I've been pretty interested in perception lately, and how our brains decipher the world around us. I've written on Pareidolia (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), I've written about how the brain influences and interprets everything we do and see (here and here), and I've written on mind/body duality and moral relativism. I've written about delusions, and mental illnesses. But what I haven't really touched on is the idea that perception is dependent upon many things including our state of mind, our past, our education and ability to think critically. We can all make mistakes in our perception, even if we are functioning in a relatively normal fashion. Sometimes we can be given a new perspective which can change the way we look at things, sometimes we want to believe something so badly that we force ourselves to make mistakes, and sometimes we can be tricked into making a false identification.
In 1928-29 the surrealist painter Rene Magritte completed an artwork called La trahison des images (or The Treachery of Images) which depicts a smoking pipe, under which is scrawled the words "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (or "This is not a pipe").
Quite rightly too, for this is not a pipe but an image of a pipe, a two dimensional representation of a pipe painted by hand in oil on canvas. His intention was to point out a fact that we take for granted every day, that a representation is merely a representation, and not the real thing. In our minds we see the image of the pipe, we surmise that it is made of wood and Bakelite, and would be used for smoking tobacco. We can imagine the texture of the pipe, maybe even the weight, but though we know it's not a real pipe, we still identify it as a pipe. "Pipe" is signified by its shape, and is recognisable as such, but there is nothing actually "pipey" about it. Likewise, when we look at photographs, we say "This is my mum," even though it is just a photo of mum, and the real 3D mum is elsewhere.
Taking it even further we could surmise not only is this not a pipe, nor is is a painting of a pipe, but a digital reproduction on a computer screen of a painting of a pipe. It's a mind trick to be sure, but it points something out to us, what we are willingly fooled into thinking that a representation holds some essence of the original within it, that somehow my signifying something with enough "pipeyness" that the representation becomes the pipe in our minds.
Art and photography are means to pass ideas, as are words, film and TV, and word of mouth. We willingly accept these as "real" representations, though written and spoke words, images etc hold no physical likeness to the object, idea or action being signified to within them.
We are also fooled or tricked into mis-identifying things, especially by plants or animals. Only the intention of these plants and animals is not only to fool humans, but any potential predator or pollinator of the plant or animal. My absolute favourite animal in the world of trickery is the mimic octopus, surely the world's most versatile doppelganger. Watch this video and prepare to be amazed.
As you can see, the mimic octopus is very versatile, and is convincing enough to fool all but the most observant viewer into believing that the octopus is actually a ray, a sea-snake or even a frog-fish. Certainly one of the most intelligent animals on the planet.
In some cases, people can want something so badly that they mistake and misidentify objects and random patterns as something meaningful and significant, like in the case of pareidolia. Recently I received this blog comment from "Tim" which reads:
hello. if youn enter the search phrase “aparition in the sky after F5 tornado in jarrell tx” you will see something truly remarkable. i dont have to tell you what it is. youll know it when/if you see it. if you do indeed elect to check it out, then maybe at least it will make you ask “what if”
So I did look it up and this is the image he is talking about.
The image on the left is the original orientation of the image, of undisclosed origins, while the right photo is rotated counter clockwise by 90°. As you can see, it kinds looks like Jesus, right? But only if you turn the image. Apart from the fact that this looks like a scene from after a violent storm, I could only find a thumbnail sized photo on the web. So it's very small, it's very bad quality, and it could look like Jesus. Or it could look like any cloaked bearded fellow in silhouette. I must admit, it's a pretty cool image, and the vignette of greens through black give it that "just-so-spooky" look, which is quite beautiful, but this image is no more of Jesus than the mimic octopus is actually a sea snake, or Magritte's painting could be used for smoking.
"Ceci n'est pas une Jesus"
You see, there's this thing called fact. Something is what it is. Magritte's painting is a representation of a pipe, the mimic octopus is an octopus, and the stormclouds in the image above are a representation of stormclouds.
If this really were a sign from Jesus, what would it possibly be said to mean? To a person who has had his house destroyed by the tornado, does he see this as a sign that Jesus is healing the earth? Or is it simply that some people hold onto the delusion that Jesus is going to appear to them that they are constantly looking for him? I can assure you, if you look hard enough, eventually you can find faces and shapes in just about any natural patterns. I mean, who hasn't seen a shape in the clouds that looks like something else? What would we say of a person who say a rubber duck in the clouds, and then professed that it was a real rubber duck? Exactly, we would call them crazy. So people who see Jesus in everything from tea-leaves to tree-trunks, you do not get a free pass because you are religious. In fact, your claims of seeing Jesus only further compound that your delusion has gone beyond simply believing and is affecting your judgement. Fact is fact no matter who presents it, and fallacies are fallacies.
So sorry "Tim", the only "what if" I got from that was "What if you are deluded?"