Bryan Caplan  

The Orange Moon

Some People Won't Like the Res... Keynesianism: It's not just re...
When I was around 4 years old, my family took a trip to Nevada.  While there, I saw my first orange moon.  I couldn't believe my eyes.


When I returned home, I told my best friend, Adam, what I'd seen.

Me: In Nevada, I saw an ORANGE moon!

Adam: Once I saw a PURPLE moon!!

A few months later, there was an orange moon in Northridge.  I quickly pointed it out to Adam.

Me: Now do you believe that I saw an orange moon in Nevada?

Adam: I sure do!

Me: So did you really see a purple moon?

Adam: Nope.

What was Adam's initial motivation?  There are two main possibilities:

1. Competitiveness.  Adam didn't want to feel like I was better than him by virtue of my special experiences.

2. Poetic justice.  Adam thought I was lying, so he "punished" me by telling me an even bigger lie.

When I reflect on this story, I see a major mechanism for the birth of tall tales, urban legends, mythology, and religious miracles.  I see Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, alien abductions, and much much more.  You don't have to believe that anyone is consciously thinking, "And now to fabricate and publicize an absurd lie!  Bwa ha ha!"  Adam wasn't acting strategically; he was acting impulsively.  He heard a crazy story, and his deeply human reaction was to spit back a crazier story to put me in my place.

If I'd pressed him, no doubt Adam would have invented detail after detail: Where he saw his purple moon, the precise shade of purple, the time of year, and so on.  And given the frailty of human memory, it's quite conceivable that my childhood friend now sincerely "remembers" seeing a purple moon.  Multiply all this by the distortions of hearsay, exemplified by the telephone game, and it's amazing - if not miraculous - that common sense skepticism ever managed to arise, survive, and even thrive.

COMMENTS (13 to date)
nl7 writes:

It's also very conceivable that some people and cultures just have less of an expectation that stories need to be interpreted as literally true. I know that most times my parents re-tell an anecdote about me or my siblings, the emoting is highly exaggerated and the dialogue is paraphrased to achieve a "heightened truth." And most people wouldn't find this surprising or offensive, as long as the general spirit was maintained.

We watch movies and tv shows without expecting it to be literally true or even realistic. The characters are more thoughtful, more dramatic, more energetic than we'd expect. But we excuse it if the show is entertaining.

Aleksandar writes:

It seems to me that first possibility requires elaboration:

Adam didn't want YOU to feel like you were better than him and the fact that he would perceive you as feeling better would caused him to feel worse. It's more about envy - emotion that has specific evolutionary rationality. Envy motivated him to punish you and to put you in your place, as you say, but not because he thought you lied but because you had something that seemed valuable to him. Therefore, I think that it is wrong to say that 'Adam wasn't acting strategically; he was acting impulsively'.From evolutionary perspective, emotions have strategic role.

Nathan Smith writes:

Cute story, but I hope you're not seriously suggesting that this the origin of miracle claims in the Christian religion, such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. To begin with, there is no apparent analog to your claim of an orange moon to serve as a provocation. More importantly, for the analogy to hold, Adam would have to have died for his belief in a purple moon, and gladly, too. He would have to have dedicated his whole life to preaching the purple moon. And not just him, but hundreds of other people as well. And then many future generations would have to believe in the purple moon, partly on the testimony of Adam its contemporary, but partly on the basis of their own experiences.

By the way, I presume that your "common sense skeptic" would deny the possibility of an orange moon until he had seen it personally? How do I know that's not a trick photograph?

Brian writes:

"his deeply human reaction was to spit back a crazier story to put me in my place."

I don't think so. A crazier story would have been seeing a purple moon with pink spots, or something like that. I don't think he was trying to put you in your place (for which he might have said "No you didn't--the moon can't be orange!") or being competitive (he would have one-upped you in this case). The simpler explanation is that he was reassuring you and him that the two of you really were equal. His biggest fear of your specialness over seeing the moon is that you wouldn't be his friend any more. He was asserting that you two were still the same and therefore needn't threaten the friendship.

