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First-Ever Photos of God
by Peter Fotis Kapnistos 

(Copyright © 2009 Peter Fotis Kapnistos)

Posted: 06:30 June 18, 2009

Perhaps the most incredible space photos ever put on view are enfolded in a great mystery known as “pareidolia.” A category of optical illusions, pareidolia is an uncertain impression perceived as something clear and distinct. The astronomer Carl Sagan thought that seeing faces in clouds is an evolutionary trait. “Confirmation bias” refers to the tendency to notice what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore what disagrees with them.

Some psychologists promote pareidolia under clinical conditions to evaluate their patients. The most well known example is the Rorschach inkblot test. The Baltimore Sun in recent times reported: “Pareidolia is common enough, and predates the space program by a millennium or two. We’ve all seen the Man in the Moon, or faces and images of ships and elephants in cloud formations.”

In 1978, some 8,000 people made pilgrimages to the home of a New Mexico woman who discovered a picture of Jesus in a burned tortilla. And in 2001, thousands saw the face of Satan captured in a CNN video and Associated Press photos of smoke billowing from the World Trade Center. (Mike Himowitz, "Space photo contents often are all in eye of the beholder," Baltimore Sun, Feb 12, 2004.)

Space photos pose a fuzzy hurdle for scientists now programming computers to observe images and to recognize objects. If a computer were taught to make out the symbolic abstractions of modern art, how would it perceive the contents of deep space photos? Some might argue that teaching machines to see “arty abstractions” is simply a waste of time. Yet we surely expect our GPS-fitted cars of the future to identify ordinary road sign symbols, which are likewise graphic abstractions.

In his book, “How We Believe,” publisher of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer said that our brains are belief engines or evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. According to Shermer, we are the descendants of those most successful at finding patterns. This process is called association learning, and is basic to all animal behavior.

Why do people see faces in nature, interpret window stains as human figures, hear voices in random sounds generated by electronic devices or find conspiracies in the daily news? A proximate cause is the priming effect, in which our brain and senses are prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model. UFOlogists see a face on Mars. Religionists see the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. Paranormalists hear dead people speaking to them through a radio receiver. Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration. Is there a deeper ultimate cause for why people believe such weird things? There is. I call it “patternicity,” or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. (Michael Shermer, “Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Meaningless Noise,” Scientific American, Nov 25, 2008.)

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