The well documented Placebo effect is something of an aberrant datum for those who would aspire to Mathematize medicine with the same precision we have achieved in Physics. Medicine, however, is an entirely empirical field. We discover some diseases, and then we go to work constructing theories about what precisely is wrong, and how to fix it, and when we think we’ve found it, we give the patient the medicine we have abductively reasoned our way to, and we hold our breath to see if it works. However, even if it works, that doesn’t entail that our theory was correct, but merely adds to the plausibility that our theory is correct. After all, the person’s getting better might be explained by the Placebo effect.
In reflecting on this, a thought crossed my mind which might be worth brief exposition. What if one were to contend that the whole field of medicine were in the business of simply inculcating the placebo effect all the time? What I mean is that perhaps one could explain medicine’s success by appealing to some global placebo effect: that patients themselves trust the doctors or believe, subconsciously, that medicine will work, and that this is the reason why it does work so much of the time.
This seems wrong for two clear reasons: first that it suggests that our knowledge of medicine doesn’t correspond to the real mind-independent world, and second that medicine seems to work whether people believe it will or not. The first problem is just philosophical, and I would want to bracket it from the following discussion. The second problem, however, could admit of solutions. Perhaps people believe strongly, even irresistibly, in the veracity of science, but only sub-consciously, and thus the placebo effect would be enforced by reason of a strongly held sub-conscious conviction that medicine works.
To push this further, let us consider another solution to the problem of medicine’s being effective seemingly regardless of belief. Let us imagine that observers actually effect that which they observe, as some models of quantum mechanics might suggest; why not imagine, if only for the sake of intellectual play, that even people who have no confidence in medicine’s ability to cure them (such as crazy people, or indeed people who received medicine without their being aware that they received it), might get better precisely because other observers expected them to get better. We might even say that those observers could have had an effect on them from some point in the future, so long as we believe that two-way determinism is possible. Thus, some cure worked at some time in the past precisely because the model of medicine to which we adhere in the future provides people with confidence looking back on the event, that the cure should have worked. Thus it is because of a kind of global placebo effect that the cure was effective.
This would rob medicine of it’s reality while ‘saving the appearances’. It almost certainly isn’t true, nor is anything like it true, but it is interesting to toss the idea around in the mind. I can even think of one or two reasons why a naturalist would be attracted to the idea. For instance, it tidily explains miracles including, but not restricted to, miraculous healings, and reduces such ‘miracles’ to mere paranormal events which may be scientifically explained in the future (that is, we may in the future construct models of the world in which what were previously thought miraculous events are explained in the context of a grand story which does not involve God). Most naive naturalists may be content to simply dismiss miracles with that old narrative about how there are always better or more likely naturalistic explanations, but I think that answer is increasingly being recognized as unsatisfactory given the actual evidence we have for miracles such as Fatima or even the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
In any case, it was just a thought for the sake of intellectual play. One final interesting thought along the same lines: if anything like this global placebo effect were true then we could imagine medicine breaking down at some point in the future, having no regular efficacy (but only sporadic efficacy). This might signal a massive paradigm shift in the future to which we are coming.
Again, all of this is offered in jest and ought not be taken too seriously (I certainly don’t believe anything like this) – it was only purposed as an intellectual catalyst.