Can false memories explain mass sightings of the risen Christ?

Summary

It is widely recognised that the Christian religion could not have emerged without the first Christians experiencing the risen Christ after his death on the cross. These appearances are considered as hallucinations by secular scholars. Mass sightings of Jesus are problematic, however, as collective hallucinations are unknown to clinical psychologists. The world-renowned Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman proposed they can be accounted for through one person hallucinating Jesus and thereafter inducing false memories of having had the same experience in the mind of all other people present at the event. I argued that the experimental evidence presented by Ehrman is totally inadequate to show this is a plausible scenario. It is very unlikely that the testimony of the hallucinating person would be sufficient to make hundred of other persons “remember” having seen and heard Jesus if they had had no such experiences at the time of the gathering.

Introduction

Those of us who have an interest in unusual, paranormal phenomena that seem to question and event contradict the modern scientific paradigm know there are incidents where a whole group of people pretend to have witnessed something that isn’t supposed to exist.

One good example are the visions of Fatima where groups of people saw on several occasions strange phenomena they attributed to the Virgin Mary.

Fatima_Sighting

One other example of great importance to the philosophy of religion is the sightings of the risen Jesus after his humiliating death on the cross.

jesus-resurrection

According to the apostle Paul, Jesus “appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

The problem is that we have no evidence whatsoever that two (let alone 200) brains can produce the same hallucination at the same time. The corresponding psychological literature just doesn’t exist. In that case, I think that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. If collective hallucinations were real, we would have (in 2017) many reports from mental health specialists describing their occurrences in their patients.

What is more, all examples of putative mass hallucinations beg the question by assuming from the outset there are no paranormal phenomena.

 

Can a person’s hallucination create false memories in other people’s mind?

Bart Ehrman is a renowned secular Biblical scholar who aims at explaining the beginning of Christianity in purely naturalistic terms, i.e. without appealing to any miracles he views as incredibly improbable by definition.

Whilst he seemingly first defended the idea that Jesus’ apparitions were due to collective hallucinations, he backtracked from this position in a later blog post.

Instead, he proposed that such alleged mass sightings (and the reports thereof) are produced from a combination of  a single individual experiencing a hallucination with the false memories stemming from the contamination of the minds of other people who were present with him at that time.

For starters, false memories are seemingly real memories that actually do not correspond to what truly happened.

Following the great psychologist Elisabeth Loftus, I find it useful to make a distinction between “ordinary” false memories and “big” (or “radical”) false memories.

“Ordinary” false memories are basically your misremembering things about a real event without distorting its main features. Examples can concern the colour of a car that sped away from the police, the physical appearance of a rapist or having watched a movie about a real catastrophe even if you didn’t.

“Big” false memories, on the other hand, mean that you have memories about an event that never happened, neither to you nor to anyone. Examples are memories of being the victim of satanic rituals, alien abductions, or more mundanely of having been sexually abused by one’s parents even though this never happened.

false-memories

Granted, that distinction is not sharp and there is certainly a smooth transition between both categories. But I find it useful nonetheless. As I argued in another post, whilst “banal” false memories are widespread, “radical” false memories are much less likely to emerge spontaneously. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the latter are spawned by (conscious or unconscious) psychological manipulation such as the assertion by a person of authority that the event (e.g. getting lost in a mall as a child) happened and that she is in a position to know this.

Bart Ehrman’s argumentation

Bart Ehrman begins by presenting a well-known Dutch study exemplifying the emergence of spontaneous false memories.

On October 4, 1992, an El Al Boeing 707 that had just taken off from Schipfol Airport in Amsterdam lost power in two engines.  The pilot tried to return to the airport but couldn’t make it.  The plane crashed into an eleven-story apartment building in the Amsterdam suburb of Bijlmermeer.   The four crew members and thirty-nine people in the building were killed.   The crash was, understandably, the leading news story in the Netherlands for days.

Ten months later, in August 1993, Dutch psychology professor Hans Crombag and two colleagues gave a survey to 193 university professors, staff, and students in the country.  Among the questions was the following:  “Did you see the television film of the moment the plane hit the apartment building?”    In their responses 107 of those surveyed (55%) said Yes, they had seen the film.   Sometime later the researchers gave a similar survey with the same question to 93 law school students.  In this instance, 62 (66%) of the respondents indicated that they had seen the film.   There was just one problem.  There was no film.

These striking results obviously puzzled the researchers, in part because basic common sense should have told anyone that there could not have been a film.   Remember, this is 1992, before cell phone cameras.   The only way to have a film of the event would have been for a television camera crew to have trained a camera on this particular apartment building in a suburb of Amsterdam at this exact time, in expectation of an imminent crash.   And yet, between half and two-thirds of the people surveyed – most of them graduate students and professors – indicated they had seen the non-existent film.    Why would they think they had seen something that didn’t exist?

