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.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.
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).
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.