Friday, June 17, 2011

A Tale of Illusions and Self-Deception

"A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true."


This is a true story from my college days in Taylor's about that one time when I looked up and saw Jesus Christ's face appear before my eyes. I was told that that would happen, and it really did.

There is one other character in this little tale and she was a classmate and a dear friend of mine. Let us call her Rachel. There is a few things you should know about her. Rachel is a petite, friendly, outgoing girl who was pretty much one of the guys. She is also one of the most intelligent students in my class and a brilliant conversationalist, but the most pertinent thing about Rachel is that she was very, very Christian. She frequently invites her heathen friends to church and churchy events. Her parents (I'm not kidding) forbade her to read the Harry Potter books because they believe J. K. Rowling glorifies witchcraft - but she told me she reads them anyway behind their backs. She rejects evolutionary biology and when I asked her how she reconciled her rejection with the Cambridge A-Levels Biology syllabus, she told me that she's only studying it to be successful in life and hence, "glorify God's name" - what ever that means. She was the first person I ever discussed religion with and she was very helpful when I was just starting out in my study of Christianity and the Bible.

So, this is how it went: I was in the library, sitting at one of the computers when I witnessed the face of her Lord and Saviour emerge out of the whiteness of the ceiling - like magic! I closed my eyes and lo, I could still see his face! It seemed to be seared onto the black of my eyelids, luminescent and ghostly. I wanted very much to share what I saw, and Rachel was the first and only person to jump to my mind.

"Hey, I looked up at the ceiling and saw Jesus!" I wrote in a text and sent it off. Her reply returned almost immediately.

"Oh my God, do you need someone to talk to?!" she asked. "I'm at church now."

Oh dear, that was not how I thought she would react. I had expected her to be sceptical; to suspect a bluff and to promptly call it. Then we would both laugh about what a terrible scamp I was. I was a devout Buddhist back in those days but if anyone messages to tell me that he saw Buddha, I only had two words to say: 'Yeah' followed by 'right'.

Anyhow, I wasn't lying. I really did see Jesus' (or at least, a bearded man's) face materialise out of thin air, but it was only after staring for 30 seconds at a special image featured in a webpage for optical illusions.

Optical Illusion - Afterimage - Jesus Christ's Face
Stare at it for about half to one minute. Focus on the four dots in the middle.
After that, shift your gaze onto any blank, white surface - wall, ceiling or paper.

When done right, the effect can be quite startling. This type of optical illusion is called an afterimage, and you usually encounter it in your everyday life as the bright glow that seems to hover in your line of sight after looking at a bright light source such as the sun for few seconds. What happens is that the photoreceptors on your retina adapt or 'tire' and stop responding after being steadily stimulated over a period of time. So, when you divert your eyes to a blank surface, those adapted photoreceptors send out a weaker signal when compared to the ones surrounding it. Hence, the illusion of an inverted ghost image.

I told Rachel the full story of what actually happened. It's hard to tell if someone is annoyed, offended or disappointed through texts, but I assumed she was all of those things.

"I really thought you had a genuine vision," she said. I wonder if she had prematurely shared the good news of my miraculous sighting of the Messiah with her church friends. It would have been rather embarrassing, to say the least.

But suppose that I played along. Suppose that instead of coming clean on my little joke, I embellished my story further by saying that the vision came to me when I was praying (like she advised me to). I daresay she wouldn't find any aspect of my testimony wanting at all. All her life, Rachel wanted to, and do believe that the transformative power of Jesus' love is real. She had shared stories with me about unbelievers who had been "touched" while they were at church and subsequently converted to Christianity. The fact that Jesus actually appeared to me made perfect sense to her. From her point of view, it was like, duh.

She wouldn't ask, for example, how I knew how the historical Jesus looked like. She wouldn't ask if I was on any mind-altering substances at the time either, which was a very likely possibility since it's y'know, college. After all, she didn't even ask me if I was just joking or messing with her - and that was the first thing she should have done. If I had allowed it, she might even introduce me to her pastor and all her church friends, and all of them would no doubt celebrate my "vision" as a proof of the glorious powers of the Holy Spirit. I would bet good money that they wouldn't challenge me on my claim either.