The evidence of this is his quick admission that he was lying, once he had actually seen the same thing. At that point your equivalence was clear and he didn't need to pretend any more.

As for the broader application of your theories of competitiveness and punishment, I don't think they explain anything about Big Foot, Nessie, or miracles. The reality is that we all observe things, sometimes fleetingly, that we don't immediately understand (the creak of a house, the strange undulation on a lake surface, etc.) and it is natural to guess at explanations. These explanations, which on some level are reasonable, persist mainly because most humans don't rigorously test their observations and therefore have no strong reason to reject their pet theories.

Finally, with regard to miracles, accounts of them persist because, well, things that LOOK like miracles actually occur and interpreting them as acts of God is easier to reconcile with the evidence than the inevitably convoluted explanations of skeptics.

Frederick L writes:

Maybe common sense skepticism arose and thrived precisely because of how often and easily people make things up.

Roger Sweeny writes:

Eugene Volokh relayed a similar, but horribly different, story:

In October of 2007, Elizabeth P. Coast, then seventeen, reported that when she was ten years old a neighborhood boy named “Jon” sexually assaulted her while the two were alone in her grandmother’s backyard….

On June 23, 2008, … [the trial court] tried and convicted Montgomery in a one-day bench trial for the assault of Coast. Coast testified under oath that Montgomery had sexually assaulted her in 2000. She described the alleged assault in graphic detail. She said that she did not tell anyone what happened at the time of the assault because she thought her parents “would get mad” and she was “really embarrassed.”

The trial court then found Montgomery guilty.... On April 10, 2009, the trial judge sentenced Montgomery to 45 years in prison, with 37 years and 6 months suspended….

On November 1, 2012, Coast voluntarily made a videotaped statement at the Hampton Police Department. After consulting with counsel and receiving Miranda warnings, Coast recounted how she had falsely testified that Montgomery had assaulted her.

Coast explained that immediately before she accused Montgomery, her mother caught her looking at “sex stories” on the Internet. Out of fear of her mother, Coast said that she was looking at inappropriate material because she had been molested when she was ten years old. After she reluctantly named Montgomery as her attacker, the lie snowballed. Coast felt like she could not admit that the assault never happened…

[Formatting added for clarity. Quote further elided. Please be clear when you are quoting from elsewhere either by putting the material in quotes or indenting it; and please quote less material. People can go to the original website for more info.--Econlib Ed.]

DougT writes:

Wait, Bigfoot and Nessie are like the Resurrection or Buddha taming the elephant? My goodness! That was some powerful moonshine!

Nathan Smith writes:

By the way, mother has always been plenty of "common sense skepticism" about claims of miracles and magic, that is definitely the wrong description of the prevalent disbelief in miracles that began in the Enlightenment. It's common sense to disbelieve in people rising from the dead, ordinarily. But it's also common sense to disbelieve in people telling lies when they get no profit by doing so, in facing death in defense of lies, and in dozens of eyewitnesses cconspiring to tell the same lie. The reason Enlightenment philosophers began to disbelieve in miracles is that they were dogmatically committed to materialism.

Tracy W writes:

Nathan Smith: what are you talking abput? There were hordes of "orange moons" in Jesus's home before the start of Christanity. Starting with Judaism, the faith which Jesus was raised in and formed the Old Testament of the Bible - you may have heard of it.

And wasn't Jesus crucified for his moral teachings, not for claiming belief in a particular god? The Pharisees claimed belief in the same Jewish god that Jesus did but wanted Jesus dead as they viewed him as a threat to their privileges. The Romans had no problems with people worshipping any god, but were deeply concerned about political threats.

Brian writes:

Tracy W,

Nathan is saying that the orange moon story can't explain the Christian calim of Jesus's resurrection. When he says there are no orange moons, he means there was no other group at the time claiming the bodily resurrection of their leader, hence Christians weren't claiming it out of competitiveness or to punish other lies, which are Bryan's two theories.

