The divine visitor identity problem

Those who believe in the objective reality of visionary experiences describe visionary experiences like this: Person A sees a visionary being and person B is also seeing the same visionary being (e.g., the Jesus of Nazareth).

A -> V
B -> V

# another way of showing the same thing:
A -> V <- B

But it could be that they are each seeing their own subjective version of this visionary being and they have wrongly assumed they were witnessing the same being? For example, each thinks they are seeing Jesus but maybe one is seeing red-robe Caucasian Jesus and the other is seeing an Arabic looking Jesus?

A -> V
B -> V'

# another way of showing the same thing
A -> V | V' <- B

Potential solution

In general, we are seeking methods that identify a visitor with great precision. The greater the information content we can associate with a given visitor that can be independently verified, the greater our confidence that the visitor is the same visitor across visits to differt people.

“Real-world” transactions regularly exhibit this high information content transfer,1 so if divine beings are objectively real, we would prima facie expect their persona and their ability to transmit information to be similar to transactions in the real world.

Copious details

A simple way to help establish the subjective/objective nature of these experiences and help establish visitor identity would be for participants to carefully record all the details of the being independent of one another (e.g., in this kind of survey). If the details all match up (especially trivial details where there could be lots of possibilities), then we would have some justification for thinking the visitors identified as the same being were actually the same being and had an objective reality.2

High entropy information transmission

One way to establish the objective reality of a visitor with confidence would be through the use of an encryption-handshake-like procedure:

One of the key features of our objective experience is durable information transfer. I can deliver a message to another person and that person can deliver the message to a third person. The third person could then relay that information back to me and we could presumably engage in this exchange with no loss of information, even with a high information entropy message.

All we need for a demonstration that visionary beings have an objective existence is to get one of them to transmit a high entropy information to another person in the physical world (who cannot have obtained the message from the first physical person). This could be done with a 10 random word passphrase, for instance.

Those who believe they are entertaining divine visitors ought to engage them like this:

Now, just to assure myself that you exist independently of my subjective experience, I’m going to need you to deliver this ten word passphrase to some other person in my objective world with instructions to relay that passphrase back to me. Okay, the phrase is “recent patrol combat ranch turquoise …”

Precedent in LDS history

Latter-day Saints who might be inclined to think such procedures absurd may consider that early LDS leaders were genuinely interested in similar kinds of tests:

  • D&C 129 is essentially a test used to presumably detect the devil who might be appearing as an angel of light: “When a messenger comes saying he has a message from God, offer him your hand and request him to shake hands with you. If he be an angel he will do so, and you will feel his hand. If he be the spirit of a just man made perfect he will come in his glory; for that is the only way he can appear—Ask him to shake hands with you, but he will not move, because it is contrary to the order of heaven for a just man to deceive; but he will still deliver his message. If it be the devil as an angel of light, when you ask him to shake hands he will offer you his hand, and you will not feel anything; you may therefore detect him. These are three grand keys whereby you may know whether any administration is from God.”
  • The LDS temple ceremony includes tokens and signs so that participants might know who are true messengers: “How shall I know that you are true messengers? … By our giving unto you the token and sign you received in the garden of Eden.”

See also

Distinguishing shared and objective reality: information content, orthogonality, transmissability, reproducibility (comment)

  1. Imagine that I know a checksum and I then ask two other individuals to transmit that checksum to one another. The chance that they could deliver the same checksum to one another without actually knowing the original checksum is:

    (1 / (2^128 ) )^2 ~= 8.7 x 10^-78

    There are somewhere around 1078 atoms in the known universe, so the probability that they could produce the same checksum by chance is roughly the same as independently pointing to the exact same atom in all of the known universe. But “real-life” regularly produces independent verification on this order of magnitude (and often much, much higher). And, it’s a verification we could do several days in a row. And someone could transmit the information along to someone else, etc. “Real life” tends to be ridiculously high in information content, orthogonality, transmissability, and reproducibility. 

  2. Observing that two individuals experienced a divine being having a large number of independently verifiable characteristics would provide support for (but not definitively establish) the unique identity of the visitor. Observing many disparaties in the description suggests the visitors were either different beings or more subjective in nature (either because the visitors were entirely subjective or because the visitor assumes different characteristics per visit).