Even more puzzling were the detailed answers that some of those interviewed said about what they actually saw on the film, for example, whether the plane crashed into the building horizontally or at vertical and whether the fire caused by the plane started at impact or only later.   None of that information could have been known from a film, because there was no film.  So why did these people remember, not only seeing the crash but also details about how it happened and what happened immediately afterward?

Obviously they were imagining it, based on logical inferences (the fire must have started right away) and on what they had been told by others (the plane crashed into the building as it was heading straight down).  The psychologists argued that these people’s imaginations became so vivid, and were repeated so many times, that they eventually did not realize they were imagining something.  They thought they were remembering it.  They really thought that.   In fact they did remember it.  But it was a false memory.   Not just a false memory one of them had.   A false memory most of them had.

The researchers concluded:  “It is difficult for us to distinguish between what we have actually witnessed, and what common sense inference tells us that must also have been the case.”   In fact, commonsense inference, along with information we get by hearsay from others, together “conspire in distorting an eyewitness’s memory.”   Indeed “this is particularly easy when, as in our studies, the event is of a highly dramatic nature, which almost by necessity evokes strong and detailed visual imagery.”

plane-crash

This was a memory of a large group of people who all remember seeing the same thing (or nearly the same thing) at the same time, even though none of them saw it.  If you don’t want to call that a group vision, that’s absolutely fine with me.  What I’m saying is that a group of people thought they saw something they didn’t see.  (The difference in this example, of course, is that the people in this study were not all standing together at the time when they had the vision – but we have records of that sort of thing happening as well.)

At this point, it is important to realise that what Ehrman describes is not what I would call a “big” false memory of a totally fictional event. The plane crashing into the building and the tragic death of 39 persons certainly did occur. The test subjects’ mistake was their confusion of their imagining the accident (which they certainly did back then over and over again) with their watching a film capturing it. What is more, the false memories did not emerge spontaneously but through the deliberately misleading assertion of the researchers there was such a film.

As I said in my earlier post, I don’t actually think groups of people all at one and the same time saw Jesus after his death, any more than I think groups of people actually see the Blessed Virgin Mary at one time today.  What I think does happen is that someone has a vision (non-veridical – that is, a hallucination or, as one reader of the blog has suggested, possibly an illusion).   He tells someone else who tells someone else (e.g., someone else who was there at the time) who tells someone else, and soon they all remember seeing it.  Only one of them saw it.  But the entire group remembers seeing it.  Vividly remembers it.

Here, I think that Ehrman makes one hell of an extrapolation. The participants in the Dutch study did not remember a supernatural event that did not happen. They mistook their imaginary visualisation of a plane crash with a movie capturing the drama.

As false memory researcher Giuliana Mazzoni pointed out, the emergence of false memories depends on the initial plausibility/probability you attribute to the event.

And merely believing in the reality of a supernatural world does not suffice if you also believe that miracles happen relatively rarely.

Put it yourself to the test

To understand what I mean by that, consider the last time you participated in a party with your friends. Go to them ten months later and tell them:

Do you remember the male exhibitionist who showed us his genitals, disturbed the whole celebration and had to be driven out of the room by the security personal?”

whereas in fact there was no exhibitionist who interrupted the festivities.

How would your friends react to your assertion?

Would they spontaneously say: “Oh yeah, I do remember him! This was crazy!” ?

I bet you 1 million of Euros that virtually none of them would say this.

They wouldn’t even say: “Ah okay! Actually I don’t remember this but it’s  quite possible.

No instead, it’s very likely they would stare at you in utter disbelief and tell you: “Did you take LSD back then?” or perhaps somewhat more politely: “No, that definitely didn’t happen. You must confuse this with another party you took part in“.

Of course, all your friends believe in the existence of exhibitionists.

exhibitionist

The problem is that merely mentioning this to them does not suffice to radically change their reliable memories of the real event and they know they would remember it clearly if something that unusual had truly happened.

At this point, it is important to realise that most experiments about “big” false memories (such as those of getting lost in a mall as a small child) don’t make you radically misremember an event you really experienced but make you remember an event that never happened altogether (most often at an undetermined date).

Application to the sightings of the 500 “brothers”

Suppose that the 500 brothers (and most likely sisters) were gathered in a meadow while listening to a talented preacher. They felt deeply emotionally moved by the words he spoke. 499 of them did not experience anything supernatural and returned to their family’s homes after the end of the event. One person (perhaps with a schizoaffective disorder) sees the resurrected Jesus speaking to the crowd for 15 minutes and sharing bread with them before rising back to the clouds and disappearing.

