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mattbrowne's avatar

Attempting a scientific evaluation of prophecies - How can we interpret claims of having heard voices, having had visions and revelations?

Asked by mattbrowne (31719points) November 26th, 2010

The concept of prophecy is found throughout all of the world’s religions. To a certain degree prophecy is an integral concept within any religion.

And the list of prophets is long: Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Esther, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad, Völuspa, Baha, White, Smith, Monson, Palingboer…

Many claim to have had conversations with angels or visions and other forms of hallucinations. From a modern perspective how can we explain all this? To get this discussion started, here’s a first preliminary list of explanations

The prophecy is the result of

1) critical thinking (strategic foresight, futurology approach)
2) a real (vivid) dream
3) sleep or food deprivation
4) auditory hallucinations associated with psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia or mania
5) psychoactive substances such as psilocybin mushrooms, tetrahydrocannabinol, or lysergic acid diethylamide
6) is just made up to implement a personal agenda
7) simply based on unfounded rumors propagated by means of oral traditions

As an example, suppose Muhammad really went up Mount Hira on his own and believed he was listening to the angel Gabriel. How do we explain the fact that the Quran is a real book available today, with recorded stories from the time 710 to 732 CE? What happened at the time on Mount Hira? Or let’s take Elijah who predicted that the people of Israel would return to their own land? How did he get this idea? Or Joseph Smith meeting an angel who gave him the book of golden plates? A hallucination perhaps?

How can we explain the causes leading to documented prophecies? Can scholars use empirical data based on verified historical accounts to draw conclusions that hearing voices was the result of schizophrenia for example?

Are there scientific studies analyzing the personalities of prophets?

This is meant to be a science and history question, not a question about theism and atheism.

Any thoughts?

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20 Answers

jlelandg's avatar

I think you’ve got some interesting ideas here. What about the people who claimed to have seen things as well. Joan of Arc and Constantine made similar claims without being so much “prophets”. Food deprivation sounds like a likely candidate for some of the cases. Critics of Joseph Smith say he was a straight con man, so who’s to say he starved or was just good at faking it? (I am not saying this to pick fights with Mormons).

laureth's avatar

There’s the idea of the God Module, that something in our brain produces these things, whether through something going haywire or through a propensity passed down because religion helps a society. However, every time someone says that religious experience is due to brain chems, there’s a religionist there to remind us that God made brainchems in the first place, and may have installed us with the God Module as a means of communication: heavenly wi-fi.

Something else to consider, which I’ve been reading in this book, is that electrical stimulation of the brain can produce the religious experience, and that the feeling of certainty is biologically based as well. On the other hand, part of the whole idea of God is that God moves outside of science, can’t be measured, does whatever he wants, and that there’s purposely no proof so that believers can have faith, which is somehow seen as a great good for their souls.

The Scientific Method is the best way we’ve come up with to observe, measure, and understand real things. There are those who say that if God (and prophecy, to answer the question) is real, it would be natural to turn up some evidence thereof. But if something exists “outside of spacetime” and “outside of our universe,” that gets awfully hard to measure. The scientific-minded will say there is no evidence, the faith-minded will say “We know it’s real and that He’s there, you just can’t see him because you don’t believe.”

Personally, I think it’s a combination of (1) brain chems (i.e., something in the neurons up there) that provides the base “evidence” of a feeling of religion, around which (2) an agenda (rooted in the culture of the time) is crystallized. For example, eating pork is wrong (immoral, against the law of God) because it had the triple-whammy of making you sick if it wasn’t prepared and preserved just right (germ theory misunderstood as evidence of holy displeasure), being something that “those people over there” did (which are always inferior to “My Real People”), and having the certainty that comes from a genuine-feeling brain-induced experience of God. People need explanations for things (and don’t do well psychologically in times of uncertainty), all tied up with the big ribbon of confirmation bias. But that’s just me.

mattbrowne's avatar

@laureth – Yes, I’ve heard about the God spot brain research. And it might be the reason why many people believe in God, because brain chemistry creates this feeling or intuition. But there are also people who believe in God because of rational thought, like I do (based on the unproven concept of an ultimate origin of our natural laws). And because I am a science-minded person I like to explore questions like how the miracle stories of Jesus ended up in the Bible, or like in this case, why are there hundreds of prophets telling others about their prophecies and inspiration.

So my question is less about why people might be religious, but how the phenomenon of having prophets and prophecies can be explained best. The vast majority of people who are religious do not consider themselves to be prophets. So what he have is

brain chemistry for religiousness + X for prophecies

What is X?

crisw's avatar

I find it interesting that most of the cultures I’ve read about that used some form of “vision quest” or other hallucinatory experiences used a combination of the methods you list (especially 3 and 5) plus social deprivation- going alone into the wilderness, for example. I think that we are, as social creatures, even more likely to see and hear things that aren’t really there when we are alone.

wundayatta's avatar

How can we interpret these claims? Any way we want to. If we have no independent way of corroborating the data, then the reports can mean anything anyone wants them to. It becomes part of the process of constructing meaning.

