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Ep 48 - Ancient Understanding of Hallucinations

Updated: May 27

One way skeptics argue against the resurrection is that they say the people during the time of Jesus didn't understand hallucinations, so they misunderstood their hallucinations as real-world experiences. In this episode we look at different sources to get a good understanding of how the ancients understood mental phenomena.

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                Hello and welcome to the Ultimate Question Podcast, I’m your host, Jon Topping. For the past couple of episodes we’ve been digging into the hallucination theory. This is an argument that tries to discredit the resurrection appearances of Jesus to His followers by saying that everyone involved was merely hallucinating. I said that this time we would be going into the ancient’s understanding, and bad examples of hallucinations, but I’m realizing there’s so much in these topics that I’ve separated them into two episodes. For today’s episode we’re going to look at the ancient understanding of hallucinations, and then next time we’ll look at other cases where we see bad examples of hallucinations. This is because the purpose for these two episodes is to handle the challenge from the skeptics that the experiences of the Early Church regarding the appearances of Jesus look like other situations we see in the world. For example, skeptics at times argue that the ancient world didn’t really understand hallucinations, so they were far more likely to treat hallucinatory experiences as real. They then say that this is what happened with the disciples. Basically, the earliest Christians were just too ignorant to realize they were hallucinating, so they interpreted their experiences as real, which started the belief that Jesus literally resurrected. Skeptics will also argue that this sort of thing still happens even today. They’ll use examples like people seeing UFOs, or bigfoot, or sailors at sea seeing a ghost or mermaid during a storm, or Roman Catholics having the virgin Mary appear to them. In all of these sorts of cases, the skeptics argue that the people involved in these situations are simply too ignorant to understand that they’re hallucinating. This then leads to the very common claim from skeptics that anything apparently supernatural or extraordinary can be better explained by some naturalistic phenomenon.

                As we evaluate both the ancient perspective as well as the bad examples of hallucinations, we’ll be able to get an even better understanding of the nature of hallucinations. This is because there are times when looking at negative examples is helpful because by looking at cases that do not count, we can then get a better impression of the situations that do count. Ultimately, I think after this evaluation we’ll be able to see that the skeptics’ attempts to find similar situations to the resurrection fails on two accounts: the other examples aren’t similar to the resurrection at all, and even worse, their own examples they bring up don’t even count as hallucinations. Any attempt to discredit the appearances of the risen Christ end up either ignoring the evidence available, or misunderstanding the psychology behind hallucinations.


                To begin, let’s quickly refresh what we’ve covered so far, so we have a clear understanding of what hallucinations are, which will help us evaluate the examples given by the skeptic. An hallucination is when the brain is responding as though it is receiving external sense data, but it’s not. There is no real-world source to the sense perception happening in the person’s brain, but the brain is activating as though it is receiving sense data from the external world. In these cases, the source of the activation is internal to the person, rather than external in the world. This can be caused by outside influences like psilocybin mushrooms, or it can be caused by psychological or physiological problems in the person. For example, a person who suffers extreme mental illness, or has been put through extreme physical trauma, may hallucinate. A major component in this is the “dissociated state”, where a person feels disconnected from reality. While not every person experiencing a dissociated state hallucinates, psychologists describe this dissociation as being a large influence for hallucinations. If a person is not in a dissociated state, then there needs to be some very extreme set of factors involved to make a normal person hallucinate. It’s almost never the case that a perfectly sane and physically well individual will hallucinate. What we will notice as we look at the bad examples of hallucinations is that they almost never have this sort of dissociated state occurring, and they also almost never have a complete lack of external sense data. Thus, the situations the skeptic claims are similar to Jesus’ resurrection appearances do not qualify as hallucinations.

