Ever since I started blogging about atheism — and thus started reading more about religion than I have at any time in my life since I was a religion major in college — I’ve been puzzled by a particular brand of pro-theism argument. It’s the “religion is good for you” arguments: religion gives people comfort, religion gives people hope, religion gives people moral guidance, etc. etc. etc.
There arguments always struck me as evidence of weakness rather than strength. In fact, it’s almost a concession of defeat. “Okay, maybe the arguments for religion being true aren’t so great… but the kids love us! It makes people so happy! Isn’t that enough?” And I’m baffled by the “self-administered placebo” quality of the arguments. I understand unconscious self-deception — we all do it — but conscious self-deception? How the heck does that work? Doesn’t a placebo stop working when you know it’s a placebo?
I still think it’s a weak argument. But I’m in this “trying to be relentlessly honest with myself” phase lately (probably because of that Mistakes Were made book). So I’ve been asking myself: Is that really true? Is the do- it- yourself placebo really that hard to understand? Is there really no area of my life where I know that something isn’t true, but act as if it were anyway because I find it useful?
And just off the top of my head, I came up with two:
Setting the alarm clock fifteen minutes fast. And decaf coffee.
Setting the alarm clock fast is a great example. I know that the alarm clock is fast. I’ve been setting the alarm clock fast for most of my adult life. In fact, the amount of time I’ve been setting it fast has been gradually sneaking up over the years: in my younger days I only set it five minutes fast, but I’m used to it being fast now, and I now have to set it a full fifteen minutes ahead.
But it still works. In my groggy, half-awake state, I still don’t quite grasp the whole “alarm clock being set fifteen minutes fast” concept. I see the time as 9:00; I think, “Shit, I have to get out of bed”; I don’t figure out until I’m out of bed that it was really only 8:45. The do-it-yourself placebo works.
Decaf coffee is an even better example. I don’t drink regular coffee at all anymore, unless I get it by mistake. I haven’t for years. I seem to have what the shrinks call an addictive personality, and I seem to be incapable of having just one or two cups of regular coffee a day. And regular coffee (or cola, which I also don’t drink any more) puts me on an ugly emotional rollercoaster, an unpleasant cycle of peaks and crashes that repeats several times a day. It’s not worth it.
But when I drink decaf coffee, I get just a little lift: enough to perk me up without putting me on the rollercoaster. It’s gotten to the point where I drink it almost every day… and I get cranky and listless when I can’t have it.
I used to tell myself that the reason for this was that even decaf cofee has just a little caffeine in it, and that’s what I was getting the lift from. But I’ve seen charts listing the relative amounts of caffeine in different substances… and decaf coffee is consistently at the bottom of the list, by a wide margin. It has a little caffeine, yes; but the amount is negligible. It’s definitely less than chocolate, for instance.
And yet decaf coffee gives that wide-eyed perked-up feeling way more than chocolate does.
Now, I’ve read that coffee is a complex drug plant, with caffeine as the main psychoactive ingredient but with other psychoactive ingredients as well. So it could be that that’s what’s going on. I’m getting the other components of coffee, ones that make me jittery and anxious without actually making me wakeful and alert.
But I’m dubious. I strongly suspect that what’s going on is almost entirely Pavlovian. I smell the coffee; I taste the coffee; I perk up. And that’s still true — even after seeing the caffeine charts, and knowing full well that, pharmacalogically, there’s little or nothing going on.
It’s a do-it-yourself placebo.
And it still works.
So I’m taking a poll. Do any of you have any do-it-yourself placebos? Are there any areas of your life where you act as if something were true, even though you know full well that it’s not, simply because you find it useful or comforting? Inquiring minds want to know.