Now suppose that this person talked to twenty of the brethren two years after the event and told them: “Do you remember that while Brother X. gave us this amazing sermon, the Lord appeared and stayed with us for more than ten minutes?“.

For the same reasons I gave above regarding the exhibitionist interrupting the party, I think it is very unlikely they would answer: “Oh yeah, that was fantastic!” or even “No, but you’re probably right”. Instead, chances are they too would stare at him in disbelief. Or they would consider he was experiencing a private revelation.

When Bart Ehrman writes: “What I think does happen is that someone has a vision (non-veridical – that is, a hallucination or, as one reader of the blog has suggested, possibly an illusion).   He tells someone else who tells someone else (e.g., someone else who was there at the time) who tells someone else, and soon they all remember seeing it.  Only one of them saw it.  But the entire group remembers seeing it.  Vividly remembers it.”

he is going far beyond what the experimental evidence warrants.

Perhaps, ten years later, some people who believed that the person’s hallucination of Jesus was a private revelation mistakenly believed that their own experience of a private revelation happened at the same time. But I consider it very unlikely that all 500 brethren would come to radically misremember the event in this way.

 

Conclusion

I am not perfect and my PhD is in chemical modelling, not cognitive psychology. Nevertheless, based on my knowledge of the appropriate literature, I consider it very unlikely that the hallucination of one person would be enough to convince 499 other ones they experienced this as well at the same time even though they actually didn’t see or hear anything.

The Dutch study quoted by Bart Ehrman is a false analogy as it concerns a source monitoring error about a real event.

To prove me wrong, you would need to show me the positive results of experiments involving a radical false claim similar to the interruption of a (real) party by an exhibitionist who had to be driven out of the room. I strongly doubt this is possible.

That said, it is quite possible that false memories played some role in the emergence of the Christian religion. But there are limits to such explanations.

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On the prior probability of Jesus’ resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth after his unjust death stands at the very heart of the Christian faith.

Jesus_resurrection

If materialism is true, it goes without saying that the prior plausibility of a corpse coming back to life through random physical processes is extremely small.

However, some atheist apologists go farther than that and argue that even if God existed, the probability of His raising Jesus from the dead would be incredibly low.

 

Atheistic philosopher Jeffery Jay Lowder (who is a nice, respectful, well-articulated, intelligent and decent man) put it like this:

B3: Approximately 107,702,707,791 humans have ever lived. Approximately half of them have been male.
B4: God, if He exists, has resurrected from the dead at most only one person (Jesus).

B3 and B4 are significant because they summarize the relevant evidence about God’s tendency to resurrect people from the dead (assuming God exists). They show why the resurrection has a low prior probability even for theists. Once we take B3 and B4 into account, the prior probability of the resurrection is less than or equal to 5.0 x 10-12. In symbols, Pr(R | B1 & B3 & B4) <= 5.0 x 10-12.

 

I shall reformulate his argument in a simpler way while emphasising a most problematic hidden assumption.

  1. From the 100 000 000 humans who have ever lived under the sun, none has been resurrected by God’s mighty hands.
  2. Consequently, the probability that a human being chosen at random gets raised from the dead is less than 10-11.

3. God would be as interested in resurrecting Jesus as he would be in resurrecting a random human being.

4. Hence the prior probability of Jesus’ resurrection is less than 10-11.

Although premise 1) might be begging the question against claims of miracles, I shall accept it as true.

Premise 2) is totally uncontroversial. So what truly stands in the way of the conclusion is premise 3).

Why on earth should we assume that Jesus was only a random human being to God? This probability seems unknown to me unless one makes assumptions about the divine Being, i.e. one engages in theology.

(The are good articles written by professional philosopher of science John Norton explaining why epistemic ignorance cannot be represented by a probability distribution [1], [2], [3])

Lowder seems to be aware of this. A (godless) commenter wrote:

“Your estimate of 5.0 x 10-12. assumes that Jesus is a typical human. But if not, if B1A: Jesus is the second person of the Trinity is true, P(B2) becomes much higher, possibly of order 1. In that case the relevant unknown is P(B1A | B1). While that may be small, I doubt if it’s anywhere near as small as 5.0 x 10-12.”

His response was:

“There are not any reliable statistics for the reference class of men who are the second person of the Trinity. Thus, the reference class that must be used is the broadest one for which we have reliable statistics, viz., men.”

But this is clearly begging the question.