                Another very important concept as we dig into this topic is the idea of “misapprehending sense data”. While hallucinations typically require a dissociated state, and no external sense data, misapprehending sense data is the opposite. In these cases, the person is not in a dissociated state, and they do have external sense data. These are cases where the person does in fact perceive something using their sensory organs, but the sense data is obscured in some way, which causes the person to misjudge it. For example, maybe the object being observed is very far away, or it’s quite dark out, or the thing was only visible for a second, et cetera. A good example of this is when you put a stick in water at an angle. The stick can be perfectly straight, but when you put it in water, it looks like it’s bent. If you happened upon a stick in the water, and were too young to know about this trick, you would swear the stick was bent. Another example is a mirage in the desert, where a person will swear there’s water in the distance. This is also what’s occurring when it’s late at night, and you’re scared, and you hear a sound, or see something move, and you’re convinced there’s a robber outside trying to get in. What’s happening in these sorts of cases is that your brain has limited sense data to work with, so it’s essentially filling in the gaps, in order to help make sense of the experience you’re having, and it’s interpreting the data wrongly. So, when I see a stick bent in the water, and I believe the stick to really be bent, am I hallucinating? No, obviously not. In these sorts of cases, it’s not an hallucination, because there is indeed sense data from the external world coming in. The problem is that the sense data is being misunderstood, or misapprehended. To quote the Encyclopedia Britannica, an hallucination is “the experience of perceiving objects or events that do not have an external source… A hallucination is distinguished from an illusion, which is misinterpretation of an actual stimulus.” In other words, if the person is having an actual sense experience from the real-world, and it’s just being misapprehended, then it doesn’t count as an hallucination. So, as we go forward looking at cases that skeptics compare with the resurrection appearances, we will keep these ideas in mind, and show that they are not only dissimilar to the disciples seeing Jesus alive again, but even worse, the examples the skeptic is using don’t even count as hallucinations, and thus, cannot possibly give credibility to the hallucination theory.


                So, let’s jump into the ancient understanding of hallucinations. The way the skeptic will argue in these cases, is that they will say the disciples of Jesus “thought” they were seeing Jesus, but really it was an hallucination, and they were just too ignorant and archaic to understand what was happening. To further the skeptic’s argument, they say that the ancients believed there were spiritual forces at work all the time, and they gave supernatural explanations to naturalistic events quite often. It was quite common for ancient cultures to take perfectly normal naturalistic occurrences, and treat them as though they were supernatural in some way. For example, if there was a drought, they would say the gods must not be pleased, even though there was obviously a perfectly natural reason for it. Skeptics then see the ancient cultures as being ignorant, and that we’ve surpassed them, and now we have a better understanding of these sorts of things.

                As a first point against this argument, a person doesn’t need to be stupid to think there is some legitimate supernatural occurrence. To say that someone is more ignorant than you, simply because they believe in the supernatural, is itself a very ignorant thing to say. Really, all this is doing is arguing for naturalism by assuming naturalism, which is fallacious. It’s basically just outright admitting your bias. We also have cases of brilliant and educated people who believe in the supernatural. So, we need to leave behind the idea that belief in the supernatural is itself somehow a defeater. If you want more on this, I handled the bias against the supernatural in episode 31 of this podcast.

                Secondly, it really needs to be pointed out that the ancients were not stupid, or ignorant, causing them to be more susceptible to thinking hallucinations are real. Part of the premise of the skeptic’s argument here is that we now recognize the disciples were hallucinating, but the people during that time were too ignorant to even know about hallucinations, so they understood it to be real. Basically, the thought is that since the ancients didn’t have the same understanding of science and psychology that we do, they would take cases of hallucinations, and judge them to be real life experiences that represent something real in the world.

                So, with that idea in mind, did the ancients take things like hallucinations to be real? After all, they were fine with the supernatural, right? The fact that they were fine with the supernatural doesn’t actually say anything about whether the ancients understood the difference between dreams and visions, cases of mental illness, hallucinations, and genuine experiences of reality. In fact, I think we have good reason to think they did understand the differences between these situations. They definitely did believe in the supernatural, but they also did in fact have categories for these different types of experiences. For example, they knew the difference between dreams and wakefulness, obviously. They also knew the difference between having a real experience, and having a vision, which could also possibly be classed as a type of hallucination. They also even had a different category for what they called “disturbances of the mind”, for situations like epilepsy or psychosis. They did in fact understand that there was a big difference between real-world experiences using your sensory organs, and having some kind of mental experience that did not represent the physical world.

