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Part I
Introduction to the Project

Chapter 1

I. Overview of the Topic

This dissertation is an attempt to take a serious, scholarly, and philosophical look at the power of thoughts and beliefs in healing the human body, as well as at the attempts to apply this power in practice. My aim is to formulate an ontology that explains both the power of the mind and the stubbornness of facts. I intend to establish two theses:

  1. That our thoughts and beliefs are a real and potent force in healing wounds and disease.
  2. That there is nothing supernatural in this apparently "miraculous" process.

On the contrary, I believe the healing power of thought to be really quite mundane, once we let go of some philosophical assumptions that have dominated nineteenth- and twentieth-century intellectual life, assumptions that I believe are, in any case, long overdue for serious questioning and critical evaluation.

The theory that our thoughts can heal is perhaps as old as the practice of healing itself. In modern times, however, the philosophical inquiry into the phenomenon was initiated by two American spiritual movements that began in the late nineteenth century. One was an organized church that called itself "Christian Science," the central teachings of which were outlined in Science and Health by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.(1) The other was a loosely organized confederation of religious and quasi-religious organizations that comprised the International New Thought Alliance (INTA). INTA organizations were first inspired by writers such as Horatio Dresser, Ralph Waldo Trine, and (later) Emma Curtis Hopkins.

The ideology of these two movements was first formulated by a nineteenth-century New England clock-maker named Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, who taught that the mind has the power to cure disease.(2) It was this very power of the mind, Quimby proclaimed, that Jesus used in his healing ministry. For Quimby and his philosophical followers, the so-called "miracles" of the world's great religions never involved the suspension of natural laws by a Supernatural Deity, but were manifestations of natural metaphysical principles, immutable "scientific" laws, much like those of thermodynamics. However, these "laws" include some very debatable propositions, such as the omnipotence, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence of God and an idealist metaphysical principle called the "law of cause and effect." This particular rendition of causality states simply that mind is cause and matter its effect. The entire material world is nothing but a projection of our own belief systems. We could all be eternally healthy, wealthy, and wise were it not for our conscious and subconscious beliefs to the contrary. This idea involved a literal interpretation of the Biblical proverb, "So as he thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Proverbs 23:6, KJV), and Jesus' words, "If ye have faith and doubt not... [and] if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done" (Matthew 21:21, KJV). In this metaphysic, all physical medical cures, such as drugs, surgery, and even nutrition, are placebos. The real way to "cure" any disease is to become aware of one's own Divinity and thereby one's innate wholeness and perfection. Physical cures are really nothing more than ways to convince ourselves that we are already well -- even though we may have a fever of 103 and be in considerable pain at the time. The problem is that this entails believing what our senses tell us is contrary to fact. However, if we can somehow come to believe sincerely that our real nature is health, our mind (the true causal agent of the cure) will heal us, and all appearances to the contrary will vanish. The physical treatment is really nothing more than a convincing form of self-hypnosis.(3)

For over a century this movement, which William James labeled "mind-cure" or "the religion of healthy-mindedness,"(4) has had its ebbs and flows. Although it has never captured the hearts of the American mainstream, neither has it disappeared entirely. This is as true today as it was nearly a century ago, when James devoted an entire chapter of his Varieties of Religious Experience to it.(5) Cynics and materialists will argue that the only reason these philosophies persist is the unfortunate human tendency towards wishful thinking. However, like James, I find it hard to dismiss them so quickly. There is too much supporting evidence to write them all off as childish dreams. On the other hand, it is equally difficult to argue that mental power is absolute, as Christian Scientists and most New Thought thinkers claim. While faith has in some instances cured cancer and even AIDS, its record of success with broken bones and ruptured appendices, not to mention broken fan belts, is much less impressive. These problems still require a doctor or mechanic, not a minister or psychotherapist. Orthodox believers in Christian Science or New Thought will attribute the failures of mind-cure to a lack of faith. In short, it would seem that there is something obviously wrong as well as something very right with Christian Science and New Thought philosophies.