  • Why should we  assume that Jesus was a random human being to God?
  • Because this is the only way we can approximately calculate the prior probability of his resurrection.
  • And why should we assume that this value approximates anything if we don’t know whether or not he was just an ordinary man to God?

So I think that unbelievers cannot argue from ignorance here. They should instead give us positive grounds for thinking that Jesus wasn’t special to God.

jesus

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Did Jesus leave his grave behind? An interview with Mike Licona.

There can be little doubt that the Christian faith stands and falls with the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth who claimed this would be the Way His heavenly father would defeat evil forever.

He is Risen

For many people having grown up in post-Christian Europe, this alleged event is nothing more than one of the numerous legends the ancient world was littered with.

SanktClausIn what follows, I had the immense privilege of interviewing Mike Licona, an amazing Biblical scholar and historian who thinks that an intellectual honest man of the twenty-first century can and even should believe that the Son of Man truly rose from the dead.

mike-licona-for-web

In our conversation we touched upon many topics and also wondered if it’s really the case that materialism (the worldview according to which everything is material) is almost certainly true.

 

 

 

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The Definition of Christianity

Deutsche Version: die Definition des Christentums .

Youtube Version

The Definition of Christianity 

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The definition of what it means to be a Christian can be quite tricky for many persons. Certain conservative definitions such as :
A Christian is someone believing in the entire Bible“ or

A Christian is someone going to the holy Mass every Sunday and taking all sacraments

are extremely reductive and exclude many people who have profound experiences with Jesus while not fulfilling the above definitions.

I will modestly propose a definition allowing us to encompass the whole Christendom:

„A Christian is someone who follows and worships a perfectly good God who revealed his true face through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.“

This is certainly compatible with the two definitions mentioned above but it is not limited to them.

What to think now of the numerous German Protestant pastors who like Jesus a historical person but don’t believe in a personal God and go sometimes as far as denying the existence of any afterlife?

I would consider them as „atheists for Jesus“, they might be extraordinarily good persons and I see no reason why they won’t spend the whole eternity with God and have a very good surprise after having passed away.

But I cannot call them Christians.

Now, I’d love to hear the criticism and comments from people having various perspectives on those topics.

 

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Was Jesus just your average Joe?

Deutsche Version

Image

Many people skeptical of the truth of the Christian faith hold fast on the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was just an ordinary man among many others.

According to them, the origin of the Christian faith can be understood as follows:

1) After the death of Jesus the disciples experienced wonderful hallucinations which made them believe he rose from the dead

2) They didn’t believe in an empty tomb, this aspect was completely irrelevant for them

3) Paul held the same belief

4) Later writers made up stories about the honorary burial of Jesus and the empty grave

There are many not-implausible, contradictory theories about the historical Jesus which are hard to evaluate owing to the lack of hard data.

But I believe this kind of scenarios can be ruled out as being unlikely.

There were after and before Jesus time quite a few Jewish apocalyptic prophets who suffered an atrocious death as martyrs. Why did none of their followers develop a faith in the resurrection of their master? Why did none of them develop a faith that their master was God Himself?

Both aspects were present within the early Church very soon after the death of Jesus.

So I believe that the minimal conclusion that there is something special about Jesus of Nazareth is warranted.

Further conclusions are going to be hugely dependent on the presuppositions of one’s worldview.

 

 

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Hell, Motivations and Reasons for Believing in God

 Fiery questions about hell and faith

I’m currently having an interesting discussion with two ex-Christian fellows on „Debunking Christianity“ who wrote the following comments:

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Rizdek
This is a bit off topic, but I’m interested in what others think. I have recently exchanged posts with someone on another website. This person claims to have become a “Christian theist” again after being what they called an agnostic/atheist for 10 years. But the interesting thing is they outright admit and even seem to revel in the fact that the reason they now believe in their “God” was a logical decision because of the fear of hell and the hope for heaven as a reward. Now, I imagine those factors might be part of why some Christians, for example, act morally, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone come right out and admit that THAT was the reason they started to BELIEVE there is a god. I could be wrong, but I don’t even think Pascal used that as a reason TO start to believe there is a god. At the most it seemed his little “wager” was a line of reasoning that comforted him because he already believed there was a god and he figured he was just as well off continuing to believe in the god he already thought existed as those who did not believe in any god at all. I don’t agree with even that line of reasoning, but I think that’s what he thought.
Has anyone else ever heard anyone actually admit that fear of hell and desire for heaven was the reason they decided to start to believe in god?
 