                It might help to break this down into a few examples. Firstly, at times in Eastern religions like Buddhism, mystical experiences are sought after, either through some kind of drug, or through other physical means like extreme deprivation. When the person undergoes these types of stimulations, they will go into a dissociative state, and at times hallucinate. When this occurs, the person does not understand it to be a real experience of the external world, and instead, they understand it as a mental event, that others wouldn’t be aware of. Whether they apply meaning, respect, or religious significance to the experience or not is completely irrelevant, because they do in fact understand the difference between physically experiencing something in reality, and having a purely mental experience.

                We can also see this explicitly in the writings of some of the ancient philosophers, where they understood the difference between mental experiences and physical experiences, even though they might have applied significance to the mental types. For example, Plato at times referred to different types of madness, and even said that madness can be a source of artistic inspiration. The skeptic might take this example, and say that, because Plato was from the ancient past when we had basically no understanding of psychology, he was applying significance to something purely naturalistic. However, even though Plato at times had a somewhat positive attitude towards madness, the important thing to notice is that he did understand the difference between normal everyday life experiences, and madness. When Plato described this type of madness, he said that the person was “out of his senses”, and that “the mind is no longer in him”. Even though Plato attached meaning to this type of madness, he still definitely saw an obvious contrast between this state, and the type of state we live in during our normal everyday life using our sensory organs.

                Aristotle gave us an even clearer show of understanding in his work De Anima. Here, Aristotle said that he understood there were cases where what we imagine we are seeing is not always representative of reality. He gave the example of how when we look at the sun, it looks like it’s only a foot in diameter, but that’s only because it’s very far away. Basically, he explicitly described the idea of misapprehension of sense data. He also gave an example where water shows our reflection, but the choppier the water is, the more obscured the image is. He used this as an analogy to show how our dreams and visions compare to real-world experiences. He even said that in some cases we have disturbed and unhealthy mental experiences, like times when we are feverish or drunk. Basically, he was describing altered states of consciousness, and showed that he understood that these types of experiences are not reflective of the way the world actually is, but is instead a distortion of the real-world. In other words, he described the differences between real-world experiences of tangible reality, cases of misapprehension of sense data, and situations of altered states of consciousness. He was not so ignorant that he would think an hallucination was reflective of the real-world.

                We can also read from Hippocrates who wrote about “disturbances most severe” of the mind that came from diseases like epilepsy and psychosis. This shows they understood there could be problems with your mind that lead to experiencing something that doesn’t exist in reality, or in our language today, an hallucination.

                There’s also the interesting case of Herodotus who wrote about the oracle at Delphi, where she would inhale a vapor, and would then be “out of her senses”, which would allow her to give prophecies. The reason this is interesting is because Herodotus writes this as if this is a legitimate spiritual experience, which the skeptic would think plays right into their perspective. After all, we have a case where a person does drugs, and has an hallucination, and yet the hallucination is given respect! However, it’s important to notice exactly what’s going on here. Everyone recognized that she was hallucinating, and not observing something in the real-world! In other words, they knew she was hallucinating, and that’s the important thing for this discussion.

                We can also see examples in the stories from Euripides, who seems to have liked to incorporate psychological turmoil in his stories. For example, in Medea, a wife has a breakdown when her husband leaves her for another woman. The wife then, because of her severe mental anguish, has delusions and visions. Also, in Euripides’ Hecuba, a woman is grieved by the death of her son, and she ends up having a vision of him. In some ways, his writings were an attempt to deliberately blur the boundary between reality, memory, and things contrived in the mind, like hallucinations. However, even in these cases where he is going out of his way to treat these sorts of things as part of reality, there was still a very clear delineation where everyone obviously understood the difference between a real sensory experience from the external world, and an illusory experience within the person’s mind. From these sorts of examples, we can see that the ancients were not too stupid to understand what hallucinations were, and did in fact have categories for these types of things. They could very easily differentiate between them, just as we can. As we’ll see, they had categories for each type of experience, just as the ancient philosophers did, and just as we do today, such as dreams, visions, and real-world experiences.