II. Importance of the Topic

I chose this topic for two reasons -- one primarily intellectual, the other deeply personal. Intellectually, I believe it is an important philosophical topic that philosophers are neglecting.

In popular literature, it has recently been a hotly-debated topic for several years. According to one religious historian, the influence of New Thought on American religion is far greater than its relatively small numbers would suggest.(6) In health care it is already in the spotlight. In alternative medicine its gospel has been preached for decades. Moreover, as the appointment of writer Norman Cousins to the UCLA medical school faculty in the 1980s indicates, it has recently begun to attract the attention of the medical mainstream. Mental health care professionals are also very much interested in its ideas. In my experience attending Religious Science and other New Thought churches, I have observed a relatively large number of psychotherapists of various sorts among its members. Positive-thinking philosophy is perhaps surprisingly well established in the business community. Pragmatic and sometimes materialistic as they are, business people are often quicker than academicians to accept positive-thinking philosophy. The power of positive thinking is now almost orthodox in sales training. Sales trainers from Dale Carnegie to "Zieg" Ziegler have been advocating it since the 1930s -- and sales people also attend New Thought churches in disproportionately high numbers. From my own observation, there seem to be more people from sales, in fact, than from any other single occupation in New Thought. Management consultants are also embracing its ideas. I have personally heard speakers at both the Society for the Advancement of Management and the American Society for Training and Development say, "To think is to create."

Conspicuously absent from the discussion are academic philosophers. At first, this surprised me, because the discussion is philosophical from the outset. Few of the people teaching these concepts have any formal philosophical training and background, and even fewer have undertaken formal graduate study in philosophy. In the entire United States I know of only one active professional academic philosopher, Alan Anderson, of Curry College in Massachusetts, who attends INTA meetings. This lack of training becomes evident in some of the popular literature, in which some respected and well-known "authorities" on the subject propagate all kinds of hair-brained and fantastic notions. Meanwhile, serious philosophers remain conspicuously silent. In short, a very large segment of the population has a very real philosophical need that serious philosophers are simply ignoring.

One possible reason why philosophers have neglected the topic is suggested by David Ray Griffin, who argues that philosophers, whether they acknowledge it or not, are still trapped in the seventeenth-century Cartesian paradigm of mind and matter as different types of things. Mind is conceived as a thinking, perceiving and feeling substance, and matter is an extended substance that has mass and velocity. Those who explicitly affirm dualism have the problem of explaining how the mind and body interact. The other popular alternative, materialism, is really a form of crypto-dualism, insofar as the body is regarded as devoid of all experience while the reality of what we call the mind's experience cannot help but be acknowledged. Those who adopt any version of materialism still have the problem of explaining how experience could arise from matter. Moreover, insofar as they deny to the mind any autonomy from the brain, they cannot attribute any freedom or efficacy to our conscious experience. While they might be comfortable in intellectually embracing radical determinism and epiphenomenalism, they do not (and probably cannot) avoid presupposing in practice some form of free will and causation from the mind to the body.(7) However, from a materialist perspective, any argument saying that the mind can heal would appear as simply impossible and not worthy of serious discussion.

This dissertation is therefore aimed at two audiences: The first is those who want to take a critical look at theories about the mind's power before or while attempting to apply them. My aim is to provide a resource that people can use to evaluate positive-thinking philosophies -- before they have invested too much time and money in them. The second intended audience is composed of fellow philosophers and theologians, who are missing a tremendous opportunity. These are not good economic times for education in general and liberal arts education in particular. I would like to suggest the hypothesis that maybe our budgets would not shrink so fast if we directed more attention and effort towards serving the actual needs of the community that supports us. I am not saying that we should cease writing papers in professional journals for review by our peers. But I am suggesting that this is not the main reason why the tax-payers and philanthropists fund philosophy and religion departments. We have a chance here to breathe new life into public interest in philosophy, and especially the philosophy of religion. Carpe diem!