This is the same whether you are the person hearing reports of the experience or the person having the experience. You tell the story and you can place it in any context you want. We, whether we directly or indirectly experience these event, get to decide what they mean.

Of course, we make these interpretations in the context of the culture we live in. That culture might contain may myths that will influence the way any individual makes meaning. So there are religious traditions and mystical traditions and scientific traditions and others as we, and they all create a context for interpreting these experiences.

I might say I am seeing auras. Right there, we see an interpretation, simply by calling it an aura, which contains overtones of new age spirituality. I might try to be as careful as I can in describing it. I might try to use objective terms, and leave it up to others to interpret what is going on.

In either case, no one knows whether I actually saw these things or didn’t.

So the notion of whether I am telling a true experience becomes fairly irrelevant. What matters is whether my story is convincing. I can use many tricks to try to make it more convincing—appealing to people’s prejudices and preconceived notions, for example. In my case, I would try to tell a story in a way that seemed as objective and scientific as possible, which means describing the experience and leaving others to decide what it means.

Mental illness presents a similar challenge. In order for there to be the practice of psychiatry, we have to believe the stories of those deemed to be mentally ill. We must posit reasons for this kind of thinking and develop treatments. Then we have to decide if the treatments work. These notions all depend on the culture of the practitioners. Not every culture would consider the same behaviors to be a pathology, nor would they “treat” it the same.

We have mental illness because we believe in mental illness. We also have some evidence that we can change the way people think by administering drugs. They might stop describing these visions and they might seem more lucid and with it. They might stop being violent. We could consider these things to be evidence that our “treatment” worked.

In a way, physical medicine is the same. No one can prove the pain they are in. Doctors like to ask patients to tell them how much it hurts on a scale of one through ten. However, there is no way of knowing whether people assign the same level of pain to the same number.

If I want to persuade you of anything, I’ll use any means that I think will be effective. If I see visions and I want to make some prophecies (and do not doubt for a second that I could not easily do these things), I might tell you the visions and prophecies came from some deity and that you should pay attention. I might tell you to look at my work here and see how often I have been right. See how much respect I get. These are reasons for you to believe me.

I think that would be terribly irresponsible and duplicitous. I would rather describe the experience and leave it up to others to decide what it means. I would rather even deny that the experience has any particular meaning than let others suggest it does mean anything.

I’m inclined to believe that people do have the experiences they say they experience. I’m not inclined to think the the interpretations they offer of their experience are useful. I tend to think those are self-aggrandizing, agenda-driven interpretations.

So when I hear of anyone else’s prophetic experience and it is anything other than an attempt at pure description, then I mistrust it. I think that people are using these visions as a way to forward an agenda. Of course, this is hardly different from the way we talk about any other experience—except that no one else can verify we saw what we said we saw.

laureth's avatar

What @wundayatta said. I was trying to go along those directions, implying that these prophecies happen for the same reasons that people might be religious. He did it better than I did, though.

YARNLADY's avatar

@wundayatta No way I can top your answer – * * * Y A Y * * *

Joybird's avatar

Double blind studies on precognition are done and have some demonstrated some interesting results. No one knows HOW the phenomenon occurs however..just that it DOES occur. We can debate to what extent it is accurate and for how far future.
There’s a book with citing on this topic: “The Power of Premonitions: How knowing the future can shape our lives” by Larry Dossey, MD.
It talks about the research that has been done in this area as well as exercises to teach yourself how to attend to thematic patterns that tend to repeat themselves in history so that you can predict with good accuracy what might be the next thing to occur given a specific context. Some people are very good at doing this on both the Macro and Micro levels.

crisw's avatar

Never mind- self-edited.

ETpro's avatar

@mattbrowne Fascinating question. I think that all 7 of the possibilities you list are accurate explanations for at least some of the visions and prophecies we have. Aside from Scientologists, few of us believe that science fiction writer, L. Ron Hubbard actually became a spirit being able to control matter, energy, space and time; and that he truly saw that Earth is a prison planet for an ancient intergalactic empire and our thetans (Scientologese for spirits) are condemned to recycle back here eternally unless we donate basically all the money we ever touch to Scientology to get set free. I think the chances are strong that this is a hoax cooked up by Hubbard to defraud gullible people out of money and make him a multimillionaire. If that was what he meant to do, it worked.

We also know that people in insane asylums often see things that are absolutely as vivid as real life to them, but totally nonexistent to the sane people around them. So even if we gave people lie detector tests, we might detect the deliberate charlatans but we couldn’t know for certain whether visions that read as truth were real or just part of the workings of the subject’s mind. Unreal mental images can seem convincingly real, even to supposedly sane people who experience them. I recall experimenting with psychedelics back in the 60s and 70s. Hallucinations can seem very real.

