Seeing God

My daughter reminded me that one further aspect that stood out at the Red Mill Museum in Clinton was the persistence of pareidolia. Pareidolia, or matrixing, is the tendency to interpret “random” data as meaningful. More specifically, it is often used to refer to seeing a person (or entity) where it is not. As I wrote in an earlier entry, it has been suggested that pareidolia is the ultimate origin of religion.

For my purposes here, however, I wonder if the sheer amount of false faces we encountered while at the Red Mill might have some connection with the idea that the property is haunted. Somewhat of a skeptic, I am somewhat swayed by ghost accounts since they are so plentiful and since many of those who report them are reputable persons with good observation skills. Ghosts are, however, impossible to separate from some form of religious thought since they are the ultimate examples of the intangible, unmeasurable phenomenon. If there are ghosts in the laboratory, they haven’t been quantified yet.

Old buildings, which abound at sites like the Red Mill, are full of knotholes or other apertures whose original hardware has long since disappeared. Round holes, or spots, as many insects and fish “know” are easily interpreted as eyes. Add a horizontal line beneath your “eyes” and you have a basic face.

Perhaps my favorite example of pareidolia at Red Mill is an old sycamore tree. A large burl on the trunk bears a striking resemblance to a human profile. This is more easily seen in real life where the mind more easily filters out the distracting coloration and focuses on the shape. Since pareidolia is such a fascinating aspect of the human experience of the world, and since it might, conveniently, be tied to religion, this seemed to be as appropriate a venue as any other to share some great examples.

8 thoughts on “Seeing God

  1. Henk van der Gaast

    Very distant sprites over the desert or meditteranean interpreted as Yahweh or Baal as being viewed from a high place is just a bit too tangible.

    But it may only ever be a correlation.

    Mountains and thunderstorms are very very impressive.


  2. Chris

    For those of us who haven’t read Guthrie’s book, do you or Guthrie propose any reasons why “seeing faces” would be a benefit to survival/reproduction?


    • Steve Wiggins

      Guthrie suggests, and I am inclined to agree, that a “false positive” is evolutionarily advantageous. It is better to see the person who is not there than to miss the person who really is there. The false positive can’t hurt you, but the missed person can. Guthrie also applies this to animals (bears, lions, etc.). The human mind excels at pattern recognition.


  3. I wonder if such pareidolia (you’re always teaching me new words) are a mechanism by which the Divine communicates with us because it’s a language that gets our attention. Much as we might wave a walnut at our hamster to get it to come closer to us.


    • Steve Wiggins

      Hi Piper,

      Pareidolia is a real attention-getter. There is a website now dedicated to it, but it is one of the LOL Cats affiliated sites, so it has funny captions. Check out Happy Chair is Happy on my website list.


  4. Henk van der Gaast

    Muddie wonders if its the same Piper.

    Reflexive action is the key here. If the pareidolic event triggers a respons (such as walnuts and other lures and repellers with other animals) the response would have to be immediate and only then could this event be called a fight/flight mechanism.

    I think far too much autonomous endocrine chemistry is ignored to make the above assumption.

    You would definitely have to see if pareidolia changes serum chemistry wrt respect to say pituitary and adrenal hormones and then compare that to functional NMR images for the same and pattern recognition.

    Note I offer the experiment and not the solution before I put my foot in my mouth and write a book that suggests something like that.

    Note that I have an ungodly predilection for guinea pig in walnut sauce… the things I see in wood stained floor just make me very very hungry indeed.

    And no I do not dispute we are pattern recognising animals. You may find for all the animals with or without eyes, ears, legs and arms.. they too may rely on a hell of a lot more cerebral/non cerebral modelling than we give them credit for.

    Finding out in a journal article some years back that box sea jellies have a series of rudimentary eyes and actively predate in estuaries for fry and fingerlings absolute blew my cotton socks off. It clearly shows that hunting by matrices is active in what we would call a lower order animal.

    If someone ever spots a horde of these worshipping a blue milk carton or one predating on coke bottle lids we will know one thing for sure; redundans theos!


  5. Henk van der Gaast

    I must admit that the maker giving us this as a message is an intriguing interpretation.

    Why is it we have the modelling capability for association such as art and science? If pareidolia is to be recognised as succinctly different from our “general” modelling capabilities then we may just be misinterpreting pareidolia.

    We can all immediately recognise complex patterns with just a minimum of training (I really am not an ubermensch). Amasingly we can see what is missing from each of these data sets. I think that is an incredible talent we ignore.

    we can see the difference incredibly quickly. my argument stands, we fix models in our head and when something that is different comes along we can recognise it.

    Pareidolia is then confined to the “know its not jesus but I sure wish it was” category. A comfort thing, something to cling to.. not something for the hunt or fear response.

    If I was an Islander and worshipped a tiger shark I would see that deity everywhere as well. Its astounding that the original inhabitants here have carved large tropical sharks in the region (and no I dont show folk for fear of desecration).

    What would you see if you worshipped a cave bear even after environmental change has totally removed them from your range?


  6. I spent part of my work week observing the excavator shown in this link, reminded me of this post. It was literally impossible for me to view the machine without perceived anthropomorphism. The lower “jaw” took the sensation to another level entirely.

    I actually got to try one out (!!!), and the perception was gone, moving something separate from my body which was hanging over my head in a vertical alignment.


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