The other reason is personal. The well-known "Serenity Prayer" of Alcoholics Anonymous, originally written Reinhold Niebuhr, reads:

God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed;
Give us the courage to change what should be changed;
Give us the wisdom to distinguish one from the other

I believe the Stoics were right in saying we have direct control over only two aspects of life: our own thoughts and actions. The motto of the Church of Religious Science is: "Change your thinking, change your life." If this proposition is true, we may have a tremendous untapped capacity locked up in our belief systems and habits of thinking. Since I first became involved in New Thought over ten years ago, my life has become a testing ground for this very hypothesis. Sometimes its teachings appear true; other times not. However, the nature and extent of their truth is for me a matter of intense personal interest. I have witnessed my wife's successful use of mental healing techniques to bring herself out of a life-threatening flare-up of systemic lupus, a congenital disease for which there is no conventional medical cure. During this period, moreover, she also came to see how the flare-up itself had originated from her own attitudes and beliefs. I too have used the various techniques of positive-thinking philosophy, such as affirmations, visualizations, and prayer, in all aspects of my life -- with varying degrees of success.

III. Overview of My Approach

This essay contains eleven chapters, divided into three parts. Part I, "Introduction to the Project," introduces the essay and defines both terminology and the criteria for a satisfactory theory. It consists of the following chapters:

  1. Introduction (this chapter)
  2. Definitions of Terms and of Regulative Principles

Part II, "Empirical Evidence," presents some of the evidence supporting the thesis that psychosomatic healing occurs. It consists of five chapters:

  1. An Overview of the Empirical Evidence
  2. Evidence from the Placebo Effect
  3. The Nascent Science of Psychoneuroimmunology
  4. Controlled Statistical Studies of Mental Healing
  5. Documented Evidence for Psychosomatic Causation

Part III, "Philosophical Arguments," investigates the philosophical problems surrounding the subject of mental healing and presents suggestions about how we might begin to resolve them. It consists of the following four chapters.

  1. Conclusions from the Evidence
  2. Of Ghosts and Machines: Understanding the Mystery of Mind over Matter
  3. Whitehead's Process Model
  4. Objections, Replies and Conclusions

In the Chapter 2, I formulate working definitions of basic concepts such as mind, matter, thought, belief, and faith. I pay special attention to the last three, because, although they are not the same, they are easily confused. I also outline the regulative principles that define a satisfactory theory of the power of thought. Finally, I distinguish two forms of mental healing. Psychosomatic healing is the ability to heal one's self via one's own thinking, and psychokinetic healing is the ability of one person to heal another. The scope of this essay is limited to the former.

The next five chapters deal with the empirical evidence supporting the proposition that thoughts can heal. References include works by Michael Murphy, Norman Cousins, Larry Dossey, and Bernie Siegel, as well as other authors to whom they refer. Some examples of this evidence are studies of the placebo effect, hypnosis, biofeedback, mental and spiritual healing, and the infant science of psychoneuroimmunology. These chapters focus on the power of thought to heal or affect bodily functions in unusual ways. The Chapter 3, "An Overview of the Evidence," discusses the kinds of evidence included and presents an overview of the material covered in the next four chapters. Chapter 4, "Evidence from the Placebo Effect," covers evidence for the power of mental healing via placebos. Chapter 5, "The Nascent Science of Psychoneuroimmunology," covers recent discoveries linking the immune system with the nervous and endocrine systems. Chapter 6, "Controlled Statistical Studies of Mental Healing," reviews some of the controlled empirical studies supporting the proposition that thinking can both cause and cure disease. Chapter 7, "Documented Evidence for Psychosomatic Causation," moves beyond evidence for mental healing as such to documented evidence for various extraordinary ways in which thinking can affect the body. In all cases discussed, logic and common sense indicate that the probability of any fraud or coincidence is extremely low.

Chapter 8, "Conclusions from the Evidence," the first chapter in the philosophical part, serves as a transition to the philosophical discussions that follow. It summarizes the immediate implications of the evidence. Because so many have seriously argued that the evidence is not worth examining, the first section of this chapter is devoted to the merits of examining the evidence. The second section explains how the evidence indicates that psychosomatic factors do indeed play a role in causing, preventing, and curing disease. The third section is an overview of the immediate philosophical implications of the evidence.