What research we have indicates that ordinary people do have a very slight but statistically significant precognition abilities. Since we know that is so, it is not hard to believe that certain people might be more able to tune in to whatever they are using to beat chance than others. Perhaps God whispers it to them. Perhaps an angel. Perhaps the entire Universe is a super-intelligent, quantum computer owing to quantum entanglement; and it is possible to just listen to spacetime and hear what it has planned for the future.

Since different prophets have claimed that different gods gave them their visions, and that the god that did so is the one and only god, I would guess that our minds assign a source to strong visions and that source is often based on our existing belief system and cultural influences.

Joybird's avatar

@ETpro I hear what you are saying about those labeled as mentally ill with psychotic features HOWEVER….when you are discussing what may or may not be delusions and psychosis there are subtle differences between persons experiencing the classic freakish material and those who seem to be experiencing some form of spiritual conversion or awakening. There are people who are told they are crazy after a loved one has passed away and they claim to have seen or heard them. It happens all too frequently however for many therapists to label it as psychotic or delusional. Having had two such experiences after the deaths of loved ones during times that I was completely lucid and not distraught I would caution others against labeling these kinds of phenomenon as mental illness and instead just a phenomenon that occurs that we don’t fully understand as yet. There are also consistencies in the content of what people tell about these experiences that aren’t consistent with those experienced by persons with psychotic mental illness. AND if you were to hook these people up for brain functioning they can be shown to be functioning at higher levels…not with a diseased mind as persons with mental illness do when tested for brain functioning.
I have had precognitive experiences. They have occured when my safety was at risk. In each and every case I heard in my minds eye instructions alerting me to the eminent danger and what I needed to do. This voice was insistent, demanding and has yet to be wrong. Since on each occasion it has indeed saved me from extremes in harm at the hands of others I would now pay complete attention to it. I have no explanation for it. I am not psychotic nor have I ever been. I believe it also occasionally drives the direction my art takes. It sometimes feels like a downloading of information about how to do something that I haven’t ever read about. There have been occassions when I have just known things about someone else that have altered the direction of interactions with them very suddenly. In relation to this I would suggest that I do certain kinds of practices that may help with a certain openess to this experience. This is how my spirituality orients and so not unlike persons who experience speaking in tongues because this is what their spiritual orientation expects…mine expects that precognition is potential…from my great grand mother to the present I have been oriented to sitting with nature and attempting to listen in uncommon ways. It could be that when you are still and listen more while observing you see things that people who talk all the time don’t.

ETpro's avatar

@Joybird Thanks for noting that. I was talking specifically about those who see a pride of African lions stalking them or a massive monster slithering through the crack under the door when others see no such threat.

mattbrowne's avatar

@wundayatta – In some cases there are independent sources. This is how good historians work. And they can also share their assessments regarding authenticity based on scientific principles. But in the case of prophecies we need the cooperation of historians, scientists and psychiatrists.

There are in fact some claims that the Prophet Muhammad suffered from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE), see

but this is highly controversial, of course.

For modern day living prophets we could use new technology such as fMRI scans. There’s also new lie detector technology available to us used at some airports already (based on body temperature fluctuations of different skin regions).

I don’t agree with your view that we have mental illness because we believe in mental illness. There certainly is a gray area, like borderline personality disorder.

No one can prove the pain they are in? I’m not so sure. fMRI scans can be used to assess pain, see for example

Pain seems to relate to specific brain network activity.

I agree that some people are using these visions as a way to forward an agenda. And you’re also right that you can claim anything you saw without us knowing whether this is really so.

At least until neuroscientists unravel the neural coding principles.

mattbrowne's avatar

@ETpro – Interesting article.

Well, I think precognition might be best explained as a cognitive process based on implicit memory. Our conscious mind can only process a small amount of data provided by our senses. This doesn’t mean the rest doesn’t reach our brain or is forgotten immediately.

ETpro's avatar

@mattbrowne Cognitive abilities could not influence the prediction of order of a deck of cards that has not been shuffled when the prediction is made. In some of the tests, the deck was not shuffled till as long as a year after the subject predicted the order it would end up in. Again, the results were not far from what we would expect by chance, but they enough better to be statistically significant. And this was shown in a large group of independent studies.

mattbrowne's avatar

@ETpro – And what is the explanation, ruling out magic?

ETpro's avatar

@mattbrowne Unknown. But the tests were double blind. And numberous separate ones did reveal a slight but real improvement on what would be expected by chance.

mattbrowne's avatar

@ETpro – Do some scientists think it’s a paranormal phenomenon?

Summum's avatar

I agree with @Joybird and have experiences of my own. My father came to me twice after his death and left me understanding something he wanted for the family. I had a friend of mine killed during a deer hurt and he came and talked with me for hours. He left me with a message to give his wife and then he showed me where his body was. I was able to direct the police where to find him. It took a helicopter to locate him on the side of the mountain. I have revealation on a regular basis and it has changed so many of my religious views as to have shown me a totally different concept of God and the Universe and how the laws of the Universe are in control.

ETpro's avatar

@mattbrowne Not many, as far as I know. You can see the studies and possible explanations offered here.

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