Searching for meaning

30 07 2011

the image of a face in the dust of the Cydonia region of Mars

Babies love faces. As soon as they can turn their heads they will turn towards a face. Breastfeeding focuses them on the face of the mother – eyesight focus in small babies is less than 30cm, just about the right distance to focus on mum’s face while feeding. By the age of two months, babies are skilled at recognising faces and are attracted to anything that even vaguely resembles a face. It is a survival skill and helps them begin to learn to communicate and to interpret emotion and expression. A basic representation of two dots and a line in a circle is recognisable to children and adults as a face – perhaps a smiley face.

As normally functioning adults, we seek meaning in the world around us. When seemingly random and inexplicable things occur, we try to rationalise, try to seek an understanding. We use religion, horoscopes, philosophies, karma – all manner of ways to try to understand and control the random and unsettling things that occur in our lives and the lives of others. How many times have you heard “It happened for a reason”?

image of Jesus in the lid of a Marmite jar (Wales)

And while we rationalise the events, our brains also seek to find meaning in the random visuals we are presented with. We see elephants in clouds, a face in the dust of Mars, Jesus in a toasted cheese sandwich and the Virgin Mary in mould growing on a wall. The very fact it is often a religious icon or being could either indicate we are seeking a supernatural meaning – or perhaps the atheists are wrong. Quite why omnipowerful supernatural beings would decide to manifest themselves so often in foodstuffs and other ephemera is not explained.

The Skeptics Society’s Michael Shermer calls this “patternicity” – the ability to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Statistically it would be a Type One error- a false positive.

The technical names for this perception of meaning in random data are Apophenia, or Pareidolia. And this need to seek meaning in a random universe can be used to explain miracles, paranormal phenomena and horoscopes.

Jesus on the cross and Mary below him

This all came to my attention when we decided to research some ghost stories on a particular historical area for a tourist brochure. While I find the ghost stories really interesting and am willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of entertainment, others in my team are highly skeptical. My basic rule is, if you have to go too far to explain something away, then that is no more valid than going too far to explain it in the first place. The explanation for the ghosts being seen in fog, dust and half-light did seem to fit this theory – some of the other phenomena would perhaps bear further investigation.

Virgin Mary in a pancake

So depending on your viewpoint, we are alone in a universe that we cannot control, where inexplicable and sometimes unfair things happen with random timing, but sometimes serious impact on our lives and the lives of other we care about. This lack of control can be scary, challenging. Is it any wonder we seek to understand, seek to find meaning around us?

Is there any harm in believing something unsubstantiable if it gives us comfort that there is meaning, and harms no-one else?

Live and let live.