In Chapter 9, "Of Ghosts and Machines: Understanding the Mystery of Mind over Matter," I address the philosophical problems involved with psychosomatic healing in greater detail. First, I summarize the philosophical implications of the empirical evidence presented in the previous chapter. Then I trace the origins of the mystery of mind over matter to certain assumptions in Descartes's philosophy. The third section is an overview of current state of affairs in mind-body philosophy. Drawing heavily from David Ray Griffin's Unsnarling the World-Knot, I argue that, in recent times, only two theories of mind and matter have been given legitimacy: Cartesian dualism and monistic materialism. Epiphenomenalism, a possible third alternative, is a compromise between the other two, but it leans heavily in the direction of materialism. In epiphenomenalism the mind is a mere effect generated by the brain; in materialism it does not really exist as a distinct entity or activity at all. It is extremely difficult to explain any power of thought -- even the ability to make simple decisions -- in terms of any of these three views. According to materialism and epiphenomenalism, mental power is simply impossible, so that any appearances of such must be illusory.

Dualism, the view that mind and matter are both real but totally different types of actualities, can account for the mind's freedom and ability to make decisions, but it cannot explain how mind and matter interact. In dualism, the power of thought to affect the body is mysterious if not supernatural. Mental or spiritual healing is often viewed as a "miracle" effected by the personal intervention of God. I suggest that, if we stop limiting our alternatives to dualism, materialism, and epiphenomenalism, the so-called paranormal effects of mind on matter seem much less bizarre.

The idealist alternative, although out of vogue among academic philosophers, has been the preferred metaphysical view among advocates of mental healing, who generally work outside the academy. Although the idealist model explains mental healing better than dualism or materialism, it fails to explain the limitations of the mind's power and why psychosomatic healing techniques often fail.

I end Chapter 9 with a general observation about the mind-body problem, which traces its origins back beyond Descartes to the thinking of Aristotle. I argue that, as long as we attempt to address the philosophical issues underlying the problem of mental healing, i.e., mind-body interaction and efficient causation as real influence, in terms of substances and attributes, then any attempt to understand either mental healing or the underlying philosophical issues is doomed to failure. A radically new way of understanding the world is needed to render these concepts intelligible.

In Chapter 10, "Whitehead's Process Model," I present a philosophical framework that was specifically designed to address the two philosophical issues, efficient causation and the mind-body relationship, which underlie the problem of mental healing. I briefly overview Whitehead's argument that the basic elements of our experience are not the minds and bodies that comprise the subject matter of ordinary conversation, but "actual occasions," moments of experience that are both mental and physical. Next, I outline how he develops his theories of causation and the mind-matter relationship based on this view. Then I show how they apply to the process of psychosomatic healing.

In Chapter 11, "Objections, Replies, and Conclusions," I attempt to anticipate and answer objections that might be raised. I divide the objections and replies by philosophical paradigm, beginning with the likely objections of materialists, moving on to those of dualists and idealists, and then to some general objections against the Process model that anyone could raise. I conclude that, although Whitehead surely does not have the last word on the philosophical issues involved in mental healing, his philosophy certainly is an excellent starting point, in that provides a viable, natural theology of mental healing.

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Notes on Chapter 1

1 Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures (Boston: First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1994). First published in 1890. Return to text

2 Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, The Quimby Manuscripts, Horatio W. Dresser, ed. (New York: T.Y. Crowell, 1921). Return to text

3 Although this view might appear strange and fantastic to the typical modern mind, it does follow from the basic premise of idealism, which says the material world and everything in it is but a figment of the mind. Return to text

4 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience in William James: Writings 1902-1910 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1987) 77-120. Return to text

5 James, Varieties, 77-120 Return to text

6 Catherine Albanese, America: Religion and Religions, Second Edition (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing, 1992), 272. Return to text

7 David Ray Griffin, Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1998) especially Chapters 6, 9 and 10. Return to text

8 This is Niebuhr's original wording, but it has other variations. See Richard Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 290. Return to text