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Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Supernatural Explanation of Visions

In two prior posts (here and here), I discussed Philip Wiebe's accounts of visions of Jesus both in history and today and I also compared the quality of the evidence for contemporary visions versus the quality of the evidence for the post-mortem appearances of Jesus recorded in the Bible.

In the second half of Wiebe's book, Visions of Jesus: Direct Encounters from the New Testament to Today, he analyzes all of the evidence and discusses three different interpretations of the visions: 1) Supernatural, 2) Psychological, and 3) Neurophysiological. (Another explanation that Wiebe seems to have ruled out is that the reports of these visions are just blatant fabrications. He does this on the basis of the volume of the reports and the sincerity of the individuals he interviewed.)

Supernatural explanations of visions were the exclusive interpretation until at least the 18th century and remained the dominant interpretation well into the 20th century. It is the view held by most religious people still today. Typically, visions that agree or confirm one's theology are considered to be from God and those that do not are believed to come from a diabolical source.

Psychological (sometimes called mentalism in philosophical discourse) explanations are apt to suggest that apparitions are brought on by mental states such as stress, or wishing, or a state of expectancy. Unconscious mental states are sometimes considered as well (p. 151).

Neurophysiological (sometimes called physicalism in philosophical literature) explanations tend to employ only the hard sciences such as chemistry, biology, and so on to interpret the origin of the vision phenomena.

The supernatural interpretation of events has typically been employed throughout history to explain any phenomena for which there did not seem to be a natural explanation. In ancient times, this involved a great deal of phenomena; today it involves much less. However, theists and especially Christian theists will argue for the supernatural explanation, at least of the NT visions of Jesus, on the basis that it is the best explanation of the evidence. Some more sophisticated apologists will argue that since science has postulated unseen entities to explain certain phenomena, then they are justified in postulating an invisible God to explain certain phenomena such as the resurrection of Jesus. Wiebe deals with this argument. He says that the theist defines the nature of the invisible entity, supposedly causing the phenomena, in advance rather than defining its properties in response to the empirical data, as science does. He explains:

Assigning properties to an entity by definition [as theists do of God] is contrary to the way in which theoretical enterprises are generally introduced, according to the causal theory of reference. These entities do not have their properties fixed in advance of the empirical inquiry that determines which properties should be tentatively assigned to them. Evidence is often obtained for the existence of new particles from photographic plates that record collisions between known particles. Tracks or gaps on these plates provide the basis for such posits, and a short gap in an otherwise well-defined track indicates that a particle having no electrical charge exists for a short time. Using principles of conservation of mass and energy, physicists can tentatively assign to it various properties such as mass, charge, and life span. These properties are subject to revision as more information becomes available about the newly posited entity.

What is important here is the empirical openness that is exhibited toward the posited entity in question. It "comes into being" primarily by its causal relationships with known objects or events, but its properties are not determined in advance (emphasis mine). They are filled in as empirical information becomes available. Traditional monotheism, by contrast, posits a being with a definition of many of its properties already in place. Instead of allowing properties to evolve as phenomena unfold, traditional monotheism begins with a conception of what it insists on finding
(p. 158).
So, as Wiebe shows, the apologists attempt to use the practices of modern science to justify their belief in an invisible cause fails because, contrary to science, they have defined the causal agent with all of its properties in advance instead of allowing the empirical data to shape the definition. In addition, scientists are only positing these entities tentatively and not dogmatically as the Christian theist does of his God.

In the next couple of posts, we will look at the psychological and neurophysiological explanations and then attempt to make a conclusion on which interpretation holds the best promise in explaining the phenomena of visions.


  1. ---

    The man problem with the supernatural explanation, as drafted above, is that if there are several sources (good and diabolical), why what verificable creteria are we to distinguish which is coming from the true God, and which is coming from the diabolical sources? This seems to be an insurmountable problem. If there are visions of Jesus that are supernatural in origin, one would assume that Christianity is correct; but, then we have several accounts of Muhammed being sited and Kali and Vishnu and Odin. Which one is coming from the God and which from some demonic source? How do we know? More importantly, How CAN we know?

    Even with the Christian concept, is Catholicism correct because of the visions of Mary, which seems to be in direct contradiction with the most important Christian revelation: Scripture...?

    Allowing a supernatural explanation to ALL visions creates FAR more questions than it answers, especially questions about the character of the God allowing all these visions contradictory to himself to exist. How loving can he be if he allows demons to cause such visions, thus allowing so many people to be deceived and led to Hell? Does he have the power to stop the demons? If he doesn't have the power, then how can we be sure that he will one day defeat evil? Too many questions.

    The other possibility for the Christian (or any theist of any particular faith claiming visions) is that their visions are genuinely supernatural, while the others are matters of natural explanation. But, again, how do we know who is seeing supernatural visions and who is just having hallucinations or mistaken sightings?

    Lastly, even if the majority of these non-Christian visions are purely natural, while Jesus/Mary visions are supernatural, how do those experiencing non-Christian visions know that? They believe (just as strongly as Christians) that they have experienced confirmation of their faith. So, without a verifiable way to distinguish supernatural visions from visions of a purely natural explanation, questions about the character of desires of God take center stage?

    Why is a supposedly good and loving God allowing all these contradictory and mutually exclusive visions (and other revelations) to coexist? Can God still send peoplpe to Hell for not being Christians if they adhere to the wrong faith their entire lives after having seen a vision that, to them, was a verification of their faith? These questions could be multiplied.

    Stephen Law may be on to something. These various visions (and other miracles attributed to specific deities) are either best explained by the existence of an evil God, deliberately bent on deceiving us and causing as much strife between us as possible, or we realize that they all have purely natural explanations.

    As far as I can tell, these are the simplest explanations, that leave us asking the fewest amounts of questions.

  2. Exploring,

    Excellent observations and thanks for bringing up Stephen Law. He has a great blog with some good stuff on religious experiences.

    Do you know exactly where he makes the observation that you refer to in your post. I would like to document it.

  3. Exploring,

    I found it. Law's post on the subject is found here, in case anyone wants to read it.

  4. ---


    I've never read that post of his, but I can't wait to dig into it. Thanks!

    I was actually referring to Stephen Law's more recent article on using an evil God to explain the creation and sustenance of the universe. In it, he details quite many different 'reverse theodicies', and when he writes about revelatory issues (miralces, visions, etc.), he proposes that the various and disparate natures of such events seems to be explained better by positing an evil god than positing a good one.

    It's a very interesting argument. Stephen Law is a terrific read and a very brilliant man.