                We can also see some great examples within the Bible itself. Within both the Old and New Testaments we see many examples of dreams and visions, and then also many examples of supernatural events happening in the real-world. The authors of the books of the Bible show they definitely understand the difference between an experience in the person’s own mind, which would be private to them, and an experience happening in the external world that would be perceivable by everyone present. There are many examples, but I’ll just run through a few quickly to get the point. For dreams, we can see cases like Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven, the dreams that Joseph interpreted, Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, Jesus’ step-father Joseph, the magi who visited Jesus, and Pilate’s wife, where they all had dreams, and they were understood as dreams. They knew they were having a mental experience while they slept. While they did apply a great deal of meaning to these experiences, they still understood them to be private events in their own minds, and not something available to other people through their five senses.

                For biblical examples of visions, we can see cases in at least one of Daniel’s experiences, both Abraham and Samuel heard the voice of God, Isaiah and Ezekiel, Peter had his vision of the sheet opening, John’s revelation, Cornelius, and Paul describes having visions as well. In all of these cases the person describes their experience as being while they were wakeful, and at times in the middle of the day, and yet, they also clearly understood the experience to be a purely mental event. As an example, when Peter had the vision of the sheet opening, it says he “fell into a trance”. It’s not as though he would ask the other people in the house to come upstairs and see the literal sheet in the physical world. He understood he was having an experience that was in his mind alone, and not something that could be verified using the five senses.

                We then have the interesting case of Paul’s Damascus Road experience. Some people classify this as a visionary experience, however, when we look at the details, it doesn’t seem to fit that classification. In the different places this story is described, it shows firstly that it was in the middle of the day, and even while he was involved in activity, so it’s definitely not a dream. It also describes the experience as having both light and sound involved. More importantly, in Acts 9 it says the others present heard the sound of the voice as well, and in Acts 22 it says the other people with Paul also saw the light. Within the telling of the story in Acts 26, it seems to imply the other people present also fell off their horses. Some will point out that in Acts 22 it says the people present did not hear the voice, but the word for “hear” in this place can actually mean to comprehend or understand, and given that in the same book in chapter 9 it says they did hear it, Acts 22 should be understood to mean they heard the voice but didn’t understand it. Either way, the important thing for this case is that this event was not understood to be a purely mental event for Paul, but was instead heard, seen, and even felt by the other people who were present with him. This means it was an event in external reality, felt by the senses, and shouldn’t be understood as a vision or hallucination. When telling others about his experience, Paul describes it as a real-world event, and even treats it as evidence to explain the radical transformation he went through, and to prove the point of what he was preaching.

                Another very helpful case that shows how the New Testament audience understood the difference between dreams, visions, and real-world experiences, is the imprisonment of Peter in Acts 12. In this story, Peter is in prison, and during the night an angel comes to him, wakes him up, and rescues him. The first interesting thing here is that, at first, Peter thought the experience wasn’t real, and it even says that Peter thought he was having a vision. However, once there was physical evidence that this had really happened, for example the fact that he was actually out of prison, he understood that it wasn’t a vision in his mind, and was instead an event that occurred in the external world. In other words, his predisposition was to think it was a mental event, but the external evidence convinced him it was a real-world experience. The second interesting thing that happens is that Peter goes to his friend’s house after being rescued. The girl who goes to the door recognizes Peter’s voice, and in her excitement runs to tell everyone, before she even opens the door. How did everyone respond? They thought she was out of her mind. Then, since she was vehement about it, they interpreted this to be Peter’s angel at the door, rather than Peter himself. Once they finally answer the door, they can see it’s actually Peter, and they believe. In other words, the external data in the real-world through their sensory organs convinced them this wasn’t just some spiritual event.