He is also pointing out that Christians defended their claim of Jesus' resurrection even unto death. Adam, on the other hand, easily gave up his lie, so the two cases are not similar.

Finally, when you say "The Romans had no problems with people worshipping any god, but were deeply concerned about political threats," your statement is almost true but misleading. People in the Roman empire could worship any god, but a denial that these gods were real was considered a serious political threat. Since Christians denied all gods but God, they were considered to be politically dangerous.

Moreover, religious beliefs different from the standard pagan beliefs were considered "superstitions" by the Romans, unless the beliefs had an ancient pedigree. Jews were tolerated because their beliefs were ancient. As long as Christians were still allied with Jews, they were protected, in a sense. But the split between Jews and Christians in the mid-1st century left Christians unprotected. Their new-fangled teachings, being new, were considered a superstition and led to the horrific persecutions during Nero's and later reigns.

Tracy W writes:

Brian: there were resurrection myths around before Jesus, for example the Egyptian myth of Osiris.
Furthermore, there were numerous other stories of different miracles by deities. Again, see the Old Testament, with Samson, burning bushes, etc. There was ample basis for competitiveness, starting with all those Jews who believed what's now in the Old Testament.

In the case of early Christians versus Adam, a simple explanation would be that the early Christians who defended their claim to the death were different to Adam. They may not have even been in the same circumstance. Eg: apostle lies, dies of natural causes, some people believe the lie, some of those later ddie for their beliefs.

On the reminder of your comment about Roman persecution, I don't see how you are disagreeing with any point I made. The Romans killed a lot of people from a wide variety of religions for political reasons.

Brian writes:

Tracy W,

First of all, you asked Nathan what he was talking about and I explained it to you. If your question was merely rhetorical, I apologize for misunderstanding you.

Second, yes, there were many previous resurrection myths. That just means that resurrection from the dead was not a new idea. But note what I said--"no other group at the time." That's important because in the model, Adam wasn't responding to hearsay or some long-ago claim; he was responding to an immediate claim by someone he knew. In the case of Jesus, the equivalent situation would have been a prior claim that John the Baptist, or a similar contemporary, rose from the dead, which Christians then would have felt compelled to match. Since we know of no prior claim, this model doesn't fit the resurrection of Jesus claim.

Third, you also say "early Christians who defended their claim to the death were different [than] Adam." Yes, indeed, with very different motivations. This is yet another reason why the Adam model doesn't fit. Remember, Bryan supposes that he can explain miracle claims by his model. This attempt clearly fails in the case of Jesus' resurrection.

Fourth, you offer a different scenario to explain the resurrection stories: "apostle lies, dies of natural causes.... This scenario fails to match the evidence. By all accounts, at least 4 apostles saw the risen Jesus (Peter, John, James, and Paul by his own claim) and all of them either died by violent persecution or lived until the end of the 1st century. The claim that any of them lied about what they saw is not historically tenable, given how all of them faced death multiple times in their careers but kept preaching the same claim to the end. If you want to explain away such claims, you won't be able to use fraud as your theory.

Fifth, you say "I don't see how you are disagreeing with any point I made." I'm not disagreeing with your point except in the specific way I already stated, namely that your statement was almost true but misleading. Your statement was misleading because it seemed to imply that political and religious matters were separate to some degree when they were not separate at all. For most of us, "worshipping any god" includes the right to deny that other gods are real or have any power to control our god, but this is precisely what the Romans denied everyone on political grounds. You statement was also only "almost true" because the Romans labelled the worship of some gods (like Jesus) to be superstition and therefore not allowed. Thus, not just "any god" could be legally worshipped.

James Oswald writes:

I love doing this. I think the most enjoyable thing is simply testing credulity. I try to let people know within 30 seconds or so that I was BSing them though. I think if I were present, I would have also claimed to have seen the purple moon.

In college I had a friend who whenever we were together, if a question was asked, one of us would lie and the other would tell the truth and we'd both watch to see which one of us the asker believed.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top