Rizdek
Not sure why you think someone realizing they no longer have a basis to believe in a god they THOUGHT was good and loving would not be disappointed. I was disappointed decades ago when I came to the realization I didn’t think there was a god. I did NOT become an atheist because I was angry at god, the church or other theists. I really didn’t even want to be an atheist. It was a simple admission after waking up morning after morning with the realization that I had no basis to believe there was a god. Later I became aware that I had much less cognitive dissonance once I fully embraced the idea that I no longer believed there was a good caring god who wanted folks to love and serve it. When I realized there wasn’t a god of this kind, I stopped having to worm my way around sticky, absurd or seemingly contradictory Bible texts. It became clear to me that these texts seemed that way because they WERE sticky, absurd and contradictory. I stopped having to meld the good god I thought existed with the suffering I was aware of then and became more aware of later in life. In a purely material world, suffering is a natural outcome of life. But it was much less understandable when I thought there was a good god who designed and maintained the world the way it was. I am relieved now that I don’t have to make excuses for a god to others, but more importantly, I don’t have to keep lying to myself and force myself to believe things that don’t seem true.

 
 mcygnet

D Rizdek nailed it. It’s like resigning as press secretary for for a corrupt politician: the relief you’d feel at no longer being obliged to spin lame rationalizations for your boss’s behavior would be felt simultaneously with the disappointment you’d feel over your boss’s shortcomings. Feeling duped is, to say the least, disappointing.
Of course, you’re right, Son of Lothar, that McD’s arguments are not the height of apologetic sophistication. And given how many flavors of Christianity there are (each sect claiming nobody previously had gotten Christianity exactly correct), one is well advised to check out the views of dudes such as Swinburne, Plantinga, Schaeffer, Wright, and Craig. But if one takes the Arminian view that salvation is available to any who adopt a certain set of free will-derived beliefs, you’d hope it wouldn’t require a post-graduate degree to get one’s mind around the arguments. A guy like McD ought to be able to get the job done.
The preceding should also answer your other question: agnostic? Not so much! 😉

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I’m really thankful to both of them for their insightful responses which raise many interesting questions and problems I’m going into now.

To begin with, I view hell as being the separation from God stemming from the free choice of a person who will eventually cease to exist. The question of retribution is another matter, if libertarian free will really exists, I find it just that a person is punished according to the way he or she has violated the Golden Rule.
I might be wrong, but instinctively I would find it unjust if the infamous Fred Phelps (the “God hates fags“ pastor) would inherit eternal life without having to pay anything.

However, I believe that God will never condemn a person holding any beliefs for honest reasons.
That is to say, if someone is honestly convinced that God doesn’t exist, it would be completely wrong for her to lie and to pretend she believes in the Almighty. And if she dies as an honest atheist, God will propose her eternal life with Him, and it is up to her to accept or to refuse this offer.
It is extremely blasphemous to state or to preach that God will punish honest atheists with eternal torment.

This is why I see nothing wrong with God letting bad Evangelical apologists not use the best parts of their brain 🙂 even if this means losing converts.

For a conversion before death isn’t what matters most.

Albert Einstein once said:
If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed. The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge. „
I largely agree with that, tough I don’t believe that striving for rational knowledge is enough, for it fails to provide us with meaning and values.
But it is indeed a sad fact that for quite a few individuals, only the fear of jail or hell can be a motivation to act morally.

I personally don’t hope in God and lead a Christian life because I fear that otherwise, I’ll be burning endlessly. I believe that God loves me as he loves every other human being and that the only reason I’d not inherit everlasting bliss with Him would be my own final decision to reject Him forever.
I try to follow Him during this earthly life because I deeply long for meaning, love and justice and if He’s a perfect being, He is the best place to find them.

Of course, this requires faith (which I define as “hope in the midst of insufficient evidence“).
As I’m currently explaining in other posts, I believe we’ve decent grounds for rejecting materialism (and even naturalism which can hardly exist without it) and for believing matter isn’t the ultimate reality, that mental things aren’t reducible to it.

And if that’s the case, it is not unreasonable to believe that a Mind is responsible for everything but this can by no means be proven, it demands a leap of faith, for there are also reasonable forms of atheism  where there exist irreducible mental facts and emergent properties.
But once this leap of faith has been made, it appears quite rational to believe that this Mind is perfect  in every respect.
And if I look at all religions, it seems to me very likely (provided His existence) that this perfect Mind revealed Himself through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

I think that if you investigate the gospels from an atheistic viewpoint, you cannot conclude that the resurrection really occurred  But if you approach them from a Theistic (and perhaps even Deistic) perspective, a good case can be made that God raised Jesus from the dead.

And if you’re genuinely agnostic, I think that the available evidence is intriguing  enough to justify hope in the crucified God.

I expect none of my readers to agree with me at this point, I’ve merely clarified my position and beliefs.

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