Friday, October 7, 2011

Is the Hallucination Hypothesis improbable?

Sorry for not posting much recently, my dear readers- um, reader. I have recently contracted some sort of nasty virus which makes me feel dizzy and think not-good. My brother got it a few days before me, and is already better- so I doubt it'll take much longer for myself. Anyways when I checked out my blog, I got this comment from Chris W:
"So, do you think we have to simply go down the list in 1 Cor 15 and explain each appearance? Or do you think there might have been an earlier historical core on which the list is based on--one with less fantastic group visions and no additions like 'according to the scriptures'? "

As soon as I read it, I hastily sent off a response, admitting that I don't know, and that I usually concede that the creed is accurate, for the sake of argument. For me, it's nice to have a  theory that accounts for all of the potential data- and hallucinatory experiences seem to do that. However, after thinking about it a bit- I realised that he has a point. This theory does seem kinda improbable.

Of course, I believe that no naturalistic theory for the resurrection has ever been "perfect"- that is, none have ever accounted for all of the available data at least as well as the "resurrection hypothesis". However, I don't think a naturalistic explanation needs to be exactly on par with a supernatural explanation for it to be considered, let alone favored over it. For one thing, if one is a naturalist, and finds it extremely difficult to fit God into the universe, the probability of the resurrection completely plummets, until anything is more probable than it. Also, if one has a religious experience incompatible with Christianity, they would also consider Jesus' resurrection to be very improbable.

Of course, I am not saying that we need to believe in space aliens or evil twins to remain skeptics- quite the contrary, I believe that some alternative explanations for the resurrection actually account for different pieces of information better than the resurrection hypothesis- for example, they explain the nature of the visions very well. They also explain away failed prophecies and the early disciples false scientific beliefs- but I'll save that for a later post.

All that I intend to do is show is that skeptical hypothesis aren't too implausible to believe. For one thing, apparitions are quite well known- and studied from a secular perspective (see here and here). However, I don't want to spoil too much since I plan to blog about them in the future. All that's important is that they happen more often than we'd think. We also know that visionary experiences (including group visions) were actually very common in Jesus' day- in fact, they were so common they were considered "normal". We also know that in many of these instances, the seers don't see the same thing, even though they initially think they do- which seems much more probable according to a naturalistic hypothesis than a supernatural one.

Just as a concluding thought- I want to discuss apologists that undermine the hallucination hypothesis. William Lane Craig, in spite of his ego, usually accepts that they are at least possible, stating that he feels that they are ad-hoc and improbable. Fair enough. Some other scholars, however, are much more antagonistic towards it. These scholars are most notably Gary Habermas and Mike Licona. For one thing, Habermas denies that they can even happen! Being a protestant, I wonder how he'd explain away the Marian Apparitions? Licona falls into this same trap as well. As a matter of fact, during his debate with Bart Ehrman, he once again claims ignorance as to how the Marian apparitions came to be, once again stating he hasn't seen the evidence! This is academic dishonesty, plain and simple.


  1. Hey, it's your reader ;)

    You know, it's a funny and pleasant coincidence that you've been blogging about this topic the same time I've started to really think hard about it. We also both seem to have a strong admiration for Dale Allison's work. Lately, I've been playing apologist's advocate and seriously considering that group hallucinations, though possible, are still quite improbable, and this affects the plausibility of the hallucination hypothesis (HH). I think the HH is the best natural explanation for the resurrection we have, but more work needs to be done for it to be really convincing. Specifically, I think we need to realize that reports of authentic experiences can be multipied and exaggerated. I find it strange that in Resurrecting Jesus, for all his rigor and caution, Allison pretty much accepts 1 Cor. 15 at face value, not even attempting to find an earlier tradtion behind it. I think a truly plausible HH would look something like this:

    1. Peter has a vision of Jesus that seems solid and real. James does too. They start sharing their experiences with others. A couple members of the twelve have dreams of Jesus. A couple others, while praying together, feel his presence. Another hears Jesus' voice. Another sees someone who looks like Jesus briefly on a croweded street. All these experiences are common in the bereaved.

    2. The disciples get together to try to make sense of all this. Some doubt there is anything to it. Most are happy to believe God has vindicated their master in some way. Some think Jesus' spirit has visited them. Others strongly insist that the Jesus they saw was solid and real, not a spirit. Excitement builds. More visions and dreams occur. They pray and search the scriptures. Eventually we get the doctrine of the resurrection.

    3. They start to preach. Stories get told and retold. Some get combined, others embellished. They preform exorcisms and healings in front of large crowds. Soon others outside of the inner circle are claiming to have seen Jesus alive too. The stories grow and multiply.

    4. After a couple years, we get something like what eventually ends up in 1 Cor. 15. Peter, the leader, is given priorty. The twelve, the movement's inner circle, come second, but in a general way instead of the original experiences listed separately, party because some original members have dropped out and been replaced by others, and party because some can't get their original, perhaps conflcting, stories straight. A few stories about appearances to large crowds make the list, though their basis is in legend and crowd hysteria, not the original experiences of the disciples. James is given a specific mention because, like Peter, he is an important leader in the movement, and a personal appearance certifies this. Paul uses his own story about his experience (whatever it was) to justify his leadership role as well.