This incident reminds me of the infamous Project Alpha orchestrated by stage magician and celebrity sceptic, James Randi in which he infiltrated two young amateur magicians, Banachek and Edwards, into a paranormal research program. The pair were trained so well by Randi that out of 300 applicants, they alone were selected as subjects. They managed to convince the researchers for four years through more than 160 hours of experimentation that they actually possess psychic powers. The kicker is that Randi actually told the two boys to simply confess if the researchers ever ask them if they were simply performing tricks. That question was never asked.

In fact, even after Randi publicly admitted that he the two youths were actually a plant of his, one of the parapsychologists went so far as to claim that Banachek and Edwards genuinely had psychic powers but were merely lying about being magicians. It's because he was so confident that he was too smart, too well-educated to have been so well and truly bamboozled.

Now, I have heard so many claims from believers about this miracle or that. I have heard stories about how the faithful would speak in tongues and get caught up in rapturous convulsions of ecstasy. I have heard about faith healers who had allegedly made the blind see and the lame walk. I have heard accounts of statues of the Virgin Mary weeping tears and crying blood; about Catholic saints whose bodies are incorruptible and would not rot. The believers claim that these are the proof of God's power, and that they couldn't all be hoaxes. But why not?

I wonder why they are so sure that they couldn't be hoodwinked since even in my limited experience, they have proven that they couldn't even see through the tiniest of tricks - or should I say, they wouldn't see through the tiniest of tricks?

It's so easy for anyone to be fooled when they want to be fooled so badly, and It's almost impossible to be sceptical about supernatural beliefs when they are your own supernatural beliefs. This is why when the faithful come to show me proof or evidence that their religion is true, I am always unimpressed. Over the years, I have grown quite familiar their standards for evidence.

Frankly speaking, they have no standards at all.

Would ask questions,
k0k s3n w4i


Adrian said...

I swear I was seeing Hagrid on the wall. Or was it Gimli son of Gloin... hmmm

Liz said...

I agree with you, to a certain extent :D

It's really true what you said. People who wanna believe something so badly will never see otherwise. But don't you think that it is also true that people who refuse to accept something so badly, will never see anything more otherwise? :)

I'm just saying this, IN GENERAL. Not religious matters, per se. :P

But really, for every argument, there's always gonna be a counter-argument. Right?

A speaker at a Christian Camp I'd attended once shared with us, that when he was a young Christian, he was making a decision to work full-time for God. He prayed, "God, if you really want me to work full-time for you, show me a sign." And since he was at a campfire event at the time, he asked God to make a log of wood fall from the pile. Barely two seconds after he'd prayed that, a log DID fall to the ground. He chalked it up to coincidence. Maybe it was a strong wind, or something. "God, if you reaalllyyy want me to work full-time for you, make a log of wood fall to the RIGHT of the fire." And seriously (his insistence) a log of wood really DID fall to the ground on the right side of the fire. His response? Coincidence again.

What you wrote in your post just reminded me of that little story the speaker shared with us. So what I'm saying is that, as I agree with you about how we have this ability to "be fooled when they want to be fooled so badly", we can also NOT see something even if it IS there. No arguments; I'm agreeing with you here. So you agree with me too? :P

k0k s3n w4i said...

Adrian: chances are no christians would recognise jesus even if they meet him on the streets. he'd look like an arab.

Liz: "But don't you think that it is also true that people who refuse to accept something so badly, will never see anything more otherwise? :)"

i agree completely. i've argued with enough evangelical christian creationists to know that no amount of evidence can persuade them to accept even the most fundamental of biological principles.

that is why i think it's important to verify everything objectively instead of relying on our flawed perceptions (both theists' and atheists') of the universe. take your christian camp counsellor's story for example - i wouldn't take his word for it. i would approach it by drawing a line around what he is claiming precisely. from your description, he's saying that god is capable of giving very specific signs when asked for sincerely, but they were small signs which can be misconstrued as coincidences. so, we'll eliminate the fudge factors scientifically to see if they are in fact coindences or something miraculous. we should run the trial over a much larger number of times to see if such an occurrence he described does correlate with his entreaties to god. it's the only way to eliminate confirmation bias. also worth thinking: did he put the log in an unstable position because he wanted it to fall, since maybe he does want to devote his life to god? or did he just made up the whole story to make a point to a bunch of impressionable children?

