that over being right every time, because that’s how consciousness works. Consciousness doesn’t know anything for sure, it only claims to know. There can be no absolutes when it comes to telling truth from untruth, right from wrong. These are invariably matters of opinion and interpretation. The only way to check our beliefs is to adopt an attitude of skepticism, humility, and doubt toward every one of them, asking the ancient question: How can we know that we know what we think we know? And even that is no guarantee we’ll get it right. We must put in our ten-thousand hours if we want to come anywhere near the truth. Deep thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Thomas Paine didn’t reach far enough in seeking to justify their most fundamental assumptions. They merely discovered exactly what was present at the start of their respective trains of thought, and progressed not one inch beyond.

The fact is, there can be no true and fundamental basis for what we believe because the brain has no power to recognize such a basis if it ever came across it. We go with what the crowd believes, or higher authority, or our shelf of great books, or our mothers told us when bouncing us upon her knee. Much of what we earnestly take to be fundamental truth is a placebo we choose to put our faith in on no basis other than that is what suits us at the time. To a man and woman, we are self-made because each of our minds is unique in entertaining whatever enters our heads. Immanuel Kant is right for himself and wrong for everyone else, which is equally true for Thomas Paine, myself, and even the most respected authority. We choose to believe what we do because it accords with our nature and gives us pleasure.

That’s a hard pill to swallow. Which is why we so often resort to sugar pills because they reduce stress and make us feel better right away.

We make ourselves happen to please ourselves. To do it any other way would displease us, which seems senseless. Our only real choice is to press on as far as we can, always paying attention to inconsistencies that might give us pause—and a chance to reconsider the course we are taking in life.

Fluke-72

 

 

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