    There are obviously many ways you can vary such a scenario. I find support for my construction in this post

    though the examples he uses don't seem to be analogous to what we have going on in with the visions of Jesus, so I don't know how much weight to give them. Interestingly, in the Ehrman-Liacona debate you mentioned, Ehrman, in his last rebuttal, says the appearance to the twelve is a later tradition, though he is too vague for my tastes. I wish he would go more into what he thinks actually happened.

    All right, I'm done for now. Thanks for letting me use your blog as a dumping ground for my rambling gibberish :)

  2. Man oh man do we think alike! No, please, ask away! I used to visit many blogs, questioning their blog owners on what they thought really happened. Some got really pissed at me. For instance, I was actually kicked off debunking christianity for challenging mythicists and uninformed resurrection skeptics! Personally, I liked the site, so that hurt. Also, for an atheist blog owner, that's a great way to guarantee not getting as many viewers :( Anyways, I agree with you that the tradition is probably stretched. I just haven't done much research into how much it has been stretched. Heres my layman's opinion or what probably happened. I would like to read up on it and see how many skeptics agree with me.

    I think that the first vision (Peter or Mary) was definitely very vivid and lifelike. If it were Mary, I wouldn't be surprised, since the little info we have on her makes her appear to be schizophrenic. Now, if Mary were to have had the first vision, I would only guess why they'd say so in the gospels and not in the creed. The apologist will say they removed her from it to make it more marketable. That's when I'd say EXACTLY! I'd think that if you believe the disciples WOULD or even COULD do that, the chances of that the reed was inaccurate increase.

    Another oddity about the creed is that it seems to be going in order of importance- again making the creed look like propaganda and not a fact. For one thing, we have Peter, the twelve, than the 500. Peter, being the most important disciple, the twelve being second place, and the five hundred being, perhaps, the most impressive. Either that, or it's just the collective visions that occurred before James converted, which I suppose would itself be a noteworthy event, leading to a break between that vision and the new set of "the rest". Personally, I think the 500 was a mass vision, of which the numbers were exaggerated- I mean, lets be reasonable- how could you even count 500 people? Anyhow, I think that, after this set of visions, James started having doubts about Judaism, and converted after having his own vision (or seeing Jesus in a crowd or even lying). After that, the rest of the disciples started having visions and seeing him in crowds, and other things like that, so they were all lumped together. It seems possible to me at least, considering the way they said "the rest". Perhaps it was necessary to have a vision of the risen christ in the early church? Finally, sometime after these visions, when the Jews finally noticed this movement, Paul started getting scared, wondering if Christianity may be correct.

    This seems plausible to me. Of course, there are other arguments- but I'll go into those on another post. I'll probably do more research into the historicity of the creed itself for a later post, too. the only thing I will note is that, although it's early, bereavement visions typically occur even earlier than the creed is dated. So they still had 10-25 years for them to enhance the story- An amount I think mat be reasonable. Remember, people enhance there memories all the time; so long as these guys had a reason to want their memories to appear a certain way (ie: like a resurrection), they could re-interpret their memories easily! However, once again, I don't know as much as I should. Maybe I'll email Allison or Casey about it- or even WLC!

    BTW: I am also frustrated that Ehrman never talks about what he thinks actually happened. At the end of his debate with WLC, he mentions that he believes that the earliest disciples of Jesus understood his resurrection as a "spiritual resurrection". I think he shares the same view as the well respected scholar Maurice Casey, who outlines it in his book on jesus. Considering his status amongst his fellow scholars, his views may be quite plausible, too.

  3. Good stuff, Andy. We do think alike--we seem to have come up with similar theories independently. I'm interested to see what you come up with as to what scholars are saying about the origins of the Corinthian creed. Unfortunately, my college library only has one commentary on I Corinthians (Anchor Bible, I think), and from what I remember, the discussion of the creed was less than satisfying to me.

    Re: frustration with "uninformed resurrection skeptics" on the internet. I feel your pain. Though I've found John Loftus' books helpful, the current crop of commenters on Debunking Christianity is a good example of the awful quality of internet discussion about the historical Jesus and the resurrection. Apologists--like Craig and Wright, who are smart guys with powerful, serious arguments--are either dismissed, slandered, or ignored. The best skeptics--real, informed ones like Allison and Casey--are virtually unknown outside of specialists and a few educated laymen. And of course, Jesus-mythicism seems to be the default position of "freethinkers" these days. It's quite pathetic, really.

  4. Sorry about your post- it went to spam. I think that's a good thing, since that means I'm getting lots of comments even if they are mostly from one guy :)

    Yeah- I can hardly stand debunking christianity anymore. I've seen ridiculous comments, like that Ehrman should be a mythicist! I appreciate what Loftus is trying to do- but I think his over-the-top rhetoric attracts the wrong crowd. Plus he works with Bob Price, the Mythicists goldenboy.

    Also, I'll look for some books on 1 Cor 15. My bro goes to the University of Toronto, and I hear it's library is awesome!