i was at a huge christmas dinner organised by a rather large church organisation where they had a speaker who said that he managed to helped a very sick boy in singapore regrow his kidney by simply praying - and he persuaded a good number of nonbelievers to convert on the spot. such a miracle would no doubt be published and publicised within the medical community (i know i'd trip over myself to be the doctor to have described the phenomenon), but after searching the literature, i realise that he's a complete lying scumbag. you'd notice that i did not dismiss his claim outright just because i'm an atheist and don't believe in miracles. i actually bothered to try and verify it. that's how i approach life in general.

i understand the point that the speaker at your camp was trying to make, about how sometimes people refuses to "see the signs" but his point is rubbish (pardon me). he's basically saying that sometimes, we should give in to confirmation biases. that's something i will not do because i care about the truth - clean, objective, verifiable truth.

Anonymous said...


I get what you mean, you can't see what you are not looking for :) This also means that science is best positioned to verify claims, because science is objective.

The problem with testimonies such as the one you described is that they are subjective and based almost entirely on personal account. I am sure God is capable of performing grander feats :) Your church camp leader should have asked "God, show me a sign, please realign the stars to spell Jesus". Much more convincing and less ambiguous, ain't it?

Btw, the efficacy of prayers is fairly dubious. Seems like God is less generous with granting wishes and is fairly low key nowadays. What happened to outlandish feats like parting the sea, turning water into wine and walking on water?

Liz said...

I'm not saying that I completely believe his account either. I do have my doubts too. Did it really happen as he said? Like, really?? And like you said about confirmation biases, it is very possible that he had already made up his mind that he wanted to work full-time for God, and he just saw what he wanted to see.

Which is why I was also a bit skeptical when a friend told me he wanted to take time away from this girl he liked, to pray for a sign from God to show him if this girl was The One. I questioned him, How would you know the sign when you see it? You'll NEVER be able to know without a doubt that something happening was a sign from God to go for it. And even if you are completely sure, you will NEVER know the truth of it until, maybe after this life.

So basically, you can never know. Even with clean, objective, verifiable 'truth', there is always that slight possibility.

You know what? I'm a Christian, and sometimes I ask myself that too. Why is it that so many awesome indisputable acts of God's power were shown through miracles in the Old Times, but not now? I think to myself, If God did things like that again, nobody, and I mean NOBODY would be able to deny His existence and power. Save everybody a lot of time and energy right?

Somehow, I also get this feeling deep down that, you know what? Even if miracles like water turning into wine and people walking on water were to happen, we would still be able to explain it away. Somehow.

And, don't kill me (both @Anonymous and @k0k s3n w4i) but I guess that's where faith comes in again. How strong would our faith be (assuming we believe) if we ONLY believed when we saw it right in front of us? That's not faith. Faith is believing even when you can't see it.

And God doesn't grant wishes. He's not a genie! xD Though I hate people who say that to me too, sometimes, but He gives us what we NEED, not what we WANT, and according to His timing. It may seem like He's not granting our "wishes" but in the grand scheme of things, it will work out :)

k0k s3n w4i said...

Liz: that's right. religion is all about faith, but that would mean that the people who believed jesus after witnessing his miracles are by definition, faithless. why was doubting thomas allowed to be rational and sceptical but modern rationalists and sceptics such as anonymous and myself are expected to take the stories on faith? anyway, i'll stop here because i've already written two posts (one about prayers, with references from the new testament, and the other about why miracles these days are so underwhelming and doubtful compared to biblical times) which you can take as replies to the points you have raised - i'll be publishing them on a later date. as of now, you still believe in a religion that essentially condemns people like anonymous and i (who are simply trying to be as intellectually honest as possible) to hellfire. do you think it's fair?

P.S. don't be so afraid, haha. i honestly enjoy your input and i think it's admirable that you would not dismiss alternate points of view offhand :)