                Through all of these biblical examples we can show that, these people understood the difference between a sensory experience in the real-world that is external and publicly verifiable, and a private mental experience available only to the person experiencing it. They describe the events differently, have different language for each type of event, they show they understood them very differently, and they even had a different practical application for each type of event. To summarize, the ancients, and even the people in the Bible, definitely understood the difference between a pure mental event and a real-world experience. They were not so stupid that they would take a dream or vision or hallucination, and ignorantly assume that it was something that happened in the real external world. If anything, we see the opposite, where at times they at first understood something in the real-world to be a mental event, and needed to be convinced by physical evidences.

                When we look at the resurrection of Jesus, the telling of the story in Luke 24 is especially helpful. Here, when Jesus shows Himself to His followers, their immediate reaction is to assume He’s a ghost or spirit or something. How does Jesus convince them that He’s a part of the real external world? He gives them the physical evidence from their senses. He pointed out the fact that they were all visibly seeing Him with their eyes, and then He asked them to touch Him, to prove through their senses that this was not merely a dream, vision, or hallucination. Jesus even took some of their food and ate it. This was all for the sake of proving that their experience of Him was in fact a tangible part of reality, and that Jesus was literally physically resurrected. It should also be pointed out that this experience wasn’t vague in any way. Jesus was in the same room as them, and drawing on multiple sensory experiences at the same time, and even asking His disciples to take their time verifying the reality of the situation. This shows it was not a misapprehension of sensory data.


                Through this evaluation of the ancient’s understanding of things like dreams, visions, and external reality, we can clearly see that they did in fact have categories for the differences involved, and were not so ignorant as to take purely mental events and interpret them to be external and existing in the real-world. When we apply this to Scripture, we can see the same thing, where the biblical authors and audiences understood the differences between mental and physical events, and were not so dumb that they would think an hallucination was a part of reality. In fact, we even have cases where they assumed their experience was purely mental, but then the external physical evidences convinced them the event was a part of physical reality. While the ancients and the biblical audiences did interpret mental events in a spiritual light, applying meaning and value to private experiences like visions and dreams, that does not then infer that they thought these experiences were reflective of the real world, or verifiable by the five senses, and available to other people around them. They understood the difference. For the resurrection specifically, they did not understand these events to be mental, or private, or dreams, or visions. There’s no room within these experiences to say these people were possibly hallucinating. Everyone involved understood the appearances of the risen Christ to be reflective of the real world, observed by everyone who was present, showing it was public and not private, and even that these experiences were verifiable using their senses.

As a finishing point, the externally verifiable nature of the resurrection appearances is evident in the fact that they claimed the tomb of Jesus was empty. If this was merely some kind of vision or hallucination, and they were mistaken in understanding it to be real, then the easy solution from their enemies would be to show Jesus’ body still in the tomb. This would force everyone to give a spiritualized interpretation of the appearances. However, the enemies couldn’t do that. Once again, the real world external and physical data confirmed their experiences as being not merely mental events. If you’re skeptical about the empty tomb, or just want more data on it, we went over that in more detail in episodes 28 and 29 of this podcast.

                In the next episode of the podcast we’ll continue this evaluation by looking at different modern examples that skeptics try to say are similar to the resurrection appearances. For example, things like UFOs, bigfoot, mermaids, and Marian apparitions. Their goal is to show cases where people think they’re seeing something, but they’re not. Through this they attempt to show that it’s possible the disciples were experiencing something similar, where they thought they were seeing the risen Jesus, but were in fact not. By taking a deep look at the examples the skeptics bring up we’ll be able to see that they actually show us just how bad the hallucination theory really is. So I hope you’ll join me next time for bad examples of hallucinations, here on the Ultimate Questions Podcast, with Jon Topping.


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